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28 February 2000

Our very own Napoleon at No 10?

100 years of Labour - Nationalised industries and the NHS were no threat to traditional val

By Peregrine Worsthorne

A hundred years ago, the Labour Party came into existence in order to improve the lot of the poor and underprivileged, and it has succeeded in that endeavour far beyond Keir Hardie’s most sanguine hopes. But it has done so, to a large extent, vicariously: that is to say, not so much by its chosen socialist method as by frightening the Tories into using their own capitalist one more humanely.

The Labour Party, under Clement Attlee, initially had a go at the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. But that proved a disaster not only economically, but also – from the labour movement’s point of view – socially, because the main beneficiaries were the very “forces of conservatism” that, 50 years on, Tony Blair has just identified as new Labour’s most deadly foe.

How could it have been otherwise, given that in 1945 the only people available to run the nationalised industries had, faute de mieux, to be drawn from the old officer class, either quite literally in the form of seconded Major Generals or, if not literally from the senior ranks of the armed forces, then from the civilian version of the same in the shape of high flying, establishment-minded Oxbridge civil servants such as Oliver Franks and Edwin Plowden, who took to the commanding heights as to the manor born.

Just when the old order expected to be down and out, expelled from paradise, it was more firmly entrenched in the corridors of power with more perks than ever before. So it was no wonder that nationalisation failed. Run by ruthless New Men driven by revolutionary zeal, it might have taken off. But run by amicable ex-generals trained at Sandhurst and high-minded civil servants mostly trained at Winchester – manner maketh man – it never had a chance.

Right from the start, indeed, it was more paternalistic than socialistic: hated, it is true, by free-enterprise doctrinaires and born entrepreneurs, but by no means uncongenial to traditional one-nation upper-class conservatives such as R A Butler and Harold Macmillan.

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The same was true of the welfare state, an idea owing quite as much to feudalism as to socialism, first pioneered in Prussia, it is worth remembering, by that arch- reactionary, Prince Otto von Bismark. Once the English professional classes, doctors and others caught on, it soon became as much a milch cow for them, and for the middle class generally, as for the working class for which its fruits were primarily intended.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, a genuinely frightening challenge did indeed develop, and for a time there was a real danger of a new proletarian cadre of shop stewards led by trade union barons – such as Hugh Scanlon and Arthur Scargill. These men seized the commanding heights in true Bolshevik, insurrectionary style – vide the miners’ strike, a challenge very much prolonged by the deeply discrediting incapacity of the old Labour Party and the old Conservative Party to summon up the strength of will to meet it.

It was at this point that Margaret Thatcher – very much a new kind of Conservative leader, committed to capitalism rather than to state paternalism – courageously ordered the mounted police to cut the miners down. In this way, she demonstrated decisively who, in the new world of global capitalism and advanced technology, were the masters now.

Essentially, that is the sad story of the labour movement’s socialist and collectivist period, which explains why capitalism a hundred years later is more safely ensconced in this country than it was when the story began. No problem, says Blair. There is a new target for the Labour Party to get firmly in its sights – a target that it should have dealt with from the beginning instead of wasting time on the socialist chimera; and that new target he describes as “forces of conservatism”. By this he means all aspects of hereditary, aristocratic privilege (including, eventually, the monarchy); all elements of hierarchy and of class consciousness (as much working- as upper-class); all outdated prejudices (again common in all classes) about country, family, sex and race; and, above all, that system of Oxbridge higher education in the classics and humanities, which was specially designed to produce a cultivated and standard-setting elite, as against new Labour’s preference for one primarily designed to serve the cause of national efficiency. Nor is parliament itself altogether excluded – certainly not all those traditional time-honed and honoured procedures which only serve to delay the dawn of a truly democratic, streamlined Cool Britannia fit for the 21st century.

About time, too, it could be said. Getting rid of the last vestiges of the ancien regime in England is just what the country needs. Indeed, I have heard Rupert Murdoch say precisely that, dismissing the monarchy and the hereditary House of Lords, the Oxbridge tradition and so on as albatrosses around Britain’s neck. He, too, hates the “forces of conservatism” and would no doubt echo Voltaire’s wish to see the last aristocrat strangled by the entrails of the last priest, so long as the entrails weren’t those of Billy Graham, his favourite evangelist.

As historians now agree, the main result of the 1789 French Revolution was to install the bourgeoisie as the new ruling class in the place of the aristocracy. That has never fully happened or been properly symbolised in this country – no cutting off of heads. Not that Blair will take the modernising process that far, but it will go psychologically much deeper than ever before.

Again it could be said that there is nothing wrong with that because today, unlike two hundred-odd years ago in France, we are all – or at any rate, the great majority of us – middle-class, and majority rule is what democracy is all about. Certainly, the benefits of capitalism are very much more widely spread; widely enough spread to include all classes – except the so-called underclass.

So, to a degree, it really does make sense to talk of “the people’s capitalism” – a phrase that Blair has not yet used but could well do so at any moment, because it sums up new Labour’s credo far more comprehensively than the “Third Way”.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking (rhetorically, of course): “the people’s capitalism” as against who else’s capitalism? Not big businesses’; not multinational companies’; not the mass media’s; not Greg Dyke’s; not the City of London’s, for sure. For new Labour definitely has nothing against any of them – after all, this is where it gets money.

No, the “forces of the conservatism” that he excoriates tend to be the ones that have least love for capitalism; the ones, if you like, that have most to lose from capitalism – not economically, but culturally and morally. They are the conservatives, both large and small “c”, from all classes and age groups, who tend to have a certain idea of an England that they fear capitalism in the 21st century, in search of profits, will do more to destroy than socialism ever did, in pursuit of ideology, in the 20th.

Such people include the fans of the Daily Telegraph‘s Peter Simple, of middlebrow Radio 4 and The Archers, of highbrow Radio 3’s diet of classical concerts and mind-stretching talk programmes, and believers in public service (as against commercial) broadcasting generally. These conservatives hate political correctness, fast food, pornography, motorway service stations, and other despoilers of the English countryside, and the promoters of gay lib (not to be confused with the great majority of homosexuals).

In the old pre-Thatcher days, when international socialism rightly seemed an ever-greater danger to this idea of England than capitalism, such people tended to look to the anti-socialist Tory party for protection.

But with socialism a dead duck, are they still right to do so? It is a moot point. Probably yes, if only because new Labour, being a recent convert, may well prove more fanatically supportive of American- dominated global capitalism than even the new Conservatives. At least in the Tory shire constituencies there are still enough relics of the true blue, anti-American wing of the old Tory party to rein in William Hague, while, in spite of a few encouraging signs of restiveness, it is still too early to say whether left-wing socialist stalwarts will have the strength to do the same for Blair.

Logically, the old Labour left and old Tory right should make common cause to save the England that they both love, in their different fashions. But that won’t happen. So what will happen?

Let me make a prediction: that new Labour, in the course of the first quarter of the 21st century, will establish – in the people’s name, of course – a ruthlessly managerial bourgeois hegemony. This will be uninhibited (unlike in post-revolutionary France) either by socialist ideology or – if Gordon Brown comes into his inheritance – by Christian charity. Then, faced only by a nominal so-called Conservative opposition drawn from the same bourgeois class, Blair/Brown will do for England what Napoleon did for France, even to the extent of creating a new House of Peers filled with cronies, if not relations.

Bastions of educated privilege, such as public schools, will at last be stormed and run by the state – possibly under that Robespierre lookalike, George Walden, for the purpose of producing a nation of technocrats triumphant.

No, this bourgeois ruling class will not be in the least civilised or cultured, any more than was France’s, so loathed by Gustave Flaubert and George Sand. With Greg Dyke as a leading member, it will speak in a kind of managerial language incomprehensible to everybody else. The dismal Dome is a portent of what is to come.

Nevertheless, New Britannia will be “dynamic”, prosperous and free, a land fit once again for the likes of Murdoch to live in – or at least to use as operational headquarters. Was it worth winning the cold war for this? Yes, just.