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Who Are The Wreckers?

It may be an unjustified slur on an honourable, selfless profession but it is said that there are barristers who, if they become aware that they don't have a case to put to a court, will resort to abusing their opponent. The hope is that this tactic will succeed in the absence of solid evidence because it may unsettle the other barrister, who was expecting everyone to play by the rules; it may confuse the jury so that they acquit a defendant who is plainly guilty; and it may hide the fact that the abusing barrister does not have anything pertinent to say. Of course, in the process the barrister may be exposed as a pathetic trickster, a manipulator of words and responses , which could lose them their professional standing but as the situation is desperate the risk is considered worth taking.

It is definitely not an unjustified slur to say that this strategy is often used by governments, when they are faced with the emergency of explaining away their failure to run the country as they had promised when they were campaigning for election. In that situation it is easier and more sensible – in the sense that it is less likely to lose votes – to divert responsibility onto a convenient scapegoat or to abuse opponents, who may then be inflated into figures of enormous menace.

It is not necessary to look far to find examples. Strikers (unless they are in another country, like Solidarity in Poland in the 1980s) are never popular with governments; they are more likely to be labelled as selfish disrupters of the communal well-being. When the Tube drivers of London come out they are attacked for forcing other workers to endure a journey to work even more stressful than usual. Well, there would be no point in a strike which was not disruptive in some way but the same misery is caused when the companies cut services, or cancel trains because the whole system is groaning under a burden of insufficient investment. These are experiences which reduce commuting workers to impotent rage at the very mention of names like Railtrack, Virgin, Arriva. But the companies are not considered to be threats to civilised society; instead they are prudent protectors of financial stability. Which – whatever it does to the passengers – is reassuring to the shareholders.

Miners
A group of workers who were subjected to some of the most savage criticism were the coal miners. who have now ceased to exist as a potent industrial force. In their heyday miners were able to strike effectively because they were united and they produced something which was vital to the rest of industry. For that very reason coal strikes were denounced for ruthlessly holding the nation to ransom, denying coal to homes and industries which needed it. In fact the miners were simply applying their industrial. Any protests about this were written off as the ignorant ravings of someone who simply did not understand the economic necessity for an industry to be competitive – to be profitable.

A side-product of a government searching for a scapegoat is that its members may come to believe their own propaganda, which can lead to distressing cases of paranoia. The Wilson government of 1966, for example, showed clear symptoms of this when they were confronted by the seamen's strike in May of that year. By the standards which were applied in such disputes, the seamen had a strong case but they were effectively demanding a 17 percent pay rise when the government's “voluntary” incomes policy was trying to limit rises to 3.5 percent. That, according to Richard Crossman, who was then a Cabinet minister, was what prevented the dispute being settled:

“we could have a settlement at any time, since the owners were ready to put up the cash: it was the government that was preventing the settlement because of the prices and incomes policy.”

Politically motivated
As the strike took hold it became apparent that it was not to have the dire consequences the government had predicted. What was clear, however, was that Wilson was set on smashing the National Union of Seamen. Denis Healey told the Cabinet that “Much as we would like to have a problem to solve, we haven't got one”. But Wilson behaved as if civilised society would come crashing down about Downing Street unless stern action was taken. From the depths of his paranoia he dredged up the infamous phrase about “a tightly knit group of politically motivated men” (which many people must have thought was a pretty accurate description of his own government) plotting to undermine all the work he had invested in making British capitalism everlastingly stable and prosperous and so awarding us all a life of easy prosperity. In the end the strike was settled through a kind of compromise, which did breach the government's incomes policy.

For his ready, sound-biting abuse of anyone who questions his policies Tony Blair is a worthy successor to Harold Wilson. “The forces of conservatism” was how he once described anyone brave enough to question whether his government should be so ready to throw overboard so much of what his party once (probably when Blair joined it) called its principles. A more recent example is in the opposition to the government's avowed intention to privatise, to some degree or other, important industries or services which have been under state control. We can remember when Labour supporters would argue endlessly that state control was the one and only method of taming capitalism into an ordered, controllable humane system which could then be transformed into socialism. This was not just an economic argument but a moral one as well – that state control served people better because its motivation was communal benefit rather than minority profit. But one of the premises of New Labour was that a programme of state control was a vote loser (they did not also say that it would upset many of the super-rich who they intended to persuade into backing them with lashings of money).

Blair has fought a long battle over this ground. In July 1999 he stated his agreement with those who perceive state concerns as a kind of sheltered environment for the unambitious and obstructive:

“People in the public sector are more rooted in the concept that 'if it's always been done this way, it must always be done this way' than any group of people that I've ever come across. You try getting change in the public sector and public services – I bear the scars on my back after two years in government.”

Privatising
There might be more force in that argument if there were not so many examples of private industry whose operations fit in with Ted Heath's “unacceptable face of capitalism”. Railtrack, for example, has gained an enduring reputation for the lives which have been lost because of its pursuit of profit before passenger safety. Robert Maxwell's Mirror Group Newspapers was an organisation which stole (in the illegal sense) large sums of money, including an awful lot from its pensioners. The privatised British Airways and Consignia, which succeeded the Post Office, are losing money and cutting catastrophic numbers of workers as a result. Whether an industry or a service operates in what might be called an efficient way is not determined by whether or not it is state controlled or private but by other factors, usually beyond its control.

This is not say that we should accept the arguments of the nostalgics who perceive state control as a moral bulwark against private industry's greed and corruption. The coal miners, for example, did not find the monolithic National Coal Board easier to negotiate with than a bunch of fragmented private owners. A lot of penal reformers raged against the privatising of prisons, on the grounds that it was immoral to make profit out of punishing people by locking them up. But these same reformers could be relied on to denounce the shortcomings – the brutality, the primitive facilities, the aimlessness and corruption – of state prisons. The reports of one Chief Inspector of Prisons after another were notable for their bitter criticism of places like Wandsworth prison and Feltham Young Offenders Institution. Words like “unacceptable”, “corrosive”, “brutal” litter these reports.

But these are facts, which are not useful to anyone who argues on the basis of prejudice or deceit. When Blair rants about “wreckers” he is really appealing to a bewildered electorate's appetite for a scapegoat who will allow them to believe that it is still worthwhile to bother about political affairs. It is fair to ask, not only who are the “wreckers” but what they are supposed to have “wrecked”. It is apparent that many voters have stopped supporting New Labour because they cannot appreciate that it has constructed anything worth wrecking; they perceive life since 1997 as little, if any, different from how it was under the Tories. They see the same old poverty, crime, queues to get into the NHS, government sleaze and political muggings. At a recent away day at Chequers for ministers an “adviser” said: “It's no use pretending everything is lovely. There are some things in people's lives which are terrible.” This is not why millions of people voted for Blair's government in 1997. To them he must be the ultimate wrecker because he has destroyed their optimism, false as it was, that a political party can run capitalism differently. Perhaps now, instead of apathy, they might show some authentic optimism by using their own talents to run society for themselves.