Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Life on a left-wing planet

This piece of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website:


1973 is back in the news. The year that gave us 'Merry Christmas Everybody', by Slade, the wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips and the first Grand National victory of Red Rum, has been recreated in the BBC series Life on Mars, provoking a whole host of commentators to put pen to paper to tell us just how awful things were back then.

As an unreconstructed leftie, I beg to differ.

In 1973, Britain had a Conservative government far to the left of New Labour, one which had nationalised Rolls Royce, and whose leader, unlike Tony Blair, talked openly of "the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism". At the Labour Party conference that year, Tony Benn told delegates "if we don't own and control them (monopoly capital), they will own and control us", as the party endorsed its most left-wing programme for forty years, one which promised to bring about a "fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families". Contrary to the view that you can only win elections by pandering to big business, Labour won two elections the following year on its radical manifesto.

Strong trades unions in Britain and across Europe, together with the existence of an alternative economic and social model provided by the Soviet Union and the other countries in the communist bloc, meant that western governments were forced to raise their game. The consensus in 1973 was a leftist one: public ownership, planning and progressive taxation were in; privatisation, deregulation and other 'free market' solutions were considered (rightly) as the policies of Powellite extremists.

Due to progressive taxation and other egalitarian policies, income inequalities were at their lowest ever levels in history. Social mobility was also at its peak: in 1973 (unlike today) both Britain's main political parties were led by men educated in the state sector. Across Europe, genuinely progressive statesmen such as Olof Palme, Bruno Kreisky and Willi Brandt set the agenda. Reactionary right-wing dictatorships still lingered on in the Iberian Peninsula, but their days were numbered.

At the same time, governments in the east, particularly in Hungary and Yugoslavia were showing that communism didn't have to mean harsh Stalinism. The hope of many on the left that the Cold War would end with the convergence of the western and eastern systems, looked as though it might be realised.

In the US, the New Deal, Keynesian consensus still held sway. American losses in Vietnam had led to a new Age of Detente: it was in 1973 that Leonid Brezhnev became the first Soviet leader to visit the White House.

In many ways 1973 can be seen as the zenith of progressive politics in the 20th century.

In September, the hopes of Chilean socialists were cruelly destroyed by Pinochet's military coup, while a month later, the oil crisis caused by the Yom Kippur war, unleashed inflationary pressures and enabled the forces of reaction to regroup and plot their return to power.

In his book 'What's Left' Nick Cohen claims that much of what the left yearned for a century ago for has actually been achieved. Had Cohen been writing in 1973 it would have been true. It most certainly is not true of the inegalitarian, oligarchical, neo-liberal jungle we inhabit today.

3 comments:

TheRedLeopard said...

Great piece, Neil.
In 1973 there was a feeling that everything was possible. We had a Labour Party in which genuine socialists like Tony Benn played a prominent role.
Now, people feel they are trapped and that no one in the political elite is speaking their language.

Peter said...

The one fly in the ointment in Hungary was that nobody had actually voted for their government, apart from the Russians.

That was also the time when Britain was on a three-day week, remember? And then under Callaghan the rubbish collectors' and grave-diggers' strikes?

You have a remarkable ability to find socialism in the strangest places...

Peter said...

Or, to rephrase my comment above, 1974 was the last year until 1997 that a Labour government was elected until they adopted most of the policies of Margaret Thatcher. The people have spoken - the bastards!