1980s >> 1986 >> no-979-march-1986

Running Commentary: If Thatcher goes


It may take some time to accustom ourselves to the idea that Michael Heseltine wants to take care of us all — to protect the weak, the sick and the poor — but that is what we may have to face, if Margaret Thatcher should cease to be Tory leader. If it comes to that, not so long ago it would have been difficult to accustom ourselves to the idea of Thatcher losing her grip but now, as the Westland affair swells from a cloud no bigger than an ex-Defence Secretary’s hand to a darkness stretching to the far horizon, the unthinkable becomes readily believable.

The opposition to Thatcher within her party is. we are told, to do with her style of government— her ruthless and overbearing pursuit of her ends and her preference for a cabinet full of unquestioning toadies rather than suffer a single stimulating critic. This has left her back benches crowded with what is called ministerial talent who were not however talented enough to prevent themselves being quietly snuffed out or to remember that Thatcher’s adopted style was what once, in those heady days after the 1979 and 1983 elections, endeared her to the party.

How gleefully, for example, they all once grasped at the Russian award of that title of the Iron Lady; how approvingly they regarded her forays into EEC negotiations, showing those nasty foreigners that they could not pull the financial wool over her steely eyes; how gratefully they applauded her implacability over the Falklands war: how rapturously they laughed when she scornfully denied to a Tory conference that she wanted to be another Edward Heath: “This lady’s not for turning”.

If the Tories are deserting her now. this can be for only one reason. Exposed as no different from the rest, as a cynical and deceitful politician whose principles are those of day-to-day opportunism. Thatcher suddenly looks like a disaster. There is panic in the Tory ranks; how else can we explain Heseltine’s audacious claim to be a compassionate politician?

And if Thatcher goes, what then? Will she be replaced by a Tory government pledged to introduce the politics of One Nation? Will the Tory wets come squelching back into the cabinet? Will British capitalism become managed by a bunch of landed gentlemen from the shires — Pym, Gilmour, Prior — rather than upstart advertising executives and small business people? Will all of this be bolstered by the sulking Ted Heath and by Willie Whitelaw, desperately plugging the holes in the dykes of party unity?

Such a government would be presented to us as offering new hope for a more humane and secure future. There would be whispers about reducing unemployment, reviving the National Health Service, smoothing the rougher edges of the deepest poverty. It might be a propitious time to overlook the fact that these leaders are already associated with wretched failure, in the governments of Heath, Douglas-Home and Macmillan. There is no reason to believe that they will be any more successful in the future.

One Nation is in any case not an exclusively Conservative idea. Every Labour government comes to power with the same sort of promise, to unite the interests of everyone into a great drive for competitive British exports, full employment, a controlled economy, efficient state services and so on. They may call their policies by different names the National Plan, the Social Contract but essentially they are the same as One Nation and they suffer from the same basic fallacy.

Capitalism is not a society of unity. It is based on class ownership of the means of life and therefore on class conflict. It cannot be controlled or moulded by politicians or economic experts into something which it is not. It cannot operate in the interests of the majority of its people. It must continue as a system of anarchy, poverty, disease and war.

All of that is taught to us by experience and by an analysis of capitalism. Unless the working class act to abolish capitalism, the prospect is dismal — a succession of ineffective governments distinguishable only by their style of empty promises and of the excuses they give for their impotence. We have had time enough to accustom ourselves to that idea — and time to act on what we have learned from it.

Policeman’s brawl
The role of the police is primarily one of institutional coercion on behalf of ruling-class power. Anything else — helping old ladies across the road, for example — is entirely incidental. This being the case, it is plain to see that activities such as we have witnessed on. say, the miners’ picket lines, or at Grunwick, are not in any way exceptional but rather conform to the normal expectations of the class that recruits and pays the police. In exchange for these relatively lucrative services the police in turn can normally expect to be shielded from prosecution or conviction should their activities kill or maim. The cases of Jimmy Kelly and Blair Peach are only two of the many instances where this has proved true.

So what about the latest example of protection from the consequences of brutal thuggery for which, in the knee-jerk terms of the Director of Public Prosecutions, there exists insufficient evidence on which to prefer charges? We refer, of course, to the vanload of policemen looking for a punch-up in Holloway who gratuitously attacked five boys, two of whom — the black ones, significantly enough — ended up in hospital.

On this topic, somewhat surprisingly, the Guardian has managed to serve up something a little less bland than its usual jesuitic fare. Its second leader of 5 February. “Police beyond the law”, contains much that is unquestionably accurate, including the clear recognition that the government is protecting the police. Of course it is. But what sticks in the Guardian’s craw is any nasty revolutionary notion that such partisanship is class-based. The inescapable truth is that capitalism’s police, “right” or “wrong”, have a bounden duty to close ranks in tribal complicity on behalf of their and our masters.

Kick start
In the month that saw politicians stabbing each other in the back and rival groups of capitalists fighting it out for a share in Westland helicopters, life for the working class went on pretty much as usual.

The number of people registered as unemployed rose to 3.4 million. Shortly before the figures were announced, the Job Start scheme was launched by the government. This is the latest attempt at cosmetic surgery to conceal capitalism’s failure to provide people with employment and hence the means to live. It is to be run in nine key areas (not necessarily those with the highest unemployment) and involves unemployed workers being offered £20 a week to “top up” their wages if they take a job which pays less than £80 a week. In other words, the government is subsidising bosses who pay low wages. The rationale is that the long term unemployed lose confidence and need encouragement to go back to work. Of course what they are really worried about is that unemployed workers who realise that they will only be a few pounds a week better off by taking a job that pays very little may decide not to bother. But having bribed workers to take on low paid work with the extra £20. the government will withdraw the grant after six months.

Capitalism depends on workers selling their labour power for the lowest wage or salary that employers can get away with paying. Workers are educated, trained and conditioned into believing that wage slavery is freely entered into and necessary to human dignity: to work for a living, no matter how badly paid the job, is better than “living off the state”. But if workers see through this myth and decide that it is not worth going to work for a few pounds more than they can get in benefits, then the state has a variety of ways of coercing people into going to work for low wages. YOPS and YTS schemes have been used to try to instil the work ethic into young unemployed people and now Job Start is to be used for the same purpose with older unemployed workers.