The Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s bumper budget raised some interesting questions about political Parties and ideology. Political Parties stand for particular clusters of ideas which they wish to turn into policies: sound fiscal policy based on the thrifty family finances of a Grantham grocer, or, at the other end of the spectrum, Keynesian pump priming with billions allocated to infrastructure. For a decade in Britain, austerity, like the old tincture of J. Collis Browne (it disappeared because of the morphine content which took Kitchener’s fighting scouts through the trenches), was prescribed as a cure for the general debility of the British economy. The cure now looks highly suspect.
As for the dreaded accusation of a doing a U-turn even when the vehicle was heading towards a precipice - anathema sit. Last week’s accolades from the Conservative benches for the young incumbent of No. 11 Downing Street were genuine and heart-felt. The new boy had put up a jolly good show. Disaffection expressed in some sectors of the Party was muted. As Mrs. Thatcher didn’t say: “You may turn, but the young millionaire will turn a lot more”. Or as Mao didn’t say: “Let a thousand magic money-trees bloom”.
The question is did the Conservative cabinet of yesteryear really believe in fiscal rectitude and a consistent endeavour to balance the books? Or didn’t they? Some did. And what exactly was the magic ingredient in austerity? Not morphine. Austerity hurt and people got very angry not anaesthetised. The approval and support of those wealthy enough not to suffer from a drastic decline in public services was what counted.
The ease with which this U-turn was made might be because the British, apart from those represented by small factions in the two main political Parties, don’t do ideology. Boris Johnson notoriously had two statements ready, one pro-BREXIT, the other anti-BREXIT, before deciding to desert Prime Minister Cameron. This did not appear to discredit him in his Party.
It is often said of the primates (furry ones not those with croziers) that they survived thanks to their adaptability: come down from the trees, it’s a doddle, get your thumbs to work more, no problem, fancy cooked dinners, well how about rubbing sticks together and inventing fire? You can just hear the rival Neanderthals grunting “But that was our policy”. You adapt to survive and the Tories are good at that.
Mr. Johnson’s Cabinet are not the only clever, adaptable, politicians to have strutted the global stage. I would give top marks to the South African Communist Party (SACP). In the early 1980s, I acted as a liaison between the Swedish government and the internal movement of the African National Congress (ANC). Sweden was supporting the ANC inside South Africa financially to end their exclusive reliance on the Soviet and GDR (East German) Communist money and muscle and to demonstrate Nordic goodwill.
Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela’s successor as President, straddled leadership roles in the SACP and leadership in the ANC, and was a most thoughtful and helpful adviser on matters strategic and political. He ended up adopting an economic policy that would not have embarrassed the Chicago neo-liberals. Indeed they helped shape it. When it came to U-turns, President Mbeki was an advanced driver.
There was, of course, a strongly doctrinaire core to the SACP. And Marxist ideology had great influence over its members. I remember Oscar Mpheta, a veteran Cape Town trades unionist leader - he joined the SACP in 1954 - slipping surreptitiously into the back seat of my car and talking into my left ear. A reader of the ANC Marxist magazine Sechaba, he once asked me in genuine wonderment: “Why don’t the workers and peasants of the United States rise up against their oppressors?” I have pondered that question long since.
In November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and with it the ANC’s main backers. As the Soviet Union crumbled around Gorbachev, its Communist Party abandoned the ANC overnight. Gorbachev’s Africa advisers were ruthless. The ANC would not get a penny more. It had to rethink its strategy.
Almost overnight Joe Slovo, the SACP theoretician and head of its military wing, MK, produced a complex argument for a new charter for the future entitled “Has Socialism Failed?” Critical of Stalinism within the SACP, the pamphlet circulated widely in early 1990. It proposed: a multi-party democratic socialism, freedom of speech and association, of thought and movement – end of pass laws – and of residence, of conscience and religion. There would be a free press and trades union rights would include the right to strike. All South Africans would have a vote in free and democratic elections. It was not so much a U-turn as a radical transformation of a political Party – and, incidentally, in the direction of Scandinavian social democracy. Slovo’s comprehensive pamphlet went far further than Gorbachev was intending to move at the time. So much for the common portrayal of communist ideology as always rigid and intractable.
No-one in the Conservative Party has emerged with the political creativity and adaptability of Joe Slovo. A Jewish, Lithuanian immigrant who arrived in South Africa as a boy speaking only Yiddish, he was a remarkable man and a brilliant theoretician. But, when all is said and done, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites had left the SACP penniless. And money talks. The ANC’s future support would have to come from different quarters. It was the U-turn of the century achieved with great panache.
The leadership of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party does not ‘do ideology’, but it does do pragmatism, power and money. Its recent U-turn was essential,during a time of national crisis and uncertainty, to win and retain votes won in the December 2019 election. Johnson is smart, but comparisons being odious, he is put in the shade by Joe Slovo. Ideology can provide elegant curtains but, when the house is falling down, watch the money and the dynamics of power.