Nanny knows best

Michael Stewart

  • Kinnock by Michael Leapman
    Unwin Hyman, 217 pp, £11.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 04 440006 3
  • The Thatcher Years: A Decade of Revolution in British Politics by John Cole
    BBC, 216 pp, £12.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 563 20572 5
  • Thatcherism and British Politics: The End of Consensus? by Dennis Kavanagh
    Oxford, 334 pp, £22.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 19 827522 6
  • The New Right: The Counter-Revolution in Political, Social and Economic Thought by David Green
    Wheatsheaf, 238 pp, £22.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 7450 0127 0

Let us begin with Kinnock, in order, so to speak, to get him out of the way. If one’s view is that Neil Kinnock is a good man in a position made impossible by historical developments, one will not find much in either Michael Leapman’s sympathetic and readable portrait, or John Cole’s lively and good-humoured canter over the events of the last decade, to change one’s mind.

The nature of the Labour Party’s – and Kinnock’s – problem was vividly illustrated by what happened when James Callaghan resigned the leadership late in 1980. At that point the new machinery for electing the leader – designed to outweigh the traditionally right-wing bias of the Parliamentary Labour Party – had not yet been established, and the election was decided by MPs alone. They voted 139 for Michael Foot, 129 for Denis Healey. This, to put it mildly, was asking for trouble: and the 1983 election duly delivered it. Few people can doubt that Mrs Thatcher would have faced a far more formidable foe in Healey, and it is not absurd to imagine that the election result might have been different. But the hypothesis is unreal, for if Healey had been elected leader by MPs, the Party would have been hopelessly split; there might even have been what John Cole calls ‘the two Popes problem’, with a different leader elected by the new electoral college. In the aftermath of the 1979 electoral defeat only somebody with impeccable left-wing credentials, committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament, could hope to impose even a semblance of unity on the Labour Party. Yet such a person would find it very difficult to win a general election. (It is the same dilemma that sometimes arises in American Presidential politics: some hopefuls are regarded by commentators as nominable by their parties, but not electable; others are judged to be electable, but not nominable.)

The situation recurred, in spades, after the 1983 election disaster. That Kinnock is not electable has yet, of course, to be demonstrated: but it is clear that nobody else would have been acceptable as party leader. He got 71 per cent of the votes in the new electoral college; the runner-up – Roy Hattersley – got 19 per cent. Healey did not even bother to stand.

Michael Leapman does not duck the fact that Kinnock has made some mistakes and had some failures. In the 1984-85 miners’ strike, for example, he got the worst of both worlds. Many of his constituents are miners, and his own roots are deep in the valleys of South Wales. His emotional attachment to the miners and their cause inhibited him for far too long from denouncing the illegitimacy of the strike and condemning the violence which Scargill was condoning and encouraging. But the fact that this brought him so much obloquy from moderate opinion did not prevent him from coming under heavy fire from the hard left of his own party as well. This was because Kinnock’s distrust of Scargill and his destructive philosophy – ‘the Labour movement’s nearest equivalent of a First World War general’ he had presciently called him in 1983 – made him refuse to even visit a picket line until the strike was almost over. Another setback was the failure to do the spadework necessary to ensure enough votes at the 1984 Annual Conference for his proposal that all party members, and not just the activists, should be entitled to vote in the selection and reselection of Parliamentary candidates – with the consequence that the next Parliament, particularly if Labour does relatively well, will contain a quite disproportionate number of representatives of the hard left. And – something Leapman perhaps passes over too lightly – his failure in the Westland debate in January 1986 to knock the Prime Minister off an exceedingly precarious perch must have been a source of bitter regret to Kinnock himself.

There have, on the other hand, been some substantial successes. The ‘Welsh windbag’ label, though containing a large grain of truth, is by no means the whole truth. Kinnock has much improved the Party’s policy-making apparatus, streamlined its campaign machine, and made a stab at dragging its image into the second half of the 20th century (hence the red rose in place of the red flag). He worked behind the scenes to deliver a stunning rebuff to that section of Norman Tebbit’s 1984 Trade Union Act which required unions to hold a secret ballot of their members on whether they should continue to raise a political levy for the Labour Party: every single union with a political fund decided to maintain it, and two others decided to start one. He succeeded, after countless hours of committee infighting, in expelling eight leading Liverpool members of the Militant Tendency from the Party. On the very delicate matter of the establishment of black sections within the Party he has taken a firm and principled stand, refusing to countenance this form of racism any more than any other form of racism. More generally, on a whole series of articles of left-wing faith – nationalisation, council-house sales – he has done his best to educate his party in the realities of contemporary politics. To Kinnock, the Labour Party must remain preeminently the champion of the underdog, but if it is to win an election its appeal must be much wider than that. The Party must win support from ‘the home owner as well as the homeless’, he said in a major speech in 1983, ‘the stable family as well as the single parent, the confidently employed as well as the unemployed, the majority as well as the minorities’.

But it is all, surely, in vain. A Labour government with an overall majority looks impossible, and even a minority Labour government, supported by the Alliance, is difficult to envisage. As Leapman says, part of the trouble is that Kinnock has had to spend too much time and energy fighting off the hard left, and part of the trouble is the overwhelmingly anti-Labour bias of the national press. But the fundamental problem is the relentless and seemingly irrevocable erosion of the Labour Party’s traditional base. The number of manual workers has been shrinking. The skilled working class has come to identify itself with the values so successfully appropriated by Mrs Thatcher, of a house-owning, share-owning, consumerist society. The concerned members of the professional classes, fed up with the antics of the hard left, have deserted to the SDP. What remains is well under a third of the electorate, and that is not enough.

It is, of course, much too soon to write Kinnock out of the script for good. He is a young man – at 45, four years younger even than David Owen and David Steel; and the electoral college system, with its 40 per cent trade-union weighting, makes him reasonably invulnerable to coups from left or right. As long as he wants to go on leading the Labour Party – and politics, together with his family, has always been his life – he can almost certainly do so. Whether, in the event of another Conservative victory, probably followed by both a new bout of intra-party warfare and a new set of defections to the Alliance, that would be worthwhile is a question which it looks only too likely that Kinnock will eventually be called upon to answer.

And so we come to Mrs Thatcher, a central figure in the three other books under review, particularly in Dennis Kavanagh’s careful and well-researched study of the causes and consequences of the breakdown of the post-war political consensus. Mrs Thatcher took office as a ‘political mobiliser’, not a ‘political conciliator’; a warrior, not a healer. To her, the mixed economy, guaranteed full employment, the welfare state, high public expenditure, the attempts to solve the nation’s problems by negotiation and compromise, were all anathema. They were part of the problem, not part of the solution. What Britain needed was the unleashing of market forces, the creation of an ‘enterprise culture’, big reductions in public expenditure and in direct taxation, a cutback in the role of the state, more individual responsibility and self-reliance – in short, as she liked to put it, a return to ‘Victorian values’.

The intellectual origins of all this go back a long way: David Green starts with a brief conducted tour of Locke, Hume and Adam Smith. Of more immediate interest are the writings of Hayek, Milton Friedman, and the Virginia public choice school, and the work of a whole raft of contemporary research institutes and think tanks – the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Social Affairs Unit, the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, and others. The contributions of these writers and organisations are discussed dispassionately by Kavanagh, and with uncritical enthusiasm by Green. Green’s exposition, indeed, although clear, readable and perceptive, is so unbalanced that it seriously reduces the value of his book. He does not seem to have noticed that Friedman’s work on monetary theory has come under withering fire at the academic and technical level, and been explicitly abandoned as the basis of policy-making by even the present Chancellor of the Exchequer as long ago as October 1985. He shows no awareness of the criticisms that have long been levelled at Hayek’s work (most recently by Roy Hattersley in his book Choose freedom); and the heretical thought does not seem to have struck him that part of the reason for the high esteem in which Hayek’s writings are held in certain quarters is the powerful justification they appear to provide for a highly unequal distribution of income and wealth. Green suffers, moreover, from an ailment common among members and supporters of the New Right: the belief that when the state withdraws from some field of economic activity, it is replaced by market forces, competition and Adam Smith’s invisible hand, allocating resources in an optimal way and leading to the best of all possible worlds. What is much more likely – indeed familiar – in modern conditions is that state power is simply replaced by less accountable and more irresponsible agglomerations of private power. Multinational corporations and international banks might not exist, for all the mention they get in this book; nor might the financial scandals which have erupted in London and New York in the wake of the 1979-80 shift to the right in Britain and the US.

Despite his enthusiasm for the ideas which underlie Mrs Thatcher’s policies, Green is disillusioned with what has actually happened. This disillusion does not stem from those aspects of the record which exercise most of Mrs Thatcher’s critics: three million unemployed, slow economic growth, deepening divisions between North and South and rich and poor, an eroded manufacturing base, inadequate research, education and training, and potentially intractable balance of payments difficulties. In Green’s case, it stems from the Government’s failure to implement the New Right’s agenda on anything like an adequate scale. Rents have not been decontrolled. Education vouchers have not been introduced, nor have student loans. Social security benefits have not been de-indexed. The National Health Service has not been dismantled: indeed there has not even been a move towards requiring people to take out a minimum of private health insurance. It is all very shocking, and illustrates ‘the political faintheartedness of the Thatcher government’. The Reagan Administration in America has not done much better. ‘The most fundamental defects of collectivism,’ Green concludes severely, ‘have been barely touched by governments anywhere.’ It must be exceedingly discouraging. If six years of Ronald Reagan, and eight years of Margaret Thatcher, cannot do the trick, what on earth can?

It would be nice to think that the Thatcher Government’s refusal to go all the way with the Greens of this world was an example of the traditional British virtues of fair play, common sense, compromise. Of course it was nothing of the kind. Beyond a certain point, the New Right’s agenda threatened to hit the pockets of Mrs Thatcher’s middle-class supporters – who still account for the bulk of the Tory vote. Cutting the top rates of income tax, abolishing the investment income surcharge, reducing capital taxes and eliminating exchange controls – that was all fine: how wise the New Right was in insisting on the importance of these things. But the logic of New Right economics also required the elimination of such distortions to market forces as the tax relief on mortgage interest, and on lump-sum private pension payments, and that was a very different story. So was the attempt to increase the cost to parents of university student fees. One or two relatively unimportant groups were sacrificed to free market principles, for the sake of form: solicitors had their monopoly of conveyancing removed, and opticians their monopoly of the sale of spectacles. But where it really counted, economic theory gave way, as always, to political expediency.

This does not mean that a third Thatcher government would be content with the status quo. There would be more privatisations, more encouragement for personal equity plans, more efforts to loosen local councils’ grip on their housing stock, more steps to make life difficult for the unions. There would be more reductions in direct taxation – though probably financed by increases in indirect taxes rather than cuts in public expenditure. But all this would be cosmetic, rather than a genuine drive in the direction of the goals of the New Right. It would worsen the distribution of income, but pose little danger to the privileges of the better-off who benefit from the present tax and public expenditure system. The radicals, in New Right terms, would lose out to the consolidators.

Thus the threat of another four years of Thatcherism does not lie principally in the possibility of the nation returning to some kind of 19th-century free market capitalist jungle. It lies in something else. At the beginning of this book Green draws a crucial distinction between ‘liberalism’, with its belief in leaving everything to market forces and minimising the role of the state, and ‘conservatism’, with its faith in ‘authority, allegiance and tradition’, and its insistence on strong central government. It is liberalism, in this sense, to which the New Right subscribes: and thus conservatism, according to Green, lies outside the scope of his book. Much of the reason for his disillusionment with Thatcherism lies in its strong ‘conservative’ content.

Only to a minimal extent is this a question of Mrs Thatcher’s notorious distinction between wets and dries: Conservative wets may be in favour of strong central government, but their main concern is with realising their vision of one nation, and with the obligation – albeit paternalistic – of the upper classes to protect the interests of the lower. Mrs Thatcher’s conservatism is of a rather different kind, closer to the authoritarian views identified by Dennis Kavanagh as associated with the Peterhouse School of Conservatism and the Salisbury Review. This school of thought is in favour of strengthening the Police and the Armed Forces, and the authority of employers, teachers and parents, and implacably opposed to what it sees as the licence and excesses of the permissive society.

It is this tradition which has informed so much of what Mrs Thatcher has done, and seems likely, if given the chance, to do in the future. Central government must have more authority, and within central government the authority must be wielded by Mrs Thatcher. The weeding-out of Cabinet Ministers who do not agree with her; the replacement of sceptical civil servants by those who are ‘one of us’; the decision (made by Mrs Thatcher and simply announced to the Cabinet) to buy Trident; the banning of unions at GCHQ at Cheltenham; the emasculation of local government; the replacement of the University Grants Committee by a body subservient to the Government; the censorship of the BBC; the attempts to suppress the publication of embarrassing material; the apparent condoning of innumerable illegal acts by the security and intelligence services – the list is endless. If it is not quite Stalinism, or even the elective dictatorship of which Lord Hailsham warned in 1978, it is certainly a case of Nanny knows best.

It is possible to take a fairly relaxed view about some of this. Any radical prime minister, for example, must be entitled to shake things up by taking a keen personal interest in the appointment of top civil servants: David Owen, to take the obvious case, would be just as tough-minded about this as Mrs Thatcher. And much of it may simply reflect the hyperactive and bossy character of Mrs Thatcher herself. John Cole quotes a minister whose loyalty to Mrs Thatcher was not open to doubt as saying that when she eventually passed from the political scene the Conservative Party (and presumably the nature of government) would be ‘as if she had never been’. It is a comforting thought (though some of the lady’s recent pronouncements suggest that we may have to wait rather a long time before normality is restored), but not an entirely convincing one. The wounds Mrs Thatcher’s government has inflicted on the British economy and British society will not heal easily. A generation growing up without work; the denial of adequate funding to the research, education and training on which economic survival must in the longer run depend; the enthronement of money-making as the supreme objective of life, however intrinsically worthless the activities involved; the indifference to the conditions of life of the poorest fifth of the population – this is the flip side of the record the Government holds up for the electorate to admire as it solicits its votes. An increasingly centralised and authoritarian state may be the inevitable response to the growing disorder which such a state of affairs is likely to generate.