Long March

Martin Pugh

  • Renewal: Labour’s Britain in the 1980s by Shadow Cabinet, edited by Gerald Kaufman
    Penguin, 201 pp, £2.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 14 052351 0
  • Socialism in a Cold Climate edited by John Griffith
    Allen and Unwin, 230 pp, £2.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 04 335050 X
  • Liberal Party Politics edited by Vernon Bogdanor
    Oxford, 302 pp, £17.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 19 827465 3

The trouble with timely books is that time is apt to run out rather suddenly for them. No doubt when the 20 members of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet planned the essays in Renewal they expected them to thicken the political debate during the six to nine months run-up to a general election. As it is, they have been overtaken by events: shortly we shall have the more clipped and precise promises of the real Manifesto instead of the discursive and sometimes cloudy compositions presented here. ‘Timely and provocative’ is the publisher’s claim for this volume. Provocative? Not at all – nor should one expect it to be, for elections in Britain are invariably won by those who manage to be reassuring to the electorate. Even the notable left-wing victories of 1906, 1929, 1945, 1966 and 1974 all owed something to the capacity of the radical party of the time to allay the fears of voters alarmed by the Right. Now Mrs Thatcher is as reassuring as a lively ferret in a warren full of rabbits, but Labour’s escape route attracts little traffic. Many of the contributors seem primarily to be reassuring themselves, for they look back to 1945-51 as if hoping to recapture glad confident morning again. As always, they find no inspiration in Clement Attlee. He is very much Labour’s Lord Salisbury – long-lasting and successful, but an end rather than a beginning. Instead it is Nye Bevan whose words our authors like to quote.

As a whole, Renewal scarcely does justice to the range of ideas recently emerging from the Opposition. The omissions and evasions make a formidable list. The House of Lords, the environment, housing, women’s issues and agriculture are virtually denied attention. Withdrawal from the EEC is overlooked. And in an essay tucked away at the end Denis Healey skates deftly over the surface of world affairs and defence, never stopping too long in case he finds himself in danger of giving us his views on nuclear disarmament. Nor will the interested voter find here any indication of a policy for the Falkland Islands in the 1980s. At least some of the omissions might have been rectified, for there are 20 contributors, of whom Mr Heffer and Mr Silkin are consigned to non-topics while Mr Foot writes only a short introduction. One wonders what exactly the Shadow Cabinet were hoping to achieve. Perhaps simply to consolidate the relatively recent impression of a united team ready to govern the country.

Up to a point they do succeed in this, for there are no obvious inconsistencies in what they say; and Tony Benn, of course, makes no appearance in these pages except when quoted by Mr Silkin in praise of Labour’s achievements through Parliament since 1945. Yet the Opposition surely has to do two things. It must convince the electorate that the economic depression is more British than international, or that the recovery, if there is one, is more international than British in character. Second, if Labour is obliged to defend the whole post-war status quo in social-economic affairs, it must comprehensively exploit the fears of all sections of society who suffer from Conservative attempts to demolish it. Peter Shore displays the greatest awareness of such an approach when he writes what is a remarkably frank eulogy of both Labour and Conservative governments after 1945. Gerald Kaufman, who, incidentally, is going to restore Rutland and the Soke of Peterborough, is also alive to the openings offered by high-handed Tory reform in local government and the dictatorial treatment of local authorities by the Heseltine-King regime. Gwyneth Dunwoody, in a most constructive essay on the health services, adopts a similar line of attack.

All this laborious shoring up of the post-war status quo, however, is too much for Neil Kinnock, who, almost alone, tries to strike a radical note. This takes the form of another assault on education, especially higher education, for being élitist and academically-orientated. Alas, like Prince Rupert, Mr Kinnock tends to lead the cavalry exuberantly beyond the field of battle, leaving the poor foot soldiers to their fate. So keen is he to discredit the whole process of change that has opened up universities and professional employment to British working-class children that he misses his tactical advantage. Particularly in the present climate, his line of argument is almost calculated to deter working-class families whose children want to take the opportunities open to them through education. His radical-reactionary line serves only to obscure the impact of Conservative education cuts – both in undermining the chances for working-class children and in threatening the educational aspirations of middle-class families. In thousands of middle-class homes this summer there is a fear of being denied the higher education which four years ago was easily available.

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