“THE Old Testament prophets didn’t go out into the highways saying, ‘Brothers, I want consensus.’ They said, ‘This is my faith and my vision! This is what I passionately believe!’” Margaret Thatcher’s speech in Cardiff Town Hall on 16 April 1979, before that year’s General Election, heralded the death of the “post-war settlement” on economics.
Yet that consensus was already mortally wounded by a decade of civil unrest, led by a new generation of radical union leaders, chafing against the TUC’s co-option into a “soft corporatist state”. This depended on twin pillars: one was private co-ordination between unions, employers, and government via the National Economic Development Council; the other was heavy state intervention via subsidies.
The radical union leaders Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones assailed the former with strikes. The neo-liberals Thatcher and Keith Joseph unwound the latter by legislation. Paradoxically, apparent hostility worked to a common end: New Left and monetarist Right together destroyed the work of Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan.
Yet, as Tinline shows, what Thatcher destroyed was not “the” consensus but merely the latest one. In the 1930s, the Labour Right, under Ramsay MacDonald, combined with Liberals and Conservatives to defend another consensus: tying sterling to the gold standard.
Like the creed’s Christological affirmations, political consensus is spurred less by positive commitment than a desire to avoid heresies — the book’s “nightmares”. For MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin, that nightmare was hyperinflation. Conversely, post-war leaders feared the nightmare of the mass unemployment caused by MacDonald’s and Baldwin’s policies; but their efforts to avoid it “at all costs” created a new nightmare for their own time. Thatcher’s solution was the “new consensus”, which endured until 2008.
The Death of Consensus is stylishly written, using alternation between micro- and macro-narrative to anchor understanding. Edward Heath’s and Harold Wilson’s scarring memories of paternal 1930s unemployment explain why both showed a visceral aversion to its use as a tool of economic management (despite post-war welfare benefits that radically softened the implications of joblessness).
Tinline’s consideration of how leaders learn to “think the unthinkable” would have benefited from the insights of the philosophers Karl Popper and Tomas Kuhn on the epistemology/sociology of scientific knowledge. Their insights into how derided, maverick views become new (but always temporary) models for understanding reality can illuminate the rise and fall of political orthodoxies.
Yet, in the age of Brexit and “post-liberalism”, Death of Consensus has much to communicate about how Britain has successfully navigated past moments of unnerving shift. Perhaps, also, it offers a needed caution against demonising those whose quest for change unsettles us; their views may become our own sooner than expected.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.
The Death of Consensus: 100 years of British political nightmares
Church Times Bookshop £18