1992 was a bad year, not just for the Queen and her favourite castle,
but for all of the established figureheads and institutions of British society.
Mike Freeman explains why
Her Majesty the Queen in her Guildhall speech marking 40 years on the throne
(24 November 1992)
- 'Nineteen ninety-two is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted
pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it
has turned out to be an 'Annus horribilis'.'
Speaking only a few days after the devastation of Windsor Castle by fire,
the Queen reflected on what had made 1992 a horrible year, not just for the
royal family, but for the wider British establisment:
The intensely hostile public response to the government's immediate announcement
that Windsor Castle was to be restored at the taxpayer's expense was merely
one more indication of the extent of popular disaffection from the ruling
institutions of British society.
- 'I suspect I am not alone in thinking it so. Indeed I suspect there
are very few people or institutions unaffected by these last months of worldwide
turmoil and uncertainty.'
It was certainly a horrible year for a number of prominent people and institutions
in British political life. Let's start with John Major and the Conservative
Party. After Major's surprise victory in the general election, everybody
forgot his lacklustre campaign.
Within months Major's triumph had turned to disgrace as he lost authority
within his party and in the country. In rapid succession in the autumn,
the government fell victim to a series of major crises: first the devaluation
debacle and withdrawal from the ERM, then a climbdown over the timing of
pit closures, next a revolt over Maastricht that brought the government
within an ace of parliamentary defeat and international as well as domestic
humiliation, and then the scandal of Iraqgate.
Horrible as things were for Major, he remained in office. Even though the
Conservative Party was riven by internal strife to such a degree that commentators
recalled historic divisions over the Corn Laws and Tariff Reform, the Tories'
ascendancy over British politics was enhanced in 1992. This was because
things were, if anything, even more horrible for John Smith and the Labour
It is worth recalling that, long before the election, it was almost an article
of faith among political commentators that if Neil Kinnock was replaced
by John Smith, Labour would be a real contender for power. Well, Kinnock
went, Smith was railroaded to the top - and Labour has become an increasingly
marginal force in British politics.
Smith's comment on events in Yugoslavia over the summer - that he saw 'no
particular merit in seeking to make controversy out of a difficult situation' - summed
up the lethargy of the leader of the opposition. The Labour leader has been
hamstrung by the fact that on the substantial issues at the root of recent
controversies - economic and fiscal policy, Europe, the Gulf War - there is
no significant difference between his line and that of Major.
Writing in November's Fabian Society magazine, newly elected Labour MP Nick
Raynsford, who has always been regarded as a moderate, described Labour
as a party in 'a state of anaesthetized torpor' and warned of the danger
of 'sleepwalking into electoral oblivion'.
Torpor and oblivion
Mention of torpor and oblivion immediately brings to mind another group
of people and institutions for which 1992 has been particularly horrible - the
trade unions. With membership in a downward spiral as unemployment again
rises, the unions now face a renewed onslaught in their last remaining redoubt - the
public sector. The TUC's response has been to beg for mercy from the employers
and the government, inviting the leader of the CBI to address its congress
and putting its faith in dissident Tory MPs, tabloid editors and bishops
to delay the jobs shakeout.
One man who had a good year in 1992 was TUC leader Norman Willis. He staved
off an attempted coup and continues his efforts to bring the electricians
back into the TUC on terms which make scabbing, poaching members and doing
sweetheart deals with employers appear to be legitimate trade union practices.
Good for Norman - horrible for the unions.
How can we explain the apparently simultaneous demise of prominent individuals,
traditional institutions and political movements in British life? The most
obvious explanation is the impact on all aspects of British society of a
recession turning inexorably into a slump . This is inevitably a major challenge
to any sitting government which is forced to take difficult decisions - and
take the blame for the consequences. A climate of economic insecurity also
creates difficulties for opposition movements, especially when they have
no coherent alternative programme.
Yet economic problems do not automatically provoke political crises. Britain
experienced major recessions in the recent past which did not lead to a
similar level of popular disillusionment with established political leaders,
institutions and organisations. For example, the worldwide stock market
crash of October 1987, which had serious consequences for the City of London,
had little effect on domestic politics compared with the events following
Black Wednesday in September 1992, which created a major crisis of confidence
in the economic competence of the government.
After the Cold War
The key difference between the recession of the early 1990s and those of
earlier decades is not that it is more profound, though it is, but that
it takes place in a climate of what the Queen called 'worldwide turmoil
and uncertainty' which results from the collapse of the Soviet Union and
the end of the Cold War.
Though the international consequences of the breakdown of 40 years of East-West
polarisation have been widely recognised, the effects on domestic politics
in the West have been underestimated. The end of the Cold War has posed
big problems for the old parties of left and right alike.
The collapse of Stalinism has further discredited the state socialist policies
associated with British Labourism, and has further demoralised the left.
The steady decline in working class support for Labour since the 1960s reflected
a growing disillusionment in practice with the inadequacies of nationalisation
and state welfare. Since the 1980s Labour has effectively abandoned any
association with socialism, in the hope of appealing to middle class voters.
A once powerful and influential left has become marginal and irrelevant.
All of this was justified on the grounds that it would make Labour electable.
The April 1992 general election showed that it had not.
The defeat of Kinnock's new-style, post-Cold War, post-socialist party revealed
the depth's of Labour's problems. But it also disguised the seriousness
of the problem created for the Tories by the reconstitution of the Labour
Party. For decades the Conservative Party has rallied its own supporters,
and appealed to wavering voters, on the grounds that Labour was truly a
'socialist' party and that socialism was at least half way to communism.
When election campaigning got tough, the predictable Tory refrain was that
Labour could not be trusted to defend Britain against the Soviet Union and
its sympathizers at home. Hence the long-standing Tory infatuation with
CND and the left, which could always be used to discredit Labour by association
A revealing incident in the early stages of the 1992 election campaign was
the Sunday Times' attempt to smear Kinnock by digging up contacts
he was alleged to have had with Soviet diplomats when he was organising
student union debates. The significant thing about the smear, like similar
stories about Bill Clinton in the recent US election campaign, was that
it failed to excite public interest and made no impact on the election.
The fact that Kinnock lost anyway distracted attention from the way in which
the end of the Cold War had deprived the Tories of one of their most effective
Just as the USA can no longer rally the Western nations against 'the evil
empire' post-Cold War, so conservative Western politicians can no longer
rally their parties and their voters against 'the enemy within'. The enemy
has often been given a broad definition, including not only communists, but
socialists, trade unionists, even liberals who could be labelled 'fifth columnists'
or 'fellow travellers' according to the propaganda requirements of the moment.
While such campaigns were most ferocious (and mendacious) at the height
of the Cold War in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the main themes remained
as a powerful undercurrent in political life in Britain and other Western
countries up to the 1980s, surfacing particularly during elections.
The demise of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, the liquidation of
the British Communist Party, the disintegration of the Labour left, the
Labour Party's abandonment of socialism and the pathetic plight of the TUC - all
this has deprived the British establishment and the Tories of the focus
against which they used to pull their own forces into line. It is the coincidence
of the destabilising effects of economic recession and the loss of the key
external source of cohesion that accounts for the way in which the current
slump has also precipitated a profound political crisis.
The result is that long-term trends towards economic decline, which had
previously been largely kept out of public view, have begun to impinge on
popular consciousness. Not only is the government in a mess, which is nothing
new, but it is widely perceived to be in a mess, which is something new.
Furthermore, it is increasingly perceived to be incapable of getting out
of the mess, which is, from the point of view of the establishment, horrible.
Even though the British establishment feels under little threat from the
working class, it is intensely aware of its own economic decline and its
loss of public esteem. This sense of insecurity and lack of legitimacy leads
to the sort of divisions and conflicts that are currently wracking the Conservative
Party, the natural party of government for British capitalism. It also leads
to attempts to revive old sources of legitimacy or discover new ones, which
often simply exacerbate problems.
C of E schism
The three traditional standby themes of reactionary politicians in Britain - the
monarchy, the church and the nation - are all problematic today. Exposures
of royal family ructions, infidelities and tax evasion have seriously tarnished
the monarchy and undermined its symbolic role in national life. The Church
of England faces schism over women priests and, more seriously, bankruptcy
over its speculative financial losses. And what now is the nation? Does it
include, after Tebbit, only supporters of the England cricket team (making
it a threatened ethnic minority)? Does it include Scotland, Wales and territories
in Ireland? Does it include a million Muslims?
John Major's attempt to invoke his patriotic commitment to the nation in
his Tory Party conference speech did not come over well in his dull drone.
Nor did it convince many present that it was anything other than a way of
avoiding talking about the government's economic problems. His colleagues'
attempts at appealing to family values or denouncing welfare scroungers
are not without their dangers, either. George Bush can testify that too
close an association with the agenda of the moral majority may well alienate
more voters than it attracts.
Despite its loss of cohesion and confidence, the British establishment's
position is protected by the absence of any challenge from below, from the
working class. The institutions of the labour movement effectively ceased
to exist before the crisis of the establishment took effect. As a result,
a weak prime minister presiding over a divided cabinet and a fractious party
retains the initiative over an atomised and defensive working class.
Whatever the number of workers who remain formally in unions, for practical
purposes, the British working class is more weakly organised today than
at any time in the past century. The ideological weakness of the working
class parallels its organisational weakness: scarcely anybody today believes
in the possibility of an alternative to capitalism. In the absence of any
such sense of the possibility of making progress, the post-Cold War changes
and instability in the world must appear simply frightening.
The American radical economist JK Galbraith summed up the prevailing outlook
in a recent lecture to a Labour Party think-tank:
'We are no longer in search of an alternative economic system. Nor is it
any longer clear that one exists. We are concerned with making more effective
and more tolerant and equitable the economic system we have.' (Guardian,
25 November 1992)
Galbraith's 'constructive pragmatism' is a pompous term for what people
are already doing: trying to get by and make the best of it. But in the
middle of a capitalist slump, accepting the constraints of the existing
system means accepting pit closures, hospital closures, job losses and pay
Organising resistance against such austerity measures needs to go hand in
hand with exposing the futility of efforts to make capitalism 'more tolerant
and equitable', and posing the need for an alternative. It looks like 1993
may well be even more horrible for the British establishment than 1992.
The question is, are we prepared to suffer with them in silence?
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993