In England, burying socialism for good

December 21, 1997|By George Will

LONDON -- So many obituaries of socialism have been written that the genre seems exhausted. Then you encounter the thinking of the first Labour chancellor of the exchequer in 18 years, and that of Prime Minister Tony Blair's all-purpose policy adviser, and you realize that shovelfuls of dirt are still being tossed onto the grave.

When the last Labour chancellor left office in 1979, after Margaret Thatcher's victory, Labour was still formally, in its basic ideological formulations, and emotionally, in the hearts of its most intense activists, a socialist party. It, and they, were committed to public ownership of the economy's ''commanding heights,'' and to political micromanagement of the economy for the purpose of increasing income equality. Economic dynamism was a secondary -- very secondary -- consideration.

A proclamation

In May, just days after voters emphatically ended the Thatcher-Major era, Chancellor Gordon Brown announced the Blair government's first major decision. It moved a fundamental of economic policy further to the right than any previous British government had. it. It was a proclamation, largely liberating the Bank of England from political direction of its decisions about the money supply.

Socialism, whatever else it has involved, has always and everywhere promoted the subordination of economic life to political decisions. So why did not the Thatcher government, self-proclaimed slayer of socialism, do what the new Labour government has done with the bank? Because, Mr. Brown says dryly, the Conservative Party has always believed in political ''fine-tuning'' of the economy. Mr. Brown's implication is that Labour no longer does.

Skeptics say that this empowerment of the bank is actually a surreptitious step toward socialism -- toward surrender of basic economic decisions to the European central bank whenever Britain joins the European monetary union. Skeptics worry, reasonably, that member nations of the EMU will cede sovereignty over vast portions of economic and social policy-making. Power, they say, will go to a metastasizing and unaccountable European bureaucracy of unreconstructed statists.

However, Britain's intention to join at some unspecified date is not immutable. Mr. Brown seems to assume, as proponents of the EMU must, something extraordinarily implausible -- the permanent ''convergence'' of members' economies. The assumption is that the economies of Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the rest will be forever synchronized, expanding or stalling together. So at any given moment, low -- or high -- interest rates, if appropriate for one, will be appropriate for all.

Today, with low unemployment in Britain and high unemployment in France, stimulative policies might be appropriate for France but toxic for Britain. Mr. Brown seems to believe that lasting convergence is a prerequisite for British membership; he must know that such convergence probably will always be hypothetical.

The unexpressed subtext of Mr. Brown's analysis of Britain's current economic success is the death of ''equality of outcomes'' as a social goal. Important engines of Britain's current boom include talent-based industries such as software, design, fashion, film and music. Because these place a high premium on scarcities -- creativity and advanced education -- they shower rewards on an intellectually upscale elite, thereby widening income inequalities.

So recent is the death of socialism that during this year's campaign Tony Blair felt the need to say, ''We want to see people do well, we are not opposed to success.'' His campaign manager, ideological alter ego and now minister without portfolio, Peter Mandelson, despises the Conservative Party (''a discredited rabble,'' ''a laughingstock'') but is also astringent when talking about the labor unions that used to dominate Labour as a class-based party.

He says the party now can be ''a market-capitalist party'' because of reforms that emancipated members of Parliament from the fear that unions and activist crazies could ''de-select'' them -- deny them renomination by their constituencies as punishment for independence. A new independence for MPs was achieved by reforming party rules -- and expanding the party. It was a matter of swamping the rascals. Since Mr. Blair became leader, party membership has doubled and the percentage of party funding coming from unions has plummeted from 90 percent to less than 50 percent.

Labour's success in interring socialism without acquiring a distinctive alternative doctrine (other than bromides such as ''we are not opposed to success'') illustrates an asymmetry in contemporary British politics. Rupert Darwall, special adviser to the last Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, says, ''On the left, it pays not to have an ideology, but the right is lost without one.''

The same is true in America, where there is an asymmetry about the asymmetry: Democrats understand Mr. Darwall's point much better than Republicans do.

George Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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