Why Not Trust the Tories?
I am currently campaigning with the Labour Party to defeat a Conservative administration at Southampton City Council, that is intent on cutting and privatising public services. Has nothing been learnt from Thatcherism? Here is a piece of writing from my political past, which I still think is relevant.
I joined the Labour Party in September 1984. I had been born in a National Health Service hospital, and educated in comprehensive schools, while I believed in democratic Socialism, equality, free trade unionism, internationalism, and Britain playing a positive role in the world. These factors made me a natural supporter of the Labour Party, and I wished to be an active participant in British politics. That Autumn, I attended a couple of Labour Party meetings, staged at Farnborough, which focussed on the national strike by coal miners. Each meeting featured a speech by a Labour MP, the first of these being Dave Nellist (member of the Militant Tendency). The latter meeting was addressed by Dennis Skinner (the legendary “Beast of Bolsover”), a former miner, and impassioned critic of the “casino economy”. My workplace was conveniently situated for visits to Parliament, which I often made. One trip to the House of Commons was followed by a letter to Bernard Wetherill, the Speaker, asking about the public availability of amendment papers for Parliamentary debates, to which I received an encouraging reply. A few months later, in January 1985, Timothy Wood, a Conservative MP, handed me a copy of a Local Government Bill, as a Commons committee debating the legislation adjourned for dinner. There is no such thing as a free bill, however, for I had already bought a personal copy – besides financing it as a taxpayer.
With bold ambition, I began writing A History of the Conservative Party on September 30 1985. As a member of the Labour Party, it seemed natural to me – although not others – to plunge into literature with a critical history of the Conservative Party, despite being aged only 20, and lacking any experience of writing for publication.
I drew inspiration from works by Antonio Gramsci and Aneurin Bevan, two great Socialist politicians. Gramsci was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship in Italy. After his arrest, Gramsci wrote to Tatiana, sister of his wife, Julia Schucht: “I am obsessed by the idea that I ought to do something for ever. I want, following a fixed plan, to devote myself intensively and systematically to some subject that will absorb me and give a focus to my inner life”. This led to Gramsci writing the Prison Notebooks (between 1929 and 1935), which rank among the most profound political writings. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, by which a ruling class asserts and reinforces its position, along with his advocacy of ways in which the working class can counter this, have been a massive, and beneficial, influence on Socialist thinking and action.
Bevan’s Why Not Trust the Tories? was published in 1944, when victory for Britain, and her allies, in the Second World War was in sight. He drew parallels between the contemporary situation and the position following the end of the First World War, when a Conservative and Liberal coalition government proceeded to condemn the hopes of a nation to the scrapheap. Writing about Conservative procrastination over development of the welfare state, Bevan suggested the Tory approach was “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today”. I thought this a clever phrase. Several years later, I realised Bevan had borrowed this curious idea from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There. In that novel the White Queen offered Alice work as a maid, for “Twopence a week, and jam every other day”, going on to say “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today”. A Labour government took power at the end of the Second World War, with a landslide election victory, and delivered the welfare state. The defining achievement of Labour was the National Health Service, with Bevan, a Marxist agitator, being the architect. The Conservative Party responded with vehement opposition, voted against establishment of the NHS in Parliament, and has continued to undermine its principles. Margaret Thatcher approached the welfare state, and other Labour achievements, with all the rationality of the Queen of Hearts. A History of the Conservative Party was published in 1989, and concluded with a critique of Thatcher’s government, from which the following is taken:
During the 1979 General Election campaign, the Conservative Party concentrated on Labour’s troubled time in office. The Conservative manifesto, setting out a different direction, had the unlikely title Time For a Change. Polling took place on May 3, and the Conservatives won 339 seats to Labour’s 269, while the Liberals took 11 seats, and the other parties 16. The Conservatives had a majority of 43, and Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. Thatcher’s government initially represented a balance between adherents of her approach and sceptics. She excluded Edward Heath, who was to be a constant critic in the following years.
Thatcher proclaimed herself a “conviction politician”, opposed to consensus. Her major preoccupation was an attempt to reverse Britain’s long-term economic decline through monetarism. This was developed by Milton Friedman, an economist from the USA. Monetarism was a theory that had only been properly tested by one of the world’s most barbaric regimes, the Fascist military dictatorship in Chile, and the result had been a spectacular failure. Thatcher’s government soon proved a calamity for Britain, with an economic strategy of reduced public expenditure, reduced taxation – especially for the ruling class – an attack on the trade unions, and the sale of public assets. When Thatcher took power, more than a million people were unemployed. The number of unemployed people increased to two million in August 1980, and three million in January 1982.
The Thatcher government was authoritarian, inflexible, and uncaring. It attacked the democratic rights of the British people, notably with restrictions on local authorities. Thatcher followed an aggressive foreign policy, involving hostility to the Soviet Union, and was involved in constant disputes with the European Economic Community. Thatcher notably failed to improve the position of women, and her role as the first woman to lead the Conservative Party was anomalous, as the Party has perpetuated male dominance of British society.
A strong belief in ideology placed Thatcher outside the mainstream of the Conservative Party. Thatcherism was proclaimed by supporters as radical, but it was a reactionary attack on progressive institutions. Thatcher’s policies provoked opposition within the Conservative Party. She dismissed this, calling her opponents “wets”, and gradually removing sceptics from the government. The “wets” did not have the courage to challenge Thatcher with a Leadership contest. Thatcher’s annual speeches at the rally following the Party Conference prompted the pathetic spectacle of marathon standing ovations.
The government became increasingly unpopular, until its fortunes were revived by victory in the Falklands War. The Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, in April 1982, represented a crisis. Thereafter the military operation to recover the islands reflected well on Thatcher. She dishonestly presented the war as a fight against Fascism, having previously allowed the sale of armaments to the military dictatorship of Argentina. It was only when these armaments were being used against Britain that Thatcher saw a problem. Nevertheless this surprise did not provoke Thatcher into opposition to Fascism, as during the war against Argentina she worked in alliance with the regime in Chile, led by General Pinochet.
The Conservatives were helped by divisions in the Labour Party, which led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party at the start of 1981. The SDP formed the Alliance with the Liberal Party, and this took votes off Labour at the next Election, held on June 9 1983. The Conservatives won 397 seats, Labour 209, the Alliance 23, and the others 21. The Conservative majority of 144 was deceptive, with the Party’s 42 per cent share of the vote being little higher than the 40 per cent obtained in their massive defeat, by Labour, in 1945.
Thatcher’s second term was as unsuccessful as the first. Cecil Parkinson, who had recently relinquished the post of Party Chairman, resigned from the government in October 1983, with the revelation that his former secretary, Sara Keays, was expecting his child. The Conservative Party was divided over Thatcher’s continuing attack on local government. The government carried legislation that limited local authorities’ powers to set their own rates, and abolished the Greater London Council plus the Metropolitan County Councils – each of which were Labour-controlled. The miners went on strike during March 1984, in opposition to the government’s programme of running down the coal industry. For a whole year the government was to preside over this damaging dispute, without attempting to settle it. The Irish Republican Army bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton at the time of the 1984 Conservative Party Conference, and several members of the Party were killed or injured.
The government discarded monetarism during the Autumn of 1985, realising it had failed, but maintained its general plan. Although there had been some economic improvement, it could not be called a success, and mass unemployment was only gradually reduced. At the beginning of 1986, two Cabinet Ministers, Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan, resigned amidst a dispute over the ownership of the Westland helicopter company. Thatcher’s position appeared threatened by revelations about her role, but she survived the crisis. Later in the year the Conservatives were damaged by another scandal. This featured Jeffrey Archer, who had previously been a Conservative MP and successful businessman, only to lose a fortune, and abandon his political career. Archer had retrieved his fortune with large sales of a series of mediocre novels, and been appointed Deputy Chairman of the Party. Having rehabilitated himself, Archer’s dealings with Monica Coghlan, a prostitute, were publicised, and the outcome was Archer’s resignation.
Thatcher paid a triumphant visit to the Soviet Union, early in 1987, with relations having thawed. A trip to the Soviet Union was an unlikely way for a Leader of the Conservative Party to improve their electoral prospects, but that was one of its aims. Thatcher called a General Election for June 11, and issued a Conservative manifesto entitled The Next Moves Forward. In the Foreword, Thatcher associated herself with the idea of “One Nation”, with the curious claim that her government was fulfilling this aim. Thatcher led a poor campaign but, with the opposition being weak, the Conservatives won 375 seats, Labour 229, the Alliance 22, and the others 24. The Conservatives retained power with a majority of 100 seats. Election victory was followed by reconstruction of the government, including the sacking of John Biffen, who had been Leader of the House of Commons. Biffen responded by saying that Thatcher’s government was Stalinist. The idea of the Conservatives being influenced by Stalinism was unusual, and so was Thatcher announcing support for “One Nation”. As Thatcher entered her third term in office, the thinking of the Conservative Party was characteristically incoherent.