Monday, 3 May 2010

General Election 2010

Last year I wrote here about the opportunism of the Conservative Party in exploiting the MP's expenses scandal. Now that we are in the Election campaign, as a member of the Labour Party I feel that Gordon Brown and the leadership should be more combative towards the Conservative Party. My first ever published writing was a critical history of the Conservatives, which appeared in 1989, with a second edition following in 1990. The clear villain of the book was Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister at the time it was written. My view of Thatcher’s politics was set out in the final pages of the book. Perhaps the tone was a bit too strident, but twenty one years on from first publication, I stand by most of the following:

During the 1979 General Election campaign the Conservative Party concentrated on Labour's troubled time in office and their own alternative, which resembled that of 1970. Their manifesto was called Time For a Change. This was an unlikely title for a Conservative manifesto. That­cher constantly spoke of the need for a change of direction. The Election was held on May 3, and the Conservatives won 339 seats to Labour's 269, while the Liberals won 11 seats and the others 17. The Con­servatives had a majority of 43. Thatcher now became Britain's first woman Prime Minister. Thatcher's Government initially represented a balance between the adherents of her approach and the sceptics. She excluded Heath, who was to be a constant critic in the following years. The Conservatives' General Election victory was followed by victory in the first EEC Election, held in June. Thatcher proclaimed herself to be a "convic­tion politician", opposed to consensus. Her major pre­occupation was an attempt to reverse Britain's long term economic decline through monetarism. This was developed by Milton Friedman, an economist from the United States. It was a theory that had only been been properly tested by one of the world's most barbaric regimes, the Fascist military dictatorship of Chile. The result had been a spectacular failure. Thatcher's Govern­ment was soon showing itself to be a disaster for Britain. Thatcher's economic strategy involved reduced public expenditure, reduced taxation – especially for the ruling class – an attack on the trade unions, and privatisation. The result was mass unemployment. When Thatcher took power unemployment was above one million. She increased it to two million in August 1980, and then three million in January 1982. Thatcher showed herself to be authoritarian, inflexible and uncaring. Her Government attacked the democratic rights of the British people, most notably with restrictions on the powers of local authorit­ies. Thatcher followed an aggressive foreign policy. This involved hostility to the Soviet Union. At the end of 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Thatcher con­demned this action, being unconcerned that the Conserva­tive Party had instigated an invasion of Afghanistan a century earlier. She was involved in constant disputes with the EEC. Thatcher notably failed to improve the position of women. Her own position as the first woman to lead the Conservative Party was anomalous, as the Party has always been dominated by males, and has perpetuated male dominance of British society. Conserva­tive women, being reactionaries, have not sought to alter this.
Thatcher's approach immediately became known as Thatcherism. It was an ideological system whereas its predecessors in the Conservative Party, Peelism and Disraelianism, had not been. Thatcher was therefore placing herself outside of the mainstream of the Conservative Party, by proclaiming her belief in ideology whereas the Party had always previously prided itself on its non-ideo­logical nature. Thatcher's programme was proclaimed by her supporters as being radical. They even repeated the unlikely claim of Heath, that a Conservative Government was carrying out a revolution. In practice Thatcherism was reactionary, for it attacked many of the gains made by the British people, in an attempt to revive capitalism. Thatcher's policies provoked a great deal of opposition within the Conservative Party. She merely dismissed this, calling her opponents "wets." She gradually removed the "wets" from the Government. They spent a great deal of time complaining about Thatcher's approach, but failed to take any effective steps to hinder it. They did not have the courage to put forward an alternative Leader so Thatcher was re-elected as Party Leader each year with­out facing any challenge. The "wets" were joined by the unlikely figure of Peter Thorneycroft. Now that he saw what monetarism meant in practice he did not like it. He was replaced as Party Chairman in September 1981 by Cecil Parkinson. Meanwhile the Party organisation solidly sup­ported Thatcher. Each year her speech at the rally follow­ing the Party Conference prompted the pathetic spectacle of a marathon standing ovation.
The Government became increasingly unpopular, until its fortunes were revived by victory in the Falklands War. The Argentinian invasion of the Falklands in April 1982 represented a crisis for the Government, and prompted the resignation of Lord Carrington, the Foreign Secretary, Thereafter the military operation to recover the islands reflected well on Thatcher. She dishonestly presented the war as a fight against Fascism. She had previously allowed the sale of arms to the Fascist military dictatorship of Argentina. It was only now they were being used against Britain that Thatcher saw a problem. Nevertheless this surprise did not provoke Thatcher into opposition to Fas­cism. During the war she worked in alliance with the Fascist dictatorship of Chile against Argentina.
Besides the Falklands War, the Conservatives were helped by divisions in the Labour Party, which had led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party at the start of 1981. The SDP then formed the Alliance with the Liberal Party. The emergence of the Alliance appeared to increase the threat to the Conservatives, but eventually aided them by taking votes off of Labour at the next Election. This Election was held on June 9 1983. The Conservatives were little troubled in the campaign by the other Parties, which were in a weak state. The Conserva­tives won 397 seats, Labour 209, the Alliance 23, and the others 21. The Conservative majority was 144. The Conservatives' landslide victory was deceptive. It occurred due to the divided nature of the opposition. The Conservative Party's share of the vote was little higher than it had been in 1945.
Thatcher's second term was as unsuccessful as her first. There were constant problems. In October Cecil Parkin­son, who had recently relinquished the post of Party Chairman, resigned from the Government, when it was revealed that his former secretary, Sara Keays, was expecting his child. In February 1984 Harold Macmillan accepted a peerage on his nineteeth birthday, becoming the Earl of Stockton. He used his return to prominence to criticise Thatcher. He died in December 1986. The Conservative Party was divided over Thatcher's continu­ing attack on local government. The Government carried legislation that limited local authorities' powers to set their own rates, and abolished the Greater London Coun­cil and the Metropolitan County Councils – on account of their being Labour-controlled. In March 1984 the miners went on strike, in opposition to the Government's programme of running down the coal industry. For a whole year the Government was to preside over this dam­aging dispute without attempting to settle it. Meanwhile the Conservatives won the second EEC Election, which was held in June 1984, although Labour made gains. In October 1984 the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel at Brigh­ton where Conservative Party Conference representatives were staying. Several members of the Party were killed. In the Autumn of 1985 the Government discarded mone­tarism, realising that it had failed. Nevertheless the Government maintained its general economic plan. Although there had been some economic improvement it could not be called a success. Mass unemployment was only gradually reduced. The Government was seriously damaged by the events surrounding the Westland helicop­ter company at the beginning of 1986. Two Cabinet Min­isters, Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan, resigned amid a Cabinet dispute over the ownership of the company. Thatcher's personal position seemed threatened by revel­ations about her role in the dispute, but she survived the crisis. Later in the year the Conservatives were damaged by another sex scandal. This featured Jeffrey Archer. He had previously been a Conservative MP and a successful businessman, only to lose his fortune and abandon his political career. He had retrieved his fortune with the large sales of a series of mediocre novels, and been appointed Deputy Chairman of the Party. Having rehabilitated himself, he now suffered another misfortune. He blundered his way into paying money to a prostitute, Monica Coghlan, who he had not met, in order that she would not reveal details of their alleged liaison. This was publicised, and the outcome was Archer's resignation.
Early in 1987 Thatcher paid a triumphant visit to the Soviet Union, relations having thawed. This enhanced Thatcher's reputation. The visit to the Soviet Union was an unlikely way for a Leader of the Conservative Party to improve her electoral prospects, but that was one of its aims. In May 1987 Thatcher called an Election for June 11. The Conservative manifesto was entitled The Next Moves Forward. In the foreword Thatcher took the unlikely step of associating herself with the idea of "One Nation". She claimed that her Government was fulfilling this aim. The Conservatives ran a poor campaign, but still won, largely because the opposition remained weak. The Conservatives won 375 seats, Labour 229, the Alliance 22 and the others 24. The Conservatives had won a majority of 100. The Election victory was followed by a reconstruction of the Govern­ment. This included the sacking of John Biffen – who had been Leader of the House of Commons. Biffen responded by saying that Thatcher's Government was Stalinist. The idea of the Conservative Party being influenced by Stalin­ism was certainly a new one. It was as unusual as That­cher proclaiming herself as a supporter of the "One Nation" approach. As Thatcher entered her third term in office, the thinking of the Conservative Party was charac­teristically incoherent.

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