Plenty of turning back

18th April 1997 at 01:00
THATCHER FOR BEGINNERS By Peter Pugh and Carl Flint Icon Books Pounds 8.99. THE PEOPLE'S PARTY: THE HISTORY OF THE LABOUR PARTY By Tony Wright and Matt Carter Thames amp; Hudson Pounds 12.95

May Day will probably see the end of 18 years of Conservative government and the arrival in Downing Street of a Labour leader more divorced from the traditions of his party than any of his predecessors. It is timely therefore to have these two amusing and accessible books to remind us of the party roots of John Major and Tony Blair.

Peter Pugh and Carl Flint give Lady Thatcher the ultimate accolade. Here is her contribution to history in a series which offers introductions to Hegel, Lenin, Kant, Muhammad and Jesus. The justification for including the Iron Lady in such august company is clear from the pithy text and excellent cartoons.

Regardless of whether John Major wins on May 1, interpretation of the Thatcher years will absorb historians for decades to come. For the supporters, the verdict is clear. Before Thatcher, Britain was mired in a soggy consensus, dominated by powerful unions and lacking in leadership. After Thatcher took the helm, the spirit of the British people revived and economic decline was reversed. Thatcher herself should be seen, as Robert Blake put it, as a "giant among pygmies." For critics however, the effect of Thatcher has been much less impressive.

As Will Hutton suggests, she may have succeeded only in masking Britain's decline in addition, of course, to the destructive social effects which many others would attribute to Thatcherism .

One Thatcherite effect which Pugh and Flint highlight is the creation of New Labour. Tony Blair has admitted his admiration for Thatcher's achievement, his party's policies and style now reflect the consensus which she created. But how does New Labour reconcile its electable present with its utopian past? Tony Wright and Matt Carter's succinct history sees little difficulty in celebrating both the Labour constitution written by Sydney Webb and the new model party of today. The useful discussion of the rewriting of Clause IV in 1995, the helpful chronology and the imaginative illustrations make this a book which should appeal to those seeking a straightforward history.

Yet like New Labour it is perhaps a little too bland: Labour without tears and hatred, rehabilitating everyone in the party pantheon including Ramsay MacDonald. Yet, as the Conservatives are now underlining to the world, one of the most interesting features of politics in a two-party system is not the inter-party fight but the internal battles and struggles which turn on a mix of ideology, issues, personality and style.

Thatcher for Beginners has the merit of drawing the reader's attention to the cultural and ideological divisions within the Conservative Party and indeed the wider cultural changes associated with Thatcherism. (There is for example a wonderful page on the language of Essex City slickers, enlightening if you are doubtful about the meaning of a "stag" or "streaker".) For the moment the cultural and ideological divisions of Labour have been suppressed in the quest for government. It remains an open question whether they will remain beneath the surface once the election has been won.

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