Slightly adapting Dr. Johnson, we can say that the prospect of political execution concentrates the collective mind wonderfully—on the elementary need to survive. This has been the preoccupation of the Labour Party, especially its leadership, in the wake of its catastrophically poor performance in the 1983 general election. And since for Labour, as for every other primarily parliamentary party, survival means essentially electoral success, this has meant—for the leadership—subordinating every other priority to the drive to win the next general election. After three years, how well is it succeeding in pursuit of its chosen strategy and objective? Although the maximum permitted lifetime of any British parliament is five years, it has become very unusual for a government to continue its own life in office for so long. Prime ministers have for more than thirty years now exercised without hesitation the discretionary power given to them under the unwritten British ‘constitution’ to choose what they hope and calculate is the most advantageous moment to themselves and their party to ‘go to the country’.
It is, as Raymond Williams pointed out in his Socialist Society pamphlet, Democracy and Parliament, one of the many undemocratic prerogatives which still clutter up our supposedly democratic political system.footnote1 Consequently, although no election need be held in Britain until June 1988, it is likely that it will take place earlier, whenever the economy and the opinion polls provide the most favourable indications that the present Government can reasonably look for.
It might seem rash to predict that a reactionary Conservative government, which is already the first to achieve re-election after a full term in office in Britain since 1959, and which has no scruples about using the black arts of manipulation, both of public opinion and the relevant economic factors, will not achieve Margaret Thatcher’s declared aim of a third full term in office. This was the Conservative achievement in 1959, under the very different and now anathematized style of leadership of Harold Macmillan; and it is a triumph the overweening Thatcher would dearly love to emulate. What is more, she enjoys, as Macmillan did not, the extraordinary advantage of confronting a fundamentally divided opposition. A considerable majority of British voters do not support the Thatcher government, but in 1983 their votes were almost evenly divided between the Labour Party and the Liberal/Social Democratic Alliance, apart from the considerable number of supporters of the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, and the entire electorate of Northern Ireland, voting for parties now not tied to any of the mainland British political parties. There is, as we shall see, little reason to expect this fragmentation nor to continue in the next general election.
On the other hand, the comparatively tranquil economic conditions of nearly thirty years ago, the complacency they generated, and the skill with which Macmillan exploited that mood—all these belong to a past era of British politics. The Thatcherite recipe for the ills of British capitalism has not proved successful, and it is not perceived as successful, except perhaps by its most obvious beneficiaries in the finance and banking sectors. The second Thatcher electoral victory in 1983 quite plainly owed most to the mood of chauvinist triumphalism generated by her successful war to repossess the Falkland Islands; but also to the grotesque disarray of the Labour opposition. In the long run 1983 will almost certainly be seen as the exception that proves the rule: only exceptional circumstances can produce the return of a government after a full term of office so long as the prolonged and deepening crisis of Britain’s economic decline remains unresolved.
Thatcher has always boasted freely that she, unlike her predecessors both Labour and Conservative, is a ‘conviction politician’, not a practitioner of consensus and a dealer in what one tuc general secretary described as ‘shabby, shoddy compromises’. The evidence is that, after the Wilson—Callaghan years, which certainly plumbed depths of shabbiness and shoddiness, many electors have respected her apparent determination and sincerity, even if they have not necessarily shared
Another principal pillar of her reputation, her proclaimed nationalism, has also been badly shaken. In fact its foundation was always fragile, since no British prime minister has sustained with more grovelling and uncritical devotion the established British relationship of toadyism to the United States’ global bullying and aggression. But not until this year was the essential hollowness of her post-Falklands bragging about Britain’s revived greatness and independence widely exposed. Her government’s readiness to sell off to American firms not only the Westland helicopter-making company, but also substantial sections of British Leyland, including Landrover—a symbol of British enterprise especially dear to the landowning classes—alerted many ‘natural’ Conservative supporters to the shockingly unpatriotic lengths to which the Thatcher government was prepared to push its free-market policies.
Even more striking was public reaction to Thatcher’s readiness to allow Britain to be used as the launching pad for Reagan’s murderous aggression against Libya in April. It becomes quickly apparent that one fear, that of opening up Britain to the kind of attacks on American property and people which have become an embedded part of the Middle Eastern imbroglio, was mixed with another more subterranean yet persistent anxiety—that of falling victim to a nuclear conflict carelessly ignited by American adventurism. The Prime Minister’s initial response to criticism—that it was ‘inconceivable’ that she should have refused Reagan’s request to launch the attack from the American airbases in southern and eastern England—was later qualified, if not retracted. But as with so many first thoughts, it was revelatory of her fundamental attitude. Not surprisingly, it has not gone down well, least of all with those who had believed what the Conservative Party told them in 1983: that ‘in a troubled world, Britain is increasingly respected because we stand up for our own interests.’footnote2 Even those who accepted the Western propaganda line about Libya found it hard to see how ‘standing up for our own interests’ required support for the American revenge attack, with all its dangerously uncertain possible consequences.