This Review is two hundred issues old. All sorts of things can be hung on commemorative hooks, and one of them is rueful retrospect. About five crises ago I found myself before an audience of us academics, trying to persuade them that a National Government would be formed to try and find a way out of Britain’s decline. In the fourteenth year of uninterrupted Conservative rule it is chastening to look back on the episode.footnote1
Inspection reveals an argument as simple as it was mistaken. United Kingdom collapse was inescapable for historical reasons a thousand times analysed and commented: the retreat of an imperial economy and the decrepitude of its state was essentially a process of ‘crisis’ with occasional (probably shrinking) periods of respite. To cope with such a deepening crisis, sooner or later the political system would have to adopt more drastic, crisis-oriented measures.
History has a habit of surprising less fortunate peoples, but the British were
This emergency formula is usually called ‘National Government’, the title worn by the 1930s version. However, the idea originated with Lloyd George in 1910, as a response to the imminent revolutionary crisis of that period. His conception was simply an all-party coalition based on agreed objectives, which would enable the system to surmount an immediate menace; after which there could be a swift return to normal.
It was tried during World War I, and lasted until 1922. Having established both wartime and peacetime validity, it was employed again during the Great Slump and the failure of Macdonald’s Labour government. This second bout of National Interest politics lasted for thirteen years, from 1932 until the end of World War II. National Governments could therefore be said to have won both wars and saved the uk from the Slump. 1945 brought a return to normal all right. However, normality in the British context meant a reversion to two-partyism—government by adversarial formulae of left and right, both of which dismally failed to bring about recovery and national redressement over the period from the fifties to the seventies.
Hence (I still recall the relish with which iron logic was foisted upon the appalled audience) it was more than likely—nay, virtually certain—that the formula would be tried again. True, by the seventy-ninth year of the twentieth century, Conservative governments had been in power longest: a total of 27 years and 7 months, against 21 years and one month for National Governments. But we Marxists knew how to handle figures. The point was the qualitative significance of the second category. The Tories were the ‘never had it so good’ lot, who had built up their total during the thirteen easy years of post-1950 boom. Who would turn to them in a crisis? In any case they appeared just then to have succumbed to a disabling form of dementia. From Bonar Law up to Edward Heath laisser-faire crankery had always figured in the party’s rhetoric. But could anyone take that seriously as a solution to the British crisis?
Another way out might have been a British Gaullism. But Westminster partyism was far too strong for that. To stand a chance, any plebiscitary dictator would have to throw off this venerable order where party was Alpha and Omega—in effect discarding the British Constitution. The feat looked impossible. All uk politicos are forged through the system, and in a sense remain its creatures even as they try to change or get rid of it. Fourteen years ago, the career of J. Enoch Powell seemed a still-living illustration of this argument.