The Political Notes column from the January 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
Shirley Williams agony
One thing which has always been clear about Shirley Williams is that she has never had any ambitions to be famous as the Best Dressed Woman of the Year, nor as the Hairdressers’ Best Friend. Passionate devotion to principle, she suggests, is more important than fussy appearance. Workers who are irritated by Thatcher’s steely perfection of grooming might have been deceived.
But Shirley’s passion seems recently to have run amok. Since May 1979, when she lost her Parliamentary seat at Hertford and Stevenage (when the voters showed what they thought of her principles by converting a Labour majority of over 9,000 into a Tory one of nearly 1,300) she has been absorbed in a game of political poker in which she deceives herself that holding a pair of twos justifies her continually raising the stakes.
This has now persuaded her into a commitment that she will not stand again as a Labour candidate if the party persists in disagreeing with her over the EEC, defence, the leadership and other issues. If she carries this through, Williams has probably seen the last of Parliament and her fans are desolate; “Please Shirley”, wailed one in the Guardian, “What do you want your supporters to do?”
Well perhaps Shirley doesn’t care, which brings us to the question—should anyone care? Her career as a member of former Labour governments read almost like a crusade to disprove the feminist fallacy that women would run capitalism a whit more kindly, tolerantly or compassionately than men. But Shirley is tough; she emerged from this experience as a politician intact enough for her defeat to be a shattering blow to those who had spoken of her as a future Prime Minister.
No worker, with an inkling of how their class interests are best protected will mourn the end of those governments, nor the political demise of any member of them. Capitalism was not changed —it was not ameliorated, humanised, tempered — by Shirley Williams’ rise and it will not be changed by her fall. For beneath those shapeless dresses and scarecrow hair is a being thoroughly devoted to the dirty work of perpetuating the social system which represses, degrades and slaughters millions of people.
Poor Denis Thatcher, bearing the brunt of the Prime Minister’s frustrations that British capitalism will not work as she thinks it should and her wrath at her supporters’ dismay over the deepening slump. His only outlet is a fortnightly letter to his friend Bill and even that gets leaked to Private Eye.
With each upward twist of the unemployment figures, Tory hearts beat yet fainter. Official statistics on price levels, public spending, the notes issue, indicate that Thatcher’s government is not fulfilling its promise to control these things — although all their plans about greater prosperity for British workers were based on an assumed ability to.
Daily, Keith Joseph looks more distraught, like a man troubled with fundamental doubts. Geoffrey Howe has committed the cardinal sin of putting up an incompetent performance in the House of Commons, where they will accept almost any deceit provided it is articulated with elegance and confidence and bolstered with some mannered humour. Ted Heath glowers smugly and, forgetting the chaos and misery of his own time of the Three Day Week crisis, waits for the call to overthrow the Iron Lady.
Even worse, the traditional political heartland of the Tory Party — the small business people (or rather those of them who are still able to evade the Bankruptcy Court) is in revolt. “What disappoints our group most”, whines an open letter from the Merseyside Builders Action Group in the Guardian (3.12.80) “is that we are all small/medium sized businesses who supported your party at the last election . . .” This is a familiar experience to anyone whose memory extends beyond last week’s newspapers. During times of Labour governments similar agonies are expressed by trade unionists. Every new government arrives in office in a flush of enthusiasm, declares that there is much to do to sort out the mess left by its predecessors and gets down to work.
For a time its supporters bask in rosy optimism. Then doubts creep in, as reality exposes the empty pledges, hardened into disillusionment and panic. At times the very party seems to be on the point of disintegration. There is no reason why a Conservative government should not suffer this. Any party trying to run capitalism will quickly find that it is attempting the impossible and that its crisis-ridden fumbling promotes dismay and cynicism.
The Tories, as Denis might put it, are deep in the rough without the clubs to get out of it.
Those who are worried about Doing Things In the Proper Way will not have welcomed the election of Michael Foot to the Labour leadership. There must be anxiety in such circles that, if Foot ever gets to be Prime Minister, he will go to Buckingham Palace and try to kiss the Queen’s hands dressed in one of his donkey jackets.
Even more threatening is the fact that he would be the first avowedly atheist in Number Ten. How, to begin with, would he fill in those bits of the speeches all Prime Ministers make when they are appealing for greater sacrifices from the workers in the interests of British capitalism — those bits which up to now have been reserved for a prayer that god should be on “Our” side? And what would happen to the nation’s moral fibre, if atheist Foot refused to appoint bishops when the posts became vacant? Would there be nobody to preach to the workers on their duties to uphold the exploitation and the parasitic privileges of the capitalist system?
Well the British Humanist Association which might have been expected to rejoice over Foot’s election, got it right: “. . . In the sense of day-to-day issues such as inflation and unemployment, it is perhaps not very relevant. We are still going to have inflation and unemployment . . .” Because it doesn’t matter whether the leaders of capitalism are religious or not, or which religion they preach, or whether they drink or gamble or smoke or lead promiscuous sex lives. What is important is that they hold their positions at the behest of the working class who support capitalism.
If he ever becomes Prime Minister Foot will oversee this social system in basically the same way as his predecessors. And if that is anything to go by, perhaps the workers had better start praying without further delay. It may soon be all that’s left for them.