- 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.
Vol. 11 No. 22 · 23 November 1989
Apart from the political and moral objections that could be made to it, Mary Beard’s review of Paul Hirst’s After Thatcher (LRB, 26 October) contains some very questionable assertions. Dr Beard speculates that under a system of proportional representation Britain would never have had ‘any semblance of the Welfare State’. This is a very peculiar claim, not only because of the existence of welfare states in all Western European countries regardless of electoral system (and also the weakness of the welfare systems of the two countries that follow the British electoral system – the USA and South Africa), but also because the historical evidence suggests otherwise.
The Welfare State in Britain was largely the creation of two governments, the Liberal Government elected in 1906 and the Labour Government elected in 1945. In 1906 the Liberals won 49 per cent of the vote: admittedly not an absolute majority, but we can assume that their welfare legislation would have been safe, since it was supported by the Labour Party, who had received 6 per cent. In 1945 Labour got 48 per cent. The Liberals, whose main electoral asset was William Beveridge himself, won 9 per cent. Even without Liberal support, Labour’s programme would still have passed the House of Commons, since Labour would have been able to rely on the smaller Left parties, such as Common Wealth and the Communists, who had the support of 2 per cent of the voters.
Dr Beard is also wrong about how proportional systems work. It is not true, for example, that PR would prevent Dr Beard from supporting a woman candidate. Even list systems, such as the Italian, can allow for votes for individual candidates on the party list. Under the system supported by many British electoral reformers – namely, the single transferable vote – Dr Beard would be far better placed to support women candidates than she is now. First, because of multi-member constituencies, she would have a much better chance of having a woman to vote for, especially a woman of her own party. Secondly, she would be able to express a preference for other parties’ female candidates over their male candidates, and could even, if she wanted to, prefer women from other parties to men from her own party.
One last point. Dr Beard implies that democratic reform must always take second place to economic redistribution. Does she really believe this? One should note that women in Britain have generally been more likely to vote Conservative than men. Are we to conclude that Dr Beard opposes women’s suffrage?
Clare College, Cambridge
Mary Beard writes: Maybe it is predictable that as an opponent of Proportional Representation I should be unmoved by percentages. But I am surprised at David Howarth’s certainty in assuring a retrospective safe passage to social reforms under a proportional system. Practical coalitions do not follow simply from the figures – as the experience of many recent European governments shows. Besides, who could say that the Labour Party in 1945 would still have achieved its 48 per cent if the voting had been conducted under a proportional system? Is it not partly the point of electoral reform that it changes voting habits and allegiances as well as the system of counting? David Howarth is, of course, correct in stating that some list systems (‘open lists’) allow the individual voter considerable choice of candidate within the overall party slate, or even across slates. But this is not the case with the so-called ‘closed-list’ system (such as Norway’s), where the voter must opt for a party and all its candidates en bloc. It is in fact this system that seems to have most effectivley advanced the political careers of women. Why? Because (as I said in my review) the ‘closed list’ prevents voters from following their prejudices and not voting for the female candidates on the list. To advocate PR means more than simply offering the voter greater freedom to vote for a woman candidate. It raises the far more uncomfortable question of how far a democratic voting system should erode the ‘freedom’ not to vote for a woman – or anyone else, for that matter.
Vol. 11 No. 23 · 7 December 1989
I found Mary Beard’s review of Paul Hirst, Bernard Crick et al (LRB, 26 October) frustrating. It hedged about the subject, made some interesting points but missed some significant connections. Start with the early Sixties New Left. A revolt against Stalinism and the stultifying Fabianism of the Fifties Labour Party, it was a movement which went much further than Labour but failed to organise itself and was in the end subsumed by Harold Wilson and the promise of 1964. Paul Hirst descends from the successor to that New Left, a New Left led by Perry Anderson which saw the old New Left as hopelessly untheoretical and imported large chunks of European Marxist theory to solve the problem. The key is the failure to organise independently of both Stalinism and Fabianism. So, twenty years on much of both Old and New Lefts would probably agree with Mary Beard’s support for a philosophy based on ‘New Times’ and Charter 88.
In the abstract, there is nothing too terrible about the premises of Charter 88. Except that there is all-pervading pessimism about the possibilities of real change in society. Of course since ‘New Times’ and the Charter were conceived we have had Hungary, East Germany, another Stock Exchange crash, Labour’s victories in the European Elections, the release of the Guildford Four and victories for rail and local government workers. Quite a list. As Marx said, and as our potential Chartists might have noted, ‘all that is solid melts into air.’ The world is still there to be changed even if some sections of the erstwhile Left have other ideas.
In the meantime history is busy repeating itself as farce. The New Left which started as anti-Stalinist has recently signed a publishing deal with the Moscow State Publishing House.
Vol. 12 No. 2 · 25 January 1990
I was puzzled to see Keith Flett (Letters, 7 December 1989) ascribe to Charter 88 – and Mary Beard – an ‘all-pervading pessimism about the possibilities of real change’. Consider its demands: PR, a Bill of Rights, a democratised second chamber; consider its achievement of, as Beard wrote, ‘involving women and men in a new set of discussions about what the ingredients of politics should be’. How ‘real’ do changes have to be? Granted, pessimism sets in when we survey the political landscape which Charter 88 will have to traverse. Here Flett is acute, noting the Left’s historic ‘failure to organise independently of Stalinism and Fabianism’. The Left’s ability to achieve this independence will be crucial to the success of Charter 88’s radical democratic project, which is unfamiliar territory to Fabians and anathema to Stalinists (and most Leninists). I must, however, dissent from Flett’s apparent belief that organising independently of (etc) is a simple matter of paying adequate attention to one’s Marx, and that it has never yet been done. To criticise the legacies of Fabianism and Bolshevism from the standpoint of a commitment to both democracy and socialism, and to win significant numbers of people to that critique, is a long and difficult task. It is, however, a task which has occupied years of many people’s lives, from the first New Left on.
Keith Flett should take heart. There is much about Charter 88 which we, as democratic socialists, find immensely positive – not least the fact that a ‘campaign for real democracy’ can gain such wide support. Charter 88 is not an agenda for socialism, but that should not lead socialists to deride it as meaningless, reformist, bourgeois. The line of Marx’s which Flett quotes – ‘all that is solid melts into air’ – referred to the transformation of society by the bourgeoisie.
Socialist Society, London Wl
Vol. 12 No. 5 · 8 March 1990
Publishers are usually well-advised not to complain about reviewers, but I would like to breach this convention to vindicate not so much the two Verso books concerned as the political experience and thought which has received such cavalier treatment in your pages. Mary Beard (LRB, 26 October 1989) and R.W. Johnson (LRB, 8 February) are united in dismissing the thinking of the British New Left as of little account, reviewing, respectively, Out of Apathy: Voices of the New Left, edited by the Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group, and the posthumous collection of Raymond Williams’s essays and lectures, Resources of Hope, edited by Robin Gable. In both instances your reviewers dwell on real or supposed flaws as a device to avoid a substantial engagement either with the books they were meant to be reviewing or with the New Left politics at stake in them.
Mary Beard criticises the early New Left for its failure to anticipate feminism, and uses this – a failing noted and discussed in Out of Apathy itself – as an excuse simply to ignore any other claim that the early New Left might have on the attention of your readers. If the record was so blank why did it attract the interest of several hundred Oxford graduates and undergraduates, including many feminists, three decades later? Indeed it is fascinating to see the contemporary resonance of Raphael Samuel’s exploration of ‘the sense of classness’ or the continuing debate among philosophers of ethical and political issues first broached in the debates between Edward Thompson, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor in the late Fifties. The early New Left’s rejection of Stalinism, and critique of Labourist statism, was salutary ground-clearing, while the new approaches to culture and the mass media decisively widened the agenda of political analysis and prescription.
Even the gender-blindness of much early New Left thought can be exaggerated, since it was this milieu which produced writing by Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook), Juliet Mitchell (The Longest Revolution) and Sheila Rowbotham which helped to inspire Sixties feminism. Surely there was some link between the cultural politics of the early New Left, or the categories of Raymond Williams’s thought in The Long Revolution, and at least some of the characteristic concerns of this feminist writing?
Mary Beard had several books to review and so her skimpy treatment of Out of Apathy probably just reflects her lack of interest in that particular chapter of intellectual and political history. Less forgivable is Johnson’s unbalanced and philistine polemic, offered as an assessment of Resources of Hope, and of five other books about Williams, most of which are not even mentioned by name in this ‘review’. Johnson confesses himself puzzled by my claims for Williams’s stature and originality as a socialist thinker, and prefers to attack him for ‘wooziness’ and ‘muzziness’ and the affectations of a ‘literary gent’. According to Johnson, Williams ‘was not a major or even a very coherent theorist’, his early books ‘do not really sustain the large ideological weight later placed upon them’, and his book on Orwell is the ‘one good book’ he wrote after 1961. We are told that Williams’s work aimed simply to make his left audience feel good and has nothing of value to offer those who wish to address the issues of the Nineties. These perverse judgments are offered up with an evident zest to shock the bien pensant but with nothing by way of argument. Someone who can dismiss The Country and the City, or Modern Tragedy, or Marxism and Literature, or the book on Cobbett, so thoughtlessly does more damage to himself than to the intended target of such shallow jibes. Perhaps Johnson felt that he would be out of his depth if he engaged in real discussion of Williams as cultural theorist or critic. But he scarcely fares better when tackling his essays or his practical and political interventions.
The Resources of Hope collection contains such key texts as ‘Culture is ordinary’, ‘Communications and Community’, ‘Socialism and Ecology’ and ‘Parliament and Democracy’. Discussion of any one of these would have given Johnson something of real substance to reflect upon. The first was an early statement of Williams’s cultural position which was to include such highly practical, specific and influential works as Communications – a work which not only helped to open up the whole field of cultural studies but probably had a direct, practical impact on institutions such as the Open University and Channel Four. Thus his 1961 lecture on ‘Communications’ is attractively discursive, but not at all the woozy rambling of Johnson’s ‘literary gent’. And it concludes with proposals for a democratic, decentralised broadcasting structure which would lease facilities to independent producers.
The essays on ecology reflect a sensibility that long pre-dated the rise of Green politics and which had already achieved a major statement in the The Country and the City. If Johnson was really looking for relevance and immediacy he could have discovered it here. Likewise, the 1982 essay on Parliament is a practical political intervention which has lost none of its timeliness. Its critique of the undemocratic features of the Palace of Westminster – with its first-past-the-post electoral system, its secrecy and hierarchy – is accompanied by the sort of highly specific proposals which have inspired Charter 88: notably a commitment to citizen’s rights, proportional representation and executive accountability. It is not Williams who is ‘vacuous’ but your reviewer if he fails to see the effort to spell out alternatives in these essays or in Towards 2000.
The Verso collection included some informal talks or occasional articles together with ‘classic’ essays of the sort that I have referred to. This editorial decision, which I still think justified, allows Johnson to concentrate such rational argument as he can muster on a couple of lesser pieces which are treated as if they somehow sum up Williams’s work. The article entitled ‘Mining the meaning’ was commissioned as a critique of the ‘keywords’ used by the Coal Board, Government and press to justify the pit closure programme as well as Government conduct of the dispute. It was not meant to be a general article on the miners’ strike or an assessment of NUM strategy. Nevertheless Williams did append a concluding paragraph indicating his reservations concerning NUM ‘tactics, timing and personalities’. Had he been asked for an article on the strike as such, these reservations would have been spelt out in a more direct and detailed manner. Even so, they would not have coincided with Johnson’s own gloss to the effect that the strike was the last kick of an old order, and that Scargill was an autocrat who enjoyed no democratic sanction from his members. Scargill, unlike MacGregor, had been elected to the post he held – elected by a huge majority after a campaign in which he toured the coalfields arguing that massive closures were imminent and would have to be met by strike action. Nevertheless, I believe the failure of the NUM executive to hold a ballot on the strike to have been a bad mistake.
Johnson supposes that a misplaced loyalty to his friends in the NUM led Williams to mute his criticisms. Yet his friends among the South Wales NUM were precisely those within the union who had argued for a ballot and against the use of Yorkshire pickets in Nottinghamshire. As it happens, this position was spelt out – while the strike was still in progress – by Williams’s friend Kim Howells (of the South Wales NUM) in the Verso collection Digging deeper. But when Howells, or for that matter Anthony Barnett or myself, argued for a ballot – as we did in the very pages where Williams was also writing – we did so from the perspective of wishing to see the strike succeed. For reasons clearly spelt out by Williams, we believed that the resistance of the mining communities had exemplary qualities – and that a humane economic policy would have worked with rather than against the people of the coalfields.
Johnson’s second lengthy admonition concerns the supposed vagueness in Williams’s advocacy of the need to cultivate a new sense of the ‘general interest’. Johnson thinks there was not enough ferocity in Williams’s critique of ‘militant particularism’. He finds this latter notion altogether too mild, and would have preferred to see Williams launch a broadside against the Unions and Labour Movement as neanderthal formations richly deserving any drubbing that they received from the likes of MacGregor or Murdoch (no mention in Johnson’s discussion of the print workers of the need for strike ballots, since those ballots were held and resoundingly supported strike action).
In these passages R.W. Johnson sounds uncomfortably like his namesake Paul, evoking a distempered animus against the unions. While Williams warned of the dangers of ‘militant particularism’, he was also aware that British trade unions were capable, as in 1975-8, of incredible and even ill-advised restraint, allowing their members’ living conditions to deteriorate in the name of a quite nebulous ‘social contract’. And while the print workers were capable of an ugly egoism and exclusivity, Johnson’s claim that they are to blame for the power of the media empires fails to explain how the latter flourish even more when unions are weak. Johnson’s polemical trick is to construe Williams as an accomplice of sectionalist practice which he never condoned and which he criticised in the fashion he thought most effective.
Williams did advocate a different unionism, but he also believed in the capacity of ‘the movement’ to learn from its experience. This belief intensely annoys Johnson, for whom it is another sign of vacuousness and the Welsh or Nonconformist penchant for lugubrious uplift. Yet, interestingly, Williams’s patient pleas for a new unionism no longer seem so unrealistic – the tactics of the Ambulancemen’s strike are certainly much closer to those he believed were necessary. And whatever the failings of Brenda Dean’s SOGAT I don’t think that any fair-minded critic would include bloody-minded machismo amongst them.
Williams’s critique of ‘militant particularism’ was not directed solely at the sectionalism of trade-unionists: Resources of Hope also warns against lack of preparedness to negotiate a new ‘general interest’ in necessarily and rightly particularist social movements, such as Welsh nationalism or feminism. Similarly he argues in one of the essays that the new struggle for nuclear disarmament in the Eighties must also be a struggle for democracy, human rights and social justice. ‘To build peace, now more than ever, it is necessary to build more than peace’ – an argument taken up, in his own way, by Vaclav Havel on ‘the other side’.
Williams’s discursive style – target of such heavy sarcasms – aimed to bring out complexity, to avoid intimidation and to encourage people to interrogate their own experience. Unlike the great majority of academics, Williams was concerned to reach, and did reach, an audience of working-class activists and autodidacts. The tact and restraint with which he addressed this audience does not seem to me to have been lacking in truth-telling, unless one believes, as Johnson appears to do, that spades must always be called bloody shovels. This characteristic moderation meant that a rebuke from Williams had far more force than the ritualised political abuse we hear from Front Bench politicians – or, if I may say so, than the polemic to which Johnson has descended.
Williams did not address himself, as Johnson supposes, to trade-union leaders but to a general readership which he hoped would include Labour Movement activists and intellectuals. As a Cambridge professor, reasonably rewarded for a job he liked doing, he did not feel it right to attack the militant representations of miserably-paid dinner-ladies or refuse collectors, or moderately-paid miners or car-workers, though he did urge the necessity of linking trade-union action to a wider concern for social justice.
Johnson’s real animus is directed at Williams’s intense and reflective concern with values and with the social settings needed to sustain them. He belabours Williams for a ‘style rich in reference but largely empty of fact’. Certainly there is a ruminative and reflective quality to Williams’s prose and an absence of statistics. But there is such a thing as a moral fact: consider the import of Havel’s writings, for example, with their appeal to existential authenticity. Using the Johnson approach a year ago, Havel could well have been dismissed as a vague dreamer whose ideas lacked the necessary purchase to be politically significant.
Williams knew that his own cultural politics was only one component of the radical renewal of socialism for which he was working: he pointed to the need, for example, for a feasible economics of eco-socialism and self-management. But the example and advocacy of his own work will continue to be a source of inspiration and argument to those who try to democratise the UK state, to resist the pincer grip of government and commercialism on the broadcasting media, to reverse the philistine assault on education, or more generally to challenge the misery caused by the callous workings of capitalism in Britain and the wider world.
Verso, London W1
Vol. 12 No. 7 · 5 April 1990
In your issue of 8 March Robin Blackburn claims The Golden Notebook as a product of the milieu of the New Left. This is quite untrue unless the New Left is now retrospectively to be expanded to include ideas which in fact it was impossible to discuss with any of the people I knew, most of whom were much younger that I was, and who I thought of as intellectual socialists. The Golden Notebook was not reviewed in the New Left Review. The young woman who asked to review it and was refused complained for several hours of a long wet journey to Wales about the attitudes to women in this milieu, particularly the New Left Review.
Raymond Williams saw himself, inter alia, as a political activist. He can be so judged. I well remember an occasion in the Sixties, in the Town Hall in Cambridge, where he was the main speaker at a big meeting. He spoke in inspiring style about democracy, the people’s future, Jerusalem and all the trimmings, and ended with a rhetorical question: ‘What, then, shall we do?’ We waited in euphoric expectation for the answer and it came: ‘Vote Labour at the General Election.’ The anti-climax! All he had to offer was brilliant rhetoric. Lloyd George, Bevan, Griffiths, Williams, Kinnock – how well the Welsh beguile the English! And how we seem to love it!
Years later, in London, I joined his post-1968 enterprise – Mayday Manifesto – an exercise in injecting some new life into the then ageing New Left. I soon found out that he was being serviced by King Street (then the headquarters of the CP) and tried to warn him about that kiss of death. As an ex-CP member I knew just what was going to happen. He took no notice and I quit, but not before writing to him to underline the message that if he didn’t stand on his own two feet, his brave enterprise would be as dead as the dodo in no time. And it was.
Might he and others like him have done anything else? The answer has to be affirmative. The period 1956-68 saw the birth and decline of the New Left as a strictly parliamentary exercise and of non-violent direct action, of the genus of people’s power, in the form of the Committee of 100. Reinforced by Bertrand Russell’s name and personal example the idea went round the world, but Raymond Williams and the leaders of the New Left (with one or two honourable exceptions) passed by on the other side. The thing eventually collapsed because the circumstances of Britain have been such that non-violent direct action has never had occasion to develop into non-violent insurrection and the displacement of an existing government in the fashion that has become commonplace over the last six months in Eastern Europe. The subject was born in Britain in the Sixties, but perished in its infancy. In the USA it was different. The civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King took to non-violent direct action in historic fashion. John Rawls wrote a theory of civil disobedience, in a near-free and near-just society, into his A Theory of Justice and Murray Bookchin made post-scarcity anarchism respectable.
Raymond Williams was one of a special breed. Others are, or have been, Fenner Brockway, Stuart Hall, Eric Hobsbawm and Bruce Kent – good people who have a genius for human relations and consensus, an ability to use language beautifully to tell people what they want to hear and so send them home with their batteries charged and a song in their hearts. But everything is left exactly as it was. Eventually, politically at least, they get found out. The sad thing is that in this century we have not produced a single political thinker of commanding stature since 1945. Raymond Williams, licensed rebel and excellent teacher, was never a candidate.
Vol. 12 No. 8 · 19 April 1990
I wonder if ‘militant particularism’ (Raymond Williams’s resonant expression – LRB, 8 February) is not the deep flaw of the British character, with those most militantly particular about capital accumulation on the top.
University of Guelph, Ontario