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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.

'Anti' crusade

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 much'.

Charter party

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 fooled.

Bumping along

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'.

Andrew Calcutt
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992

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