Anticant has always been a political animal, ever since he grew up during World War Two and, as a student, witnessed the bitter clashes between the post-war Labour government and it’s dispossessed, disgruntled Conservative predecessors. A political animal, but never a strongly partisan one. He adheres to the old-fashioned view that politics exists to serve the people, and not the other way round. So he has only belonged to any political party for one or two brief periods – the Conservatives in the immediate post-war years, and the Liberals [now LibDems] after the 1956 Suez Crisis. In retrospect, he has never felt really enthusiastic about any of the parties, and these days even questions their value and relevance as they are at present organised and funded.
With a general election looming within the next couple of years, it seems timely to reflect upon political parties as Anticant has experienced them during his lifetime. I start with the Labour Party [this is a revised version of a post first published about a year ago]:
In my experience the Labour party has always been the Bermuda Triangle of progressive politics in
In the 1930s the party was in the doldrums after two short, unsatisfactory spells in office in the 1920s and the shattering experience of the 1931 general election when its former leader, Ramsay MacDonald, reneged to become the figurehead prime minister of a ‘national’ [in effect, Conservative] government with an overwhelming majority. The rump of the parliamentary Labour party under the leadership of first George Lansbury, an idealistic ineffective pacifist, and then the dour, colourless Major Attlee, was ineffective and irrelevant, especially as it continued to oppose rearmament until after
Attlee became deputy prime minister in Churchill’s wartime coalition, and prime minister when Labour swept into office in the 1945 general election. Deceptively self-effacing, he was in fact far and away the best leader Labour ever had in my lifetime. The cruel jokes – about him alighting from an empty taxi, and “being so flat that he was almost concave” – belied a firm hand on the tiller in a cabinet composed of much bigger fish than any of Tony Blair’s or Gordon Brown’s cabinet colleagues. His rebuke to an over-noisy party chairman – “a period of silence from you would be welcome” – was a classic. But he passed his prime, the initial driving energy behind his government waned, as it always does, and in 1950/51 Labour paid the price for mismanaging the economy – especially by the psychological mistake of prolonging rationing and ‘austerity’ too far into the post-war years.
Labour’s next great missed opportunity came with the
All governments, whether long-lasting or not, go through a life-cycle from vigorous youth, through experienced maturity, and ultimately lose their slipping, increasingly senile, grasp. A decade is a long time in the life of an individual, let alone a government. Material for personal comparisons and evaluations dwindles when, as is the case with younger voters, one has known nothing else than the current regime. For a while, Harold Macmillan’s administration which took over from the enfeebled
The puzzle about the Blair [now Brown] government, which catapulted into power amidst such national euphoria at the demise of the unloved Tories, is why it has sustained its grip on power for so long after implementing a string of policies which have alienated not only Labour’s traditional bedrock supporters, but also a great many of those who leaned towards the fresh-looking Blair in 1997. While he was prime minister, his self-professed “New” Labour government was – if we are to believe the media Whitehall corridor prowlers – as racked by internal feuds as any of its predecessors, the only difference being the lengths to which all concerned went to conceal and deny this. Now, under Gordon Brown, the internal rifts may be less, but the government is rapidly losing any popularity the new premier briefly enjoyed.
The Blair-Brown parliamentary Labour party is much more subservient to the Whips than was the case under Wilson, or even Attlee. The few threats of major ‘rebellions’ during the government’s decade of tenure have mostly been ‘fixed’ behind the scenes without any dramas on the floor of the House, and this makes day-to-day politics boring, even for the politically curious [which most people aren’t]. The ‘New Labour’ project resembles a giant pumpkin from which all the flesh has been scooped out, leaving only an empty hallowe’en mask, with the result that an increasing number of people feel that despite the overweening interference of government in their lives political activity or protest is irrelevant because it won’t influence policy.
Not only party politics, but populist politics, failed to dent Blair’s unshakeable belief in his own rectitude. His airy dismissal of two million protesters marching against the
Down the years I have had excellent personal relations, and some close friendships, with many members of the Labour party in both Houses, some of whom I have greatly admired and respected. But I have never felt in the least inclined, or been asked, to consider joining the party. Probably because they knew I was not a tribalist, as they were. The distinguishing feature of the Labour party throughout its existence has been its fervent tribalism and inward-looking loyalty, which explains the intensity of its internal feuds. Labour people are bound together by a sense of virtuous superiority to those who have the short-sightedness, or the bad taste, to remain outside “this great party of ours”. Nye Bevan’s infamous and ill-judged jibe that Tories were “lower than vermin” spoke volumes about the Labour cast of mind. As is now only too apparent, the Labour front bench are, in their own estimation, the know-all Nannies of the Nation, and I am one of the growing number who can’t wait to get them off our backs.
One of the myths of British history is that there is a deep and vibrant seam of popular devotion to free speech and civil liberties ingrained in the population at large. Despite the 19th and 20th century advances gained by some strenuous campaigning over these issues, they have always been the concern of only a minority, as is evident from the widespread indifference to the current governmental assault since September 2001 on some of our traditional freedoms in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’. Wherever a resurgence of national concern about freedom is to come from, it is unlikely to be the ranks of ‘New Labour’.
To sum up, my take on the Labour Party is that, without overlooking the 17th century Cavaliers and the 18th century Jacobites, it is the cause in British politics which has attracted more misguided devotion, and betrayed more fond hopes, than any other.