My first paid job after leaving Oxford with what we used to call a ‘good’ second (did you ever meet anyone who got a ‘bad’ second?) was as a research assistant at the London School of Economics. My duty was to seek out suitable material for inclusion in a volume of documents illustrating the development of Labour Party policy from 1900 to 1945. A major source of such material was, of course, the speeches delivered by leading Labour politicians in the House of Commons. So one of my tasks was to wade through Hansard for the entire period, looking for significant utterances which could be held either to have changed Labour Party policy or to have influenced its creation. Sitting in the LSE library with the bound volumes, I developed a subliminal ability to spot a possible candidate for the book while my mind wandered to other things. A little bell would go off in my head, and I would be jerked back from daydreams about the girl at the next desk.
Very little of the material I waded through at that time made much permanent impression. But there is one thing which did stick firmly in my mind. It was the seething passion of many Labour MPs (not to mention the one and only Communist, Willie Gallagher) when they described the misery experienced by their unemployed constituents, matched by the callousness and occasional brutality of many Tory MPs when confronted with these sufferings.
There were, it is true, some exceptions on the Conservative benches. But even these rare examples of human sympathy merely underlined the monstrousness of mass unemployment on starvation levels of relief. Somehow the spectacle of Lady Astor seeking to instruct penniless women in the art of making a nourishing soup out of hot water and a few carrots seemed even more offensive than plain indifference. Needless to say, such moments were fairly rare, since a good deal of Parliamentary business was just as bone-achingly boring as it is today. But these few shafts of illumination served to supplement my own childhood memories of Welsh miners shuffling along the gutters of well-to-do streets, singing for pennies. It was, as it turned out, a first-class training for 28 years as a journalist in the lobbies of the Palace of Westminster.
These self-indulgent memories came to mind some weeks ago when most of the newspapers were full of the libel action between Andrew Neil of the Sunday Times and Peregrine Worsthorne of the Sunday Telegraph. It came to be widely accepted that this trial represented a clash between an Old Britain personified by Mr Worsthorne and a New Britain exemplified by the man Private Eye calls ‘Brillo Pad’. The thesis behind this characterisation was that Mr Worsthorne represented a kindly, charitable, condescending variety of ‘traditional’ Conservativism such as that which existed when the Tory Party belonged exclusively to the upper classes. Mr Neil was portrayed as a typical example of the harsher variety of money-grubbing Tory who had come to the surface under Mrs Thatcher’s Poujadist regime. On the face of it, this analysis had some attraction. Perry Worsthorne does have expansively good manners, and goes to some trouble to cultivate the personal style of a Tory grandee. He does not hesitate to rebuke lesser persons, who include not only Murdoch hirelings like Mr Neil but also a group which he describes as Guardian readers, for their moral failings. Though he often praises Mrs Thatcher, there is a constant undercurrent of distaste for her personality in his signed leading articles in the Sunday Telegraph. He also believes – or professes to believe – that inequalities of wealth are a thoroughly good thing, provided that they are based on inheritance rather than vulgar hard work. In his view, it is the privileged classes which have been responsible for most of what is admirable in human society, and he occasionally seems to imply that people like Mr Neil (not to mention Mrs Thatcher’s Manchester School liberalism) threaten the quality of life almost as much as socialism does.
If this seems like a parody of Mr Worsthorne’s approach to politics, I can only say that Mr Worsthorne is himself a parody. Few writers so regularly send themselves up, or do it with such a transparent desire to shock and amuse. It is a practice which makes him compulsive reading in a way that the thoughts of Andrew Neil never could be. And in defence of Mr Worsthorne, it is worth adding that he quite often writes something so original that it jolts lesser minds into looking at a problem anew. But none of this should be allowed to blind us to the fact that the idea of an older and more gracious Britain, dominated by Disraelian figures like Peregrine Worsthorne and populated by a grateful peasantry, is a myth encouraged largely by that section of the Conservative Establishment which has been bundled out of office by Mrs Thatcher and Mr Neil. Like noble émigrés everywhere, these resentful figures sit in their clubs and construct mad legends about the golden years when they were in charge. Such fairy-tales may be comforting to those who weave them. But the rest of us should not believe them.
Oddly enough, the Conservative Party is by no means unique in possessing a highly misleading mythology about its past. The Liberal Party, as was, had its share of fairy-tales. So, too, does the Labour Party. Most people continue to think of the Liberals as just a gentler, kindlier version of the Tories. That may sum up their role since Lloyd George launched his embryonic welfare state before the Great War. But it certainly is not a true picture of the Victorian Liberal Party, many of whose members were much nearer to Mrs Thatcher than to David Lloyd George.
But it is the Labour Party, and specifically its left wing, which suffers most severely from myths about a golden past now lost in the mists of time. Even quite well-read Labour politicians are prone to the belief that This Great Movement of Ours (or THIGMOO, as my colleague Alan Watkins prefers to call it) was once a truly radical, campaigning party, and that, in some way, the true faith was betrayed by clay-footed leaders and careerist MPs. Like ‘Sir’ Peregrine’s bedtime stories, this too is bunk. For the reality about the Labour Party is that it never was, and never could be, a party of fundamentalist socialism. Even Ramsay MacDonald cannot truthfully be accused of betraying socialism. What he betrayed, in terms of the very modest proposals of people like Aneurin Bevan and (dare I say it?) Oswald Mosley, was a touch of what we later came to know as Keynesianism.
In any case, it isn’t MacDonald that Labour mythologists have in mind when they speak so passionately about the betrayal of socialism. The targets are leaders like Attlee, Gaitskell and Wilson, now joined by Neil Kinnock. Of the four, it is probably the last two who are most bitterly resented, for the simple reason that they both sprang from what has come to be described as the ‘soft’ left of the Party. After all, Attlee presided over the 1945 Labour Government, and Gaitskell never was a ‘real’ socialist, was he? The charge against Wilson and Kinnock is that both knew exactly what socialism was, but proceeded, nevertheless, to abandon it, undermine it, or otherwise corrupt it. In Wilson’s case this was held to have been done by stealth, deceit and (more improbably) the extensive use of patronage to buy off otherwise sound socialists. Young Mr Kinnock has done the deed more directly, but (it is said) more comprehensively. Unlike Wilson, he does not promise a socialist paradise and then fail to deliver it. He doesn’t even promise it.
The question that needs to be asked is when was this golden age, when the Labour Party went regularly to the hustings to proclaim itself the bringer of the socialist commonwealth? Even the programme on which the Party fought the 1945 Election was relatively modest, though it now looks close to Bolshevism by comparison with the Thatcherite counter-revolution. Apart from the steel industry, most of the Attlee Government’s nationalisation measures were designed to prop up crumbling but essential basic industries. In a sense, the Party was doing capitalism a favour. None of this is intended to trivialise the achievements of the post-war Labour Government, which would have been prodigious even if they had been limited to establishing the National Health Service. Nor am I making mock of the modern Labour Party from some pure-white ivory tower. I simply suggest that if Neil Kinnock has changed since he became leader, the Mark II version is actually a lot closer to the historic nature of the Labour Party than was the Mark I version. If it were not so, why the proliferation of leftist parties and all those dreadful Trotskyist splinter-groups? Tony Benn and his remaining followers have every right to be hostile to Neil Kinnock’s reconstruction of the Labour Party. But let’s hear no more about a betrayal of a past which never existed.
So let us return to the Conservative Party, whose difficulties over the poll tax would lead most people to rock with merriment if they weren’t already quaking with apprehension about their own community charge. The mind boggles that a great political party, which often congratulates itself on its profound understanding of the public mind, should land itself with anything so self-evidently suicidal. The answer to that conundrum, of course, is Herself. Or, to be more specific, Mrs Thatcher’s belief in her ability to solve any and every problem just by declaring her intention to solve it. She cannot see a Gordian knot without hacking at it with her nail-scissors.
If anyone seriously wanted to put a little flesh on the theory that there is such a thing as a New Britain, in contrast with a Worsthornian Old Britain, Mrs Thatcher’s adoption of the poll tax as the ultimate weapon in her crusade against municipal socialism would assist. For the thing that makes it so completely and delightfully lunatic is that it was conceived quite deliberately as a means of making people vote Labour councillors out of their town halls, and has suddenly become the instrument which will achieve exactly the opposite. This crusade against local government is one of the things which marks out Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party as radically different from the party of previous leaders. Whole Tory dynasties, like the Chamberlains, owed their existence to local government. Moreover, large numbers of existing Tory MPs cut their political teeth in the council chamber. Mrs Thatcher, as it happens, did not. But her often declared devotion to her father, the Grantham alderman, might have been expected to colour her thinking in favour of local government. One must assume that Alderman Roberts’s dislike of the Labour members of Grantham Council took precedence.
Of all the words recently written about the poll tax fiasco, among the very best are the fifty-odd pages of the latest pamphlet in Chatto’s excellent ‘CounterBlasts’ series.[*] Written by the Scottish poet, Douglas Dunn, it chronicles the way in which Mrs Thatcher first conceived the idea of creating an alternative to the rates which would jolt local electors into blaming their councillors for high council spending. That way, she reasoned, they would flock to the polling booths to topple Labour councils and fill the town halls with replicas of her sainted father. I am even prepared to believe that Mrs Thatcher had no special wish to make the tax so outrageously unfair that (in the popular phrase) a duke pays the same as a dustman. That was just a by-product of her main aim, which was to make people vote Conservative rather than Labour at municipal elections. For it stands to reason: if you really want to jolt people, make sure they pay a lot. The Prime Minister’s attitude to Labour-controlled local authorities was unquestionably paranoid. The first unmistakable evidence came with the launching of the Government’s programme to sell off the stock of council-owned houses, and, at the same time, deny the councils the right to spend the proceeds on new housing. The theory was that most Labour councils owed their majorities to the slavish loyalties of their housing-estate tenants, and that this loyalty would be broken once the tenants became owner-occupiers. Had this worked according to plan, we might have been spared the poll tax. But it didn’t.
The joy of it is that the poll tax doesn’t look like working either. Not only will it fail to wean voters away from Labour councils, but the scale of defaults could even bankrupt Tory councils. As Mr Dunn points out – with a commendable absence of glee – some 700,000 Scottish electors were in whole or partial default after the first three months of the tax north of the border. More than 100,000 of them have already been issued with warrants, and many have been warned that their debts may be recovered by selling off their property or ‘arresting’ their earnings. Multiply that sort of experience by a factor of around ten and the picture for England and Wales becomes grim. Perhaps it is the New Britain, but it looks a great deal more like the Old Britain we thought we’d seen the last of in 1945.
[*] CounterBlasts No 12. Poll Tax: The Fiscal Fake by Douglas Dunn (Chatto, 56 pp., £3.99, 15 March, 0 7011 3633 2).