1980s >> 1984 >> no-956-april-1984

Right minded lot

At this very moment there must be many young people, in universities and trade unions nurturing ambitions, and they had better realise that climbing to the top of the greasy pole is more than a simple matter of putting forward a reasoned, effective policy in the expectation that voters will respond. Voters — for the present, at any rate — don’t operate like that: they are more easily impressed by a seductive, instantly recognisable personality, packaged and presented. This means that aspiring occupants of Number Ten must spend some time identifying their supporters. They must ask themselves, for example, if their appeal is stronger with younger voters? Will family women and men crowd into the polling booths for them? Are they acceptable to foaming patriots or to what is known as ethnic minorities? There is a great deal of lucrative work here for opinion pollsters, speech writers, camera operators and other artists in deception. If they get it right the candidate identifies a sort of constituency of support, scattered among the entire electorate. Work can then begin on appeasing and enlarging this constituency.

This is by no means a recent trend in politics. In the twenties, Stanley Baldwin was at pains to present the image of a plain, simple man of goodwill, which presumably appealed to voters who thought of themselves in the same way. Here is a typically reticent self-portrait by Baldwin, in October 1923:

  I am not a man to play with a pledge . . . I am not a clever man. I know nothing of political tactics . . .

These modest words were in a speech in which Baldwin announced that he was about to go back on a pledge given by his predecessor, Bonar Law, not to impose protective import duties. He fought the next election on the issue, except that the result was a Labour government under Ramsay Macdonald, who would never have denied that he was a clever man.

Forty years later another plain and simple man who, like Baldwin, carefully cultivated a reassuring media manner (and who also distracted his audiences with clouds of pipe smoke) was in the business of playing with pledges while posing as a leader of unshakeable principle. Harold Wilson came to power after nurturing a constituency rather different from Baldwin’s. Some time before his victory in the 1964 election, he had outlined its boundaries to his henchman Richard Crossman. They were discussing Labour’s apparent failure to hold the votes of “young scientists, technologists and specialists’’:

  . . .  the only way to win them back is to make Labour the party of science. At present we are treating science as a gimmick . . . At our next conference we have got to take them seriously.

Labour’s argument was simple enough to have come from a Baldwin. The Tories had shamefully neglected the development of the latest productive technology; it was too modern a concept for them to grasp, as they tramped the grouse moors among the enfeebling mesh of the old boy network. So we had stop-go production, crisis, wage restraint. a lack of many of the good things in life. As a Labour government remedied this through investment in advanced technology productivity would soar and there would be prosperity and security for everyone — as well as an exalted place in history for Harold Wilson. It was all set out in their 1964 manifesto:

  If we are to get a dynamic and expanding economy, it is essential that new and effective ways are found for injecting modern technology into our industries.

What actually happened was that the realities of capitalism, which take no account of election promises, were too much for the Wilson government. Caught in the inevitable tangle of financial and economic crises, they were soon reduced to looking for excuses for their failure to organise the promised abundance through the white hot technological revolution. Poverty, slums, class conflict, wars, all remained; Wilson’s fine words became an historical embarrassment.

Since then — and in particular since their defeats in 1979 and 1983 — the Labour Party have been wondering what happened to the constituency of scientists and technologists which Wilson thought he had captured for a lifetime. One opinion is that a lot of the people known to psephologists, sociologists and market researchers as “skilled workers” have switched their votes to the Tories, on the grounds that they have some stake in capitalism which is worth defending and that this is best left to a Conservative government. If this is true, it may indicate a certain change in mood among working-class voters. This change is nothing too dramatic; the working class are not about to discard all the parties of capitalism and think in terms of a radical social revolution. But it could mean the replacement of the aggressive, expansive propaganda of Wilson’s white-hot technological revolution by defensive, retractive, in-turned preferences. In 1929. during that other slump. Baldwin appealed to the voters with the slogan of Safety First. In 1984, with over 3 million out of work, successful politicians may have stopped courting the constituency of youthful scientists and turned instead to that of the Right Minded People.

Of course this cultivation of a constituency is uncomplicated by any concern for political principles. The object is to garner votes, whatever the opinions and desires of the voters. This sordid, sterile business is described in Carol Thatcher’s Diary of an Election (a book of stupefying banality and irrelevance). Hoping for a best-seller, Carol faithfully accompanied Mum and Dad and Mark around the country during the last election. One morning, perhaps in an analytical mood, she took breakfast with Chris Lawson, the Conservative Party’s director of marketing, who instrueted her in the subtleties of marketing a discredited capitalist party:

 Target groups are, of course, the first-time voters, the young housewives, C1s, C2s, skilled technicians, and the older people — they’ve always been very strongly Conservative — but the other groups have moved with us too.

Not a word about political principle, or human interests. Like Carol Thatcher herself. Lawson’s words are insulated from the real world of suffering and repression, about which so much needs to be done so urgently. It seems inevitable that out of the Tory victory the constituency of Right Minded People should emerge, with a clutch of university-bred gurus to draw its theoretical geography — like Roger Scruton, Maurice Cowling and the deranged ex-lefty Paul Johnson. In the Sunday Times Magazine of 4 March 1984 Scruton mapped out his theories:

  I think of conservatism as growing out of the rootedness of a man’s history. Man is a fragile being whose happiness depends on finding his home. Attempts to find long-term strategic solutions are doomed: one needs the family, and private property.

In other words, a Right Minded Person believes in patriotism, law and order, and keeping your place. What kind of challenge do these beliefs present?

To begin with, patriotism is a demonstrably one-way affair, which insists that the interests of the British capitalist class should be dominant but does not allow the same belief to patriots in, say, Russia and Argentina about the interests of their capitalist class because they are obviously Wrong Minded People. This prejudice extends into the field of economic rivalry. The recent embarrassing episode of Mark Thatcher (failed accountant, racing driver and rally competitor — would you buy a building from this man?) and the University of Oman was dismissed by the Prime Minister with the assertion that she “bats for Britain”. To all Right Minded People, this recourse to patriotism was enough to stifle all the criticism and to clear the matter up beyond further argument.

Similar mental juggling must be performed on the issue of Law and Order, which are accepted by all Right Minded People as essential in any civilised society. But there are varying definitions, and degrees, of law and order; in the case of the theft of the Falkland Islands, and their eventual ownership by the Coalite Group, the law can be refashioned to suit the interests of the owners and the wildest of disorder can be created to protect those interests. Right Minded People subdue any doubts about this in their confidence that nobody has anything to fear from the law provided they accept one or two minor restraints such as the class structure of capitalism and the privileged standing which this gives a small, parasitic minority.

This compliance can otherwise be called Knowing Your Place, which is strongly advocated by the Right Minded People. For example, people like miners, lorry drivers and car industry workers should work very hard indeed because that is their lot under capitalism and in any case it is good for the country that they should do so. But they think differently about the ruling class, whose indolence and uselessness is enviably glamorous and proves their inborn superiority. Workers who dare to strike are excoriated because strikes interrupt production. which is not good for the country, but it is quite acceptable for the capitalist class to shut coal mines and factories which are unprofitable because this is the sort of interruption of production which is. mysteriously. good for the country.

It should not be assumed that, because the constituency of the Right Minded People has come into its own under the Thatcher governments, it is always linked to the Tories. Of course Thatcher is a splendid model for it. with her voice, her hair-dos and dresses which even the Grantham Women’s Institute might find too conventional. In her infamous speech in 1978, about immigrants “swamping” the people in this country, she claimed that “. . . the British character has done so much for democracy, for law. and done so much throughout the world . . .”. which must have struck just the right chord in the minds of the Right Minded People. But Labour leaders have also done a great deal to make a similar appeal to these political neurotics. They have crushed strikes, urged workers to break picket lines, set up the super-coercive Special Patrol Group, devotedly prosecuted British capitalism’s wars, paid ardent respects to the royal and aristocratic figureheads of the ruling classes.

How do we free ourselves of this sordid hypocrisy, where do we find some optimism about human society? Socialists do not cultivate a constituency: we make no appeal for votes. We do not fashion a policy to fit ignorance and prejudice. The movement for a new society must be one of understanding and participation. It has no appeal for the Right Minded People but works to put people in their right mind.