When in London, if you have some time to spare, go east to the Isle of Dogs to visit what was to have been Europe’s biggest office-plus-housing project. On the cold and windy Sunday I went there, the emptiness surrounding the Canary Wharf Tower, the tallest office building in Britain, and the neighboring, fairly attractive structures was surreal. The Indian manager of the small supermarket there had an explanation: “A few years ago people bought flats. Now they rent them for a couple of months since nobody wants to stay longer in the desert docklands.” But at the Visitor’s Center you are informed, by videos and glossy pamphlets, that you can water-ski here within easy range of the City, as if the property boom were still on, as if Olympia & York had not become insolvent, as if the Jubilee line of the subway, linking this outpost to town, were to be inaugurated tomorrow.
This half-bankrupt venture, this yuppie ghost island in the poorest part of London, is symbolically the perfect image of one side of Thatcherism, with its arrogant promise and sordid fulfillment. Alas, it had another. In the eleven years of her reign, Thatcher managed to break the back of the labor movement and to shift the center of gravity of British politics miles to the right.
I went back to England to see what was happening to her successor, John Major, who took over in November 1990 and, admittedly with some help from the Labor party, miraculously survived the electoral test last April. Since then, it seems, Major has been unable to put a foot right. Black Wednesday, the pound was smashed, and with it went the government’s deflationary line of defending the currency. Since then, economic policy has drifted haphazardly in the opposite direction. In October, the announced closure of thirty-one coal pits provoked such an outcry that the government was forced to back down. Throughout, the antics of the royal family and other scandals were splashed all over the press. I wondered whether these obvious troubles of the establishment and the general capitalist disarray had produced signs of revival in the battered Labor Party.
Poison, Plot and Putrefaction
Enough space has been devoted in these columns to the princely soft porn for me to limit myself to two points learned on the spot (see Alexander Cockburn, “Beat the Devil,” February 8). One is that this kind of language, a case of arrested eroticism, is quite common among the hunting classes. The other–Cockburn’s suspicion that Prince Charles was being attacked because he is considered too liberal–is shared by most people I talked to in London, who added that the attackers must have close connections with the secret services, which were taken as the most likely source of the leaks. I personally was puzzled by the phony debate over the limits to freedom of the press that was precipitated by its intrusion into the privacy of the royals.
Britain’s tabloids were known in my time as “penny dreadfuls.” Now they cost twenty-five times as much, but are, if anything, even worse. They are snoopy, sleazy and hypocritical (the editor of the Sunday Mirror, which published the “Camillagate” tape, did so, he said, not for money but for moral reasons: “for you to decide for yourself”). Except for the Daily Mirror, they are all servants of the Tories. They are also, despite their smut, the upholders of the established order. They wash its dirty linen, but never expose the real ills of society. (The posh papers have their own way of being economical with the truth. Among their latest euphemistic gems for your appreciation: “negative growth” for slump and “negative equity” for a mortgage bigger than the value of your house. The hypocritical role of the so-called quality papers, however, requires separate treatment .)
No one can really defend the twenty-five-penny dreadfuls, but that does not mean that a statutory tribunal to regulate the press, as has been suggested, would improve matters. It would not force these papers to examine critically our society, of which their owners, the press lords, are the pillars. Their job is to divert attention from what matters, so the fair or foul stories about Fergie or Diana are thus part of their reason for being. Indeed, a tribunal is unlikely to prevent them from invading privacy if the British libel law, one of the toughest in the world, has failed to do so. (Significantly, the only likely victim of a libel suit in this round will not be, say, the Sun, backed by Murdoch’s millions, but the poor, leftish New Statesman & Society, which got caught up in this saga.) A public tribunal sitting in judgment over the press would be a dangerous precedent. It might also deprive us of the few significant nuggets the popular papers dig up while doing their dirty work.
Now that the election is over, everybody is, for a time, fair game. Add to this the conflict between the haughty, well-mannered members of the old establishment and the aggressive upstarts sponsored by Thatcher, plus the hostility toward “Europe” of two press lords coming from the Commonwealth, and you will not be surprised by the number of political scandals reaching the headlines recently. Three examples will be enough to illustrate the moral fiber of our rulers. The first, linked with Iraqgate, is the Matrix Churchill case [see Dilip Hiro, “Thatcher and Major in the Dock,” January 4/11]. Although trade with Iraq was banned, Matrix supplied Saddam Hussein with machine tools for his war effort until the eve of the Gulf War; it did so with the support of the government. When the facts were accidentally discovered, the case had to be dismissed and a judicial inquiry was instituted by Major. I would bet my last pound it will all end with a whitewash.
The second case concerns British Airways, which last month paid damages of several million pounds in a libel suit during which it was revealed it had used “dirty tricks,” notably snooping into its rival’s computers, in a battle with the comparatively tiny Virgin Atlantic airline. B.A. is the success story of British privatization, and its chairman, Lord King, was Maggie Thatcher’s favorite tycoon.
The third example involves little money and no court case. It had cost Norman Lamont, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a mere £27,000 to get a “sex therapist” evicted from the apartment he had rented to her. It was learned, after much searching, that nearly £23.000 of that sum came from a mysterious Tory slush fund and £4,000 from taxpayers’ pockets. The payoff was not a criminal offense and it did not provoke too much public indignation.
But why should it have? When for a dozen years it was proclaimed that the almighty pound is the basis of all virtue, when the person symbolizing that virtue, on abandoning the prime ministership, offered her paid services to a poisoner (Thatcher accepted a job as adviser to an international tobacco company), when Tory ex-ministers and current members of Parliament get juicy jobs in the industries they helped to privatize, why should a chancellor draw a clear distinction between the private and the public purse? And why should we play Christopher Columbus? After all, we have known for years that something is fundamentally rotten with our capitalist kingdoms or republics. The multiplication of scandals and the publicity given to them are interesting only as signs that the system may be entering into a serious crisis.
Until the dam collapsed, official policy seemed to have a logic. The City and the British multinationals had apparently opted to join Europe in some form of monetary union, hoping that London would be its financial center. With the power of the labor unions broken, low-wage Britain was to be a bridgehead for foreign, mainly Japanese, investors. For the moment what mattered was to beat inflation and prop up the pound, damning the consequences for output and employment. The government not only hotly denied its intention to devalue; it passionately argued that there could be no coherent alternative. Now, making a virtue out of necessity, it has nearly halved the bank rate and allowed the pound to drop by about a fifth, as if everything had to be subordinated to economic recovery. This policy, too, could have its logic. Unfortunately for the Tories, everybody, including those in the currency markets, seems convinced that the government is driven by panic rather than a strategy.
It has plenty of reasons to lose its nerve. Even amid the bustle of January sales, one could not fail to be struck by the number of closed shops-and not just in the center city. In the suburbs, although some shopping malls built during the eighties boom still prospered, the main drags were full of “TO LET” signs. This is not surprising, since the number of bankruptcies, having climbed in 1990, rose by an additional one-third last year to nearly 63,000. The Thatcherite boasts about the spread of home ownership have a hollow ring now that some 1.5 million people have a negative equity, and the number of repossessions by lenders is rising. The Tory slogan should be amended to property-owing democracy.
But in the new Tory gospel losers don’t count. The snag is that, as unemployment rises sharply, tax revenue goes down and social spending increases. With production falling, public borrowing this year is expected to exceed 7 percent of the gross domestic product. The number of juicy morsels to privatize is also dwindling (the railways, for example, are not, like some predecessors, a license to print money). It is not certain, either, that the drop in the value of the pound will substantially cut imports and stimulate exports. To sell you must produce, and during the Thatcherite decade, when the service sector was expected to produce miracles, the share of manufacturing in gross domestic product declined from 26.2 to 21.2 percent.And on top of it all, there was a steady climb in the jobless rate. In December the number of unemployed reached 3 million, or 10.5 percent of the labor force. If it were not for the thirty or so changes in the official definition, designed to minimize the figure, the total would now be well over 4 million.
As we were driving south from London, through the stockbrokers’ belt and then the green belts, I was warned by a friend not to look at British politics in narrow statistical terms. In the charming village of Faversham, as we walked between rows of impeccably kept medieval houses, I was reminded not only of the weight of history but also of the wealth Britain accumulated when it was the world’s biggest industrial power. Yet, when we stopped in nearby Sheerness for a bite, we were struck by the low prices. They apparently had to be. The local steelworks will close later in the year, and the unemployment rate is already above the national average. Herein lies one reason for Tory disarray. The crisis is no longer a problem just for northern or Scottish proletarians. Unemployment has invaded the South and spread to the service sector. The illusion is over.
For all their recent celebrations of Clinton’s victory as a favorable precedent, Labor politicians are well aware that, after their 1992 disaster, what their party needs is not a coat of paint but an overhaul. John Smith, the new leader, was never a leftie and, therefore, has no need to show revisionist zeal like his predecessor, Neil Kinnock. Smith proceeds slowly, setting up committees and commissions. Yet in the next couple of years he will preside over two decisions that will seal the fate of his party.
The first problem concerns the party’s relation with the labor unions. The so-called bloc vote, which enables union bosses to sway decisions at party congresses, is not so crucial. The real question is whether, following its rightward course, the party will drop its class connections so as to imitate the American model or whether it will preserve some organic ties with the trade unions. The second decision, concerned with the electoral system–should the present first-past-the-post system be replaced by some form of proportional representation?–is closely linked, since it depends on whether Labor believes it can win on its own or must resign itself to an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. Naturally, to win, Labor must gain new voters, yet can it achieve victory only by jettisoning all its principles? Thatcher’s ideological success is shown by the extent to which Labor is now the shadow of its opponents.
I was in London on the day of Bush’s second strike against Iraq, when even the not-so-bold French foreign secretary ventured that the attack seemed to go beyond the U.N. mandate. John Major, with his frozen smile, duly appeared on the evening news to proclaim–surprise! surprise!–that the French were wrong and the Americans right. Later, Labor’s spokesman on defense was interviewed. While the journalist was trying to get some critical comment out of him, he preceded all his replies with the parrotlike assertion that the Americans were acting within the mandate. This pathetic ideological subordination is even more striking in domestic matters.
Talking to the two main sides of the struggle within the Labor Party, known for lack of better terms as “traditionalists” and “modernizers,” one is only convinced by each one’s criticism of the other. The modernizers are entitled to say that the vision outlined by Labor after the war (which, incidentally, never threatened the capitalist system) is now clearly out of date. The traditionalists may well reply that if the party goes much further on the American road it will lose all contact with socialism. Today, with the capitalist model shattered and the social democratic one bankrupt, the choice for leftists is plain: They can drop all their previous notions about class, equality and collective ownership in a wholesale conversion to capitalism as the final stage of history. Or they can try to revive those principles, filling them with content and taking into account the realities of the world at the end of this millennium. In the West, the question for the labor movement is really whether the working class is still capable of presenting its interests as “the superior interests of society as a whole.” Does it still make sense to talk in such terms? Friends assure me that demonstrators for the miners revealed a great deal of spontaneous radicalism. Naturally, this was a rear-guard action. The miners’ strike of 1984-85 was the crucial battle of the decade, and since then employment in the mines has dropped from around 180,000 to less than a quarter of that figure. Yet, could not this radicalism be harnessed for other struggles? Popular discontent is clearly rising. The potential steam is there; only the political engines are sadly missing.
On the ferry taking me back across the Channel, I carried the impression that Britain, though peculiar, is not exceptional. Look at Italy with its collapsing system of rule, France with the Socialists on the way to electoral slaughter, Germany unable to digest its unification. This period of historical transition is strange. In its hour of victory over the post-Stalinist rival, Western capitalism is far from triumphant. It is in obvious disarray, relieved only by the fact that it now has no serious adversary on the domestic front either. But this imbalance, this absence of a coherent left, if it lasts much longer, may have explosive consequences.