The Left looks for a way through the woods
`The sun's shining, the Conservatives are 11 points ahead in the opinion polls, Jamie has settled down awfully well in the City after his problems, and Emma's done brilliantly in her mocks. So everything in the garden ought to be rosy, and yet, Monsieur Poirot, sometimes I feel an odd sort of shivery feeling which I can't quite explain. . •' `Exactement, madame, you feel every- thing ought to be rosy, and yet there are no roses in the garden. And so, with your British sang-froid, you cross your legs for' luck. . . •' Perhaps it is the absence of excitement that is a trifle unnerving. Even at West- minster, only the most imaginative obser- ver could diagnose election fever. The place has the feel of a dying Parliament Labour MPs are said to be 'out campaign- ing'. Much of this important-sounding activity, I fear, consists in ranting at rallies attended mostly by other Labour loyalists, in order to cheer themselves up.. Tory MPs, by contrast appear to be smitten by a kind of catatonic smugness. Can it really all be that easy?
More remarkable even than the latest clutch of opinion polls is the apathy of the opposition parties. They seem to have run out of serious conversation. It is not just that Labour leaders do not talk much about socialism. They seldom do in the run-up to a general election. But they do not seem animated by any kind of enthu- siasm for their own policies. Mr Kinnock himself was only too anxious at the 'red rose' rally in Northampton to be sidetrack- ed into windy arguments about party loyal- ty and tactical voting. Labour's programme certainly contains old-fashioned hard com- mitments, to reduce unemployment by a million, for example. But these do not seem to inspire much missionary zeal. And the same goes for the Alliance. It is the Conservatives who look more anxious to spell out the details of their future plans. Mr Hattersley and his friends appear to be relying for votes on the Tories' hidden manifesto' more than on their own public one.
Nor is this simply another 'betrayal of socialism' by the Ramsay MacDonalds of the Escargot and the Gay Hussar. The Left itself, both inside and outside Parliament, seems for once in its history to be similarly hesitant and unarticulate. Mr Eric Hobs- bawm in Marxism Today makes the best of a bad job and. urges socialists to vote Alliance in constituencies where the Labour candidate has no chance. These days, tactical voting is seen as the only way. to keep a toehold on power.
And where was CND at Easter? Nor- mally that great organiSation, the Left's link with nice, gentle, non-political people, would be plodding along to Aldermaston, to remind us of the irremediable militaris- tic wickedness of the West. But this year they were commemorating Chernobyl in- stead. Nobody seems to have pointed out that Chernobyl was a Soviet disaster and a non-military one at that.
This, I suppose, is all part of the new fashion on the Left of looking to the Greens for salvation. Mr Jeremy Seabrook in the Guardian berates the Alliance for their 'sham radicalism' which 'conceals where the real ideological and moral break has occurred, and this is with the only truly contestatory politics of the Greens'. The real alternative, the new New Left, is, it seems, no longer to be offered by the Labour Party but by the only political force which has seen through the illusions of industrial growth. Lenin's definition of socialism as 'Soviet power, plus electrifica- tion' is now to be regarded as out of date. It is the ruralist tradition of Tolstoy, Ruskin and Morris that offers the only hope of a new socialism that does not stunt and crush the human spirit. And to have persuaded the Labour Party and, nearly, the TUC to turn its face away from nuclear power is the first victory. Labour .seems to have spent more time and thought on its policy for the countryside than it would have dreamed of in Nye Bevan's day, when doing away with the tied cottage was the only socialist rural issue.
Now; however appealing this new approach may be in Hampstead, itiis unlikely to go down quite so well in Hartlepool. In electoral terms, it repre- sents a further marginalising of the Labour Party. It is also not much of a unique selling point, for any political party can `green up' as fast as a quick-acting lawn feed — and they are all already doing so.
The fear of industrialism and its nasty side-effects has nothing specifically social- ist about it. Coleridge, Southey and Car- lyle would have been surprised to find themselves placed on the Left. Perhaps the only thing that is worth remarking on is the length of the English tradition of lamenting changes in the countryside, stretching back to Cowper's poplar-field:
The poplars are fell'd, farewell to the shade And the whispering sound of the cool col- onnade.. .
The specific anxieties which have now soaked through into political debate were put, fairly completely, 100 years later by Gerard Manley Hopkins when his favourite poplars were cut down: My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled . . .
0 if we but knew what we do When we delve or hew Hack and rack the growing green Since country is so tender . .
After-corners cannot guess the beauty been. Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve Strokes of havoc tinselve The sweet especial scene.. .
Who is it who does the unselving? Farmers and property developers, no doubt, but also local authorities and water authorities and the Ministry of Transport and a dozen other public bodies. We are all in this together. To pretend that socialism can be painlessly transformed into a prog- ramme for the restoration of rural inno- cence is both unhistorical and unrealistic. It is a strategy born of dawning despera- tion, not of fresh insight.
Socialism. — and that has to mean the Labour Party, its only plausible vehicle has to engage the attention and appeal to the hives of late-20th-century, by-pass- dwelling, EastEnders-watching, Ford- Escort-driving man. Nor can any morally serious socialism be built on a total rejec- tion of technology, however attractively green revolution which has. enabled the entire Third World to .feed itself, with the exception of a few African tyrannies, was the work of scientific labor- atories and multinational drug companies. Ditto the curing of endemic tropical dis- eases. It is reasonable to argue about the role of governments and private profits; that is serious politics. But free nettle soup and acupuncture on the Health will not capture many Tory marginals, and do not deserve to. It is no use looking for the way through the woods. They shut it years ago.