The stake in “our” Country
One of the themes on which our newspapers love to turn a spare column is the alleged laziness of the British worker. How often do we read blood-chilling articles about workers over here loafing about all day, whilst industrious foreign workers are putting in an enormous working week? Germans, for example, are said to take only one week’s holiday a year, to refuse to strike and to turn out such cheap, efficient goods that they easily outsell the products of their British counterparts. Why, we have even heard the same sort of thing about Russian workers, who were reported to have smiled superior, mystified smiles when they saw English workers knocking off for tea during the preparation of the recent Soviet Exhibition at Earl’s Court. Nothing like that, they said, happened in Russia! This, of course, is common stuff. Nobody need feel upset that he does not work hard enough to satisfy his employer. The ideal worker, from the capitalist viewpoint, would be somebody who stuck at it twenty-four hours a day without needing those irksome breaks for sleep, food and the rest of it.
However lazy the British worker is supposed to be the fact is that, like other workers all over the world, he turns out some pretty substantial profits for his master. And with it all he is loyal. In the midst of the worries of working for his living, paying off the H.P., the mortgage and the rest, he also finds time to fret about the fortunes of his ruling class. He will always get upset to hear that foreign capital has moved into the country and has taken over a British company. Remember the fuss about Tube Investments? And later on about Ford? In the ‘bus queue, at the bench, around the canteen table, many workers expressed the opinion that this was alien investment with a sinister motive. Some of them thought that behind it all was a scheme to undermine British industry, to buy up a prosperous rival and then let it go bankrupt.
This is a strange idea. The capitalist class find it difficult at times to assure themselves of a profit from their business, let alone deliberately investing a few million into a loss. And we should remember that there are plenty of firms in this country which are offshoots of foreign companies, and which are thriving concerns. Some of them, in fact, have become larger and more prosperous than their foreign parent. And what about British investment abroad? Do British workers object to that?
They do not—although there is plenty of it. Mr. Heathcoat Amory, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, when questioned in the House about the Tube Investments deal, stated that this country is a nett exporter of capital. A few months back, for example, Courtaulds bought a four per cent. interest in the Koppers Company Inc., one of the largest American chemical and plastic concerns. At the same time, they put two men onto the board of the American company. There were, of course, no complaints from Fleet Street about this. No heat was generated under any white collar at this new example of one country investing in another. No British newspaper carried stem warnings about threats to prosperity. Presumably because British workers, like their brothers abroad, are nothing if not patriotic. They think that American ownership of Ford Dagenham must be a baleful influence, but that British investment overseas is an example of enterprise and anyway is all done for the benefit of the natives.
In fact, it is quite unimportant to the British worker whether the firm which employs him is owned by foreign shareholders or not. He can live only by persuading some firm or other to buy his working ability and wherever he works he will receive, on a broad average, the same wage. Every capitalist concern, whatever the nationality of its shareholders, is in business to make profit. It is, indeed, to make more profit that they take the risk of investing abroad. Courtaulds went into Koppers for what they called “. . . the exploitation of areas of mutual interest.” They were, in other words, trying to rebuild some of the investments in the United States which the British government compulsorily sold for them during the war. Nobody has yet found a certain way of making capitalist industry, anywhere in the world, able to rely upon its profits. That is why we have booms and depressions, and why some firms go out of business. All over the world, the interests of the worker must clash with his master’s. These are the common problems of capitalism, which cannot be wiped out by the change of a company’s nationality.
Why, then, do workers bother about whether their employer is British or not? Why are they loyal? Because they think that they have some stake in the country of their living, which gives them a common cause with the British capitalist class. And what does this stake amount to?
About the biggest and most valuable thing that most workers are ever likely to own is a house. And what agonies they must go through, to get it! First they must take on a lifetime’s mortgage or loan which, although in fact it deprives them of real ownership of the house, saddles them with the full legal responsibilities of ownership. If a slate falls o(f the roof onto somebody’s head they—not the building society—must pay compensation. If the house is struck by lightning or damaged by flood water, they must suffer the consequences. The money for the house is often lent at such an interest rate that in the end the borrower will repay about twice as much as he originally borrowed. While he is repaying the loan, his occupation of the house can be hedged about by all manner of legal restrictions, which are imposed to make sure that if he defaults in the repayments the house will have a good resale value. And if in the end the worker has kept up his payments and done everything else that the building society wants, what has he got? A working class house which has cost him nearly twice as much as it would have done if he could have originally afforded to pay for it outright. And the tail end of his life in which to enjoy it.
So much for house ownership. Do the working class own anything else in this country? Over the years, there have been many investigations into relative ownership and incomes. They have always pointed to the same conclusion— that most people own very little and a few people own a great deal. One of the latest of these investigations was carried out by the Oxford University Institute of Statistics. They published the results in their Bulletin of February this year. Here are some extracts from it.
There are twenty thousand people in this country with over £100,000 each in capital, averaging £250,000 each. Ten per cent. of the population over 20 owns ninety-eight per cent. of company stocks and shares, and seventy-four per cent. of land, building and trade assets. One per cent. of the over 20 population own eighty-one per cent. of stocks and shares, and twenty-eight per cent, of land, building and trade assets. This does not leave much for the rest of the population, for the working class—the loyal, struggling mortgagors. The Bulletin tells us something about them. There are, it says, sixteen million people with what it calls a net capital of less than £100, and an average holding of £50.
These are the facts behind the great myth of working class ownership, patriotism and employer-loyalty. Perhaps, at times, a glimmering of the facts gets through to the workers and sets them realising that Britain does not belong to them. That a very small minority in the world own almost anything that is worth owning, whilst the rest spend their waking lives in work to keep things that way. That the majority scrape along with the shabby and tawdry whilst the few can have—literally—the best. The best clothes, houses, food, holidays. The best chance of living a worthwhile life. And—final irony—they can have all this without needing to work for it. They can leave that part to the lazy, loyal working class.
Who do you think has the better side of the bargain? And who are the mugs?