Our rightward drift goes beyond politics

Thatcher and Blair have seeped into our social and cultural lives as well.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
6 March 2014

Banksy. Flickr/Chris Devers

It’s not only this government. It’s not only the unbroken thirty-five years of increasingly reactionary governments. It’s not only The Daily Mail or Eastenders. It’s everything.  Especially, it’s the meretricious appeal of material sophistication above the claims of social justice. It’s in the closing of minds. It’s in the commercialism of areas where commerce has no place. The grammar of business is essential to modern communication. The rightward slouch of society shows every sign of continuing with less opposition on the ground, and less desire to oppose where an alternative voice is not only silent: it is silenced.

In the heart of the heartless City protestors gathered on the steps of St Paul’s to challenge the ethics of money culture. It was an act of faith, of communion that was met with all the compassion and understanding the great liberal Establishment could muster. In the shadow of Wren’s monument the men of God called in the security forces, some of them armed.

Perhaps that was the moment when it became clear that all that has happened over the years does not represent some aberration to be reversed by an appeal to the better nature of those who influence and govern. No, a truth was revealed then.  Any remaining doubt was removed. The gagging law that has set the tone of 2014 is one further stage on the process. The marketisation of health and the persecution of the disabled are others. I don’t need to list them all here.

But it is more than a question of bad government. Governments don’t last for ever. Attitudes do, unless they are exposed, examined and challenged. We can’t leave it to chance. Our world (but not the whole world) has become a colder place. It is commonplace to ridicule the name of Thatcher, and to revere the name of Mandela. But these are ritual gestures void of meaning unless a deeper analysis is undertaken.

‘The enemy within’ was the notorious phrase used of striking coalminers seeking to preserve their pits and their communities. They had every right to campaign, a right secured in national and international law. Their leaders had an electoral mandate. Dismissing Scargill as ‘a deluded insurrectionist’, as a high profile broadcasting journalist was to do some years later, was an (unwitting?) endorsement of Thatcher’s suppressive policies. Neither the policies nor the later endorsement carried any political or moral legitimacy. There was no insurrection. There was a desperate plea by the lowly-paid and disregarded who were manoeuvred into a conflict they did not seek and could not win. It is as dust now.

The dust has settled on the socialist pamphlets once the lifeblood of the Labour Party. Who reads Harold Laski now? Fabian tracts today speak of the housing crisis and climate change, admirably concerned on specifics without examining the structure of society. There is a withdrawal of the alternatives to a market economy. The experiment is over, even if compassion is not yet exhausted. ‘Is This an Imperialist War?’ -  a question as relevant now as it was in 1940 – is confined to the dark, basement rooms of secondhand bookshops. Who in this century asks such a question?

Actually, a lot of people do ask this question, and ask it often. But neither the question nor the answer easily finds a place in the mainstream. Gordon Brown mockingly addressed his party conference as ‘Comrades’. He got the laugh he anticipated. At one time, not too long ago, it was a Tory conference joke. The incident may be in itself trivial, but it reflects a serious shift in attitude, an acceptance of values that once were beyond the pale of discourse.

Something has happened, a gradual surrender of ideals, a withdrawal of optimism, a cynical sneering at the idea of change. Obvious privilege is condemned, nostalgia for community is a given, but active participation in creative thinking about our social future is either ignored or caricatured.

 Reading Churchill’s Nobel Prize speech is a revelation:

“We in Europe and the Western world, who have planned for health and social security, who have marvelled at the triumphs of medicine and science, and who have aimed at justice and freedom for all...”

That’s Thatcher’s beloved Winston speaking, not romantically about empire and the Island Race (sic), but realistically about social planning and the Welfare State as a viable alternative to fascism. It is an aspect of Churchill we forget. For many of us Howard Brenton’s The Churchill Play set the tone a generation ago. We were forgetting the conciliatory post-war settlement, the change of heart that looks now like a golden age of progress. So it was in comparison. (And that was before the radical, and generally successful, personal and social experiments to come.)

Never So Good (2007) was Brenton’s Macmillan play. The approach this time, by startling contrast, is sympathetic, admiring even, an admonition to current politicians, right and left - in so far as there is a left. But they are shameless in their pursuit of the opportunity. The opportunity lies in areas once so discredited they were barely known.  

Once it was Hayek’s works that lay abandoned and unknown in dusty  basements. Hayek’s logic is flawed: advocating the freedom of capital to flow where it will without reference to social need, he denies the freedom of labour to negotiate with reference to social need. As for Ayn Rand, personally I had never even heard of her until a few years ago. When I did learn of her I found her thought truly disturbing. Rand asserts in a relentless monotone that seeks not to argue but to cajole. What is weird is the regard such ideas are given now. There is no attempt to persuade. There is neither eloquence nor generosity. What we have is an anguished, messianic rant.

The general reaction is against the state, of course. But it doesn’t stop there. It is against the idea of social need. But it doesn’t stop there. It is against the very idea of society. But it doesn’t stop there. It is against the idea of sympathy and charity. If we act benignly it is because benevolence serves self-interest. We have no right to act for others or with others. Freedom of the individual is an absolute. It is the only human right.

The logic of the free market eventually leads to that conclusion. It worships success and despises failure, without acknowledging the relative nature of these terms, without even defining these terms. The presumption is that immediate, material success is the sole criterion for judging the worth of human action.

The regressive infantilism of such a response to the world has become the dominant value of our times. It is, or ought to be, sickening and disturbing. Such an attitude, in whatever guise it wears, is fertile ground for the worst that can happen, a polity of social control against which there is no vocabulary of resistance.

The collapse of the sclerotic vestiges of Stalinism ought to have meant a new generosity that could embrace the co-operative and the collective with reference to personal freedom and a liberality of the spirit. It is what we expected, didn’t we, circa 1990 when authoritarians of right and left surrendered? Walls fell, statues crumbled, heroes were released, crowds gathered. Of course the euphoria couldn’t last, but the echoes of idealism morphed into orchestrated stadium cheers. Quiet, reasoned discourse was drowned, certainly in Europe, with the knowing collusion of those we expected to raise the standard.

In British terms it was Blair, not only Blair but especially Blair, crushing Clause Four before marching to war. Yes, there was relief for the worst effects of the market. No, there was no suggestion that the market might be the root of the problem, that people are not prosperous and are in debt. Credit, a euphemism for debt, is a certain recipe for disaster. The economy was, and remains, fragile, dependent on the fantasy that putative money actually exists.

It was bound to crash. The crash duly came. And whose fault was it? It was someone else’s fault. It was idle scroungers and bogus refugees. It was big government spending too much on the undeserving. It was the fault of wasteful bureaucracy. It was too much red tape. It was lazy teachers and crazy social workers. It was fancy ideas in the universities and the media. It wasn’t the fault of the financial system. It can’t have been. The market creates wealth and then distributes it when regulations don’t impede its natural course.

We are free and we are prosperous. That is the future course of history into an indefinite future. There are impediments, but these will be removed. Common sense will prevail. The only debate is how this will be achieved. Will the accent be Etonian or metromedia? The agonizing choice.

The choice is not about policies. People vote for values rather than specific legislative programmes. Values are generated by voices of persuasion within the fabric of general feeling. Once an idea is taken up it acquires a momentum that is not willed. The internal dynamics force the issue. It overflows into the forum of public conversation even, or especially, at a trivial level. This is the case even where the facts, readily available, are evidently contrary to the accepted view.

The convention (you hear it everywhere) is that the alternative has been tried, and has failed so obviously and spectacularly that the only viable system is the free market. So the ultimate choice is between Las Vegas or North Korea.

Of course that is absurd. Either/or extremes are in the territory of adolescence. But something like that is the conventional thinking. It pervades all the general discussion in the mainstream media, including some liberal areas.  The agreed terms are clear: Socialism failed. In every form it took it failed. (The definition of Socialism and the criteria of failure are both left vague. Images of Stalin, who died in 1953, are not countered by memories of the Thaw. In British terms, images of the supposed ‘winter of discontent’ are not countered by reference to the OU and the NHS.)       

The utopia never happened. True. It is also the case that utopia was never likely. The phrase ‘real, existing socialism’ implied that the shortcomings were evident and acknowledged. It is capitalism that claims to be utopia.  Capitalism has got it right. The right is right. Common sense conservatism thinks it offers continuity, a linear progression that is at once dynamic and stable, excellent and inclusive. The stark reality is that successive recessions suggest other. That is ignored. History is ignored.

Let us suppose events had been allowed to move differently. Just suppose Gorbachev had succeeded (against the odds). I can see the headline: ‘Is the New, Enlightened Communism the Future?’ The question would beg a positive response as the West made its accommodation - not trade deals with China, but social exchange with the Soviet Union. The USA was to concede – it had no choice – a degree of moral authority to its Latin neighbours. Graham Greene, shortly before his death, was awarded the Nobel at last.

It didn’t happen. And perhaps it was never going to be like that. That is no excuse for rewriting the course of history so that money-and-status becomes the measure of all things. It is justified intellectually according to quasi-rational criteria supposedly, but falsely, derived from the Enlightenment. It is justified emotionally with reference to the surface glamour of popular culture. We are living a lie if we believe the myth. The Years of Prosperity have been years of ruinously high house price inflation, increasing personal debt, a diminishing of wages and of job security. These evils have been officially encouraged as a means of financing (unsustainable) ‘growth’. Every few years there’s a crash. But it’s a permanent crisis for many, perhaps most. Marginal recoveries are abstractions unrelated to the desperate realities.

The likelihood is a panic-driven recourse to desperate remedies. The most likely resolution in England will be a further retreat into imperial nostalgia, isolation, a culture of discipline and no-nonsense practicality leavened by self-serving religiosity. The emotional fuel will be blame. The process is gradual. Paramilitary uniforms aren’t the style. It’s suburban. It’s superficially polite. It’s proud. And it’s dull except for the shrieking fear inside. The alternatives won’t be considered unless those who can speak do so.   

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