Issue 172 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
Daily tales of scandals, lies and corruption have rocked the government. With big tax increases and a public sector pay freeze also on the horizon, political recovery is not on the agenda, argues Lindsey German
'Three times since 1979, the political game has seemed to be up for the Tories in midterm. Three times, they came back to win. Doing the same thing again should be easy, you may think, thanks to the economic recovery that is now under way. It is starting to look anything but.' The Economist 15 January 1994.
Anyone considering the state of the Tory government even a month ago would have been hard pressed to reach such a conclusion, but hardly had the new year dawned when John Major's government was plunged into a daily round of crises, each more seemingly damaging than the last.
Many of these scandals can only be described as trivial. But taken together they represent such a serious blow to Major that his demise is openly discussed, with 'when' rather than 'if' becoming the key speculation. How can a government with three years of its parliamentary term to run end up in such chaos?
The issues concerned are much greater than a series of sex scandals. Outrage at the scandals has resulted from the obvious hypocrisy of Tory ministers and MPs: they are doing things which they denounce the rest of us for doing. Cheap attacks on single mothers which won them support at the Tory Party conference last year have now rebounded on them.
However, most of the problems facing the government do not result from personal scandals but as a direct result of Tory policies. This is a government which trumpeted the arrival of a 'home owning democracy' and whose flagship council, Westminster, stands accused of gerrymandering: selling houses to potential Tory voters in order to maintain control of the council. The homeless and those on the waiting list were, at best, rehoused many miles away from their families and friends.
This is a government which is penalising the vast majority of the population--another 400,000 of the poorest in work will pay tax from this April as a result of the budget--while it rewards its own friends and supporters. So individual MPs have made fortunes from buying then reselling council houses from Westminster Council. Tory Central Office itself stands accused of buying its own headquarters from the council and reselling at a £2 million profit.
Nowhere does its policy of rewarding big business stand out more than in its sleazy arms deals. The cover up of arms sales to Iraq is well known. Recent revelations of record aid awarded to Malaysia for an unwanted dam in order to secure an arms deal with its government show how widely the arms sales are promoted by government.
There is a horrible stench of graft and corruption everywhere. After 14 years Tory rule increasingly looks like that of a remote oligarchy, in office to benefit itself and its immediate associates regardless of the consequences to anyone else.
Many MPs and councillors find it impossible to conceive of ever being in opposition, and accept the bounty of office as natural and justifiable. The huge increase in the number of quangos under the Tories (there are 40,000 government appointees on quangos) has given these people and their families lucrative pickings. Health, education and most other areas of public life are now run by those who owe their allegiance to the Tory government and who measure everything by profit and loss accounts.
Previous Tory governments have been corrupt, but it is impossible to conceive of the current level of corruption without the series of Tory policies which actively encouraged it: privatisation, with the discounted sale of shares, subsidies for council house sales, competitive tendering, where local businessmen could win lucrative contracts while cutting workers' wages, the creation of whole new management layers in every area of public life from the prisons to the the hospitals. And of course arms dealing.
The Thatcher boom of the mid 1980s was at its strongest in the defence industries, much of whose production was destined for export to dictators around the world. These arms deals go right to the heart of government and the Tory Party.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the scandals have much wider political implications than the Tories might expect. They are so severe that they have even set the Tories at each others' throats. A recent commentary by Philip Stephen in the Financial Times (17 January) put it like this:
'As [Major's] authority wanes, he is finding it harder and harder to reestablish discipline within the government and the party. Concerted campaigns to bolster that authority can only be launched so often. The mood among Tory constituency activists is ugly. Attempts to disentangle the party conference clarion call for a return to traditional values from the personal behaviour of politicians have not gone down well. Many activists view the government as incompetent, the prime minister as not up to the job.'
The discontent among Tory ranks comes overwhelmingly from the unpopularity of government policies, which activists on the ground feel much more strongly than remote figures in government. They know that VAT on fuel is as unpopular as ever, that other tax rises will hit the majority--not just workers but large sections of the middle class--very hard, and that the scandals are being very badly received by traditional Tory supporters.
The recent speech by Michael Portillo, chosen leadership candidate of the Tory right, demonstrated how out of touch the Tories really are. He attacked a mood of cynicism which was affecting the standing of the 'great institutions': 'If crown, parliament and church are not respected, neither will be law, judges or policemen, nor bosses, managers or foremen.'
Portillo blames this on an 'elite' spreading such disaffection, by which he means the once faithful Tory press and other commentators. But it is obvious to virtually everyone outside Portillo's own political circle that cynicism about the dominant institutions in British society has been brought on by the actions of those who run these institutions.
It is hardly surprising that a recent poll showed that 'six voters think that the government is doing a bad job for every one who thinks it is doing well,' when, for example, it is common knowledge that the Tory 'flagship councils' were given extra government grants in order to ensure that their poll tax levels were negligible and so hand them electoral victory in 1990.
Nor is it surprising that a December opinion poll showed that three quarters questioned wanted to give no public money to the royal family, believing that they should fund themselves, when the conspicuous consumption of the royals stands in such contrast to the cuts in hospitals and schools used by ordinary people.
The connection between Tory policies and the various scandals means that many more are likely to hit the news. Already there is talk of investigations into other Tory councils such as Brent and Wandsworth, and there are certainly many shady deals involving Tory MPs which have not yet come to light. Such revelations are likely to rock the government even harder.
This leaves out the whole question of policy. Already, the Tories try to put as little through parliament as they can get away with. Parliamentary recesses have been at record levels over the past year. The Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill was mauled by Tory supporters in the House of Lords. They are not confident about getting most pieces of legislation passed.
Above all, looming over government decisions is what happens with the budget. This was hailed as a great success for Kenneth Clarke by the 'chattering classes' Michael Portillo now attacks. Most commentators agreed that it was a good budget for the Tories. Yet it made no dent in Tory unpopularity at the polls and has clearly not been well received by the mass of working people.
There is every sign that it will fuel political anger and unrest outside parliament, as we are beginning to see with students and among some groups of workers who will suffer under the three year pay freeze imposed by Clarke's budget.
This makes it near impossible for Major to restore his government's fortunes. Even the opinion polls indicate that the depths of unpopularity now facing the Tories are greater than they have been at any time during the 1980s. Even compared with January 1981, when Thatcher's unpopularity was at a low, Labour had only around half the lead it now has over the Tories, and twice as many people were satisfied with the government (see table).
|Source:MORI *satisfied minus dissatisfied !Expect improvement minus expect worsening|
Opinion polls in the past month give a massive lead to Labour of up to 24 percent ahead of the Tories. And The Economist pointed out recently that links between economic recovery and the Tory leader's popularity have been broken in the last year.
All this suggests that this crisis is too deep for Major--or indeed any other Tory leader--to easily escape from. But there is a much more fundamental reason why--and it is one which Michael Portillo touched on when he bemoaned the lack of respect for institutions.
|Action pays: pensioners force the Tories to double the compensation rate for VAT on fuel|
The crisis of government and parliamentary politics is part of a much wider crisis. The old institutions which did so much to hold British society together and to encourage deference to the 'higher orders' are now in a state of disarray. The Church of England--known as the 'Tory party at prayer'--finds itself under attack from sections of government.
The monarchy has the look of a soap opera which has been running too long. The judges have too often shown themselves blind to any notion of justice for them to be widely respected.
The attacks on the Tories from their erstwhile friends in the press are symptomatic of a society whose central, fixed and stable ideas have crumbled--with nothing to replace them. Hence the appeal to some Tories of 'traditional values', of harking back to a seemingly golden age where everyone knew their place, and where a respected monarchy and church were the pinnacle of an unwritten constitution administered by Tory judges and (usually) a Tory government.
But most people do not want such a society. Whereas in 1983, for example, 28 percent of people wanted an extension of welfare benefits, today 48 percent do. Yet such a society is certainly not on offer from the Tories.
Nor does Labour have any clear vision of a better society, despite its formal commitment to more equality. Indeed the crisis of ideas leads the shadow cabinet to further caution, as its members echo some of the Tory right on the need for greater family values, a stronger crackdown on crime and so on.
All this leaves an ideological vacuum. The old ideas no longer command the allegiance of millions, yet many people do not really know what to put in their place. So there is growing discontent, especially focussed on government, but no obvious alternative.
In the absence of much parliamentary opposition we will have to look elsewhere for an expression of the anger which is so prevalent at the moment. This requires two things. The first is the building of activity which can begin to halt the attacks, regardless of what is said in parliament. The pensioners' demonstrations last year meant that the Tories were forced to double the rate of compensation for VAT on fuel. The strike by nurses at UCH last autumn led to the hospital's reprieve just before Xmas.
The fights to come over taxation, the pay freeze, cuts in welfare, student grants and against the fascists can all help to build a mood of confidence. But any recovery in confidence will be uneven and patchy--hence the importance of the second element: the building of revolutionary organisation which can give a sense of direction and coherence through linking up the struggles and applying their lessons to different issues.
There is a strong contrast between the hatred and contempt for 'official' politics with its corruption at every level, and with the ineffectiveness of even its most principled proponents, and the growth of interest in politics at the level of struggle and activity. The more this element can grow and become more effective, the more we can ensure that Major's political crisis worsens.
Dammed if you do
The Tories used the carrot of overseas aid to sell arms to Malaysia. Top civil servant Sir Tim Lankester wrote a formal memorandum saying that money should not be spent on the Pergau hydro electric dam project in Malaysia. It was estimated to cost £234 million--the most expensive ever overseas aid project. It would not be economic until well into the next century, and much more expensive to Malaysian consumers than any other form of energy costing them £100 million more than the alternatives.
Lankester was overruled at cabinet level--an unprecedented move. Why? Because the government linked the dam project with the sale of arms to the Malaysian government. It refusedto do so on paper. But Lord Younger--then defence secretary--has since said that 'the Malaysians said there would be no military contract without the aid project' and that a 'verbal undertaking was given by somebody--not myself--to link the aid to the defence contract'.Could that somebody have been Margaret Thatcher herself? Maybe that is why John Major has refused to release papers on the deal for MPs to scrutinise the dam project, described as 'a waste of taxpayers' money' by the National Audit Office.
An unprecedented level of corruption has been uncovered in the richest local government borough in Britain. Westminster Council has adopted a policy which allowed it to heavily subsidise sales of council houses while forcing the homeless and others desperate for houses out of the borough
The aim was perhaps the most cynical conceivable: that new homebuyers would be potential Tory voters while those renting council property were more likely to vote Labour. So the policy was concentrated in marginal wards, where the Tories feared they would lose seats.
Empty flats in these areas were boarded up and sold at huge discounts to those considered to be 'upwardly mobile'. Great pressure was put on those waiting for rented accommodation to buy, and they were told if they turned down the offer they would get nothing. Meanwhile Westminster wrote to local authorities as far away as Wigan in Lancashire asking them to take some of Westminster's homeless for a pay off of £400 a year per homeless person.
The district auditor's report even shocked Tory MPs, who have always boasted of Westminster's super efficiency and regarded it as the jewel in their local government crown. The auditor called Westminster's behaviour disgraceful and gerrymandering. Yet even after this, John Major refused to condemn the action until it is proven in court. And it took Westminster Council nearly a week to suspend the practice after the district auditor's report.
Latest damning evidence suggests that government money earmarked to help the homeless was in fact spent on easing the gerrymandering scheme.
Up to £20,000 was offered to tenants to vacate their council homes to make way for the homeless--and the homes were then sold.
Total cost to local ratepayers is estimated at over £21 million, which the Westminster councillors involved may be surcharged to pay. These include Dame Shirley Porter, awarded her 'honour' by John Major's government in 1991, well after the gerrymander investigation was under way. She is already notorious for selling three cemeteries to a property developer for 15p.
It is inconceivable that this scandal was unknown either by Tories nationally or by the Department of the Environment which awarded Westminster the housing grants. One of those most centrally involved in the allegations is now a Tory MP.
Westminster is now a symbol of everything rotten about Tory local government. But there are already claims from Labour that Tory Wandsworth and Brent, both in London, have been involved in similar exercises. It remains to be seen whether any prosecutions will follow in the Westminster fiasco.