Ross McKibbin

Ross McKibbin is an emeritus research fellow at St John’s College, Oxford.

The Anti-Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn

Ross McKibbin, 8 October 2015

It was said​ of one of Neville Chamberlain’s ministerial appointments that it was the most improbable since Caligula made his horse a consul. Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party is in the same category. Not that it is a joke; just that it was highly unlikely and almost without precedent in modern British party political history. Corbyn is probably...

Labour dies again

Ross McKibbin, 4 June 2015

As the pollsters retire​ to their attics to discover what went wrong, we can reflect on this historic election. The share of the total vote won by the two major parties changed only slightly, but Ukip replaces the Lib Dems as the third party by number of votes and the SNP is the third party in the Commons by number of seats and will inherit the Lib Dems’ privileges and its office...

Labour Vanishes

Ross McKibbin, 20 November 2014

The Labour Party may be the largest party after the next election, and it may even secure a majority, but it could also do very badly. These alternatives show Labour’s decline since the first couple of years of the coalition, when a Labour victory in 2015 was (more or less) confidently predicted. The change is reflected in the party’s mood: in the nerviness, the timidity and the stress-induced gaffes. Ed Miliband has lost authority as he has lost the courage of his convictions. It’s clear that he never had the political self-confidence to impose his authority on the neo-Blairites who surround him.

If Labour Is Serious…

Ross McKibbin, 22 May 2014

It would be a bold psephologist who predicted the result of the next general election on the strength of last week’s local and European elections. Several outcomes seem equally possible or equally unlikely: a Conservative majority; a Labour majority; the Conservatives as the largest party; Labour as the largest party; a coalition government; a minority government. Easier to predict is...

Rupert Murdoch has created perhaps the greatest media business in the history of the media business. It exceeds in scope any of the empires assembled by the Hearsts, the Harmsworths and the Thomsons. Murdoch himself seems driven by insatiable ambition. He is never satisfied. Nothing appears complete, and the old man shows no sign of abandoning the struggle – especially as his heirs (his...

Anything but Benevolent: Who benefits?

Ross McKibbin, 25 April 2013

It seems appropriate that just as the ‘reformed’ welfare state is ushered in, Margaret Thatcher should be ushered out. Appropriate too, that she, whose policies generated so much homelessness, should end her days in the Ritz. There used to be a genre of Labour autobiography with titles like ‘From Crowscaring to Westminster’, ‘From Workshop to War Cabinet’, which expressed something admirable about their subjects. ‘From Grantham to the Ritz’ isn’t quite that.

Jack Straw was one of the longest serving ministers in the history of the Labour Party. He spent 13 years in office, as home secretary, foreign secretary, leader of the House of Commons and justice minister. His book’s title, Last Man Standing, derives from the curious rule by which the lord chancellor (which Straw became in 2007, at the same time as being secretary of state for...

Is it misleading to think of the government as shambolic – even comprehensively shambolic? It has made some bad mistakes, but politically it has been fairly stable, so far. The Conservatives have achieved most of what they wanted with the Lib Dems acting as cover – probably more than they would have managed as a minority government. The NHS legislation would never have survived...

Call that a coalition?

Ross McKibbin, 5 April 2012

The future of British politics and, even more, that of the Lib Dems, is unusually obscure at present, based as they are on a political arrangement that has no peacetime precedent since the development of the modern party system. Lloyd George’s post-First World War coalition was a prolongation of his wartime coalition, which already excluded much of the Liberal Party, and its only possible long-term role – as an anti-Labour front – was one the Tories thought they could play just as well if not better.

Manning Clark’s funeral, on 27 May 1991 at – to the surprise of many – St Christopher’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Canberra, was attended by much of Australia’s ‘progressive’ elite: the governor-general (Bill Hayden), the prime minister (Bob Hawke), the deputy prime minister and future prime minister (Paul Keating), all of them at one time leaders of...

Should Labour apologise, and if so what for? Ever since the last election and even more since the election of Ed Miliband as leader, there has been a near universal assumption that the party is not doing as well as it should, that its lead in the opinion polls is shaky, that the ‘South’ is lost, that Miliband is hopeless, and that, consequently, Labour should show...

Can Clegg be forgiven? 5 May

Ross McKibbin, 2 June 2011

The first anniversary of the coalition government has been and gone, and – like its members, no doubt – we have no clear idea of what its future will be. The various elections that accompanied the anniversary didn’t help. By general consent the Lib Dems had most to worry about after the counting, Nick Clegg especially. It is hard to make confident judgments about the wisdom or otherwise of their decision to join the coalition, still less their subsequent performance, given the difficulty of their position after the general election. I thought then (and still think) that there probably was no alternative to the present arrangement.

Nothing to do with the economy: The Cuts

Ross McKibbin, 18 November 2010

‘Business now has certainty,’ the chancellor said at the end of his statement on the Comprehensive Spending Review; but that is the one thing business doesn’t have. Much of the government’s budget strategy is dependent on consequences which might be favourable, on premises which are almost certainly wrong, on sheer fantasy, and on that will-o’-the-wisp, ‘confidence’. It is pretty clear that those on benefits of whatever kind will suffer, however the cuts are interpreted. Anyone disabled, or partly disabled and on employment support, or dependent on housing benefit, or in need of social housing, or reliant on local authority care – indeed anyone on a low income – will lose. And women will lose more than men. They are more likely to be made redundant by local government and the cuts in child tax credit are more likely to keep them out of work.

Labour now has time to repent at leisure. What should it do? Disowning its immediate past would be a good first step, but it has to elect a new leader and all the serious candidates are heavily implicated, for better or worse, in the New Labour ‘project’. One thing it is in no danger of doing is retreating into socialist rhetoric of the early 1980s variety, which is a relief. It could, of course, do nothing, since as the only opposition party it might expect to be the inevitable beneficiary of the coalition’s unpopularity. That would be risky. The coalition need not become unpopular, and even if it does the smaller parties could also benefit. Rather, Labour should emphasise the extent to which it is the party of public provision and collective life. It should also accept that the obsession with choice was a dead end.

Good for Business: The End of Research?

Ross McKibbin, 25 February 2010

In January last year a directive from John Denham, secretary of state in what was then the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, announced that research funding for universities was going to be rethought.* The new system should ‘continue to incentivise research excellence’ and reward ‘the quality of researchers’ contribution to public policy-making and to...

At the Tory Conference

Ross McKibbin, 22 October 2009

The most enthusiastic moment came when David Cameron promised to end poverty and pronounced the Tories the real party of the poor. The Conservatives have, of course, always thought themselves the real party of the poor but this time the claim was accompanied by some genuine rhetoric about inequality which they may come to regret. The party, to judge by what was said in the hall, has changed;...

Labour and the Conservatives do not always agree about what the state might do, but they agree about its institutions and hierarchies. That is why Labour has never been able to free itself from the inherited in stitutions of the British state: king-in-Parliament, a state church, a semi-medieval constitution, an overblown defence and security apparatus. And when it has tinkered with the state, even on important issues like devolution or the new supreme court, that has served only to make the whole system even more incoherent.

The crisis is systemic: it’s not merely about overpriced houses or busted banks, it’s about the Labour Party and the way it has chosen to govern the country: the privatisations; the money-grubbing; the disastrous relationship with the United States, which has infantilised the country’s political elites and so damaged its interests. In sum, it’s about a political system that now seems almost beyond reform.

In 1931, as the European banking system seemed to be collapsing, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter observed that people felt the ground giving way beneath them, and not merely those with bank accounts. Many in Britain and America must be experiencing similar tremors now. Yet, in Britain at least, there are huge differences between 1931 and today.

In 1964, Harold Wilson described the record of the (outgoing) Conservative government as ‘13 wasted years’. If the present Parliament lasts its full term – as seems likely – the electorate will be asked to pass judgment on 13 years of Labour rule. Voters today seem to have the same view of Labour as Wilson had of the Tories all those years ago. Many who once wished Labour well are now wondering whether they can vote Labour at all, or whether they should stop voting tactically. This is an important decision: the Labour majorities in the last three elections have been much enlarged by people choosing to vote for the candidate thought most likely to defeat the Tory – a spontaneous alternative vote. Since the country’s politicians have refused to reform the country’s medieval system of voting, the electorate has reformed it for itself. But it is a reform without any statutory basis: people can choose to practise it or not. Labour thus faces a double threat. Not merely that people will no longer vote Labour, but that they will vote as they really want to – Lib Dem, for example – whatever the consequences. And they will do so because they no longer believe keeping the Tories out is the main object of politics. Labour’s position, though not irrecoverable, is therefore serious, approaching desperate.

The modern history of English secondary education begins with the 1944 Education Act, usually known as the Butler Act. It was, for better and worse, the most important piece of education legislation of the 20th century, but was expected to reform an educational system already deeply divisive and inequitable. In some ways it promoted the hopes of wartime democracy; in others it betrayed them. It raised the school-leaving age to 15 and made secondary education universal and free. It equalised the payment of teachers in all state secondary schools and devised procedures by which nearly all the religious elementary schools were incorporated into the state system. It didn’t specify what kind of secondary education local authorities should establish, and as a result they fell back on what already existed and what conventional opinion thought appropriate: grammar schools for the academically inclined, junior technical schools for those with superior technical aptitudes and secondary moderns for those of a ‘practical’ turn of mind.

As a child in an Australian kindergarten in the 1940s one of my first memories is of wrapping up dried fruit to send to the children of Britain. Since I strongly disliked dried fruit and thought no one would eat it unless they had to, I felt deeply the level of deprivation to which British children had been reduced. These memories were refreshed by reading Austerity Britain, David...

That a week is a long time in politics is one of those wise sayings which usually turns out to be untrue. Not now. All those articles written only a couple of weeks ago and giving entirely good reasons why Gordon Brown was on top and David Cameron on the ropes now look faintly embarrassing. But at the beginning of October Brown was on top and no one can be faulted for failing to see his...

Pure New Labour: Three Groans for Gordon

Ross McKibbin, 4 October 2007

Gordon Brown has become prime minister with less seeming to be known about him, and what he thinks and believes, than almost any other holder of the office. As chancellor, he showed an exceptionally narrow concern with his brief and usually disclosed an opinion on anything outside it only if absolutely forced to. As a result many unanswered questions circulate around him. What is he for? Why was he elected? Is he expected to be different from his predecessor? More ‘left-wing’? More Old Labour? The fact that he kept his cards so close to his chest encouraged many to hope that once his own man, he would somehow liberate himself from the more dogmatic excesses of New Labour. (I had hoped – forlornly – that he might try to save comprehensive schools.) Even as prime minister, he keeps his cards chestwards. His reaction to the prison officers’ and the London Underground strikes was characteristic. He saw in them only inflationary wage claims, and didn’t appear to give a thought to the wider context – to the horror of working in British prisons, on the one hand, and to the failure of the private management of London Underground maintenance, on the other – for which in both cases he shares (or bears) the responsibility. Yet there is already enough on record – and more than enough from his chancellorship – to suggest what kind of politician he is.

Tony Blair’s political career (assuming his interminable delay actually ends in departure) is difficult to assess. He has been, electorally, the most successful British prime minister of the last hundred years: not even Baldwin or Thatcher quite equals him. Yet the record of his governments has been one of opportunities half-caught or missed entirely, of impulses that were sometimes admirable but rarely acted on, of reasonable but not unusual administrative competence, of some genuinely wrong-headed or shameful policies and, of course, a disastrous adventure abroad. Its overall record is incoherent, and becoming more so.

There is general agreement that the government is in a mess: sleazy, corrupt, humiliated and, probably even more than the Conservative government in its last days, despised by many of its natural supporters. It is difficult to remember a cabinet held in such contempt by so many. Yet the reasons for the contempt and the extent to which it is shared by the electorate as a whole are less easy to judge. By the limited criteria we generally use to assess these things, the Blair government is reasonably competent. The economy potters along fairly steadily; there have (not yet) been any of those financial ‘crises’ that have come close to wrecking previous administrations. And unpopular though the government is, it is nowhere near as unpopular as John Major’s was.

If the prime minister hoped to deflect attention from the local election results by a well-timed reshuffle he has certainly succeeded. Much was thought to hang on the election results and they were as bad as Labour expected. Despite the panicky reshuffle, however, it isn’t clear how much we can read into them. Local elections in the last days of John Major’s government did, it’s true, accurately predict the outcome of the 1997 general election, but that is very unusual. In any case, comparisons between Major’s last days and the position of the present government don’t really hold up. Labour’s standing in the polls, though not high, is not much lower than its actual vote in the general election. And although Labour did badly in the 2004 local elections and in the last European elections, it nonetheless won the general election. With such low turnouts what matters is who bothers to vote; and it is the discontented who are most likely to do so. Nor, despite what some have said, is there the sense of terminal decay (though the reshuffle certainly has a whiff of it) that marked Major’s government. However unfair to John Major it might be, as an electoral burden Iraq isn’t Black Wednesday.

That the next general election will be fought by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Leader of the Opposition David Cameron we do know; but how it will be fought we don’t, in part because the present prime minister will not disclose when he intends to go. Furthermore, both Cameron and Brown are in some senses, but for different reasons, unknown quantities. Cameron simply because he is unknown; Brown because he’s known only as a bruiser who tenaciously defends his own patch, not as a man who has to lead a government and a political party. Any prediction as to the character of a Cameron or Brown government must, therefore, be tentative. Such a prediction might be that Cameron would lead a moderately unenlightened businessman’s government; Brown a moderately enlightened businessman’s government. The difference between the two, while a bit more than wafer thin, will hardly register on any political scale.

Labour has won its historic third term, by the majority (about 65) predicted by the much abused exit poll, and it has done so while receiving the lowest percentage of the vote ever won by a victorious party. The parliamentary majority is much reduced, as everyone has pointed out, but it is ‘much reduced’ only in comparison with Labour’s existing majority: previous Labour...

Hardly any aspect of British life has combined religion, class, ideology, politics and law more potently than attitudes to gambling – not even attitudes to drink and sex. That is because, as with drink and sex, two strong impulses have contended. On the one hand, the majority of British people have always liked to gamble; on the other, a smaller number, who have had privileged access to...

Whether or not the prime minister was cheered to the rafters at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party after the local/European elections I do not know. That he was allowed an easy run by MPs is agreed. Given the extent of Labour’s defeat (or non-victory if you are a loyalist), the continuing disaster in Iraq and the constant readiness of the prime minister to undermine...

Why did it end so badly? Thatcher

Ross McKibbin, 18 March 2004

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Even those, John Campbell suggests, who have little or no memory of Margaret Thatcher, live in a world she created; and from which there is no going back. More than any other British prime minister, even Gladstone, she conforms to Max Weber’s type of the modern demagogic politician: the leader who appeals directly to the electorate over the heads of...

“The extent of the continued underfunding of the public services, the Government’s confirmation that it wishes the House of Lords to be wholly nominated, something scarcely believable in a democratic society, the travails of the almost incoherent NHS legislation, the tacit admission that the mania for targets and league tables might be counterproductive, the Cabinet reshuffle that got badly out of hand, all these suggest a Government which does not need Iraq to be in a crisis. In these circumstances we would expect people to ask the Prime Minister to go. Should he resign? The obvious answer is yes: more than any other individual he is responsible for Labour finding itself in a political and intellectual dead-end. But this is to over-individualise what has happened.”

“What has brought us to war . . . is Blair’s personal inclination to alliance-building, which in this case failed, a tradition of radical reforming rhetoric and moral crusade which has been decanted from domestic to foreign policy, and a deep attachment on the part of the Government to the political, social and economic culture of the United States.”

One does not have to be a genius to realise that it is physically, intellectually and mathematically impossible for everyone to have a choice of secondary school should they choose to exercise it. The notion of diversity is simply an ideological dodge to conceal the fact that selection is being reintroduced to favour some at the expense of others.

Non-Party Man: Stafford Cripps

Ross McKibbin, 19 September 2002

[Clarke] argues persuasively -- perhaps the central argument of his book -- that Cripps was an instinctive coalition-maker, a seeker after agreement, something his rather muddled Marxism of the early 1930s tended to conceal. It was this which gave unity to Cripps’s highly diverse and rather puzzling political career.

Neil Kinnock is a problematic figure in modern British politics. He was leader of the Labour Party for nine years and presided over a number of profound changes in both its structure and its policy. All nine years, however, were spent in opposition. He was, furthermore, the only Labour leader (at least since Labour began electing ‘leaders’) never to have held a ministerial post...

The result of the election is indeed a remarkable one: a Government liked and respected by few and despised by some preserved its already huge majority virtually intact, and it did so with a pitiful proportion of the eligible vote. The deficiencies of the electoral system are now more gross than ever, while a three-party system – in Scotland and Wales a four-party system – and...

Robert Skidelsky’s John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Britain completes a remarkable biography. No other biographer of Keynes is likely to surpass it, and everyone who has an interest in the intellectual and public life of this country is in Skidelsky’s debt. This third volume starts in 1937, where the second volume left off. It might have been better had that volume finished with...

The Government begins its fourth year in office in not very good shape: indeed, in something of a fix. It is probably not too much of a fix: not being the Conservative Party should still see them through next time, but not being the Conservative Party is a rapidly wasting asset. And it is hard to find anyone, even among those who will vote Labour, with any enthusiasm for the Government. Most people, at least outside Scotland and Wales and possibly London, would probably find it difficult to name anything the Government has actually done. It is also obvious from the Prime Minister’s last couple of speeches that he has seriously lost his bearings. None of this should be a surprise: it was clear from the way Labour fought the last election that it would end up like this. The Government’s problem is that its operating assumptions and strategies are wholly or partly wrong; and it will have to emend them.

The Iceman Cometh: Tony Adams

Ross McKibbin, 6 January 2000

For those who do not admire it, football must seem like American popular culture does to those who do not admire America: something whose spread is both inexorable and destructive. Football is not just the ‘beautiful game’, it is the ‘world game’; something not simply to be played or watched, but an activity powered by all the resources of global wealth and technology. It is, for example, obvious in this country that football is slowly eliminating alternative sports, even ones deeply grounded in British society. Both rugby codes are gradually decaying; not really because football is a ‘better’ game than they (although it might be) but because they have lost their character as class ‘badges’ – activities which affirm and legitimate ‘middle classness’ (Rugby Union) or ‘working classness’ (Rugby League). The decay of cricket has, no doubt, many causes, but one is competition from football. As the football season is extended, cricket is losing its monopoly as the nation’s (or at least England’s) major summer sport. And it has long been known – since before the First World War – that people would play and watch football regardless of the season, as long as they were given the opportunity. It has also long been known that football has a unique status among Britain’s sports. It was always, however reluctantly, conceded to be the ‘national’ game. But this concession is now much less reluctant. Hardly anyone would deny that football is today central to the public culture of British life: not merely something for Saturday afternoon or Match of the Day but a culture which represents much of the reality of British life itself. Every time (say) Alan Hansen makes a general comment on the nature of British football he is in part making a general comment on Britain – a fact of which he is probably aware. Yet in one important respect it is still not universal. Although the huge numbers of people who play recreational football represent a cross-section of British male society (and even to some extent of female society), those who play professional football do not: they are still overwhelmingly young workingclass men.’‘

From The Blog
4 December 2014

The chancellor's Autumn Statement is as political and obscure as we might expect. A bit of spending here and a bit of cutting there. A tilt at the rich and corporations which, except for the change to stamp duty, won’t do much. The ‘banding’ of stamp duty is a kind of mansion tax which in principle would be desirable, if it didn't mean that the government has yet another reason to ration housing. (More houses means cheaper houses, which means a lower return on stamp duty.)

From The Blog
11 October 2014

The Conservatives are largely responsible for their present plight. Ukip may profess contempt for the Tory Party, but it is one of its products. The Conservative leadership and its press supporters always believed, like many right-wing toffs in the past, that they could control any insurgency their political tactics might evoke. For the last few years the Tory Party and its cheerleaders in the Mail, the Sun, the Express and (a little more decorously) the Telegraph have cultivated a populist rhetoric – xenophobic, anti-European, anti-trade union, anti-welfare – as extreme as anything we have known. And they have assumed that such rhetoric could be managed for the benefit only of the ruling circles within the party. But for several years it has been clear – not least to David Cameron – that this assumption is wrong.

From The Blog
22 September 2014

The speed with which David Cameron has turned the victory of No into the West Lothian question is not surprising in a man who is both an opportunist and partisan, and who is concerned to protect his own leadership. But Ed Milband is right to resist Cameron’s rushed attempts to exploit promises made to Scotland, which almost certainly need never have been made, to justify legislation that would allow only English MPs to vote on ‘English’ measures (however they might be defined). Such a proposal is wrong for two reasons.

From The Blog
20 March 2014

The budget details had been so widely leaked that there were few surprises. The chancellor had little room for manoeuvre and resisted the temptation to go for broke. (That probably comes next year, just before the election.) The Lib Dems got their £10,500 tax threshold – which won’t make much difference. The drinkers and bingo players got something; but other betters and smokers did not. There was a little for small business. Those who pay a 40 per cent marginal rate saw the threshold at which they pay it raised a little, but probably not as much as they expected. Older people with savings do well. Changes to pension arrangements, the introduction of more ‘generous’ ISAs and the pensioner bond do something to restore income to those whose savings in the last few years had received negligible returns. It is apparent that the budget is meant to appeal primarily to older voters – who are more likely to vote than any other age group.

From The Blog
9 September 2013

As everyone expected, Tony Abbott and his crew have won an easy victory in the Australian election. But it was not the landslide the opinion polls and even the exit polls predicted. They all suggested the Labor Party would lose most of its seats in its Western Sydney heartlands and in Brisbane. They also suggested that Kevin Rudd would lose his Brisbane seat. In the event Rudd held on quite comfortably and Labor kept most of its Western Sydney seats – as it did in Melbourne and Adelaide.

From The Blog
28 June 2013

There was a sense of inevitability about Julia Gillard’s fall; the surprise is that it was so long delayed. The Australian Labor Party’s standing is low enough that sooner or later enough MPs would become convinced that their continued presence in the federal parliament demanded a new leader. Or rather an old, new leader, Kevin Rudd. There is nothing unique in what has happened. Gillard’s overthrow is simply another example of the extreme instability of leadership that characterises Australian political parties. The fearsome institution of the ‘spill’, by which parliamentary coups can be staged, and the relentless short-termism of Australian politics, mean that parliamentary leaders are under constant pressure. Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, staged a successful coup against Malcolm Turnbull, who had staged a coup against Brendan Nelson. Earlier this year Ted Baillieu went to work as the premier of Victoria and ended the day as no one, having been overthrown by a man whom he had originally himself overthrown. Such instability is made worse by the destructive effects of opinion polling. Australian politicians insist that polls are the furthest things from their minds; in fact, they hardly think of anything else. Rudd himself was unseated as prime minister after one bad opinion poll.

From The Blog
10 June 2013

Ed Miliband’s latest speech on welfare pretty much capitulates to the Tories, just as Ed Balls has capitulated on the economy. Both have willy-nilly accepted a Tory ‘interpretation’ of the financial crisis, even though that ‘interpretation’ has been relentlessly political. How little austerity actually has to do with the economy or those on welfare was demonstrated by the hooting and hollering of the Tory front bench when Miliband was seen to give in; and by Iain Duncan Smith’s casual description of Labour as the ‘party of welfare’ as though that were self-evidently a bad thing. It is clear what Tory priorities are, and they are not the well-being of the people. Labour’s capitulation was both unnecessary and unwise.

From The Blog
12 December 2012

The formation of the Council for the Defence of British Universities is a welcome response to their present and future plight, and both Howard Hotson and Keith Thomas have made powerful defences in the LRB of the indispensable moral and intellectual values which the universities represent. A problem, however, is that the people who now determine the universities’ funding seem largely impervious to these defences. They hold the view that such values somehow come at the expense of the universities’ place in the real world: in other words they conflict with the universities’ ability to make money for themselves and for the economy. They take their stand on the ‘common-sense’ argument that the universities must justify their existence to the tax-payer and they must do so now. The criterion, they argue, by which we measure such justification is the contribution the universities do or do not make to the economy and to business; and, above all, to the market. This argument, if expressed properly, is not unfair. It is entirely reasonable to expect the universities to play their part in the country’s economic well-being and to wonder how that part might best be played. We should, therefore, be prepared to meet those who today make funding policy on their own ground. What we find, alas, is that the ‘evidence’ they employ is rarely evidence at all. On the contrary, it is often ideological assertion and wishful thinking.

From The Blog
30 November 2012

Yesterday's three by-elections are, as by-elections go, interesting. They point, first of all, to widespread electoral disengagement. Even by traditional by-election standards, turn-outs were low – which confirms the pattern of this parliament. Even in by-elections which were thought to be really significant, like Corby (turn-out 45 per cent), most people don’t turn out. The figure for Rotherham (34 per cent) – which was surrounded by publicity – is telling.

From The Blog
13 November 2012

We should be very worried about the BBC, but not because of its real or alleged failings. It is a remarkable institution, one of the few British organisations known throughout the world, and known everywhere simply by its initials. It is by some measures the largest and most trusted international broadcaster. It is a class of institution, which we might call ‘public’, that Britain does extraordinarily well: its universities are another example. For a country more dependent for its standing on ‘soft power’ than most, these are very ‘soft powerful’. And they are now all under attack. They are disliked and sometimes hated because they are both public and successful. None of them fit Britain’s now dominant ideological values. Cable and Willetts, for instance, will ruin the universities rather than admit that their historic structure is the reason for their success, since that success is a reproach to these values.

From The Blog
3 October 2012

Speeches at party conferences normally do not have a long life, since they are designed for immediate effect. Ed Miliband’s speech was an exercise in showmanship and self-projection and as such was fairly successful. Whether it will linger in the memory is another matter. But it rallied the troops and partly disarmed the press – which is as much as he could hope for. Miliband has two problems; himself and policy.

From The Blog
15 August 2012

The Olympic Games can have a bad reputation. They are often defended as nationally unifying by deeply suspect people whose idea of what unifies is equally suspect. But it is also the case that many who apparently held a dim view of the Games turn out to have been pretty avid watchers. As Mass-Observation noted of George VI’s coronation, even those most determined to ignore it found themselves sucked in.

From The Blog
7 May 2012

In last week’s local elections only 32 per cent of the registered electorate voted – a striking measure of how unimportant local government is to most people and a reasonable judgment on the authority of municipal government. The powers of the local state have been inexorably weakened over the last century: a process only speeded up in the 1980s. Despite the importance of local government to the Lib Dems the present government has further accelerated it. Furthermore, 32 per cent is a small and unreliable sample on which to make judgements about national politics. But here goes.

From The Blog
2 April 2012

A first reaction to the Bradford by-election is one of anger: that a self-promoting blowhard like George Galloway, who was ejected by his Bethnal Green constituents after only one term, should be so acceptable to the electors of Bradford West; and anger at a political system that allowed this to happen. Whether anger at the system, however, is wholly justified is another matter. Bradford West is not a typical northern working-class constituency. That it is nearly 40 per cent Muslim matters. Galloway’s last victory, in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, which also has a large Muslim electorate, occurred when Labour still won a comparatively easy victory nationwide. Furthermore, Labour has done well in all previous by-elections in this parliament, which suggests that Bradford is to some extent exceptional. Labour would, therefore, probably be right not to take it too tragically.

From The Blog
5 March 2012

Whatever the outcome of the A4e affair, it is a symptom of virtually everything that has gone wrong with British political life since 1979 – and especially of the worst thing, the privatisation of the state and its functions. The decision to hand over so many of the state’s responsibilities – and not only in Britain – to the private sector or voluntary associations or charities has had several terrible consequences. First there is the loss of expertise. The state has built up historically a huge fund of knowledge and experience which is simply not available to voluntary associations, however enthusiastic they are. The result is notorious wherever the Big Society is found. The contracted bodies do the easy bits while passing back the difficult and more important bits, like finding jobs for the unqualified unemployed, back to the state. It is exactly the same as with the PFI projects: the profits are privatised while the risks remain with the taxpayer. That is why the history of the welfare state is the history of the decline of private welfare. It was, among other things, never up to the job.

From The Blog
24 January 2012

That Scottish independence or anything which seriously reduced Scottish representation in the House of Commons could be fatal for Labour is now the common coin of politics. Labour is heavily dependent on its Scottish and Welsh heartlands. It has won a majority of English seats only five times – 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005 – but these were exceptional results partly dependent on a distribution of seats in England which favoured Labour and which the Tories are now busily ‘correcting’. Wales is already losing 10 of its 40 seats under existing legislation, and Scotland will lose more seats under almost any new political arrangement. Under independence, of course, it would have no representation in the House of Commons.

From The Blog
20 January 2012

Followers of Michael Gove’s career might have missed its latest highlights. The cabinet has now decided to repeal the rights of parents to oppose the expansion of ‘popular’ schools and, despite the embarrassingly vociferous opposition of parents at Downhills primary school in Tottenham, seems determined to part the school from the LEA. Parental choice is allowed when parents support the Conservative Party and not allowed when they don’t. The Lib Dems appear to have no quarrel with this. No doubt it is their definition of community politics.

From The Blog
2 December 2011

The chancellor’s autumn statement was rhetorically quite adroit. It remains within the ‘narrative’ established by the coalition when it was formed – that Britain’s debts were at unprecedented levels, and as such there was no alternative to paying them off as fast as possible. Anything else would lead to our being no better than Greece, Spain or Italy. The happy consequence of drastic debt repayment is that yields on British government debt are as low as Germany’s (true, but not because of debt repayment) and much lower than the decrepit Mediterranean states. That the ‘size’ of Britain’s debt is largely folk myth doesn’t alter the fact that the perpetuation of the myth is consistent with everything the government has already said.

From The Blog
21 July 2011

In all democratic societies the relations between politicians and the press are close and problematic. But in Britain those relations developed earlier than anywhere else; earlier even than in the United States or France. Britain was the first society to develop a mass urban industrial working class and industrial-commercial middle class. Its newspapers were a consequence of this, and some, like the News of the World or the Daily Mirror, had circulations without equal in the world. In such circumstances it was inevitable that the political class and the newspaper-owning class – who were often, as in the case of Lord Beaverbrook, the same people – would become intimate, since both thought the press a uniquely powerful instrument of persuasion.

From The Blog
14 April 2011

On 26 March the New South Wales Labor government suffered a shattering defeat in the state elections. It won only 25 per cent of the votes, lost 32 of its 52 seats – one to the Greens and the rest to the conservative coalition – on swings against it of up to 35 per cent. Much of its heartland was lost and will be difficult to regain. It was the worst defeat in its history: even worse than in 1932, when the party succumbed to a major economic and political crisis. This was more than just a defeat in one part of a not terribly important country.

From The Blog
18 January 2011

The Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election was pretty good for Labour, better than it might have been for the Lib Dems and not very good for the Tories. Labour’s vote was up 10 per cent, which is more or less exactly the figure represented by the national polls. It probably represents a flow of ex-Lib Dem voters who went to Labour as soon as the coalition was formed. But the result tells us less about the composition of the coalition vote. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Lib Dem vote was bolstered by tactical Tory voting – Tories who took their cue from a prime minister worried that the Lib Dem vote would collapse. It is less likely, though not impossible, that the same thing would happen in a general election. In any case, the Lib Dem vote in any by-election is usually not representative of the Lib Dem vote in a general election. The politics of the by-election, however, point to the coalition’s longer-term problems.

From The Blog
30 September 2010

The election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party is surely not as surprising as much of the media suggests it was. He may have started at the back of the pack five months ago but any half-serious candidate to the left of David Miliband had a good chance. Diane Abbott, who is definitely to the left of David, was not a serious candidate, and Ed Balls, who is probably to his left, could not escape from his relationship with Gordon Brown. What’s really surprising is that David should be thought to have been an inevitable successor to Brown.

From The Blog
7 September 2010

After two weeks of negotiation Australia finally has a government: a Labor government with a majority of one as long as the Green MP and three of the independents continue to support it. All this contrasts strikingly with British experience where the present coalition was negotiated in a couple of days. One reason for this is that Labour was never a serious negotiator in Britain whereas in Australia both Labor and non-Labor were. Another is that three of the independents are former members of the rural wing of the conservative coalition who represent constituencies that would normally return MPs from that wing. (The two who declared for Labor earlier hold seats that would usually be Labor.) They all, however, are maverick figures who seriously quarrelled with the conservatives and have sympathies with some of Labor’s traditions. And they don’t simply want barrels of pork for their constituents. They could not, therefore, be expected to make up their minds quickly. How long such an arrangement can last and how stable it will be is almost impossible to say – though it would be surprising if the independents had not secured a guarantee that the prime minister, Julia Gillard, will not attempt an opportunist premature election.

From The Blog
15 June 2010

The difficulties of coalition government have probably manifested themselves first in university ‘policy’. The previous regime made funding proposals that could hardly be taken seriously but recent comments by the new universities minister, David Willetts, suggest someone equally at sea. The problem is that the coalition is committed to contradictory aims. It wants to encourage social mobility, give increased access to working-class students and more monetary assistance to those students (Lib Dem policy), and to rebalance universities towards teaching (a good thing) and the ‘student experience’ (a non-thing), away from the old obsession with research. But it also wants – above all – to cut spending. This is where the trouble starts.

Nowadays, when a government reaches halfway, a ‘stocktaking’ is expected. And there has been some stocktaking of the present Government, but of a rather muted sort; ‘muted’ because it is difficult to stocktake a government which looks electorally impregnable but whose future course is uncertain to everyone except the Prime Minister. Electorally, there seem to be no dangers. If the Eddisbury by-election result is the best the Conservatives can do at midterm, Mr Blair has little to fear. Despite this, however, and despite the fact that he has an overall aim – modernisation – from which he will not deviate, the Prime Minister is said to be ‘frustrated’, as the observer who looks for a coherent programme is likely to be, since it is not at all clear what Mr Blair means by ‘modernisation’. Nor is it possible to infer a complete programme from the Government’s actions, many of which are incomplete and some of which are anything but modern.’‘

Third Way, Old Hat: Amnesia at the Top

Ross McKibbin, 3 September 1998

The departure of Frank Field, the enthusiastic reception by the Parliamentary Labour Party of Gordon Brown’s spending plans, together with the increasingly desperate attempts by the Government’s leading members, particularly the Prime Minister himself, to discover a Third Way, represent an important moment in the history of New Labour. The hunt for the Third Way, which has been going on more or less since Blair announced the birth of New Labour, is in many respects paradoxical. It is not obvious why a government which prides itself on its pragmatism and freedom from ideological baggage should spend so much of its time trying to acquire a new ideological encumbrance. Furthermore, the Government is at the moment under no electoral pressure: on the contrary, its lead in the opinion polls remains formidable – without precedent in our modern history. The Prime Minister continues to be enormously popular. In these circumstances, it seems surprising that he should wish to tamper with a winning formula. The departing Field and the spending Brown are, as we shall see, two of the reasons why.’

Ian Gilmour is one of the most leftwing figures in British politics: a feat he has achieved by not moving. He remains upright amid the ruins of a Keynesian political economy while the two major parties quarrel over possession of the new orthodoxy. He has also written one of the best things on Thatcherism: Dancing with Dogma (1992), a book which will demonstrate to a later generation that not all Conservative politicians took leave of their senses in the Eighties. He must therefore contemplate the last election result with mixed feelings. Since he has always argued that it would end that way – and that the Conservatives deserved it – he must have a certain satisfaction. On the other hand, as a Conservative MP and minister for thirty years and, being of a forgiving nature, still a Tory, his satisfaction cannot be unalloyed. Whatever Happened to the Tories, a book he has written with Mark Garnett, is an account of how all this came about: how the party which recovered so quickly after the 1945 defeat almost disintegrated fifty years later.

Mass-Observation in the Mall

Ross McKibbin, 2 October 1997

The week before Princess Diana’s funeral and the funeral itself were, by agreement, a remarkable moment in the history of modern Britain, but most of us, despite broadsheet press commentary which was frequently sensible and thoughtful, have found it difficult to understand or even to know what happened. And this, of course, is due to the fact that the dominant intellectual categories of the 20th century are secular and rational: we are in a sense taught not to be able to understand such ‘irrational’ phenomena as the reaction to Diana’s death, or indeed anything to do with public attitudes to royalty, and are frequently embarrassed if asked to do so. Historians of the 20th century are particularly disabled – historians of medieval religion or Byzantinists at least know what questions to ask. Furthermore, we are compelled to measure things which are almost immeasurable. The great majority of the population, after all, did not leave flowers in front of the palaces or anywhere else. Over one-quarter of the adult population did not even watch the funeral on television. Most of those who were there were not weeping. Does that mean they were emotionally unaffected? On the other hand, many more watched the funeral on television than watched the Euro 96 England-Germany match, hitherto the record-breaker. Does that mean we feel more intensely about Diana than about the national game – or simply that more women watched the funeral than watched the football? And, in any case, can people articulate what they feel in ways we can understand? In due course we might know these things but at the moment we do not.’

Why the Tories Lost

Ross McKibbin, 3 July 1997

The Conservative defeat in this year’s general election is probably the worst suffered by any party since 1931. (The comparison with 1832 is meaningless. The only reliable comparisons are those with elections held under universal suffrage, of which the first was 1929.) Labour, it is true, had a lower proportion of the votes in 1983 and 1987 but on both occasions won significantly more seats. In 1935 Labour won in proportion only a few more seats but had a much larger percentage of the poll. This year the difference between the two parties’ performances was extraordinary. Three hundred and thirteen Labour MPs were elected with more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in their constituencies, 44 (including Tony Blair and John Prescott) were elected with over 70 per cent, and two with over 80 per cent. By contrast, only 14 Conservatives won more than 50 per cent of the votes cast. The most successful Conservative, John Major in Huntingdon, received 55.3 per cent of the vote: the most successful Labour candidate, Mr Benton in Bootle, 82.8 per cent. What is striking is how few MPs from the Conservative heartlands in the suburbanised county constituencies of the South and East Anglia were able to win 50 per cent of the vote.

Very Old Labour

Ross McKibbin, 3 April 1997

Unless the electors intend to play an even more fiendish trick on Labour than they did at the last election, which is not impossible, the Wirral by-election does suggest that Labour will win some sort of majority in May. The size of the victory, however, matters less than the nature of the Party – New Labour – which seems likely to win it. And we must accept the fact that it really is new. When Tony Blair assures us of that he is not, as the Tories insist, merely pretending. Much of this ‘renewal’ had, of course, been achieved by Neil Kinnock and John Smith, while the numerical and political decline of the unions, together with a change in the composition of the electorate and the Labour Party’s membership, made ‘renewal’ much easier and, at least to some extent, necessary. Nevertheless, Mr Blair has carried it deeper and further than Mr Kinnock or Mr Smith could or would have done. They were still attached to the basic ideology and structure of Old Labour while, for all practical purposes, Tony Blair is now attached to neither. No one could have predicted in 1979 or 1983 that the historic Labour Party would have disappeared so fast, and probably for ever.’

If/when Labour gets in …

Ross McKibbin, 22 February 1996

How should Labour govern? This is a question it is still reasonable to ask, though as the election gets ever closer and Labour’s lead gets ever smaller, it might answer itself. Still, it is a question to which Tony Blair has given much thought; and so should we. All social democratic parties, of which the British Labour Party probably is still one, are torn between two possible forms of political action, which are, in turn, dependent on two possible ‘models’ of society. One model sees group relationships, particularly if groups are called ‘classes’, as essentially conflictual; the other sees them as essentially harmonious. Over time, the second, in all such parties, has become increasingly dominant, though the first has not lost all ideological power. Throughout its history the Labour Party has oscillated nervously between the two; and not simply for tactical reasons. Both models have, from its beginning, been fully represented within the Party’s ideological tradition. The first regards Labour as standing for and responsible to an industrial working class organised by its own institutions, particularly the trade unions. It endows that class, rather as Marxism does, with a unique, possibly predetermined, place in human development but sees it, nonetheless, as surrounded by those who will resist to the end attacks on their privileges or, this being Britain, their incompetence. ‘Socialism’, to the extent that the word is used, therefore implies conflict.

Whatever weight future historians give it, 29 April 1995 will undoubtedly be thought symbolic. For on that day culminated a process, begun under Neil Kinnock, by which the Labour Party effectively jettisoned its past. The repeal of the old Clause IV has finally sundered the historical continuity of the Labour Party – as it was intended to. It was also a public admission that the Party had lost the self-confidence – the belief that, whatever the electorate thought, the future was on its side – which had sustained it from 1918 until the early Eighties. Mr Blair has done what Hugh Gaitskell failed to do and what no other Labour leader has even attempted; an achievement we should not minimise. The votes of the constituency parties really are remarkable, particularly to anyone who bears in mind what those parties were like a decade or so ago, and what they could be again.

On the Defensive

Ross McKibbin, 26 January 1995

The Report of the Commission on Social Justice, Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal, is not the first attempt since Beveridge to consider our social security system as a whole – nor is it necessarily the best – but it has been the most widely publicised and reviewed. That is because, unlike the others, it comes from the heart of the political élite itself. The Commission was instigated by the late John Smith and conducted its work under the auspices and with the assistance of the Institute of Public Policy Research. The Institute also published the important working papers which preceded the Report. The Commission was carefully not tied to the Labour Party, and its chairman, Sir Gordon Borrie, the former Director-General of Fair Trading, is very much one of the ‘great and the good’ – those who (before 1979) could expect to preside over such enquiries regardless of which party was in office. Its membership is drawn broadly from the progressive class and the Report, though acknowledging the Commission’s general ideological alignment with ‘the Opposition’, conspicuously denies any particular attachment to the Labour Party. In fact, the Commissioners look remarkably like the Gaitskellite Labour Party – and that includes those of its members who might have left the Labour Party in the Eighties.

Skimming along

Ross McKibbin, 20 October 1994

John Major has now been prime minister for four years. For us, as presumably for him, it often seems a lifetime, so crowded has his premiership been with crises of one sort or another. Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon not unreasonably, therefore, think this the moment to assess his prime ministerial career; the result is The Major Effect, a collection of 26 essays by a distinguished group of commentators – including the editors. Five years ago they edited another collection, since widely-read: The Thatcher Effect, published to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership. Studying Mr Major’s ‘effect’ is, however, self-evidently more difficult. Whatever one thinks of Mrs Thatcher she was undoubtedly a larger-than-life figure who, one way or another, dominated her cabinet and party. Furthermore, in 1989, though it was clear the whole enterprise was going wildly off the rails, she was still in high mood, still celebrating her achievements, as were her admirers. Mr Major’s career, however, has hitherto been an almost uninterrupted failure; its one success, the General Election of 1992, usually being deemed a puzzle which needs explanation. Ten years also gives commentators a wider sense of perspective. Four years is a narrow historical term – even if it seems a lifetime. And Mrs Thatcher had opinions on everything, even on policies which she little influenced – and that gave her premiership a certain unity. Mr Major is more modest and some of the authors of this collection confess that in their areas Mr Major has had little or no ‘effect’.’

It all gets worse

Ross McKibbin, 22 September 1994

For much of the last few years Britain has not had industrial relations, at least not that the public would be aware of. ‘Industrial relations’ to most of us connotes strike unreasonable trade unions – all that is understood by the ‘Seventies’. We have repeatedly told pollsters that unions had too much power and were ‘damaging’ the economy; even trade unionists agreed with this, though they usually exempted themselves and their own unions from blame. The Government has very successfully exploited this folk-memory, and the stated aim of its industrial policies – the restoration of managerial authority – has been pursued with undisguised determination and no political ill-effects. For the Government, the question is one of power. Ministers have not been interested in alternatives to trade unions because most alternatives presuppose a kind of consultative procedure and thus some limitation on management’s ‘right to manage’. Whether its trade union legislation was responsible, or the economic policies which destroyed much of the country’s manufacturing capacity (so rendering workless a good part of the population), the Government’s success is unquestionable. Since its peak in the late Seventies there has been a huge fall in the number of trade unionists and a significant decline in the number of establishments which recognise trade unions. Half of all workplaces in industry and commerce have no union members and only 40 per cent of them recognise unions for the purpose of pay bargaining. In 1990, collective bargaining – the historic British form of wage bargaining – covered only 43 per cent of employees in industry and commerce. Aside from the miners’ strike, which affected hardly anyone except the miners, but them disastrously, and the occasional public sector strike, we have lived since 1979 in an environment without industrial relations – that is, without strikes.’

After Smith

Ross McKibbin, 9 June 1994

Like many others I have been puzzled by the reaction to John Smith’s death. It was reported as though it were at least that of a prime minister, and his funeral was, as the BBC noted, in effect a state funeral. The decision of both the BBC and ITV to double the ordinary length of their evening news broadcasts on the day of his death could be put down to the social democratish inclinations of the programmers, but the speed with which the coverage had to be assembled suggests that it was more instinctive. Furthermore, the reaction of the press wasn’t very different. All the quality papers reported Mr Smith’s death and its consequences copiously, and in general (with the conspicuous exception of the Financial Times) what was said was sympathetic, even elegiac. Most of those papers who a week earlier were noting how fragile the local elections showed Labour’s position to be, were now lamenting the loss of the next prime minister. The same was true of the tabloids. We might expect the Mirror to grieve at length; more unexpected was that the Sun should do so as well.

Against it

Ross McKibbin, 24 February 1994

Christopher Hitchens may not be ‘the nearest thing to a one-man band since I.F. Stone laid down his pen’, but he comes close. For the Sake of Argument records a life of action, of being in the right place at the right time. Thomas Mann could never find the revolution: Hitchens cannot help tripping over it. This is, no doubt, the privilege of the foreign correspondent, but some are clearly more privileged than others. He turns up in Central America, in Central Europe, in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, always at the crucial historical moment; he can extract from these moments a tragic episode or a comic anecdote which illuminates the whole. He really has heard – as most of us would like to hear – a neo-conservative speaker say (in English) ‘that it was no accident that the Russian language contained no word for détente.’ The life of action can also he used to subvert discreetly the academic couch-potato – the sort of person who might be expected to review this book. Of a visit to Prague in the last days of Communism, a visit which ended in his arrest, he writes that he has ‘seldom been arrested by such pitiable people’. It’s the ‘seldom’ that makes it so good.’’

Customers of the State

Ross McKibbin, 9 September 1993

The two major parties approach their annual conferences and the new political season in anything but confident mood. For the Government – as for any British government – there is the usual ‘problem of the economy’, which will never go away and so is of no immediate importance: situation desperate but not serious. More unusually there is a sense, which the Maastricht debates heightened, if only by their impenetrability, that the country’s constitutional arrangements no longer work. Over the last couple of months there has been an ebullition of often bizarre constitutional argument, with most of the actors seeming to take the wrong parts. The Speaker warns the judiciary not to intrude on Parliamentary privilege and quotes the Bill of Rights; Tony Benn warns the judges likewise and also quotes the Bill of Rights. The Evening Standard eulogises the same Tony Benn as the ‘last of the radicals’, while Lord ReesMogg takes the Government to court for abusing the royal prerogative. The judges, for their part, dismiss a particularly brazen attempt by the Government to assert that its ministers cannot be sued in law on the ground that to admit this would be to admit that the Civil War never occurred. The Conservative Party’s Euro-haters, who would die in the last ditch to defend the rights of Parliament, turn into pussy-cats the moment the word ‘confidence’ is mentioned.

Labour Blues

Ross McKibbin, 11 February 1993

This in its own way is a formidable book, but not one to hide its argument under a bushel. ‘The book that blows the lid off the Kinnock years’ is how the publisher’s press release describes it. It is the only one ‘to break the conspiracy of silence which has surrounded the rise and fall of the Labour Party under Kinnock’, a man who ‘destroyed the Party’s democratic structures whilst allowing a new careerist clique to install itself in every part of the Labour machine’. The authors ‘expose the machinations of Peter Mandelson … whose regime and methods can be rivalled only by that of Bernard Ingham’ etc. In fact, although Heffernan and Marqusee have written the book in an ‘openly partisan spirit’ (we ‘have an indictment to make and we make no apologies for pursuing it single-mindedly’) its tone is usually less intemperate than the publisher’s. Yet the press release, if more polemical, is not an unfair précis of the argument. In the authors’ view Mr Kinnock, supported by much of the ‘soft left’, many of the trade unions leaders and a new kind of party apparat, put an end to the Party’s internal pluralism, abandoned their commitment to any kind of socialism, or any sort of principle, foisted on it an opportunist officialdom, encouraged a kind of leader-worship in place of any worthwhile policies, subordinated everything to electoral success, and then, crowning infamy, after all this failed to win the election which was there for the winning. Thus was defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

Ian Gilmour could scarcely have timed the publication of this book better. The last few weeks really have been a Marxist ‘conjuncture’: a heightened moment when social realities can no longer be contained by dominant ideologies; or, in the idiom of an un-Marxist age, the moment when the sky is darkened by chickens returning to roost. Within the same few days the true nature of the recession – that it is now largely out of control – has been generally admitted, even by those who throughout the last election campaign stoutly declined to say anything sensible; the precarious position of British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce cars which, like Jaguar and Rolls-Royce aeroengines, had been so unwisely privatised, became all too public; Black Wednesday itself, when delusion and false pride were punished with a speed uncommon even in Classical tragedy. One minute the Prime Minister sees the pound as Europe’s hardest currency; the next it is chased out of the ERM, softer than the peseta. And finally, the astonishing decision to obliterate half the country’s coal industry – a decision itself a direct consequence of the way gas and electricity were privatised by the Thatcher Government. In the midst of all this Lord Gilmour has published his account of Thatcherism, Dancing with Dogma, a felicitous title to a book which comes wrapped in the fine photo of the author dancing with Dogma which readers of the London Review saw last July – he slightly uneasy, she unnaturally coy. She had just dismissed him from her Cabinet.’

The Sense of an Ending

Ross McKibbin, 28 May 1992

The pollsters will no doubt eventually discover why voting Conservative is regarded by so many as a solitary vice to be disclosed (and then anonymously) to none but the returning officer; in the meantime we can only speculate about the election result on the basis of not very good evidence. Nevertheless, despite that, and what was recorded in those genuinely puzzling polls (particularly the exit polls), it seems reasonable to argue that a Labour victory was always unlikely, because 13 years of unremitting effort had gone into making it unlikely.

When Labour last ruled

Ross McKibbin, 9 April 1992

This is a timely and exceptionally interesting book. 1976, the year of IMF intervention, together with the winter of 1978-79, represents in purest form what was for most people (insofar as they have any memory of the Seventies) characteristic of that decade: persistent economic failure and social disintegration at home, humiliation abroad. It is a memory that has also had profound political consequences. In the public mind the Labour Party is inextricably associated with these failures and humiliations; though it bears no more ‘responsibility’ for them than the preceding Conservative government, the Conservatives have been much more successful at distancing themselves from their own part in the debacle; and it is undeniable that the Labour Party was in office for most of the decade (just) and during what is now thought to be its lowest moments. Thus, as Labour tries to convince us that it is a responsible party led by grave statesmen, it is speaking from within the long shadow of the Seventies. And it seems very likely that during the course of this election the Conservatives will have been insinuating into our consciousness all those now familiar words – ‘chaos’, ‘ungovernable’, ‘inflation’, ‘trade unions’, though not ‘unemployment’ – just in case we have forgotten the Seventies.’

What is Labour to do?

Ross McKibbin, 27 February 1992

In Imperial Russia there was a ‘What is to be done?’ genre of political writing which was – except, perhaps, in the case of Lenin – rarely optimistic. On the contrary, there tended to be an assumption that there was too much to do and probably no chance of doing it. In Britain we find ourselves, mutatis mutandis, in an analogous situation. We have a government which has scarcely any reason to exist and hardly anything of importance to say to the electorate, but we face an almost unendurably long election campaign which that government has at least an even chance of winning – in which case nothing will be done at all. When, therefore, we ask what is to be done, we must also remember that the problem of arrival is inseparable from the problem of what we do when we arrive.’

Homage to Wilson and Callaghan

Ross McKibbin, 24 October 1991

The clamorous whispers of an impending election remind us that the present government must soon devise a plausible electoral campaign. Given the events of the last four years, this will not be easy: on any objective reckoning, almost no government this century will present the electorate with such a record of wilful failure. But, of course, objective reckonings matter little in the outcome of British general elections, and ‘failure’ has several definitions: even from failure many gain, or think they gain, which is why the political system devised by the Conservatives in the Eighties will long outlive Mrs Thatcher. Nonetheless, there will be some testing moments for Central Office, and their campaign is likely to be dominated by a combination of audacity and reticence.

With or without the workers

Ross McKibbin, 25 April 1991

This book contains reflections on both history and theory, and is written with David Marquand’s usual elegance and intelligence. Its 19 essays concern themes familiar to readers of his biography of Ramsay MacDonald and his distinguished study, The Unprincipled Society: how can we devise for modern Britain an appropriate ‘social democratic’ theory of social action, and how can we construct a ‘progressive’ coalition which might give it adequate electoral support. Twenty-five years separate the first essay from the last, and they are not published in the order they were written. They have been tailored to bestow unity, but the stitching sometimes shows: thus on page 89 we find the Attlee Government chided for not undertaking a ‘revolution of production’ which would ‘smash the structures and root out the habits which had already produced more than half a century of relative economic decline’. But ten pages after this Saint-Simonian utterance, we find it conceded that the Attlee ministry could hardly have done this ‘in the lifetime of a single government’. How is this to be resolved? The answer is that the second judgment was written 21 years before the first. These essays are, in fact, chapters in the intellectual and political biography of a young Croslandite (once a Bevanite) who became an increasingly bruised and disenchanted Labour MP, a founder member of the SDP, and who now (I imagine) stands between the Kinnockian Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. From the point of view of the reader interested in understanding how he has come to argue what he does it might have been better had this been made more explicit.

Radical Democrats

Ross McKibbin, 7 March 1991

When historians come to account for the dégringolade of modern British politics both Tony Benn and Paul Foot will find a place: Benn as actor, Foot as an observer. The two have much in common: both were born into very similar families; both see their lives as a continuing re-education, a casting aside of cultural baggage packed with the detritus of a worn-out social system; both have come to discover a superior morality within socialism and the organised working class. In both, this process has been incomplete, perhaps deliberately so. They both have a strong sense of Englishness, though they have defined it with recourse to a radical vocabulary. Both see themselves within an English radical-democratic tradition – Levellers, Paine, Cobden – onto which both have grafted Marxism.

Diary: Thatcher’s History

Ross McKibbin, 6 December 1990

In the days since Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation I have had a strong sense, not so much of history being made, as of history being invented: all the actors in this drama seem to be declaiming their parts as much for the history books as for the audience. That is true also of those whose duty it is to watch the drama and criticise the actors. Even before the heroine expired in the night there was everywhere an assumption that the play was over; everywhere a scuttling for cover and the hasty construction of intellectual positions which put actors and critics in as good a relation to history as possible. Whether the play is over remains to be seen. The plot was always paltry, the dialogue incoherent, the characters usually unpleasant: but the stage on which it was acted is well-constructed, firmly buttressed and many hands have an interest in keeping it erect.

British politics at the moment seem curiously provisional. The failures of the present government are so gross and obvious that hardly anyone, even its nominal supporters, attempts to defend it ideologically. Yet at the same time hardly anyone believes that Labour will really win the next election, or that it could cope even if it did. There is also a strong sense that the re-ordering of continental Europe, whose outcome is itself indeterminate, has rendered our political life even more provisional: it has obliterated the old landmarks but made it quite unclear where we now go. This collection of essays, occasional pieces and personal and poetic reflections is thus intended to suggest new paths. The Alternative is a product of Samizdat, a journal founded late in 1988 when any alternative seemed rather unlikely. It hoped to create a ‘popular front of the mind’ – a kind of intellectual tactical voting – which would dispute what was widely perceived to be a right-wing ideological hegemony. The contributors to Samizdat, whose founding editor, Ben Pimlott, is one of the editors of this book, were adherents of the Labour Party, the old Alliance, the Communist Party and of no party at all. Many of the contributors still are these things, though some, like Michael Young, have returned to the Labour Party de jure and others de facto. It was a measure both of the successes of the Conservative Party in the Eighties and the apparent decay of the social-democratic and Marxist alternatives that such a popular front was possible.’

Making things happen

Ross McKibbin, 26 July 1990

This Johnson is an energetic essayist. His energy is not simply physical, though he has plenty of that: it is mental too. He seems to write quickly – how else the productivity? – but he writes also with a kind of cerebral force, apparent in all these essays, which are themselves the tip of an intellectual iceberg: he has also written standard books on both South Africa and the French Left which combine contemporary political description with historical analysis in an admirable and often memorable way. Nor is he afraid of controversy, rather the reverse. He wrote a celebrated/notorious explanation of the shooting-down of the South Korean airliner KAL 007 which so many well-placed persons dismissed as impossible as to suggest that the explanation might well be true. His purpose, furthermore, though sometimes playful, as these essays demonstrate, is always serious. This collection is prefaced by a thoughtful introduction on the nature of individual political engagement (that is, the political engagement of intellectuals) and of the role of individuals as political instruments, as people who set things in motion.

Mrs Thatcher’s Ecstasy

Ross McKibbin, 24 May 1990

The local government elections have come and gone (more or less) as expected. Labour did not do as spectacularly well as some predicted, and in the event the caution of the Labour leadership was justified. The Conservatives did better than they feared they might. But they would be unwise to find too much consolation: Labour gains were not as spectacular partly because Labour was defending such a large proportion of the seats anyway, and partly because the increase in the Labour vote was not matched by a proportionate gain in seats. It is possible that the Government’s strategy of blaming high poll taxes on Labour councils had some effect in areas (like London) where memories of ‘loony’ left-wing councils are strong, while in Westminster and Wandsworth the electorate clearly behaved in a cheerfully Thatcherite manner. On the other hand, the Tories did badly in a number of areas where their own councils set low poll taxes. There is, in fact, not much evidence that the electorate has changed its mind about the poll tax and the result of the Mid-Staffordshire by-election would still seem to represent accurately the public view. The best the Government can hope for is that the electorate will become habituated to it; and we can be certain that nothing – including money – will be spared to ensure that it does.’

The way we live now

Ross McKibbin, 11 January 1990

It is hard to believe that we do not live in ‘new times’. For a generation raised after 1945 on what purported to be Keynesian certainties, and in an international system dominated all too obviously by the two major victors, the transformations of the last twenty years are difficult to assimilate. The speed of these transformations has now accelerated crazily: anything one writes about Eastern Europe, for example, is likely to be half-an-hour and, therefore, hopelessly out of date. We contemplate the present with the same astonishment that people observed 1848 or 1917-19. For those who work within a Marxist tradition such changes do not appear simply as accidental whirlings of the historical kaleidoscope, but as the result of one historical system giving way to another. These transformations, furthermore, are expressed in ideological and rhetorical terms: the contending parties manifest their material interests as ideas. One ideology struggles to supersede another. The transformational dynamic, nonetheless, is physical, grounded in the productive and thus social relationships of our daily lives.

Diary: Mrs Thatcher’s Magic Pudding

Ross McKibbin, 23 November 1989

Although Mrs Thatcher and Mr Lawson are closely associated in the public mind, their aspirations are very different. Mrs Thatcher, for her part, is not really interested in the economy at all. She has little idea how it works, no notion of its complicated and delicate relationships, and only the most elementary conception of how it might work better. Sceptical would-be supporters of the Government used plaintively to enquire why the Prime Minister allowed herself to be ‘sidetracked’ by marginal matters – why someone so anxious to promote the free market should be so obsessed with secrecy, censorship or the Poll Tax. That is not the right question. The question is: why should someone so obsessed with secrecy and censorship have any interest in the free market? In fact, insofar as her Thatcherism has a clear focus, it is the establishment of a reactionary moral and political order in which the free market performs a disciplinary and not an allocationary function. The free market, as political economists know, is a harsh disciplinarian, the more effective because its tenets are expressed in apparently impartial terms. But free-market ideologies are purely instrumental to Thatcherism: she uses them when they promote her political order and she abandons them when they obstruct it. Indeed, in several important ways Thatcherism is antithetical to the free market. Her principal preoccupations are the restoration of authority and hierarchy, and it is this she means when she speaks of the ‘defeat of socialism’. Her ambition has always been so to entrench the Conservative Party that people will vote for it as of second nature – and not just any old Conservative Party but a particular version of it. The overriding object of her government, to which the free market has always been subordinate, has been political mobilisation, and she has pursued it with determination. It is precisely because their goals are so different that deregulating Antipodean Labour prime ministers get cross when their policies are described as Thatcherite.’

Ross McKibbin on the summer of discontent

Ross McKibbin, 17 August 1989

It was difficult over the last fortnight of July not to think about the Thatcher Miracle and what had become of it. The EEC reported that in the next two years Britain would have the lowest growth rate, highest inflation and biggest payments deficit of any of its member nations. The National Union of Railwaymen struck for the fourth week running; there was a national dock strike; the Local Government Officers (NALGO) struck for three days; the lightning strikes at the BBC continued. The (then) Education Secretary persistently refused to guarantee that every child in a state school would actually be taught next year; the (then) Environment Secretary could not explain even the most elementary details of one of the most important pieces of legislation of this Parliament, and wondered aloud, why, if his backbenchers so disliked it, they ever voted for it in the first place. Then, with a characteristic touch, Mrs Thatcher announced that as a result of the new health legislation the NHS would be so good that no one would ever wish to go private again. Finally, there was the utter fiasco of the reshuffle.

Hobsbawm Today

Ross McKibbin, 22 June 1989

Eric Hobsbawm is one of Britain’s most creative Marxist historians. Anyone who teaches at a school or university is aware of the effect of his writing, even on those who do not know from which stable he comes. He has this effect because he can discover in history a dynamic yet comprehensible movement. Furthermore, he can write two kinds of history with equal facility: there are books with great sweep like Industry and Empire and there are others, like Primitive Rebels or Labouring Men, which are more intimate and local in their focus. One of the reasons why he can do this is that he is primarily a Central European Marxist. His cultural lineage is the Continental Marxist tradition and it is this which shapes his writing in a particular way. He is thus more familiar with both the substance of Continental Marxism and its mode of argument than is (or was) usual in British Marxism. This is immediately obvious in (say) Revolutionaries – in my view, one of his most remarkable books – as it is in Politics for a Rational Left. This tradition has also shaped the literally global range of his interests: European cities, Italian Communism, Australian general unions, Latin American revolutions, English football, all beat together in a great historical engine which might lurch and shudder but whose parts cannot operate independently. Marxism has moreover placed him in time. He believes that there was before 1914 both a ‘classical’ Marxism and a ‘classical’ high capitalism, a capitalism which produced a ‘classical’ proletariat and a ‘classical’ bourgeoisie. In approaching this latest volume of his essays the reader should remember, therefore, that Hobsbawm’s writing is grounded in this classical Marxism and his politics in the mass working-class parties which high capitalism created.’


Ross McKibbin, 2 February 1989

A few years ago the present director-general of NEDO, Mr Walter Eltis, told me that in due course Keynes would simply be a footnote in the history of economic theory. If so, it will be a stupendously long footnote, for additions to the already vast Keynesian literature mount by the day, not least from Mr Eltis himself. The reason why the literature mounts is obvious enough. Keynes stands as a reproach to a society which, not once but twice, has permitted (and indeed partly created) large-scale unemployment and everything that accompanies it – poverty, waste, unearned privilege – and which has justified these things by recourse to the commonsense maxims of bourgeois life. Keynes has earned his enduring power to irritate because his economics were designed to subvert these maxims: but, unlike Marx, who inhabited ‘the underworld’ and whose economics were too flawed anyway, he did so from within the house. While there is any room for guilt or shame in our society Keynes will remain central to our public life, however much some would wish it otherwise.’


Ross McKibbin, 23 October 1986

The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in of 1971-72 has been so overlaid by industrial disaster that it is probably no longer even part of the folk memory. It is hard now to associate Jimmy Reid the benign television guide to the inhabited ruins of industrial Glasgow with the compelling CP shop-steward of 1971. Yet as Foster and Woolfson argue, the work-in was a definite moment in Scottish history and not just a symbol. The strength of their book lies in its structural analysis: the fate of the Clyde shipyards is placed firmly in the context of the Scottish and international economy.

Big Acts

Ross McKibbin, 19 February 1981

The Doctors Morgan had the happy idea of converting Jane Morgan’s doctoral thesis on the career of Christopher Addison into a book and the result is this important and sympathetic biography. As they point out in their preface, he has hitherto had no worthwhile study; R. J. Minney’s biography is, they rightly note, ‘very unsatisfactory’ and drawn from a narrow range of sources. The opening of Cabinet and department records and the depositing of Addison’s bulky papers in the Bodleian Library made the writing of a new biography desirable and inevitable; further, given their formidable combined expertise, it was probably desirable and inevitable that it should be written by Kenneth and Jane Morgan.

From The Blog
8 April 2010

Gordon Brown has at the last minute and too late been converted to the alternative vote (AV) as a method of election to the House of Commons. AV preserves single-member constituencies but ensures that the winning candidate must win at least 50 per cent of the votes plus one. As many have noted, it is the way the lower houses of Australian parliaments are elected. By itself it is a minimal reform, better than nothing but something the Lib Dems would regard as merely a first step. What no one has pointed out is that the upper houses of all Australian parliaments (except Queensland which abolished its upper house) are elected by forms of proportional representation (PR). In Australia the two go together: AV for the lower house and some form of PR for the upper have emerged historically as a single electoral system, the one complementing the other, and Australian political parties have been surprisingly willing to forgo short-term political advantage in order to secure it.

From The Blog
26 February 2010

The Australian (Labor) government has just published a white paper (‘Securing Australia – Protecting Our Community') which assures its readers that the terrorist threat to Australia is stronger than ever. External threats remain, of course, but are now made much worse by the dangers of homegrown terrorism, a result of the spread of jihadist propaganda among Australia’s Muslim population. The government is proposing to increase significantly the powers of the federal police – including the right to search the property of suspected ‘terrorists’ without a warrant – and to introduce further (and severe) visa tests on people coming to Australia from 10 unnamed countries. Sound familiar? It should, because the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has acknowledged that in preparing the legislation the Australians consulted the British government. What lies behind all this?

From The Blog
4 January 2010

The BNP clearly hopes it has the wind in its sails. It has dispatched a newsletter to its supporters which, though it apologises for the lateness of the 2008 accounts (just completed), is intended to sound pretty self-confident. Indeed, one reason the letter gives for lateness is that the party has been overwhelmed by new members. (There is also a coy reference to ‘unresolved internal problems’ as factors which made life difficult, problems which have, we are to understand, now been resolved.) Party membership, it says, is now 13,000 and rising – with 3000 ‘on hold’ as a result (it does not quite say) of a ruling that the BNP was in breach of the law by imposing a racial bar on membership. There are two interesting features to this letter.

From The Blog
24 October 2009

It is hard to know what to make of this week’s Question Time. Most of what happened was fairly predictable. Nick Griffin was a rhetorical mess and the other members of the panel (including David Dimbleby) had clearly come well-prepared with damning quotations and facts. If Griffin hoped to advance his cause – as he believed he could – then he failed. But it is questionable whether that matters. Most of his actual and potential supporters are unlikely to watch Question Time and few people who do watch it would be converted, however brilliantly he performed. The BNP draws such strength as it has (and it is not much) from grievances which are not met by arguments from the facts.

From The Blog
30 September 2009

Is it too late for the Labour Party to do anything? The delegates at this year’s conference appear not to think so. They loved Peter Mandelson and were coaxed into being enthusiastic about Gordon Brown. But the role of delegates at Labour’s stage-managed conferences now is to be enthusiastic: that's what they're there for. The electorate outside the doors and the security men is unlikely to be so thrilled. Mandelson’s speech, though it certainly had spirit, was precisely the kind of mannered, self-conscious performance that most voters find really offputting. Brown’s speech was certainly not mannered.

From The Blog
27 July 2009

Although everyone is denying it, European public opinion is obviously being softened up, especially by the Kinnockian wing of the Labour party, for Blair’s emergence as the first full-time president of Europe. And although in a rational world his election would seem self-evidently absurd, given his record, it is being put about that many European leaders – including, improbably, Sarkozy – are enthusiastic. If they are, they should ask themselves what a Blair presidency would actually mean. Blair does not share the Conservatives’ blockheaded hostility to ‘Europe’ but he would nonetheless be the candidate of the United States – and that is what the Tories want. America has never shared the Conservative Party’s extreme Atlanticism. It believes in ‘Europe’ and always wanted Britain to join the EEC, now the EU. But it certainly does not believe in the European ideal.

From The Blog
22 May 2009

The Orwell Prize committee this year introduced a new prize for political blogging. It has been won by an anonymous 'English detective' who calls himself 'NightJack'. His posts are a mixture of general comment and diary accounts of apparently typical days in the lives of English policemen. They are vigorously written and sometimes perfectly reasonable. NightJack regrets that the police today are kitted out as imperial stormtroopers, he has little nostalgia for the old canteen culture, he laments the mass of paperwork that has been foisted on the police (like everyone else in the public sector) and fairly argues that if plea-bargaining is to become entrenched it ought to be formalised. Thereafter, however, reasonableness ends.



7 October 2015

In his letter Bill Johnson makes several more or less contentious points about the problems of the Labour Party (Letters, 19 November 2015). He is right to emphasise the extent to which the decay of its institutional and industrial base has undermined it, as such decay has undermined every Western social-democractic party. He underestimates, however, the way in which simultaneous changes in the structure...

Rudd’s Australia

13 December 2007

I agree with much of what Tom Nairn has to say about the Australian elections (LRB, 13 December 2007). However, I do have some reservations about his treatment of the republic. Whether Rudd will raise the question again via a referendum or plebiscite I do not know, but it should be noted that when he took office he reverted to the ‘republican’ oath – i.e. there was no mention of the...
There are several points that should be made in reply to Diane Coyle’s letter (Letters, 10 August). First, as I made clear in my article, I was fully aware that increases in Government expenditure were to be announced. How could I not be? Nothing in recent times has been more signalled. And, believe me, I welcome the increases. But, as Coyle must surely know, this is ‘catch-up’ expenditure,...

Blame Lloyd George: England 1914-51

W.G. Runciman, 27 May 2010

When Oxford University Press commissioned Ross McKibbin to write the volume in the New Oxford History of England covering the years 1918 to 1951, they got more than they bargained for. McKibbin...

Read More

Ross McKibbin’s remarkable study of the way the cultures of class shaped English society has, at a stroke, changed the historiographical landscape. One learns more about almost any aspect...

Read More

Ross McKibbin and the Rise of Labour

W.G. Runciman, 24 May 1990

In 1984, Ross McKibbin published an article in the English Historical Review called ‘Why was there no Marxism in Great Britain?’ His choice of title was a deliberate invocation of the...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences