From fascism to New Labour

More conservative than the Conservatives

In a move which symbolises New Labour’s continuing transformation, Lord Rothermere, the proprietor of the Daily Mail, announced his support for Tony Blair and took up a seat on the Labour benches in the House of Lords.

Born Vere Harmsworth, he inherited his father’s title as the second Viscount Rothermere - along with his newspaper empire - in 1940. The proudest possession of the Harmsworth family has always been the Daly Mail, the first mass popular newspaper aimed at instilling bourgeois ideology into large sections of the population, including the working class. To do that it relied on crude jingoism, which by the mid-thirties had developed into overt fascism.

For several years the Mail extolled the virtues of Hitler and Mussolini, and backed their less significant British counterpart, Sir Oswald Moseley, and his British Union of Fascists. Rothermere’s father, Harold Harmsworth, used the Mail to demand rapid British rearmament - not in opposition to German imperialism, but in alliance with it. Like a whole section of the European bourgeoisie Harmsworth took the view that the capitalist crisis could not be overcome without the ditching of bourgeois democracy, the crushing of all trade union and workers’ rights and an onslaught on what was viewed as the bulwark of ‘Bolshevik expansionism’, the Soviet Union.

Blatant expressions of support for fascism had to be put aside as war with Germany approached, and were abandoned altogether afterwards. But the Daily Mail remained the organ of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic elements in British society, unwavering in its support for the extreme right of the Conservative Party.

Along with the Daily Telegraph the Mail resisted the Blairite pull which netted all the other daily papers. On the eve of the 1997 election its editor, Paul Dacre, published a blood-curdling warning of the dire consequences of a Labour government against the backdrop of the union flag on the front page:

“There is a terrible danger that the British people, drugged by the seductive mantra ‘It’s time for a change’, are stumbling, eyes glazed, into an election that could undo 1,000 years of our nation’s history” (Daily Mail April 30).

However, Rothermere’s defection did not come completely out of the blue. His other daily, the London Evening Standard, previously considered one of the last bastions of reactionary Toryism, had followed the New Labour trend and also called for a vote for Blair.

Explaining his switch to Labour, Rothermere said: “They are carrying out so many of the policies I believe in.” Later he added that what Blair “is doing so far is what the Tory government should have done and he is really quite a good, modem conservative.” Harmsworth was particularly pleased by Gordon Brown’s move towards independence for the Bank of England and the creation of a regulatory body for financial services.

But the main clue to Rothermere’s thinking could be found much earlier. In 1992 he told guests at a Daily Mail dinner, including John Major: “The politics of my newspapers are what my editors believe the politics of their readers to be. For myself I left Thatcher’s Britain for Mitterrand’s France because it is in Europe that our future lies.” Five years later he lists “striking a more positive tone towards Europe”, along with helping small businesses, as a principal reason for supporting Blair.

As for the hapless Dacre, Rothermere said that he was entitled to express his opinions as the Mail editor. However, “If they start to affect the circulation, that will be different.” Taking rapid note, Dacre published two editorials the following day praising the “robust” Tony Blair and his foreign secretary, Robin Cook (May 24).

Rothermere, who describes himself - not entirely tongue in cheek - as a “nobleman”, is nevertheless content to fall in line with his new party’s proposals for the eventual abolition of voting rights for hereditary peers. It is the title itself he cherishes, not the position it entails in the Lords. A challenge to his right to hire and fire his workers (including Paul Dacre) and impose his views through his reactionary press would be quite another thing of course.

Meanwhile Blair was getting support from another quarter. John Monks, the TUC general secretary, was pleased to have got back in through the door of Number 10 for a meeting with the prime minister after 18 years of “systematic exclusion”. Although Monks was disappointed that Labour’s meagre sop of union recognition had been delayed, at least he could point to the “substantially changed mood in Whitehall”. The cap-in-hand attitude of the union bureaucrats does not stop at the new government. The director general of the CBI, Adair Turner, has agreed to address this year’s TUC.

Monks can clutch at straws if he wishes. But his pretence that Blair has workers’ interests at heart is no more convincing than suggestions that they can be advanced through partnership with big business.

Labour’s complete orientation to capital, highlighted by the defection of the arch-reactionary Lord Rothermere, has been made crystal clear. With the working class marginalised, not even the Harmsworths need look to fascistic solutions. Today the British ruling class sees its interests in European integration - to be implemented at our expense.

Alan Fox