The View from Moscow

Boris Kagarlitsky

Surprising though it may be to the British public, Mrs Thatcher is one of the most popular Western politicians in the Soviet Union, especially among the apparatchiki. It follows that the British Prime Minister is often a central figure in discussions among people on the left of Soviet public opinion. The experience of ten years of Conservative radicalism in Britain is too important historically to be ignored. The reasons usually given, in Moscow and elsewhere, to explain Thatcher’s success – namely, political will, strong ideological motivation, capacity for hard work, skilful utilisation of the ‘Falklands factor’ – will not help us to understand the real significance of the political drama which has been played out in Britain. Will-power, consistency and ideological motivation are certainly necessary for success in politics. But are they sufficient?

No political leader can be understood in isolation from his or her opponents. For Kenneth Harris,[*] unfortunately, the Social Democrat and Labour leaders have only walkon parts in the drama, and frequently, as in the case of Scargill and Livingstone, are presented as caricatures, deserving mention only on the list of victories scored by the Prime Minister. Yet, in my view, Thatcher’s success has been brought about, above all, by the failure of the Left.

During the post-war decades ‘the British model’ was a reformist model. Under Attlee’s leadership, the Left carried out a series of changes which enabled the country to adapt to altered conditions in the world – Britain’s loss of her position as the principal empire, the conversion of science into a productive force, the struggle between the two systems, and so on. Later, when the reformist potential of the original plan was exhausted, a new consensus appeared. The social-democrats were replaced by the conservatives, who managed the system with competence while preserving the shape in which they had received it from the reformers’ hands. When a social need for fresh changes became evident, the common sense of the free British electorate brought about a change of government and the social-democrats came back into power with another ‘package’ of reforms. This, at any rate, was how the ‘British model’ was perceived at the other end of Europe down to the mid-Sixties.

The trouble was that the Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan didn’t introduce any substantial reforms. The original set of reforms, which had enabled the country to endure more or less painlessly the loss of its role as a leading world power, was already proving to be inadequate if Britain was to compete on equal terms with the new economic powers, Japan and West Germany. The Labour leaders realised this, but their loudly proclaimed slogans about technological renewal, modernisation and growth remained so much rhetoric. Here it was a question not just of a lack of political will but also, and above all, of the lack of a strategy.

Responsibility for the decline of the Labour Party lies with its left wing. On the one hand, even when they put forward serious proposals for reform, the leaders of the left wing of the Labour Party showed themselves unable to make their own government implement policies which it had itself proclaimed. On the other, a set of radical proposals often took the place of a thought-out strategy where the Left was concerned. Unable to understand the new and complex requirements of their own day, the Left stayed put, so to speak, with their faces turned backward, towards the brilliant, heroic age of Attlee, which they dreamt of bringing back. While the Socialists were becoming more and more conservative and irresolute, the Conservatives were becoming more and more revolutionary. The Callaghan Administration, like any conservatively-traditionalist administration, was utterly unable to grasp the scale of the changes that were needed and the importance of the dangers that were drawing near. Nature abhors a vacuum. The failure of reform from the left, in a society painfully in need of restructuring, put reform from the right on the agenda.

Ideologically speaking, it was easier for the Tories to make the ideological changes in that it was not they who had defined the shape of post-war British society, and they felt no class allegiance to those of its institutions which were in crying need of reorganisation. They bore no reponsibility for the past. Or to put it differently, they could draw their inspiration, not from yesterday, but from the day before yesterday, which commits nobody to anything: Queen Victoria and ‘the glorious 19th century’ were already mere cultural symbols.

Decentralisation, the fight against inflation, the reconstruction of the economy, the turn towards Europe which would allow use to be made of the possibilities of the new polycentrism that was replacing the old struggle between two systems and, finally, overcoming the unprofitability of the public sector economy – all these were things that had to be taken on in one way or another. The only trouble was that Labour, unable to find solutions that would satisfy everyone, preferred to postpone indefinitely the implementation of serious reforms. Thatcher, on the other hand, heeded her own counsel, and reformed Britain in capitalist fashion, consistently sacrificing the interests of ‘the other class’ and compelling it to pay all the costs of modernisation.

Was there an alternative? It is perfectly clear – and the experience of the Conservatives themselves confirms this – that companies in the public sector could have been made profitable without privatisation: that an extensive nationwide programme of vocational retraining could have helped to prevent the unemployment that resulted from the restructuring of industry; that instead of selling shares to the workers on the free market it would have been possible to democratise decision-making in state-owned enterprises and ensure the participation of the workers in their management. But for as long as the British Left does not formulate a unified strategy, advice from abroad will remain pointless.

The old ‘British model’ presupposed the restoration of consensus on a new level after a period of reform. What is most striking about Thatcherism has been its inability, at least so far, to achieve that result. If there is an ultimate criterion of success in politics, it is probably the transformation of the values of one particular party into the values of the society as a whole. This happened with the principles of liberal democracy in the 19th century and with the idea of the Welfare State in the Fifties. Thatcherism remains, as it was at the start, a class-party ideology. In this lies one of the reasons for its strength, and its potential weakness.

Attlee in 1951 could allow himself to lose the election, without any risk that the reforms he had introduced would be rescinded. Mrs Thatcher, however, cannot be at all sure about that, and the electors who have supported Thatcherism cannot give their support to any other party in the hope that it will deliver Thatcherism without Thatcher. Looked at in this way, the results of the Iron Lady’s ten-year rule seem very much less impressive and very much less secure than those of Attlee’s years.

It was not only consensus that fell victim to reform from the right. The North was cut off from the South in keeping with the best traditions of the Third World; the modern sectors of the economy are being cut off from the traditional sectors which, though crisis-stricken, have not disappeared; and the rise in the standard of living of a considerable part of the population has been accompanied by the growing discontent of those whom Thatcher’s reforms have thrown overboard. The Government can hardly count on establishing a new consensus without resolving these contradictions, but to do so would require Thatcher to be untrue to herself, to make a U-turn and put an end to Thatcherism.

In a paradoxical way, it is precisely this reform from the right which by demolishing the principles of ‘the good old British model’ has made at least theoretically possible, for the first time in many years, a revolutionary policy from the Left. On one condition, however. The Socialists must understand that revolutionary action at the end of the 20th century will differ markedly from the traditional historical models from which radicals all over the world have drawn their inspiration. If a revolution takes place in Britain, its primary task, its watchword, will be not destruction, as it has been in all past revolutions, but the restoration of consensus and the country’s unity.

So long as it remains merely the party which expresses the interests of those sections which have been thrown overboard by Thatcherism, Labour can hardly achieve such a task: but equally, it will not be helped by correcting its election programme in an endeavour to create an image of moderation and respectability, whatever the cost. Radical decisions alone can provide the alternative to Thatcherism, but these must, at the same time, be decisions that take strict account of the social interests of all those groups of working people who have actually improved their situation thanks to Thatcherite reform and do not want to lose what they have gained. It will be necessary to bring about the economic revival of the North without halting the development of the South, to combat unemployment without giving a spur to inflation, to expand the public sector without letting it become bureaucratised. In short, what is needed is a radical strategy that addresses in a new way the problems presented by the Thatcher era. So long as the British Left has no such strategy, Mrs Thatcher will be able to remain calmly in her study in Downing Street. If the men and women of the Left do finally emerge from their protracted crisis, they may have Margaret Thatcher to thank for having set new prospects before them.

[*] Thatcher by Kenneth Harris. Weidenfeld, 248 pp., £12.95, 13 June 1988, 0 297 79146 X.