For three years, Britain lived in the shadow of one dominant fact: the bankruptcy of Conservatism. This was more than a political fact. It was social, cultural, personal: the end of a way of life, a distinctive conception of the world, the end of the peculiar type of hegemony through which the bourgeoisie had ruled for centuries. One disaster followed another: economic crisis, the fiasco of the Common Market negotiations, picturesque scandals, belated colonial wars, the failure of a Conservative ‘incomes policy’, a lurid struggle for power within the Conservative Party ending in the election of the most hopeless of candidates, the perfect image of an era already dead on its feet. Finally, another economic crisis. The meaning was evident, and conceded even by the most impenitent right-wing mouth-pieces: Conservatism, the traditional organ of the ruling class, was no longer capable of serving that class effectively. Old remedies were no longer good for the needs of ‘the nation’. Trying to adapt itself to the new exigencies of capitalism, the Conservative Party merely became ridiculous.
Openly or tacitly, the majority of intellectuals deserted Conservatism. Journalists, commentators, authors, the makers of ‘public opinion’ all predicted the defeat of the Conservative Party. Radicalism, change, novelty, became universal formulas. Since under Harold Wilson the Labour Party had confidently asserted itself as the protagonist of the new slogans of ‘modernisation’, ‘national revival’, etc, the victory of Labour at the October elections seemed inevitable.
No left-wing party—except possibly the same Labour Party in 1945— appeared to be so favoured by circumstances as Labour in the past three years. All logic—even the logic of capitalist evolution itself—appeared to conduct towards overwhelming Labour victory.
What happened was different. The election revealed the depth and resistance of a conservatism which seemed already defeated, among great masses of people. The public voices, which create what appears to be public opinion’, constituted a private world of aspiration divorced from reality. The real, dumb public opinion moved only slightly in the direction indicated by the intellectuals. The years of rhetoric had only superficially touched the immense residual weight of British conservatism—a weight, a force which does not become less because nowadays every pundit recognizes it as irrational, the meaningless heritage of a rejected past. In reality, public opinion moved just enough to displace the Conservatives. In relation to what was expected—in relation to what seemed rational to almost every sector of vocal opinion—the Labour victory almost looks like a defeat.
This encounter with reality has created a situation for the Labour Party—and for the socialist opposition inside and outside the Labour Party—quite different from what was expected. For Wilson, the problem is a simple one: how to go on from this half-victory to a real victory, on the level of genuine ‘public opinion’ and ultimately at the next election.