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 .)