The economy (and political map) of Britain have changed radically since 1977. This is not a controversial statement. We’ve gotten collectively richer, while in the process metastasizing tumours of disadvantage which will take not years but generations, plural, to heal. We’ve shifted our economy finally and irrevocably from one based on most people working in manufacturing or primary industry to one where better than two thirds of the country work in service, knowledge or other tertiary industries. We have not evolved adequate union models for an era in which increasing numbers of the under-40s are self-employed and multi-skilled but broke and completely disenfranchised by demographic accidents and a broken political system. And we’ve had two, very long, governments in that time, one Tory and one Labour.
Which is interesting, because during the bit of the 20th century while we had things mostly working that didn’t happen a whole lot, no-one really got more than two terms in power, and frequently without a particularly secure majority. That all changed with the coming together of the dividends from North Sea oil and gas, the over-reaching of the militant end of the miner’s unions, the opportunity to start a politically motivated war shortly before an election, and the leadership of one of the best and strongest of our modern politicians. In that intersection a new era of tribal politics was created for Britain. Thatcher could dismiss her own moderates as ‘wets’, because she was winning. As soon as she wasn’t winning, things got messy and Major had to try and restrain the rampant excesses for which his party are famous. He largely failed. But throughout Back to Basics we were following the path Thatcher had charted; absolutism. We Are Right. This Lady’s Not For Turning. Maturity and compromise are not eternally lacking factors in British politics; they are aspects of our political debate which were deliberately excised by a party too powerful for too long, who succumbed to hubris.
Now we come to New Labour (the actual Labour Party have not held power during the new political era I’m describing). When they came in, they had a majority which reflected all of the following about the Tories; the arrogance of their backbenchers and financiers, the hypocrisy of their front bench, and the inadequacy of their response to the recession of the early 1990s which led to considerably more people unemployed than there are now off a smaller market crash. The majority they brought with them also depended from several things about New Labour; the success of Blair’s marketing of his message, the shifting of the Labour Party rightwards to park their tanks on the Tory’s lawn, the desperation of many people in a dead jobs market and the genuine belief in many people’s minds that the Labour Party represented a return to compassionate and progressive politics.
Like Thatcher’s Tories, the first term made it look like the country had been right. The economy began to recover. Money from the creation of the multi-billion pound Internet and mobile phone markets replicated for Labour the effects of the dividends from the North Sea finally coming in, after years of heavy investment by mostly Labour governments. A number of good laws, and several progressive policies, were implemented in New Labour’s first term; in Thatcher’s something similar happened, though ‘progressive’ is more debateable. In both cases the party was then given an opportunity to which they chose to react like hysterical authoritarian wing-nuts.
In Thatcher’s case it was Scargill, pushing the (valid, necessary, politically courageous) miner’s strikes into pursuing the wrong goal. Mining is one of those industries where after you’ve been digging up your country for 7,000 years eventually you start running out of stuff it is plausible to retrieve. You can’t keep empty pits running; but you can force the pit owners to look after the men and women who depend on them. You can pump money, education, expertise and industrial incentives into those areas before the pits close. That wasn’t what Scargill wanted. He wanted to beat Thatcher, to gain a symbolic and historic victory over the grocer’s daughter who sided with the mill owners; and ultimately, to have the mines last forever, to have the old economy never change. The support from other mining unions began to erode under him as did support from outside the industry. That handed Thatcher the opportunity to break the Unions, so she did.
Blair had developed a fair amount of token socialism in the first term while rapaciously consuming the short-term benefits of over-clocking your financial markets way beyond the red line. But the underlying nature of the New Labour echelons was Party Line; the signs of their authoritarianism were already there in their voting records. The opportunity was the evolution of the modern war on ‘terror’. The response was to launch New Labour into a spiral of self-referential and hubristic authoritarianism which may yet destroy the party as a force in British politics, if they don’t stop their scorched earth campaign against the Liberal Democrats.
Both leaders were then succeeded by a back-room battler who had significant intellectual credentials and absolutely no hope of controlling their party for the long haul. Of the two I would say Major discharged the responsibilities set before him more competently than has Brown: Major did manage to win at least one election.
All of this is preambulatory; it provides the context for a thesis about the financial economy, post-industrialism, the impact of the information economy and how these intersect to ignite a new desire for constitutional regeneration in a previously apathetic British electorate. Call back tomorrow for a further installment!