1980s >> 1984 >> no-960-august-1984

Editorial: Gentlemen and Players

Assiduous image-building has succeeded in presenting Margaret Thatcher as a remarkable, even unique, political leader but there is one way in which she is tediously conventional and outworn and that is in the delusions she has nurtured among the people of this country. Delusions like patriotism — the idea that British people (assuming there can be a satisfactory definition of them) are worth at least ten of any foreigner, particularly of French and Argentinian people; or that something manufactured in Britain (even if it is made from parts and material originating abroad) must be much better than a similar article from overseas. Delusions like the insistence that the nuclear, monogamous family offers some inherent benefits and that we should therefore discipline ourselves to live within its repressions, as the people who suffered Victorian England are (mistakenly) supposed to have joyfully lived. Delusions like the propaganda that irresponsible wage claims of greedy workers inevitably result in an inflated currency, which acts like some cancer on society and which must be cured if we are to experience the prosperity which the politicians have been promising us for so long — whether there has been an inflated currency or not. And finally, the delusion that Thatcher’s strong leadership has brought a new, stiffer purpose to our lives when before we were spinelessly preoccupied with selfish indulgence of our reckless whims.

It can be said about these delusions that they are at least obvious and defiantly stated; Thatcher seems to take much pleasure in her reputation as an Iron Lady whose stare can dissolve opponents in all the capitals across the world. But one effect of this has been the promotion of an opposite image and of the equally false idea that this offers a useful alternative to Thatcher. Partly because of her ruthless dismissal of her opponents from the Cabinet and partly because of an opportunistic anxiety that Thatcher’s attitudes and image will in the end erode the Tories’ support, there has grown up on the back benches a kind of shadow Conservative government made up of sacked or disgruntled politicians. There are people like Francis Pym, whose credo The Politics of Consent was recently published and who was himself once the beneficiary of another’s sacking — that of Lord Carrington, who is also among the shadows along with his henchman Ian Gilmour. Then there are the foppish St. John Stevas and the emphatically non-foppish William Whitelaw. Of course we should not call Whitelaw by that name; he was not formally sacked — nothing so terrible could ever happen to so comfortable a figure — but subjected to being brusquely kicked upstairs to the House of Lords.

By any standards these sacked ministers make an impressive bunch of what the political correspondents might call administrative talent (which means that they get into the same mess as the others, but have a talent for it). It all shows that Thatcher does not look at all kindly on any hints of doubt or disloyalty from her henchmen. no matter how popular they may be in the party. Harold Wilson (another one we should no longer call by his common name) who was noted for a squeamish reluctance to throw anyone out of his governments. must be looking on in wonder.

The shadow Conservatives share some notable characteristics. Some of them are aristocrats; their families have for a long time been called by peculiar names and titles and they are allowed occasionally to dress up in an especially strange way. They are all very rich, often with huge land holdings. And they are all gentlemen, with courtesy oozing out of every stripe of the old school tie. They are sure, one feels, to look after their servants and their tenants and they probably think of all that wealth they own. and the luxurious life style that goes with it. as a trust which they hold on behalf of the less fortunate in society. Of course if any of the less fortunate should try to improve their luck with a bit of direct, acquisitive action, or suggest that their masters and mistresses might lay down the onerous burden of their trust, there will be trouble in which courtesy will not be too much in evidence. But for the moment that does not happen and the alternative Conservatives can present themselves in this avuncular light, as the standard bearers for the true, historic Toryism which is supposed to be based on everyone being secure and taken care of in their allotted station in life (even if it is not clear who did the allotting). This is not at all the style of the brash, self-made representatives of Thatcher Britain like Lawson and Tebbit with their rather cruder ideas on the unequal ownership of wealth in capitalist society.

The alternative Conservatives make their appeal — which again is conventional and outworn and is actually very popular in the Labour Party — that the present state of British capitalism results from a deliberate act of policy by Thatcher and her crew. The government, runs the argument, does not have to be as it is; neither does the Conservative Party; neither does capitalism.

If this were true things could be very differently arranged. If Thatcher and Tebbit could by an act of will create a slump it must follow that they could by another such act end it and instead create a boom. We would have the sort of capitalism which has not yet been experienced, totally under the control of the experts and the politicians. totally predictable. In fact none of them have ever been able to do this; it is largely a matter of luck, which reputation a politician gets stuck with in history, dependent on which phase capitalism is going through when they are in power. Politicians must operate within the economic laws and motivations of capitalism; their role is largely to respond, in varying degrees of confusion, to events rather than to fashion them. This is as true for the gentlemen wets like Pym and Carrington as it is for the bone-dry Tebbit and Lawson.

So is there, to adapt a well-known phrase, no alternative? For so long as the working class support capitalism’s existence, the answer to that question must be that no, there is no alternative. There is no benefit in the working class changing their support from one set of politicians to another. Capitalism is not like some benign country estate and it cannot be organised as if it were. It cannot put human welfare in the forefront of its concerns. It cannot be controlled by any leader or expert. It must produce problems like poverty, sickness and war. Workers who are seduced into thinking that things would be different under a government of less abrasive personalities are deluding themselves.

Those few who are not so deluded have the alternative. The problems of capitalism — and among them we can count the system’s politicians both roughly obnoxious and smoothly devious — will be abolished by a social revolution which will make the means of life the property of the human race. That revolution must come as an act of will of a politically conscious working class, who understand the choice before them: will it be the anarchy and chaos of capitalism or the order and abundance of socialism? To opt for socialism w ill be a decision for plenty and human harmony. It makes a healthy contrast to what is on offer from all the politicians, whether in power or out — a world of misery and suffering, where our very survival is in doubt.

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