Labour's Winter of Discontent


London. -- With a thud heard across the Atlantic, the Labour Party fell from power a year before America's Democrats did, in 1979, after a British winter in which almost everybody, including garbage collectors, ambulance drivers and grave diggers, seemed to go on strike. That winter a student taking a philosophy exam supposedly misquoted Hobbes' description of life in the state of nature as "solitary, poor, nasty, British and short."

L British, brutish -- the distinction did not then seem large.

Since then Labour has struggled to convince the country that its name does not mean what it plainly says and what history confirms, that the party was created for class-based politics. Britain was the first nation to develop an industrial working class and Britain's socialists have had a hard time facing the fact that their party's strength would shrink as that class did.

Labour no longer talks of nationalizing the economy's "commanding heights," and the party recently pruned the power of trade unions in party affairs. But still it seems to be a party of leftist puritanism -- the fear that someone somewhere may be making money. And it is still vulnerable to Margaret Thatcher's question: If Labour has shed the old principles it believed in, how easily will it shed the new ones it doesn't believe in?

Proof of the durability of prejudices in politics is the fact that in the tenth decade of the 20th century a leader of one of the two major parties in a great nation says, opaquely and hence ominously, "We will only tax if it increases the opportunities for individuals or for the community." When used by the left, the word "community" usually is a synonym for the state. The same man, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, plaintively protests that "Labour is not against wealth." Such reassurance makes people nervous about why such reassurance is still needed. The party talking this way has lost four consecutive elections, won just 34.4 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and has not won more than 40 percent since 1970.

But even British leftists have noticed that, as one of them says, "every contemporary democratic society is capitalist." Today, for the first time in two centuries, the left has nothing coherent, let alone militant, to say about the problem framed by the first great critic of the left, Edmund Burke -- the problem of distinguishing between "what the state ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual discretion."

Nowadays it is droll to associate disinterested wisdom with the state, which has become the largest of interest groups, and one guaranteed to get a sympathetic hearing from itself. Government has itself become the basis of a new class-based politics. The class of public employees and other persons (lawyers, lobbyists) parasitic off government's regulating and subsidizing activities seeks to expand the number of people dependent on the public sector.

In this city where Marx is buried, the Labour Party, once proudly socialist, has interred the idea that the state is a good owner. However, the central socialist goal survives. That goal is political control of economic life, for the purpose of empowering the government class to run a command society.

In Britain that idea is being Clintonized by today's surreptitious socialists, wrapped in a gauzy, unthreatening vocabulary about "investment" and "infrastructure" and "cooperation" and "partnership" between government and industry. Clintonism is a model for growing government and the public sector class. Clintonism is a new version of an old transaction: the individual purchases "security" and pays for it by accepting dependence on the state, and hence on the political class.

The centerpiece of Clintonism is a health care reform plan that is, effectively, nationalization of one-seventh of the American economy -- the trillion dollar health care sector. Irving Kristol, piercing the fog of the Clinton program ("ingenuity deliberately obscured by complexity") says "its formula for universal coverage has the effect of abolishing the private sector for medical insurance and medical treatment." He explains:

"This is accomplished surreptitiously, by making it so expensive and difficult for patients to move into that sector that it will shrink to a degree where it will no longer be able to support an adequate number of physicians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, etc."

So from across the Atlantic, from a nation that never had a serious socialist party, comes what British socialists crave, a post-socialist strategy for expanding the state by stealth and indirection.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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