Hurrah for the Herbivores

Click to follow
IN A celebrated essay on the 1951 Festival of Britain, Michael Frayn observed that the real struggle in politics was not between the classes but between two strains in the privileged class. One comprised the Herbivores, or gentle ruminants, "who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass". The other comprised the Carnivores "who believe that if God had not wished them to prey on all smaller creatures without scruple he would not have made them as they are". The former, in 1951, included the readers of the News Chronicle, nearly all employees of the BBC and Huw Wheldon. The Carnivores included the readers of the Daily Express, nearly all company directors and Evelyn Waugh. Though Waugh, Wheldon and the News Chronicle are dead, and the Express in sad decline, the cast list has not greatly changed in the 1990s. What we were seeing in Brighton last week - from a party led by an ex-public school boy, who lives in an expensive house in Islington with a well-paid barrister wife - was the return, after long hibernation, of the Herbivore. Tony Blair envisaged a country "in which your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed or helpless my friend, your neighbour my neighbour". Such sentiments, though now knotted together into a new political philosophy, cumbersomely labelled "communitarianism", perfectly express the spirit of the England of Clement Attlee and Uncle Mac. And millions of people, who have had enough of Carnivores, and who think there has been too much eating of meat and noisy smacking of lips in certain quarters of late, would be very glad to see a return of that spirit.

As David Marquand, an SDP defector who has now returned to his spiritual home, observed in the New Statesman last week, there is no "new Labour" at all. It is really a very old Labour, which has been revived. Capitalism has once again become rampant, rather as it was in the 1920s and 1930s. What Professor Marquand calls "the miraculous western European social compromise", which restrained the worst excesses of the market and brought about the welfare state, is in mortal danger. It is a measure of Tory ministers' continuing confidence that they so frequently presume to criticise the German social welfare system. That a country, 50 years after it was defeated in a devastating war, five years after it was required to re- absorb its backward eastern half, should maintain social cohesion, as well as low inflation and respectable economic growth, would seem to be cause for unreserved congratulation. Yet the Carnivores snort in derision. Germany is "uncompetitive" and its workers "featherbedded"; more profits could and should be made. The prosperity and stability of Germany now is dismissed in much the same terms as the prosperity and stability of 1950s Britain is retrospectively dismissed.

The Herbivores need to find equal confidence and say that capitalism should be reined back and regulated again. There is really not much more to it than that. This is why Mr Blair should take care of two things. First, he should resist the insistent calls for him to get a big idea, as though one could be bought at an Islington boutique and Mr Blair's lack of such a thing were the result of idleness or indecision. Labour already has a big idea and it is called social democracy (or social-ism, as Mr Blair would have it). It is not new, but nor was Margaret Thatcher's big idea, which was 19th-century laissez-faire capitalism. The true challenge is to adapt it to the 1990s, and to take account (as Kinnock and Smith failed to do) of the greater sense of individualism and personal autonomy created by the Thatcher era.

Second, Mr Blair should take care of the company he keeps. The Daily Mail, British Telecom, Norman Tebbit, Rupert Murdoch - these are Carnivores, and can never be Herbivores. They are disgruntled with the Tories only because they suspect John Major of trying to fob them off with lentils. The spirit of the age is against them and Mr Blair has no need of them. If he trims Labour policies to suit them, the Herbivore will be dead beyond revival. And, to quote Professor Marquand again, the world our grandchildren inherit will be bleak indeed.