Politics: England, Whose England?
With a general election less than eighteen months away, British politics has become newly competitive
MARGARET THATCHER, the British Prime Minister, is lumped together in the American mind with President Ronald Reagan—both are conservatives, both came out of the right-wing nowhere to capture their parties and then their national governments, both were re-elected resoundingly. But while Reagan serenely rides out his term, playing the beloved national granddad, Thatcher is in the early stages of a reelection campaign that is going to be bruising. She wants to be the first Prime Minister to win three terms in a row (she must call elections before June of 1988), but this year has been a wonderful one for her main opposition, the Labour Party. In the last general election, in 1983, Labour won fewer seats in Parliament than it had in nearly sixty years. But now it seems to be on a sustained march forward.
Labour’s surge began after a party conference last fall, at which its leader. Neil Kinnock, publicly denounced the party’s most famous hard-left faction, the Militant Tendency. The nationalnews cameras recorded him standing tali at the lectern as a prominent party figure from Liverpool stalked off the dais. The Militant has a 98 percent unfavorable rating, among people who have heard of it, in public-opinion polls; in the wake of bis remonstrance Kinnock passed Thatcher in popularity.
In the winter Britain was transfixed by the Westland affair, in which members of the Thatcher Cabinet publicly sniped at each other for weeks and made clumsy attempts to take back the government’s endorsement of the sale of part of a British helicopter company to an American-led consortium. In April, Labour won a parliamentary by-election in a London neighborhood called Fulham, taking a seat from the Conservative Party for the first time in any by-election since Labour’s days of glory in the sixties. The Thatcher Government suffered its worst parliamentary defeat when seventy-two Conservatives broke ranks to oppose a Government bill to let stores stay open on Sundays. The Government had to reverse another decision to sell off part of a British defense supplier—this time British Levland, which makes the Land Rover military jeep, to General Motors. The near-total unpopularity of Thatcher’s decision to let American planes take off from British bases on their mission to bomb Tripoli was more manna for Labour. Unemployment, Britain’s worst problem, has continued to rise, to over 13 percent; in the past twelve years the number of unemployed has gone from just over half a million to three and a quarter million.
In winning the general elections in 1979 the Conservatives used a slick advertising campaign designed by the firm of Saatchi & Saatchi Compton, Ltd. This was unusual for British politics, and much condemned by Labour. But in April, Kinnock unveiled a new advertising campaign of bis own, in which the world’s most venerable socialist party, in addition to adopting the slogans “Freedom and Fairness” and “Putting People First,”didn’t use red as its signature color. In May there were two more by-elections in districts held by the Conservatives; they kept one by a hair and lost the other to the Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance, Britain’s third major political grouping. (The Alliance is definitely two parties, not one—the Liberals have an older, more rural base than the Social Democratic Party, and have a stronger commitment to Britain’s nuclear disarmament and to halting deployment of American cruise missiles on British soil.) In local elections all over the country the Conservative vote dropped by 7.4 percent since the previous local elections, in 1983, and the Conservatives lost many seats on local governing councils to Labour and the Alliance. The summer brought Thatcher another major embarrassment: her reversal of position on economic sanctions against South Africa. It would seem that all Labour needs to do is stay steady on course in order for Kinnock to become Prime Minister.
Thatcher ran in 1979 as the candidate who would reverse the long-running decline of Britain. Today nearly everybody else says that Britain is still declining, and her old issue could at least conceivably become Labour’s in the next elections: having been in office for nine years, she will be held accountable for some of the ills for which she placed the blame on Labour to win her office. In Thatcher’s time in office Britain’s per capita gross domestic product has gone from being lower than West Germany’s and France’s to being lower, also, than Italy’s. The state schools were recently embroiled in a lengthy labor dispute (in most schools no parent had met with a teacher in at least two years). The crime rate, historically low. is rising fast in major non-violent categories like burglary. As to Britain’s role in the world, no one seriously suggests anymore that it try to be a powerful nation; the question instead is whether Britain should mind its own affairs or at most try to exert some benign influence abroad. Through most of the major controversies of the past year—Westland, Land Rover, Libya, sanctions—has run the theme of shoring up Britain’s tattered leadership status.
People in Britain talk about the decline as a kind of base line from which all discussions about the state of the nation must proceed. Even The Times, which in its current incarnation as a Rupert Murdoch-owned, union-busting, proThatcher paper probably represents the extreme of respectable boosterism in England today, editorialized on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s sixtieth birthday, “Our present Queen, despite the early hopes of a ‘New Elizabethan Age’ that would rival the first, has witnessed the slow economic decline of the nation and its steady withdrawal from a leading world role.” Everyone claims to see the decline manifested in the fraying fabric of daily life, and on a grander scale the favored comparison to the state of Britain today is that of imperial Spain in the seventeenth century. Peter Jenkins, a columnist for The Sunday Times and Mr. Decline of Britain (“I invented decline,” he told me when we met during a visit to England I made recently), probably originated the Spain parallel, and he has also written that Britain might become the first country to regress from developed to underdeveloped status.
IN AMERICA, ESPECIALLY nowadays, talk of economic decline elicits bracing sentiments about the need for strong medicine. It does in Margaret Thatcher’s mind, too, but not in the minds of most Britons. Britons’ greatest fear about the decline is that it will erode the pleasantness and gentilitv of British life. For much of the postwar era it would have been unthinkable that London could be the site of race riots, or that locking one’s door would be necessary, or that the government would even consider that the current level of unemployment might be the best it could do. In Britain it isn’t just the poor and the elderly who feel proprietary about the welfare state. The upper middle class very much enjoys its free medical care, cheap, pleasant public transportation to work, and free university education for its children, and doesn’t want to see them threatened.
In America the perception that Ronald Reagan had weakened the welfare state might have helped him in the last presidential campaign. In Britain the same perception threatens to be politically devastating to Thatcher, and she and the Conservatives have been working hard to counter it. As the elections have come into view, she has moved away from the extremely unpopular items on her agenda. The rate of growth of the money supply, which fell in the early days of her Government, when she was strictly following the advice of her monetarist economic guru, Alan Walters, has been rising since mid-1984. Thatcher has also undertaken some popular projects. The Government has cut the top tax rate on earned income from 83 to 60 percent. She has instituted a major new employment program with 255,000 temporary jobs, 100,000 grants for unemployed people who start their own businesses, and a training program for every sixteenand seventeen-vearold who wants to join it. Thatcher’s confrontational public stance as the enemy of soft government is very un-British and a liability, and it won’t be the side she displays between now and the elections.
Unemployment will be the most important issue in the elections. It is a crisis that won’t go away. The unemployment rate was 3.3 percent in 1971 and 5.3 percent when Thatcher took office, and it nearly doubled during her First two years as Prime Minister. The Conservatives argue publicly that the rate reflects Britain’s problem in absorbing its earlv-sixties baby-boom generation into the labor force, and they point out that the number of employed is rising; but it’s clear that privately they’re praying— vainly, so far—for the rate to start falling. “To put it crudely, if unemployment were at the seventies level, the Tories would be twenty points ahead,” says Ferdinand Mount, a writer for The Spectator who was a policy adviser to Thatcher. “It’s their biggest problem; it’s almost their only problem.”
WHILE I WAS IN England, I took a couple of trips to Tyne and Wear, the northern district of port and industrial cities, of which Newcastle is the best known. Unemployment there is above 20 percent, double the rate in the south of England; in the worst of the unemployment “black spots” (not a reference to race—the area is almost all white) half of the men are out of work. Shipbuilding, in decline for a century, is now sounding a death rattle brought on by foreign competition and successive rounds ot nationalization under Labour and privatization under Thatcher. Coal mining, too, has been in a long, long decline, hitting bottom emphatically with the miners’ strike of 1984-1985, during which many coalpits were shut down or flooded irretrievably.
There has been much less loss of population in Tyne and Wear than the unemployment rate would warrant, partly because people from the north can’t afford housing in the south, where the jobs are (there is very little rental housing in Britain, because of rent control, and there are long waiting lists for public housing), and partly because people just don’t like to move away from the communities where their roots go back to before the Industrial Revolution.
The north of England is the heartland of the Labour Party, the home of Labour’s safest sears and a place where politics is deeply intertwined with work, social life, and the family. The north has been a drab and tough place for as long as anyone can remember, with unemployment always high—though not this high.
You can get a clear sense of the social history of the area just from the architecture. Almost everything built before rhe Second World War is “terraced houses”—long rows of two-story brick attached townhouses, each with two rooms upstairs, two rooms downstairs, and an outhouse in the back yard—situated within fifty yards of a grimy industrial workplace. Almost everything built after the great Labour victory of 1945 is public housing, in which about half the population of Tyne and Wear lives—the houses still brick but semi-detached and a room or two bigger, with indoor plumbing and small yards.
My official guide (a retired civil servant) in Newcastle, Ted Walker, drove me by the place where he had grown up. There was a coalpit, with a row of sixtyfive terraced houses next door; then two comfortable two-story detached brick houses, one for the manager and one for the doctor; a store; and then the owner’s house, a big, inelegant stone chateau with extensive gardens. Walker’s father was crushed in the mine, and the family lived on a nineteen-shillings-a-week pension and what their mother could make by taking in washing. In 1946 the National Health Service was established, and in 1947 the mines were nationalized, Walker’s child grew up in comfortable public housing and was put through college by the welfare state. (Walker himself, like most people of working-class origin over fifty-five in Britain, had to leave school at fourteen.)
Walker took me to see Joe Mills, who is the regional secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union and also the regional chairman of the Labour Party. The unions control thirteen seats on, and effectively run, the party’s thirtytwo-member regional executive council, and most of the local members of Parliament are “sponsored" by a union, which means they get a subsidy of £800 a year to run their offices. Mills showed me an old framed newspaper clipping on his wall about a mining disaster in 1909; rhe headline was “168 PEOPLE KILLED INAN EXPLOSION AT WEST S TANLEY.” “My uncle was the only survivor,” Mills said. “He got on the mine pony and rode around trying to raise money to help the colliers’ families. And when he got back home, the mine owners took the pony off him and sold it.” He tapped the clipping. “That’s what it’s all about.”
I WAS IN LONDON during the campaigning for the Fulham by-election, an event roughly comparable to the New Hampshire primary—a minor election that brings out the big-time politicians and press because it is seen as a dry run for the general elections. One evening 1 went to the Fulham town hall, a draftv old edifice, to see Kinnock in action at a Labour rally. The evening before, I had been to an Alliance rally at which the speakers did constant battle with hecklers. The Labour rally was much more show-biz and tightly controlled. It was in a bigger hall, with more television cameras, and all questions had to be submitted in writing so that they could be screened. The master of ceremonies was Ken Follett, the writer of thrillers, who introduced a succession of British television stars to deliver brief, emotional encomiums on the parry, emphasizing the mom-and-apple-pie welfare state, not socialism. “I grew up taking for granted that things like the doctor and the hospital and the dentist and school and the museum were free,” Follett said. Then Kinnock and the Labour candidate in Fulham, Nick Raynsford, came on stage.
Ever since Alec Douglas-Home stepped down, in 1964, British Prime Ministers have been non-aristocrats, mostly graduates of grammar school and Oxford, which makes the past twenty years the British version of the age of the log-cabin Presidents. This has gone over the heads of most Americans, who think of Thatcher and Edward Heath and Harold Wilson, with their plummy accents, as typically classy Brits. Kinnock would be the first Prime Minister who did not play that way in the United States. He is short, chunky, florid, and bald, and he speaks in a heavy Welsh accent. His father was a miner, and he was, as he often says, a child of the welfare state—a member of the first generation to be propelled from the working class to the middle class by means of state schools and government jobs. (He graduated from a Welsh university, and was elected to Parliament at the age of twenty-eight, in 1970.) He remembers where he came from: he sends his children to state schools, which is unusual fora leading British politician of any party.
Kinnock’s reputation through the seventies was as a bright and personable member of the left wing of the Labour Party, a good workhorse but not possessed of the worldliness of Labour’s Oxford-educated ministerial class. He had a run-in with the hard left in 1979 over the issue of who would control the writing of the Labour manifesto and broke with it decisively in 1981 over the candidacy of Tony Benn, a hard-left patrician, for the position of deputy leader of the party. Also in 1981 four former Cabinet Ministers defected from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. Their leaving put Kinnock suddenly in the party establishment.
Kinnock and the SDP despise each other; supposedly he and David Owen, the SDP leader, don’t speak, which is quite a feat considering that they spend much of every day seated twenty feet apart in the House of Commons. Owen is a Welshman too, but with a better pedigree—his father wars a doctor (as he is), and Owen is a Cambridge graduate and a former Foreign Secretary. His is a glistening ambition, Kinnoek’s a dogged one. In the view of Kinnock and his circle, Owen realized that he would never be elected leader of the Labour Party and so. consumed by the ambition to be Prime Minister, traitorously gave the Tories their biggest boost in years by willfully splitting Labour. In Owen’s and the other SDP leaders’ view, Kinnock is a provincial lightweight and Labour is hopelessly in the thrall of the unions and the aging remnants of the student left.
A side of Kinnock that has always put off the SDP group is his attitude toward America. In 1982 Gary Hart held a conference at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, of young leaders from around the world; most of the political hopefuls from Britain, including Owen (whose wife is American and a prominent literary agent in London), accepted his invitation, but Kinnock turned it down, saying that he had to spend all his spare time in his district in Wales. In 1983, after Kinnock was elected leader, it came out that he had never been to America (as Thatcher hadn’t before she became the Tory leader). There was a minor outcry; he went; and officially he loved it. But an American reporter who happened to have dinner with him at a mutual friend’s house shortly thereafter remembers that Kinnock was almost in a fury, pounding on the kitchen table and bitterly demanding to know how the Americans could justify the brutal poverty of their ghettos.
IN FULHAM THE first question to Kinnock was about the National Health. “First, we will ensure a real three-percent increase every year in funding for the [National Health Service],” he said, “taking medical inflation into account, wfiich is higher than real inflation. Second, reduce the involvement of private medicine radically. The resources will inevitably follow the market. Having liberties invariably reduces liberties for others. Third, invest in community health services.” The next question was about education, and again there was a list that was heavy on “investment” by the government—in pre-school education, in smaller classes, in higher salaries for the teachers. (Kinnock wants ultimately to abolish private education, too.) Then crime: “I beiieve, and so do the police unions, that there’s a need to increase training. Second, it’s necessary to have more police. . . .”
And so on. Kinnock is an intense speaker who is good at hoarse denunciations of the Tories, but he doesn’t have much charisma. People drifted out of the hall all the while he was going through his lists of points. Nevertheless, it was plain that he has a vision for England: more government spending. Politically, this would make the unions happy, because it would mean more government jobs and pay increases for the many union members who already work for government. (Kinnock is a unionsponsored member of Parliament.) Patching up the leaks in the welfare state would restore the noble Labour dream of “the state as community,” as Kinnock has said elsewhere. And it would help solve the unemployment problem by putting money in people’s pockets—specifically, Labour wants to stimulate employment by hiring 350,000 people to embark on a major campaign of public construction.
This—meaning Keynesianism—is the substantive nub of the next general elections. Thatcher is still obstinately opposed, on almost moral grounds, to pumping up the economy through deficit spending. Everybody else—The SDP, the Liberal Party, and the moderate wing of the Conservative Party—favors a Keynesian solution, with the only disagreement being over the dosage. Almost everybody is for a public building program, in particular.
The SDP and the moderate Conservatives (who have been stuck with the derisive nickname of “wets,” which a Conservative student group dreamed up; the terms wet and dry in Britain correspond to soft and hard in America) say that Kinnock would be completely unrestrained about spending. There are Conservative billboards around London accusing him of wanting £24 billion a year in new spending (the national budget is about £160 billion), which might lead to inflation, a devaluation of the pound to promote exports, tariffs to prevent imports—the old spiral of decline. John Eatweli, Kinnock’s economic adviser, says that Labour would prevent inflation through wage-and-price controls and by raising taxes (this last is a departure from the Keynes gospel), and would devalue the pound by only a reasonable five or six percent. Anyway, if anyone but Thatcher is the next Prime Minister, the most important immediate consequence will be a large-scale attempt to bring down unemployment through government spending.
The Conservatives say that another,
even more important, immediate consequence if Labour won would be the unilateral nuclear disarmament of Britain. There was a time when Labour was for pulling out of the European Community and for telling America to remove its military bases from Britain; under Kinnock the party has been somewhat vague on points like this, knowing they’re a liability’ at the polls. But Labour is, as of 1984, committed to the unconditional removal of all U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear bases from British soil and British waiters, and also for canceling the entire British independent nuclear arsenal, which is based on submarines. Kinnock’s wife, Glenys, a schoolteacher, is a leading member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and this is thought to be an especially important fact because Kinnock has an image as a henpecked husband who wouldn’t dare cross his wife on a subject about which she’s so passionate. It is certainly possible that after the next elections Britain will become the first nation simply to lay down its nuclear arms. As is not always the case in politics, it will make a difference who wins.
BESIDES THE POEICY issues in British politics, there is the issue of class. It seems impossible for any discussion of the fight inside the Conservative Party, between the Thatchcrite drys and the moderate wets, to last five minutes without turning to the subject of snobbery and reverse snobbery, as if that were really the heart of the matter. “The Tory Party was traditionally the party of gentlemen w ho joined as part of their social obligation, but they were also clever enough to recruit the bright middle class,”says Julian Critchley, a wet MP who, as the host of a TV documentary on this subject, had the camera zoom in on a Thatchcrite MP’s coat sleeve to show that it had only two buttons instead of the more correct four. “Today the Tory Parry’ in the House of Commons is largely composed of sixteenvear-old merchant bankers and provincial businessmen on the make.”
Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, and Douglas-Home were all patricians; the middle class took over in 1964 when Edward Heath, the son of a homebuilder, became the lory leader. Thatcher, who unseated Heath as leader in 1974, is the daughter of a grocer. Today the prominent drys come from similar backgrounds: Norman Tebbitt, the chairman of the Conservative Party, is a former airline pilot and the son of a shop clerk; his predecessor, Cecil Parkinson, who was brought down when it came out that he had fathered a child by his secretary, is the son of a railwayman. The spiritual leaders of the wets, who accuse the drys of lacking compassion, are Etonians like Macmillan, now Lord Stockton, who has compared the Government’s privatization to “selling off the family silver,” and Francis Pym, a former Thatcher Minister who is the head of an organization called Conservative Center Forward. On the wets’side the revulsion toward Thatcherism is deeply felt, and somehow her being petit bourgeois is part of it. Reciting for me a litany of what he considers to be Thatcher’s bad qualities, Critchley said, “the dreadful speeches, the stridency, the urging to pull up your socks, the constant references to house keeping.”
At the polls class is a big plus for I hatcher—her secret weapon. The natural base of the Labour Party is the working class, which used to be a strong majority of the country and still is by some measures; the vote that Labour can rely on is that of people renting public housing in London and in the industrial areas of the north. ‘The Conservatives’ base is the white-collar class, which they carry overwhelmingly. The battleground is the upper working class—people who wear a blue collar but don’t live in public housing. Thatcher did very well with this group, because her middle-classness and her emphasis on individual self-betterment, horrible as they may seem to the British establishment, strike a chord; the groups she does best of all with are farmers and shopkeepers. The 750,000 public-housing tenants who bought their apartments under one of Thatcher’s privatization programs voted Conservative in 1983 at a much higher rate than those who continued to rent from the government. It’s important to keep in mind that Britain’s decline has been a relative one. For those below the upper middle class, the standard of living has in fact risen steadily since the Second World War. The number of privately owned cars in Britain went from 6 million in 1961 to 16 million in 1984; the number of vacation trips abroad doubled just from 1976 to 1983, which was an especially bleak stretch for the British economy. Salaried homeowners made up 13 percent of the electorate in 1964 and 23 percent in 1983. On the whole, the class system has rearranged itself to Labour’s disadvantage.
THE ALLIANCE, WHICH soared to 44 percent in the polls less than a year after its founding, got 25 percent of the vote in 1983 (but only twenty-three seats in Parliament—one of its great causes is proportional representation). Most of this came out of Labour’s universityeducated constituency—government bureaucrats, teachers, and clergymen. Polls show Alliance voters to be much closer to Labour than to the Conservatives ideologically, but the feeling now is that the Alliance is so irredeemably white-collar that it can’t get any more Labour votes and will have to start poaching from the Conservatives. Even so, nobody, including Labour Party officials, believes that Labour can win an absolute majority in Parliament unless Thatcher makes some spectacular mistake, because when the Labour vote rises, it tends to do so in places Labour already controls, not in the south or among the middle class. Labour would need about 40 percent of the vote, as compared with 28 percent in 1983. It now has 210 seats in Parliament; 326 makes a majority. Even to bring the number to 300 would require a great swing in the next general elections.
If the Alliance collapsed completely, the lories could get a majority. Otherwise the best that Labour can hope for is that nobody will get a majority. If that happens (and bear in mind that because Britain has no written constitution, all of the following is custom, not law, and so subject to change), the Queen will call in the leader of the party with the most seats and ask him to form a Government. The leader will produce a “Queen’s Speech,” an address for the Queen to deliver to the opening session of Parliament, stating what “my Government” intends to do. ( The Queen acts completely as a figurehead for the ruling party.) Then Parliament will have to vote the speech up or down; if it’s up, business can begin. If the speech goes down to defeat, the Queen could ask the leader of another party’ to try to form a Government, or call a new election.
This means that the party with the most seats would be wise to negotiate with the Alliance during the drafting of the Queen’s Speech, and form a coalition Government. For the Alliance forty or fifty seats could thus mean a lot of power. Besides its pet demand that some steps be taken toward proportional representation (which, if granted, would enormously increase its representation in Parliament), it might ask Labour to promise that it would not renationalize any industries and would not get rid of the nuclear-armed Polaris submarines and the cruise missiles. From the Conservatives the Alliance would want a Keynesian program to reduce unemployment. But either Labour or the Conservatives could refuse to deal with the Alliance, and Kinnock probably would refuse. In that case the Queen’s Speech would be voted down, and if another election ensued, the voters would presumably feel that fair’s fair and Kinnock deserves a chance to govern, and would give him his majority. That is the Labour scenario for victory in 1988, and it is impossible to recount it without making it sound like quite a long shot.
If both Thatcher and the Alliance are in better shape than it might appear from reading the poll results, though, Thatcherism is not. Thatcher has hinted that she would step down within two years of winning a third term. There is no good dry successor in place. Parkinson is finished. Tebbitt has been damaged by the Conservatives’ poor showing in April and May, and is also rumored to be not fully recovered from injuries he suffered from a terrorist’s bomb planted at the party’s conference in Brighton in 1984. Geoffrey Howe, the Foreign Secretary, is able, experienced, and loyal but, in the public mind, dull and to some extent Thatcher’s lapdog. The rest of the current crop of potential leaders—for example, Douglas Hurd, the Home Secretary; Peter Walker, the Energy Secretary; and Michael Heseltine, the former Defense Secretary—have all taken pains to distance themselves publicly from Thatcher. Without Thatcher’s sheer force of will, her party seems likely to slip naturally and with relief back into its old pre-revolutionary ways.
A COMMON Thatcherite claim is that in her seven years in power the country has undergone a fundamental cultural shift, and that it now has a new entrepreneurial energy capable of solving the unemployment crisis in the short run and ending the decline of Britain in the long, To an American without firsthand experience of what Britain used to be, this is like the claim that the class system is nearly dead—it’s hard to believe, because America is so much more entrepreneurial and classless. The pace in London is strikingly slower than in even medium-sized American cities. Rush hours take place noticeably after nine and before five. In the leadership class at least, everyone seems to know everyone else and to share in an intricate set of lore from the past and present whose deliciousness somehow would be ruined if Britain were a truly fluid society. A letter to The Spectator recently pointed out that “the editor, political correspondent and literary editor of the Spectator are all three Old Etonians and the nephews or greatnephews of baronets.” The comparable magazine in America would he The New Republic; if it didn’t print a masthead (as The Spectator doesn’t), is it possible that any reader would know not only who held these positions but also where they went to school and who their great-uncles were?
Anthony Sampson, in The Changing Anatomy of Britain, casually repeats, and makes no attempt to challenge, someone’s claim that Oxford and Cambridge, in nearly three-quarters of a millennium of operation, have never produced a British-born graduate who became an entrepreneur. The most remarkable thing about this claim is that it is easy to believe. Thatcher’s Sunday-trading bill was firmly opposed hv the store owners themselves. The qualities associated with getting on in the world, such as naked ambition, obsessive work, and perhaps a touch of greed (to the British, American qualities), are not at all admired. To some extent the British know that they should be a little more freebooting, but they can’t help indulging in the old snobberies. One sentence in Sampson’s book caught my eye as expressing this attitude perfectly, if unintentionally. About the families that own the Marks and Spencer departmentstore chain he writes, “The Sieffs and Sachers, though passionate about Israel, did not suffer the distaste for trade that overcame old English families; they were never ashamed to discuss underwear or price-tags at fashionable dinner parties.” In the same vein Jeffrey Archer, the novelist and former MP who is deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and widely despised for being pushy and pro-American, told me, byway of playing his role, “I love America. I wish I’d been born in America.” Where? I asked him. He thought for a minute. “I wish I’d been born in Virginia or Boston. One wouldn’t want to be from Pittsburgh.”
There are plenty of theories as to why Britain is so much this way. It never had mass immigration or any other kind of wholesale shake-up of its internal structure. As an empire living on its colonies’ riches, it needed administrators more than producers, and set up an elaborate system for channeling its talent in that direction, it decided, unlike the rest ot Europe, to continue dispensing titles of nobility into the modern age, which has had the effect of taking entrepreneurs out of commission once they’ve made it, by causing them to look on themselves as gentrv. For many decades it was the custom for cultivated Britons who visited America to be horrified by its crudity, and for Americans who visited England to be awed by its classiness. Now there’s a feeling in the American press that England is to be felt sorry tor, or hectored about the need to change its ways, and a feeling in the British press that the British way of life is not so much superior as very dear and tender, and in need of protection from the imperial American culture.
The SDP is supposed, while disdaining Thatcher, to stand for a shiny newentrepreneurial Britain (“I think life has to have a few rough edges to it,”Owen told me). But the most heartfelt cultural rejection of entrepreneurialism that I heard came from William Rodgers, one of the SDP’s four founders, in a discussion ofThatcher. “Mrs. Thatcher’s background is not all that different from mine,” he said. “We both went to the local grammar school and to Oxford on scholarship. We borh are in the postwar generation. We represent provincial suburbia. I grew up with a strong commitment to public service, and she grew up with a strong commitment to making money. I just don’t understand howpeople can think making money is the most important thing in the world. I just look at people who think that with wide-open eves. She admires people who make money. I thought if you were rich or smart you had a duty to help people— not to make money.
“She doesn’t understand the culture ot the country of which she is Prime Minister. It’s her greatest flaw politically. It’s no good saying that it you pay people more they’ll work harder. They’ll say, ‘What’s the point?' Thank goodness! We don’t have an entrepreneurial culture. We are not an enterprise culture. We like our leisure. It’s the British character.”
As the election draw’s near, you’re likely to begin reading that Thatcher is finished and that she has changed not just the center of gravity in British politics but the British character itself. Tike both claims with a grain of salt.