Our current crisis may look similar to the 1970s, but it stems from the government having too much power, not too little
National crises can reveal the landscape of power in a society, and how it’s changing. Who’s losing power and who’s gaining it; who has less power than was previously thought; and who has more.
A crisis can alter the distribution of power or accelerate changes that are already under way. In a democracy, if voters like the new world the crisis has created, it endures.
Britain may be entering a protracted period of crisis now, one that matches or even exceeds the emergencies of the 1970s. Despite all the shocks that have happened since, from the riots under Margaret Thatcher to the financial crisis under Gordon Brown, in chaotic times it is the comparison with the 1970s, and specifically the 1978-9 winter of discontent, that much of Britain still instinctively reaches for. What can the dramatic transfers of power during that winter tell us about what might happen to power in Britain if this autumn’s disruption continues?
In the late 1970s the Labour were in office, but only in a limited sense were they in power. Trade unions were at the peak of their political and social influence. At two general elections in 1974 – the first producing a minority government, the second a government with a majority of three – voters had narrowly decided that Labour was the best party to work with the unions, hopefully to the benefit of the country. The two Labour premiers that followed, Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan, were not dominant figures but fixers – political lion tamers to those Labour voters who, rightly or wrongly, feared the unions.
For four years, the lion tamers’ tricks worked reasonably well. A “social contract” was negotiated between the unions and the government, which met union demands such as increases to welfare benefits in return for workers accepting modest, often below-inflation pay increases. The arrangement did not produce a particularly dynamic economy but a fairer one: by the late 1970s, Britain was as equal as it has ever been.
Yet in the autumn of 1978, workers who had had enough of pay restraint started to rebel. Strikes spread, and the government failed to persuade trade unionists to call them off. As everyday essentials from food delivery to healthcare were disrupted, just like now, the government’s lack of power was suddenly obvious.
Contrary to the story usually told about the 1970s – which has been set by the right – the Callaghan government’s support did not collapse. At the 1979 election, the Labour vote actually went up by 75,000. Many Britons refused to accept that Labour’s power-sharing approach to government – which much of Europe still follows – was now obsolete. For anyone hoping that this autumn’s crises will quickly dissolve support for Boris Johnson’s government, the loyalty of voters to Callaghan is a cautionary tale.
What decisively changed the balance of power in Britain in the late 1970s was a surge of support for the Conservatives. With clear rhetoric and ruthless timing, as the winter of discontent raged, Thatcher offered voters not compromise with the unions but domination of them: a Britain where employers would be much more powerful than workers once again. That is the world we still live in – for now. The value suddenly placed on lorry drivers and other essential workers this autumn could just be the beginning of that world’s unravelling.
Yet in other ways, the crises of the 1970s and now are worlds apart. Much of the current chaos stems from a government having not too little power but too much. The Conservatives’ long hold on Downing Street, their supposedly impregnable majority, and their increasingly obvious belief that they will never be seriously punished politically for their mistakes have all contributed to Britain’s supply-chain, essential worker and energy market problems. Only a hugely overconfident government would have risked worsening Britain’s well-known vulnerabilities in these areas by insisting on the hardest-possible Brexit, or would have reacted so slowly and casually when this year’s crises began.
Yet in the public mind the connection between excessive power and incompetence is not always easily made. Now, as in the 1970s, much of the British media are more interested in exposing political weakness, such as Labour’s divisions, than they are in attacking a government for arrogance and excessive strength. Rightwing newspapers are often bullies, and they respect politicians who behave in the same way.
Similarly, many voters like the Tories, and Johnson in particular, precisely because they seem so dominant. Modern Conservatism, with its open contempt for opponents, its rhetorical aggression, and its puffed-up policy concepts such as “global Britain”, is often a display of strength – disproportionately appealing to male and older voters whose own social and physical potency may be ebbing. To accept that much of this strength is a delusion – that Britain is just another European country and the Tories are just another party struggling to govern – would be a big climbdown for many Tory voters, after all the bragging and big hopes on the right over the last few years.
But such a moment of realisation could happen. In a crisis, voters can be surprisingly placid and then suddenly shift. During the winter of discontent, the Tories’ poll ratings were flat for the first few weeks, then shot upwards, as many voters concluded that they liked Thatcher’s anti-union solutions.
Keir Starmer is no Thatcher, in political craft or charisma. And his party, with its sometimes confusing mix of green, leftwing and rightwing policies, does not offer as clear an alternative to the status quo as the Tories did in 1979. So the likely outcome of any plunge in Conservative support is a situation where neither main party is particularly strong – a scenario that is already beginning to play out in the polls.
As the mid-1970s showed, that sort of political stalemate can last for quite a long time. It would be an improvement on now – ending the Tories’ increasingly disastrous supremacy. But a return to weaker governments might be unsettling for a country that since Thatcher has got used to strong ones. Power corrupts, but it also reassures.
Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist
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