Pow-Wow

Mary Beard

  • After Thatcher by Paul Hirst
    Collins, 254 pp, £7.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 00 215169 3
  • Out of Apathy: Voices of the New Left Thirty Years On
    Verso, 172 pp, £22.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 86091 232 9
  • Essays on Politics and Literature by Bernard Crick
    Edinburgh, 259 pp, £25.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 85224 621 8

If you want to see the cutting edge of Thatcherism, go to Basingstoke. There, as we learn in Paul Hirst’s After Thatcher, the local council (careful, no doubt, with its ratepayers’ money) has allowed an insurance company to take over and manage a large part of the town’s shopping centre. In the interests of ‘safety’, this company now patrols the area with security guards, whose job it is to exclude the more ‘undesirable’ elements of the local population. How these ‘undesirables’ in prosperous Hampshire are to be recognised is not entirely clear. But bouncers in Basingstoke probably operate much the same as bouncers anywhere and pick on the usual targets: dirty clothes, ghetto-blasters, cans of lager peeping out of the pockets and all the other outward signs of nuisance or just nonconformity. If your face doesn’t fit, no entry – and, in this case, no shopping.

More is at stake here than a narrow-minded (though still perhaps understandable) desire on the part of the solid citizens of Basingstoke to get on with the serious business of spending money, untroubled by the presence of the local louts. This slightly bizarre example of ‘fortress shopping’, unthinkable ten years ago, is one clear indication of how the whole fabric of civic life has changed since Margaret Thatcher came to power. The traditional boundaries between the private and the public spheres have moved. Private or sectional interests increasingly encroach on amenities once held in common. What is now at stake is the citizens’ right to civic space.

How far then does Thatcherism represent a revolution? And how has it come about? Paul Hirst, rather surprisingly, takes a minimal view. Despite an acute eye for telling illustrations of the radical changes in Thatcher’s Britain, he sees Thatcherism as an overrated force – a mirage that has grown up in the space left vacant by a divided opposition and an unfair electoral system. For Hirst, Thatcherism exists largely by default. It is not the fundamental shift in British political life and in the aspirations of the British people that it has been made out to be.

This optimistic analysis is hard to endorse. It may well be, as Hirst reports, that popular support for the principles of the National Health Service is still ‘overwhelming’. It may well still be the case, as it was in 1987, that fewer than 5 per cent of the population would actually admit to favouring lower taxation when combined with lower public spending on health and social services. But it would be naive to suppose that those vestiges of traditional attitudes have much weight against the new discourse of politics established by Thatcher and the radical changes in our perception of the social order, epitomised by the Basingstoke shopping centre. Other analysts on the left, notably in recent years Stuart Hall and his fellow contributors to Marxism Today, have seen the writing on the wall much more clearly. Thatcher’s times are surely, as they have claimed, ‘new times’. Thatcherism, if not Thatcher herself, has established an ideological hegemony that extends far beyond the old areas of Tory support. This is not a question simply of voting patterns; most of us, after all, do not vote for her. It is a question much more of the day-to-day practice of politics – the fact that we see and talk about the world in terms that Thatcherism has defined.

Despite the wildly different analyses of the impact and causes of Thatcherism, there is now a remarkable consensus among the Left on what should be the central aim of their ‘alternative policy’. Both Paul Hirst and Stuart Hall advocate a programme of major constitutional reform. Both are founder signatories of Charter 88, a movement which has united a broad band of the Left (from Democrats to Communists) in calling for a wide-scale redefinition of the British political process. The Chartists’ ten-point plan for reform includes proportional representation, a written Bill of Rights and the abolition of a hereditary second chamber. But these specific proposals are intended not simply as desirable measures in their own right: they are part of a co-ordinated programme of reform designed to underpin a new kind of democracy – a citizens’ democracy freed from the stranglehold of Westminster and from the vested interests of the (no longer representative) party organisations.

In After Thatcher Paul Hirst outlines some of the criticisms of our current constitution that lie behind Charter 88’s proposals for reform. It is not just the obvious problem that Thatcher can govern with a vast majority of seats in Westminster when she has been elected by under 40 per cent of the electorate. The more serious issue is that Westminster-style democracy has proved itself unable to protect central civil liberties: witness, for example, the recent erosion of the right to silence, the right to join a trade union and the right to speak freely in the public interest. Underlying this apparent inadequacy of our constitution is the essentially pre-democratic character of Westminster. What the British have become accustomed to call their ‘parliamentary democracy’ is merely, as Hirst would have it, a reformulation of sovereign power. Parliament is as illimitable and uncontrollable as the monarch once was. It cannot be relied upon – any more than King John – to be an adequate guardian of the citizens’ rights and interests.

Whatever the force of these arguments, it still seems slightly unsettling to find a broad group of the Left backing proportional representation and a written Bill of Rights. Most of us, after all, were brought up to think of PR as something that Liberals (and later the Democrats) wanted – the stuff of John Cleese TV commercials, but not really a bona fide left-wing issue. Likewise a written Bill of Rights has not had a big place on the agenda of the Left. To be fair, Lord Scarman and Anthony Lester (also founder signatories of Charter 88) have long argued that such a Bill was a necessary step in the protection of civil liberties. But the recent history of the campaign for a Bill of Rights lies more, if anything, with Lord Hailsham and the Tories – who saw it as a means (among other things) of saving independent schools from abolition by Labour.

So what has changed? Why have so many on the left apparently come round to these Liberal causes? The cynic would, no doubt, allege blatant self-interest. Losing any hope that Labour can possibly win the next election on our existing electoral system, the Left have now come to see that PR is their only way of returning a Labour government to power. This cynical view would also explain the glaring omission from the list of signatories to Charter 88 of all the leading figures of the Parliamentary Labour Party itself. For they cannot yet publicly admit that the present system offers them no hope of winning in 1991, or even in the election after that. They cannot publicly admit, in other words, that they are now effectively a ‘minority party’, backing the same cause that minority parties always have backed.

Opportunism is not the only factor behind the demand for constitutional reform, however. Two things have coincided to make the nature of British government an unavoidable topic on the agenda. The first is the European dimension. As we become much more closely involved with the other member states of the EEC, the difference between our own first-past-the-post electoral system and their various forms of PR becomes ever more striking. Of course, the simple fact that our system is not the same as theirs is not, on its own, a sufficient reason for changing. But, at the very least, it should cause us to consider what good arguments there are for retaining our difference – if retain it we do. Unreflective complacency about our democratic and Parliamentary traditions (the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ syndrome) will no longer get us by. The second element, coinciding with our increasing involvement in Europe, is Thatcher herself. More than any prime minister in living memory she has exploited the deficiencies of the Westminster system. And she has used what Hirst identifies as the sovereign power of Parliament consistently to attack traditional civil liberties. So, it has become impossible to take for granted what once seemed self-evident: that Britain’s unwritten constitution acts better than any written charter to guarantee democratic rights.

Reflection on the constitution is one thing: specific proposals for change are quite another. Proportional representation is a case in point. We may well accept the criticisms of our present electoral system. But that should not lead us to imagine that some European variant of PR necessarily solves the problem. In France, for example, there is no simple first-past-the post system for national elections – nor has there been, with very few exceptions, since the Revolution. But there is no general consensus on how the electoral process should be organised. In fact, the stream of self-interested reforms (each one blatantly to the benefit of the party in power) has run at such a rate that no system of voting since 1789 has lasted for more than thirty years. Mitterrand is only the most recent player in this national sport of licensed gerrymandering: his timely introduction of proportional representation based on ‘party lists’ (instead of the previous system of ‘second ballots’) had the – presumably desired – effect of splitting the right-wing vote in the elections of 1986 and so minimising the Socialists’ defeat. The moral is – the electoral grass is not always greener on the other side of the Channel.

There is some force, too, in the old arguments of the British Left against PR. Proportional representation does not produce clear outright electoral winners in the way that the traditional Westminster system does. That is, of course, part of its appeal – given the present Parliamentary dominance of the Tory Party. But there are costs as well as benefits. Coalition government, when (as often) hastily arranged by the contending parties after the election, on terms never put before the electorate, is one of the most undemocratic features of a truly proportional electoral system. It leads to power lodged in smoke-filled rooms, not in the ballot-box. And the long-term effect of such coalition government is to slow the pace of radical left-wing change. PR can certainly rein in the Right – but only at the price of reining in the Left as well. Many would argue that that price was too high. After all, most of the major social reforms of this century have been enacted, often against widespread opposition, by strong, disproportionately-elected governments of the left. Would we have had any semblance of a Welfare State if we had had PR? Probably not.

Hirst and the other signatories of Charter 88 would no doubt claim that these old objections miss the point. Charter 88 does not envisage grafting individual elements of electoral reform onto British politics as it currently operates. The effect of such ‘tinkering’, as most Chartists probably concede, would be at best minimal, at worst disastrous. The Charter’s aim is a much bigger reform of the fundamental principles of British political life – within which such things as PR, a Bill of Rights and a reformed second chamber would take a logical place. For Paul Hirst this new democracy would be decentred and pluralistic. It would not just incorporate the regional devolution advocated in Charter 88, but would also allow all kinds of different interest groups (from Greenpeace to the CBI) a recognised role in setting the political agenda. For others, we may guess, the vision of a new constitution is rather different. Why is it that women made up almost a third of the original signatories of Charter 88? Presumably for them it is only a new kind of democracy that can offer a new deal for women in British political life. Charter 88 has a necessarily feminist dimension. Although Paul Hirst has almost nothing to say on this aspect, the Charter is part of the history of women’s involvement in British political life – an involvement that is also discussed, directly or indirectly, in Out of Apathy and Bernard Crick’s Essays.

Westminster-style politics belongs to men. Anthony Barnett has well described it as the politics of ‘clubland’, and ‘clubland’ by definition excludes women. It is not just a matter of changing the hours of House of Commons sittings, or altering selection procedures at constituency level – although both of those changes would no doubt help a little. The underlying point is that (Thatcher notwithstanding) the British political agenda, the political hierarchy and the rhetoric of political debate have conspired, apparently irremediably, to marginalise women, as they have marginalised so-called ‘women’s issues’.

This is not just a failing of Conservative Parliamentary politics, however. The radical Left has traditionally served women’s interests little better. In fact, a recurrent theme in Out of Apathy, a slightly self-regarding collection of essays about the New Left of the Fifties, is the sense of wonderment, tinged with guilt, that women should have been so under-represented in the movement. Stuart Hall talks with disarming frankness about the ‘almost totally hidden question of gender’ of his New Left (pre-Charter 88) days. And he admits that the sexual division of labour in the movement left the men free to write, talk and reason, while the women got on with the altogether less glamorous task of ‘keeping the whole enterprise going’. Some of those women do, in fact, speak in this volume. Mostly they stop short of blaming the men. Like Sheila Benson, who as a single parent obviously went to heroic lengths to undertake the job of (predictably enough) secretary to a London New Left Club, they seem sadly resigned. ‘We were all prisoners of history,’ she writes; both women and men were trapped ‘within a patriarchal structure of power’.

Feminism has, of course, made some difference to the practice of the Left since the Fifties. It has probably not made as much difference as we would like to imagine. But, all the same, it is difficult now to recapture the almost complete sense of maleness that once marked even the most radical politics. The contributors to Out of Apathy are, understandably, too concerned to situate and explain the gender bias of the New Left to give us much sense of what it felt like to be part of that world. Not so Bernard Crick. His collection of Essays on Politics and Literature includes some acute pieces of comment – particularly a sharp deconstruction of the Observer (vintage 1985). But it is precisely the unreflective quality of one essay, ‘My LSE’ (reprinted from an anthology of the same name), that makes it so memorable. Here we find that now elusive sense of maleness vividly and unselfconsciously paraded. London University is put before our eyes entirely populated by men, and even the metaphors of emotion, affection and political engagement are cast in terms that are hard for women to decode. Describing one particularly impressive undergraduate tutorial (with Alfred Stonier of University College), Crick ends his account with the phrase: ‘Both our pipes went out.’ Maybe they did. But nothing could exclude women more than such a casual reference to the male pow-wow. And it is as a male pow-wow (occasionally, no doubt, punctuated by the spontaneous extinction of pipes?) that we must imagine much of left-wing political ‘action’ of the Fifties and before.

So what is the aim of the women who have signed Charter 88? What is it that the Charter can offer that has not been offered by earlier left-wing movements (even with the addition of feminism)? First there is the consequence of PR. It is clear from the Continental European experience that some form of proportional system increases women’s chances of entering politics. Even in Switzerland (a country whose commitment to women’s rights is well-known to be even weaker than our own), women make up over 10 per cent of the legislature – twice the proportion in the House of Commons. The reason is that PR (particularly a ‘closed party list’ system) gives the individual voter much less freedom to exercise his prejudices, by choosing – consciously or unconsciously – not to vote for the female candidates. And within large multi-member constituencies, women escape the trap constantly set for them in Britain of only getting selected for completely unwinnable seats. But, again, such a specific reform is only a small part of the attraction. Women sign Charter 88 because it appears to be posing afresh the fundamental questions: what is politics about? Who is to be involved? And how? This is not a matter of simply allowing women (in the old patronising way) a slightly greater slice of the political cake. It is involving women and men in a new set of discussions about what the ingredients of politics should be.

In the end, the pressing question still remains, however, what does all this fine talk about constitutional reform and women’s involvement in political life do for the louts of Basingstoke? What does it do, for that matter, for the plight of Britain’s manufacturing industry, cogently analysed by Paul Hirst in the second half of his book? The programme of Charter 88 will only help if it can actually be converted into practical politics. So can it? It might be nice to think so – but equally it would be crashingly naive to be optimistic. It is easy enough to get consensus across a staggeringly wide group of the Left, if you talk in general terms about a ‘fair electoral system of proportional representation’ and a ‘Bill of Rights’. But what precise model of PR are we talking about? And what is to be in this Bill of Rights? Is it going to include the right to a minimum wage? Or a ‘woman’s right to choose’? Can we really believe that Julia Neuberger (another founder signatory) has the same thing in mind as Stuart Hall? Pluralism may be a good thing (as Hirst himself argues): but here ‘pluralism’ is just papering over the cracks.

Besides, the next election is bound to be fought and won on the old electoral system. Thatcher is certainly not going to introduce PR or any of the other things demanded by the Chartists. There is a real risk that the Charter’s campaign to change the agenda of politics will actually hinder the Labour Party’s chances of winning in 1991 – by deflecting attention to the theoretical issues of constitutional reform. If that is the case, then the Chartists will turn out (like the SDP before them) to have been a dangerous liability for the Left. Hirst’s book was written, it is clear, before the collapse of the centre parties in the European elections and before Labour’s recent sustained lead in the opinion polls. At the time of his writing, coalition and PR probably did seem the only option. Now things are rather different. If the Left can ensure that the Labour Party wins the next election, talk of the constitution (not, unfortunately, a gripping issue for the average voter – still less for those suffering most under Thatcher) can come later.

The louts of Basingstoke would, I suspect, urge the ‘thinkers’ of the Left to stop playing around, and to do what they can to ensure a Tory defeat at the next election – unless, of course, by another of those Thatcher ‘miracles’, those louts vote Tory themselves.