Originally published in 1998/1999, Issue 2
It has been nearly two years since the momentous 1997 general election, and we have had a sizeable amount of time to evaluate the new Labour government. Many comparisons have been made between Tony Blair’s government and the government of Margaret Thatcher. The assertion is that Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 represented a revolution in British political thinking, just as Clement Attle’s 1945 election victory did.
Historical Perspective: The Revolutionary View
The changes wrought in the British political system by the 1945 and 1979 governments were certainly profound. Whether they ushered in a new political age or whether they were merely the reflection of short-term trends is a matter for discussion. Whether, indeed, the election of one government can have a direct effect on the policies of another 18 years after it, is something that we must evaluate.
In order to do this we must look at the particular parallels between the governments, their policies and ideals, the background to their governments, and their influence upon public thinking and upon their successors, looking in particular at the parallels between the Conservative governments of Macmillan and Heath, and the ongoing Blair administration. We must also look at what caused the public mood to change from the two conflicting ideological positions of 1945 and 1979.
The governments of 1945 and 1979 were miles apart in terms of their ideological convictions, but had one thing in common. Each was offering new politics. The Labour government of 1945 was offering a vision of a Britain where the public and private sectors worked side by side, with the government controlling the key industries of the state, something which it was sure would guarantee the loyalty and well-being of the workforce.
The 1979 Conservative government was offering the exact opposite. It proposed the rolling back of the state into a society where it was every person for themselves, where enterprise and skill would be rewarded, and those who worked the hardest would reap the benefits of their labour.
The Labour government elected in 1945 carried out this programme through a policy of nationalisation, and the introduction of a comprehensive welfare state, which altered the political landscape. Through this the government became one of the key players in the British economy, with effective control over many jobs. Such a policy enabled the government to exercise control over the amount of unemployment in the country, because the government now employed a large section of the workforce.
The political reasons for this were clear. The overall public mood was in favour of state control of key industries. It was seen as the way forward. Many people had bad experiences of the lassez-faire economic policy that had led to the great depression and the large-scale unemployment that had followed. By having a workforce in the government sector it was hoped that such problems could be avoided. These policies were strengthened by the events of the war, where the government had exercised massive control over the economy. As the Labour party was fond of saying-“these policies won the war. Now they can win the peace.”
Such a large-scale readjustment of the economy can not fail to have an effect on the political outlook of the nation and its political parties. The Conservatives were crushed in the 1945 general election and were again defeated (though only by a small margin) in 1950. They were practically forced by the public mood at the time to accept the changes that the 1945-51 Labour government had wrought.
This acceptance of the nationalised industries and the welfare state was probably the only way that the Conservatives were able to get back into power. To this extent, a parallel can be drawn with the Blair government- an acceptance of the changes of an opposing political party in order to win back power. This was the era of “consensus politics”, when both major political parties agreed on a common policy- state control of key industries and a commitment to the welfare state. Such an agreement helped the Conservatives to have thirteen years of unbroken power, from 1951 to 1964.
In many ways it was the era of the “progressives”. These were the politicians who argued for a move to a more equal society, where everybody had basic rights and a basic income. The movement of the progressives reached its height in Harold Wilson’s 1964-1970 Labour government. Thereafter, the policies of “progressivism” were in decline, as the era of “stagflation” took over and governments floundered about, looking for ideas that would rescue the country’s seemingly incipient decline.
The first to try were the Conservatives. They were elected in 1970 with a promise that they would “roll back the state”, reducing the governments influence in peoples everyday lives. Despite this, the 1970-74 Heath government failed to take the necessary action quickly enough, and ended up nationalising some loss- making industries in order to prevent job losses. The end result was a decade of economic and political malaise, during which the Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan made concessions to the increasingly powerful trade unions until the election of the 1979 Thatcher government.
If any government can be said to have been the harbinger of a new political age it was the 1979 Thatcher government. The arrival of the politics of monetarism and the “new Right” was a seminal event in the study of British politics.
Just like the 1945 Labour government brought in the “new” politics of state control and Keynesianism, so the 1979 Conservatives changed the political landscape of Britain. The Conservatives had changed their policies from those of consensus to those of the “New Right”. It was popular with the voters because it represented a difference from the politics that had dominated Britain for 34 years.
In many ways the Labour opposition should have learnt from the 1945-51 Conservative opposition. They had changed their policies in order to agree with those of the Labour government, and their reward was 13 years in power. The Labour party of 1979 and the early `80s chose not the politics of compromise, but those of confrontation.
The Labour party swung to the left, demanding withdrawal from the EC, and the expulsion of all US bases in Britain. With such a choice, it is little wonder that Thatcher was re-elected with a huge majority in 1983.
After this the Labour party finally woke up to the fact that the changes being enacted by the Conservatives would mean that the political attitudes of Britain would be permanently changed. The reforms of Neil Kinnock (in particular the 1989 policy review) and of his successor, John Smith, meant that the Labour party acknowledged and accepted the changes that the Conservatives had made.
Gradually, the Labour party was swinging to the right, not only accepting the changes that Mrs. Thatcher had instituted, but adopting many of her beliefs as their own. Once Labour achieved their 1997 election victory, they began to put these policies into practice. It was indeed, as if there were no different principles and policies to choose from, and the two parties were now just competing on the basis of personalities.
Historical Perspective: The Anti-Revolutionary View
So we can, indeed, draw parallels between 1945 and 1979, in that we believe that the events of those years heralded the dawning’s of new political ages. The question is: are there any arguments against these parallels?
It is true that many contemporaries saw Mrs. Thatcher’s changes as revolutionary, but was it really a “new political age”? We cannot doubt that the events unleashed by the 1945 election result were “new”, because they had never been tried before. The events that took place after 1979 were not new; they merely reversed most of the decisions that the 1945-51 government took. If we look at the 1979 government through the present scope of the Blair government, then all the 1979 government can be said to have achieved is to remould the Labour party into a present-day clone of itself.
To some extent I think such arguments have validity. The Conservative dominance of the 1980’s and early 90’s effected little real change, merely turning back the clock to pre-1945 days. In the end, the Major government fell, not because the Labour party was offering a change in British politics, as the 1945 Labour party was, but because Labour was simply the best of two similar viewpoints. Labour in 1997 offered new variations on the Thatcher theme; the Conservatives had run out of ideas.
The Conservative Party: Decline and Fall?
The question of where exactly the Conservative Party goes from this point is a good one, and I would be surprised if many within the Conservative Party knew the answer. The rightward shift to apparent Euro-scepticism threatens to divide the party still further. The Conservatives also lost the Scottish and Welsh devolution questions, and may suffer for it when the first elections to the devolved assemblies take place.
In the Conservative Party there seems to be a general inevitability about the next elections, and most of the public seem to have grown disillusioned with the Conservative stance on many issues. Whether we will now see 18 years of Labour government, or whether the Conservatives can rise like a phoenix from the flames remains to be seen. Indeed, will we see 1997 as marking a revolution in British politics? Only time will tell us the answer.