That ’70s show

As we struggle to make sense of Donald Trump and the rising tide of right-wing nationalism in Europe, it is important to revisit the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Written by Praveen Swami | Updated: January 13, 2017 12:28 am
Donald Trump, United States, United States president, United States president elect, Donald Trump xenophobia, united kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, US immigration, world news, indian express columns For critics to claim Trump presages a betrayal of the liberal international order is particularly amusing. C R Sasikumar

Kleio, the ever-fickle goddess of history, was exceptionally busy in 1977, silver jubilee of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The signs of a realm being transfigured were everywhere: The Sex Pistols were sacked for on-stage indiscretions; Gay News was prosecuted for blasphemy, having published a poem in which Jesus had sex with his disciples and guards; for the first time, more foreign-made cars sold than British ones. Anti-fascists battled the National Front on the streets of London and Birmingham. Working class anger simmered: The Labour government policies saw average earnings rise only nine per cent from July 1976 to July 1977, while inflation was twice that.

Early the next year, soon-to-be prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, gave a speech that has long been forgotten — but would drive her rise to power. “People are rather afraid”, she said, “that this country might be swamped by people of a different culture”. The solution, to her, was clear: “we do have to hold out the prospect of an end to immigration”.

Ten years earlier, the patrician Conservative Enoch Powell had made much the same point, noting that soon, “whole areas, towns and parts of towns across England will be occupied by sections of the immigrant and immigrant descended population”. He was expelled from his party; in 1991, Thatcher was to say he had “made a valid argument”. Now, as we struggle to make sense of the rise of United States president-elect Donald Trump, and the rising tide of right-wing nationalism in Europe, it is important to revisit the rise of Thatcher, and her United States counterpart, Ronald Reagan. Bar the minor matter of his aesthetics, there is little new about Trump; his xenophobia and contempt for liberal norms tread familiar ground. Even his aesthetics, dismaying as they are, draw on this tradition: His is the glitter of new money, not the glow of tradition or the glint of old wealth.

Like today’s New Right leaders, Thatcher and Reagan were products of the failure of conservative parties to deliver solutions to economic crisis and discontent, then driven by the oil shock, high interest rates and rising unemployment. Neither came to power with a transparent agenda to implement neoliberal economic change. “Their victories”, the scholar Kenneth Hoover has noted, “were less the result of a mandate for change than of a mandate to do something other than continue the current drift”.

For their rise to power, critically, both leaders had to tap a diverse coalition of forces disaffected by the cultural configuration of the world around them. In the United Kingdom, Thatcher found this in English nationalism and its concerns over immigration, sexuality and order; her war on the Irish Republican Army, which had staged a series of bombings in London in 1977, was to be a centrepiece of her political platform.

Across the Atlantic, Reagan was to successfully mobilise coalitions whose influence can still be seen — in particular, evangelical Christians, often in turn linked to political formations intensely hostile to the empowerment of women and African-Americans which had taken place over the previous two decades. To many, these cultural struggles were more important than the purely economic. The economist Howard Vane has shown that the United Kingdom’s economic performance in 1977-1988 was no better than comparable industrial countries; indeed, its growth was slower during this time than at other periods when socialist policies were in force. Farmers and small business owners, the heart of the Republican Party, backed Reagan, even as their interests were killed by corporations.

For critics to claim Trump presages a betrayal of the liberal international order is particularly amusing. Reagan’s first major foreign policy decisions included reversing President Jimmy Carter’s anaemic actions against South Africa, and restoring full-scale cooperation with the apartheid regime. Even after South African president PW Botha rejected one-person one-vote democracy in a 1985 speech, Reagan continued to back the regime, calling the African National Congress terrorists.

Thatcher reversed Labour’s decision to embargo arms sales to General Augusto Pinochet’s murderous dictatorship in 1980 — a regime it knew to be responsible for the killings of thousands of political dissidents and civilians. Thatcher defended the relationship even after leaving office, noting that Pinochet had given the United Kingdom
secret assistance during its war against Argentina in 1982.

Likewise, Reagan’s anti-Communism could by no means be described as adhering to what might be described as principles of the liberal world order: In El Salvador, Nicaragua and Angola, he embraced forces whose savageries make Trump’s threats of violence appear inconsequential.

Interestingly, Thatcher was, in no simple sense, of the emerging liberal order that saw Europe transformed in the late 1980s. In Moscow to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev on September 23, 1989, declassified politburo documents reveal, she told the Soviet president that “Britain and Western Europe are not interested in the unification of Germany”. “It would lead to changes in the post-war borders, and we cannot allow that”. For too much of the Left, the New Right’s victories have raised the spectre of Fascism, just as they did in the 1970s — an act of intellectual laziness, and a dangerous failure of the imagination. Fascism rose under a particular historical circumstance: The need of European capitalism to destroy the challenges Communism was posing to its very survival. Today, however, the New Right exercises power precisely because there is no Left. The liberal parties of Europe clawed back to power after decades of Thatcherism by appropriating many of its ideas and principles. Faced with working class distress in the wake of the 2008 crisis, Liberal-Left parties have no credible language to address their own constituency.

Finding a language of opposition will be key. We are in the midst of what the great Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci described as an “organic” crisis of history: “A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that uncurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves… and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making efforts to cure them within certain limits”.

Is it possible this crisis might devour democracy itself? From the rise of Thatcher on, democratic institutions have without doubt been drained of intellectual richness, and political life, of its wealth. The New Right, though, has proved adroit in learning to exploit the system for its gain, and thus has reason to perpetuate its existence. Democracy will survive. The future of the Left-Liberal traditions which birthed and sustained it is far from secure — and their loss ought concern even thinking conservatives.

praveen.swami@expressindia.com

For all the latest India News, download Indian Express App now

  1. S
    Sadanand Patwardhan
    Jan 13, 2017 at 5:32 pm
    Why go that far back when you have a living legend, also on चरखा in our midst.
    Reply
    1. I
      Its.the.agencies
      Jan 13, 2017 at 2:28 pm
      pRAWveen Swami, plants another FAX from Lodhi Marg!
      Reply
      1. H
        Hindustan Hamara
        Jan 13, 2017 at 11:17 am
        Donald trump is danger to those who wanna control this world through 'One World Government'. He is threat to globalization and Zionist controlled Economic and Banking System. The reason main stream media is trying to demean him. Media is projecting Mr Trump as villian but surely in the coming days he will prove himself as a man of peace. Only roadblock, will they allow him to work independently?
        Reply
        1. R
          Rajat
          Jan 13, 2017 at 4:11 am
          And look how US media has reacted, a new dossier being tossed around about Trump's involvement in hacking.
          Reply
          1. R
            Rajat
            Jan 13, 2017 at 4:11 am
            But wasn't what was being done in Democrat Convention plain wrong?
            Reply
            1. R
              Rajat
              Jan 13, 2017 at 4:52 am
              IE please look into your moderation software. I made one single post it was moderated. Then I posted all lines individually in multiple posts, and it was accepted. Something wrong.
              Reply
              1. R
                Rajat
                Jan 13, 2017 at 4:11 am
                It is very obvious that had Bernie won nomination, Trump would have lost.
                Reply
                1. R
                  Rajat
                  Jan 13, 2017 at 4:11 am
                  Liberals need to look inside.
                  Reply
                  1. R
                    Rajat
                    Jan 13, 2017 at 4:10 am
                    Look at the reactions of Indian media's so called stars like barkha and rajdeep.
                    Reply
                    1. R
                      Rajat
                      Jan 13, 2017 at 4:10 am
                      The liberal left is under threat because its own hypocrisy stands exposed.
                      Reply
                      1. K
                        K SHESHU
                        Jan 13, 2017 at 4:22 pm
                        The same economic system from world wars ...Read Noam Chomsky
                        Reply
                        1. A
                          ak dev
                          Jan 13, 2017 at 12:43 pm
                          Though defeated in democratic politics repeatedly in recent past, left liberals still dominate the public insutions such as media. True to their belief they think that rightists and nationalists are inferior to them and they have superior intelligence. As they dominate the media, they get the larger media space covered by posts ridiculing the rightists and nationalists. This is going to last for few decades until right intellectuals dominate the public insutions.
                          Reply
                          1. D
                            Dominic Emmanuel
                            Jan 13, 2017 at 10:19 am
                            Praveen, why did you shy away in naming the rise of right-wing in Asia from Duerte in the Philippines to the rise of RSS in India? Afraid to be trolled?
                            Reply
                            1. H
                              harun
                              Jan 13, 2017 at 7:32 am
                              same here as well.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;IE has double standards.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Those who write filth and abuse have it published.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;But IE finds Questions asked to be moderated
                              Reply
                              1. C
                                canuck
                                Jan 17, 2017 at 5:17 pm
                                What a pompous load of drivel. Praveen Swami is Exhibit A for everything that ails the so-called Liberal Left. Arrogant, condescending and yes, intellectually lazy. Frankly, I hail the rise of Trump because it is a symbolic kick in the face to this pseudo-intellectual elite who think that they are a higher life form by virtue of the "education" they received. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Little piece of free advice to Mr. Swami - get out of your cocoon and maybe learn to respect the views of others (however distasteful and uncouth you may think they are) instead of talking down from your self-appointed perch atop Olympus.
                                Reply
                                1. S
                                  Sitaram
                                  Jan 13, 2017 at 6:04 pm
                                  Taking from Swami's article 'an act of intellectual laziness, and a dangerous failure of the imagination' of the self proclaimed liberalslt;br/gt;in India and their cozy collusion with anything-but-liberal enies like Communists, Congress, the Lalus, Mulayams etc.lt;br/gt;has driven frustrated people to any alternative that is available.
                                  Reply
                                  1. A
                                    Andy Kadir
                                    Jan 13, 2017 at 6:39 am
                                    I once found that there was an inverse connection between left wing votes and petrol prices.
                                    Reply
                                    1. R
                                      Rohit
                                      Jan 13, 2017 at 6:36 pm
                                      What a pedestrian "analysis". But happy that people everywhere are realising what a fraud Marx and his cohorts brought on to the world.lt;br/gt;My sympathies Leftists - esp. Indian Leftists, who seem to live in their own cloud-cuckoo land.
                                      Reply
                                      1. R
                                        Rohit Chandavarker
                                        Jan 13, 2017 at 6:26 pm
                                        Disruption is the new normal. Radical thinking that might startle mainstream political cl has acquired a hue that threatens to sweep democracies of the free world into obscurity. One might be repelled by Trump and rightly so, but one cannot dispute the fact that he won against enormous and unrelenting opposition from practically every strata of American society. The shock and awe that Trump unleashed is difficult to digest but the bitter truth is despite opposition from intelligentsia, mainstream media, blacks, women and immigrants, he won. As he umes the onerous task of occupying the resolute desk at the Oval Office, everyone is left speechless, incredulity overpowering common sense logic. The oft repeated phrase 'better dead than red' seems to be history as Trump seeks to tango with Putin much to the consternation of his colleagues in GOP. His seemingly outlandish solutions to current problems might sound ridiculous but his commitment seems real. His rhetoric towards the world's second largest economy and engine of growth of this millennium will doubtless create uncertainty, despair and possibly unbearable pain. Yet he seems oblivious to these drastic consequences, smug in the belief that he is Mr. Right. lt;br/gt;History will prove if he is right or the villain that orchestrated a world wide upheaval of horrendous proportions.
                                        Reply
                                        1. K
                                          keval
                                          Jan 13, 2017 at 11:25 am
                                          Why can't these journalists analyze any results in an unbiased manner. Why did Hillary lost in spite of winning por votes? Is it possible that she did not work hard enough? In Aug, 2016, she organized 8-9 meetings with total attendance of 8-9K people. Trump did around 30 with total attendance of 90-100 K. And overconfident polls by media, giving up to 92 % certainty of her winning, Newsweek printing headlines - they all made her voters complacent, who might have sta home. And it was biased antagonism to Sanders which put off many potential voters too. And her blaming that night club shooting on easy availability of guns and warning against Islamophobia, at that moment? It is the disrespect of voters by elites, journalists and media who think that it is their responsibility not to report fact but to make sure whom the voters vote- that is the main reason for victory of right, it is backlash by the people, it is vote against left and pseudoliberals, not pro right votes. Of course xenophobic, alt right, being diametrically opposite to leftist liberals shouts most, and think they are winning or losing.
                                          Reply
                                          1. A
                                            Anil Singh
                                            Jan 13, 2017 at 4:35 pm
                                            Omg, the communist intellectual mafia can just get over it... baby take it home.. D. Trump IS GOING TO BE THE PRESIDENT because of his people's will. Whining leftist pussies like you dont matter... *period*
                                            Reply
                                            1. Load More Comments