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The Grim Liberal Record

Politicians sometimes call on voters to remember the past glories of their parties; not so Mr. Grimond and his band of “New Liberals.” “Cut the past,” he cries, “assess the present, prepare for the future.”

In the light of the Liberal record this is not surprising. The peace lovers who staged the first world war; defenders of individual liberties and conscription; friends of the workers who used troops to smash strikes; protectors of the little man, who built up party funds by selling peerages to their big business backers; the men of honour who, in the end, wrecked their own party through venomous internal intrigues and vendettas.

Why, though, should it be forgotten? “Bury the past” would be a fair proposition if the new Liberalism were really new. But in form and content it is indistinguishable from the old. In form there is some slick ambiguous, phrase-mongering, promising all things to all men; the same spattering of noble-sounding but empty sentiments. Mr. Grimond’s The New Liberalism is thick with the right words; “humane,” “civilised,” “honesty,” “decency,” and so on; but nicely balanced with the vote-catching promises of lower prices, lower taxes, higher pensions, loans for houses, and, of course, peace and freedom.

Basically nothing is changed from the past of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George. Their Liberal governments conducted themselves in the way they did because their undeclared but overriding purpose was to protect British capitalist interests against attack from outside and working class pressure from within. This, too, is the unspoken policy of the New Liberals.

Mr. Grimond recently gave an interview outlining his policy for a Liberal government. Two of his declarations dealt with wages and industrial relations : —

Pay. Never a pay pause that deprives, for instance, Civil Servants, Teachers and others of pay increases which in some instances have already been agreed. Instead a planning authority which would declare an annual ceiling beyond which further increases are contrary to the public interest.

Industrial Relations. Reform company laws to give workers as well as shareholders a legal status. Provide tax incentives to induce companies to make shares available to workers.” (News of the World, 1.4.62)

If you read part one quickly, and carelessly, it may seem to commit Mr. Grimond to something or other, but in fact all it gives is a promise to call a pay pause by another name. And Part II neatly covers up the main purpose, of protecting the property rights of shareholder, by offering the carrot of legal status to the workers, and encouraging companies to buy the workers' loyalty at a cheap price by letting them acquire a few shares. It all has an ancient fishy odour. Liberal politicians and business men were for generations active in promoting schemes of arbitration, conciliation and profit-sharing as a means of taking the edge off the workers' industrial action over wages.

It is 40 years since a Liberal headed a government, but as the opposition or as ministers in coalition governments they were always to be found backing up the employers and the government against the workers, and providing legalistic arguments and formulas to justify capitalist exploitation and repression. Liberals were in the MacDonald National Government which in the nineteen 'thirties actually did reduce the pay of teachers and civil servants without any sort of agreement on their part; just as Liberals had six years earlier helped to defeat the miners in the General Strike. And it was the Liberal Lloyd-George whose Geddes Committee in 1922 recommended saving money by larger classes, reducing teachers' pay, cutting down civil service staffs and giving postmen cheaper uniforms.

In their History of Trade Unionism, Sidney and Beatrice Webb told how the workers were tricked by the Liberal, Lloyd-George, during and after the first world war, and by the Asquith Government before the war. Asquith's treatment of the railwaymen is particularly worth recalling.

In 1907, faced with a steadily rising cost of living, the miserably paid railway workers (averaging about 25s. 6d. a week) were persuaded by the Government to call off a strike with the promise that the Railway Companies would recognise the unions, and by the setting up of an elaborate system of joint Conciliation Boards, under "impartial" chairmen. The Companies simply used the Boards to obstruct and delay and after four years nothing had been gained by the railway-men, though prices were still going up. Eventually in 1911 the railway unions decided on a National strike and gave the Companies 24 hours' notice. This brought intervention by the Government, Mr. Asquith "offering a Royal Commission of indefinite duration and issue, merely to propose amendments in the scheme of Conciliation Boards, and at the same time informing the men . . . that the Government would not hesitate use the troops to prevent the commerce of the country from being interfered with." (P. 528.) According to the Times the Government had decided to use the Royal Engineers to run the trains.

The unions rejected the Royal Commission and came out on strike, whereupon, "at the instance of Mr. Winston Churchill, who was then Home Secretary, an overpowering display was made, with the troops, which were sent to Manchester and other places, without requisition by the civil authorities, at the mere request of the Companies. In fact, a policy of repression had been decided on, and bloodshed was near at hand.' (P. 528.)

The Cabinet then decided to put pressure on the Companies to make them meet the unions and the strike was called off, with various pledges to meet grievances; but it still needed another threat of a strike and a resolution of the House of Commons before the Companies gave way to the extent of giving some small increases of pay and making other concessions.

No wonder Mr. Grimond does not want to claim continuity with the "great statesmen" of the Liberal Party's heyday. Perhaps a future Liberal Government would be less crude and more astute in its handling of strikes, but essentially nothing has changed and, like any other government committed to the maintenance of capitalism, a Grimond administration will be identical with Asquith and Lloyd-George in putting first the protection of capitalist property and profits.