Staying in power

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Mrs Thatcher’s Revolution: The Ending of the Socialist Era by Peter Jenkins
    Cape, 411 pp, £12.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 224 02516 3
  • De-Industrialisation and Foreign Trade by R.E. Rowthorn and J.R. Wells
    Cambridge, 422 pp, £40.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 521 26360 3

In November, Norman Tebbit spoke to the Financial Times of a ‘long revolution’, lasting perhaps twenty years. Nevertheless, he said, ‘when you’ve run through health and education, and had another hard look at the structure of welfare benefits, then it’s difficult to see where the revolution could go on from there.’ Indeed, the Conservatives could then perhaps ‘go back to being the party of saying everything is going reasonably well.’ Some of his colleagues are already saying it. Looking almost smooth – the Prime Minister, Peter Jenkins reports, has had occasion to tell him to ‘get a haircut’ – Nigel Lawson reassured his audience at the Mansion House in the autumn that revenues were high and the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement could soon be reduced to about a billion a year. Ten billion, he announced, can now be put aside for future ‘contingencies’.

There seem to be three Conservative claims. The first is that the economy has been stabilised against inflation and is now expanding. The second is that what have become unaffordable levels of spending on welfare will soon be brought down and provision pointed at those really in need. (‘The only essential,’ Tebbit said in the same conversation, ‘is that patients receive treatment even if they can’t pay for it’ – real reform, he added, will have to wait until unemployment and poverty have been brought down too.) The third is that in the course of this, we have at last been taught to stand on our own two feet. (‘It isn’t that I set out on economic policies,’ Mrs Thatcher explained in 1981, ‘I set out really to change the approach.’) In the Community Charge, the less well-off are to be brought face to face with the implications of continuing to pay for what has to be public. The Conservatives hope that, as a result, we have all been led to see that socialism is not now an option. Indeed, Tebbit said, barring a recession, he could not see Labour being returned again.

In that, he may be right. As Peter Jenkins explains, the Labour Party may only be able now to hope for about 35 per cent of the vote. There are fewer trade-unionists and council-house tenants, and the proportion of public-sector employees is not increasing. In 1983, Labour went to the country with a Manifesto that was described as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ and shot itself with Foot. Then, it got just 28 per cent. But even in 1987, with party political videos to remind the nation that Young Upwardly-Mobile Kinnocks – ‘Yuk-kies’, Jenkins can’t resist suggesting – had displaced the wild-eyed patricians, it got only 32. Neil Kinnock had said that to ‘lose badly’ was to come in with less than 250 seats. The Party won just 229. The Conservatives did shed some votes in the middle classes. But they are picking up support among the working members of the working class. Skilled workers, in particular, have now crossed over in large numbers. In 1974, Labour had 49 per cent of their votes, the Conservatives 31; in 1979, each had 45 per cent; by 1987, Labour had 34, the Conservatives 43. Notwithstanding the new blue suits and roses, it is increasingly clear, as Austin Mitchell wrote in July, that Labour is ‘being relegated to the peripheries of British life, because our structures, ethos and attitudes tie us to a world that is dying’. In Britain, as elsewhere, we may be seeing, in Jenkins’s own subtitle, ‘the ending of the socialist era’.

1979 was certainly the end of what, in recollection of 1688, Jenkins calls the ‘post-war Settlement’. As he says, this was never a ‘consensus’. The two parties disagreed for thirty years about economic policy and the nature and extent of public provision and how to finance it. They accepted only that the interwar class war had been in no one’s interest, that high unemployment was intolerable, and that health, education and social security had to be improved. But the economy could not sustain this settlement; governments could not meet the expectations it raised. The later Sixties and Seventies saw the politics of its decline. Jenkins stops short of a final judgment on the Conservatives’ revolution against it. It has so far, he suspects, been a partial revolution: a revolution largely in opinion, and in one part of the country. Nevertheless, 1979 may come to stand with 1906 and 1945 as one of the three great moments of the century.

This cannot be the case in foreign affairs. Edward Heath is the only prime minister to have questioned Churchill’s belief that Britain was where three circles met, the Atlantic, Europe and the Commonwealth, and had unique authority in the West. Margaret Thatcher has been unsophisticated in these matters and unusually atavistic. She sees that Reagan has ‘nothing between the ears, poor dear’, but has consistently given him unnecessary support. She has refused to accept the implications of Europe. And she has treated the Commonwealth as though we still ran it. At preposterous cost, the flag flies still in the Falklands, that ‘pimple’, General Haig exclaimed when shown the red dot on the map, ‘on their arse’; she will not talk constructively to the United Nations or to Alfonsin.

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