Chris Harman


A moral majority?

(December 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.93, December 1986, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

British Social Attitudes: The 1986 Report
edited by Roger Jowell, Sharon Witherspoon and Lindsay Brook
SCPT, Gower

A BIG SECTION of the left has been beguiled by a horrific myth for the last five years. They have come to believe that Thatcherism has tapped a deep well spring of reactionary, authoritarian attitudes among the mass of people.

Once you accept this myth of ‘authoritarian populism’ there are only two things you can do. You can abandon hope of achieving any sort of positive social change. Or you can begin making concessions to reactionary, authoritarian attitudes in an effort to occupy the ‘main ground’ of political debate.

This second path has been the one followed first by the Eurocommunist wing of the Communist Party, by independent left academics like Stuart Hall who have moved sharply to the right to join the Marxism Today circus and, most recently, by large numbers of Tony Benn’s one time supporters.

But is the myth itself correct?

Those of us who have stuck to Marxism have always argued against the myth on the grounds that people usually adhere to bundles of quite contradictory ideas. They accept much of what the media tell them. But they also accept attitudes which derive from the particular social group to which they belong, even when these are completely opposed to the media’s message.

The relative balance of the different sets of ideas in people’s heads changes with the ups and downs of the struggles they are forced into. So no opinion poll, however thorough, can grasp the full complexity of people’s ideas. The best that can be done is to give a glimpse of what the balance is like at any moment in time.

This is what the latest British Social Attitudes Report does.

It is fascinating reading despite these limitations. For it refutes most of the contentions about ‘authoritarian populism’.

It shows that on a whole range of important issues the shift in recent years has been away from right wing and reactionary positions.

Just to take a few examples:

There are two issues on which the ‘moral majority’ really is the majority.

The first is that of the death penalty: 77 percent favour it for murder in the course of a terrorist act, 71 percent for murder of a police officer and 66 percent for other murders.

The other is homosexuality. Here people’s own experiences seem to have done less to break inherited prejudices than anywhere else.

Sixty nine percent believe sex with someone of the same sex is always or mostly wrong as against 16 percent who believe it is rarely or never wrong. And only 36 percent of people believe it is acceptable for a homosexual to be a school teacher as against 54 percent who think it is unacceptable.

The answers to both questions show a move to the right of about 5 percent since 1983 – presumably as a result of the media labelling AIDS as the ‘gay plague’.

But these two issues alone are not enough to even begin to justify the ‘authoritarian populist’ line.

That still leaves open an important question. If the basic values of so many people are still so different to those professed by the Thatcherite wing of the Tories, how come the Tories have been able to win two general elections and stand a fair chance of winning a third?

The simple answer is that the experience of Labour in office has not been such as to provide an antidote to Tory and Alliance propaganda for many workers. So fewer than half those who identified themselves as “working class” voted Labour in 1983.

One area illustrates this more than anything else – housing. Council house tenants were the traditional core of the Labour vote, and it has been they who have had the most immediate experience of long term Labour rule at the hands of the overwhelmingly Labour councils of the big cities.

The survey asked council tenants whether it was true that “councils give a poor standard of repairs and maintenance”. Sixty eight percent answered “yes”. It then asked them whether “council estates are generally a pleasant place to live in”. Forty five percent said “no” and 47 percent “yes”. Finally it asked them about their rent levels: 49 percent thought they were “on the high side”.

Given this level of dissatisfaction it is not surprising that some council tenants have opted for the Tory way out of buying their own homes. Nor is it surprising that other tenants do not, by and large, object: 61 percent think “council tenants should generally be allowed to buy their homes or flats” and only 9 percent think they should not be allowed to.

Labour’s willingness to balance budgets by imposing poor standards and high rents on what was once its captive voting force has driven most of them to accept a stereotyped Tory argument.

Last updated on 11 April 2010