by Madawc Williams
- Make my day, Mrs T
- Friar Tuck at the Treasury
- Wise after the event?
- Serbs and the World Trade Centre
From the moment when he suddenly ’emerged’ as the new Tory leader, I have regarded John Major as a very shrewd political operator. His rise was quite remarkable. He was not personally wealthy. He was in no way connected with the old Tory elite. And he was no part of the Oxbridge connection which was a recognised path for clever and ambitious Tories with no traditional connections. And yet somehow he rose and rose, and ended up with the very top job.
To say that Major is a shrewd political operator is not to say that he has been any good for the Tory party, or for Britain. Skill in acquiring and holding power is not the same as skill in using it. A brilliant chess player may be useless at golf, or vice versa. Gorbachev was undoubtedly a brilliant player of the game of Communist Party politics in the old Soviet Union. But he took over a superpower that had problems, and has turned it into a mass of new-born nation states with even worse problems. Short of starting a nuclear war, there is no way he could have made a worse mess of the situation that he inherited. And to judge by his comments since his downfall, he is not even wise after the event. So there is no reason why Major’s political skills should prevent an equally serious downfall for Britain.
It must also be said that Mrs Thatcher made such an abominable mess of British society that it would take a real political genius to set it right. Freed from social controls, the markets got wildly out of balance. The housing market, the commercial property market and the stock market were all ‘talked up’ to absurd levels, and then flopped. People talk of the ‘Lawson boom’ as the start of Tory troubles. But that boom was launched precisely to avoid the danger of a slump on the pattern of the 1930s. Everyone was scared of collapse and trade wars after the disastrous stock market crash of 1987. And for a time, everyone was congratulating Lawson and his colleagues in other advances industrialised nations for having avoided such a fate. History could have gone very differently – the Warsaw Pact collapse of 1989 would hardly have happened if Lawson had not kept up the appearance of prosperity for a vital extra couple of years. So at the time Lawson was widely admired. It was only later, when the reality of wasted wealth became clear, that some Tories began to try re-writing history.
Anyway, why do I call John Major a shrewd operator, in face of a media consensus that he is not? To my mind, part of the skill lies in not seeming to be skilled. Public opinion is cynical, sceptical and embittered. It has had enough of Smart Alecs. And after Thatcher, it had also had enough of ideologues. But the Tory party was also still too Thatcherite to accept Heseltine. Major seemed an ideal compromise.
In his first few months, Major managed the neat trick of convincing the Thatcherites that he was Thatcher’s man, while convincing the rest of the society that he was not. He won the election with a clear majority, when the most general expectation was for a hung parliament. He even managed to partially conciliate Scotland, which had been thinking ever more seriously about separation. Such thoughts were natural after ten years of a southern English dogmatism that was ignoring the unwritten rules for the conduct of British politics. But Major managed to gather just enough Tory votes north of the border to give Tory rule in Scotland a vestige of respectability.
Maastrict came next. This was a profoundly difficult problem. Particularly after the first Danish referendum put the whole development of the community in doubt. There was also the general weakness in the face of German recession following the absorption and disintegration of East Germany. The whole European project was in danger of collapse. There was also a very real possibility of a Europe without Britain. A Britain stranded between Europe and America, · wanted by neither and needed by neither. And to top it all, Labour and even the Liberal Democrats were willing to put the future of Europe at risk for the sake of doing some damage to Toryism. And Mrs Thatcher, who had never called a popular vote before starting wars or changing the whole basis of British life, had suddenly reversed her position and decided that a referendum was a necessity. All in all, an almost impossible situation. Yet he got out of it. And it is Thatcher and Tebbit who have lost reputation and authority.
Then there was the strange matter of Heseltine and the miners. The key decision had been taken under Thatcher, at a time when Heseltine was out of the cabinet. Thatcher and Co. had persuaded the European Community to change the rules so that they could bum gas for electricity generation. In terms of the long-term use of natural wealth, this was a crazy policy. It was bound to destroy a huge chunk of the British mining industry, adding to a pool of unemployment that was already huge and hugely expensive. There was not even any political logic to it. The NUM was pretty much broken as an industrial force. Scargill was widely seen as a liability to the Left and to Trade Unionism. The breakaway Union of Democratic Miners were more than willing to follow the logic of Thatcherism. The ‘dash for gas’ made no real sense. You can only see it as part of the small-minded malice of Thatcherism, a creed that hates a large part of the society within which it operates. A creed whose ideal is the abolition of society, and the creation of a world based on pure greed and selfishness.
None of this was Heseltine’ s fault. As Lord High Pompous Wally at the Board of Trade, he was stuck with the unpleasant task of finding a way of running down the coal industry. A coal industry whose viability had been destroyed by the ‘dash for gas’ and the privatisation of the electricity supply industry. Given the parameters, what else could he have done? And yet, somehow, the whole thing blew up in his face, and he got stuck with most of the blame. A rescue package was then put together. A spurious rescue passage, it now appears. But at the end of the matter, Heseltine was left looking very bad indeed, thanks to something that was genuinely not his fault.
“Qui bona”, “who did well out of that”, .is always the best question to ask in politics. There are secret manoeuvres, and secret politics, but what outsider could hope to fathom such matters? Even insiders are often unsure, or else grossly misled, or paranoiacally suspicious of quite innocent associations. But “qui bono” is always a good rule. The significant point is that Heseltine had been talked about as a possible replacement for Major, up until that point.
Then there was the matter of ‘whiplash’ Lamont. People asked why Major kept him on after the departure of Sterling from the European Money System. Clearly, either he or Major blundered by refusing to realign the pound until it was too late. Of course one can’t help noticing that the collapse, when it happened, transferred a huge chunk of public wealth to gamblers and speculators, the sort of people that Mrs Thatcher mistook for wealth-creating entrepreneurs, the sort of people who make large donations to Tory party funds. But the main point is, Lamont as a member of the cabinet had to go on supporting Maastrict, at a time, when even one or two votes could make all the difference. Lamont and some other character who was anti-Europe lost their jobs only after Maastrict had passed safely through the House of Commons.
And then Major promotes Kenneth Clarke. The media saw this as a grave error, he was promoting his own most probable successor. But he has given Clarke responsibility for the very matters that will boost or discredit the government as a whole, and Major in particular. They are likely to swim or sink together. And if Kenneth Clarke is feeling as smug as he looks, then he is a fool. To be heir apparent is a very dangerous spot. No one owes you any loyalty. The leader hopes to discard you after you have served your purpose. And every ‘colleague’ with ambitions for the top job sees your loss as their gain. Don’t be surprised if something nasty happens to Kenneth Clarke in a year or two.
Meanwhile, Mrs Thatcher has declared her support for John Major as the right person to lead the Tories into the next election. She has been neatly snookered. Either she tries to bring down Major, risking having Clarke as his successor. Or she does what she had done – turning her opposition into a matter of no real seriousness.
“Don’t fix it – break it”. That seems to be the heart of Kenneth Clarke’s approach to politics. It was the very apt description applied by a police representative in the face of a new set of Tory ‘reforms’. ‘Reforms’ that are imposed in the spirit of “we know everything and are not going to listen to people who have merely been doing the job all their lives”, People who would welcome some of the changes, or. who would go along if given a few concessions, are needlessly antagonised.
It is astonishing that the Tories no longer seem to know about consensus or the need for social harmony. Even if your ideas are good, you need some measure of consent from the people you are imposing them on. Otherwise you destroy the professionalism that is a vital and non-renewable part of the society. So what is the man thinking of? Is he really as smug and arrogant as he sounds? Given the unpredictable nature of politics, he could easily end up displacing Major at Ten Downing Street. The principle of “don’t fix it, break it” would be applied to all that is left of British society. The general destruction of British society is certainly applauded by large parts of the Tory party, the finest patriots money can buy.
Clarke uses a variant of the Thatcher style .. He talks talk like a cheap gangster. He is not the only member of the present cabinet to do so, but he is certainly the best at it This is not to say that he is remotely as tough as a real-life cheap gangster would be. It’s all an act, really. Tories can take a wonderfully stoical attitude to other people’s suffering. When it’s themselves who are suffering, that’s seen as quite another matter.
I see from the Independent (21st June) that Neil Kinnock has been sounding off about the way that Scargill messed up the miner’s strike of 1984-85. In particular he criticises way in which Scargill’s handling of the matter helped to ensure that his prophecy of massive pit closures would come true.
Readers of L&TUR may find these words vaguely familiar. They are pretty much what . we in the Ernest Bevin Society said at the time, during the strike and immediately after it. This was the time when Kinnock could and should have said something.
Memories have grown dim, so let me refresh them. There was never a proper national miners’ strike. There was rather a series of regional strikes, and an attempt to impose the same on other regions using “flying pickets”. There was a proper constitutional procedure for a national strike, a general ballot. Scargill chose never to call one, not even when it looked like he could have won it.
The period 1984 – 1985 was a period when a proper Labour Party leader could have stood up for the rights of ordinary workers not to be coerced into a strike. He could have stood up for the TUC’s definition of what is reasonable persuasion and what is not. Had Kinnock done so, he might have gained stature as a serious leader. Might have even won the 1987 election, booting out Thatcher in the way she deserved to be booted out. But at the time it mattered, Kinnock took the soft option. To speak now is pretty much pointless.
As I have been saying all along, terror bombing of cities is not a tactic that will be imposed on white Christian Europeans. Not when the media are around to show it all, and not when there are no serious Western interests at stake. It will continue to be applied to the situations for which it was first developed, attacking people who will · not attract much sympathy from Western electorates. The RAF actually pioneered the bombing of non-military targets as a way of maintaining British imperial rule. Particularly in Iraq, the society that produced Saddam Hussein. Iraqi, are bombable. Somalis are bombable. Argentinean civilians and cities were not bombable. Serbs are not bombable.
[I was of course wrong here. The inhibition lasted some time, but in the end they did it.]
International diplomacy has proceeded in a way similar to the adverts for Apple Computers, in which sentences are progressively changed and reversed. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ was not supposed to be allowed to succeed: now its success has been acknowledged. ‘Greater Serbia’ was held to be unthinkable, now it is thinkable, and soon it may be an established fact.
In this context, I can’t help thinking back to the bombing of the World Trade Centre. When the news first came through, I assumed that it must be the Serbs. In particular the name would make it a particularly logical choice for the sort of Slavonic semi-socialist nationalism that dominates Serbia. And that would also be felt by large sections of the world-wide security apparatus of the former USSR. True, a suitable Muslim suspect was soon found, a man with Islamic Fundamentalist connections. A man who supposedly tries to get back the deposit on a van after using it to commit a bomb outrage!
Supposing the van really was stolen, just as the man said? Stolen by some KGB team who had no love for either Muslims or Americans. The CIA could then have been told – ‘look, we have given you a scapegoat, but actually we did it, and will do a lot more if you touch our Serb brothers’. If there was ever a chance of serious US intervention, it would have ended at that point.
These Newsnotes appeared in July 1993, in Issue 35 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.