Selected Political Writings
The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays
Edited by Sally Davison, David Featherstone, Michael Rustin & Bill Schwarz
London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2017
Paperback. 368 pages. ISBN 978-1910448656. £23.99
Reviewed by Pat Thane
King's College, London
Stuart Hall was best known as a left-wing political writer, much respected in Britain. He grew up in Jamaica, in a middle-class family, and came to Britain in 1951 on a scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied English Literature. At that time – indeed at any time – there were few black students at Oxford and racial discrimination was pervasive in Britain, but Hall stayed until his death in 2014, always resisting racism. As an essay in this collection describes, he became active in left politics after its revival from 1956 when Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalinism, followed by the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian rising, split British Communism; then the Suez crisis invigorated the left into seeking a new way forward to socialism which was neither Stalinism nor social democracy. This produced a succession of journals, primarily Universities and Left Review, New Left Review, later Marxism Today, then, after the latter’s demise in 1991, Soundings. For all of these and others Hall wrote regular observations on contemporary politics, a representative selection of which is published in this volume. He was never an orthodox Marxist and was highly critical of rigid structuralism, but he profoundly wanted revolutionary social and economic change. He was also a scholar, much influenced by literary theory and the work of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams. He focussed his literary and theoretical interests on studying changing contemporary culture and its relationship with politics. For some years he led the influential Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University before becoming Professor of Sociology at the Open University.
In his essays he was persistently critical of the Labour Party for failing when in government to take sufficient control of the economy and promote greater equality through redistribution and, at all times, failing to connect with the growing range of radical movements from the 1950s and with changing working-class culture, as ‘affluence’ spread and manufacturing declined, failing to take a hegemonic lead in building a strong opposition to Conservatism and capitalism. Gramsci was one of the theorists who most inspired Hall. One of his many criticisms of Labour was what he perceived as its resistance to theory, or, at least to his preferred theories, and its preference for empirical analysis of policies and the political system. This was something of a simplification and arguably a weakness of these essays is Hall’s own inadequate empirical analysis to back up the theory. He was surprisingly uncritical of certain conventional assumptions about post-1945 UK politics, in particular that there was ‘consensus’ between Labour and Conservatives over economic and social policies from the 1940s to the 1970s, when any careful study of these policies suggests real divergence. The Conservatives in government after 1951 did not dismantle the welfare state – it was too popular with voters – but they did very little to expand it and wherever possible encouraged private provision, e.g., private occupational pensions rather than improved State pensions. They did not intervene to modernise and improve the efficiency of British manufacturing until, by the early 1960s, it became obvious that the economy was slipping behind expanding competitors, including France, Germany and Japan, which gained from State intervention. The post-war Labour government, by contrast, had a strategy for further development of the nascent welfare state and for industrial modernisation but had insufficient time for implementation before narrowly losing the election in 1951, winning more votes than the Conservatives in a deeply divided electorate. Hall underestimated their success in rescuing the economy from the pre-war Depression and the costs and upheavals of war.
When Labour returned to government under Harold Wilson from 1964-70, again Hall can find nothing good to say about them, arguing that they also lacked an economic strategy. But, among other developments, they significantly increased funding for research and development in industry, particularly stimulating the growth of the new computer and electronics sectors and improved facilities for much-needed management training. They were hampered by the reluctance of private business to innovate and, again, their long-term strategy was wrecked when they lost the 1970 election and Heath’s Conservative government which followed abandoned the strategy and had nothing to put in its place other than encouragement of free enterprise. Wilson’s governments extended the post-1945 system of welfare, notably by introducing comprehensive education, which significantly improved opportunities for working-class children. Arguably, the great problem of the post-war British economy and society was the lack of consensus over social and economic strategies between the parties rather than its existence.
Also Hall’s persistent complaint that Labour was so obsessed with the routines of electoral politics that it was insensitive to cultural change, unresponsive to the emergence of new social movements such as feminism, missing the opportunity to integrate them into a socialist movement – indeed accusing Labour of not regarding feminism or anti-racism as ‘politics’ – oddly overlooks the remarkable run of liberal legislation between 1967 and 1970 which responded to many of the aims of emerging social movements. Britain became the first country in Western Europe to legalise abortion, began to decriminalise homosexuality, abolished capital punishment, reduced the voting age to 18 in 1968 in response to the growing cultural presence and activism of young people, introduced the first legislation to outlaw race discrimination, started the still-incomplete process of moving towards equal pay. These were all initiated by civil society movements, following long campaigns, but could not have passed without government support. They were all beginnings, not social transformations, but important beginnings. They did not help Labour win the 1970 election, not least because some working-class voters were alienated by the abolition of capital punishment and the beginnings of toleration of homosexuality. When Labour returned to government from 1974-79 it strengthened the law against sex and race discrimination, among other changes. These and other measures are also overlooked. Successive Labour governments were certainly not above criticism, but they were not without achievements and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Hall underestimated the difficulties of building a successful left-of-centre coalition in Britain, of building ‘socialism from below’, as he put it. The discussion is always abstract and theoretical, dismissive of the pragmatic realities politicians faced.
Hall was more astute in analysing the nature of Margaret Thatcher’s governments, indeed he seems to have originated the term ‘Thatcherism’, denoting an influential coherent ideology. He described this well, though with little reference to the international rightward move from the early 1970s which helped to propel it. He believed that Thatcher succeeded in building mass support by responding to changing popular aspirations, e.g., for home ownership, also to popular racism and demands for ‘law and order’, creating a successful hegemonic project, as Labour had not. He believed, unfairly, that she had long-term strategic objectives, as successive Labour governments had not. Of course she had the advantage of staying in power for ten years, as no Labour government had done, much assisted by the split in the Labour vote after the Social Democrat breakaway in 1981. Hall discusses the Social Democrats, believing them more in touch with cultural change than Labour, but not the electoral implications of the split. Nor does he analyse the influence and origins of the increasingly strident right-wing press of the period. He was, of course, very critical of Thatcher’s Falklands war, though never explicit about how he believed a UK government should have responded to the Argentinian invasion. Did he believe that a seriously oppressive right-wing Argentinian government should have been allowed to take over the Falklands against the Falklanders’ will?
He continued to criticise Labour in the 1980s, not always fairly, for being too ‘traditionalist’, still failing to connect with feminist, anti-racist and other movements, with the weakening of old class identities and collective solidarities, increasing individualism, popular resistance to State bureaucracy, too unaware of the increased power of the media, while Thatcherite neo-Liberalism decisively changed UK politics and culture, as it did. There is an absence, however, of any analysis of her downfall and the massive miscalculation over the ‘poll tax’ which brought her down. After so much success, why did she fail? Hall was initially optimistic that John Major would modify full-blown Thatcherism, but that did not last.
Then came Blair, whose rhetoric of reaching out to all social groups and classes, his media-awareness and determination to ‘modernise’ Labour, making it ‘New’, seemed to fulfil many of Hall’s dreams. But Hall rightly criticises his lack of a clear strategy, subservience to business and resistance to economic management, authoritarian, undemocratic style and continuation of much Thatcherite privatisation in the public sector. Also, of course, his policy in Iraq and subservience to America. Again, though, he underestimates the real improvements Blair’s governments brought to the health and education services, reversing their deterioration under Thatcher, improvements to pensions, to provision for children in their early years through Sure Start, substantially cutting child poverty, increasing overseas aid, greatly improving job security including for part-time workers, increasing employment. Hall acknowledges the Human Rights legislation, the introduction of the minimum wage (if at too low a level), the Northern Ireland peace deal, though rather reluctantly. But Blair himself was reticent about many real achievements, especially concerning welfare, for fear of frightening ‘Middle England’. Instead he alienated working-class voters – who still existed despite social and economic change. They stopped voting. From 2001, turn-outs at elections dropped dramatically, especially in poorer districts, once Labour’s ‘heartland’, while many intellectuals were alienated by Iraq. Blair denied being a ‘son of Thatcher’ but could not break with the neoliberal dominance of the ‘free market’.
New Labour, now led by Gordon Brown, could not survive the great financial crisis from 2008, though Brown himself did much to alleviate its international effects. Hall’s last essay in the volume, written in 2011, ‘The Neo-Liberal Revolution’, reflecting on the one successful revolution of his lifetime, achieved by the right not the left, rightly concluded that under the Coalition government from 2010 ‘since the early days of Thatcherism we have not seen such a ferocious onslaught on the fabric of civil society, relationships and social life’. In 2017 we wait to see whether Jeremy Corbyn’s very different style and strategy from his recent predecessors can build the mass movement of the left Hall longed for. This is a thoughtful collection of essays by a man whose ideals one can only admire, but marred by a lack of realism which may help to explain why the ideals have not been realised.
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