11 JANUARY 1986, Page 18


Goodbye to the commanding heights or is it only au revoir?


Sometimes you have to scratch around for the coming thing and strain your eyes to discern the trend. Sometimes you are nearly trampled in the rush. For months now, signs of readjustments inside the Labour Party have been observable hammering noises, clouds of dust, odd bits of debris thrown out onto the pavement. But suddenly over the Christmas holidays the scaffolding and the polythene sheets have been removed, and a virtually new Labour Party has been unveiled. Nationa- lisation 'no longer has a high priority' (Mr Kinnock); the 'shopping-list approach' is out of date; public ownership is 'on the back burner' (Mr Jeff Rooker); Labour should 'think small' (Mr Richard Heller, who writes Mr Gerald Kaufman's speeches — well, we all have to live); individual share ownership is to be encouraged (Mr Hattersley), and individual but not institu- tional shareholders in British Telecom and British Gas are to be fairly compensated (Mr Kinnock — a rum and almost certainly illegal distinction, but nonetheless signifi- cant).

How Lord Attlee would have wept — or taken down his well-thumbed Swinburne, and read a chorus or two from Atalanta in Calydon, his remedy at moments of high emotion. For after all, what is socialism but thinking big? What can possibly demand a higher priority in mountain-climbing than the commanding heights of the economy? Shoppers need shopping lists.

For the Labour Party, the upshot of 1985 now seems unmistakable. Mr Kinnock has joined the new consensus which places individual liberty first most of the time. I don't think he has joined with much enthusiasm. He is more like the man who allows himself to be put up for country membership because everyone else is join- ing the club and he's been told it's a good place to leave one's luggage while shop- ping.

Still, there it is. The right to buy your council house, the right to a secret ballot before going on strike, the right to fair compensation for shareholders — all these vicious and provocative Tory laws are now to be regarded as additions to our common heritage. And as for buying back the family silver, well, who really cares? This is a remarkable shift — and one which, as far as I know, was fully foreseen by virtually no one inside or outside the Labour Party. But it does not solve Labour's problem with the voters. What exactly is Mr Kin- nock for? Where is the authority for Labour's claim to govern?

For the thinking big was itself the au- thority. The sheer grandeur of the idea of public ownership swept you off your feet. And that grandeur was intimately linked with the personal authority of Labour's leaders — an imposing mixture of the wartime civil service and Toynbee Hall. Mr Attlee and Sir Stafford were both experts and moral examples; they were adepts in the mysteries of Whitehall; they knew. Beside them, the country squires and shady tycoons who sat on the Tory benches looked clueless and morally small.

But if all the mighty achievement of 1945 is to be swept aside as 'our mistakes of the past' (Mr Rooker), what is left of the Left? And this is where we see Mr Kinnock pluckily, even poignantly attempting to construct an authority out of thin air. Labour is to be 'the party of production'; Labour's vision is the 'enabling state'. What is all this but saying that Labour is the Really Extremely Serious Party?

If Individual Liberty was the political battleground of 1985, it became clear from the time of the riots last September that Authority was to be the battleground of 1986. Authority is a distasteful subject, in this country usually ignored, except by foreigners and Mr Peregrine Worsthorne. Indeed, I cannot think of a serious treat- ment of its application to present-day British politics since Mr Worsthorne's undervalued book, The Socialist Myth (1971). The logic he deployed there re- mains unanswered. Socialism can only work by commands from a qualified elite; but Socialists despise and undermine elites; thus once in power, they cannot help undermining their own authority.

Yet this country is literally run by a series of authorities. Some are more or less elected, directly or indirectly, such as the local authorities and the police and educa- tion authorities which they spawn. Others are nominated, such as the authorities which cover health, water, civil aviation, atomic energy, tourism, independent broadcasting and the sea fish industry (the successor to the White Fish Authority of blessed memory). Some have terrifying powers over one's children and one's movements. Others are merely agencies for handing out public money or for various kinds of propaganda supposed to be in the public interest. But they all demand the same ethic: their members must not take bribes, embezzle the funds, exceed their powers, steal the files, favour their friends, blacklist their enemies or succumb to megalomania. In other words, they must behave at all times as Mr Attlee would have done. 'An empty taxi drew up at the Palace and Mr Attlee got out' — that is the true pattern of authority, except that a No. 11 bus would have been better still. And that legacy of personal authority Labour's own family silver — was the swag which the Gang of Four took away with them into the SDP.

Its absence is the crippling weakness of the modern Labour Party — one which, I think, only Mr David Blunkett has fully grasped as yet. Each allegation of corrup- tion or harassment in Liverpool or Lam- beth, every nutty outburst from Mr Bernie Grant, the cutest bon mot from Mr Ken Livingstone — or even from Mr Kinnock himself — leads to a fresh uneasiness. Are these really the sort of people you would entrust your children or your licence fee to?

The more completely the grand edifice of 'old-fashioned' Socialism is demolished, the more nakedly the personal inade- quacies of its inheritors are exposed. These tendencies to gangsterism and flippancy are no accident. Nor are the grotesque intrusions of Labour authorities into the opinions and sexual habits of those under their authority. Because British Leftists no longer have anything serious to think about, their fancy roams freely into the realms of intimacy. The most private parts become politicised as a solace for the crumbling of their grand public dreams. If they were seriously thinking about nation- alising ICI and Barclays Bank, they would have less time to worry about school caretakers' views on lesbianism.

Labour's only remotely plausible escape route seems to lie in a new manner of conversation: a warm, large, vague sort of tone which Henry James would have been proud of and which comes like mother's milk to Mr Kinnock. The fierce detail of the past is out; only the great vacuities 'planning for production', 'social own- ership' — remain in the language. Out of these formless voids, however, new com- manding heights will emerge to be scaled — after the general election, naturally rather in the manner of Genesis, Chapter 1. Quite what shape they will take is not yet clear — full-scale exchange controls? Im- port controls? Nationalisation of the de- fence industries? — but emerge they must, since the new Labour Party has no other authority to govern by.