British politics in a political fog With tomorrow's election approaching

Martin Jacques

April 08, 1992|By Martin Jacques

London -- TOMORROW Britain will go to the polls for the first time since 1987.

In those days Margaret Thatcher, then the prime minister, was ahead in the polls by huge margins, looking forward to her third general election victory in a row and speculating openly about a fourth.

As we all know, Thatcher began to fall afoul of public opinion in 1989 and was gone by the end of 1990, a victim of the Conservative Party's determination to get re-elected. It was clear that a new era had arrived.

With John Major as the new leader, the rhetoric of rugged individualism took a back seat to a caring society.

In this year's campaign, however, it is apparent that Majorism is a kind of halfway house, poised uneasily between Thatcherism, which it refuses to disown, and welfarism, which it would like to embrace. The result has been an election campaign of hopeless confusion.

The Conservative leaders have little of interest to say because they can't decide what they stand for or where they are going. It is left to the Labor Party to articulate the mood for change.

There is no question that Labor has changed since Neil Kinnock became its leader in 1983. It has shed many of the policies that made it unelectable, such as state ownership of industry and utilities and unilateral nuclear disarmament.

But its shift has been more a repositioning exercise than one driven by intellectual ferment. It accepted by force majeure the main contours of the Conservative revolution while drawing attention to the social inequity that resulted. Its critique of Thatcher's policies has therefore been cautious, and it is this caution that has been the hallmark of Labor throughout the Kinnock era.

The emphasis on fairness is the template of this election. It expresses the zeitgeist of the nation. Consequently, Labor has the wind in its sails. For the last three elections it has fought a rear-guard action; this time it is calling the tune.

But it would be wrong to convey the impression that we are witnessing a mighty clash of opposing ideas. In reality there is little to separate the parties. The Tories are in retreat from Thatcherism but can't admit it. Labor pledges welfarism but knows that its post-Thatcherite commitment to financial prudence means there is little money in the kitty.

So we observe a clash of enormous sound and fury, fought over a small patch of ground, with neither party able or willing to raise its sights above the parapets to consider what lies ahead.

And what are they missing? Europe, for one. The treaty signed in the Netherlands in December represents the greatest reform of the European Community since the founding Treaty of Rome in 1956.

It it is carried out in anything like the agreed form, it will transform the life of Britain. The country will lose control over most areas of economic policy. Foreign and defense policy increasingly will be decided by the community. The nature and power of the nation-state will be transformed. But from this election you would never know it.

Europe has barely been mentioned. The issue that will have the greatest effect on the United Kingdom over the next five years is greeted with a stony silence: Only the minority party, the Liberal Democrats, mention it.

There is a desperate air about this election. Labor has been out in the cold for 13 years. The Tories, who have won three consecutive elections, cannot bear the idea of losing; defeat for Major likely would spell political extinction.

The latest polls show Labor with a only a slight lead, so both parties are committed to avoiding risk -- the unknown is to be avoided at all costs. Europe lies in exactly this territory. It is a dangerous, unknown quantity.

Both parties feel uncomfortable with the Netherlands treaty, as does the electorate. In other words, Europe is no vote-winner and could be a vote-loser.

Herein lies a profound crisis of British culture. We are in the middle of that great exercise in democracy, a general election, and neither the parties nor the electorate are prepared to confront the future.

After experimenting with a bold adventure in the shape of Margaret Thatcher, Britain has reverted to form and returned to a politics of pragmatism and convergence. It is a politics ill-equipped to help the nation make historic choices about its future.

As a consequence, those issues are likely to be decided elsewhere -- on the continent of Europe.

Martin Jacques was editor of Marxism Today from 1977 to 1991.

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