Thinking of Thatcherism                                                                                                                  Posted 18th May 2013

How is it, I’ve been wondering, that a government so utterly bereft of serious political thought, which can only talk in figures, could have caused such a radical shift in our sense of ourselves in such a short time?  Part of the reason, I thought, might be the very shallowness of its policies.  We see rainbows in puddles.  Everybody can understand selfishness and greed, and Thatcherism has constructed what passes for its political philosophy out of those two brute instincts.

But the speed with which it has happened still left me puzzled.  How could the apparent progress we had been making over the generations towards a more socially-concerned society have been so swiftly reversed?  Why has socialism so often seemed to take one step forward and two back in British politics?  Apart from the Attlee administration, what serious socialist government have we ever had?  Jostling after these questions came another: why has Scottish socialism, at least in spirit, usually appeared more radical than its English counterpart?

Searching for answers, I thought of Edmund Burke, who has been justly called the foremost Conservative British political thinker.  That passionate and intelligent Irishman, coming in as a clear-eyed outsider, analysed English political attitudes with the precision of someone who had to find out how to belong.  Under the threat of dynamic changes coming from France, he expressed that analysis most cogently in Reflections on the Revolution in France, a book he raised like bulwark against the invasion of new ideas from across the Channel.

I thought Burke answered my questions.  The reason he suggests to me is that since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the British constitution (which simply means the English constitution assumptively extended to include the rest of the United Kingdom) has been a machine for the maintenance of reactionary attitudes.  Brief spells of progressive government may occur, but, when these reach a certain point, reaction switches on automatically.

One of the keys to this process is, I think, that 1688 had created a monarchical pragmatism in Britain.  The idea of kingship no longer carried the weight it had done.  Monarchy had become a system, not a concept.  What Burke understood – and sought to strengthen by giving it articulation – was that England wasn’t susceptible to the ideas that were raging in France.  Its constitution had developed antibodies to any dramatic form of progress.  It was precisely because this element of lip service to kingship was alien to France, where the homage was more hallowed, that the Revolution was so violent.  There it wasn’t a case of tinkering with a system, but of the collision of ideas seriously lived through.

Burke understood this English suspicion of ideas very well.  He celebrated it as the foundation of their political identity: ‘All your sophisters cannot produce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom that the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our privileges.’

Any system so based on ‘nature’ and the hallowed accumulation of past practices is bound to be reactionary.  New ideas are blocked by assumptions that guard the doorway to the sanctum of tradition, where such humility is demanded of us that we must remove our heads before entering.  Thus, what English politics have tended to be concerned with is not human justice but national practicality, not political philosophy but political plumbing, not the rights of man but the acquired characteristics of Englishmen.

‘You will observe,’ Burke says, and we do, ‘that from Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right.’

One of the problems here is that Burke – along with English politics – is very selective in defining who those forefathers are.  The family tree from which the constitution claims descent has been very carefully pruned.  ‘We wished at the period of the Revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers.’  Yes, but which forefathers?  Dissent has its own genealogy.

What this leads to is a kind of intellectual mortmain: the dead hand of the collective past clenched round the possibility of serious change.  ‘Do these theorists mean to imitate some of their predecessors, who dragged the bodies of our ancient sovereigns out of the quiet of their tombs?  Do they mean to attaint and disable backwards all the kings that have reigned before the Revolution, and consequently to stain the throne of England with the blot of a continual usurpation?’

Taken this far, reaction attempts to intimidate completely the possibility of change, not through reason but through accusing it of desecration.  It is a form of ancestor worship that would make us the intellectual equivalents of the slaves who built the pyramids, consecrating our lives to the dead.

It creates a terminally static society, founded on the perpetuation of a historical injustice that can only be compensated for by the hope of an afterlife:  ‘The body of the people must not find the principles of natural subordination by art rooted out of their minds.  They must respect that property of which they cannot partake.  They must labour to obtain what by labour can be obtained; and when they find, as they commonly do, the success disproportionate to the endeavour, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice.’

One thing, I suspect, that Thatcherism has effectively achieved is to provide a shallow, mindless echo of this impressively articulated and inhumanly vicious stance, one deeply – perhaps terminally – ingrained in the English political psyche.

I realised as I walked on, that Thatcherism has never been required to articulate anything like a coherent, serious political ideology.  It has only needed to mimic the attitudes of the past.  It has only needed to show its wooden head and mechanically open its wooden mouth and let the dead letter of tradition emerge, worked from the back (no matter how far back) by people like Burke.  Such is the power in English politics of unexamined assumption and conditioned reflex that you only have to imitate the familiar reactionary attitudes, no matter how insubstantially, and the Pavlovian response is waiting by which the present will re-ingest its own past, sickness and all.

For the past ten years that is essentially what Britain has been doing.  The only difference from the past in recent times is that the old assumptive aristocracy has been displaced to some extent by a narrow and spurious meritocracy.  The new meritocracy is narrow because its sole criterion is economic.  The only balance in which the quality of the new élite can be weighed will be found in a bank.  The new meritocracy is spurious because it disenfranchises most of the nation from the possibility of fulfilling its terms.  To participate in its promises, most of us find money that we do not have and lose the wider moral and communal concerns that we do have.

The old reactionarism had at least a vision.  It was a dead vision, sure enough.  Born of superstition and the dread of change, it left us haunted by a graveyard sense of ourselves in which a past that had never been stalked like a ghost on stilts, intimidating us out of our progressive instincts.  But it gave a certain macabre stature to our dreams.  The new reactionarism has no vision.  It has only sight, endlessly acquisitive eyes that can see nothing but the main chance.  It would give us dreams that would disgrace an ant in an anthill.  It would teach us to keep our horizons in a wallet.  Given acceptance, it will destroy idealism.

This must not be.  We have a right to the stature of our dreams and to the search for the political means to realise them.  English politics seems less than ever likely to accommodate that right.  The greater radicalism that has at least nominally persisted in Scotland may be partly attributable to the fact that the country has been for a very long time virtually powerless.  It is easier to have noble ideals when you are not obliged to live according to their terms day by day.  But that greater radicalism is also partly attributable to a tradition of taking ideas seriously.

We must not lose that.  Taken seriously, ideas are dangerous but not as dangerous as the absence of taking them seriously.  They must modify experience and be modified by experience.  They are the means by which we harness pragmatism to idealism.  The pragmatism must come first, certainly.  It is the horse and not the cart.  If we reverse this priority and simply give idealism its head, we will find ourselves in a place that is humanly uninhabitable, where the idea is all and the human being is its slave (as has happened to a great extent in Eastern Europe).  But if we give pragmatism its head without making it carry any chastening luggage of idealism along with it (as has been happening in Britain for the last ten years), it will eventually take us to a place that is humanly not worth inhabiting, because we will have had to leave the richest aspects of our nature behind in order to get there.