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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

'Annus horribilis'

'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'.'
Her Majesty the Queen in her Guildhall speech marking 40 years on the throne (24 November 1992)

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:
'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.'
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.

Oh dear...

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 Party.

Labour's lethargy

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 with communism.

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 propaganda weapons.

Fifth columnists

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.

How horrible

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.

What alternative?

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 cuts.

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

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