Back in the summer of 1945, if any party was ever given a mandate, it was surely Labor, propelled into office by the millions who had spent the war years awakened by unusual circumstance -- a familiar effect of war -- to fresh awareness of the barely inconceivable incompetence and arrogance of the British upper classes and memories of the pre-war Depression when the Conservatives ruled the roost. With one voice they said, there must be a better way.
The Tories thought they were going to win. After all, Churchill was presiding over defeat of the Axis in the war, and the apparatus of gerrymander was still in place, including an electoral register unchanged from 1935, thus rendering those in their 20s as disenfranchized as American felons today. University graduates and businessmen could vote twice. There were predictably archaic methods to undercount the overseas armed forces vote from troops overwhelmingly for Labor.
But Clement Attlee's Labor Party swept to tremendous victory. When the dust settled, Labor had 393 Members of Parliament (MPs) out of a total of 640, the greatest majority in their history, with the Tories limping along with 213 MPs, almost exactly the reverse of what happened 38 years later when Thatcher trounced Foot and got a majority of 143, which she swiftly put to radical use.
In 1945, with an invincible majority of 146 and vast popular hunger for radical change, the challenge was great but Labor's leaders -- Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison and the others -- rose and mastered it, managing successfully in the next five years to keep the British class system intact in all essentials. Of course the Conservatives savagely attacked the onset of "socialism," but the "welfare state" had more to do with the wartime command economy than with any attack on the dominion of capital.
Across the channel, the French used their Marshall Plan handouts from the United States to reorganize their infrastructure and plan the railway network the British now worship as they surge in a few hours from Paris to Marseilles. The British themselves, Miss Muffetts of propriety, paid off old debts and rejected new ideas. French-style planning? "We don't do things like that in our country," Bevin scoffed. "We don't have plans, we work things out practically."
My awareness of this first Labor government was limited, though I do remember my father telling me "we" -- this was 1947, when I was 6 -- now owned the railways. I was no early bloomer.
Great was the rejoicing when, in 1964, Harold Wilson led the Labor Party to slim victory, ousting the Conservatives after 13 long years. Years of disappointment immediately followed, with a celerity that had to wait until 1993 to be equaled by the almost instant collapse of the Clinton administration as any kind of reforming force. I might even offer a maxim here: The greater the hunger for change, the more puissant the popular thirst for decisive, radical action, the more rapid will be the puncturing of all hopes, as though the whole point of the electoral exercise, of 1964 and 1966, in the case of Wilson, and of 1992, in Clinton's, had been to demonstrate to those foolish enough to have thought otherwise the lesson that all hopes and fierce expectations notwithstanding, business will continue as usual.
By 1972, Edward Heath sat in 10 Downing Street. Now I was nearly 30 and yearned for escape. I could see English politics stretching drearily ahead. After Wilson's return there would be James Callaghan. After Callaghan, Michael Foot. After Foot, Neil Kinnock. After Kinnock...
One day in the late summer of 1972, I had occasion to be in the portion of south London known as Balham. It was hot, and the streets infinitely dreary. I must get away, I muttered to myself.
I turned in the direction of the subway station. A dingy sign caught my eye, in a sub-basement window. It read "parrot readings." I was puzzled. Surely it should be "tarot." I knocked, and the sibyl, in Indian sari, greeted me. She had tarot cards and a parrot, a method of divination with an ancient lineage in India. She dealt the cards. The parrot looked at them, then at me, then at the fortuneteller. Some current of energy passed between them. The sybil paused, then in a low yet vibrant voice, bodied forth the future to me, disclosing what lay ahead in British public life.
Her lips curved around the as yet unfamiliar words "New Labor." Falteringly, raising her hands before her eyes in dismay at the secret message of the cards, she described a man I know now to have been Tony Blair. I paid her double, then triple, as, amid the advisory shrieks of the parrot, she poured out the shape of things to come.
Within a week, obeying the promptings of the parrot, I had booked a flight to New York and a new life. Ahead of me lay a vast political landscape, seemingly of infinite richness and possibility. Never for a moment have I regretted my journey westward. That parrot in Balham had read the cards correctly. It is probably still alive, and I'm sure that were I to return for another consultation, it would cry out, "I could have told you so," and cackle heartily as it described the blasted expectations raised by Democrats stretching from Carter to Clinton.
We approach the midterm elections; then the great battles of 2008. There will, I can guarantee it, be once again hopes for change, courtesy of a Democrat. I will remain without illusions. Like the Labor Party, the Democrats offer no uplifting alternative and, in this fraught world, not even the pretense that they differ in essentials from the Republicans in the way they propose to deal with the rest of the world.
© Creators Syndicate
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