May 27, 2007

Thatcher. The strange ideological components of the ‘left’ and the ‘right’.

Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 6:43 pm

So not so long ago I read John Campbell’s excellent two volume biography of Thatcher. (“A triumph” says the Spectator. “A winner” says the Daily Mail.) A couple of nuggets and a question.

1) Of course I knew about arms to Iraq, but I’d somehow failed to grasp the full extent of the horror. I hadn’t realised, for example, that the Scott Inquiry, far from being an excoriating condemnation of the government, was in some respects a whitewash – because it restricted itself to events in Whitehall, when the heart of the scandal lay in the government’s lobbying for and subsidisation of the arms industry. Scott revealed the hypocrisy and deceit with which the government broke its own guidelines on arms sales – although he accepted, with what Campbell calls “tactful credulity”, Thatcher’s protestations of personal innocence. But he “entirely failed to investigate the network of informal connections between government, businesses and the security services which was the real motor of the secret arms trade in the 1980s.” It’s not just that Thatcher and her government secretly approved trade with regimes everyone knew to be murderous, and that were, according to the government’s own guidelines, off limits. Thatcher also subsidised these deals with public money, even as she refused to pay for public works in Britain on grounds of free-market small-government economics. One favourite method was to use the International Aid budget as a bargaining chip. In 1988 Thatcher personally negotiated a deal “without reference to the foreign office” whereby Britain financed, out of its aid budget, the construction of “an economically unviable and environmentally damaging hydroelectric power station in northern Malaysia in return for an agreement to buy British defence equipment… worth £1.3 billion.” The High Court eventually ruled the deal illegal. Another form of subsidisation was the Export Credit Guarantee Scheme. Purchasing countries were given credit, from the public purse, as an incentive to buy British weapons. This credit was not always made good. “Many of the arms supposedly purchased – by Jordan, Iraq and probably others – were never paid for at all. Even before the Gulf War intervened, Nicholas Ridley admitted that Iraq owed £1 billion and the true figure may have been nearer £2.3 billion.” In other words we didn’t just sell weapons to Iraq; we actually paid for many of them ourselves. AGGHHH!

2) Then there’s Thatcher’s bigotry or xenophobia. My favourite example comes from her time as Education secretary. “For some time the British Council had been working to create an exchange scheme whereby students in EEC countries would be able to spend a year, or a term, at a university in another member country, as part of their course…. Having agreed a pioneer scheme with the German Government, the Council assumed that DES approval would be a formality. They were staggered, therefore, when after a long delay Mrs Thatcher vetoed it on the ground that while the Government appreciated the benefit to foreign students studying in Britain she could see no reciprocal advantages to British students going abroad.” This is the insanity that would eventually tear the Conservative party to pieces, making it unelectable for nearly a decade. And it is one of the leitmotifs of Thatcher’s career. It’s not a style of statesmanship: it’s bigotry. And it’s crucial to Thatcher’s popularity. Much of her strength lay in her unreconstructed idea of Britain’s exalted position on the world stage. The historian George Urban recounts a Centre for Policy Studies lunch when Thatcher “felt she was among friends and could let her hair down. I was amazed to hear her uttering views about people and countries… which were not all that different from the Alf Garnett version of history.” Of her loathing for Germany Urban writes: “This was an ugly thing, known but to a few, and unmentionable in decent company.” On the campaign trail, in 1978, Thatcher cynically and candidly made clear her views. Many British people fear being “swamped by people of a different culture.” “If you want good race relations, you have got to allay people’s fears on numbers.” There must be “the prospect of a clear end to immigration.” After Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘River Tiber’ speech, she had advised Heath not to sack him. Privately she assured Powell that she was “strongly sympathetic” to his views.

3) And so my question. I realise it’s simplistic, and only holds within a certain political context – but I think it’s got some force. The question is: why (at least in the Western democracies with which I am familiar) does economic liberalism so often ally itself with social illiberalism, and vice versa?

Consider, if you will, the recent French elections. Why is it that the candidate who advocated an adoption of Anglo-American neoliberal economic policies (and who is now preparing to implement them) was also the candidate who controversially flirted with the racist rhetoric of Le Pen? Or consider the U.S.A: the Republican party is in general far keener on free-trade and far less protectionist than the Democrats, yet the Republican party is also the home of those noisy bigots insisting on zero tolerance for illegal immigrants, and on the erection of a giant wall (if possible electrified and machine-gun-armed) along the border with Mexico.

There are, of course, as many exceptions as you care to name. And these alignments certainly break down if you try to push them too far. There wasn’t much social tolerance in Soviet Russia, for instance; and the libertarian right is, at least in theory, maximally tolerant in every way. Still, these ideological clusters are dominant enough to have been enshrined in the way we talk about politics. When we speak of right-wing economic policies, we mean admiration for the free-market and distaste for large government. But when we speak of right-wing social views, we mean opposition to homosexuality, to abortion, distrust of immigrants, enthusiasm for capital punishment, and so on. A magazine like the Economist, proud to call itself ‘centre right’, is also happy to describe political organisations with no raison d’etre beyond racism as right wing, even if they belong on the ‘far right’. And this is probably the main reason why leftists like me are so suspicious of right wing economic doctrines that (if we’re honest) we don’t really understand – because those who propound them seem to be allied with the forces of homophobia, racism and misogyny.

Clearly things are just way more complex than this, and I’m writing from a pretty slanted ideological perspective. But the same question can be put from another perspective, if you appropriately redistribute the emotive rhetoric. Why do the disparate and apparently disjointed political commitments that make up what we call the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ so often go together?

I don’t have any kind of an adequate answer to this. It seems strange that I’ve never read anything that even directly addresses the question (though this is presumably just a function of my patchy reading). Anyway. It’s something to ponder.

A final Thatcher nugget. The endlessly entertaining Alan Clark (who is at least candid about his brutalism) records the dying hours of Thatcher’s premiership. Mortally wounded, “the Lady” is determined to fight on to the end. Clark writes in his diary: “the immediate priority is to find a way, tactfully and skilfully, to talk her out of standing a second time” (because if she’d fought the second round, Heseltine would have won). His method shows some genius. Campbell records that he “somehow managed to get in to see her.” Declaring (quite truthfully) his undying admiration, Clark says that Thatcher is certain to lose the next round, but that she should not let that stop her – she should go down fighting gloriously to the end. “After a pause in which she contemplated this Wagnerian scenario she said: ‘It’d be so terrible if Michael won. He would undo everything I have fought for.’” So perhaps, Campbell writes, Clark’s words of support had more effect than the arguments all those urging her to withdraw.

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