Wednesday, May 23, 2001
The Halifax Chronicle Herald

Lines between political left and right overlapping

By Brian Lee Crowley

THERE HAVE been two great British prime ministers in the postwar era. Each of them defined a policy consensus so widely based and so compelling that they defined the shape of politics for a generation or more.

The first of these epoch-defining prime ministers was Clement Attlee, the Labour leader who beat Winston Churchill’s Conservatives in the closing days of the Second World War. The generation that beat Hitler wanted no return to the old prewar social order, but a sense that they had helped to create a better world. Labour rode this huge wave of popular sentiment to one of the great electoral victories of British politics. From that platform, they vastly extended the welfare state and government control of the economy. Social benefits of all kinds were enriched, most of the health care industry nationalized, and government domination of economic decision-making became pervasive.

The outlines of policy established by Attlee and his government became the touchstone of succeeding governments, which mostly vied to convince the electorate that they could manage the postwar welfare state better than the other guys. No one dared to challenge the philosophy – at best, there was a little skirmishing around the margins over things like how much of the steel industry should be nationalized. The consensus even had a name. It was called Butskellism, after Rab Butler, a Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Hugh Gaitskell, a leading Labour politician.

The other great postwar prime minister, of course, was the one who broke this consensus and forged a new one to take its place: Margaret Thatcher.

Butskellism contained the seeds of its own destruction. While it was attractive in the short run, eventually the true price emerged: inflation raged out of control, more and more people were trapped on social benefits and frozen out of the labour market, unemployment rose and the vast government-owned housing estates were crumbling strongholds of crime.

Thatcher was the right person in the right place. She reined in government control of the economy, drove inflation down and stabilized taxation. She refused to kowtow to the trade unions that had enjoyed disproportionate influence on government policy, largely through legislation that shielded them from any legal consequences for irresponsible use of strikes. In one of the most popular asset sales in the history of the modern world, she sold off many of those housing estates to the tenants, creating a property-owning working class virtually overnight. She relentlessly worked to reform the dole so that people were rewarded for working, not collecting benefits.

Like Clem Attlee before her, she refashioned the mould of British politics. Her greatest political victory was the fact that she made the Labour party unelectable as long as it clung to the failed tenets of democratic socialism. Michael Foot, the socialist conscience of the Labour party of the 1960s and ’70s, cut a Quixotic figure as Labour leader in the early ’80s, promising to roll back the privatizations, the fiscal discipline, the reforms of welfare. Only a Thatcherite leader could bring Labour within the new political consensus in Britain. Tony Blair was that leader.

In fact, the new political consensus in that country is now sometimes called Blatcherism.

Blatcherism was born when Tony Blair saw off the trade unions that demanded the party toe their line, when he agreed to leave the Thatcherite legacy largely intact, and to be as fiscally disciplined as the Tories. In fact, he also embraced the consumer-oriented philosophy of the Tories in other areas and maintained, for example, tough testing in the schools, publishing
annually the league tables of how every school in the country performs, over the objections of the once all-powerful teachers’ unions.

Blair boasts about how many people have been eased off the dole under his government, and encouraged to go back to work. He constantly trumpets the benefits of trade, not merely for business, but for the poor and those seeking opportunities to improve themselves.

Tony Blair has his failings, but as the current incarnation of Blatcherism, he looks set to win a deserved second term as prime minister in the general election now underway.

What this all means, of course, is that the old categories of left and right we’re so used to in thinking about politics really don’t reflect the new realities, whether in Britain, the U.S., Canada or elsewhere. No party these days can hope to win power on the old tax-and-spend approach. Democrats in Washington end “welfare as we know it” and push the budget into surplus; Labourites in Britain give merit pay to teachers and celebrate trade’s liberating effects on the poor. Liberals in Canada want to extend free trade throughout the hemisphere, and just paid $15 billion against the national debt. There are still lots of things to divide people politically, but the broad outlines of Blatcherism in social and economic policy reign supreme for the moment in the political mainstream.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: [email protected]