The big clampdown
THE New Right politicians make convincing sense of the world to many who have been puzzled, worried and intimidated by the changes of the last twenty-odd years. Their talent has been to sense the mood, articulate it and respond to it. Curiously for governments which so blatantly favour the rich and powerful, they are more in touch with ordinary people than politicians who have a more genuine claim to champion people’s rights.
In the period following the war, the levelling onslaught of Nazi bombs and a united production effort against the faces of fascism pummelled politicians and people into some kind of social consensus. Whether it was the Britain of Macmillan or the America of Eisenhower, there was agreement that equality was a good thing. The disagreement was over the best engine to produce the wealth to be distributed. The Right believed that private enterprise was the most effective, the Left that public works and systematic planning were the answer.
Old Tories everywhere were a different breed to the Conservatives of today. Then, they saw the welfare state as a necessity for maintaining the Establishment, and a way to buy votes from the majority which they patently were not part of. This was not just cynical. The feudal past of Europe, gave the concern for welfare reforms a squirachical form, it was a language of interconnecting rights and duties inherited from the Middle Ages. With the rise of the New Right this consensus has been exploded.
Nearly everything behind the social democratic consensus of post-war years involved the extension of state powers. And far too many people have experienced these extensions not as helping them, but as an intrusion on their personal freedom. The people who benefit from it don’t identify with it. For what they remember from their everyday experience of welfare is the way they are reduced to a client status. They remember real or imagined humiliations. They remember waiting; waiting for a council house, waiting to claim their benefits, waiting to see the doctor. By implication their time isn’t important, they are trivialised. The recipient is powerless, in the hands of the bureaucrat, the professional, the receptionist.
Along with these bitter experiences of the welfare state was the subtle change of attitude… that services became the recipients’ rights. In short, the loss of feudal ‘gratitude’. That loss came somewhere in the heady years of the long splurge... the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s. Deference towards welfare changed with the climate of the times. There was nothing respectful about Safeways, Liptons or Sainsbury’s. You grabbed your trolley, took your choice, paid your money and were treated as good as the next. The consumer culture didn’t require you to tug your forelock and look deserving when you approached the till. People’s own experience showed the market could provide, and it was popular.
The increasing hostility to the pervasive and giant welfare systems - the British National Health Service is second only to the Red Army in numbers of people employed - became associated by too many as paying high taxes to support the apparatus. And this was true. Poorer people were paying more tax. Small wonder there is a powerful appeal in the New Right’s manifesto to cut taxes and reduce welfare spending. With bitter experience of depleted take-home pay, talk of ‘the welfare safety net becoming a featherbed for scroungers’ finds receptive ears.
A further legacy of the heady days of full employment has been the arrival in Western countries of West Indian, African and Asian immigrants. They were recruited to do the dirty, poorly-paid jobs in transport, or in cleaning hospital bedpans. Most European economies sucked in guest workers - four million in France, three million in West Germany, 1,5 million in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. And in the United States at the same time the civil rights movement had triumphed with concrete legislation on equal opportunities and positive discrimination. The consequences for the uncertain 1970s when unemployment began to bite was a backlog of resentment by those who were just above the blacks and immigrants in the pecking order. It was a resentment articulated by populist politicians around the world: from Enoch Powell in ‘Wolverhampton to Joh Bjelke Petersen in Queensland and Governor Wallace in Alabama. The racism was played on, sotto voce, by the British New Right Conservative Party in the 1979 elections when Mrs Thatcher expressed concern that immigrants were ‘swamping’ British culture.
The New Right’s response to the crisis of welfare was the reassertion of ‘fundamental values’. It is dressed up ‘pro-family’ rhetoric (is anyone against families?), which demands that the nuclear family should be taking on again the caring functions ‘usurped’ by the state. Another function for the reinstated family was social control… discipline and the father’s strap. But again these simplistic sentiments were grounded in very real fears of social chaos.
After the unemployed young people’s riots in Liverpool, London and Bristol in 1981. Mrs Thatcher commented, ‘We are reaping what was sown in the 1960s. The fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which the old virtues of discipline and self-restraint were denigrated…’ And for the bewildered old age pensioner, worried about being mugged by a frightening looking punk whilst on the way to the corner shop, discipline and a touch of the army glasshouse seemed to be the answer. For there were few progressive alternative explanations on offer.
The reactionary answers of control, discipline and self-help were reflected by an equally reactionary set of explanations and answers to the economic issues. The economic concerns were similar to the social: everything is too big. There was the sprawling involvement of government in the economy: planning, regulating, negotiating between business and unions, enforcing safety and environmental controls. And the monolithic trade unions with their block votes and ability to call strikes, bring the country to a standstill, inconvenience the general public and, often as not, win from their militant action. The only partner who was not smeared with the giantism brush was, surprise, surprise, the multinational corporation - the third partner in the tripartite social democratic arrangement. Curiously, whilst more control was demanded to remedy social problems, less controls were suggested as the answer to economic troubles.
Certainly by the 1970s new economic answers were needed - particularly for Britain’s archaic class-ridden industrial scene with its inefficient business and rampant inflation. Annual percentage price rises in most countries rose to double figures, the United Kingdom experienced 26 per cent inflation in 1975. Were we slipping into the nightmare of the Weimar Republic’?
The New Right had an answer. It was to stop inflation at all costs. Wheeling in the intellectual coherence of Milton Freidman and von Hayek (see page 22. The Thinkers), they argued the problem was too much state interference, too much state spending. Let competition and the market forces drive out the inefficient firms, promote modernisation and, above all, discipline the trade unions through unemployment. ‘Rolling back the frontiers of the state’ became the catch phrase.
By this time the New Right movement in the United States was well into its stride. Former New Right activist Alan Crawford described what was happening in Thunder on the Right. ‘The New Right was transformed into a disciplined, well-organised and well-financed movement of loosely-knit affiliates collecting millions of dollars from blue-collar workers and housewives. It flourishes on backlash politics wanting to veto whatever threatens its way of life... porn, abortion, gay’ rights, the Soviet threat’. Indeed the direct mail fund raising campaigns of New Right groups in the late 1970s raised $14 million for candidate Reagan’s presidential election coffers.
The rhetoric so effectisely pumped out in direct mail operations brings us to the third string of the New Right’s bow’. Alongside the music of the free-market, the elevation of the family’ and debasement of state welfare, lay the appeal of nationalism.
Humiliated by the defeat in Vietnam, angered by’ America’s impotence over the Teheran hostage-taking, and appalled by President Carter’s handing back of the Panama Canal, Middle America warmed to the tough-talking, aggressive foreign policy adventures of Reagan. The New Right direct mail campaigns played on this. Listen to this letter from the Conservative Caucus:
One remedy for insecurity was nationalism. By accident of birth you could feel superior.
While American pride had been rocked by Vietnam and the Teheran hostages, the British had had to face a long Imperial twilight fading from a world power in 1945 to a bottom-of-the-second-division team by the late 1970s. The Falklands crisis was incomprehensible to much of the outside world: a storm in a teacup. But for the British national psyche it unleashed a reservoir of sentiment about the country’s humiliation.
Summing up the national feelings, Eric Hobsbawn in an article ‘Falklands Fallout’ put it this way: ‘Our country’s been going downhill for decades ... we can’t even beat Argentina at football... now some bunch of foreigners think they can march onto British territory and take it over... it’s the last straw that breaks the camel’s back, something’s got to be done... we’ll show them we’re not to be walked over.’ With this kind of pub talk, neither costs nor objectives really mattered. The initiative was shrewdly seized by Mrs Thatcher. ‘When we started out,’ she declared afterwards, ‘there were fainthearts and waverers ... who thought that we could never again be what we were, that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well, they were wrong.’ Such tub-thumping jingoism paid off handsomely. Despite all the domestic suffering from her policies, she was given a second term of office.
Behind the policies is a new’ class view’ of society. Society, it’s claimed, is no longer divided between the rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited, the powerful and the powerless. Instead the division is between the producers and the parasites. Both managers and workers in private enterprise are on the productive side of the divide. On the other are the welfare claimants, immigrants, delinquents and demonstrators. And lined up with them, shoulder-to-shoulder, are the New Class of liberal inteligentsia, pampered bureaucrats employed by government or City Hall, dogooders, teachers, and verbalisers - in short the New Internationalist writers and readers.
The New Right has identified us as part of the problem, true we are ideological enemies. It is the better to demolish their simplistic pieties that we have explained the conditions which make them so plausible. Our concerns is for the worried and insecure that are attracted. How many of them will suffer because of the nonsensical straitlaced Victorian certainties that are being preached and practised - the morality of the workhouse and the economics of Mr Gradgrind? Our worry too is that the New Right leaders will play the nationalist card too often. Bellicose foreign adventures might become little wars. The little wars might become bigger ones, and that becomes the last one.
New Right issues are founded on a revulsion against bigness. They have hijacked small is beautiful sentiments and fitted them into their own twisted logic. For the size of state services, of government, industry and trade unions does not mean that they should be sold off to private enterprise. Many institutions are big for good reason. Large trade unions simply reflect the size of their opponents. It is also a big task to ensure that noone dies for lack of health care in a country. It’s not a service to be ashamed of, rather one that should be the right of all the world’s citizens. The alienation provoked by size should be tackled by’ des’olution in decision-making, regionalising where possible, and, above all, by treating people with respect for their individuality’. For the economy, more state interference, more socially-responsible planning is required rather than leaving the field to entrepreneurial freebooters. Breaking up existing concentrations of wealth, curbing the powers of multinational corporations, promoting cooperatives and peoples’ participation in the running of their jobs, these are some of the serious alternative policies that would tackle contemporary needs.
The talent of this contemporary New Rightists, is that they have addressed deep-seated needs of ordinary people. But there is one need they cannot cater for. It is the need for people to have something else in life than the selfish pursuit of monetary ends. More possessions, feeling superior, stepping on others, the ethics of Dallas, most people are not happy with this most of the time. There is a need to contribute to and not to take from the community; to feel at one with and not exploited by work: and, for many, to take sustenance from a just and egalitarian God. From this perspective, the horrors of Thatcherism and the banalities of Reagan must be seen as a passing phenomena. How many are hurt in the meantime is another matter.
This special report appeared in the the big clampdown - democracy freedom and the rise of the new right issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.