Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Party pooper

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 Britain – the casualty area where good libertarian and social reforming intentions in opposition transmute into U-turns, bossiness and Nannyish heavy-handedness in government.

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 Munich, while simultaneously and inconsistently calling for greater resistance to Hitler.

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 Suez crisis of 1956. The country was split down the middle over the morality and strategic good sense of Anthony Eden’s ill-fated collusive invasion of Egypt with the French and Israelis, and the then Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, argued articulately and passionately against it. But the party was – as all parties are – a coalition with some strong personal antipathies, riven by feuds between Gaitskell’s supporters and those of Aneurin Bevan, and it failed to topple Eden’s government. The party did not regain office until 1964, when Harold Wilson became prime minister after a narrowly won election.

Wilson is still a controversial figure, admired by many and loathed by others who saw him as betraying the party’s traditional values and chasing opportunism. As his Guardian obituarist, Geoffrey Goodman, put it “he lacked the deep conviction of Thatcher or De Gaulle and never possessed the philosophical and inspirational qualities of Aneurin Bevan” [Labour’s Hamlet]. His lengthy premierships saw a generational and social transformation in Britain with much of which Wilson himself was not in personal sympathy – it was his liberal-minded Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, who masterminded much of the modernising legal reform that reached the Statute Book, most of it ostensibly as private members’ measures. Jenkins merits the chief blame – or praise, according to how you look at it – for the mis-named ‘permissive society’.

James Callaghan, Wilson’s successor, presided for a few more years over what came to be felt as the ‘stagnant society’. An old-fashioned trades union man to the core, Callaghan failed to recognise the damage done by increasingly unpopular and outmoded industrial restrictive practices, and his return from a winter Caribbean holiday to a damp and gloomy Britain whose streets were strewn with uncollected garbage because of union strikes only elicited from him – according to the Tory tabloids - the query “Crisis? What crisis?” That, if he did actually say it, was an egregious blunder. The outcome was a lost vote of confidence, a lost general election, and another 18 years of Tory government under a prime minister – Margaret Thatcher – who was much more of a radical in her own way than Callaghan or Wilson had ever been.

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 Eden appeared to be self-confidently in command of the national agenda. But appearances can be deceptive, and when the slide comes it can be rapid. In a few hectic weeks of ministerial scandals and adverse media publicity, ‘Supermac’ was swept away muttering “Events, dear boy. Events.” Harold Wilson famously said that a week is a long time in politics.

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 Iraq war speaks volumes for the decay of our representative system. Under any other administration I can think of, such a mass demonstration of public disapproval would have led to a vote of confidence in the Commons. But no-one, even in the opposition parties, has mounted such a challenge during the past decade. The malaise of political parties of all stripes, and their lessening appeal to the public, is a wider theme for further discussion.

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.


Emmett said...

AUNTY, A pretty peerless write-up!

I Am especially interested in your remarks about Mr Roy Jenkins, as I find him a most-enjoyable writer of biography.

YOU Seem to be saying, in the long mutation of the Labour Party, that Mr Jenkins, so to speak, first of all invited all of the YOBs and chaves out from under their order then to be surveilled and ASBO-ed, by the next generation of nanny-careerists!

I Love you all, so very much, but I daresay I shan't return again to the old land ever (air-travel being to-day such a degraded experience, in the first place!)

anticant said...

Roy Jenkins - though of humble birth - was a classical liberal in the Asquithian mode [as I'm sure you know, he wrote a very good biography of Asquith]. He believed in what he termed the 'civilised society', in which the citizen, rather than the state, takes primary responsibility for his or her own behaviour. This earned him the wrath of the censorious Nanny-type moral godbotherers, who accused him - quite erroneously - of having unleashed the Pandora's Box of the miscalled 'permissive society'.

I met him a few times, and always found him a most charming and sensible person. If he had become leader of the Labour Party, and prime minister [he was at one time deputy leader], our recent history would have been far more benign.

Emmett said...

Glad to hear it; Mr Jenkins does seem a gentleman, in the best sense. I say, do you happen to know Mr Malcolm Yorke, the 2002 Mervyn Peake biographer?

anticant said...


Jose said...

British history by a non-historian can be much more accurate than that made by specialists. Excellent piece, Anticant, very enlightening.

anticant said...

Well, Jose, considering that I have a degree in history from Cambridge University and have part-authored two volumes of industrial history, besides having done much other history-oriented writing, you are a bit off the mark there!

[No hard feelings, though.]

zola a social thing said...

Missed out the big Foot stuff AGAIN.
Gormighastly it is.

Yetidownthecoalmines said...

Anticant you are showing your neo.con and dotty.cons here.
As you know.............

anticant said...

Michael Foot is a lovely man, a cultivated thinker and a brilliant polemicist [as in "Guilty Men"]. But he was a pisspoor political tactician, and his leadership of the Labour Party was so disastrously ineffective that it's kindest forgotten.

anticant said...

When people say "as you know", one usually knows nothing of the sort. As a traditionalist, an extreme moderate, and temperamental centrist, I've a strong strand of small-c conservatism in me, but "neo-Con"? Never!

Emmett said...

AS Is well-known, and as you know I am sure, the severe constraints and, indeed, that final and absolute, ineluctable, limit on accurate communication; all of it in this gloomy abode of grim decay /is/ due primarily to the fatalities and inherencies of speech (and, writing); and, in no way primarily, as a rule, is any of this to be ascribed to intentional malice; nor to any lack of a duble-first: even were it in raillery & ransackment. For after all, semantic confusion must be the death of of the very malice itself; as well as of all else: and, everyone. /Solipsissmus invictus/, I think is how it goes...?

s/Wook, CC [/retd/]

Emmett said...

["AND! misspelling 'do-u-ble-first' ain't too awful God-damn helpful neither, and it sure as Hell ain't very BRIGHT!" -- Judson Andersen, Hammerhaed Town, Squawbunion County, US]

Jose said...

Sorry, Anticant.