Saturday, 9 January 2016

Betrayal, obscurity, radicalism, disaster: the various models of British government facing Britain today

It’s a hallmark of the political left that its failures often take the form of betrayals.

That’s not surprising. After all, the left is there to speak for the little man against the master class. But, however much we may resent his power, we all tend to admire the master – perhaps Freud would prefer the word father – so we often end up seeking his approbation at least as earnestly as we oppose his authority.

That was Tony Blair through and through. He wanted to oppose the British Conservative Party, but wanted to win their grudging admiration as he beat them. He needed to show, for instance, that he was capable of being at least as patriotic, at least as warlike in his patriotism, as they were. So he’s left a legacy which, despite its many and striking achievements – on child poverty, on healthcare, on human rights – will forever be overshadowed by his catastrophic war in Iraq. A war he waged with overwhelming support from the Conservatives, and against widespread opposition in his own party and across the nation.

That betrayal was only the second worst in Labour history, however. The greatest was carried out by the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. A fine radical figure and even a pacifist, he began to show that fatal desire to be approved by the establishment when he agreed to wear pompous (and expensive) court dress in order to be presented to the King. A trivial matter, but an important symbol: he showed his willingness to bow down, for all his radicalism, to the master and his (allegedly) quaint customs.

Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister
But the smiles would later turn to tears
The truly substantial betrayal came in 1931. 

Facing a crisis as we did in 2009, he decided, as the present Conservative government has, to tackle it through austerity. That meant cutting spending, including unemployment benefit at a time when unemployment was rocketing; that wasn’t a policy Labour could back, so he formed a so-called National government in coalition with the Tories. Only he and two others of his Ministers joined the new government, however, and it was dominated by the Tories. The 1931 general election saw the Labour Party reduced to just fifty seats in parliament.

With the right, in Britain at least, things tend to be different. You get three kinds of Tory government: the ones which do nothing much at all, just widespread meanness without vision; the ones that leave a deplorable mark in history; and the third kind which are even meaner than the first, but with spectacular success.

Maggie Thatcher is the iconic figure for that last kind of Tory. If you were gay, if you were a miner, if you were poor, if you were a trades unionist, you could expect nothing but the cruellest treatment from her. Why, even if you were Nelson Mandela, you only received contempt. But she did it all with style, with ruthless determination, and she achieved a great many of her objectives. 

Far too many.

The first kind of Conservative is represented by figures who have drifted into well-deserved obscurity. Stanley Baldwin, for instance, who joined the so-called National Government under MacDonald, and emerged as the openly Conservative Prime Minister in 1935. No one remembers much about him, but his time in office was marked by such events as the Jarrow hunger march. It protested against a state in which cities in the North of England had unemployment rates of 70%. Britain was the hub of a great Empire, but had citizens dying of starvation.

Baldwin was followed by the man who is the prime example of the disastrous Tory, Neville Chamberlain. He signed the agreement with Hitler which he claimed would guarantee “peace in our time.” World War 2 broke out a year later. When he presented the agreement to parliament and Arthur Greenwood, deputising for the absent Labour leader Clement Attlee, rose to reply in a House of Commons silent with shame at the government’s cravenness, Leo Amery cried out from the Conservative benches, “speak for England, Arthur.” Such was the depth of the humiliation that even Tory supporters of a Tory government had to call on Labour to reassert some pride.

Why is any of this interesting today?

We have a radical leading the Labour Party. But many among his parliamentary colleagues are mired in the belief that we still need to win the approval of their masters. So who will win? Will he stand firm against the failures of the Tory representatives of that master class and continue to reject what they stand for? Or will he be brought down and replaced by another Ramsay MacDonald?

On the other side, the question is more about what type of Tory government we’re looking at. It certainly won’t be the Thatcher kind. After five years in a coalition administration, and nearly a year on their own, there’s no sign of any great radical act to mark its tenure. Today these Tories look like Baldwins: nasty, but without either courage or conviction. They have, on the other hand, put themselves in a position where they have to hold a referendum on British membership of the European Union, probably later this year. That could well lead to the disastrous outcome of Britain leaving.

In the Middle East, they’re to be pursuing the same Blair approach of reliance on military muscle – and we know where that got us in Iraq.

Baldwins, so far, then. But it looks as though they may be setting out on a different course. Could they be about to turn into Chamberlains after all?

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