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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.

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.

3.

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. 1

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

  2. 2

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

  3. 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. 

  4. 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. 

  5. 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. 

  6. 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). 

  7. 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.