This is the question posed in the New Statesman’s centenary issue and in a debate this Thursday. I’m disappointed that I can’t go. Fortunately my good friends Mervyn Dinnen and Niki Rosenbaum will be there so I trust I will get a full report. It’s a fascinating subject, though, and I just couldn’t resist sticking my oar in.
Of course, the answer to this question depends on how you define left and right and the criteria you use to determine who won. It is complicated further because the beliefs of both right and left have changed over time. Is this because the left changed the right or the right changed the left or bit of both? I’d be interested to see how the speakers deal with questions like this in just a couple of hours.
We have to start somewhere though. If we restrict the debate to the UK and look simply at who won the most general elections, then the right won. The Conservatives were in power for a lot more of the century than the Liberal or Labour parties. Even the wartime and depression era coalitions were, for the most part, led by Conservative prime ministers.
But when we consider how Britain changed during the 20th century, things look a little different. If we could transport left-wing and right-wing politicians from 1901 to 2001, it would almost certainly be the Conservatives who would be most outraged by what Britain has become. Once they had recovered from the shock of the empire’s demise, our Edwardian Tories would be appalled by the aristocracy’s loss of power, the levels of taxation, same-sex relationships, the utter lack of deference for social ‘betters’ and the sheer number of ‘colonials’ who had settled here. The 1901 lefties, on the other hand, would be pleased to see that the party they had recently founded had just won a second term in office. With free healthcare, free education, a comprehensive welfare system, employment protection and votes for all adult men and women, they might reasonably conclude that they had won the 20th century after all.
Part of the reason for this is that, even though they held office for most of the century, the Conservatives rarely attempted to claw back the gains made by the left. Apart from occasional attempts to rein in public spending, the Conservatives seem to have been content simply to stop the left-wing project going any further. In time, they came to accept the welfare state, the NHS, trade unions and even nationalisation. Or, at least, they did until the 1970s and that’s when things start to get a bit more complicated. If our Edwardian lefties looked a bit more closely at what happened towards the end of the 20th century, they might feel less inclined to celebrate.
In many ways, the 1970s was Britain’s most left-wing decade. It was the time when inequality fell to its lowest level, wage earners gained the largest share of wealth relative to the owners of capital and trade union membership peaked. As Ken Livingstone said recently:
If you go back to the early 70s, my generation assumed we would have created a socialist society by now.
As well they might, because everything seemed to be going the left’s way. Many Conservatives thought so too. Their party seemed to have settled into a role of postponing, rather than challenging, the inexorable rise of the left. Some of the more bonkers elements on the right even talked of coups and counter-revolutionary militias (which always makes me think of this).
In the event, a coup wasn’t needed because Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph and others came along with a new agenda and a revitalised Tory Party. Nationalised industries were privatised, markets were deregulated, taxation was cut, while the unions were confronted and, for the most part, beaten. The result was that many of the economic trends were reversed. Income inequality rose both in terms of before-tax and after-tax income. Not only were the wealthy earning more, they were losing less of it in tax.
(Chart from Dr John Bone of Aberdeen University. Full paper here.)
UK Gini coefficient before and after taxes and transfers 1975 – 2010
The share of wealth tipped away from wages and back towards profits and the income share of the top 1 percent increased.
Source: Chart produced from ONS data by Chris Dillow
Over the course of the decade, trade union membership began the steep decline from which it has never recovered.
(Chart via Coutts Daily Themes.)
As these charts show, the 1970s were the left’s high water mark. The trends which Ken Livingstone and his friends had thought would continue indefinitely were thrown into reverse in the 1980s. Thatcherism stopped the onward march of the left dead in its tracks.
At least, that’s what happened on the economic front. Elsewhere, though, it was a different story. Although Margaret Thatcher was a social conservative, her governments did very little that was socially conservative. Apart from a slight reduction in immigration and the infamous Section 28 banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, the Conservatives made little attempt to challenge the left’s social equality agenda. Thatcher’s government even enacted some socially liberal legislation of its own, such as the ban on corporal punishment in schools and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. The Conservatives even shied away from socially conservative legislation that would have been overwhelmingly popular, such as the re-introduction of capital punishment.
If, during the Thatcher years, many of the left’s economic gains were reversed, its social agenda was pursued with even greater fervour than before. During the 1980s, the phenomenon known as political correctness, a term invented by the American left but now used pejoratively by the right, took root in Britain. This was the decade when ‘racism awareness’ courses first appeared and the use of racist, sexist and homophobic language was challenged. By 1990, language and humour which had been commonplace in the 1970s was considered unacceptable. TV favourites of the Labour years, like the Black and White Minstrel Show and Love Thy Neighbour, were by now seen as embarrassing throwbacks. Even as the miners and printers fought and lost, the left was still making gains in the fight against sexism and racism. The left’s laws against hate-speech are the subject of endless right-wing moaning, yet even the Thatcher government strengthened the laws against the incitement of racial hatred.
Few people would argue that prejudice has been eradicated but the position of women, ethnic minorities and gay people is surely better now than it was in the 1970s. In general, we are a now a more diverse and tolerant society.
This aspect of Margaret Thatcher’s government divided right-wing commentators as they picked over her legacy last week. Some, like Michael Burley, would like to have seen more socially conservative measures:
[B]y focusing on the economic struggle, she neglected the insidious demoralisation of society, and the enduring hegemony of the Left in such interlinked fields as education, the media and artistic culture.
Others, like Alex Massie, celebrate the defeat of social conservatism, even if it was probably unintentional.
This brings me back to the point I made earlier; there is more than one left and more than one right. Both have changed in response to each other over the course of the last century.
The Labour Party was an alliance between working-class trade unionism and progressive social liberalism. The Conservative Party was an alliance between traditional social conservatism and free-market economic liberalism. It is the liberal sides of both that triumphed in the last decades of the 20th century. As David Goodhart said:
Whoever you vote for you get the same old mix of economic liberalism and social liberalism – Margaret Thatcher tempered by Roy Jenkins.
The two liberalisms – the 1960s (social) and 1980s (economic) – have dominated politics for a generation.
Or, as Douglas Murray put it, the left won the culture war and the right won the economic war.
Does that make it a one-all draw then?
I’m not so sure. The Conservative Party’s focus on the economic war in the 1980s was probably no accident. Given the choice between weeding out trendy lefty teachers, restoring the death penalty and reversing racial equality laws on the one hand or making lots more money and paying less of it in tax on the other, I’m guessing most of the party’s wealthy backers would have chosen the latter. While it might have Daily Mail readers spitting feathers, to the very rich, even those with socially conservative views, the left’s cultural victory is of little consequence. If you are making a lot more money and keeping a lot more of it, the fact that you have to employ an equality and diversity officer and you can’t call the dark-skinned bloke in the next office ‘woggie’ is no more than a minor irritation.
Could it be that the right chose to concentrate on the economic war and it ceded the culture war to the left as a consolation prize? Or, as a Labour activist friend of mine put it at the time:
We couldn’t stop privatisation, spending cuts and the mass sale of housing stock but at least we declared the borough a nuclear-free zone.
Since the end of the 20th century, the direction of travel has remained the same. Labour brought in more equality legislation while declaring themselves relaxed about people getting filthy rich. Blair and Brown did reduce inequality slightly but they kept quiet about it. Even while cutting public services, Cameron’s government went ahead with gay marriage and implemented Labour’s Equality Act, attracting condemnation from some on the right for both.
But, to add a further complication, how much of all this was simply due to global forces beyond politicians’ control? Once Deng Xiaoping reformed the Chinese economy and trade barriers were lifted, was the decline of western manufacturing employment inevitable? Are technology, globalisation and assortative as much a cause of rising inequality as government policies? Has Britain become more diverse because of left-wing policies and the right’s failure to stop them? Or did a lot more people come here anyway because travel is cheaper and there are more refugees in the world?
Did the right really win the economic war and the left the culture war, or was that just the way the world was going? Do politicians make the world or do they simply ride the waves, trying to steer things their way as best they can?
I’ve saved my favourite graph until the end. This is the share of income, after tax, of the top 1 percent of earners. Like the other charts, there is a dip in the 1970s and then the trend reverses. It has the shape of a broad smile doesn’t it?
Share of Income – UK, Top 1 percent, after income tax
Source: World Top Incomes Database. Chart via Knoema.
Who won the 20th Century? Left or right, that crooked smile tells you all you need to know.