Diary

Paul Foot

You can’t blame Thatcher for the October hurricane, but you can blame her for pretty well all the other disasters which have blighted 1987. ‘Disaster Woman’ might be an appropriate nickname for a prime minister who has for so long managed to avoid one. On the whole, she performs quite well at the scenes of the disasters. At Zeebrugge in March and at King’s Cross in November, she hurried to the scene of the tragedy and paraded her unsentimental regrets on television screens. She cannot keep this up for long. Alan Reynolds, whose only son died on the Herald of Free Enterprise, went to the service for the bereaved in Canterbury Cathedral. There was tea for everyone afterwards, but not much sympathy. Alan says he approached Mrs Thatcher and asked her about the miserable terms of compensation which were then being offered by the ferry company, Townsend Thoresen. Thatcher exploded, ‘I don’t think we really ought to be talking about money now, do you?’ and turned on her heel. Alan Reynolds, a building contractor, Tory by nature and tradition, was shocked. By contrast, incidentally, he found Neil Kinnock uncharacteristically willing to listen. Indeed, he said Kinnock brushed aside aides who wanted to take him off somewhere, and listened without interrupting for three-quarters of an hour: quite the best thing I have heard anyone say about Neil Kinnock, ever.

Thatcher hasn’t had much patience either with anyone who looks for deeper causes of the disaster and finds them in the kind of world she is so anxious to usher in. The Herald of Free Enterprise heralded a new age where safety precautions would only grudgingly be allowed to interfere with profit-making. It was the egregious Ian Sproat, in charge of shipping at the Department of Trade and Industry until (astonishingly) he lost his seat in the 1983 Election, who summed up the Government’s attitude to safety at sea with the unforgettable assurance to the House of Commons: ‘The Government are responsible for regulating the shipping industry in the interests of safety and the environment. I am continuing to look for further ways in which, consistent with safety, I can reduce such burdens ever further as part of my campaign to help the merchant fleet become more competitive.’ Sproat was followed by much more senior ministers, Norman Tebbit among them, who advised British shipowners to ‘flag out’ their ships under ‘flags of convenience’ in the outposts of the old Empire – Gibraltar. Bermuda, Hong Kong – precisely in order to avoid the ‘burdensome’ regulations, inspections and trade unions which are such a threat to competition in Britain.

Meanwhile Britain waives the rules. When the new Spirit class of ferries was launched by the heralds of free enterprise at Townsend Thoresen, there were new designs for the bow doors. Captains and seamen begged the company to instal some sort of warning system which might keep the bridge informed if the doors were not shut. The cost of such a system was a few hundred pounds. But the company contemptuously refused. And this was not a rogue company. Sir Jeffrey Sterling, chairman of P & O, Townsend’s parent company, and a close friend of the Prime Minister, was absolutely right when he told the Financial Times that ‘Townsend Thoresen was very highly regarded in the City.’ It did frightfully well there, and one reason for that was its contempt for the demands of trade-unionists and sissies in the management who thought the ferries weren’t safe. The Department of Transport backed up this attitude one hundred per cent.

There was a similar background to the King’s Cross disaster. The ‘resolute approach’ to safety in transport was well summarised by a single sentence from the That-cherite Serpell Report, published in 1983: ‘Some experiments should be carried out ... to establish the lowest levels of maintenance consistent with maintaining safety.’ On London Transport there has been an increase in passenger journeys since Serpell of over 50 per cent – and a cut in staff of nearly 20 per cent. The cuts have almost all come from ‘maintenance’ – cleaning, inspecting, guarding, and so on. The number of fires has increased. It was only a matter of time before people were killed.

In 1985, I recall, when there were some accidents on the French railway system, the President of the French Railway, the SNCF, resigned. He felt he should accept responsibility for the deaths and injuries. This old-fashioned approach is anathema in Thatcher’s Britain. When a Dover jury brought in a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’ at Zeebrugge, Sir Jeffrey Sterling told the press that the buck for the open doors stopped a long way before it got to him. Indeed, in spite of the most ferocious criticism of the ferry company of which he was chairman Sir Jeffrey did not even contemplate resigning, either as chairman of the company or, more critically, as policy adviser to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in whose department he has wielded profound influence for more than four years.

After King’s Cross the London Transport chiefs not only stuck close to their office, but took the opportunity to make it clear that the cuts in staff would continue. In Thatcher’s Britain, you need a disaster or two to prove you do not flinch from the gruelling demands of free enterprise.

‘Disaster Woman’ – yes, especially in 1987, when in the greatest disaster of all Thatcher and her crew were re-elected with what they take as a mandate to increase further the vast throng of unemployed, homeless, illiterate and ill-fed people who are rapidly becoming a majority in many of our inner cities. There were some soft-hearted people who believed that Thatcher would mellow in her third term, and attempt to heal the awful wounds she had created. In fact, she and her ministers have shown an almost sadistic enthusiasm for taking away from those that have not even that which they have. In housing, they have resurrected the fantastic notion that the abolition of rent controls will increase premises for rent (it had exactly the opposite effect last time – 1957 to 1964). In health and social security no person without substantial means has any right to either. And in education, the middle and upper working class are encouraged to ‘opt out’ by creating islands of good schools in a sea of sinks.

One of the most depressing features of the political scene is the speed with which these middle classes, so energetic and radical in the early Seventies, have been persuaded that they can buy themselves out of the mess. The obeisance to Thatcher and Thatcherism works its way down from her appointees at the top of industry, the media and the professions. In the middle classes, there is hardly a spark of defiance or resistance. They seem numbed into sycophancy. I keep harking back to the Thirties, perhaps the decade that most resembles this one, to discover if everything was as bad then as it is now. And I am surprised, as Christmas comes and the Sunday papers run their Books of the Year columns, to find that no one yet has singled out Ruth Dudley Edwards’s marvellous biography of Victor Gollancz. The book is full of wonders, but the chief impression it left on me was the dynamism and energy of the man during times which seemed altogether gloomy for someone of his radical and optimistic temperament. In 1936, soon after the Tories had been returned again to office with a huge majority, Gollancz started up the Left Book Club. Here were three socialists – Gollancz, John Strachey and Harold Laski – meeting in a restaurant and establishing a publishing venture which would, over ten years, produce and sell six million books, most of them new, and all of them aspiring to a social order where the common interest would prevail. There was at that time a terrific impetus for socialist ideas. It did not come necessarily from the Labour Party (which was led then, as it is today, by dreary right-wing types), but the idea of socialism was entirely bound up with the idea of a government committed to social change. There had never been such a government with a Parliamentary majority, and the fact that there was one immediately after the war was at least to some extent due to the enthusiasm of people like Victor Gollancz.

The times, as I say, are not altogether different. Capitalism seems to me as ugly, as exploitative, cruel and certainly as crisis-ridden as ever it was in Gollancz’s day. But the particular inspiration – that a Labour government would set it all right – has gone. Gollancz himself became dispirited quite early, and veered away from his socialist commitment into religion and a faintly distasteful moralism. But the steady paralysis and failure of Labour government since have removed any serious belief that Labour offers a real prospect of socialist change.

This seems to me to be the key both to Thatcher’s success and to the quite astonishing collapse of any sustained or committed opposition to her. While in the late Thirties there were socialists, implacably hostile to the Tory Government and all it stood for, knocking at almost every newspaper door, today the rage is everywhere for assimilation and corroboration. Journals like the New Statesman and Tribune, whose socialist reputation was born in the late Thirties, are infected on what seems to be every page by an irresistible urge to compromise: to seek ‘new formulas’ which ‘accept’ that Thatcher has brought about precisely that ‘irreversible’ change which socialists once argued should be brought about by her opponents. Thatcher’s main ally, in other words, is not her own successes, which are few enough, or her determination, which is prodigious. It is the lack of determination and therefore the lack of credibility in the opposition.

Nor is this something which can simply be laid at the door of a particular Labour leader. It is not Neil Kinnock’s fault that he is unconvincing. He is unconvincing because he represents a formula for changing society which has been proved, over sixty years more, to have failed in its central purpose. Compare Kinnock in any age to Attlee in any age, and on every conceivable count Kinnock is the more impressive. Attlee, for all the ridiculous hero-worship of history, was really a mean-minded bore, whose only political quality was cunning. He had none of Kinnock’s passion, none of his oratory, none of his charisma. But Attlee (and Wilson, in the same sort of way, with the same sort of qualities) won elections while Kinnock loses them. The difference is not in the quality of the men, but in the huge history of failure with which Kinnock – but not Attlee, and Wilson rather less – has had to wrestle.

The failure looms over every part of political life. It makes reading Hansard every week a misery. Only last week (23 November) I read Graham Allen, the new Labour member for Nottingham North, growing greatly indignant over pit closures in Notts. He was answered by Cecil Parkinson at his oily best. ‘The Hon. Gentleman talks as if only Conservative governments have presided over pit closures, but 70 per cent of all pit closures have taken place under Labour governments ... The Labour governments have a much better record as pit-closers than we have.’ The following day Mr Kinnock got very angry about nurses’ pay. He was cut down by the Prime Minister: ‘The Opposition can hardly claim to be the nurses’ friend. They cut nurses’ pay in real terms three times running, and in 1976-77 by 10 per cent. In the five years between 1974-75 and 1978-79 they cut nurses’ pay in real terms in four of those years. Under this government the pay of nurses has gone up by 30 per cent in real terms.’ Neil Kinnock is no more responsible for any of this than is Graham Allen. Neither were in government in 1974-79. But the failure of that period hangs like an albatross around them. They have no reply, and political debate degenerates all the time into the sterile ‘you-tooism’ which Mrs Thatcher has made her speciality.

We have to go back much further in our history to find some way out of the impasse. In the recently-published first volume of his diaries, Tony Benn chronicles with more honesty than most of his former colleagues the fatuous failure of the first period of Wilson government. In his introduction, he writes: ‘If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our present political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum.’ In the late 1830s, the physical-force Chartists – Feargus O’Connor, Bronterre O’Brien, George Julian Harney and their followers – were so disgusted at middle-class acquiescence with the reaction which followed the first Reform Act that they insisted, often to quite ludicrous extents, on restricting their agitation to the working class. The new movement which they led, and which flowered for a brief moment in the summer of 1839 into full revolutionary potential, trembled on the brink of a success which terrified Britain’s rulers, and held out the prospect of profound social change. The Chartists were defeated, of course, and the vote conceded piecemeal in such a way that the class with economic power never again for a moment looked like losing it. But Tony Benn has a point. ‘Disaster Woman’ deals only in disaster, and when the disasters finally become intolerable, the change will not come at the hands of just another gently-elected Labour government.