UK: Radicalism, not pragmatism, is the answer to Britain's decline. (2 of 2)

UK: Radicalism, not pragmatism, is the answer to Britain's decline. (2 of 2) - The other reason why Thatcherism failed has more to do with its own limitations than the general pitfalls of radicalism. It was far better at the initial shake-up, the shock t

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The other reason why Thatcherism failed has more to do with its own limitations than the general pitfalls of radicalism. It was far better at the initial shake-up, the shock treatment, than the strategic rebuild. Thus the 1979-81 recession certainly transformed working practices and attitudes in many areas, but the subsequent recovery was grossly imbalanced, with a ridiculous and short-sighted concentration on consumer spending and imports, at the expense of investment and domestic manufacturing.

But this was also part of a much wider problem. The radicalism of Thatcherism was a peculiarly English phenomenon. Its antipathy towards the state and its missionary commitment to the market lie deep in the bowels of a country which, like the United States but unlike virtually every other successful economy, has always viewed the state with some hostility. That was fine when the UK was in the ascendant, but a profound impediment in an epoch of decline. For a country in decline is one that needs a new sense of priorities and a new national will and purpose. The state cannot but be an essential part of that. Look at the latter's role in Japan, or South Korea, or France in the years since the Fifth Republic.

Then there was the failure of Thatcherism to broaden its social base. It is obviously possible to win elections with barely more than 40% of the vote. But carrying through a social revolution is a different matter altogether. That requires much broader support, for two reasons: firstly to overcome deep-seated and widespread opposition, which is inevitable in the face of any radical project; and secondly because unless the social revolution is rooted in as broad a spectrum of society as possible it simply cannot work.

The question is: will Thatcherism come to be seen as a unique moment in British political life, the only time when, as a nation, we opted for a radical response to decline? The short-term answer to that question is already clear. The post-Thatcherite era will be marked by a reaction not only against Thatcherism but also more generally against radicalism. We are returning to a more pragmatic political style. But the long-term view is little more encouraging. A nation in long-term decline like our own finds it extraordinarily difficult to renew itself. Politics and culture are characterised by short-term vision, a pragmatic adjustment to decline. While expansion and growth tend to generate a sense of perspective and strategy, retreat and decline engender the opposite - the experience of business and nation alike.

Yet that is precisely why radicalism is needed. The habits of society have to be changed. We have to live in a new way. Our institutions, structures and practices have to be shaken up. A new sense of national will must be forged. Thatcherism, in that sense, was quite right. It would be sad, indeed, if the failure of Thatcherism was also to mean the defeat of radicalism as a response to Britain's decline; if the dominant political tone of the future was to be, as it has been in the past, one of political pragmatism in the face of continuing decline. Yet I fear that this is by far the most likely scenario.

(Martin Jacques is editor of Marxism Today.)

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