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Libya: class warfare and the New Conservative state

Our heroes George, David and William (in the cap) investigate Gadaffi's lair

As I set out in my deck-clearing part 1, I think there’s a more immediately relevant question for the Left to ask about the UK regime’s involvement in the bombing of Libya than whether it is a good idea.

That question is:

What does the UK regime’s appetite for military intervention in Libya tell us about that UK regime, and how does that inform the Left’s strategy of opposition?

Brian Barder is the only commentator I’ve seen who’s really addressed this at all so far:

There seems to be a strange kind of British love affair both with war and with the idea of leadership.  No doubt there are sound historical reasons for our subconscious association between war and glorious victory,  and a similarly deep-seated assumption that if there’s going to be a war, Britain must automatically be playing the “leading role” in it – an obvious imperial hangover…….

Those of us who found Tony Blair’s itch for military intervention, and his obsession with British leadership, obnoxious and alarming were, it now seems, premature in celebrating his departure from UK politics.  Blairism rides again, personified in the strident and triumphant voices of Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Mr David Cameron.

Brian is half way there, but I think the explanation for Britain’s current gung-ho moves is somewhat more complex than an essentialist assumption about the  ‘British love affair with war’, and lies in the class-based institutional structure of government – not the British in general.

This is what the much-overlooked British political scientist Jim Bulpitt had to say on the way British government really works, in his should-be-seminal Territory and Power in the United Kingdom (1983):

Maintaining the external support system became the highest of  ‘High Politics’. Successive Prime Ministers, even Baldwin and Attlee, found that defence foreign policy and the protection of sterling dominated their lives. Churchill and Eden discussed little else but defence and foreign policy….By the time MacMillan became Prime Minister, ‘Foreign Affairs was his vocation, economics his hobby’. 

Although these external preoccupations  began as an essential instrument to achieve domestic tranquillity, ultimately they became and end in themselves. For  most politicians at the Cetnre this arena was politics (p. 138).

Where Bulpitt’s otherwise excellent analysis of what really drove central government right through to Thatcherism is lacking is that it doesn’t touch sufficiently on class. 

While Bulpitt assumes that the ‘high politics’ of defence and foreign policy becomes the focal point of central government because of external pressures, there is an equally valid argument that it is a political choice taken by upper-class government leaders who have little understanding of or penchant for the ‘low politics’ of social welfare, health, education and internal infrastructure – something that their background suggests can be left to their (es)state managers and other loyal staff content with their status.

Fast forward to 2011, and Cameron and his upper-class coterie find themselves drawn towards the ‘high politics’ of Libya.  This is the territory in which they feel instinctively more comfortable, and it was noticeable that Osborne in particular suddenly looks all the more at ease in TV interviews.  This is not the stuff of confrontational party politics, but an arena where consensus within the Westminster village can be assumed (largely because of the trajectory of the Parliamentary Labour Party), and where they get to look statesmanlike without also having to pander to the ‘ordinary bloke’ image the electoral history of the Tory party has forced them to espouse.

Suddenly, Cameron doesn’t need to have all the details of ‘low politics’ at his fingertips; that’s beneath his new status as world leader.   If the Libyan crisis had not happened, then a good deal more might have been made of his performance at PMQ’s last week, when he appeared only hazily aware of Health and Social Care Bill.  But that was Wednesday.  By Friday, a compliant media had no such questions, because Cameron was a statesman acting in the international interest.

We should remember, though, that this wasn’t chance.  As Brian Barder has noted, there was no automatic reason for the UK to lead on the question of the No Fly Zone.   It was a political choice by a Tory leader, fashioned in the upper-class mould of his predecessors.

There is, though, an important difference between the circumstances in which Cameron and Osborne express their class consciousness, and those in which Churchill, Eden and Macmillan expressed theirs, and it is this difference in circumstances which provides the Left with the opportunity to challenge the foundations of the New Conservative state more effectively than it has done to date.   The important difference is that Thatcherism happened, creating a discontinuity in Tory party tradition which now leaves the New Conservatism with a set of contradictions liable for exploitation by the Left.

This is what Jim Bulpitt had to say about Thatcherism:

Popular perceptions of early Thatcherism tended to view it solely in economic terms; to believe that the policies of the government merely reflected a set of economic nostrums given the umbrella label of monetarism. This is an oversimplification.  Thatcherism began life a both a remodernising anti-statist doctrine and as a piece of statecraft, an operational code to deal with the problems of governing the United Kingdom as they emerged in the late 1970s.

Thus, monetarist tehcniques of economic management were not adopted simply because Sir Keith Joseph and Mrs Thatcher were converted to the virtues of Friedmanite theory. They were also adopted because such techniques represented a set of convenient political mechanisms, convenient in the sense that they promised the Centre the prospect of managing the economy on the basis of policies over which it could claim, in relative terms at least, some control…….

In other words, with such techniques macro-economic strategy would be able to re-enter the domain of ‘High Politics’ and, as a consequence, be less open to influence from awkward domestic forces, such as trade unions (p.2o2).

This idea that macro-economics became a matter of ‘High Politics’ as an essential part of Thatcher’s own statecraft if vital to the understanding of where Cameron and Osborne now find themselves.

As an essential item in its electoral strategy, the Conservative party was forced into continuing this Thatcherite tradition in the wake of financial crisis and worldwide recession.   Had the crisis not occurred in 2008, there can be little doubt that economic policy would have been an insignificant aspect of its election campaign, and the focus would have been on presenting Cameron as a jovial High Tory reconstructed for 21st century media.  Think William Hague with more hair, less hat.  The Tories would have lost.

As it is the New Conservatism has been forced, against its class instinct, to adopt the Thatcherite narrative of economics as high politics, and this creates an awkward disjnucture between the narrative of Thatcher’s handbag and the tight pursestrings of 40’s/50’s-style austerity, and the fact that modern wargames and geo-politics cost an awful lot of money.  

Thus, while few people in 2003 focused on the cost of killing Iraqis in 2003, because Blair had managed to outsource the small matter of economic management to Brown, and fiscal times were good, in 2011 the cost of a Tomahawk missile as compared to the cost of running a hospital is a subject all over the radio talkshows.

Give these essentially irreconciable narratives – fiscal prudence vs. blowing money on weapons – it comes as little surprise that 45% of people polled are in favour of intervention in Libya despite UN approval and despite no ground troops, compared with 2003 polls showing 74% approval for a groundwar in Iraq with UN approval.  People up and down the land can see that the government can’t have its cake and eat it too.

And it’s what this new poll, and what the people on the talkshows are telling us about the comparative cost of war which should be informing the Left (and Labour’s) strategy towards the Conservative regime in the coming weeks and months, as the spending spirals and the war grinds on.

Essentially, Cameron needs to be hoisted by Thatcher’s petard.  We need to unashamedly attack the Tories for their hypocrisy when it comes to public spending, and the ‘rich man’s war’ narrative needs to come to the forefront. 

Even the Parliamentary Labour party, despite its inevitable acquiescence in Westminster last night, can get in on this act, because there is nothing wrong with pointing out that public expenditure is public expenditure, whatever it is spent on. 

To his credit, Tom Watson has set that tone by asking bluntly ‘What will it cost?’, and I heard Graham Stringer doing the same on radio yesterday. Other’s need to follow their lead.

As I’ve said before, the New Conservative regime is involved in class war because that is in keeping with its abiding  and most pervasive tradition.  Its new war in Libya, however bad for the Libyans it gets, does create an opportunity to confront them on that, and to set out their ‘humanitarianism’ for the class-ridden Boys’ Own adventure that it really is. 

Only by building a proper working class consensus against future rule by Biggles and his chums will we avoid new Libyas.

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  1. Ellie
    March 22, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    Well it’s pretty obvious they have decided to ignore governing Britain – just leave it to corporations. That has left me wondering why we pay taxes at all! I thought about how they (the government) would want to have us pay for the army. Well, it’s not as if BP is going to pay for it themselves, is it?

    What I’ve struggled with, is why – what’s in it for Cameron et al?

    You’ve helped me think of the answer, they want to be famous, not famous really to us UK ordinary people (we don’t count we just pay the bills), but they want to be famous to the outside world!

    Wish they could just teach them to play guitar at those posh schools, really, I do.

  2. padiofarty
    April 5, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Although I am in total agreement with your inferred opposition to our (yes I’m a Brit) involvement in Libya I find your stand on and indeed hope for the Left Wing and the Working Class (or as I would pronounce it Clarse – and yes I am also of the BOP schooling background – another to be strung up perhaps and I refer to the guitar strings of Ms. Ellie’s comment March 22nd) as a saviour to be rather pointless in all this.

    Of course you might point out to me that Blair wasn’t a real “working classz lad” of hob nailed boot and bread and dripping upbringing nevertheless he did lead the Labour party………………..I don’t need to go on.

    I seriously doubt that many, given the opportunity to rise above the Daily Sun and diet of ‘bread and dripping’ would do anything less than move from their council house to an ostentatious manorial dwelling (no doubt to be re-painted day glo green) and do their utmost to force their obnoxious offspring in some Eton bound direction even if it wasn’t actually to Eton – perhaps sending Sexy Sharon to the up market hairdressing and fish shop training school in the posh part of town as opposed to being consigned to the Co-op check out till in-house training round the back of the working man’s club – there again I am a cynical bastard.

    No, I think what we really have here is all quite normal and is regardless of Class and fits the bill for our modern times.

    Politician “Wanna be’s” who wanna be Churchillian. Didn’t Blair go all Churchillian when his opportunity came up? Perhaps they look at it in much the same way that a working classz doesn’t when his “number comes up in the draft.” I think so because the Blairs and Camerons get to go to war by staying at home and getting public support by saying “waddaya mean you’re against the war, I mean humanitarian effort, don’t you support our troops, how disgusting, look at this person, he wants all your serving soldiers to die.”

    They’re dead clever aren’t they, Politicians?

    We shouldn’t be anywhere near Libya, it has nothing to do with us. A sovereign nation has internal strife, it is their problem, and it is their responsibility to deal with it. Personally, I couldn’t care less if they rape all their own women (although I was surprised about that, I thought they preferred the lads) and consign all their kids to the coalface – it just isn’t our responsibility. But politicians (and I am talking about the ones who actually get hold of the reins of power and not the Skinners and not the Foots and not the Wedgy Bens who make a noise and never get hold of any real power – and ask yourself why not) will take so called “War” opportunities on at the drop of a hat. Something to juice up their later memoirs as well.

    I do not agree that we should “go in” to Libya but if we are going in, we should drop bombs on it, obliterate it quickly, and then go home. What the hell are we doing pussyfooting around in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya and where the hell will we end up next doing the same old Politician driven dance?

    And as for building your old working class consensus against future rule by Biggles (chocs away), well Sir I hasten to add that perhaps you are living in a short lived past – try the Fabians, I hear they’re looking for a few new members.

    I remember the Boys’ Own Paper – happy days – I wish we could still flog the working class like we could in my young days. If “Boots” didn’t get the shine just right on my little Clark’s Prep School shoes he got a damn good thrashing and was pleased it was only that – Happy Days.

  1. April 1, 2011 at 12:04 pm
  2. April 3, 2011 at 3:52 pm
  3. April 5, 2011 at 12:31 pm
  4. June 15, 2011 at 7:29 pm
  5. July 18, 2011 at 11:55 am
  6. August 2, 2011 at 8:51 pm
  7. August 29, 2011 at 5:01 pm
  8. October 20, 2011 at 10:30 am
  9. February 8, 2012 at 11:24 pm
  10. April 2, 2012 at 9:25 am
  11. May 11, 2012 at 11:04 am
  12. June 4, 2012 at 1:26 pm
  13. January 16, 2013 at 1:25 am
  14. February 3, 2013 at 8:57 pm

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