The title I was given for this talk was ‘Problems of the Coming Period’!footnote When this was set, some six weeks ago, the coming period that was in mind was the twenty years or so up to and through the millennium; that term which we still have to use, millennium, for the Western Christian date of 2000, but which also has its ironic echoes of the coming good time, the transformation. It happens that the period up to the year 2000 is by any reckoning, whatever numerical system you employ, one of the major periods of crisis in all human history. So the perspective of that period seems an important thing to discuss.

Since then, however, the coming period has been redefined as the next four weeks, until the General Election. There’s a sense in which one could be tempted to drop all that long-term thinking about the period up to 2000, and just talk about the next four weeks. That I think would be wrong, if only because some of the things that will be happening in the next four weeks, and certainly the situation that may then emerge, require us to think of a scale of problems and challenges which, for all the efforts of a number of people in this and other countries, the Left has not really met. In other words, while we can recognise, respect, and even where we can’t respect, discount the kind of opportunism and short-term argument that becomes the daily fare of a general election campaign, we have all the time to be looking through and past it at the underlying problems. The most central of these is this: How can it be, and who at any period could have predicted, that the most open right-wing government for half a century in Britain, coming after the supposed liberal and social-democratic consensus of the postwar years; a government, directly responsible for massive de-industrialization of the British economy and for massive unemployment; engaged in an absurd military adventure twelve months ago; virulent in cold war attitudes; rigid and resistant to all initiatives towards disarmament and the problems of nuclear weapons; how can such a government outstrip, as it has done so far, not merely the challenges of the Left (we have been accustomed to being in a minority), but all those apparently solid formations of British society—what we thought we had most to analyse: the liberal, social-democratic and right-wing labour consensus? How can it outstrip both?

It is so unreasonable that much of the time one thinks, and not just as a pleasant kind of fantasy, that it cannot be objectively true. We can imagine that at some point, in what has after all been a very volatile and changing situation, there will again be some massive and unforeseen shift of opinion which will make this apparent possibility the real impossibility which one hopes it is. Yet I think we’re quite deluding ourselves if we suppose that using our received ideas, our received kinds of analysis, we can intellectually or politically anticipate that kind of shift. Nobody can rule it out, but there is still the sheer scale of the shift required. One would have been reckoned deranged rather than merely mistaken (and we sometimes tend on the Left to call people deranged where we only mean mistaken) if in 1960, 1968, or 1974 we had said, look, in 1983, there will be this kind of situation. It would not have seemed possible. And therefore there is a very acute problem for analysis, and this I think can only be met if we start by putting the British situation into a much wider context. Both wider geographically and wider in the sense of the temporal perspective, than we have, again in spite of many efforts, so far succeeded in doing. Because we have to try to understand how this consciousness, which is not only hostile to us, but which appears to be profoundly destructive of the very people who uphold it, has been generated.

So I see the coming period as a question not only of the next four weeks but of the next twenty years or so. And what we have to say has to make as much sense on 10 June as on 9 June, when I think we may be in need of sense. It isn’t necessary for me to say much specifically about the immediate issues that will crystalize in this election campaign. Anyone likely to be at this meeting could say those things as well as or better than I. The current agenda, the current issues, are set. What I want to say is that the key to understanding the general situation is the extraordinary gap between a specifically generated British consciousness and the real situation of this now every diverse British people and society in the world. This distance is the cause, or one of the causes, of the extraordinary failures to recognize the situation and to respond to it, which is most characteristic of current majority political opinion. I put it that way, as a distance or gap, with the intention of being relatively optimistic. If it is a gap it is something which might be bridged. If it is a confused mis-recognition, it is something that might eventually be recognised.

I’m dissenting therefore from the kinds of analyses which some of my friends have been making (and which I see the strength of) in which it is argued that Thatcher has somehow encapsulated something which was endemic in the society: a peculiarly hard, authoritarian, anti-intellectual, racist consciousness, which was latent and which Thatcher has now materialized. Good people are arguing this, and the evidence for that kind of crystalization is in a sense there. But we have to remind ourselves that supposing Thatcher wins, at the existing level, or with some addition or some deduction, in four weeks time, this cannot allow us to conclude that the majority of the British people can be defined as Thatcherite in consciousness. I mean this is simply a matter of elementary analysis. If that happens, even if it happens as a worse version of the present situation, it will still be the case that it is only our extraordinary electoral system which permits the continuation of that kind of absolute power. On the very worst showing, less than half of British voters approve the Thatcherite policies in the terms asked, which is whether they will vote for a Conservative government. And from that figure, somewhere in the middle forties, you have to deduct another figure. It’s difficult to put it in exact quantity, but it would be well over thirty percent, it might be higher, which would vote Conservative if the Conservative Party were led by Prior, Pym, Gilmour, Heath or whoever.

In other words there is a core Conservative vote which is temporarily commanded in the Conservative Party by Thatcher and her friends. So the too quick identification of certain very dangerous tendencies in the society, becoming a majority or even a dominant tendency, could actually disarm us from thinking about what the situation and its possibilities are. Its existence at the level of ten or fifteen percent, whatever it may really be, is very serious, and it is also very serious that it is growing. But we have to place it within a situation, as I was describing a few minutes ago, of misrecognition and confusion which, if we could understand it, might provide a base for the directions in which a whole new kind of socialist argument has to be developed. Whereas if we think that this sector of opinion, which is often spoken about in the metaphors of virus or epidemic, pathological metaphors anyway, is the sign of a whole culture becoming Thatcherite, then really only an extreme defensive response is possible: of battening down the hatches, as some would say, of preparing for a very rough time, of concentrating on the maintenance of our own organizations and so on.

But it seems to me that is not at all the situation. On the contrary, although that danger is there, there is at least an equal danger from acquiescence by the Left in an interpretation which, as it were, would blame the majority of the British people for not accepting a socialist analysis. Again the shift from that, to a kind of blame or contempt for the majority, is a latency which can always be exploited. Negative feelings, which socialists in bad times are particularly prone to, could take the place of the kind of analysis, and therefore the kind of activity, which a different reading of the situation would support.