The Tory government's attempt to win a fourth term is threatened by
a new 'enemy within': the empty hole at the heart of its own programme.
Sharon Clarke looks into it
Fighting their own mediocrity
Why are the Tories doing so much worse in the run-up to the 1992 election
than they did in 1987? The simple answer is the state of the economy. In
fact that's too simple an answer. After all, the Tories came through the
recession of the early eighties to win a vastly increased majority at the
1983 election. This time they will be lucky to scrape back into government.
The explanation for the decline lies in the combination of a slump in the
economy and a slump within the Conservative Party itself. All of the dynamism
and sense of purpose which the Tories projected in the eighties is gone.
Misty-eyed right wingers may claim that this is due to the mistake of dumping
Margaret Thatcher. But Thatcher was removed in 1990 precisely because her
'revolution' had already run out of steam.
The truth is that, even in their mid-eighties heyday, the Tories never had
a positive programme for rebuilding British capitalism. What the Thatcherites
had was an 'anti' crusade to galvanise the middle class constituency of
the Conservative heartlands (anti-the trade unions, anti-the left, anti-Soviet,
anti-all the 'enemies within'). They also had the credit-financed illusion
of an 'economic miracle' to appeal to more working class voters. But both
the negative politics and the never-never economics of the eighties are
now thoroughly exhausted.
The recession which was temporarily postponed by the credit boom has now
arrived with a vengeance to destroy the Conservatives' claims for 'popular
capitalism'. And the defeat of the old left and labour movement in Britain,
followed by the more recent collapse of the Soviet Union, has robbed the
Tories of the best bogeys for a strident anti-something campaign.
Like other pro-capitalist parties around the world, the Tories have discovered
that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the old enemy raises embarrassing
questions about what the right stands for rather than against. On
the evidence of the Conservative election campaign, the answer is 'nothing
The Tories are now threatened by a very different 'enemy within': the empty
hole at the heart of their own political programme.
The ongoing saga of the Citizen's Charter sums up the mediocrity of Conservatism
in the Major era. Launched last year amid fanfare claims that it would revolutionise
the provision of public services in Britain, the Citizen's Charter remains
a piece of paper, backed by no new investment.
Devoid of meaningful ideas and constrained by the parlous state of British
capitalism, all the Conservatives can do is to issue one glossy charter
after another, to try to create the impression of purposeful action. So
the original Citizen's Charter has been followed by a seemingly endless
stream of sub-charters from various government departments and privatised
corporations: the taxpayer's charter, the shopper's charter, the commuter's
charter, the electricity/gas/phone consumer's charter, the butcher's, baker's
and candlestick maker's charter, etc, etc. Meanwhile, the services which
all of these charters are supposed to improve continue to deteriorate.
When Major first launched his Citizen's Charter, he said it was designed
to replace the outdated idea that you could solve social problems by throwing
money at them. It is now obvious that he has replaced it with the revolutionary
idea that you can solve social problems by throwing worthless pieces of
paper at them.
When British Rail's risible passenger charter was launched in early March,
setting the lowest standards for the worst commuter lines into London, it
received a hostile enough reception to suggest that few people are so easily
Whether it's the Citizen's Charter or a national lottery, the paper proposals
in the Tory programme seem farcically inadequate at such a time of economic
and social crisis. The emptiness of nineties Conservatism, well represented
by the mediocrities in the party leadership, means that even against unimpressive
opponents, Major will not enjoy an easy ride back to Number 10.
It also means that, even if he is re-elected, Major has no chance of conjuring
up a solution to the problems facing British society. The government, like
the British economy, will continue 'bumping along the bottom'.
Five years ago the Tories triumphed under the banner of popular capitalism.
The unpopularity of the government today (even among many of its own supporters)
is a sign of what has happened to capitalism since then --and of how that
slump has exposed the Tory Party's lack of a single positive policy.
Young, Dull and Grey
'If John Major is grey, I'm glad to be grey', said a rare Scottish delegate
at February's Young Conservatives conference in Eastbourne. Her colleague
quoted Major as saying 'a nation which went through rapid change in the
eighties can now become at ease with itself'. In other words, anything for
a quiet life.
In the eighties, the Tory youth wing saw itself as the vanguard of 'Mrs
Thatcher's revolution'. The right-wing Federation of Conservative Students
got so far out of hand that Central Office closed it down. But today's YCs
are as downbeat and directionless as their seniors. The young blades who
considered themselves the cutting-edge of radical Toryism have become dull
young fogeys trying to pass off their party's lack of dynamism as a sign
of maturity and responsibility.
The order of the day at Eastbourne was making a virtue out of a necessity.
Many YCs freely admitted that Major lacks charisma. For them, however, 'charisma-free'
was meant to be as much a term of praise as 'ozone-friendly'.
'Charisma is what counts in America, not Britain', said one delegate. Another
declared, 'you don't need dynamism for government'. Indeed, according to
the YCs, lack of dynamism is what makes Major a world statesman: 'He represents
the caution and continuity required in world affairs.' These qualities will
apparently prevent Britain from making an over-hasty escape from recession:
'As John Major said, the quick way out of recession isn't the best way.
We should build slowly and steadily for the long term'.
If there was a 'quick way out of recession', you can bet Major would take
it. All this talk of 'slowly and steadily' is just a polite way of saying
that the Tories have run out of steam. Some YCs came close to con-fessing
as much. 'Political life is more dull than it was', admitted one. Another
lived in hope that 'by the mid-nineties we will know where we are going'.
Others denied that their party is short on new thinking. 'Our leaders are
always coming up with new ideas', said one, 'but we don't know what's going
on in their heads at the moment'.
Today's YCs are already reduced to reminiscing about the past. One assured
me that Britain 'will always be there in the history books'. Another typically
defensive delegate wanted me to know that 'politics is not necessarily combative'.
Hardly the fighting spirit which launched Thatcher against Arthur Scargill
and 'the enemy within'.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992