Editorial from the February 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard
No doubt between the time of writing this piece and its publication, the definition of "back to basics" will have undergone a few more changes at the hands of our dissembling Prime Minister. We should not be surprised at this since, for most politicians, "basics" seems to refer to a collection of essentially meaningless platitudes upon which they rely when nothing is going right and they have run out of excuses for everything that is going wrong.
This technique, when skilfully applied, can create a positive image remarkably independent of concrete evidence. For example, the Tories can still use tough law-and-order slogans despite the fact that their recent performance in this area has been pitiably inadequate. And Labour is seen as, among other things, the party of racial harmony on little evidence other than rhetoric.
We must admit it is galling for Socialists to witness the success of such transparent frauds, so it comes as something of a relief to see the likes of John Major making such a spectacular hash of choosing his buzz-words. First there was the "classless society". This should have worked, since the important class division in capitalist society — that between the capitalist class and the working class — is carefully concealed.
But to try to sell even the pretence of a classless society in one of the few countries where aristocratic political privilege survives as an institution was, shall we say, ill-advised. However, it seems this faux-pas will be dwarfed by the "back to basics" debacle. Once again it is an injudicious choice of issue which is at the root of the problem.
The "law-and-order" issue is perfectly safe so long as leading Tories are not overcome by a compulsion to rob banks or beat up OAPs. It can safely be assumed that this is unlikely to happen. No such assumption can be made, however, about the kind of behaviour for which Mr Yeo was forced to resign. Of course we have no particular opinion on the rights or wrongs of his conduct or of that of all the others but neither did we urge workers to vote for them.
Unfortunately for the ex-minister, the people who did urge workers to vote for him were people who genuinely believe that the country’s problems are due in large part to a decline in family values. This is a nonsensical belief which is easily disproved, but it is one widely held among grass-roots Tories and actively encouraged by their party’s propaganda.
A great many Tory Party members, especially constituency workers, would be likely to reconsider their position if they thought that their official party stance on moral issues was a pragmatic rather than a principled one. These are precisely the people to whom John Major is appealing in his "back to basics" campaign and it will be interesting to see whether they are considered more or less valuable to his party than his cavalier colleagues.
There is an important point here because many of the apologists for Yeo and his ilk come down firmly on the side of the latter. Indeed, they appear to be making the topsy-turvy complaint that the grass-roots are out of touch with the grandees.
Now, while it’s all very well to argue that constituency workers have no right to dictate an MP’s morals, this is to overlook the fact they have an absolute right to withdraw their support and no obligation even to give reasons for doing so. In other words, when we get "back to basics" it is Yeo who is reliant on their support and not they on his patronage.
These are the kind of "basics" which appeal to socialists, not for any moral reasons, but simply because they mean that, given the political will, the working class can at any time dump its would-be leaders. That’s the basis of democracy. In fact democracy means not following leaders at all but deciding for yourself. And that’s not going to be possible till we’ve got rid of the present system and the hypocritical politicians it spawns.