- The British General Election of 1983 by David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh
Macmillan, 388 pp, £25.00, May 1984, ISBN 0 333 34578 9
- Militant by Michael Crick
Faber, 242 pp, £3.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 571 13256 1
When future historians come to write about the 1983 General Election, these two books will be essential reading. One is a thorough compilation of the evidence, and the other a brilliant line drawing of a maverick who streaked dramatically across the scene causing all heads to turn and significantly affecting the outcome. I recommend to the researcher of the year 2000 that he or she start with Militant, to get properly into the mood. It is a compellingly good read, and what is more, as far as one can tell, a model of fair and unbiased reporting. The weightier volume, with its tables and statistics and psephological analyses, will be for the long days in the library that follow.
It is sobering to realise that that magic year which I have picked, 2000 AD, is not much further away in front of us than the 1970 Election is behind. We will be very recent history. All the same, since history is the propaganda of the victors, we cannot yet see what 1983 will look like by then. I can imagine five different versions. Let me try to spell them out.
The first. ‘The 1983 Election established firmly the long period of Conservative rule which has lasted ever since: it enabled the firm hand of Mrs Thatcher to steer the country purposefully towards the simplified form of central government which is more appropriate to the modern economy. The disruptive potential of both Unions and local government, which had wrought such havoc with public spending plans throughout the Seventies, was successfully curbed, and the threat to strong government from an ephemeral vogue for the “democratic pluralism” of proportional representation was triumphantly resisted.’
The second. ‘The 1983 Election provided a modern example of Classical hubris. The huge Parliamentary majority for Mrs Thatcher, unbased on any increase in popular support, went to her head in a way that fatally destroyed her judgment. Within two years of unprecedented authoritarianism, in which frontal assaults on local democracy and the trade unions dominated Parliamentary proceedings, a majority of Conservative members of the House of Commons were in revolt, and early in 1986 she was forced to resign in favour of Mr Peter Walker. Traditional “one nation” Toryism reasserted itself.’
The third. ‘The second Thatcher Government set about establishing a police state and mounted savage attacks on socialist local authorities and militant unions like the mine-workers. The extra-Parliamentary activity of working people’s organisations, and the noncompliance of socialists in local government, precipitated the General Strike of 1985 which toppled the Government and forced a general election in which, for the first time in Britain, a truly socialist government was returned.’
The fourth. ‘The defeat of 1983 was the nadir of the Labour Party. Subsequently it chose a new and popular leader, purged its ranks of militant Trotskyists, and set about discarding the ideological baggage which had brought it to its knees. This restored those elements of the electorate which had deserted in droves to the Alliance and the Tories, and enabled it to win the Election of 1987.’