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Tue, 04 Mar 2003

Not Invented in the USA

Here's a description of the characteristics of a certain political leader and their clique, as a series of bullet points:

  • The leader comes from the major right-wing political party, but represents a right-wing faction within it rather than the party mainstream.
  • The leader and their coterie form a tightly-knit community, bound together by a shared ideological outlook and suspicion of outsiders. They don't trust fellow members of their own party who don't fully subscribe to the clique's world-view.
  • They have a set of policies determined by their ideological outlook, and they appear to be pursuing these policies without any interest in the public response to them. They know they're right and they're not interested in protests: proceeding by consensus is seen as weak.
  • They have made specific electoral calculations about their key constituencies and they are actively carrying out policies that will cement their support in those groups (notably high earners) at the expense of citizens who they don't believe will ever vote for them.
  • The in-group have strong links to key industrial sectors and their policies promote the well-being of those sectors at the expense of others.
  • They're willing to employ legislation to make an end-run around regulations that hamper the industrial sectors they favour.
  • There is a revolving door between senior members of this group and the boardrooms of the largest companies in the industrial sectors they favour.
  • The major private media organisations (notably Rupert Murdoch's News International) loves them. And say to repeatedly, through all their radio, TV and newspaper channels.
  • They're willing to use strategic tax cuts, even if they're unsustainable, to buy popularity just before an election.
  • They're socially conservative with a protestant christian religious background, opposed to minority rights, non-traditional gender relationships, gay rights, sex education, quotas, affirmative action, and so on.
  • They take a dualistic black/white view of foreign affairs -- either you're on their side, or you're sleeping with the enemy.
  • As a corollary, they behave publicly as if they believe their domestic political opposition are disloyal -- traitors or stooges of the enemy, or just plaint corrupt and evil -- rather than acting out of principle on the basis of beliefs they don't share with the administration. (They do not believe in the democratic myth of the "loyal opposition".)
  • The leader has a reputation for being personally charming and affable, but wields the big stick ruthlessly when dealing with any sign of dissent within their party but outside their inner circle. Within the inner circle, it's hard to tell -- they're pathologically secretive about their inner workings, eagerly passing legislation to tighten up control over leaks and official secrets.

Who am I talking about?

The answer is ... Margaret Thatcher.

If you thought this was a portrait of the George W. Bush administration, you wouldn't be far wrong. Bush and Thatcher have far more in common than is obvious at first glance; the entire checklist above, for starters.

What's less obvious is that the opposition to Bush shares a lot of characteristics with the opposition to Thatcher in her first two terms. Like Bush, Thatcher came to power in conditions of economic disruption and unease. She took actions which were deeply unpopular with a huge section of the British population, and when people protested she didn't listen. Worse: she harangued them right back, questioning their sincerity, accusing them of any number of private and public vices, and in some cases mocking them. "No turning back" was the watchword of the ideologically driven revolution she applied to British political life.

The opposition to her policies was fragmented. Circumstances beyond their control -- in particular, the unemployment crisis caused by Thatcher's destruction of the state-owned industries (in one year, British GDP slumped by close to ten percent) rendered their model of public administration obsolete. There was indeed no turning back, once the axe fell -- much as the application of unilateralist doctrine has damaged the USA's relations with other countries, destroying a bushel of carefully-nurtured treaties. Members of the political opposition were demoralised and divided after their own eight years of power and failed to provide an effective critique of her works, being too busy fending off the pressures of internal dissent.

Two to three years into her first term, Thatcher was desperately unpopular with the British electorate. But the divided opposition sacrificed their ability to form a united front against her, and then a sinister fascist dictatorship with local imperialist ambitions handed her the opportunity to run a Short, Victorious War, fly the flag, defend democracy, and roll the voters over in a khaki election victory (aided and abetted by her first cynically-timed round of tax cuts).

When I was in Boston last month, I met a whole bunch of folks who talked politics with me. I probably have a rather skewed, self- selected collection of friends and acquaintances; I make no claim to have met a valid cross-section of Middle America. But two things stood out like a sore thumb. Firstly, nobody who talked politics was willing to admit that they were a Bush supporter; and secondly, they all felt helpless about the situation. "What can we do? At least before the next election?" As Lord Hailsham, Thatcher's teacher, remarked during a period in opposition during the 1970's, "the British form of government is an elected dictatorship". Thatcher understood this, and ruthlessly exploited the freedom from accountability that her parliamentary majority gave her. In a similar manner, Bush simply cannot be held to account before 2004 by any force other than an impeachment -- and as the events of the 1990's demonstrated, it's incredibly hard to impeach a sitting President, even if Congress and Senate are broadly hostile to him and there is some evidence of malfeasance or moral turpitude.

This metaphor demonstrates two things. Firstly, it provides a model for the long-term political impact of the Bush administration on domestic US politics. Secondly, it provides an object lesson for political opponents of Bush -- a demonstration of the mistakes that a divided opposition made, which allowed a Bush-like administration to rule without accountability for over a decade. In the words of the old saying, "those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it" -- and I fear that the American centre-left are going to get a bellyfull of Bush if they fail to learn the lessons of Thatcher's legacy.

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posted at: 12:33 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


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Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
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Meerkat open wire service ]
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Brad DeLong ]
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Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

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(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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