The dear old ladies of Cheltenham can come out from hiding in the cupboard and the grizzle-headed sons of toil can stop throwing their cloth caps into the air. There will be no revolution, as of yet.
The Labour Government, now about six weeks old, won the Election on a programme called The New Britain. Somewhere buried in the pages of that manifesto the word Socialist makes just two hasty, shamefaced appearances. Nowhere was the programme indiscreet enough to attempt a definition of Socialism. But in Cheltenham and Bermondsey this is a mere detail; the very mention of the word is enough to frighten some, and to enrapture others, in reality, nobody had any reason for getting excited about the new government, and Mr. Wilson’s men soon got down to the job of convincing them of this.
During the Election, the Labour leader asked that his administration be granted a First Hundred Days, as new American governments are, to settle into the saddle and take up the reins of government. This idea caught on. The Guardian, which lately has leaned over backwards not to be beastly to the Labour Party, is co-operating by publishing a little diary of the period, recording events like: “To meet expected £800 million deficit Government announced 15 per cent levy on all imports except. . . . and “Letter to Prime Minister from Institution of Professional Civil Servants complaining. . . .” This was a rather cosy idea but perhaps Mr. Wilson had little time for such indulgences. He was busy.
The new Prime Minister immediately showed that he meant business. On his first Sunday in office he went along to Ten Downing Street dressed in a nondescript sports jacket and baggy trousers. The press loved this but the tailoring world took a rather different point of view. They were obviously afraid that the Wilson look might catch on, leaving a lot of suavely fashioned jackets and elegantly tapered trousers on their hands. Yet Wilson’s rumpled appearance that Sunday was probably due to anything but absent mindedness. He has always promoted the image of himself as the ex-grammar schoolboy—the placid, earnest middle-class fellow made good. Just the chap, in fact, who always wears comfortable sports clothes on a Sunday. That jacket and those trousers were politically comfortable. The new Premier was dressed as carefully as if he had been turned out in Saville Row.
From the energetic man in Number Ten came the lists of Labour’s Ministers. Mr. Frank Cousins could forget about the days of strife when he went on Aldermaston marches and swung his union’s massive vote in favour of the Labour Party going unilateralist. His new job gave him responsibility for this country’s military nuclear research. There was a Minister of Defence, Mr. Healey, to work hard to make weapons and a Minister of Disarmament, Mr. Alun Gwynne-Jones, who is supposed to get rid of them. There were all the usual appointments of men to look after the economic, commercial and financial affairs of British capitalism. The list got longer and longer—far more than Sir Alec had had—which showed that Mr. Wilson meant to play his part in producing more, even if it was only jobs for politicians.
Yet there were still doubts and fears. The Wilson Government was said, by people who pretend to understand such terms, to be too “left wing.” There was the Prime Minister himself. There was Frank Cousins. Dick Crossman. Barbara Castle. All of them dangerous revolutionaries. Perhaps there were capitalists who were thinking it would not be long now before they returned after a hard day on the grouse moors to find that their servants had taken over the stately homes. The New Britain had promised that the Labour Government”. . . will frame the broad strategy for increasing investment . . .” but what capitalist was going to want to invest when he might any day come home to find the under gardener with his feet up on the library table just finishing on the best brandy? Clearly, something had to be done to reassure them.
It was Mr. Ray Gunter, Minister of Labour, who spoke first. His subject was the dockers, and he was not diverted from saying his piece by the fact that he could easily be mistaken for a dockworker himself. Mr. Gunter is one of Labour’s tough guys and likes to think himself as a blunt speaker. There was, of course, no need for him to be blunt about the dockers taking anything over; nothing was further from their intentions. They were only after another twenty-five shillings in their weekly pay packets, and some of them were sufficiently-keen on this to think the negotiators on both sides might be persuaded to hurry things along a bit if they (the dockers) went on unofficial strike.
Now to Mr. Gunter, on what he called the bed of nails at the Ministry of Labour, there is nothing worse that an unofficial strike. Such a strike might even upset the trade of British capitalism, or indirectly cut the profits of some exporting capitalists. So he spoke out. The dockers’ threatened walk-out, he said, could “. . . only lead to anarchy, I strongly condemn such action.”
This was heartening stuff to the employers, who in their sillier moments might have imagined that a Labour Government stood for improved wages. The National Association of British Manufacturers promptly sent Mr. Gunter a telegram which “warmly welcomed” his intervention and offered him “any assistance” they could give.
Mr. Douglas Jay was another member of the new government who seemed rather nervous about the effect of Labour’s undeserved reputation for revolutionary hellfire. Mr. Jay is now President of the Board of Trade and he is obviously anxious to do all he can to maintain the economic interests of Britain’s ruling class so that they still have some Trade for him to be President of the Board of. It did not take him long to arrange a visit to his counterparts in Red China, in the hope of drumming up some export orders. But before he went Mr. Jay made it quite clear, in case anyone should get the wrong idea while he was away, that the British capitalist class has absolutely nothing to fear from a Labour Government:
The new Government (he said) starts with no prejudice or bias whatever against private business and industry. . . . Profits, provided they are earned by efficiency and technical progress, and not by restrictive practices or abuse of monopoly, are the sign of a healthy economy.
The response to this was immediate: “Mr. Jay cheers the stock markets” (The Guardian); “Jay’s Assurances Help Equity Shares” (Daily Telegraph); “There was hardly anything Mr. Jay said . . . to which an enlightened industrialist or merchant banker would have hesitated to put his name.” (Samuel Brittan, then Economic Editor of The Observer).
Directly after this Mr. Wilson reappeared on television to tell us some more about his government’s plans to boost the trade of British capitalism. Mr. Wilson was grave and purposeful, and had clearly been having some attention from the make-up men. He attacked wildcat strikes and restrictive practices. His government had that very day announced the fifteen per cent surcharge on imports, but that was a restrictive practice which escaped Mr. Wilson’s condemnation.
The effect of this surcharge is to alter the Customs regulations so that, for example, “wood sawn lengthwise, sliced or peeled . . . of a thickness exceeding five millimetres” is allowed into the country at the old rate of duty, while “. . . wood planed, tongued, grooved, rebated, chamfered, V-jointed, centre V-jointed, beaded, centre beaded . . .” must bear the new levy. In the same way, “Clothing, clothing accessories . . . showing signs of appreciable wear. . . .” escape the surcharge, while clothing which does not show signs of “ appreciable wear ” cost its importers another fifteen per cent duty.
Gunter’s attack on the dockers.
Stock Exchange “nervous . . . prices tumbling in most sections ” (The Guardian) Steels and insurances fell sharply. Financial Times Index (FTI) 9.5 points down at 350.
Mr. Jay’s statement on private industry and profits.
Recovery in gilts, steels firm. FTI 1.7 points up to 351.7.
Further advance in gilts. Equities “. . . staging a strong rally ’’ (Daily Telegraph). FTI 6.6 points up to 357.8.
Dockers decide on official strike for December 1st.
Emergency measures announced.
New account on Stock Exchange opened confidently.
Gilts, electrical and engineering shares up. FTI rose 3 points to 359.6
Gilts up again. Engineering and motor shares up. Allied Ironfounders—one of the companies which have donated to Conservative Party funds—gained 1 /10½d. on the day FTI climbed to 362.8—a rise of 3.2 points.
Recovery on Stock Exchange halted, as speculators sold to realise their profits. Good day for gilts. Bovis (with Sir Keith Joseph back on the board) gained l/6d. on the day. FTI dropped 3.5 points to 359.3
Business slacker. Channel Tunnel shares one of the few to rise. FTI fell 2.8 points to 356.5