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The New England

Artistic culture has shifted too, again in a direction familiar to Americans. Those aspects of high culture that depend on private patrons flourish: painting and sculpture, for example, are suddenly much more lively in London than they have been for some time. But art of a more public character, which requires direct or indirect government subsidy, like experimental and classical drama, has suffered from the government’s sharply reduced artistic grants. And British public television, which made a distinct art form of that medium, has been forced into new economies and a new consciousness of ratings; inexpensive American sitcoms now fill much of the prime time. Centralization has meant regimentation. Thatcher’s government assigns to every section of the country and even to institutions long thought autonomous a part in its monetarist and supply-side script. The universities, for example, have been savaged by financial cuts beyond repair for the foreseeable future. (Roy Jenkins, now chancellor of Oxford University, recently predicted that Britain would have no world-class universities by the end of the century.)

Liberty has never been as firmly established as a distinct political ideal in Britain as it has been, through the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, in the United States. But under Thatcher liberties thought secure in Britain have been invaded under cover of a new and alarming moralism: the liberal state is being reshaped as the nanny state. Clause 28 of Thatcher’s recent Local Government Act, for example, forbids the local councils to “promote” homosexual relationships through distributing literature suggesting that such relationships can form an acceptable basis for family life. The government has used the Official Secrets Acts to prosecute civil servants who leaked evidence of official misconduct to the press, and its proposed revisions to that act will insure that it will be no defense that such officials acted in the public interest. The government used the law against conspiracy in a ludicrous attempt to prevent publication of Spycatcher, a book about Britain’s secret service which the government acknowledged revealed no classified information, even after the book was freely available abroad.2 Officials routinely accuse the BBC of unfair reporting and openly hint of more control unless it reforms, and the government has just introduced a new scheme to monitor broadcasts for undue sexiness. Political demonstrations have been sharply curtailed. Section 5 of Thatcher’s 1986 Public Order Act, for example, makes it illegal for demonstrators to use words or behavior a court deems “abusive” or “insulting,” whether anyone was actually abused or insulted or not.


That is the balance sheet of Thatcherism. Britain is better off as measured by national economic indicators and worse off, in my view, in most other ways. Is there a lesson here? Must a political community choose, at the end of the twentieth century, between social justice and economic survival? Peter Jenkins does not reach that conclusion, though the conclusion he does reach will strike many Britons as close to it. He says that the most remarkable and enduring result of the Thatcher revolution was the event named in his subtitle: the ending of the socialist era.3

He had himself accepted, and in a mainly pessimistic spirit, the Marxist version of Europe’s future that he believes was common to Europeans of his generation, who came to political awareness in the postwar decade. He thought that the political and economic institutions of democratic capitalism, and the social order these supported, were anachronistic and doomed, that they would inevitably be swept aside by the ambitions, power, and numbers of workers who had been excluded from wealth and power before the war but could be excluded no longer. Thatcher’s decade, he thinks, has now proved that sober prediction wrong. She said she would “kill” socialism, and Jenkins thinks that, whatever her role, it is dead. “It is not only in Britain,” he says, “but across a large swathe of Western Europe, that for the first time in this century the governing classes no longer assume that socialism in some form is what history has in store.”

Will the end of socialism in Britain—if it is dead—mean the end of the campaign for greater economic and social equality there as well? Americans find it easy to distinguish those two ideals. Though socialism has been a bogeyman for the American right, it has had only a marginal part in practical politics here, and few American intellectuals of Jenkins’s generation can have thought its triumph inevitable, or even possible. In America, the egalitarian program has been in the charge of liberals rather than socialists. They hope to improve economic equality through programs based in the redistributive taxation of a growing general prosperity rather than worker or union control, and to improve social and political equality by enforcing individual rights of freedom of expression and religion, and of independence from majoritarian morality.

But for British intellectuals it seems natural to link equality with socialism. The Labour party and the trades union movement have been the main institutional bases for British egalitarians throughout the century, and that party has been committed, in structure and formal declaration, to two socialist propositions: that the economy’s major industrial and service enterprises should be owned collectively and that workers should unite to control political decisions. In retrospect, it seems plain that the connection between socialism and equality in Britain has worked against the latter ideal for some time. Collective ownership and the triumph of the workers seemed sensible egalitarian goals in the nineteenth century, and in 1945, when industrial workers and miners and other members of large trades unions were plainly have-nots whose interests seemed identical with those of everyone at the bottom. Justice and class interest then seemed joined, and socialism showed how equality could ride on the back of an aroused majority acting for itself.

That strategy disintegrated, as Jenkins shows, in part through its own success. Trades union leaders used their institutionalized political power not in the interests of creating a national prosperity that could be used to benefit those really at the bottom—who became suddenly a small minority with no political representation—but to make inflationary wage demands and to protect economically disastrous featherbedding. Politicians claiming socialist credentials seemed unable to understand that workers were no longer, as a class, in the vanguard of the pursuit of justice, and worried more about their own ideological purity and power than about the tedious business of defining a form of relief for the homeless and jobless that the nation could actually afford.

In his final paragraphs, Jenkins suggests that a new, more contemporary and realistic form of the egalitarian ideal might yet emerge from what he believes to be the ruins of British socialism. He says that “it may become more feasible to build new coalitions of interest or conscience around issues of justice and liberty.” Is that too optimistic? Perhaps. Conservatives everywhere argue that Thatcher has proved not only that socialism is outdated but that the principle of equality itself has no economic or political future, that it, too, has been finally excluded from the political agenda. They say that egalitarian policies have been shown to be economically disastrous and politically unsalable.

The economic case against the principle of equality rests on two claims. The first insists that a successful economy must be driven mainly by a private sector governed by market competition rather than by social goals of redistribution. That seems plausible, and it has inegalitarian implications if greater equality can be achieved only through the traditional programs of British socialism, that is, if equality requires that central industries and services be owned collectively and that wage structures be redistributive in design. But there is no reason to think that egalitarian goals require such socialist means, however. Movement toward equality is compatible with a capitalist society dominated by its private sector, in which wages are set competitively, provided that government nevertheless establishes genuine social insurance against unemployment and medical or other special need, administered through a system of taxation modeled to reproduce the structure of premiums and compensation that a fair and competitive insurance market would actually generate.4

The second claim of the economic case against equality insists, however, that any social insurance program of that form, administered through a tax scheme, will kill economic progress because entrepreneurial incentive depends on low taxes. The historical evidence for that proposition is at best inconclusive: it rests, in Britain, only on the fact that Thatcher lowered taxes and the economy improved: this might not have been a matter of cause and effect. In any case, the taxes necessary for an effective social insurance program must be raised not from the few successful entrepreneurs at the top but from the much greater number of productive workers in the middle of the economy; and neither sound economic theory nor common sense argues that people will necessarily work less efficiently when their marginal tax rate increases, or that a community’s economic health requires that wage earners, rather than people in need, have more money to spend.5

The political case against egalitarianism seems to me much stronger than the economic case; indeed, it may be unanswerable. For it has proved enormously difficult to persuade successful workers, struggling to improve their living standards, to reach their culture’s definition of a good life, to vote to keep less of what they earn. The greatest barrier to equality, in prosperous Western democracies, is the otherwise happy fact that many more voters now lose through genuine egalitarian programs than gain; even suggesting tax rises is now thought to be political suicide in America. Economic disaster could reverse that situation. But the dismal axiom all this suggests—that equality can be a workable political principle only in very bad times—will not be displaced until some way is found to detach politics from self-interest and persuade a democratic society to take its own injustice seriously.

Britain once seemed, as I said, among the nations more likely to achieve a politics of principle. The last two decades suggest that this rosy view was mistaken: that the war and its aftermath did not in fact bring a new and enduring sense of community to Britain, that they changed the balance of power but not the dominance of self-interest. But there are straws to grasp for those who want to salvage part of their former optimism. The most substantial of these is the fact I have been emphasizing: that the politics of principle has not had a fair test in Britain, because it has been strapped to a Labour party that is in structure and practice an inappropriate vehicle. The so-called right-wing of the party—Hugh Gaitskell, who died young in 1963, the late Anthony Crosland, who did most to formulate the party’s philosophy, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams, and William Rodgers, distinguished Labour ministers who left the party to form the new Social Democratic party in 1981, and Denis Healey, who had been rejected for the party leadership he deserved but stayed in the party anyway—fought and lost a hundred battles to rescue the principle of equality from socialism, to make Labour the party of social justice rather than trades union power.

If Peter Jenkins is right, and Thatcher has shown that socialism is finally in Britain’s dustbin, politicians of their quality and instincts may have a fresh opportunity to define a plausible egalitarianism. Thatcher may have helped that process in a different way. The stridency of her purist social Darwinism has split the Conservatives as well as the nation; she has made more traditional Tories, like Ian Gilmour and John Biffen, whom she calls “wets,” more conscious of the Disraelian, egalitarian strands within their own party’s history. Her polarizing rhetoric and style have offended many who voted for her: she seemed personally less popular, even during the 1987 election she won so decisively, than Labour’s leader, Neil Kinnock, and social surveys showed a majority of voters not only opposed to several of her specific programs, but in favor of improved health and education even at the cost of higher taxes, and convinced that unemployment benefits were too low not too high.6

It might be said, however, that the short, unhappy life of the Social Democratic party, which urged more equality but rejected socialism, suggests that the British public is not ready to recognize a new conception of social justice, that it is content with the choice between socialist Labour and Thatcherite Toryism. The new SDP, in an uncomfortable alliance with the old, perennially weak Liberal party, contested the 1983 and 1987 elections as, in effect, a third party. The Alliance won only a handful of Parliamentary seats, and failed to become an important political force.

But in historical perspective, the SDP’s near successes may be as significant as its failure. For some time the Alliance looked like it might become the main opposition party to the Conservatives; it won stunning election victories—in 1987 it took a seat from Labour that that party had not lost since 1945—and it actually commanded for a short time in 1981 more than 50 percent support in the polls, an unbelievable political success for a third-party movement by American standards. The Alliance’s collapse was a disappointment for those who hoped for a new political alignment in Britain. But its failure was the consequence of events that did not necessarily reflect on its potential base of conviction; it was bloodied in 1983 by the patriotic rallying to Thatcher in the Falklands War, and damaged in 1987 by the awkward coalition between its two branches—the liberals and the moderates who quit the Labour party—that left it with no clear leader and no clearly articulated account of agreed-on principles.7

It would be silly to predict that the intellectual vacuum in British politics will in fact be filled by a new and successful party that appeals more to principle than to interests. History offers only the small comfort that no party in recent years has really tried. But the vacuum may at least be seen as a challenge; some young British politicians, now persuaded that the egalitarian impulse needs a new and persuasive formulation, may work to construct one. Britain—and the rest of the world—needs a fresh ideal to provide for the next decades what so many British of Peter Jenkins’s generation saw in socialism when they were young—a society in which fairness and generosity of spirit would have a central place.

  1. 2

    See Noel Annan’s review, The New York Review (September 24, 1987).

  2. 3

    The subtitle should not be understood to suggest that Britain actually entered a socialist “era” after 1945. Labour’s share of the total vote declined fairly steadily after 1950. The soft “Butskellist” views of most of its leaders since then hardly advocated traditional socialism, and, in any case, Tories were in power between 1951 and 1964, that is, during a large part of that period. The public sector of the economy grew very large under Tory government; several important industries remained nationalized, government administered a comprehensive social security and medical program, and labor leaders had great power. But most capital assets remained in private hands, great economic inequality continued, and the socialist left-wing of the Labour party never stopped complaining of betrayal.

    Jenkins’s argument that socialism is finished in Britain may also be somewhat overstated. The left wing of Labour is as radical as it ever was. It remains vocal, embittered, and doctrinaire, and even in its present decline has a strong and surprisingly hardy base within some unions and among local party activists. If the worldwide recession that many distinguished economists predict for the next decade is sufficiently severe, these committed socialists may well take control of the party, and the party might build upon its apparently unchallengeable base in the North and Scotland to win. Though its present leader, Neil Kinnock, seems more pragmatic than idealist, there is no reason to think he would find himself less committed to socialist principles, if elected, than were Harold Wilson and Callaghan, the last two Labour prime ministers.

  3. 4

    See my article, “What Is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources,” in the 1981 issue of Philosophy and Public Affairs, for an attempt to describe a conception of equality consistent with, and indeed parasitic on, free and competitive markets.

  4. 5

    In fact, in current circumstances, conservatives may do more to undermine the economy by cutting taxes than liberals would by raising them. See Benjamin M. Friedman, “The Campaign’s Hidden Issue,” The New York Review (October 13, 1988). Of course it is difficult to design a fair tax system that will not reward people who can work for not working. But it hardly follows that the closest approximation to a fair system is one that benefits only those with the luck and ability to hold good jobs.

  5. 6

    Andrew Gamble, citing these statistics, argues that Thatcher’s electoral victories owe more to the heavy support she received from Britain’s popular newspapers and large corporations than to any national fervor for her convictions. See his The Free Economy and the Strong State (Duke University Press, 1988).

  6. 7

    The Alliance was also the victim of winner-take-all elections in each parliamentary district. Since its support was widespread rather than concentrated, its few parliamentary victories underrepresented its actual support. If Britain used proportional representation, the Alliance would probably be the main party of opposition now.

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