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British politics has rarely been more interesting or more uncertain. It is hard enough to make sense of the recent past, let alone to predict the future. Leopold von Ranke said that history is what actually happened, a dictum which sounds self-evident, even banal, and which has often been scorned by younger and more ideologically-minded historians. In reality, Ranke is condemning the student of history to unending intellectual rigour: to the most relentless of grindstones. This is especially true of modern British political history.
Our electoral system offers one great advantage. Despite a vigorously democratic political culture, it is almost always possible to achieve strong government. Once, talking to Mrs Thatcher, Poul Schluter, the then Prime Minister of Denmark, said wistfully: “Margaret, what I wouldn’t give for even one year of the power you enjoy under your system”. “Ten years is better, Poul” came her reply. (So it was.)
But there is a problem, not for Prime Ministers, but for political analysts. The strength comes from electoral arrangements which convert pluralities into majorities. This means that quite small net swings in voter allegiance can have dramatic consequences. In 1964, Harold Wilson’s victory was hailed as a watershed result, at least by much of the commentariat. In fact, Labour’s percentage had hardly increased from its losing total in 1959. The Tories were defeated because they lost votes to the Liberals. Electoral outcomes are an unreliable guide to what is actually happening in the deeper undercurrents of public opinion.
In recent elections, that has become increasingly true. There has been a gradual but steady withdrawal of public consent from the two-party system. This has been masked, because our elections charge a very high price for admission to Westminster, as the Social Democrat insurrectionaries discovered in the mid-Eighties. Today’s Labour moderates are well aware of what actually happened back then, which compounds their gloom.
That said, there is a lot of ruin in the current system. In the last Parliament, the voters decisively rejected an opportunity to switch to another electoral system. As long as one party can win a majority, that is unlikely to change. No PM with Margaret Thatcher’s assets is likely to exchange them for Poul Schluter’s – and there is a further factor. If Jeremy Corbyn remains leader of the Labour party, it will be very hard for the Tories to lose the next Election. If Labour splits, ditto. During the 1980s, Labour party conferences seemed to be run as a benefit match for the Tory party, which could count on gaining several points in the opinion polls. Now, the position has improved. The entire Labour party is run as a benefit match for the Tories. That seems unlikely to change any time soon. Yet this does not guarantee Mrs May or her party the most desirable success in British politics. An electoral system which can offer healthy majorities also offers the chance to turn majority into hegemony.
Since 1945, there have been four occasions when office was not enough. The government sought to use its power to achieve hegemony. In Blairite terms, this meant imposing its narrative on events. In Thatcherite language it meant bludgeoning the debate until she had enforced wide if reluctant agreement that there was no alternative.
The first attempt at hegemony occurred under Attlee. In 1945, his government appeared to have all the necessary weaponry to achieve a political and intellectual transformation. “We are the masters now” said Hartley Shawcross “and likely to remain so for some considerable time”. That seemed all too likely to be true. Aneurin Bevan said that the country needed twenty-five years of Labour government. That also seemed all too possible. The crumbling of Attlee-ism has not been adequately analysed. It may be that this will be rectified in a forthcoming biography by John Bew, an outstanding young historian. Then again, Attlee lost office but much of the architecture of the Attlee settlement not only survived him but lasted for a generation – and longer still in the case of the NHS, which became a secular religion – and a religion seemingly immune to reformation.
This helps to explain why the Tories who defeated Attlee never attained hegemony. They won three general elections and held power for thirteen years. At various stages, senior Labour figures came close to despair. In practical terms, there seemed to be no alternative to the Tories, but not in Thatcherite ones.
If your goal is hegemony, it helps to win an election after your opponents appear to have grown stale in office. That was true in 1945. The opportunity is even greater if they are also suffering from discredit, as the Tories were in 1964. Harold Wilson claimed to be the great moderniser: the demiurge of modernity and progress. In reality, he was the most morally negligible Premier ever to have infested 10 Downing Street, and that includes Tony Blair. Attlee left an important legacy. Wilson left a phrase: “A week is a long time in politics” – but not long enough for hegemony.
The next hegemon was Margaret Thatcher, who transformed British politics even more radically than Attlee had. She had faults. So did Churchill. He was our most important wartime Premier; she deserves a similar accolade for domestic matters.
Tout passe, tout lasse, tout casse. After eighteen years, an already exhausted Tory party had the further misfortune to run into an electoral genius. By the turn of the century, it was senior Tories’ turn to experience despair. Mr Blair’s route to hegemony lay through slogans and clothes-stealing.
The Tories had always based much of their appeal on economic competence. “Boom and bust” took care of that. Mr Blair told middle-class voters that he was on their side. They wanted a caring government and a compassionate society, but not at the cost of higher income-tax rates. Tony Blair obliged.
For sixty years , it had often seemed that the electorate faced a choice: the man with no heart, or the man with no head. In a hard world, heartlessness usually prevailed. Suddenly, Blairism dissolved the choice. Everyone could have both. At all British elections, although political partisans often under-estimate this factor, a lot of voters cast their ballot for what they regard as the least bad option. The Tories had always benefited from such reluctant supporters, who considered them to be far too beholden to the rich, but who could not trust Labour. Mr Blair was good at winning trust.
Except in his own party. There is an analogy between Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour party and Britain’s membership of the European Union. In each case, an alien element had been inserted into a body politic. The assumption was that over time, and with a liberal use of immuno-suppressant drugs, the rejection instinct would disappear. That did not happen, in either case. In Europe, the problem was immigration: with Blairism, the Iraq war.
Even without that conflict, Tony Blair would not have much of a legacy. Unable to convert electoral mastery into hegemony, he proved that it was possible to win three elections, twice with a massive majority, the third time, a comfortable one – and achieve little. This was Harold Wilson Mk II. But Mr Blair cannot be blamed for his party’s basic problem. In the Labour party, there is a fault-line which no tectonic plate could resist. Is Labour a socialist party, committed to fundamental transformation, or is it a social-reforming party, along roughly Blairite lines? That argument has bedevilled Labour throughout much of its existence, and remains as unresolved as ever. Forget hegemony: as long as this remains the case, any form of power will remain unattainable.
Even while he was execrated by his own colleagues, Mr Blair cast a long shadow over the Tories. By 2010, they still faced the heart/head question. Although Labour may have been burnt out, the Tories were still not trusted, as David Cameron was well aware. He has never been given sufficient credit for his attempts to deal with this, for he evolved a subtle strategy, which could have become a bid for hegemony.
First, he tried hard to align his party with the NHS. Mr Cameron wanted to make it impossible for Labour politicians to claim that the Tories were set on abolishing it. Second, he tackled two difficult issues, education and welfare, which even her late Ladyship had side-stepped. Third came the Northern powerhouse, an attempt to move beyond the Tories’ Southern strongholds and take the message to the entire country. Finally, there was the “big society”. This writer always found that term vaguely threatening and too Orwellian: the Ministry of Big. But it was part of a bold move to break away from the unfortunate aspects of Mrs Thatcher’s rhetorical legacy: “cuts” and “there is no such thing as society”.
It all remains a work in progress, because Labour is not the only party with tectonic problems. Heath – thanks to Enoch Powell – Thatcher, Major, Cameron: four successive Tory premiers have been blighted by Europe. So how will the fifth fare? Gather she Alpine flowers while she may: the new PM was right to put her knapsack on her back and have a recuperative break, for she will now face one of the most difficult set of challenges which has ever confronted a peacetime Premier. Admittedly, she will be able to rely on unlimited assistance from Labour, but will that be enough? We can be certain that it is going to be as hard as ever to work out what is actually happening.