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James Heartfield on the Tories' doomed search for a 'big idea'

Conservative innovators

  • Saturn's Children: How the State Devours Liberty, Prosperity and Virtue, Alan Duncan and Dominic Hobson, Sinclair Stevenson, £16.99 hbk
  • Things to Come: The Tories in the Twenty-First Century, John Patten, Sinclair Stevenson, £17.99 hbk
  • The Downing Street Years, Margaret Thatcher, Harper Collins, £9.99 pbk
'No theory of government was ever given a fairer test or a more prolonged experiment than democratic socialism received in Britain. Yet it was a miserable failure in every respect.'(p7)

That damning judgement of Labour in office comes from the first volume of Margaret Thatcher's autobiography, The Downing Street Years, out now in paperback. Today, however, it stands more as an epitaph for the system of government described as Thatcherism, the resurgent capitalist policies of 1979-90.

No system of government was ever given a fairer test. Thatcher ruled for 11 years, graced with an opposition that was inept, cowardly and without principle. Yet her government was a miserable failure in every respect but one - the systematic defeat of the old labour movement and left. Despite forcing through radical policies, despite attacking the high taxation and welfare spending that were supposed to hold back the British economy, the country slid down the world ratings through industrial shake-out, inflationary bubble and sustained slump.

The miserable failure of Thatcher's government dominates the Conservative Party today. In 1979 Thatcher's policies galvanised the party around the programme of rolling back socialism. Today the Tories are partly victims of their success in vanquishing the old enemies. The weakness of British capitalism now stands fully exposed, without any excuses about trade union power or high-spending socialists to let it off the hook. For five years John Major's government has sat on death row, without a single new policy of substance as it careers from crisis to crisis.

The malaise in the Tory family has provoked an interest in ideas unfamiliar to the right, as politicians seek out the 'big idea' that will save them. The maverick former education minister John Patten was never afraid of being unpopular (which was just as well in the circumstances). He has written his new book Things to Come, because 'to think anew while governing is desperately difficult - but vital'. If the Tories do not think anew now, 'then we will not hold power'. In Saturn's Children, Dominic Hobson and Rutland MP Alan Duncan set out a new programme along Thatcherite lines of tax and social security cuts.

Duncan and Hobson make the biggest ideological summersaults as they try to get over the problem of Conservatism's failure. They repeat Nigel Lawson's proposition that 'capitalism has sought to rest its case on practical success....Socialism, by contrast has been forced by practical failure on to the high ground of morality' (p153). With the terms reversed, though, that would stand as a description of their book; that practical failure has forced the free marketeers on to the high ground of morality.

Duncan and Hobson decry the contemporary state of British society as a betrayal of the ideal of the free market. Ill at ease in a country where government spending represents 43.3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, they are driven to denounce the Conservative government for giving in to creeping socialism.

Saturn's Children is a critique of the reality of capitalist society in the late twentieth century, conducted according to the abstract ideals of the free market. Lo and behold! Actually existing capitalism does not live up to its promises of freedom. What follows is an often engaging denunciation of the inherent hostility that modern capitalism - which Duncan and Hobson insist on calling socialism - has towards individual rights.

In Saturn's Children the radical free-marketeers strike some provocative poses. The Gulf War was just realpolitik, they say, and the dehumanisation of adversaries makes it easier to slaughter them (but Thatcher's Falklands War was just); the poll tax riots were a justified response to an oppressive tax; drugs should be decriminalised; identity cards represent the worst kind of state intrusion into our lives; big corporations are inimical to freedom, dominating their employees and working hand in glove with big government; there is no such thing as community, just state interference.

On the face of it these libertarian right wingers seem to pose a real challenge to today's climate of state interference and the victim culture. It is a measure of just how out of sorts the average free-marketeer is with the state of Britain today that a right-wing Tory MP like Alan Duncan should object to all of these features of capitalist society. However, his libertarianism has real limits. It is only where the rights of private property are being attacked that the right's libertarian instincts are galvanised. They are quite prepared to support state interference in society and the regulation of peoples' lives, so long as it is carried out in support of the values and institutions which they support. And, as we shall see, they think democracy is the biggest threat to individual liberty.

Duncan and Hobson are thorough to the point of tedium in describing the 'oppressive' nature of the tax system and public expenditure. Liberties not relating to taxpayers, though, seem to pass Duncan and Hobson by. Despite pouring scorn on the ethical humbug of Christian socialism, the authors turn very moral when it comes to defending family values. The rise in divorce is presented as a great social ill. But what is wrong with the fact that people choose their partners? Suddenly the defenders of liberty start to denounce it in women as so much 'permissiveness' - which, despite their attempts to distinguish the two, is just the pejorative word for freedom.

The libertarian rhetoric which Saturn's Children uses to lure its readers gets ejected once the 'crime' button is pressed. For all their general scepticism towards manufactured social problems, Duncan and Hobson fall for the myth of exponential rises in crime, hook, line and sinker. A brief look at the way that crime statistics are recorded and reported ought to have warned Duncan and Hobson that they were being bamboozled into yet more state spending, but then this is the sort of creeping state they like. Get closer to the public, they counsel the police (as they never would the tax office), and gather more information. Police spies are safe from these would-be defenders of liberty after all.

In Things to Come John Patten tries to square the circle of criticising the Thatcher legacy and praising it. Like Duncan, Patten generally thinks that the Tories need to go further. If they went wrong it was by deviating from the true path. Somehow, he says to explain the slump, the Conservatives just forgot all about their sound money policies and encouraged inflationary growth and bad debt, as if it had all been Nigel Lawson's mistake.

More independence from state subsidy is Patten's answer. But here he meets a problem. Rolling back the state depends 'not just on good government ideas but whether or not our people wish to take the chance of taking back more responsibility from the state' (p118). The difficulty is 'in finding people who want to take responsibility as much as they wish to take ownership' (p121). Patten despairs 'we offer them capitalism but they do not want it'. The truth is that most people do want independence, but their experience of the market is that it is no independence at all.

As Patten notes, it is the failure of the market that means more people are reliant on state benefits:

'The only alternative to an ever-growing dependency culture in those places [housing estates] is economic growth and renewal there. If there is no renewal then there will be more and more benefits paid out.' (p156)

The conclusion that eludes John Patten is that real dependency culture is not so much a failing on the part of individuals, but of capitalist society itself.

Neither Duncan nor Patten can come up with a big idea to save the Tories, because theirs is much more than an intellectual problem. Everywhere the distinctive programme that marked out the Tories in the past is eroded by the reality and experience of the slump. The idea that society should be free from the state is undermined by market failure, which has necessitated high state spending and intervention to prop up the capitalist economy.

Take taxation. In the past, Tory anti-tax policies proved an effective weapon against Labour. In the 1992 election Major snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by painting Labour as a tax-and-spend party. The taxation issue proved emblematic of Labour's untrustworthiness on the economy, and enough southern working class voters were sufficiently worried to help swing the balance for Major. Today Tories like John Patten and Alan Duncan are keen to take the high ground again on the tax question.

Unfortunately their party's record counts against them. Real rises in taxation, from VAT on fuel to the abolition of Mortgage Income Tax Relief make a mockery of the Tory record. Chancellor Kenneth Clarke's protestations that the Tories are, by instinct a tax-cutting party impress nobody when the Labour front bench is listing his government's successive tax rises.

The way that Patten tells it, the problem is that - as if by an oversight - the government forgot to cut the taxes that ordinary people pay, so keen were they to cut taxes for business: 'Tories in the twenty-first century need to perform the same trick for families that they have done so well for business since 1979.' (p164) But elevating the concerns of capitalists over ordinary people was not an accident on the Conservatives' part. The class divide is not something incidental or accidental, but the nature of the system the Tories are committed to defending.

Things to Come ends up with the rather modest ambition of 'getting back to the rate of taxation the Labour Party...bequeathed us in 1970, then 41 per cent' (p174). Trying to explain why taxation rates have continued to rise under a Tory government committed to cutting public expenditure is not easy. According to the former minister, the government just has not quite succeeded in persuading the British public of the need to slash public expenditure (p174).

Underneath the discussion about tax is a serious misconception on the part of both the main parties. Tory protestations about the drift of public expenditure rest on a confusion over which is the decisive factor in the relation between the economy and public expenditure. The reason that expenditure is rising as a percentage of output is a lack of dynamism in the economy, not an excess of generosity on the part of the government. Without a sufficient base for taxation, public expenditure will necessarily seem to be excessive.

On the other hand, the perception that ordinary people are overtaxed, played up by New Labour, is also a confusion. In reality they are underpaid, and, lacking the avenue of pushing for higher wages, the money lost in taxation seems ever more onerous. Consider what would happen if Alan Duncan's pretended goal of lower taxes for families were achieved. Would that money stay in their hands? No. All that would happen is that real wages would fall, either eaten away by inflation or bargained down in the face of a disadvantageous labour market. More tax breaks would only be a signal to employers that they could cut wages. For people on a wage, take-home pay is your real pay, and the deductions are just an extra wind up.

Duncan and Hobson argue that the threat to the liberty of taxpayers is democracy itself: 'Democracy turned parliament into an assembly representative mainly of those who imagined themselves to be the expropriators.... The result was to transform the Mother of Parliaments into a pork barrel.'(p47) The limitation of Duncan and Hobson's support for liberty is set by the exclusion of the working class from prosperity. Owning no capital, working people have little concern for Alan Duncan's fulminations about the tax system. Indeed the authors of Saturn's Children come dangerously close to expressing the real basis of the market society they want to defend against the state: 'Taxation divides the people of a country into two great and antagonistic classes.' (p77) But their perverse interpretation of this state of affairs is that the capital-owning classes are exploited, through taxation, by the working classes.

The importance of taxation in policy debate today reflects the extent to which mainstream politics has become a narrowly focused battle for the loyalty of middle class 'Middle England'. For the middle classes, tax rises underscore the fragility of their own position. For professionals and small businessmen, Tory tax rises are the final betrayal by the party they thought was theirs.

The one sensible pitch that Patten does make for middle class support is on the environment. While reserved on questions of animals rights, he has a rural MP's instinct for keeping the townies out of England's green and pleasant land. Preoccupied with the idea that this island is full to bursting, Patten is keen to ward off the spread of concrete: 'Rarely can any material have been so symbolic both of social as well as aesthetic degradation. Concrete slab housing seems so closely correlated with crime, unemployment and underclassism.' (p220)

Rarely has any prejudice been so ill-disguised as John Patten's identification of growth with the working class, particularly as he is sharp enough to note in an earlier aside that the threat of the underclass is 'more imaginary than real' (p156). Nonetheless the threat of the underclass spilling out into an already overcrowded England is a good concern for a politician for whom 'the countryside...has always been the place to go in order to collect Tory voters by the trailer load' (p241).

It is pointed that when it comes to urban development, Patten's support for the free market strangely givesway to a love of the plan, and the passages on 'the Community' in Things to Come feature the word planning as regularly as an old report on the Soviet grain harvest. Planning here means planning to keep the oiks out, and to keep a little patch of greenery for the middle class. 'Any twenty-first century planning legislation must have community as its touchstone' or there is little point in taking 'power and responsibility from a shrunken state' (p215).

In the end Patten's Things to Come lacks the combativeness and confidence to map out a Thatcher-style vision. For a former education minister there are some duff spellings ('incomprehending') and nonsensical sentences ('We should abolish the numbers of ministries, not add to them', p245). Could do better.

By contrast, Saturn's Children grabs you by the lapels, and, when its fire is turned on the humbug of Tony Blair's 'community' or the intrusiveness of the social services, its criticisms are effective. But deep down it is hard not to think that Alan Duncan and Dominic Hobson are just a bit bonkers, though not for the reasons for which they have been criticised, like wanting to legalise drugs. After all, if the surveys are to be believed most young people would agree with them on that score.

No, the thing that is hard to believe is that they do not understand that this is what capitalism is like today, not because of an accident or bad policy, but in its very nature. All the things they hate, from the intrusiveness of the state to the oppressive nature of big business, are the true character of late twentieth century capitalism, not a perversion of it. After all, if there really were radical policies that could transform the competitiveness of British capitalism and make the government more attractive, even the slow-witted Major would have grabbed at them. The limitations imposed on the Tories today by capitalist slump are clear in the rather banal practical proposals which follow Duncan and Hobson's radical rhetoric about rolling back the state. The best they can come up with is to knock a couple of billion off the foreign aid budget - a far cry from the dramatic proposals to privatise the big public utilities which marked the high point of Thatcher's 'popular capitalism'.

Far from being the opposite of the market, the state is its mirror image, formed, as Duncan and Hobson readily acknowledge, to defend property, and growing in influence in proportion to the growth of the system of private property relations. The real fight for liberty, it follows, is the fight against capitalism, but perhaps that is too hard for a Tory MP to understand.
  • Rebel Hearts, Kevin Toolis, Picador, £15.99 hbk
With Rebel Hearts, a collection of 'journeys within the IRA's soul', Kevin Toolis says he wants to cut through 'the propaganda fog of the past 25 years and achieve a clearer understanding of the principal protagonists, the Provisional IRA'. It is a laudable aim, especially since Toolis is one of the journalists who did so much to mystify the conflict in Northern Ireland as 'an ancient blood feud that stretches back across the centuries' (Guardian, 7 December 1991). Then Toolis wrote of 'Tyrone's green fields' where 'men mutter darkly of vendetta, unconsciously plunging between the centuries in midsentence' - all of which added to British propaganda about barmy Irishmen.

Toolis recounts some striking stories of the courage and sacrifice of IRA volunteers. There is Dermot Finucane who drove the getaway lorry in the IRA's 1983 Great Escape from Long Kesh, and Patricia Black, blown up by her own bomb at just 18 years of age. But all their tenacity is explained away with the assertion that 'republicanism is in the blood', as if joining the IRA was a kind of genetic disorder instead of a reaction to British occupation.

After the ceasefire Toolis has not renounced his psychological explanation of republicanism. All that is new is that the account is more patronising than vitriolic. Toolis admits that his aim is not really to explain, because 'Ireland has too much history', but to empathise. So his journey through the 'rebel heart of Ireland' is a search for his own 'rebel heart'. Still, you can always rely on a journalist to bring things down to their most base level. Toolis' account of a visit to the family of Tony Doris, shot dead in an SAS ambush at Coalisland, spends little time on sympathies and a full five pages on the IRA man's sister, and Toolis' fumbled attempt to get into her rebel pants.

By the end of the book you are left wondering what all the sacrifice was for. Robbed of any wider sense of their project of national liberation, the deaths of Patricia Black and Tony Doris just look like a tragic waste. Their ideals are vulgarised by Toolis - as indeed they have been by the leaders of the republican movement, who now say that their fight has only been for 'parity of esteem' between republicans and their enemies in Ireland. At the end of his journey Kevin Toolis discovers that he too has a 'republican soul' - which it seems is something cheaply bought these days.

Brendan O'Neill
  • Alien Nation: Common Sense about America's Immigration Disaster, Peter Brimelow, Random House, $23.50 hbk
British-born Peter Brimelow, now living in America writes an emotionally charged and politically incorrect polemic against immigration and in defence of the nation, which he sees as a 'sort of extended family'. Even strident anti-immigrant campaigners like governor Pete Wilson in California usually frame their arguments in acceptably pragmatic economic terms - a sort of 'nothing personal but we need to protect our jobs'. By contrast Brimelow insists that immigrants are a threat to the integrity of America, and proposes a rerun of the infamous mass deportation of Mexican immigrants in 1954, degradingly called Operation Wetback.

Brimelow shows a zealous enthusiasm for cultural difference, which he thinks is unavoidable. Citing the 'mystic chords of memory' evoked in Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address, Brimelow's account of American identity is curiously like that of the proponents of black and Hispanic identity - all culture and no content: 'Thus the culture of a country, like its ecology, turns out to be a living thing, sensitive and even fragile. Neither can easily be intruded upon without consequences.' This is a version of American nationalism that is compellingly defensive. Brimelow even bleats that keeping immigrants out will improve economic conditions for America's blacks.

The book takes its name from the late night TV series Alien Nation where a bizarre yet familiar looking extra-terrestrial race arrive on Earth causing all sorts of problems from crime and poverty to a racist backlash. The series abruptly ended, mid-adventure with the hero about to be killed. The closing credits promised that the story would be continued next week, only to be corrected by a voiceover from the station saying that no more episodes were made. Permanently threatened with extinction is how Brimelow sees America. Alien Nation shows how the politics of cultural difference can be used to revitalise America at the expense of the third world poor.

Paula Cerni
  • Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action, Mark Traugott (ed), Duke University Press, £27.50 hbk, £12.95 pbk
Once upon a time labour historians wrote the story of the making of the working class as if it was one long process of development leading up to the modern trade union movement. Each stage, from Chartism to the New Model Unions, was a lesson to be learned on the way. Confidence in the unbroken development of the labour movement was shattered as its contemporary organisations lost their way.

Charles Tilly, who inspired this collection as well as contributing an essay, did much to dislodge the idea that collective organisation was one long ascent. His scepticism towards the imposed schemas of the development of the working class had a point. Working class organisation is indeed discontinuous, as it is made, unmade and made anew by the continuous reorganisation of capitalism.

However, the real weakness of Tilly's approach, as shown in the essays of his students reproduced here, is that it robs all collective organisation of meaning, beyond the merely tactical and technical questions of organisation. So profound is Tilly's mistrust of grand schemas that he not only rejects those attempts to make sense of events afterwards, but even rejects those accounts of the participants themselves as equally untrustworthy. What he is left with, he proudly tells us, is an index of thousands of instances of civil disorder, each as dumb as the last.

William Deighton
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 82, September 1995

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