Tuesday, 1 November 2011

2010/11 = 1974/5 in reverse?

In March 1974, a minority government came to power following a hung parliament, which despite its questionable remit proudly and unashamedly attempted to push the consensus of the previous three decades measurably further than anyone had taken it before. A sense of triumph and pre-revolutionary fervour among the working class, and an equal sense of paranoia and pre-revolutionary fear among the ruling class, spread through the country. For a brief while, the Tories seemed utterly out-thought and outflanked, and something close to a workers' state seemed tantalisingly near, really far more so than in 1945 when the working class had been far more conservative and had far more faith in the quasi-feudal institutions (it is one of the great tragedies of British television that the changing climate in television drama and political pressures on the BBC ensured that Trevor Griffiths' Country, set on that first post-war election night, remained a one-off rather than the start of a sequence of plays, running up to that 1974 moment, as initially planned).

But that Labour government had a fatal fault; it didn't have enough broad-ranging public support for its remarkably radical agenda (whereas in 1945 it very definitely had). It wanted to take the populace in a direction not enough of it wanted to go, and thus opened the door for another kind of radicalism. Even though Labour later shifted to a more consensual position under Jim Callaghan (who, intriguingly, recently won Peter Hitchens' seal of approval, and would surely be considered underrated, with both his proto-SDP and hard-left opponents seen as overrated, by the Blue Labour tendency) the semi-revolutionary circumstances in which it had come to power and the electoral fragility of its remit did for it - and, by extension, for an entire set of assumed norms of the organisation of the economy and society.

The similarity of the mid-1970s situation to the present one seems intriguing, at least from the perspective of those who believe that electoral politics - despite its profoundly, inherently flawed form with which an early heatwave, a royal wedding and a late Easter may have ensured we are now stuck for the rest of our lives - have to be worked with if significant change is to be effected. Once again, a hung parliament has given us a government with an unequivocally radical agenda, taking the consensus of the previous three decades considerably further than anyone has previously dared. Once again, we have the logical conclusion of what would have happened had those who had built a three-decade consensus abandoned all residual halfway houses with the previous assumed norms. And once again, it is happening at precisely the moment when significant numbers of people, who would not previously have questioned it, are wondering if that consensus, and the people it has empowered, have been good for the country.

The economic crisis that began in 2008 is now emerging as to the post-1979 consensus what the industrial strife of 1972-4 was to its post-1945 equivalent - the moment when much of the population began to question what it thought it knew unequivocally and forever. And just as those circumstances, which were the direct reason why it was in power at all, made things far more difficult for the Labour government of 1974 than they would otherwise have been, so are the present circumstances, and the way they are similarly encouraging many to cut loose from their fixed economic and political moorings, creating hostility to the current government among people who would once have supported it unquestioningly. Even in Thatcher's darkest hours in the very early 1980s, there was a broad public consensus (at least outside the heavy-industrial areas) that industrial relations had to be reformed - a view that was already developing across much of society by the mid-1970s. Today, the closest thing to a broad public consensus is that banking and the financial service industries need to be reformed - and this is as profound a problem for the current government as dissatisfaction with union abuses was in 1974/5.

This is where Ed Miliband has much of the public - indeed, much of the public that would never previously have accepted his views or thought they were necessary - on his side in a manner remarkably akin to the way Margaret Thatcher, right at the start of her Tory leadership, was already, quite unexpectedly, winning over some who had voted Labour with pride and the desire to create a new society in 1945, and who had broadly stuck by them for the subsequent quarter-century. I do not want to over-emphasise my hopes for the current Labour Party. There is a long way to go in the party's rebuilding, a long way to go before I can believe unequivocally that an Ed Miliband government would be what can only be vaguely imagined now. But at least the germ of questioning and change is there in a place where it seemed it might never be again.

Could it be, perhaps, that the current government will be viewed by history very much as the Labour government of the mid-1970s is viewed today - as an extreme assertion of a set of ideas on the economy and society just before they were decisively challenged and overturned - and Ed Miliband's conference speech will be viewed as Thatcher's early speeches are, as a statement that was widely mocked and viewed as marginal and unworkable when it was made, but eventually stands out as the beginning of a fundamental change?

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