May’s government is just as corrupt as Major’s, but now there is a real chance that today’s anger could be channelled into radical change, writes KEVIN OVENDEN
THE comparisons between Theresa May’s decaying administration and John Major’s between 1992 and 1997 are now ubiquitous.
Many commentators are also pointing out that May is in a worse position, not least because of the state of the economy. The allegations of sexist abuse today also go right to the heart of the cabinet.
Less remarked upon is the cultural shift that took place 25 years ago, underlying the chaotic political dramas of the Tories, and its parallels today.
Following Black Wednesday and the pit closure crisis in the autumn of 1992 — and then Major’s ill-starred “Back to Basics” relaunch the following year — it was not just that the Tories looked bitterly divided over Europe, incompetent and nasty.
Those features came to stick in the public mind because the entire government and party looked anachronistic, out of touch with modern life — especially and paradoxically, the urban market-driven life that Thatcherism had done so much to promote.
Although there was considerable media prurience about the succession of “sleaze scandals,” the political damage was that they spoke of hypocrisy and abuse of power to a public opinion that was actually becoming less prurient.
There was a marked decline in deference to the traditional institutions of society and state. Again, that was a perverse outcome of the Thatcher-dominated 1980s.
The Major government looked not only out of ideas, but also out of time. The comparison then was with the end of the 13 years of Tory rule, with its imperial decline and Profumo scandal, which came crashing down in Harold Wilson’s victory of 1964.
It was into this atmosphere, and with Labour already well ahead in the polls, that Tony Blair and the “modernisers” made their move in 1994.
It was highly contradictory. On the one hand, it set out to eviscerate socialist content from the Labour Party and make it the natural party of cosmopolitan capitalism.
On the other, there was some genuine enthusiasm that “New Labour” really would mark a national renewal, not just a change of government, but a modern (in a good way) transformation of Britain heading to a new millennium.
In Blair’s hands the gestures towards a progressive cultural shift were trite. Constitutional change brought devolution, but was very limited. New Labour’s first term did not touch the House of Lords and buttressed the monarchy at a moment when it might have been that Elizabeth Windsor would be the last of a wretched line.
The big increase in the number of female (mainly Labour) MPs in 1997 was somewhat negated by a New Labour press operation content to have them referred to as “Blair Babes.”
A few more out gay MPs, but not until David Cameron’s coalition was there equal marriage.
An “ethical foreign policy” which felt the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s collar, only to let him go — and then there was Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror.
There was the very special relationship with George W Bush’s White House, which Gordon Brown belatedly tells us withheld from the British government intelligence in late 2002 confirming that Saddam Hussein did not have a weapons of mass destruction programme.
Tory Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe, notorious for the handcuffing of female asylum-seekers in Labour, was out. But in came an asylum and immigration policy that was more draconian.
Even before the reality became apparent, Blair’s “landslide” in 1997 came off the back of the lowest turnout at a general election since 1918.
The great fruit of the modernisation turned out to be the acceleration of the neoliberal revolution begun under Thatcher, and with it the extension of celebrity culture with its deference to newer concentrations of wealth and power.
Blair and his entourage led the way in being besotted by people who were filthy rich. None more so than Lord Mandelson, he of one dodgy mortgage and a couple of Hinduja passports fame.
What’s striking about the current crisis is that it is the new as well as the old deference that is losing its aura.
The #metoo storm began in glitzy, Democrat-supporting Hollywood. It has now reached a supposedly more modern British Parliament and is likely to barrel further into the corridors of wealth and privilege.
The reason this chimes with so many people is not some British “curtain-
twitching” attitude to sex in high places or, as Charles Moore and the knuckle-dragging wing of the Tories maintain, that “feminism has gone too far.”
It resonates because, as the #metoo initiative has underscored, sexual abuse, harassment and assault of women remains endemic — from social situations, through public transport and space, to the workplace.
The TUC and Everyday Sexism Project found last year that two in three women at work — half of all women in Britain — had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
People are more relaxed than ever before about consensual relationships between adults. This is not about sex. It is about power and the abuse of it.
One reason the crisis is greater than a generation ago is that it hits institutions that are simultaneously anachronistic and straddle the obscene wealth of the modern neoliberal elite that was meant to have brought a cultural revolution. So we have sexist abuse from both ancien regime and nouveaux riches.
Yes — it was a neat parliamentary manoeuvre by Keir Starmer and the Labour front bench to force the release of the Brexit papers last week. But why in the 21st century should that have to be done by “praying a humble address to Her Majesty?”
Bigger reasons are the widening class divisions. They have deepened in the austerity years that have also exposed the continuing oppression of women, despite endless flannel about women’s advancement from parliamentary committees through to lifestyle columns and features over the last 20 years.
For all these reasons none on the left should feel a pressure to downplay these growing scandals, or squeeze them into some narrow party-political tribalism. Yes, the Tories must not be allowed to deflect attention. But no — what is at stake here is much greater than political games.
And for the same reason, the cause of gay and sexual liberation is not served by mounting partial defences of Kevin Spacey.
What are in the dock are wealth, power and the abusive distortions that come with them.
We should say so. Because the other big difference between now and 25 years ago is that politically there is a much greater prospect of channelling this popular recoil from corrupt and backward institutions into a process of truly radical social change.
Why should we be governed like this? Why is so much public life about us feeling obliged to look up to one rich celebrity (which is what too many politicians think they are) after another?
Labour’s Dawn Butler on Sunday, trying to get a word in edgeways interviewed by an Andrew Marr epitomising the BBC’s own problem with Tory elitist bias and male treatment of women, was right to place this issue beyond squalid point-scoring.
A change in government in Britain is urgent. But what is at stake is much more how we are ruled.
“Every cook can govern” was one of the emancipating cries from the Russian Revolution of a century ago. So, today, can every postal worker, the survivors of Grenfell Tower and those who are fighting for bread, while getting tired of circuses.
As in the 1960s and 1990s, there is again a great clash between reactionary privilege and wealth, and emancipatory progress, whose most reliable index remains the position of women.