Sunday, 6 July 2008

Britain, 1979 – parallels with NZ Labour’s current woes

History has lessons, if you look in the right places. If you ignore history, you are likely to become it, usually in an involuntary and bloody manner. Santayana said, in a famously quotable form, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (1).

Marx considered something similar, less pithily but more pungently, recalling that

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. (2)

So we must look to Hegel, perhaps, to find the source of the idea. I'm sure Marx knew precisely where in Hegel, and was simply being modest when he suggested he couldn't remember precisely where. No matter, after all, this is New Zealand, and the nearest anyone has come to forming a thought on the significance of historical precursors is Split Enz assuring us that history never repeats. Which tells you, perhaps, everything you need to know about how such rumination is regarded by Kiwis. The ponderous thought of Hegel, Marx and Santayana is dismissed, and dismissed in a three minute pop song.

Doing my own bit of historical rumination lead me to re-visit the final chapters of John Campbell's biography of Margret Thatcher, The Grocer's Daughter, which chronicle her election triumph in 1979 (3). Perhaps here are some object lessons for the New Zealand Labour party of 2008, as they face the fate of Jim Callaghan's doomed administration.

First of all, there is some similarity between the emptiness of the Tories in 1979 and the National Party of 2008. Campbell even titles one chapter, Thatcherism Under Wraps. Thatcher played cleverly, maintaining a facade of centrist reasonability. This was forced on her because her ideological position was at odds both with the electorate and with her party. Thatcher, newly elected leader, is described as lacking

... the authority to impose a thorough-going free-market agenda on the Tory Party, let alone project it unambiguously on the county ... She had to be prepared to fight on a vague prospectus that gave only the vaguest hint of her true ambition. (4)

Key, I think, is doing something very similar. He is far to the right of his public position. He is smart enough to realise that the New Zealand public don't want what he wants, so he tones it down. Occasional hints escape – there is much suggested about what might happen in a second term, once National is safely ensconced and the electorate are feeling more comfortable. It is a smart strategy, and very likely to be effective. That doesn't make it less disingenuous or less despicable, of course. Key should be honest, and tell us what he wants to do, not try and and dupe the electorate into thinking they are just voting for a different bunch of managers, who might be more competent but will do pretty much the same as the last lot. It isn't so, and he should have the decency to say so. It would cost him the election, of course, which is why he won't do anything of the kind.

Few people who voted for Margret Thatcher in 1979 voted for Thatcherism. Most of them voted against Labour, without looking to closely at the alternative. The British electorate were sick of industrial disputes and the apparent inability of either the Hethite Tories or Labour to deal with the Unions. They didn't vote for the Falklands' war, the Miner's Strike, privatisation, the Poll Tax, unemployment at 3 million, the evisceration of British industry in the name of 'efficiency' and the collapse of social cohesion. That is what they got though. New Zealand has had a taste of all this, of course, but it seems likely that the electorate has forgotten. History, after all, never repeats.

Like Thatcher, Key is convinced he is right, of course, and probably believe his free market dreams are what is best for everyone, because they served him well. He is not a Hollow Man in the sense that the term is sometimes misused – he does not lack conviction, but he is so convinced of his convictions that he will mouth any homily to be able to put his ideas into practice, in the end:

In the meantime, she could compromise, bide her time and go along with policies in which, in her heart, she fundamentally disbelieved – as she had been doing, after all, for most of her career – with no fear she would lose sight of her objective or be blown off course. (5)

Key is convinced, because he's made so much money his way, everyone else will be able to do the same. It's what logic lizards call a fallacy of composition – the idea that what works for you will work for everyone else. Most of the time, the opposite is true – what works for you only works because others are not doing it. But this is strange and incomprehensible stuff to the right – though occasionally one of them will be honest enough to say he (or she) doesn't give a damn about that and wants to make a pile anyway, to Hell with everyone else. But most of the time, the mask is held up, and the mantra is repeated, "opportunity for all, weath for all, wealth cascading down the generations ..." Campbell, is an aside raises an eyebrow at Thatcher's description of herself as a 'conviction politician.' He suggests that she was more accurately described as a "Principled opportunist" (6). I think that is a bit kind - blind or blinkered opportunist, perhaps. And the same applies to Key.

So there seems to be a parallel between the Thatcher of 1979 and the Key of 2008. Both are presented as everyday people – Thatcher went to some lengths to present herself as gentler, more feminine and less strident, paving the way for the vacuity and image obsession of the Blair years (Yes, that too can be blamed on Thatcher!. Both have a an instinctive faith in the Free market and a strong desire to open it up – but an understanding that they must bide their time before doing so. Lull the electorate into a false sense of security, convince them you are jsut going to do more of the same, only do it better, and then, once they trust you – and, of course, your opponents still tearing themselves to pieces in a an ideological civil war and too busy with it to actually do any meaningful opposition – start putting the real programme into effect.

There is something slightly farcical about Key, however, that proves Marx right. The way he fluffs his lines every other time he opens his mouth, the gaping holes that are being poken in his credibility. It's buffonish, though perhaps it only seems that way because it is happening now, in slow motion. Thatcher herself was regularly made to look stupid in the run up to her victory, both by the wily Callaghan and her own party. She still won, though, and the results weren't particularly funny. Perhaps Key won't seem so clownish once he's actually making a bollocks of everything for real. Unfortunately, I think we will very likely find out whether I am right on that one.

1 – Like most, I knew the quote without being certain whence it came from. Bartleby assures me my memory is right, It was George Santayana who said it and the quote occurs in chapter 12 of his book, Life of Reason, published in 1905, or perhaps 1906. (
2 – I am aware this is not the first time I have used this quote on lefthandpal. It is one of my favourites, and I think, very true. As for citation, I can at least be more exact than Marx. The quote is from "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, " by Karl Marx, 1852. (
3 – Margret Thatcher: The Grocer's Daughter, by John Campbell, published by Jonathan Cape in 2000.
4 – ibid. Page 364.
5 – ibid. Page 368.
6 – ibid, Page 369.

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