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Who's sorry now?

. . . on Tebbit, tokens, transfers and Test pitches

Is there no end to this apologising? After the bankers and Jeremy Clarkson comes an even more improbable penitent: Norman Tebbit. From a 25th-anniversary book on the 1984 miners’ strike – Marching to the Fault Line by Francis Beckett and David Hencke – we learn that Tebbit “feels remorse”. He told the authors: “The scale of the closures [of mines] went too far. The damage done to those communities was enormous.”

Much as I welcome such confessions of error, I wonder if Tebbit and others shouldn't give more tangible evidence of their regret. John Profumo was so sorry about the Christine Keeler affair that he spent the rest of his life helping poor people in London's East End. I suppose Tebbit is a bit old for that now, but perhaps he could spend a few weeks each year helping out with social problems in the former mining areas. He told Beckett and Hencke that he particularly regretted the loss of communities where a troublesome child was taken "round the back" for "a good clip round the ear".

No doubt the good people of, say, Barnsley would welcome his lessons in effective parenting. As for the bankers, they could demonstrate their contrition by living, for just a year, off an income that bears some resemblance to what the rest of us receive. Even the minimum after-tax income that puts a household into the top 10 per cent (about £41,000 a year for two adults without dependent children) would be a salutary lesson for them. They might then understand why so many people couldn't pay their loans back. Contemplating the bankers, I begin to wonder if Mao, who sent the professional classes back to the factories and fields for re-education, didn't after all have a point.

So far, my finances have fortunately survived the recession unscathed. But the climate still has an effect. For most of my adult life, I took the arrogant view that fussing over small amounts of money is a waste of psychic energy. The time spent finding the cheapest gas supplier, I thought, was better spent reading Tolstoy, Shelley or even a thriller by my old friend Robert Harris. Moreover, to remain aloof from this business of searching out the best “deal” was to reject one of the central tenets of Thatcherism: that we should all conduct our lives as though we were Grantham shopkeepers, poring over cash ledgers long after sensible folk were downing their second Scotch of the evening.

The other day, however, I cut a 20p money-off Weetabix voucher from one of the papers and carried this thrilling token of thrift to the supermarket. Unfortunately, I forgot to hand it in at the checkout. The loss entirely spoiled my day. Later, I spent a morning transferring money from one savings account to another, in search of higher interest. I then realised that some three hours' expenditure of time and effort would give me, six months hence, a one-off gain of £16, a rate for my time that is below the national minimum wage.

You may think my Weetabix tale of no significance except as evidence that I have become a sad anorak with dubious breakfasting habits. But it casts unexpected light on the banking crisis. Psychologists tell us that fear of loss has a far more powerful influence on human behaviour than the hope of gain. The truth is that my loss wasn’t a loss at all; I paid the same for Weetabix as I normally do, and would have done so happily had I never seen the coupon. But I felt it as a loss. Similarly, as they continued to invest in securitised thingummies and collateralised wotsits after they had already made millions, the bankers convinced themselves that they would “lose” money for themselves and their shareholders if they pulled out. In reality, the worst that could have happened was that they missed out on more fat gains. Thus does capitalism twist human psychology and bring out the worst in all of us.

I am not one of those plunged into gloom by the rightward swing in the Israeli elections. On the contrary, the sooner Israel Beytenu, under its apparently racist leader Avigdor Lieberman, becomes the largest party, the better. Peace will be made and properly secured only when the most extreme politicians on both sides have emerged as leaders.

Everybody then understands there's nowhere else to go, as there wasn't in Northern Ireland once Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams had emerged as leaders of the largest parties. We're already a quarter of the way there, since Hamas rules the Gaza Strip if not the West Bank. Can we look forward to Lieberman one day shaking hands over a deal with Hamas? Much stranger things have happened.

England sports teams keep losing, but their sense of imperial superiority dies hard. A few months ago, England’s cricketers had to be bullied into returning to India after the Mumbai terrorist attacks which, the players apparently believed, would instantly lead to nationwide anarchy. Yet no overseas team contemplated refusing to play in England during the IRA bombing campaign and the Australians continued their tour of 2005 without question even though news of the 7 July bombings came during the first one-day international.

This month, the second England-West Indies Test was abandoned after ten balls because the ground was unfit. Nobody quite said that those darkies couldn’t be relied on to organise anything, but that was the subtext of many of the comments. Yet in 1975, supporters protesting the innocence of the gangster George Davis – back in the news recently after the death of his former wife, Rose, who led the campaign for his release – roughed up a Test pitch, causing another abandonment. That was because the ground authorities at Headingley, Leeds couldn’t organise proper overnight security.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.