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.