Credibility Brown

Christopher Hitchens

  • Where there is greed: Margaret Thatcher and the Betrayal of Britain’s Future by Gordon Brown
    Mainstream, 182 pp, £4.95, May 1989, ISBN 1 85158 233 9
  • CounterBlasts No 3: A Rational Advance for the Labour Party by John Lloyd
    Chatto, 57 pp, £2.99, June 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3519 0

It is rather a pity, considered from the standpoint of the professional politician or opinion-taker, that nobody knows exactly what ‘credibility’ is, or how one acquires it. ‘Credibility’ doesn’t stand for anything morally straightforward, like meaning what you say or saying what you mean. Nor does it signify anything remotely quantifiable – any correlation between evidence presented and case made. Suggestively perhaps, it entered the language as a consensus euphemism during the Vietnam War, when ‘concerned’ members of the Eastern establishment spoke of a ‘credibility gap’ rather than give awful utterance to the thought that the Johnson Administration was systematically lying. To restore its ‘credibility’, that Administration was urged, not to stop lying, but to improve its public presentation. At some stage in the lesson learned from that injunction, the era of post-modern politics began. It now doesn’t seem ridiculous to have ‘approval ratings’ that fluctuate week by week, because these are based upon the all-important ‘perception’ factor, which has in turn quite lost its own relationship to the word ‘perceptive’.

When the Tories first hired a public-relations firm called Colman, Prentiss and Varley, back in the dying moments of the Macmillan regime, they got a fair bit of ribbing from cartoonists like the great Timothy Birdsall, and a certain amount of ‘negative feedback’ from their own more fastidious supporters. The Labour Party in those days was sternly opposed to the pseudo-science of PR and polling, and to the political hucksterism (such as the interviewing of candidates’ wives) that went with it. Having won and lost a number of elections since then, and having seen Conservatism reinstated to an extent unguessed-at, Labour’s leadership is now agreed on at least one big thing, which is that the battle of image, perception and credibility is what counts.

Take Mr Hattersley, writing about the European election results in the Independent for 22 June. He went straight into it, even while pretending or affecting not to do so: ‘Most commentators have concentrated on the statistics and confusion within the Tory Party that the arithmetic of the European elections has caused. Nobody should be surprised by that. The slump in Conservative support to its lowest percentage of votes in any national election this century is in itself an event – even without the BBC’s extraordinary graphics and the mobile enthusiasm of Peter Snow.’ Now, it’s not especially surprising that the deputy leader of a historic social-democratic party should open an article with a sentence that reads as if hastily translated from the Albanian, or that he should close that article without a single mention of the European element in British and world politics. What is or ought to be surprising is his natural, unforced obsession with the media aspect of the outcome.

Seeking for a split second to evade this judgment on his mini-essay, Mr Hattersley went on: ‘But the facts behind the figures are more interesting. For several months, Labour Party workers have insisted that the opinion polls would soon begin to reflect a new national mood. There is a sea change in British politics – the sort of slow but irresistible movement which Jim Callaghan detected when the tide was flowing the other way in 1978.’ Yes, I think that covers everything. First announcing, with his usual gift of phrase, that ‘the facts behind the figures’ are what count, Hattersley proceeds to list a series not of facts but impressions. (‘National mood’ and ‘sea change’ are thought indispensable, in the trade, to the writing of analyses of this kind.) The most revealing reference is to ‘Jim’ Callaghan, who rested his whole career on the notion of credibility. Most of the time, he point-blank refused to listen to those who saw a Tory and right-wing revival in the late Seventies, but when he did listen he had an infallible prescription for staving off the menace. The prescription took the simple form of doing what the Tories would have done ten years before – but of trying to square it with the Unions. The end-result was a sort of Weimar without the sex: the country mortgaged to the IMF; placemanship and jobbery everywhere from the Washington Embassy to the Bank of England, and an indecorous last-minute vote-buying exercise involving both the Ulster Unionists and the Irish Republicans. On the night before the vote of confidence that put him out of office I met Callaghan at a party and, after being well patronised about the pessimistic little book that Peter Kellner and I had done on him, told him that he would lose the vote and the ensuing election. He was still blandly convinced that Thatcher lacked the credibility – it’s difficult to remember now how popular it was then to dismiss her as a shrill suburban housewife. ‘We might lose in the House,’ he said, ‘but we can’t lose the election.’

If you take credibility to mean no more than ‘plausibility’ or ‘electability’, then it still somehow fails to correlate as the consensus journalists and poll-takers wish it would, which is to say with ‘moderation’. Gaitskell couldn’t even beat Macmillan four years after Suez and after repeated demonstrations of control over his own enfeebled left wing. Callaghan was humbled without the Falklands factor. The Tribunites Foot and Kinnock were walloped while in the process of ‘finding the centre’. The only two Labour leaders to have unseated the Conservatives in such a way as to force a rethink upon them were Attlee and Wilson. Attlee was in conventional terms well to the left of the centre, and in point of his electoral programme hardly less so. (Still, at the 1945 Labour Party Conference, Ernest Bevin came raging up to those, including Ian Mikardo and oddly enough James Callaghan, who had called for public ownership to be in the Manifesto and yelled: ‘Congratulations! You have just lost us the election.’) Harold Wilson actually beat the Tories four times at the polls, which on the consensus calculus makes him the most ‘credible’ Labour politician of all time. Except that there is, is there not, something wrong with that last statement?

These two short books are both written by Scotsmen – Fifers, in fact – who express a regional and national resentment against Thatcherism as well as a more or less conventional Labourist one. Both men are of an age, and both have backgrounds in a harder Left than the one they now espouse. Gordon Brown was one of the convenor/editors of the Red Paper for Scotland in the early Seventies, and John Lloyd saw the inside of the Communist Party before helping to found a pro-European Marxist tendency at about the same time. Rather touchingly, he uses the chorus of the ‘Internationale’ to supply the chapter headings of his ‘CounterBlast’, which is in fact not a polemic at all but a fairly dry tract of the sort put out by the Fabian Society.

Lloyd is prescriptive, while Brown is descriptive. Where there is greed is a terse, patriotic, businesslike compendium, stiffened with charts and figures, of British decline. As I read it, a line from one of Pablo Neruda’s poems came back to me. After depicting the damage and humiliation inflicted on Chile by irresponsible rulers and unaccountable corporations, Neruda closed by saying simply: ‘and the trunk of the tree of the country rots.’ Brown is angered by the same sort of thing, though he would be more likely to call it infrastructure. It is said that Cecil Parkinson, asked what had happened to the fabled revenues of North Sea Oil, replied with perfect insouciance that they had been spent on the financing of unemployment benefit. This could well be the encapsulating anecdote of the Thatcher decade: at once an outrage to the Protestant ethic and a cynical negation of all the boastful claims about ‘National Renewal’. Brown, who modestly describes his own book as a ‘collection’ and who credits many researchers, has assembled within two covers the sorry account of an eroded manufacturing base, a neglected fixed-investment sector and an industry unprepared to face the brisk gale that impends in 1992.

A rather candid reply to a Parliamentary question, given early last year by Alan Clark, summarises the whole position neatly. Mr Clark had been invited to say which OECD countries spent either more or less of their gross product on fixed investment than did the United Kingdom. He responded:

Comparisons for most OECD countries are readily available only for 1986. In that year the following OECD countries spent a larger share of GDP on fixed investment than the United Kingdom: Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United States. Belgium spent a smaller share of GDP on fixed income than the United Kingdom. Comparable figures for other OECD countries are not available.

Plucky little Belgium our ally again. Once you untune the string of investment, as Brown argues, there are ineluctable consequences for innovation, for research and development, for the deployment of talent, and for anything describable under the heading of culture. As for welfare and education, it’s exhausting to recount the long-term damage done by underfunding. And yet there seems always to be money – for Trident, for fortress Falklands, for computerised bunkers and bunkerised computers. When he touches on these contrasts, which he does mostly in passing, Brown should really give a tip of the chapeau to Andrew Gamble’s earlier work on the ‘free economy-strong state’ calculus. (His book has no index or bibliography.)

Brown’s critique is underlaid with strict moral sense. You cannot, he seems to say, eat the seed corn and hope to prosper. Without thrift and continence and thought for the morrow there is no firm foundation. Yet could this not be Thatcher herself talking? There is a fashion among social democrats for the expression of this paradox in its reverse form – in other words, for the accusation that Conservatism’s high priestess is in reality an un-English and promiscuous radical. This tactic of irony, if it is an irony, perhaps too easily overlooks the undoubted fact that the Tories in 1979 were able to present themselves as the party of change against ‘Jim’ Callaghan’s avuncular and dogmatic maintenance of a mediocre and deteriorating status quo. Will it be canny for Labour, ten years on, to be the voice of restraint and consensus once more?

A year or two ago, I was billed with Perry Anderson to give an evening to the not very influential New York Marxist School. We were to compare and contrast Reaganism and Thatcherism, both of which had been described as ‘revolutions’, and I drew the easy job of discussing the first. Reaganism, already a waning memory, was never much more than a fraud, based on a three-credit-card trick and appealing principally to hedonism and credulity. Taxes would not go up, but everybody would be better-off and there would be a morale-boosting boom in military spending. The Brobdingnagian Federal deficit stands as the chief monument to this deluded interval. Just for the sake of example, to begin with, but as the evening went on, with alarmed conviction, I tried to contrast this with the Thatcher ‘experiment’.

First of all, Thatcher had promised that things would hurt. Her concept of sado-monetarism, anchored in some approximation of the work of Hayek and Friedman, was more aesthetic than economic, and was couched in the language of sacrifice and struggle rather than of good times. Count up the changes wrought by her government and ask if Labour could have accomplished them or would now undo them if given a full majority. Would Labour restore the legal privileges of the Unions? Would it buy back the new private sector? Would it stop recognising the principle of council house sales? Would it restore exchange controls? Would it undo the Lancaster House or Hillsborough agreements, where the Tory Party rather impressively faced down emotional and political challenges from two of its traditional claimants and pensioners, the Rhodesian Front and the Ulster Unionists?

To ask these questions is to answer them. Labour would have botched all of the above, whether led by Callaghan-Foot or Kinnock-Hattersley. As a party it is, quite simply, happy that these risky structural changes were embarked on by somebody else. There is an important sense, not measurable by opinion polls, in which voters understand this perfectly well, and reward the party which displays nerve and conviction.

Reverting for a moment to the free economy-strong state dialectic, it was Labour that began to use unemployment as a deliberate means of deflation, and it was Labour ministers who brought the most clumsy and brutal prosecutions of journalists under the Official Secrets Act. I feel almost like apologising for mentioning anything so obvious, but neither Lloyd nor Brown give the matter any space and both show a wistfulness for the days of moderate Labourism that amounts almost to a rewrite of history.

Cogent though Brown’s facts and Lloyd’s rhetoric may be, both authors show a fatal eagerness to please. How odd it is that a decade of Thatcher has not taught Labourites the essential distinction between being liked and being respected. The Prime Minister has demonstrated a willingness to take life and to risk her own in the forwarding of certain convictions, and by doing so has won the grudging admiration that is the sincerest compliment the British electorate can bestow. In Walworth Road, by contrast, anxious surveys are conducted in order to see how the electorate can be flattered and massaged by changes of emphasis. It reminds me of nothing so much as the high noon of the Dukakis campaign, with its stress on ‘competence not ideology’. I quiver when I think of how much cogitation went into Gordon Brown’s decision to publish with something called ‘the Mainstream Press’.

Throughout, he shows an extraordinary deference to arguments from authority. In discussing the repeal of Fair Wages legislation and the phased abolition of Wages Councils, he describes these moves as ‘changes that were made despite the findings of research commissioned from Cambridge University that showed no evidence that employment would increase if wages fell.’ Cambridge University! The words must needs seem imposing enough in themselves, since we are not told which department or faculty or indeed private group in Cambridge reached the conclusion, or on what basis it did so. Then we have Sir Francis Toombs, chairman of the Engineering Council and an adviser, to the Prime Minister, who says that ‘normal market forces will not work to make up the severe shortfall and provide the skills base needed by modern industry and commerce.’ To say nothing of Sir David Philips, Chairman of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils, who remarked in 1988 that ‘decisions by the Government were “progressively leading to an unstable situation”.’ Fighting words, no doubt, but they have the unmistakably musty smell of the old days when quango chairmen were endlessly and pointlessly interviewed and quoted about this or that touch on the tiller of a corporate state.

One gets the feeling that Gordon Brown cannot, in either sense of the word, credit Thatcherism. If he has any understanding of its appeal and its dynamic, and I suspect that he must do, he keeps it to himself. This reluctance is dangerous politically because it is, ironically, only a short step from vicarious envy of Thatcher and a wish to counterfeit her formula for victory.

I hope I will not be alone in objecting to another element of the Brown analysis, which is a faint but definite tinge of John Bullishness or John Bullshit. Am I supposed to take alarm at the fact that ‘23 per cent of the Fellows of the Royal Society now live overseas’? Am I to repine that ‘a 1986 study’ – another vague attribution, incidentally, to the anonymous authority of studies and surveys – ‘found that the numbers living permanently outside the UK had risen from 161 in 1979 to 240 at the time of the survey. Between 1979 and 1986 the proportion living in America rose from 6 per cent to 8 per cent’? Horrors. Or what about this? ‘To date, 40 per cent of Jaguar and 15 per cent of British Aerospace have ended up in the hands of foreigners. Control of the Royal Dockyard at Plymouth has passed to the American company Brown and Root. The foreign shareholding in Rolls-Royce, whose defence contribution is vital, reached an illegal figure of 21 per cent and, embarrassingly for patriotic privatisation enthusiasts, subsequently had to be reduced under a golden share provision.’ Elsewhere, Brown argues persuasively that ‘privatisation’ is a synonym for the rebirth of monopoly. Why does he feel the need to cheapen his argument by attacking the one element of diversity that privatisation does introduce? Moreover, by attacking the one element of diversity that is inextricably connected to the future of both capitalism and socialism – the internationalisation of production? It reminds one of the grosser arguments employed by Labour spokesmen during the forgotten days of the ‘great debate’ over Europe, where once again there was an attempt to steal abandoned Tory garments and use them to deck out statist arguments in the redundant language of ‘national sovereignty’.

Lloyd’s pamphlet is replete with apparently tough-minded ‘bottom-line’ language, also pitched to the mainstream: ‘Kinnock has grasped what other successful European socialist leaders such as François Mitterrand, Felipe Gonzales and Benito Craxi have: first get control of the Party – no matter how long it takes – for if you cannot control the Party, nothing else can be accomplished.’ The punctilious cedilla under Mitterrand’s first name makes it the odder that the surname of the Spaniard and the forename of the Italian are given wrongly, but the maxim of ‘control of the Party above all’ is one that has not recommended itself only to European social democrats. And it was not just his control over the French Socialist Party but his control over the French organs of security that allowed Mitterrand to conduct undercover military operations against a reformist Labour government in New Zealand, and to murder a member of the Greenpeace organisation who was making a peaceful protest against French nuclear tests. In France, this operation is said to have enhanced Mitterrand’s credibility.

I want to raise the ‘Green’ issue for another purpose. By some law of unintended consequences which it would take the pen of a Dangerfield to describe, the very high noon of unfettered resurgent capitalism has been the occasion for a great and possibly historic revulsion against greed and rapacity. This revulsion differs from Luddism or Pre-Raphaelitism in the eminence of its practicality, and in the proven urgency of its presentiments. More important, the ‘Green’ movement indicts both the state-accumulation socialisms of the East and the short-term opportunism of private enterprise in the West, not to mention the Bhopal and Brazil horrors of the Third World. Inscribed in the idea of a planetary and holistic concern is the mandate for a humane collectivism and solidarity – the precise negation of Thatcher’s crass assertion that there is no such thing as society. Is Labour capable of catching this favourable tide, and the strong currents of anti-nuclearism and concern for civil and constitutional liberties that are its partial corollaries?

Not on the face of it. The lust for credibility, coupled with certain rather traditional attachments to trade-unionism and, to Westminster forms, have impelled Kinnock and Hattersley to sneer at the Greens and at Charter 88, to repudiate the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and to make worried noises about foreign penetration at just the moment when a one-world sensibility is informing itself that the nationality of the corporation is close to irrelevant. This in turn makes a nice contrast with the surprising deference shown to the intolerant and unattractive face of other cultures, as in the smarminess demonstrated by the brave new leadership over the Rushdie affair, or, to put the same point in another way, when there were votes in it or votes thought to be in it.

Writing about the degeneration of the Left in his own time, Arthur Koestler concentrated his fire on the Communists and fellow-travellers but took the trouble to notice, amid the hideous cynicism of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, that the British Labour Party had chosen precisely that moment to adopt a Vansittart resolution at its Party Conference. (The Vansittart theory, much in vogue at that period, simplified things by blaming Nazism on the German people and thereby licensed total war against civilians. It was later adapted by its author to argue that the Russian people were the enemy in the Cold War.) In other words, having flirted with irrelevant pacifism and neutralism throughout the Thirties, Labour whole-hogged it for militarism when war actually impended. Or in still other words, it made the wrong change and for the wrong reasons in the hope of keeping up with events and keeping pace with public opinion.

Describing Kinnock’s decision to live with the British bomb, John Lloyd lists it among his six most admirable achievements and can barely find the words to praise it sufficiently: ‘Kinnock fought against his own grain, his own reflexes – the traits which had made him the most popular fellow in the Labour Party – fashioning a determined social democrat out of the clay of a left-wing neo-Bevanite.’ This achievement may not be as remarkable as Lloyd’s moist endorsement could suggest. For one thing, it was Aneurin Bevan himself who rather famously talked the Labour Party out of going ‘naked into the conference chamber’ and who knifed his unilateralist admirers in the front. For another, the last person to go on endlessly about ‘the mantle of Nye’, and to employ that mantle as a cloak for political transmogrification, was Harold Wilson. The difficulty arises when you take Lloyd’s test of statesmanship and maturity, which is the willingness or readiness to repudiate former comrades and former cherished convictions. It is never enough to take this test once. You will always be asked, like Arafat, whether you really mean it. You will never be able to stop the auction. You can never repudiate enough. If Kinnock didn’t learn this from Foot he will not learn it until far too late.

Lloyd also makes it plain that the shift in nuclear policy is a matter of ‘credibility’ and that the unilateral credo was or is to be considered as a purely electoral liability. This isn’t really a good enough reason to change such an important position. Either there is an excellent reason for Britain having its own nuclear war-fighting capacity or there is not. And either there has been a change in the nuclear balance making this more or less true or there has not. (Lloyd would have a hard time arguing the second even if he believed in the ‘deterrent’ to begin with.) But perhaps more weighty will be the judgment of public opinion on a party which decides its stand on the nuclear question on – public opinion. Given the tendency of voters to trust the Tories more on military matters in the first place, the returns on media-guided indecision might show a tendency to diminish.

None of this will seem to matter if some pendulum effect brings Labour back to office, perhaps in coalition with its one-time deserters. But another defeat would expose Labour as the party that had tried everything – everything – to please, and still not got the mix quite right. That would be a historic humiliation. When the West German Social Democrats went to Bad Godesberg and renounced Marxism in 1959, they did so because they felt that the theory – with which, unlike Labour, they had had a genuine historical acquaintance – was no longer appropriate to the times. They did not do so in the spirit of a party that – to borrow a recent formulation of Austin Mitchell’s – decided to find out what people wanted and then give it to them. Still less in the spirit of a party which said, in effect: here are our policies and principles and if you don’t like them we’ll soon change them.

Kinnock may feel the lash of all this sooner than he thinks. All the available aggregates of data suggest that Labour would be up to 10 per cent more ‘credible’ without him. The average voter is apparently readier to trust John Smith, who certainly sounds credible enough. This would be a poor return for a career wagered on credibility, but then the ratchet of the credible paradoxically operates to the benefit of people who really mean what they say, which is why the facts of life have been Tory for so long.