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The New England

1.

Peter Jenkins, the leading political journalist in Britain, has written a long and excellent book about the last two decades of British political history, a book that combines reporting and scholarship, journalism and history.1 He retells the headline stories of the Thatcher years with a novelist’s sense of detail and taste for gossip and a perceptive social theorist’s mastery of complexity. He is privy to politicians’ leaks and off-the-record complaints. He has included virtually every event of political importance since 1979. He describes, for example, the scandal in early 1986 over the government’s leaks of information compromising a cabinet member which Thatcher thought might end her leadership within a day, as well as her politically dangerous decision to help President Reagan bomb Libya, even though she thought that action stupid.

Jenkins breaks his narrative with sharp portraits of the important British politicians of the period, catching them in a few illuminating and sometimes hilarious paragraphs. But he is most impressive as a social and political historian, at ease with economic analysis, political sociology, and doctrinal controversy. Mrs. Thatcher’s Revolution will be of high value to historians of contemporary Britain and Europe, both as a primary source and for its argument. It should provide the classic account of recent British politics for many years.

During the last two decades, as Jenkins’s book shows, Great Britain’s political life has undergone the most radical and abrupt shift of any Western democracy since the Second World War. When I took up teaching at Oxford, in 1969, Britain still seemed the herald of a new egalitarian politics. Two decades earlier, the postwar Labour government of Clement Attlee had begun a comprehensive program that aimed sharply to reduce the inequalities in income, education, housing, and medicine that had seemed inevitable consequences of British capitalism and its class system. The Labour government brought key industries, including steel and coal, under collective national control, and made government the main provider of medical care through a national health service, and the main landlord through council housing schemes that eventually brought a third of British homes under collective ownership.

In 1969, in spite of economic difficulties and some backtracking, and though much inequality and privilege remained, the spirit of this egalitarian movement seemed still powerful. The central institutions and policies of the welfare state Labour had created were no longer challenged at their foundation by Conservatives. Journalists said there was a political consensus uniting the two parties, which they called “Butskellism” after R.A. Butler, an intellectual leader of the Tories, and Hugh Gaitskell, who had become Labour’s leader. Political wars were fought over which party could administer the developing welfare state more wisely and efficiently. Americans dismayed by the failure of their own country to reduce inequality admired Britain’s progress. They read the sociologist Richard Titmuss’s exciting book, The Gift Relationship, which used the contrast between the British practice of donating blood for transfusions and the American practice of selling it as a metaphor for the difference between the two societies.

Anthony Lewis, then the London bureau chief of The New York Times, wrote that Britain had made a choice America might envy. The telephone system was poor, the shops did not stock a great variety of goods, and industry was often disorganized by assertive unions. But there was little crime, social relations were civilized, and people seemed to accept that the community as a whole had a stake in the fate of each of its members. London was still “swinging.” Britain led in fashion and theater and in the distinction of its universities, and a respectable degree of economic equality seemed still within reach.

During the Seventies, however, the egalitarian dream turned into nightmare. The British economy was in disarray: inflation, fed by excessive wage demands enforced through strikes, rose grotesquely, and the slide of the pound sterling seemed unstoppable. Britain fell further behind a rising Europe according to practically all economic indicators, and was suddenly challenging the southern European countries for room at the bottom. The celebrated British sense of community began to dissolve under the strain of hard times; politics became uncivilized, and sometimes even violent. In the middle of the miserable decade, a miners’ strike forced a Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, to ration electricity; the nation worked only three days a week, and families had enough power for only a few hours at a time. Labour won the next election, gave the miners all they wanted, and the country declined even further. In the winter of 1979, the public service unions, challenging the decision of Prime Minister James Callaghan to limit wage increases, struck again, in what seemed a mutinous defiance of government. The press called it the winter of England’s discontent, and the television news showed bodies waiting to be buried because the undertakers had been called out.

Callaghan called another election. Margaret Thatcher, who had defeated Heath for the leadership of the Conservative party in a bitter battle, announced the end of Butskellism. “The Old Testament prophets,” she said, “did not say, ‘Brothers, I want a consensus.’ ” She called for revolution, and the nation hired her to lead it. She was reelected in 1983, and again in 1987, in both cases with commanding parliamentary majorities. She has already served the longest continuous term as prime minister in modern British history.

2.

Thatcher’s revolution turns out, in retrospect, to have had three parts, each of which is carefully described by Jenkins. The first was economic. She dedicated her administration to restoring the competitive society Britain had previously seemed to reject. She controlled the money supply on monetarist principles in order to fight inflation, launched an austere program of industrial efficiency which doomed inefficient, old industries to bankruptcy without regard to lost jobs, returned many of the industries and services Labour had nationalized to private hands, and established supplyside incentives, including sharply reduced taxes. She arranged for council houses to be sold to families rather than rented to them by the state—a particularly popular policy, which showed how accurately Thatcher understood what the people really wanted.

The second part of Thatcher’s revolution was constitutional: she aimed dramatically to change the structure of British politics and government. She attacked organized labor’s political power with enormously popular legislation that decreased the internal authority of union leaders and outlawed strikes in circumstances formerly legal. Ignoring Conservative traditions, she centralized power in almost every field of government. She reduced the power of local against national government, abolishing London’s local government authority, for example, which had become a left-wing preserve. She brought conventionally autonomous institutions, such as universities and local school authorities, under national direction, subjecting them to centrally fixed and uniform policies. She concentrated national power more firmly in her own office at the expense of her cabinet and her party’s back-benchers.

The third part of Thatcher’s revolution was moral. She undertook to uproot the public philosophy that had inspired the postwar egalitarian reforms. The virtues of caring for others and of community were to be replaced by the principle of self-reliance and a contempt for dependency. (One of Thatcher’s most loyal ministers, Norman Tebbit, said that the unemployed should “get on their bikes” to find work. He made it clear that he thought many of them didn’t really want to work.) The vice of private greed—exorcised in Richard Titmuss’s idealized view of Britain—was to become the virtue of industry and enterprise. Equality, which in 1969 could still be seen as a national ideal, was to be made a dirty word.

Measured by the most obvious and objective standards available—economic and political—Thatcher’s revolution seems wildly successful, and it is often described as irrevocable. Even those who dislike all her goals agree with Peter Jenkins, who dislikes most of them, that she has changed the direction of British politics for the foreseeable future. So far as national growth and productivity are concerned, Britain’s economic performance has improved strikingly; its rate of improvement was the highest in Europe in recent years. Inflation is down to figures that seemed almost impossible in the 1970s. (It seems, however, to be rising again.) The pound is strong. Even unemployment, which rose alarmingly during the first two years of the Thatcher government and has kept stubbornly high as the bankruptcies and layoffs of the competitive economy took hold, has declined from its peak in 1986. Thatcher’s reelection victories confirm, most commentators think, that Britain has accepted her revolution with few reservations.

There are grounds for disputing these simple measures of her economic and political success. The economies of the West generally improved during the Thatcher years, and she had the benefit of Britain’s North Sea oil, which flowed freely during her first two terms but which is already beginning to run out. A rising world tide might have raised Britain’s boat without Thatcherite measures. Unemployment is still far higher than when she took office. It was 4.2 percent of the work force when Thatcher was elected in 1979; it rose to 11.6 percent in 1986, and now stands at 8 percent. And her critics complain, with much plausibility, that many of the cuts she made in the public sector—including cuts in higher education—have damaged the long-term economic base for the sake of short-term benefits.

In each of her first two terms, moreover, Thatcher was for a time so unpopular that her reelection seemed in doubt. She plainly benefited, in 1983, from a fortuitous and immensely popular war against Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and in 1987 from an opposition divided and disorganized. Even so, she won both reelection campaigns with not much more than 40 percent of the total vote, a percentage lower than some past Conservative campaigns had achieved in losing. Nevertheless, in spite of these caveats and qualifications, Thatcher is widely regarded as a great success. And the country’s tone has plainly changed. The misery and defeatism of the 1970s have been replaced by an apparently growing economic confidence and adventurousness, as shown, for example, in the enthusiasm with which working-class people bought shares in the enterprises Thatcher sold back into private hands.

Those who loved Britain for its community and political culture in the 1960s, however, will love it less now. It has become again two nations with almost geographical borders: the poor industrial North and rich commercial South, with the dividing line shifting northward year by year as the prosperous South expands, leaving outcroppings of poverty throughout London and other major cities. Britain is two nations spiritually as well as geographically: the Tories who won so convincingly overall in 1987 were devastated in Scotland and in England north of the Midlands. Thatcher’s get-on-your-bike moralism is not meant to bring the country together; it is an ethics for winners but not losers in a new enterprise game. The world of private splendor and public squalor that John Kenneth Galbraith found in America decades ago grows in England. Chelsea and Kensington houses are much fancier than they were, but crime is increasing and London, whose cleanliness used to fascinate American tourists, is filthy.

  1. 1

    I should say at once that Peter Jenkins and I have been friends for many years.

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