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Running Commentary: A Right Royal Time

A right Royal time

Somebody's mum is 80 this month. She "looks 60” and still sloshes around in the rain in her wellies. Like many grandmas, she will celebrate her birthday surrounded by three or four generations of her family. So what's special?

If our grandma reaches 80, a number of people apart from the family will be pleased. The florists, confectioners, stationers and shops where we buy our flowers, cards and presents will all profit from the occasion. But this is nothing compared with the bonanza they’ll have when the Queen Mother celebrates her 80th birthday.

News Magazine (4.7.80) apart from featuring articles and pictures of the Royal Lady’s life and times, helps to cover the cost of producing this souvenir issue by carrying two types of advertisements in addition to the usual ones. Cartiers, "By Appointment” Jewellers and Goldsmiths to the Queen as well as her mum, and “over 50,000 employees in 1,000 Woolworth stores” take full page advertisements to send loyal birthday greetings.

As with every “special occasion” (pity the makers and importers of Moscow Olympics mementoes who, we understand, “caught a chill”), purveyors of royal souvenirs vie with each other to relieve you of your money. The Post Office got together with the Royal Mint. For £3.75 (plus £1 for postage) you can buy a special First Day Cover and a specially minted crown (a souvenir coin, not the headgear). The Heritage Club offers the Queen Mother Armorial Plate, slightly more expensive at £396, but this does include “carriage”. John Pinches offers the Queen Mother Birthday Pendant for "just £20”, and the Museum Galleries a set of four “superb quality” medallions for £14.95. However, if you really want to celebrate the occasion in style, the Daily Telegraph of July 7 carried an advertisement from Garrards “The Crown Jewellers” (as opposed to just being “By Appointment”) for a coin watch in 18ct. gold at £1,900; a deposit of £200 will secure.

These are just a few examples at the “top end” of the market. The biggest profits will be made from the hundreds of thousands of paper flags, cotton pennants, cheap commemorative “china” souvenirs, pictures, scarves, books, cards and other rubbish on which members of the working class will be pressured to squander part of their wages to celebrate the Queen Mum's birthday. This is not just a family affair, it is big business.

Housing drives

The most complacent of politicians would not deny that the housing conditions of many sections of British workers are dreadful. But what they all say is that they are doing, or rather are about to do, something to cure the problem. Some guide as to the extent to which governments over the last few years have actually made a difference to the housing of the working class was given in a report of a speech by a junior Housing Minister at an Institute of Housing seminar in April this year (the Guardian 25.4.80). John Stanley announced a new housing drive. But so did the government before him, and the one before that, and the one before that back to those grim 19th century days . . .

With all that driving we should arrive sometime. But we don’t. Council and private house building are at their lowest levels since the 1930s and 1924 respectively. But don't think it is stopping in the 20s and 30s; the 19th century may be nearer than we think. One “Senior Housing Official”, referring to the last Labour, and the present Tory government’s housing record, put it like this: “Under the two governments, housing investment has already fallen to levels tolerated by Attlee and Baldwin. In the future, will the comparisons be Gladstone and Walpole?”

The new housing drives are about as real as government promises to cut unemployment. Under the last Labour government house building fell from 100,000 homes a year to 60,000. By 1984, if present trends continue, council house building will be reduced to miserable proportions. Likewise, private house building has one clear direction—down. Not that reversal of the trend would make much difference. Even now, there are thousands of empty privately owned homes and not all council homes are full, despite long waiting lists. But private house buying and renting mean having the necessary money. And as most of the homeless or those living in bad housing in many cities have not got that stuff, houses stay empty and slums remain overcrowded.

But aren’t the rich overcrowded too? Just think of poor Princess Anne. Not only does she have to share a home with her husband and son but there’s all those servants to be crowded in as well. Gatcombe Park, a Cotswold mansion which the Queen bought for her, is slightly bigger than the average two up and two down, but think of the drains! The royals have recently applied to the Ministry of Agriculture for an improvement grant to pay for their rotten sewers. If given, the grant would probably be large enough to buy quite a few workers' houses, let alone improve the drains.

Education cuts

Are you going to school? Are your children going to school? If so, it must be nice to know that you or your parents will probably have the privilege of paying for text books soon, as the Tories continue to freeze education. Grim jokes about sharing desks (Joan’s turn to sit down to-day), sharing equipment (Sue’s turn to write her answer today) and sharing teachers (2B's turn for lessons this week), are rife in the education world. The numbers in classes are rising (as though these are not big enough already) while thousands of trained teachers can't get work. Now the Bernard Sunley Charitable Organisation wants to do something about this state of affairs. They have just made a £1,500,000 donation to education and while no one can pretend that this will make a major difference, it presumably will pay for a few books and a few school dinners for the mounting number of children who can’t afford them—or will it? Actually the money has been provided to build not a new school, but a new management training centre in Northampton (the Guardian 17.4.80). The trust fund (owned by the giant insurance company Eagle Star) will not be doling out this money to help poorer children to a slightly less dreadful education. It is trying to ensure that those very important serfs, the managerial cliques, are better trained to squeeze even more profit out of school leavers lucky enough to find employment.

African wages

One of Sir Keith Joseph’s concerns as Industry Secretary is to con the workers into even lower wages so that his class can get even more profits. His latest scheme, announced to a somewhat stunned BBC lunch time audience on Sunday the 29 June, was that the workers should voluntarily take lower wages and so ‘‘price themselves into a job”. Now there are many who have long held the view that Sir Keith is not a fanatic he is just mad. On the other hand, it may be as well to recall that other equally strange folk (for example James Callaghan) managed to trick a large section of the working class into extremely low pay rises (while inflation raced ahead) for quite some time. Perhaps it is unlikely that messianic Sir Keith is going to have the same effect, but it is too early to say yet.

What Sir Keith really needs is a dash of South Africa; there they really put the world of his dreams into action. At least 33 British Companies now operating in South Africa are accused of paying their workers less than subsistence wages. The minimum wage level in South Africa is known officially as the poverty datum line (PDL). This does not actually give enough to prevent starvation. But the Brits are supposed to observe the EEC code which requires them to pay what the EEC calls the minimum effective level (MEL); but even this is only barely sufficient to keep starvation at bay. Among the glorious list of 33 British Companies which, it is claimed, pay less than the MEL, some actually admit to paying less than the PDL. These remnants of British imperialism include household names such as Barclays Bank, BP, GEC, Norwich Union, Rank Hovis MacDougall, Rentokil and Tate and Lyle.

Some of the quotations from Company Reports and comments which the Observer (8.6.80) extracted are quite startling. Thomas French & Sons, fabric manufacturers, say “it is not the Company's policy to aim at ‘unmerited’ pay levels recommended by the EEC code”. The Company could only be more honest if it had said: “it is not our policy to pay a halfpenny more than necessary to get the blacks to work, to leave us the highest margin of profit” And how do they define their criterion of a “merited” pay rise? In the meantime, the Company’s lowest paid workers are paid less than 50 per cent of the PDL. Rank Hovis MacDougall says that, “its policy is for the minimum wages of its workers in rural areas to be in line with PDL as soon as practicable . . .” Until the Company graciously decides, African workers can live a lingering death.

The issue has caused a mini-storm in the British Parliament as the Trade Secretary John Nott wriggled and squirmed in refusing to publish a Black List of the worst offenders. In reply to a Parliamentary question (the Times 28.6.80), Nott said this of British companies and South African employment: “If a Company gave good fringe benefits” (he is thinking of a car perhaps, or a holiday on the French Riviera?) “and set about achieving good industrial relations” (which means the best conditions for profitable production) “that Company should be commended” (because it is achieving the best conditions for exploitation) “even though some might question its performance over wages” (question the callousness of this exploitation). “Such a Company was much more to be commended” (commended by its capitalist owners?) “than a Company which pays good wages” (meaning MEL?) “but did none of these other things" (but what about those that did neither?).

Don’t get it wrong; all wages are robbery because employment entails exploitation of the work force in order to make the profits for the employers. South Africa is just a particular example of what is happening everywhere. Sir Keith boasted in the USA on a recent trip, that wage rates in the UK are extremely competitive. That is, they are probably lower than many other potential areas for investment of the United States capital in Europe. It is that low wage he and the Tories and all capitalists want to reduce.

Ronnie Warrington