The big political picture

Book Review

Margaret Thatcher

Britain since 1918
By David Marquand
Weidenfeld and Nicholson

Reviewed by Ian Marsh

David Marquand has a notable string of literary and political achievements to his credit. But none matches this, his most recent study. It is a masterwork of the craft: beautifully conceived, stylishly executed, and generous in its judgements. The author's voice is just and measured, and the whole is framed by his strong republican convictions.

Since suffrage became universal in 1918, this is, as the title implies, a history of British democracy. These past 90 years occupy the bulk of this work, but the differing meanings of democracy that have informed statecraft had an earlier genesis. These different traditions constitute British political culture.

Marquand identifies four important traditions: Whig imperialist, Tory nationalist, democratic collectivist and democratic republican. Each of these four traditions informs a different conception of democracy. These are ideal types, with no one position held exclusively by any of the leaders he discusses. Tony Blair, for example, exhibits elements of all four, while Margaret Thatcher combined Tory nationalist sentiments with democratic republican instincts. Since Australia's settler society emerged from the same seed-bed, these forms, if in milder or less intense versions, are relevant to our own experience.

The question that is pertinent for outsiders is which one of these traditions or temperaments has emerged as the defining feature of British democracy in the last century?

Tory nationalism is the oldest and bleakest of these traditions, while Whig imperialism is perhaps the strongest and most optimistic. Democratic collectivism is defined by its gradualist and ameliorative approach and drew upon the long tradition of technocratic, state-centred, utilitarian radicalism that went back to the legal reformer Jeremy Bentham and his great disciple, Edwin Chadwick. Democratic republicanism stretches back to the Levellers in the 17th century and the Paineites in the 18th, yet reached more widely than either of these movements.

Although four currents are evident over the century, the collectivist sentiment (whether Tory or social democrat) was institutionalised in the structure of the democratic party system that emerged in the 1930s. There have been 15 prime ministers and the first 13, from Baldwin to Callaghan, sought a political economy that could accommodate both capitalism and democracy. Trade unions were then the principal democratic protagonists. Baldwin, as Tory leader and as the key figure in the National government of the '30s, championed an inclusionary approach. Trade union distrust of the state, a liberal hostility to planning and the political influence of the City of London undermined the successive efforts of the Churchill, Atlee, Macmillan, Wilson, Heath and Callaghan governments to create a new order of economic governance.

During this period, the caste system of class was attenuated. Older notions of hierarchy and authority were weakened, partly by the spread of education and partly by the failure of the ruling class to match its standards. The Profumo scandal of 1963 was an epiphany of its kind. Hitherto, the old order had prevailed. For instance, 17 of Macmillan's cabinet of 18 had public school backgrounds and 15 were Oxbridge graduates; all Eden's cabinet of 18 had public school backgrounds and 14 degrees from Oxbridge.

While Britain began the period as a victor of World War I, the economic foundations of its empire were precarious, a situation that the return to the gold standard (1925), the Great Depression and World War II worsened. Informed by Whig notions of pluralism and inclusion, the relatively peaceful dismantling of the empire was one of its great achievements. Baldwin and Macmillan, both Tories, were key actors, the former in relation to India and the latter to Africa. Both won over their fractious party.

On the other hand, Marquand interprets Britain's uncertain embrace of Europe and her courtier relationship with the United States as, on one side, Whig vainglory and, on the other, Tory nationalist insularity. Tony Blair exemplified the former and Thatcher the latter.

The last section of his book, on the years since 1979, introduces a new theme: the centralisation and personalisation of power that Thatcher inaugurated. Thatcher is dubbed Warrior Queen and Blair, Young Lochinvar. Thatcher is portrayed admiringly as a "force of nature". Marquand also cites Delors' lush description: "the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe". Although a proclaimed liberaliser, she inaugurated an unparalleled concentration of power in Whitehall. Local councils were battered and bruised as one after another of their powers were passed over to quangos (like urban development corporations, city technology colleges) or eroded by central controls, culminating in the ill-fated poll tax.

Despite these paradoxes, the revival of classical liberalism and free market capitalism seemed uncertainly dominant when Marquand''s study concluded in 2008. The economic crisis has since erupted. The fallibility of markets, which this crisis reflects, no doubt also marks the beginning of the end of the Thatcher-Blair (neoliberal) era. Democratic republicanism may be in the wings. Early on, Blair gestured to this pulse with devolution for Scotland and Wales, the Jenkins Commission on voting reform and House of Lords reform. Later, Blair was as enthusiastically centralist as Thatcher.

Marquand also describes the renewal of democratic republicanism from below. This occurred in the romantic revival of the 1960s. Marquand illustrates this through the novelists, playwrights and polemicists who led the charge, for example, Michael Frayn, John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Germaine Greer. Later the work of V. S. Naipaul, Michael Ondaatje, Salmon Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Hanif Kureishi added rich multi-cultural tones.

Why should an Australian bother with this study? With a republic in the wings, the ties to Britain are surely of diminishing consequence. This would be a superficial view. One reason is the proximity of our political cultures. Another lies in causal dynamics. Beneath day to day jousts, political culture, here as there, constitutes the causal substructure. The Enlightenment, classical and social liberalism, Chartism, Fabian socialism and syndicalism make up our own political inheritance.

Democracy emerged in Australia in 1856, a full 60 years before Britain. Further, Australian democracy was never centralised. The Australian state came later. Formed in 1901, it was not consolidated until 1945. Moreover, despite Enoch Powell’s distinguished tenure at the University of Sydney, his romantic Toryism has no resonance here. But Whig imperialists surely come in a local version: first, as Australian Britons and now, as faux Americans.

Intellectual influences also figure. Judith Brett's notable study of the Liberal Party specifically refers to Menzies' well-marked copy of Edmund Burke. Australia's most distinguished liberal, Alfred Deakin, drank from the same intellectual well. Similarly, up to the Chifley and even Whitlam governments, democratic collectivists dominated Labor. But the free-trade tradition was also strong, as evidenced in the ready neoliberal turn of the Hawke-Keating governments.

A personalisation of power also now characterises Australian political elites, with current leaders perhaps better compared to 19th century faction chieftains. The mass parties of the early to middle years of the 20th century are no more.

So what of democratic republicanism? There is an established tradition of decentralisation and local power in this country wholly at odds with (to an Australian) the extraordinary centralisation of the British state. Further, there was and is no comparable institutionalised class cleavage in Australia. S. M. Bruce was perhaps the closest to a high Tory that our system has produced and his tenure of office was notably abbreviated.

Australia was not of course an imperial power and our government's decisions were not of world historical significance. But the Australian story is no less remarkable. A Commonwealth memorialises Milton and the hopes of England''s first democratic revolutionaries. Deakins "new protection" created a settlement between capital and labour that older legacies forbade in Britain. The onward march of Greens and independents perhaps embodies, if indirectly, democratic republican instincts.

Indeed, democratic republican currents were renewed in civil society in the 1960s, here no less than elsewhere. Several social movements remade political identity in the post-'60s world. Although these movements championed different causes, they all exhibited a similar trajectory, starting with a seminal book. Four Australians–Germaine Greer, Dennis Altman, Peter Singer and Helen Caldicott–wrote the books that ignited the international women's, gay, animal liberation and anti-nuclear movements. Their originality challenges the imitative conventionality of much high politics. Republican currents may yet shift Australian democracy to a new pattern in ways that we cannot predict. The Australian political system is ready-made for a more liberal reconstruction, with the Senate as a potential committee house and the Representatives as a house of government.

Finally, Marquand's wonderful book is a reminder of a gap in our own scholarship: there is no comparable history of Australian democracy. Yet its forms and patterns, from 1856 until the present, record a story of liberal political emancipation that is no less rich, distinctive or open-ended.

Ian Marsh is a professor in the Australian Innovation Research Centre at the University of Tasmania. His book, Democratic Decline, Democratic Renewal: Britain, Australia, New Zealand, will be published next year by Cambridge University Press.