Modern laments about the decline of deference notwithstanding, the English have always regarded their leaders as idiots or crooks, and nowhere more so than in their literature. Today's politicians do not feel the need to pretend that they read books. But in the 20th century, they had to put on a show of sophistication. When interviewers asked them to name their favourite novelist, they invariably picked Trollope — the only great writer to respect their trade.
Margaret Thatcher: The leftist intelligentsia could not abide — or understand — her ; Salman Rushdie: "The filth of imperialism"
Despite the long tradition of insubordination, however, this scene from Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up! could only have been written at a particular time about a group of politicians the literary intelligentsia hated more than any other before or since. Thomas Winshaw, a creepy banker whose aim in life is to keep wealth and power in the hands of men like himself, is wondering how his equally repellent brother, Henry, a venal, backstabbing political fixer, got away with cutting the health-care budget.
"Well it's quite simple, really." Henry leaned forward and threw another log on the fire. It was a cold, dark afternoon, and they were enjoying tea and muffins in one of the Heartland Club's private rooms. "The trick is to keep doing outrageous things. There's no point in passing some scandalous piece of legislation and then giving everyone time to get worked up about it. You have to get right in there and top it with something even worse, before the public has had the chance to work out what's hit them. The thing about the British conscience, you see, is that it really has no more capacity than...a primitive home computer, if you like. It can only hold two or three things in its memory at the same time."
Thomas nodded and bit eagerly into his muffin.
"Unemployment, for instance," Henry continued. "When was the last time you saw a newspaper headline about unemployment? Nobody gives a hoot anymore."
No one of my age and political leanings needs to be told that we are in the Eighties. Like the first bars of a Clash song on the radio, a stroke of Coe's pen takes you back to the grim, furious and still misunderstood left-wing reaction to Margaret Thatcher. What a Carve Up! is a satire, one of the greatest of our times, but do not be led into believing that we took it as a joke. For us, the grotesque Winshaw family who carve up Britain were not fantasies but an accurate approximation of how we saw the Tories of the day. Alongside Thomas and Henry, Coe had Mark Winshaw, an arms dealer who sells weapons to Saddam Hussein — I should explain to younger readers that the Left was against Ba'athist fascism in the 1980s — Roddy Winshaw, a philistine art dealer, and their sister Hilary, a right-wing journalist who takes over and degrades a liberal television station, in much the same way that David Cameron and his colleagues at Carlton took over and degraded the Thames TV franchise. When they thought no one was listening, this was exactly how we imagined Conservatives talked as they scoffed their muffins in their Pall Mall clubs.
Coe's notion that self-serving conspirators are destroying the best of England runs through the anti-Thatcher literature of the period. The title of John Mortimer's Paradise Postponed summed it up. After 1945, the welfare state held out the prospect of making Britain a more decent country. (Simeon Simcox, the socialist vicar in Paradise Postponed, greets Clement Attlee's victory with a sermon drawn on the line from the book of Revelations: "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and earth had passed away.") Then everything unravels. Sometimes, the anti-Thatcher novelists blame the educated middle class. Leslie Titmuss, the Thatcherite MP who represents all the forces that are ruining Mortimer's Chilterns valley, turns out to be the bastard child of post-war social democrats — literally so. More often, they write as if a barbarian army is occupying the country. In Martin Amis's Money, John Self, the junk-eating, porn-consuming, alcohol-guzzling yob and his friends from that most Thatcherite of businesses, an advertising agency, pour themselves into a classy restaurant. As they throw food at each other and break into choruses of "We are the champions," Self notices that the "middle-aged pair at the next table retract slightly and lower their heads over their food...No, the rest of the meal isn't going to be much fun for these two, I'm afraid. I suppose it must have been cool for people like that in places like this before people like us started coming here also. But we're here to stay. You try getting us out."
Coe remains the most emblematic writer, however, because for him and most leftists of the Eighties the paradise that was lost was not the genteel world of social democracy's great and good, which we were never going to join, but a provincial England of full employment where working- and middle-class families could have secure jobs protected by strong unions. The hero's girlfriend in What a Carve Up! dies because of the NHS cuts the Winshaws help the Tories implement. His adoptive father's pension vanishes in a Maxwell-style scam facilitated by Robert's banks. These did not seem like outrageous plot devices to his readers.
Nor did the feeling he articulated that a Maoist mania had gripped the Conservative Party, inflicting permanent counter-revolution on Britain. Thatcherism was one outrageous thing after another to its opponents: a series of apparently never-ending defeats with each disaster being topped by the next. The conventional wisdom held that no government could survive if unemployment went above one million. Margaret Thatcher proved that the voters did not "give a hoot" and she could be re-elected with three million, four million or more out of work — a truth I wish politicians had never learned. My earliest political memory is of my father turning up the radio to listen to the 1975 Conservative leadership contest between Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath. I wanted Heath to hold on, but my father explained that I should be supporting Mrs Thatcher because "the Tories would never win an election with her in charge". We never saw it coming, and were outraged and disorientated when it did.
Virtually every serious writer felt the same. We forget that before the Ayatollah Khomeini ordered his murderers to target him, Salman Rushdie had a far stronger hatred of Thatcherism than of Shia Islamism. Margaret Thatcher appears in the The Satanic Verses none too subtly disguised as Mrs Torture. In 1982, Rushdie called on blacks and Asians — we never dreamed of identifying minorities by the communalist labels of Muslim, Hindu or Sikh in those innocent times — to revolt against the Thatcherite order. "Britain had never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism," he roared at Channel 4 viewers. Until "you the whites" face up to the business of "eradicating the prejudices within almost all of you, the citizens of your new and last empire will be...required to launch a new freedom movement."
Anti-Thatcherism will soon be back in fashion. Somewhat predictably, liberal broadcasters are responding to the likely arrival of a Cameron government with a retro-chic revival of the books they read when they were young. The BBC is adapting Money — God only knows how when most of the novel is a stream of consciousness inside John Self's befuddled head. Meanwhile, Channel 4 has an adaptation of the more
obviously cinematic What a Carve Up! in development, which will go into production later this year, all being well.
If conservative-minded readers have not been snorting already, they will be now. How typical of the cultural elite. They did not greet Labour's election victory by running anti-Left dramas. Indeed, they have presided over such a thinning of intellectual life that today there are no Conservative writers to write anti-Left dramas. The only criticisms of Labour they allowed were from the Left, most incessantly about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Before Thatcherism, England's greatest writers — Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Powell — were conservatives. Partly because of the repulsion the mass unemployment of the 1980s generated but also because of ideological policing by cultural institutions, you cannot now see political drama from an unorthodox perspective.
The old saying that "the Right won the economic war and the Left won the cultural war" is usually wheeled out on these occasions but it falls from the lips too glibly. The real victors of the past 30 years were neither the Left nor the Right but blaring populists, ignorant and proud of it, who made fortunes by opposing aesthetic or political seriousness in any form. Greg Dyke, Simon Cowell or Peter Bazalgette embody cultural power today, not Sir David Hare. Even if we confine ourselves to serious art, the idea of cultural victory remains ambiguous. While I don't doubt that the artists' presentation of Thatcherism as a vicious, selfish aberration did long-term damage to the Right — damage that Cameron is still struggling to repair — victory in a culture war was likely to be pyrrhic at best when it was accompanied by defeat in the economic war and, for a long time, the political war as well.
Simon Cowell and Greg Dyke: The embodiment of cultural power today
I certainly did not feel that I was a foot soldier in a victorious army, and I'm not sure anyone else did either. Return to Coe's Thatcherite plotters cackling in their gentlemen's club about the primitive nature of a British conscience "that can only hold two or three things in its memory at the same time" and note the author's despairing assumptions. The failure of the electorate to show they gave a hoot by throwing out the Tories bred the despairing suspicion that the voters were fools being manipulated by propagandists.
Ian McEwan's 1983 film The Ploughman's Lunch makes the despair explicit. He deflates images of Margaret Thatcher urging the British to return to traditional values and bring a "renewed sense of pride and self-respect to our country" after the victory in the Falklands War by introducing us to Matthew, yet another amoral adman. He takes the lead character, an equally cynical BBC journalist, to a pub and explains both the phoniness of Thatcherite Britain, and the title of the film, when he boasts:
"We might have led the world once in the Industrial Revolution, now we lead with television commercials. We're the best, it's as simple as that. Even the Americans will admit it now...the camera work, the acting, the scripts, special effects. We've got the lot. Nearly all the good directors here have ambitions to make serious films...That food you're eating.
"What would you call it?"
"I dunno. Ploughman's Lunch."
"Ploughman's Lunch. Traditional English fare."
"In fact it's the invention of an advertising campaign they ran in the early Sixties to encourage people to eat in pubs. A completely successful fabrication of the past."
The alternative to McEwan's vision of the British as the dupes of smooth manipulators was that they were the selfish, racist filth of Rushdie's imagination, a thought that occurred to many as the Left lost election after election.
You cannot understand anti-Thatcherism, and the 13 years of New Labour rule that followed it, unless you grasp the pessimism it generated. It was a severe movement, motivated by a bleak imperative: just get rid of them by any means necessary. Labour spin, the gesture politics, the selling of one line to the Mail and another to the Observer and the smirking deceit that characterised Tony Blair's premiership were born of the conviction that the British were an essentially conservative people who had to be sold a Labour government with the same shady means they were sold a Ploughman's Lunch.
However brilliant the oppositional writers were — and a line-up that included Coe, Martin Amis, Rushdie, McEwan and Mortimer was about as good as it could have got — they shared a further characteristic, which also had implications for the future. They displayed little interest in why millions of sensible people voted Conservative. Representations of the crisis of the 1970s, the pervasive feeling of national decline, the Marxist-Leninist takeover of much of the Labour Party and the fear that the unions were making the country ungovernable are almost entirely absent from literature. Working in Birmingham at the height of the monetarist recession of the early 1980s, I was fascinated by the manufacturers who dominated the local Conservative associations but stood back while their own government in Westminster crucified their businesses with dear money and an overvalued pound. When I asked them why they bit their tongues, they replied that they would rather run the risk of their companies closing than see a return of union power.
Coe, as so often, is the exception. He tries to come to terms with Thatcherism with The Rotters' Club, about boys growing up in Birmingham in the Seventies, and its sequel, The Closed Circle. But he veers away from a confrontation and his story ends up turning on the aftermath of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings and the growth of neo-fascist politics. Trade union power features but not the antagonism it provoked. The only true Thatcherite is the hero's precious and insufferable little brother, who by the time of The Closed Circle is an absurd New Labour MP who gets caught up in a sex scandal. Coe was under no obligation to write about the conservative backlash, of course. Indeed, to treat him or any of the other authors who were stamped by the experience of Thatcherism as "political writers" is to diminish them. No novelist with any talent just deals with political themes, and readers who scour their books for ideological clues have the souls of secret policemen. Nevertheless, it is telling that The Rotters' Club was published in 2001, about half way through the phenomenal global boom, which ran from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of Lehman Brothers. By 2001, engagement with Thatcherism felt pointless because the Right seemed to have won the economic war and nowhere more so than in the Labour Party.
I am not going to repeat the infantile leftish line that there was no difference between New Labour and the old Conservatives. No right-winger I know believes they have lived through 13 years of quasi-Conservative government. But the imperative to get the Tories out and keep them out came to mean accepting a raging free-market in high finance. Not reluctantly, as a regrettable political necessity, but in the cases of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, at least, joyously and with the fervour of an Ayn Rand cultist. Labour's vast public works programmes and attempts to redistribute wealth were built on the belief that untamed, unregulated speculation would provide the wealth to fund social democracy. When the speculation collapsed, so did the longest period of centre-Left rule in British history. Labour's gamble on the financial markets will surely strike historians as the strangest aberration of our times. Centre-Left governments make predictable economic mistakes. They tend to overspend, overtax and overregulate, as this one has, most egregiously by overtaxing the working poor. But the electorate should be able to rely on the Left to regulate the banking system and retain an instinctive suspicion of speculators.
Labour was not operating in a vacuum. Ordinary people may not have liked what they saw on Wall Street and in the City but the boom seemed to validate it and there were no popular protests. Nor were artists telling the government that the lesson of financial history was that speculative excess always leads to bust and that the fortunes earned by the winners would have to be paid for by ordinary taxpayers. The most glaring absence of the past decade has been any representation in either serious or popular drama of the maniacally unstable source of so much of Britain's prosperity. The City was one of the financial centres of the world — the leading financial centre according to its boosters. The lusts, animal spirits, jealousies, gambles and crimes of Darwinian capitalism ought to have been gifts for authors in search of subjects and commissioning editors in search of serials. Not one was tempted. Like a family with a dirty secret, the British chose not to discuss the source of their illusory good fortune. It is as if, when Manchester rose to become the world's first manufacturing city in the 19th century, Charles Dickens, Frederick Engels and Elizabeth Gaskell had shrugged and turned away from the racket of the new machines and declared that the factory system and the slums were not worth writing about.
The most honest play of this year is Sir David Hare's The Power of Yes. Instead of presenting himself as an omniscient author, he appears on stage as a confused journalist trying to find out how a financial system Britain took for granted had imploded. How did we tie our fortunes to the policies of Alan Greenspan and Gordon Brown and the schemes of Sir Fred Goodwin and Adam Applegarth? Hare's humility ought to draw a line under the political struggle that began in the 1980s. It turns out that none of the clichés were true. The Left did not win the culture war, for a left-wing culture that cannot see what is going on in front of its nose is decayed, not victorious. Meanwhile, the Right's boast that it won the economic war was as much a victim of the crash as the broken banks. Perhaps Britain would do better in future if its culture was more conservative and its economic policies more radical. A reversal in priorities could hardly create a worse mess than the one we have now.
As we acquire South American levels of debt to pay for the folly of the old order, the novels inspired by Thatcherism are worth digging out. Even if you disagree with them and find their pessimism and occasional superciliousness unnerving, they at least come from a time which thought it worth arguing against the status quo.
In What a Carve Up!, Coe has Thomas Winshaw, the banker of the family, gazing at a City dealing floor:
Watching his foreign exchange dealers as they stared feverishly at their flickering screens, Thomas came as close as he would ever come to feeling parental love. They were the sons he had never had. This was the happiest time of his life, the early to mid 1980s when Mrs Thatcher had transformed the image of currency speculator into national heroes by describing them as "wealth creators", alchemists who could conjure unimaginable fortunes out of thin air. The fact that these fortunes went straight into their own pockets or those of their employees was quietly overlooked.
When Coe published in 1993, the critics admired his novel but treated it as an enjoyably outrageous exercise in satirical excess. I doubt they would today.