»  The Straggler, No. 32

June 6th, 2005

  Britain Turns


The recent election results from Britain make glum reading for conservatives, those with and those without a capital "C." Of a 60 percent turnout, the victorious Labour Party got 36 percent, the Conservatives 33 percent, the Liberal Democrats 22.5 percent, and "other" (Scottish, Welsh, and Irish parties) 9.5 percent. Since the Lib-Dems are well to the left of Labour ("Naderite" would be a fair U.S. equivalent) and most of the little nationalist parties are well to the left of them, you could sum up the British electorate of 2001 as being 20 percent in favor of the Tories' diluted post-Thatcherite conservatism, 40 percent to the left of that, and 40 percent indifferent.

For me, this was the occasion of melancholy reflections on the political passions of the early 1980s, the last point at which I was active in British politics. As a foot soldier in Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party, my duty was to tramp the streets of Holborn and St. Pancras (the district of north-central London I was living in), ringing doorbells and handing out leaflets to spread the good news of national redemption through conservatism. Secondary activities included attending meetings of the local party faithful, and taking occasional trips to Parliament with other activists to be briefed by government ministers of the junior sort. Of the constituency meetings I recall only an angry man who stood up at every one of them to deliver a bitter harangue about the need for a bill to ban incitement of class hatred. Of the parliamentary briefings, my sole remaining impression is of the bored incivility of the people who had been elevated, by our efforts as much as by their own, to ministerial office.

The street work was mostly thankless and fruitless. Holborn St. Panc. is a safe Labour seat, populated by young singles, welfare cases, "alternative lifestyles" of various kinds, and performing-arts types (the West End is just a short sashay down the road), these categories all overlapping considerably. The local council actually had a "Sex Workers Support Group" — there were quite a lot of sex workers in the constituency, toiling away in rented rooms to swell the Gross National Product. They used to advertise their manifold wares by means of little coded stickers in public telephone booths: SWEDISH AND KARATE LESSONS … LARGE CHEST FOR SALE … STRICT GOVERNESS WILL DISCIPLINE NAUGHTY BOYS …, etc., etc., each one with a phone number.

Thankless as my political drudge work was, though, I was glad to do it. British politics at that time was a matter of sharp contrasts. The Labour Party was frankly socialist, its constitution calling for "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange." It drew much of its energy from characters like the openly Marxist, pro-Soviet union organizer Arthur Scargill (hard "g"), and Tony Benn, formerly Lord Stansgate, a typical guilt-crazed upper-class lefty whose principal contributions to the national life, during a spell of office in the 1960s, were the late not-much-lamented Concorde and the incomprehensible, un-writeable and un-memorizable British postcode system. (The latter since imported by Canada, I notice. Serves them right for not rising up against the Crown when they had the chance.)

Margaret Thatcher stood in comparison to these ideology-addled nation-wreckers as day to night, as steam to ice, as hammer to anvil. Forthrightly plain-spoken, instinctively patriotic, an unashamed partisan of liberty, responsibility, enterprise, and the United States, she had arrived in British political life like Joan of Arc coming to the relief of Orleans. I adored her, and was glad to suffer the doorstep insults of welfare mothers, androgynes, and unemployed actors — not to mention the watch-checking inattention of junior ministers and the ravings of grass roots activist lunatics — in the hope of getting Maggie a few votes. (The sex workers were mostly very polite, and surprisingly often declared themselves to be ardent Tories.)

How long ago that now seems! Margaret Thatcher did what needed to be done. The British people, at any rate enough of them to keep her in office for a decade, were glad to see it done. We had been naughty boys, we knew it, and were in need of a strict governess to discipline us. Then, the chastisement having been administered, the British electorate lapsed back into its normal state of political lethargy, and resumed voting for whichever party seemed less likely to make itself a nuisance to them.

The best thing Mrs. Thatcher did was to destroy that old Labour Party. The class warriors and Brezhnev-admirers, the nationalizers and America-haters, the Bomb-banners and tree-huggers, the Scargills and Benns, were hustled off the Labour Party stage, replaced by mild-spoken middle-class types in business suits, murmuring about "opportunity" and "investment." They are colorless by comparison with the old crowd — I can never remember which of Blair's people is which — but much less dangerous to Britain's security and prosperity. By the mid-1990s, the choice for the British electorate was between center-left and center-right. The voters dithered for a while, then settled down happily with the less demanding of the two … which they still prefer, even under the unpopular Tony Blair, as was demonstrated the other day.

Perhaps that is unfair to Michael Howard, the Tory leader. The differences between Labour policies and Tory policies are still enough to be worth going out and voting on. The Tories promise to spend more on the armed forces and police, to scale back regulation, to offer more choice in public services, to curtail immigration. They are also the party of people who have thought about, and sometimes even worked at, things other than politics. A typical modern Labour politician — Jack Straw, for example — came to national politics from student politics via municipal politics, with perhaps a brief, undistinguished spell of lawyering, college lecturing, or TV news production along the way. Entrepreneurship? The military? Agriculture? Science or engineering? Ha ha ha ha ha!

Will there be a rebirth of passionate conservatism in Britain? Will young men of mild political enthusiasms be inspired to trudge the gritty streets of Holborn St. Pancras, ringing doorbells on behalf of some charismatic new Tory leader? I don't think so. Once the debris of state-socialist command economics had been swept away, the principal issue vexing the British was whether to look west to America, or south to Europe. The arguments will rumble on for a while yet, but in their hearts, the British have made up their minds. In a way which is not yet obvious, this election result registered their decision.