Newsnotes 006 – April 1988

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams

Smooth-running capitalism – the Tory budget

There are still some socialists who hope that c:apilalism will suddenly fall apart or drop dead, leaving the Left free to rebuild on the ruins. It was this sort of attitude that . helped prevent Labour from being an effective reforming party in the 1960s and 1970s – that and the bankrupt inertia of the Labour Centre and Right.

Thatcherism succeeded by being willing to defend and reinvigorate the existing capitalist system, without apology and without restraint. · The’. Tories under Thatcher have boosted those who were already wealthy, and pushed down those who were already poor. But they have also given a period of prosperity to the majority of the society, the middle class and a considerable majority of the working class. Wages for the majority who have jobs have continually kept ahead of inflation. This is what has given Thatcher three election victories – and may very well give her a fourth.

If the system seemed in danger, the Tories could very easily give back a great deal of what they have taken for the wealthy over the past nine years. But. in fact. the poor and unemployed have been fairly inert. Therefore the Tories indulged their ideology and gave an extra boost to the rich and very rich. The higher rates of tax were abolished completely, while the standard rate was dropped a little. The poor got nothing, the rich got a lot, while the majority of the population got something.

It was pointless for Neil Kinnock to mock the Tories for thinking that the only way to make the rich work harder was to pay them more, while the only way to make the poor work harder was to pay them less. Under capitalism, that is very much how things really work. And the Tories have never claimed to be anything other than good managers of capitalism.

Kinnock’s present strategy seems to be to argue that Labour would be better managers of capitalism than the Tories. But most people know that it wouldn’t be – any more than it was under Wilson and Callaghan. Nor is there anything very attractive about the mainstream Labour Left alternative, which consists mainly of extending patronage and bureaucratic controls.

If Labour is to have a future, it will have to return to its original purpose – representing ordinary people and trying to give than what they want(rather than what those in control of the party machine think die)’ ought to want). If this does not happen, expect plenty more budgets like this year’s.

[The huge inequalities of wealth that were being created did not become clear until later.  The Hard Left complained, but had done so even when things were being run well, before Thatcher.  Much like the story of the boy who cried ‘wolf’ and was ignored when a real wolf turned up.]

Yes Mrs Thatcher

The recent proposals to carve up the civil service – privatise large chunks of it, and destroy central control over what remains – surprised a great many people.

The Prime Minister’s fondness for the BBC’s satirical programmes about the Civil Service, “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister“, has also caused surprise from time to time.

Neither of these things are in fact very surprising; nor are they unconnected.

This country has had some sort of Civil Service for a long time. Its roots go back even before the Norman Conquest. Anglo-Saxon England was a fairly centralised state by the standards of the time, with administrative practices that had been developed and maintained by the earlier kingdom of Wessex. The Normans took it over as a going concern; they replaced the Saxons at the top of society, but left many things intact. Administration developed by a mixture of Norman, Ecclesiastical and Saxon practice.

In the 19th century, the Civil Service reformed .itself in conscious imitation of the Chinese Civil Service. Entrance was by competitive exam – rather than by patronage and connection, as had been the previous pattern. It also took over something of the attitudes that had enabled the Chinese Civil Service to keep everything in China very much the same over more than 2000 years. But- unlike China – it did not have control over the whole society. Rather, it provided a framework of good administration that other social groupings could make use of for other purposes.

In China, the Civil Service (Mandarinate) was disrupted by war and revolution, and in due course replaced by the Chinese Communist Party. In Britain, the lesser hegemony of the Civil Service is only now being challenged.

The Civil Service could be described as being conservative in the broad sense of the term – it tried to keep everything very much the same, regardless of who (if anyone) was benefiting from the status quo.  It provided a force of inertia that restrained the actions of governments, both of the left and of the right. But it was not reactionary; it did not stake everything on preventing every single change, nor did it seek to reverse those changes that had already been made and generally accepted.

This was not entirely to Mrs Thatcher’s taste:. She needed the Civil Service as instrument of power; she also knew that it would resist la radical-right policies, and try to water them down as much as possible. But on the other hand, most Civil Servants as individuals would be in agreement with much of what she was doing. She did replace a lot of the senior civil servants with people who were closer to her own opinions. But the structures themselves were not touched..

Meanwhile, “Yes Minister” was giving a detailed if humorous view of the actual process of Civil Service decision making. Nothing it said was really very new; what was new was the combination of accuracy and consistent humour. It reached a wider , audience than any documentary could have hoped for, and influenced them far more deeply. Thatcher must have noticed these things, and decided it was wise to give the programme a little quiet encouragement.

No doubt she found it enjoyable, quite apart from any long term use she hoped to make of it. But she has not been in the habit of publicising her liking for any of the other programmes on TV. And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that a great deal had gone on behind the scenes. Is it just an accident that the PM’s political adviser in “Yes Prime Minister” is a woman who both looks and sounds rather like a younger version of Thatcher herself?

Even if this is no more than a coincidence, the effectiveness of the programme was large. It exposed a world of manipulative Civil Servants, and politicians whose only interest is in publicity ratings and media exposure. (Exactly the sort of politician that Mrs Thatcher is not).

A left-wing reform of the Civil Service would have been perfectly possibly, but it was never tried. Tony Benn argued for something on these lines, but his ideas led to nothing. Now Thatcher is planning the sort of reform that the Left should have done in its time. And of course, she will do it in the most right-wing way possible.

(A detailed study of the proposed changes to the Civil Service will appear in the next issue of L&TUR. Ed.)

A middle-of-the-road accident!

In the last issue of L&TUR, ·the following item had to be left out because of lack of. space:

A good trip

When the Liberal / SDP merger was being discussed; it occurred to me that “Liberal Social Democrat” would be a good name – except that that would make them the LSD party.  No one could be that foolish, should they?

Couldn’t they? The official proposal is that they should be the New Liberal and Social Democratic Party, but that this party should be known as the Alliance, and that candidates should appear on ballots as “Liberal Social Democratic candidate”. (The Independent, 19th December).

To make matters worse, the proposal has led to protest and squabbling, most of it coming from the Liberals. The founders of the SDP hoped to break the mould of British politics; instead it seems that the mould has broken them. and the remnants can’t even find a sensible name for themselves. The Liberal Party is the withered remnant of what was once a great party, and it seems to have no dare to become anything else.

The whatever-it-is party is unlikely to have any future, except as a continuation of the dead-end Liberal remnant.  

Meanwhile, it may be that David Owen’s faction of the SDP has more of a future than it seemed to have a few months back.

Since I wrote those words, the Liberals have surprised me again, by being even more foolish and short-sighted than I had expected. They did finally dream up a clumsy but acceptable name – Social and Liberal Democrats.  But the party that ripped itself apart in the Asquith/Lloyd George power-battle is showing itself true to its traditions. At the Liberal party conference, it was said that the entire party was behind David Steel – but that most of them were holding daggers!

The Liberals have shown themselves unfit to manage their own internal business in a sensible manner. Over the next few months, they will probably prove it again in a bitter and messy contest for the leadership of the new party. No doubt they will still get some protest votes – but is it ever likely that the electorate will see them as fit to nm the country?

 [‘Social and Liberal Democrats’ was their name in 1988.  In 1989 they changed it to Liberal Democrats, in keeping with their neglect of most issues beyond the rights of fragmented individuals.  An ignominious end for the Labour Right, which at one time was serious.]


These Newsnotes appeared in April 1988, in Issue 6 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  More at and