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Who Won the 20th Century

In: Social Issues

Submitted By JC23
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Yasmin Alibhai- Brown
The post-war reconstruction of Britain delivered the welfare state, based on the fundamental concepts of state duty of care to the least able citizens and of social mutuality. In spite of being continually battered by the right, that belief system was embedded in the national psyche. From the late sixties to the end of the nineties, whatever party was in power, progressive values fought for and transformed the public space. That was the left’s epoch, our push, turning the juggernaut of historical and societal conservatism, towards enlightenment and honesty.
Politics opened up, too slowly perhaps at first, but the pace quickened over the years. From 1968 to 1976, the first equality laws were passed giving women and people of colour legal protection against discrimination. The ILEA and GLC promoted education and equality for all and challenged the Establishment story of Britain. I worked as an adult education lecturer for ILEA then and know how we made the system and curriculum vastly more inclusive and innovative than it had ever been before. One of my students, Sandra, 29, daughter of a miner, went on to the Open University (which opened in 1971) and eventually became head of a school in the Midlands. In 1987, the first post-war MPs of colour were elected. Women’s rights came in from the cold and became part of the national conversation, and company and public policies.
The cultural revolution of the sixties led to more than simply new sexual freedoms. Once the barricades were stormed, all old traditions and institutions were shaken and stirred. Eventually they gave way and new blood rushed in. In 1971 VS Naipaul won the Booker Prize followed in later years by, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Ben Okri and Kazuo Ishiguro. In the early nineties, Hugh Quarshie, the talented actor of African, English and Dutch ancestry, played Mark Antony and Faust in RSC productions; Josette Simon, the exquisite British-Antiguan actor also appeared in Shakespeare’s plays and in TV’s Blake’s 7. Goodness Gracious Me arrived. Racism and sexism didn’t die, nor did middle and upper class privileges. They live on, but society found them less acceptable, more shameful. Today the most right-wing politician hates being called a racist, sexist or toff.
Well, what of Thatcher and her great economic and cultural revolution? Well yes, her domination and transformative powers cannot be denied, but she was resisted all the way, right to the final confrontation over the poll tax. The GLC and ILEA were abolished because their narrative and activities were a threat to her project. Today the coalition government is pushing through policies that Thatcher never dared to because the left then had a voice and muscle, all wasted away now. The 21st century has capitulated to conservatism.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a columnist for the Independent

Zac Goldsmith
Without a clear, shared understanding of what it means to be left or right wing, even in contemporary politics, it’s hard to talk about winners and losers. This is made more so by the fact that our understanding of left/right has shifted considerably over the decades.
To use an extreme example, almost everyone now believes the Nazis were far right, but Hitler always referred to his movement as socialist, and in The Reichstag he was sometimes backed by the left. “We are socialists,” he said. “We are enemies of today's capitalistic economic system for the exploitation of the economically weak.” Goebbels said: “the idea of the Nazi Party is expressly that we are the German Left. Nothing is more hated by us than the national property-owner’s bloc”. Eichmann added, “[M]y overwhelming inclination is towards the Left”.
Pigeon-holing Nazism is next to useless, as it was essentially a racist authoritarian movement, but it does show how difficult it can be to pin down these definitions. Consider some of the big debates of today. The environment is often seen as a left wing concern, but there’s no logical reason why that should be. Euroscepticism is seen by many to belong to the right, but some of the big trade unions are quite hostile to the EU.
It’s probably fair to say, however, that the right opposes excess government interference and an overgrown state. If that’s so, then it is losing. Governments and governance have expanded inexorably, both nationally and internationally. And it’s fair to say that the left has always opposed over-mighty commerce and unconstrained capitalism. If so, then it too is losing. Some global companies now dwarf nation states, and big business seems to have far more influence over policy in most countries than do ordinary voters.
All I can say with any confidence is that it will be even harder to slot political movements of the future into narrow left/right files. I suspect the battles of tomorrow will be between direct, localised democracy, and ever-remoter political power; between small businesses and the multinational giants; between corporate globalism and a return to the human scale.
Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond

Lisa Nandy
Unquestionably, there were huge advances for the Left and the British people over the 20th century. The spirit of solidarity that helped create (and sustain) national insurance, extension of the franchise, the NHS, the welfare state, workplace rights, comprehensive education and a sense of internationalism was effective and important, both within and beyond the UK.
But by the 1990s that spirit of collectivism had eroded. In its place was a society based on economic return, focused on individual achievement, not a common sense of humanity. Although policies like the minimum wage and tax credits later did a huge amount for the poorest, all mainstream political parties had endorsed an economic model reliant on the super-rich allowing them to buy their way out of collective responsibility. And there was little challenge to this status quo from outside the system. Instead of engendering action, the overwhelming response was alienation and despair.
By the end of the 20th Century the prevailing economic, social and political narrative was Neoliberal. There is no greater evidence that the Left lost the 20th Century, than that, by the end, the Labour Party was at times complicit in, or even cheerleading, this approach.
Despite this, I am optimistic. Through today’s young people, and with a growing sense of solidarity amongst the public and in politics, there is an opportunity to reclaim the 21st Century. But we should heed the warning of previous decades. We will only win if we have the courage to challenge, not follow, the voices that shout the loudest in British politics.
Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan

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