Mrs Thatcher’s Ecstasy

Ross McKibbin

The local government elections have come and gone (more or less) as expected. Labour did not do as spectacularly well as some predicted, and in the event the caution of the Labour leadership was justified. The Conservatives did better than they feared they might. But they would be unwise to find too much consolation: Labour gains were not as spectacular partly because Labour was defending such a large proportion of the seats anyway, and partly because the increase in the Labour vote was not matched by a proportionate gain in seats. It is possible that the Government’s strategy of blaming high poll taxes on Labour councils had some effect in areas (like London) where memories of ‘loony’ left-wing councils are strong, while in Westminster and Wandsworth the electorate clearly behaved in a cheerfully Thatcherite manner. On the other hand, the Tories did badly in a number of areas where their own councils set low poll taxes. There is, in fact, not much evidence that the electorate has changed its mind about the poll tax and the result of the Mid-Staffordshire by-election would still seem to represent accurately the public view. The best the Government can hope for is that the electorate will become habituated to it; and we can be certain that nothing – including money – will be spared to ensure that it does.

Yet, even if the electorate does become habituated, the poll tax is and will remain the most indefensible single item of legislation introduced by any British government this century. The 1902 Education Act might have done more immediate damage to the (Conservative) government which introduced it, but the opposition it mobilised was very much smaller and the legislation survived largely intact. The poll tax in its present form will not survive intact whatever the outcome of the next election; indeed, as it stands, it seems unlikely to survive beyond July. The Government’s supporters argue either that the tax is right ‘in principle’ or that it represents some unexpected blemish in the Government’s otherwise immaculate record. Neither of these is true.

The legislation introduced by this Government (as by any other) usually falls into one of two kinds. There is a mass of ‘administrative’ enactments, often uncontentious, which are generated by the Civil Service or by social or economic necessity. In many previous Conservative governments they constituted the bulk of legislation. There is a second kind: legislation generated by vested interests within the Party or by ideological commitments. The evidence suggests that Mrs Thatcher neither understands nor is interested in the first, but that she and her circle are intimately, obsessively interested in the second. The poll tax, although uniquely maladroit in its conception and execution, is merely one example of that extreme ideological legislation which has been typical of this government.

The fundamental objective of it all has been the destruction of the social base of the Labour Party, of ‘socialism’, and particularly of the Labour Party in local government. This was to be achieved by the ideological mobilisation of an electoral majority against what was left of the old working class. Although Mrs Thatcher herself was probably inclined to think that ideology itself was sufficient, she and her government were prudent enough to reinforce it by a significant redistribution of income and property – largely at the expense of the already poor and of general public provision. Behind it all was one unstated assumption: that such legislation would have no indirect or unpredictable consequences, and certainly no negative ones. It simply gathered votes and settled scores. It represented a view of social reality which was almost childishly simple-minded.

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