Election 1997: Where She first trod, they follow

From the outside it's clear, says a South African writer watching Major's campaign: Margaret Thatcher calls the tune
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT WAS the winter of my discontent, the winter of l978: 10 young men crammed into a dismal squat near Paddington station, mostly callow South Africans on the run from apartheid's army, the rest genuine British student militants with long scarves and black pea jackets which came in handy when the cold set in and there was naught for our comfort but to cluster around the gas cooker and plot against capitalism, too poor even to get pissed to escape our miseries.

All the Brits had degrees in something or other, but there wasn't a steady job between them. They collected the dole and worked on the side; the rest of us cleaned offices for pounds 1 an hour and lived mostly on shoplifted baked beans. Such furniture as we had was retrieved from skips, some clothing too. I had a winter coat made up from discarded velvet curtains and wore it to Portobello Road on Saturdays. The view from the top deck of the number 23 was indescribably depressing, all those vast swaths of bombed out and boarded up houses, and all the faces so deathly pale against the prevailing grey. It was like living in East Berlin. It was barely living at all. When the sun came out the following spring I got on a plane and fled.

Returning to London eight years later was like being kicked in the face - the streets full of new cars, Notting Hill Gate's crescents whitely gleaming, the high streets lined with trendy boites where the grimy comrades of my winter of discontent now sipped fine wines and raged against Margaret Thatcher, under whose supervision they'd become members of the petit bourgeoisie. This paradox remained constant for the next decade: every time I visited the UK they'd grown richer (one or two excursions into negative equity aside), more intense in their loathing of the Tories, and more likely to call me "Jungle Bunny" on account of my backsliding toward political savagery.

I rather admired Mrs Thatcher, you see. She was an astonishing creature when viewed from a Third World country, far too large for our small and snide times. What's more, Britain seemed to be responding to her hectoring, and the judicious administration of stick. My amorphously socialist friends found it impossible to accept that an ideology that sought chiefly to liberate the energies of selfish, vulgar strivers could confer greater blessings on society than their little pink book of good intentions.

They were no closer to accepting it last Wednesday, when I passed through a London more prosperous than ever en route to a photo opportunity in northern England. We were to visit one of Britain's most interesting sites of political archaeology - the sprawling docklands on the Tees. Ten years ago, Mrs Thatcher chose the area as the backdrop for her famed "walk in the wasteland", and pledged to turn it into a shrine to free enterprise.

As of last Wednesday, it was a semi-completed sprawl of post-modern mansion blocks and office buildings. The hacks were generally dismissive, but to my Third World eye everything looked neat and sturdy, and certainly an improvement on the industrial tundra of l987. So yes, it might have been a Potemkin Village, for all I know, but unemployment was apparently down to 10 per cent, and there were said to be scores of new factories just over the horizon, and nearby Newcastle had somehow become number eight on the world top 10 of cool party cities, a more reliable index of increasing prosperity than any Tory handout. And here to claim credit was Baroness Thatcher herself, resplendent in an electric blue twin-set. "Has it been transformed?" asked an obsequious hack. "Oh, absolutely," her ladyship snorted.

It was the first time I'd laid eyes on her, and I must say she looked grand: the hair just so, the regal smile, the scornful gleam in those fierce blue eyes when they came to rest upon young John Major. Neither of them seemed to have forgotten Major's celebrated l990 toothache, but the destiny of the party was at stake, so they smiled brittly into the middle distance, took up their spades and set about planting a ceremonial tree in a firestorm of camera flashes. The Prime Minister was content to go through the motions, but the grand old battleaxe put her back into it, tossing soil this way and that, whomping clods with the back of her shovel and studiously ignoring a pest in the front row of the media phalanx.

"Why didn't you fire them, Mr Major?" he cried, they being the Euro-rebels in his own Cabinet. "Don't we need the smack of firm government?" Rebuffed, the pest turned to the Baroness: "You would have fired them, wouldn't you?" She would have, too, but this wasn't the moment to say so. She just waved regally at someone on the horizon and turned away on her heel.

It was hard, watching this, not to feel a twinge of sympathy for Major, the least charismatic politician on the planet according to a poll published a few weeks back. After several hours in his presence, I developed some serious doubts on that score. In the flesh, Major is a great politician, wading into crowds with genuine relish, tossing off jokes and imparting a palpable sense of conviction, which is of course the critical subterfuge. He isn't grey at all, just dwarfed by the woman he replaced at the apex of power. Anyone who stepped into those high heels was bound to look weak and inadequate and vaguely ridiculous.

Take Tony Blair, for instance, whose metamorphosis I followed with increasing astonishment on satellite TV. Eighteen months ago he was an earnest socialist. The abandonment of Clause IV seemed a strategic feint, but doubts set in when he started sucking up to business in earnest, purging militants in his own movement and declaring himself "absolutely passionate" about Zero Tolerance policing. One sensed where this was heading, but the story still seemed hallucinatory when it appeared in the local papers: "Labour candidate claims to be Maggie Thatcher's spiritual heir". History had truly ended. She who swore to end socialism in her lifetime had apparently done just that.

It could all be a hoax, of course, but the eerie absence of the left from Wednesday's photo opportunity suggested otherwise. Mrs Thatcher's l987 wilderness excursion was almost upstaged by an army of jeering militants. Ten years later, the only proletarians on the scene were hardhats on a nearby building site, mildly amused by the proceedings. Sure, said Labour supporter Bill James, "there's progress here, but it's all office blocks, innit, nothing for the working class happening here." He wasn't about to vote for the Tories, but he wasn't throwing bricks at them either. One sensed he didn't particularly care.

So what manner of election is this, then? Sleaze aside, it strikes the outsider as a squabble for space in Thatcher's giant shadow. Everyone is in general agreement with the revolutionary positions she staked out 18 years ago - plenty of private enterprise, a dash of privatisation, no new taxes, and an arbitrary measure of compassion. No one disputes that Europe requires careful consideration or that the unions remain a potential menace. Major is tough on crime, but Blair is more so. Major is a mild conservative, while Blair is a "radical centrist", no less.

Alas, poor John Major. If the laws of American political science applied, this election would be a Tory walkover, what with the economy sound, employment rising, a glow of good feeling spreading across the nation. It is within Major's right to claim credit for most of this, because it was his party that inflicted the pain that has transformed Britain into a formidable competitor. He's also entitled to slam the dour gremlins of Old Labour for resisting every inch of the way, but where are they? Old Labour has dematerialised. The enemy is now around him and alongside him, sniping at him from his own side of the ideological divide.

His only hope lies in convincing a dubious electorate that New Labour is a party of "dishonesty and parody", the old socialist wolf tarted up in Grandma Maggie's twinsets. This is the great thrust of his campaign on the ground, but nobody seems to be taking it seriously: the outcome will turn on the issue of sleaze, I daresay, and contempt born of long familiarity. But no matter: the ideas at the heart of Thatcherism will survive either way, implanted in the genetic code of an opposition party that can triumph only by mimicking its ancient and sworn enemy. The lads from my Paddington squat of yore will claim a stunning victory, and I will say, for whom, exactly? The answer is clear: Lady Thatcher.

Rian Malan is the author of 'My Traitor's Heart', his best-selling autobiographical book about South Africa.