Saturday, December 13, 2008

It was acceptable in the Eighties...

Sometime in the early 1990s, just as Paul Weller was starting another critical revival, the NME published an old interview with him from the 1970s. At one point, Weller stated that he would never vote Labour again, and supported the Conservatives. Whilst this might surprise people who knew of his subsequent support for Labour and Red Wedge in the eighties, at the time it shocked me more at the thought that there was a time when people would openly avow their support for the Tories. By Ceri Ames.

Now, at the, probable, end of another long period of government by one party, this in itself is worth remembering. Labour’s defenders are reduced to a rump of the usual suspects, always less numerous and prominent in the media than the Tories’ supporters, and the party looks increasingly clueless.

The Conservatives, not withstanding Labour’s slight revival, are starting to be seen as the Government in waiting. But at the time I read this interview, Labour were in this position, and the Conservatives were almost entirely discredited. But beyond the salutary warning for those too quick to talk of the end of Labour or the Conservatives as a political force, it is worth comparing the probable political legacies of these two periods of government.

After more than a decade of Conservative government, public support was increasingly rare. Apart from the usual role call of business supporters and has-been entertainers (Cilla Black, Phil Collins), very few people would declare their support for the Conservatives. By the early nineties, the writing was on the wall for the Tories, the 1992 election victory just creating a sort of shambling undeath, a prolonged death rattle of a project that was obviously in need of a reinvention that Major and co. just couldn’t provide. The recession, the poll tax and, for many Conservative supporters, the deposing of Thatcher, had taken the gloss from the Tories. However, for the majority of the population, there was never any gloss in the first place.

The great, broad brush strokes of nostalgia from the right, of caricature from the Left, and the initial assessment of history, have created an impression of the Eighties that is essentially the Right’s own fantastic view. Of a country dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world, of a country rediscovering it’s pride and solving social problems in an era of wealth and prosperity. The problem with this is that it is nonsense. For much of the UK, there simply was no 80s boom, growth in wealth and employment in the late 80s barely made up for the recession of the early part of the decade. The South East of England, and parts of the Midlands did well, along with pockets of prosperity elsewhere, and it is no surprise to see these areas voting Tory. They were, as the Conservatives would have approved, pursuing their own interests.

Outside of these areas, the picture was far gloomier. Economic growth in these areas in the ‘boom years’ of the mid-late 80s was no more than the South East of England saw in the gloomy years of the early 90s. Even this masked the reality of poorly paid service sector jobs replacing the well paid, respected jobs in manufacturing. The ‘grim up North’ stereotype may have been a cliché, but it was for a reason, and reflected a certain reality.

For the Tory faithful, the Thatcher years are essentially a morality tale, a fable which has parallels with other historical myths. It is a story of heroic achievements, tragic fall, and awful consequences caused by those who betrayed Thatcher, and those who reigned after her, not by their hero herself. But even the realisation that the policies of the 80s helped cause the problems of the early 90s does not really get to the point of the massive failure of the Thatcher governments.

The Tories left untouched the great problems facing the British economy. They thought that smashing union power would let the UK close the massive gap in productivity; it didn’t, because poor management and woeful investment were as much to blame, and the Tories did nothing to improve these. In fact, the increased power and influence of the financial sector probably worsened these problems.

The great Thatcherite sell off of council houses was nothing more than a sustained attack on the principle of publicly owned social housing. The Tories, keen as they were on extending home-ownership, did not think of passing on the benefits to private tenants; again, protections for private tenants and restrictions on landlords were abolished. The cumulative effect of this is the massive shortage of council houses and huge waiting lists.

The massive, unspoken disaster of British society over the last few decades has been prolonged mass unemployment. Beneath the unemployment claimant numbers, and the figures if those seeking work, lie millions of others on sickness benefits. The real unemployment rate in UK over the last 30 yrs as been at 2-3 million. Mass unemployment on a scale that would never have been countenanced prior to 1980s. The fear of the negative effect of this level of unemployment, as much as concerns about poverty and waste, had ensured that no government of left or right had allowed unemployment to rise anywhere near this; Labour’s failure to control unemployment had famously been used by the Tories in 1979. Yet, we have tolerated this level of unemployment for decades, and are seeing the effects everywhere. People and communities brutalised by poverty, unemployment, poor housing, cheap drugs and poor health. The Right and its cohorts in the media try to blame this on benefit dependency, but here they are again, as with council housing, making a dogmatic attack under cover of populist sloganeering.

The Right has, in large part, created many of our current social problems, but has the chutzpah to blame their victims for this; and to castigate Labour, when, for the most part, it has simply carried on with the Right’s policies. While New Labour isn’t Thatcherite, it is a social democratic response to Thatcherism. It assumes many of the Right’s view of economics, society and the problems facing them. However appalling new Labour has been in power, and however justified the Left may feel in bemoaning its latest missed opportunity, it will not deserve its attacks from the Right. Not whilst the Thatcher governments continue to bask in the adulation right-wingers, because New Labour is simply trying to battle the problems the Right created and identified, using largely the tools left behind by the Right. Unless David Cameron has a big idea, the Tories might soon find out just what a hopeless task this has become.

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