Daily Archives: 26 December 2016

Thatcher’s Unorthodox Campaign, 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 3391-3428:

The election of 1979 marked a watershed moment in British politics. This is not to say that everything about the vote was black-and-white. It is, for example, indeed true—as many contemporary historians are wont to point out—that Thatcher was careful to avoid making her proposals sound too radical and that the Conservative manifesto (the party program) included little in the way of detailed policies for change. It is true that she might have faced a much different political landscape if Callaghan had called for a general election back in the early fall of 1978 (as some of his advisers had counseled), before the Winter of Discontent had left British voters conclusively disgusted with the direction of the country. And it is even true that her personal popularity rating remained well below Callaghan’s right up to the end. Yet despite these qualifiers, there can be no mistaking the fact that Thatcher used the election of 1979 to offer a fundamental break with the way the country had been governed. Voters saw that she was offering a dramatically new approach to dealing with the unions, and it was also clear to them that she was proposing a new set of policies on management of the economy. She pledged change to an electorate that was deeply disillusioned with the status quo—and she did this less through election documents than through her own speeches and campaign appearances. Along the way she also departed decisively from the received wisdom on British electioneering. The message here was, at least in part, the medium—Margaret Thatcher herself.

Conservative leaders before her had focused their campaigns on the classic Tory electorate—those members of the middle and upper classes living in the more affluent parts of the country. Thatcher and her advisers, however, set out to target voter categories long neglected by Conservative campaigners. She made a point, for example, of specifically wooing skilled laborers of the type that Tebbit was courting in his home district. Known in the mysterious argot of British pollsters as “C2s,” these workers had long been considered automatic Labour voters. Thatcher disagreed. She believed that many union members resented the undemocratic ways and the cynical tactics of their leaders, and she surmised that many working-class voters would be correspondingly receptive to her calls for greater constraints on union power. She also felt that upwardly mobile workers would welcome her proposals to allow the tenants of public housing to buy their homes. She reasoned that many C2s were also tired of inflation and runaway spending. This was why she staged her first big election rally in the traditional Labour stronghold of Cardiff in Wales. “Labour, the self proclaimed party of compassion, has betrayed those for whom it promised to care,” she told her audience. “So in this campaign we’ll not only extend and consolidate Conservative support, we’ll carry the fight right into what were once the castles and strongholds of Labour, and in many places we’ll win.”

Her campaign tactics were equally novel. She shunned the traditional Conservative support network in the broadsheet newspapers and favored instead the tabloids and daytime TV—an approach that allowed her to tap into a new electorate in the embattled middle classes who felt threatened by the growing power of the state and the unions and also allowed her to avoid probing questions about policy specifics. She made aggressive use of television, whereupon she was accused (comical as it might seem to a modern audience) of the egregious sin of importing “American-style campaigning” to Britain. She proved very effective at exploiting the medium—especially once her adviser Gordon Reece prevailed upon her to lower her voice, an adjustment that lent her gravitas and authority.

This might seem trivial, but it was especially important in light of Callaghan’s magisterial efforts to use her gender against her. It was not so much what he said as how he said it; he was a master at sardonically implying that whatever the leader of the opposition said was made even sillier by the fact that it was being said by a woman. She countered this by doing what she had always done to beat so many male competitors before: she worked harder, sleeping just a few hours a night as she relentlessly studied her briefing papers and learned her lines. At the same time, she turned her gender to her own advantage by slipping, when she chose to, into the role of a commonsensical housewife, hoisting sample grocery bags to drive home the corrosive effects of runaway prices on the ordinary household budget. Nor was she afraid to give interviews to women’s magazines in which she shared recipes and stressed her fussy mastery of good housekeeping. Not only did this help to draw in female voters, but it also underlined her point that the economic remedies she was proposing were less a matter of abstract theories than of the everyday ethos of thrift and moderation on which many British households prided themselves.

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Afghanistan’s Communist Revolutionaries, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2221-2259:

Taraki and Amin both belonged to the PDPA’s other faction, known as Khalq (“the People” or “the Masses”). Khalq’s ethnic basis was narrower than Parcham’s: Khalqis were overwhelmingly Pashtuns, and more often than not they hailed from a particular subset of the Pashtuns. Taraki and Amin were both members of a particular Pashtun tribal confederation, the Ghilzais, that had long chafed under the domination of more powerful Pashtun groups—and especially the Durranis, the dynasty that had dominated Afghanistan for centuries, right up until the Communist coup. (Both Daoud and Zahir Shah were Durranis.) The Khalqis tended to be far less vested in the existing system of ruling elites, and this helps to explain the radicalism that dominated their thinking.

Khalqis were, above all, dutiful Leninists. Like so many other would-be Third World modernizers, they detested their country’s backwardness, and they believed that the only reasonable cure was to frog-march it into the twentieth century by brute force, if need be. To be sure, Afghanistan didn’t really have a proletariat, and though many aspects of its agricultural system appeared backward and traditional, most peasants actually owned their own land. But no matter. There was one institution that could still serve as a revolutionary vanguard, and that was the army. For years the military had been one of the few structures in the country—along with the monarchy and a steadily expanding state educational system—that managed to coalesce the notoriously unruly Afghans around a sense of shared national destiny. The military was one Afghan institution that offered opportunities for advancement even to those who weren’t part of the traditional elites. And the upper ranks were filled with officers who had studied in the Soviet Union, which offered them a clear example of a primitive rural society that the Communists had mobilized into a modern industrial power.

The ideological differences between Parcham and Khalq were just part of the problem. There were also intense personal feuds at work. Karmal, the Persian-speaking patrician, despised Taraki and Amin as upstarts, and they were happy to return the favor. In the old, prerevolutionary parliament, Amin had been famous for his easy joshing with his opponents among the religious conservatives, who gave their atheist colleague the joking nickname of “Satan.” Karmal, a formidable orator once imprisoned for five years by the king, had emerged to become a political heavyweight courted even by Daoud himself, and he cultivated a self-regard that alienated just about everyone. As the new Communist regime got under way, Amin couldn’t help reminding the Parchamis that they had spent the “revolution” cringing in prison while the Khalqis got on with the job. The Parchamis, in turn, regarded the Khalqis as bumbling zealots who needed a bit of adult supervision.

The Afghan public at large knew little of this, of course. What they saw instead were slogans, revolutionary parades, and a burgeoning personality cult centered on Taraki. There is little doubt that the vast majority of Afghans—most of whom had no access to television or newspapers—regarded all this with bemusement, apprehension, or apathy. But the state almost immediately denied them the luxury of disengagement. Within weeks of seizing power, the new revolutionary government announced a series of far-reaching edicts that would tip Afghan society into a maelstrom from which it is still struggling to recover.

Decree Number One proclaimed land reform. The proclaimed intent was to uproot the supposedly feudal underpinnings of Afghan society, stripping power from traditional landlords and canceling unfair lending arrangements that had kept millions of people indentured to local power brokers. The political aim was to give the majority of Afghans—who overwhelmingly lived in the countryside—a reason to love the new government. A flurry of other new reform measures followed. A literacy campaign taught the benighted how to read and write. Women received full civic rights. It was a program that bore a striking resemblance to the shah’s White Revolution [in Iran].

It all sounded wonderful, on paper. The problem was that this blizzard of reforms, and especially the realities of their implementation, bore little or no relation to the society they were intended to change. Of course, everyone believed in the goal of literacy, but the catch was that the government had little in the way of resources to accomplish the task of educating the rural poor. So it relied, as Communist regimes so often had in the past, on a mixture of mobilization and brute force to fill the gap. Zealous young schoolteachers dispatched to the villages, invariably without proper textbooks or teaching materials, often ended up haranguing the locals on their backwardness. What particularly inflamed the locals was the newcomers’ insistence that women should take part in the courses, in classrooms that mingled both sexes. Mobs drove the arrogant outsiders away. In some cases the do-gooders then returned with escorts of government troops, and literacy classes then proceeded at bayonet point.

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