That’s WB Yeats, of course: ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’ He was writing in 1919. But doesn’t this also seem to describe our situation today? The ‘anarchy’ of course is represented by the violent invasion of the American Federal Capitol the other day, by Trumpists who seem to be to very close to the dictionary definition of ‘Anarchists’ in so many ways – lawless, anti-vaccination, anti-face masks, anti-accepted ‘truth’, anti-government generally. The same could be said of some British ‘free market’ and anti-EU Conservatives, though they haven’t stormed Parliament yet. By the way: why has ‘anarchism’ generally been associated – in the British discourse at least – with the political Left? It’s surely much more a Right-wing libertarian thing. And its growth recently, on both sides of the pond, is one of the factors behind ‘things falling apart’ currently.
But the phrase in the Yeats quote that to me appears most relevant is the bit about ‘the centre’ not holding. In both our countries – the USA and England (not necessarily the whole UK) – recent elections (and one referendum) indicate a roughly 50:50 split between radically opposed social and political factions, leaving no room in between them for a ‘centre’ to form. Of course that’s partly due to the adversarial nature of both our politics, symbolised by the arrangement of the seats in the British House of Commons, and encouraged by our common ‘first past the post’ voting arrangements.
But two-party systems don’t have to be adversarial to this extent – Manichaean, fought between ‘enemies’, violently in word and occasionally in deed – and in Britain’s case were not so adversarial in the political age I grew up in, in the 1950s and ’60s. Those were broadly consensus times, with the post-war ‘welfare state’ settlement being accepted by majorities of both major political parties, Harold Macmillan as well as Harold Wilson; and ‘the extremes’ of authoritarian socialism and libertarianism (as well as, at that time, Empire loyalism and Powellite racism) being confined to fringes on the Left and Right. Between these, and embracing the left wing of the Conservative Party and the Right wing of the Labour Party, there was a mainstream of shared views about how British society should be run, centring on social democracy, public welfare, and – looking abroad – decolonisation and the sort of internationalism supposedly represented by the ‘Commonwealth’.
But then, of course, came Thatcher, or the powers behind her throne, and her delight, born of her ideological certainty, in turning political disagreements into ‘battles’. As a result the centre ground gradually dissolved, as Conservative ‘wets’ in Parliament – the consensual ones, often semi-aristocratic, which Thatcher hated – were replaced by ‘dry’ free marketeers and their aiders and abetters: capitalists, tax lawyers, right-wing journalists; while at the same time Labour working-class socialists gave way to middle-class ex-student politicians, typified by Tony Blair, who were persuaded that Labour had to ‘adapt’ to the new times. Thus it was that the political centre of gravity shifted to the Right, and what had previously been regarded as reasonable and ‘moderate’ became characterised as ‘extreme’.
As a child of the sixties’ consensus I have to say that I miss that reasonable and moderate ‘middle ground’ terribly. It was why I was so enthusiastic about the policies of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the last two British general elections, which the Right-wing press characterised as ‘extreme’ – and even ‘communist’, or worse – but in which I recognised the reasonable middle ground of my early political days. I still hold that the only way for Britain to survive and remain comparatively prosperous and at both external and internal peace, especially in the present age of aggressive global late capitalism, is to return to that compromise between capitalism and socialism that the Attlee government established and Wilson continued – and not only Wilson, but his Conservative opponents – in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s; with the State welcoming capitalist enterprise in its proper place, but intervening to restrain its anti-social excesses: before the evil witch got her hands on it, and fired (so far as Britain was concerned) the great counter-revolution of the 1980s-on – the ultimate source of our present woes.
Corbyn’s defenestration by Labour’s new Leader has provoked me to leave the Party; not so much because of any perceived ‘right-wing’ bias on Starmer’s part – I’ve lived with unsympathetic leaders before – but on ‘free speech’ grounds. I was shocked by the Party General Secretary’s ban on the mere discussion of certain topics at constituency meetings; specifically, of Corbyn’s claim that ‘anti-semitism’ in the party had been exaggerated and ‘weaponised’, which was self-evidently true. As a result of that I feel I no longer have a home in British politics. For sixty years that home has been the Labour Party, apart from eighteen months when I left it for the Lib Dems because of their solemn promise to end student fees. What a fool I was to trust them! So I feel I can’t go back there. (The Libs are wobbling on the issue of Europe in any case.) The Greens are the only progressive alternative, but too small and ‘single issue’ ever to achieve even a share of power. If we could adopt a better system of voting – that is, some form of proportional representation which allows smaller parties to seed and grow (see https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/) – it would be different. But the present two-party system (in England) blocks that. The result just now is that Labour has become an anti-socialist party, and the Conservatives an anti-democratic party, leaving very little for a democratic socialist to like about either of them.
I’ve joined Corbyn’s new ‘Peace and Justice’ movement, which seems to be an effort to keep Corbyn’s brand of progressivism alive; but that’s not a ‘Party’ yet. Some in my situation would like it to be, but Britain’s experience with splinter groups and ‘third parties’ since the last war has not been encouraging. In the case of the (British) ‘Social Democrats’ it merely worked to keep the Right in power. Again: ‘First Past the Post’ is the great stumbling block here. Far-Left parties are generally too doctrinal, as well as too feeble, for me. And revolution is too scary. I might even consider joining a Conservative party, if it were genuinely – that is, literally – ‘conservative’, or even reactionary: back to Macmillan; but not now it has morphed into an English Fascist prototype. That’s a reaction too far. So where can I look for political companionship?
In Sweden – and as a Swedish citizen now – I’ve joined Vänster Partiet, which is a little to the left of their Social Democrats, and potentially capable of joining governing coalitions. In Britain I’ll carry on voting Labour, partly because I have a splendid local MP. Beyond that, however, what can a traditional only-a-bit-left-of-centre socialist do? And is there any hope for Britain’s getting a more democratic and reasonable way of choosing her leaders and governments, without wholesale reforms of her voting system, and of her media?
So, come back the Sixties. Sorry about the bad publicity. We had it pretty right then. Not everything was perfect, by any means; but at least we could hope. That’s what the subsequent years of Toryism, Blairism, and behind them the great behemoth of late-stage capitalism, have destroyed. Hope.
I’ve waited some time, but I just can’t leave this one without comment. I can’t ‘like’ it because of the use of gratuitous insult (‘evil witch’), which I didn’t expect to find here, as well as other issues concerning past decades.
I got married and became a teacher in 1970. Those early years were dominated by ‘galloping’ inflation (up to 14% in 1974) fueled by oil crises and wage demands from over-powerful unions. Meanwhile teachers (me) and other essential services (nurses, police, fire, ambulance) were held down with pay rises way below inflation, therefore, an annual pay cut. Houghton did a bit for teachers, but by the end of the decade any rebalancing had been lost. Barbara Castle produced the paper ‘In Place of Strife’, and was supported by Wilson, but they were stabbed in the back by Callaghan who teamed up with Vic Feather and Joe Gormley. That led to Thatcher, and so, enter Arthur Scargill, the ranting (communist) demagogue who hoped to bring down the government … I don’t long for a return to those days.
We do agree on one thing: the vile, outdated, undemocratic, discredited FPTP voting system, which to my mind is the greatest cause of all our ills, but neither of the big parties have done anything but oppose reform (and why should they? – they benefit from it!), which is why I hate them both.
And finally, if it’s acceptable (I don’t think it is) to refer to the late Margaret Thatcher as ‘the evil witch’, then it must be equally acceptable to refer to (the still living) Arthur Scargill ‘the devil incarnate’.
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‘Evil’ I agree is judgmental, and may be unfair if it’s thought to refer to her motives. I’m sure she thought she was doing good. But ‘witch’ has been embraced by many feminists today, indicating that women have agency and power. I agree about Barbara Castle – my great hero. (A ‘good witch’?) In Place of Strife would have put us back on the Swedish-style path of social democracy, to the benefit of all. I blame the Unions for that. Not ‘Red Arthur’ in particular, though I wouldn’t object – nor probably would he – to his being called the ‘devil incarnate’.
The Conservatives ceased to be the Tory Party (semi-consensual, neo-Keynesian etc) in the 1970’s when it became infected with neo-liberal economic ideas, largely imported from the US (+Hayek), and now mixed with anarchic libertarianism. The Labour Party ceased to be a semi-socialist party in the 80’s with the advent of New Labourism (removal of Clause 4 etc), although its socially conservative tendencies (admittedly in line with much of the British public) always made that a possibility. I agree Corbynism was a reversion back to the 50’s and 60’s, but that it was seen as so radical shows how far the political centre of gravity has shifted. Many left wing Tories of the past would also be considered dangerous radicals to-day, and probably expelled from the party.
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By the way: why has ‘anarchism’ generally been associated – in the British discourse at least – with the political Left?
Because, as you would know, historically, millions of leftists have proudly marched and fought under the black Anarchist flag. Anarchism has a long history on the left side of politics.
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Yes, as in the Spanish civil war – Orwell saw the ‘crystal spirit’ on the face of the Italian soldier that ‘no bombs could destroy’ who was probably an anarchist although maybe a Trotskyist, and willing to die for the European working class to enjoy a better life.
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