From the 1970s, neither Labour nor the Conservative Party have offered truly alternative socio-economic models – new promises are merely repackaging old ones
Brexit and the years leading to it has caused in the UK what some call a realignment of politics, while others see it as disintegration. So, which is happening, or can both premises be true? To answer this question I look at the realignment and disintegration in party politics as symptoms of wider socio-economic historical processes and propose a causal connection. Of course, my analysis is far too focused on Britain, and it is therefore by definition not contextualising these issues within the broader international socio-economic historical processes.
The first realignment
At the end of WWII, the UK faced a crossroad, millions of young men returned home from the battle front, needing jobs and medical care. Heavily bombarded by the Nazi Reich, with its industrial base severely affected led then to a major realignment and disintegration of politics. I will later posit that we are at a similar crossroad today. World War II saw a collapse in state investment, and austerity, with slow recuperation in the late 1940s, barely reaching above the levels of the 1930s. Or in other words there was a prolonged period of austerity between two eras of state-investment.
The British state was already on a road to a transformation of its armed forces and military industrial capacities since 1939, but from 1945 this culminated in a realignment of the socio-economic and political landscape. The British electorate demanded change which was answered by the 1942 Beveridge Report recommending a system of lifetime social insurance for all citizens.
The Labour Party, led by Clement Attlee, won the July 1945 elections by promising to rebuild Britain, and successfully branded the Conservatives as a Party fit only for wartime, but not for socio-economic reconstruction. Attlee promised full employment, nationalisation of key industries and a free national health service. The “national interest” became a key term of political discourse along with the creation of the welfare state. The electorate found Attlee’s promises rather than Churchill’s, who offered not a dissimilar vision based on the Beveridge Report, but one that kept industries in private hands, more attractive. It was the overwhelming vote of the battled-scared and traumatised returning military personnel that yearned for a better civilian life that swept Attlee into power.
“Attlee promised full employment, nationalisation of key industries and a free national health service. The “national interest” became key terms of political discourse along the creation of the welfare state.”
Labour was in power for six years and instigated great reforms, such as the 1944 Education Act, the NHS in 1948 and the nationalisation of key industries, most notably the coal-mines, rail, roads, steel, ship-building as well as the creation of state-run utility companies, providing gas, electricity, and so on. Attlee promoted the idea that Britain would be the third power, or ‘deputy leader’ of the Western Alliance, with a more “social conscience”. The original “third-way”, a term Tony Blair would use decades later.
Disintegration and the “original Brexit”
However, whether by chance, cynicism or by compromise, the Attlee government’s main disadvantage was that although British cities and industries had been devastated by the Nazi air-raids, it did not suffer the almost total destruction of Germany that allowed it to rethink and restructure its socio-economic policies almost from a clean slate. British economic class structures, its networks and patronage based system survived nearly unscathed, and the reforms of the welfare state did not challenge it, rather it preserved it as a status-quo.
Furthermore, contradicting his promise of focusing on national and social conscience, Attlee’s government wanted to secure the sterling as a great trading currency (akin to what the dollar has become). This meant closer integration with the colonies of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as some other countries (mostly white) of the “Commonwealth”. At the time, this accounted for almost half of the world’s trade in the early post-war years. However, pretty quickly anti-colonial revolts challenged this paradigm across the Empire, which proved costly and divisive. Britain was torn between a nationalist and an internationalist-colonial focus that forced Attlee’s government to compromise on its promises.
It didn’t take long after an initial optimism that state industries became stifled and hierarchically populated by the class-system, or in some cases, collapsed due to massive bureaucracy, inefficiencies and a growing mountain of debt to, mostly, American loans. Although impressive reforms were achieved, the initial grand vision of employment and free, comprehensive health care for all led to public disillusionment.
As the anti-colonial movements gathered pace throughout the Commonwealth, in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, they forced the Labour government to invest heavily in arms and build a financial industry so that Britain could become a great lender of capital. These inherent contradictions and the public disillusionment with the only partially fulfilled promises led Churchill back in Downing Street in 1951.
Britain’s position as the third power or “Deputy Leader” of the Western World, its ever-shrinking Empire, and its creaking economy led to a feeling of malaise and loss. This backdrop was against a resurgence of France and West Germany, who jointly presided over the new European Economic Community (EEC), with a burgeoning restructured industrial and manufacturing economy. Far from being a “World Power”, Britain, following a series of economic crises, accumulated an unsustainable debt followed by a devaluation of the pound in 1967, which further saw sterling replaced by the dollar as the dominant world currency. Around that time Britain started the liberalisation of the financial industry which intensified dramatically under Thatcher.
“Far from being a “World Power”, Britain, following a series of economic crises, accumulated an unsustainable debt followed by a devaluation of the pound in 1967, which further saw the sterling replaced by the dollar as the dominant world currency.”
With the collapse of the remaining colonial Empire, Britain became the “sick man of Europe” by the 70s, with a prevalence of strikes, conflict between industries/companies and unions and increasing inflation. It was this, perhaps ironically, “original” and unorderly “Brexit” from the Empire (rebranded as the Commonwealth, or “Third World Power”) which led to an economic decline-stagnation. In an attempt to address these fundamental crises, Britain became a member of the EEC in 1973. Britain was broke and heavily in debt, so in 1976 the then Labour Government started the “Keynesianism” approach to economics to meet the IMF’s demands of “reforms”, which Thatcher’s policies, a few years later, greatly intensified.
The rise of “patriotic” conservative nationalism as a smoke-screen
With this sense of loss and yearning for change, Thatcher swept to power in 1979 with the promise and main aim to bring down inflation (to lesson social strife and strikes) and curb trade unions. These core economic policies were successfully sold to the public as a promise for less lower “tax burden”, better “value for money”, and “helping the family” to prosper and own their own home. The most fundamental economic action of the Thatcher era was, of course, the liberalisation and deregulation of the financial sector.
Naturally her government’s policies made it easier to fire people, which weakened the unions and increased unemployment. The next steps were privatising most of the state industries, BT, BP, gas, electricity, water, coal, steel industries, shipbuilding. In other words, industrial relations shifted decisively in favour of employers. The gradual privatisation initially caused public spending to go up, but eventually it was brought down to the pre-79 level by 1987.
“These core policies were successfully sold to the public as a promise for less “tax burden”, better “value for money”, and “helping the family” to prosper and own their own home.”
The privatisation and large-scale sacking, while damaging the unions, also irreversibly crippled the manufacturing and industrial base of the UK. Some tracts of the population found employment opportunities working in financial services, low-grade financial management of public-private partnerships and the retail industry. Unemployment soared as many Brits lost their jobs and their skills were no longer needed, poverty and inequality became more widespread, and those on the losing side became ever dependent on a continually trimmed welfare-state. These policies were beginning to hurt, but then the Falklands War in 1982, and its outcome – victory for the UK, helped Thatcher win the 1983 election. Thatcher realised that a smoke-screen, based on that war, providing a mixture of nationalistic discourse and an invocation of restoring “national dignity” appealed to the public far more than the realpolitik of socio-economic policies. This “patriotic” conservative nationalism gave the illusion of a remedy on two levels. In response to the sense of disempowerment due to socio-economic changes introduced by her government thus, this rhetoric provided an imaginary “recuperation” of a sense of nostalgic pride in the Empire (The Falklands were one of the few colonies left) and a status of the nation as regaining its “Third Power” position.
During her reign the UK, on the face of it, saw GDP grow and public debt fall – it was the so-called “economic miracle”. But this growth was not due to government investment, and was therefore unstable. Consequently, coupled with the failure of reform and with the costs of welfare and interest payment soaring, this laid the seeds that led to the catastrophic economic collapse in 2008/2009. In her late years as PM, Thatcher understood that smoke-screens can be used as a tool to confuse the public to support socio-economic policies which would harm many of its sectors. She made sure to be seen as standing up to the European Community, arguing, in what was later incessantly used during the Brexit debate, that the UK paid out much more to the EEC than it got back in benefits; this discourse both won her popularity and further concessions regarding worker rights and deregulation of the financial market.
Despite the economic ups and downs caused by her administration, and the growing income inequality, Thatcher’s administration knew how to spin this discourse along populist ideas about the economy; the idea of “value for money” and the strong sense of “waste in the public sector” was linked to conservative anti-diversity policies, broadly termed: “family values”. It was this linkage, especially during the 1987 election, that helped Thatcher get re-elected once again, against a backdrop of massive social and economic strife. She most notably attacked Labour Party policies to support and teach about diversity (e.g., single mothers, LGBTI rights, education, race, etc…) as wasteful of precious tax-payers money on policies of the “loony-left”. It was this patriotic-conservative nationalism that won the day for the Conservative Party as a smoke-screen to its harsh economic policies, until this discourse eventually could no longer be sustained nor convince most voters.
The rise of liberalism and progressiveness as a smoke screen
When New Labour came into power under Tony Blair, it did not challenge any of these core fundamental economic and fiscal issues, preferring to focus, instead, on social liberalism (equality, minority rights, gender, human rights) which made it popular. This discourse tapped into the public’s increasing disillusion with the “patriotic” conservative nationalist discourse. Labour successfully dispelled the Conservative smoke-screen that blamed the ills of society on the imaginary disintegration of the “family values” used by the Conservative Party. Yet New Labour did not seek to change or restructure the socio-economic foundations of Britain. The Equality Act, the repeal of Section 28 and many other important liberal policies, partly forced by ECHR as well as the New Labour Government were its hallmark, which Tony Blair branded the “Third-Way”. This “Third-Way” however, unlike Attlee’s, did not seek to reform the state or its economy. Thatcher might have been ousted and the Conservative Party defeated, but her core ideology that economic freedom and individual liberty are interdependent, that personal responsibility and hard work lead to prosperity, through “free-market” democracy, had been embraced fully by Blair and entrenched as common-sense.
The Conservative Party understood the power of liberalism and progressiveness as a smoke-screen to provide the public with the sense it was being empowered and cared for. It thus moved towards social liberalist discourse temporary allied with traditional nationalist conservatism. This was both designed to pull the carpet underneath New Labour’s legs, and appease factions within the Tory party. In other words, it became David Cameron’s smoke-screen against the Conservative’s aim of shrinking the state and redistribution of wealth upwards (i.e. austerity). Cameron managed to temporarily pull this off by aligning with liberal social values. With the help of the Lib-Dems in coalition, this liberal discourse could be used in two ways: to appease the right of the Conservative party by blaming the Lib-Dems for the shift from patriotic-conservative nationalism discourse, whilst adhering to Thatcher’s economic principles.
This discourse managed to characterise as ‘destructive’ Labour’s flagship ideas of (neo)liberalism and blame it for the economic recession (“they” left us with a mountain of debt, and so on). The smoke-screen that Cameron spun, of a “liberal-caring” Conservative Party that (on a superficial level) seem to have moved away from Thatcher’s mantra’s “There is no such thing as a society” to the “Big Society”, proved effective. This, coupled with the fallacious rhetoric of blaming Labour for “inefficiently” running the country into a “mountain of debt” left the opposition sounding hollow and without alternatives. This was not so much a realignment of socio-economic policies, as New Labour and Conservative economic principles were pretty similar. Rather, unlike Attlee’s first realignment, it was a battle of spin over substance.
The impact of these policies, starting in 1976, led to deindustrialisation, a decline of manufacturing and restructured Britain into a service based economy, with the city of London as its prime mover. Industries which traditionally sustained large communities fell apart, leading to social fragmentation, ever greater income disparity and declining job opportunities. This was particularly true for unskilled workers, or those whose skills were no longer needed, thus becoming an underclass. These socio-economic policies led to generations of unemployed, or people on meagre salaries with zero-hours contracts or disadvantageous employment relations: in short – an underclass. The Conservative Party’s achievement was to hold on to power through a temporary alliance of social liberalist discourse with traditional nationalist conservatism; it managed to blame or hold “responsible” people for their own economic misery (the underserving lazy poor), and increasingly blame the EU and immigrants as an imaginary protagonist in generating socio-political problems. Thatcher’s core-ideology remained intact. It was no wonder that the excluded underclass became very angry and cynical about government policies, which empowered the illusion of wanting to oust a “liberal uncaring elite” through Brexit.
In Scotland, the shift to (neo)liberalism also happened with most parties embracing the Thatcherite core-ideology. However, just like in all the other governments in the four UK nations, it failed to address or have long-term plans to tackle social deprivation and a productive inclusive economy. Neither Scottish Labour nor the Scottish National Party (SNP) seriously speak of, let alone tackle, wealth redistribution and a more imaginative approach to building new industries and technologies and corresponding (re)skilling of the population through education. Instead the SNP understood very well the power of liberalism and progressiveness as a smokescreen. It became its hallmark to use as a campaigning tool that could be termed populist nationalism dressed up as progressivism (civic nationalism). I say dressed up, as the SNP did not challenge nor seek to change socio-economic structures that were disadvantageous to large tracts of the underclass in Scotland. Rather, just like the increasing scapegoating on immigrants, people on benefits, asylum seekers and so on, it very successfully channelled Scottish (to some degree, rightfully) grievances and (re)focused them on Westminster, while giving the illusion that they are working for the betterment of every Scot, without blaming the underclass, immigrants and so on. To complete the illusion of progressiveness, this discourse stressed that the underclass and Scots are the victims of the right-wing populism of the Conservative Party and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Of course, as a man who identifies as gay, I appreciate Marriage Equality and other liberal achievements. But the point I am making is that liberalism and even to some degree so called-progressive politics, became a smoke screen, or fig-leaf, to Thatcher’s core ideology which remained intact.
Re-alignment or disintegration in traditional party politics?
It was here, at this juncture, that UKIP’s ideas were so alluring, capitalising on the sense that liberalism cheated the “ordinary bloke”, popularising the myth of the little big man (Nigel Farage), one of the people for the people. It gave the illusion that people can take back control of their destiny and economic and social well-being blaming globalisation (yet Farage himself was a stock broker) and a liberal elite that simply didn’t care about the ordinary citizen. Farage, as did Thatcher, recycled the fallacy that the EU was taking more than it was investing back into the country and resurrected the 1930s misconceptions, with the help of the Daily Mail and other right-wing press, that immigration, asylum seekers, and so on, were responsible for all the aliments of “broken Britain” and discursively linked it to liberalism and the “EU/liberal elite”. This was how he managed to appeal to the electorate: through this fallacious promise to the growing underclass and an electorate disenfranchised with the liberalism failing to provide economic answers. His false promise that things could change for the better for the average person (whilst maintaining intact Thatcher’s core economic ideology) if the liberal elite (the so-called “establishment”) could be challenged and Brexit can help the ordinary person “take back control” of their socio-economic well-being.
While the First Past the Post electoral system protected for a little while from a surge to this discourse, Farage, nevertheless, won the discursive argument, while maintaing Thatcher’s core economic ideology and policies. He managed to portray himself to the electorate as the main person addressing the concerns of the people let down by the Conservative and Labour political parties “liberal” elites. This idea became increasingly popular on the right of the Conservative Party, as well as being embraced by some on the left of Labour’s political spectrum. Both of course had some grain of truth in their critic of corporate interests superseding the citizens’, through the state and the EU, but both offered illusionary solutions, such as a “curb on immigration”, anti-EU rhetoric, ousting the so-called establishment.
Cameron’s referendum on Brexit was a gamble to weaken those on the right of the Conservative Party, who increasingly embraced Farage’s discourse, and at the same time usurp it, by using the same scapegoats. The Remain campaign therefore could not articulate the realpolitik honestly to the electorate or any meaningful hope for change, while the Leave campaign could offer the illusion of an alternative. The defeat of David Cameron signalled the end of the alliance of liberalism with traditional nationalist conservatism.
The current leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May, articulated a much closer vision to Farage’s discourse; criticising liberalism. Even before becoming PM, as the Home Office Secretary, she was behind the billboard campaign telling immigrants to “Go home or face arrest”; where advertising vans were driven around displaying the slogan and a phone line for immigrants to call to help them leave the country. While Cameron was in power May cautiously selectively adapted on the surface to Cameron’s liberalist smoke-screen, saying she was wrong to vote against LGBTI rights previously, etc.., but once he was ousted, she quickly changed her tune. She rebranded the Conservative Party as a one-nation party and even described it as pro-working class, by utilising the discourse of Farage’s critique of EU and “liberal establishment”.
Her current discourse regarding Brexit invokes the idea of “Global Britain” harking back to the idea of a “third-power”, evoking imperial images, such as a “red, white, and blue” Brexit. The Conservative Party now paint an image of a future trade block with the Commonwealth nations, a contradictory idea, just like it was throughout the 1940s-70s. Like Attlee’s selective focus on the former White Settler Commonwealth states, they (e.g. Canada, Australia, New Zealand) may or may not play a willing part in a post-Brexit economic block (pardon the pun). Of course, the harder and more complex challenge is the attempt to realign so-called “global Britain” with countries such as India and China that suffered greatly from the previous internationalist-colonial policies of the so-called “mother country”, which we have already mentioned. All this whilst still preserving intact Thatcher’s core fundamental economic and fiscal paradigm.
While Labour was tearing itself apart between the (neo) liberals and Momentum, it failed to articulate concrete answers to the underclass and growing sense of public disenfranchisement with liberal politics. Its new leader, rather dogmatically focusing on theory rather than practice, articulated and recycled a vision similar to Attlee’s in the last general election. Our political discourse seems to be disintegrating to some, or realigning to others. This, while the British public is genuinely yearning for a change and (re)focus on local communities and “national” concerns. As is clear from this essay, Corbyn’s invocation of a “Golden Age” that preceded liberalisation is just as much a fallacy as the empty promises of the Thatcherite doctrine to uncouple the over-reliance on the state, or the public sector. May tried to articulate a new (inter)nationalistic contradictory discourse similarly to Churchill’s alternative to Attlee, but one based on Thatcher’s policies, while Labour, under Corbyn articulated a recycled Attlee-like vision of re-industrialisation and nationalisation. Yet both discourses ironically use the “liberal elite/establishment” and the EU as a smokescreen.
“Our political discourse seems to be disintegrating to some, or realigning to others. This, while the British public is genuinely yearning for a change and demanding a (re)focus on local communities and “national” concerns.”
We have come back a full circle, but are these policies or visions a realpolitik realignment or a fig-leaf repacking to gloss over political disintegration? I suspect that time and history will provide us with a hindsight to this answer. The danger is, however, that the vision reacting to the increasingly the interconnected global capitalist economy, in the form of state-sanctioned undemocratic monopoly capitalism (i.e. proto totalitarianism), such as China, Turkey and Russia would become an attractive model to export not merely to Asia/Africa, but to the West itself.
Battle of Ideas takes place at the Barbican Centre, London on 28-29 October
Journalist who specialises in LGBTI current affairs, travel writing, feature writing and investigative journalism.