A Socialist Thatcherite?
July 7, 2012Posted by on
I would hesitate to describe myself as pragmatic during my time spent in the Civil Service. In its archaic use (pragmatic – active in an officious or meddlesome way) it fits too well with my perception of the Civil Service. I would often describe myself to my colleagues as a ‘Socialist Thatcherite’. My early childhood during WWII made me ‘a socialist sympathiser’ and in this I would admit to a philosophy of pragmatism. While ‘Socialist Thatcherite’ fits well into the category of an oxymoron, my colleagues, who for the most part were Tory supporters (in varying degrees) could well be described as ‘Thatcherite Socialists’. They were quite happy for the reforms advocated by Thatcher to be implemented elsewhere, but not in the Civil Service sector served by them. Public money was perceived as being a horn of plenty but they soon found out that Thatcher was no Abundantia. She in turn was to find out that the Civil Service was conservative only with a small ‘c’.
In the introduction to her autobiography The Downing Street Years – abridged here – Margaret Thatcher indicts Socialism for its failure to be efficacious. Writing that successive post war Labour Governments began a sustained attempt of a centralizing, managerial, bureaucratic, interventionist style of government. It levied high rates of tax on work, enterprise, consumption, and wealth transfer. It planned development at every level – urban, rural, industrial and scientific. It managed the economy,macro-economically by Keynesian methods of fiscal manipulation,micro-economically by granting regional and industrial subsidies on a variety of criteria. It nationalized industries, either directly by taking ownership, or indirectly by using its powers of regulation to constrain the decisions of private management in the direction the Government wanted. As Arthur Shenfield put it:
The private sector is controlled by government, and the public sector isn’t controlled by anyone.
Socialism made available various forms of welfare for a wide range of contingencies – poverty, unemployment, large families, old age, misfortune, ill-health, family quarrels — generally on a universal basis. And when some people preferred to rely on their own resources or on the assistance of family and friends, the Government would run advertising campaigns to persuade people of the virtues of dependence. A disinterested civil service, with access to the best and latest information, was better able to foresee economic eventualities and to propose responses to them than were the blind forces of the so-called ‘free market’. The conservatives often quoted (albeit misquoted) former Labour Cabinet minister, Douglas Jay that:
The gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for the people than the people know themselves.
Nevertheless, such a philosophy was explicitly advocated by the Labour Party. It had a vision of the future: Britain as a democratic socialist society third way its principles and its policies both tending towards the expansion of government. The Tory Party was more ambivalent. At the level of principle, rhetorically and in Opposition, it opposed these doctrines and preached the gospel of free enterprise with very little qualification. Almost every post-war Tory victory had been won on slogans such as ‘Britain Strong and Free’ or ‘Set the People Free’.
But in the fine print of policy, and especially in government, the Tory Party merely pitched camp in the long march to the left. It never tried seriously to reverse it. It boasted of spending more money than Labour, not of restoring people to independence and self- reliance.
The result of this style of accommodationist politics, as Keith Joseph complained, was that post-war politics became a ‘socialist ratchet’ – Labour moved Britain towards more statism; the Tories stood pat; and the next Labour Government moved the country a little further left.
The Tories loosened the corset of socialism; they never removed it.
There is an ironic epitaph to my sojourn as a ‘Socialist Thatcherite’. While I instinctively realised that privatisation equated to an opportunity to increase what little wealth I had, my socialist rationale held that I should not buy shares in the privatisation of any sector that would, of social necessity, be taken back into public ownership. So I eschewed all the public utilities, gas electricity, water, et al. There was however a bank being privatised in 1986 – the Trustee Savings Bank (or TSB as it was commonly known) – buying shares in this, I felt, would not mar my socialist ethics. I reasoned that no government – whatever its political hue – would ever take a bank into public ownership. However, it was naive not to consider that politicians have always, and will always, constantly seek to manipulate fiscal policy against the interest or constitution of society. Attempts by politicians to manipulate a ‘free market‘, invariably put them in thrall to the financial (especially banking) sector.
“I don’t know what is sadder: the government’s demands that the working and middle classes bail out speculators, who earned more in a year than they will earn in their lifetimes; or the self-delusion of a once-honourable party, which abandoned its traditional suspicion of bankers and was then shocked when the world fell apart around it”. Nic Cohen