1960s >> 1964 >> no-724-december-1964

100 days that will not shake the world

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.

 

It was apparently part of Labour’s contribution to productivity to set a vast array of customs officers, shipping clerks and the like to work calculating and paying this extra duty. Perhaps somebody was grateful for this; at the same time as they imposed the new levy, the government gave a hand-out in the shape of a tax rebate to firms which are in the export trade. This rebate, also, will take a lot of working out, checking and cross-checking — work which will add precisely nothing to production. But the emergency measures were welcomed in the places where they know a bull market when they see one. Applauded The Guardian: “The response in financial markets to the Government’s first economic measures was uniformly favourable.” And Lord Inchcape, leading a delegation of Middle East exporters to the Board of Trade, was moved to say, “We welcome the Government’s proposed tax rebate scheme.”

 

It was thus obvious that the Labour Government were doing all in their power to reassure the British ruling class that their interests were as secure as ever. And the ruling class showed their appreciation for this considerate attitude in the usual way. The Stock Exchange, where all men are far more equal than the others outside, and which is a sensitive (some say over-sensitive) barometer of its members’ prospects, responded. No shareholders sold out and fled to South America. No directors committed suicide. They just went on doing business in the normal manner:

 

October 19th.

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.

October 20th.

Mr. Jay’s statement on private industry and profits.

Recovery in gilts, steels firm. FTI 1.7 points up to 351.7.

October 21st.

Further advance in gilts. Equities “. . . staging a strong rally ’’ (Daily Telegraph). FTI 6.6 points up to 357.8.

October 22nd. 

Dockers decide on official strike for December 1st.

October 26th. 

Emergency measures announced.
New account on Stock Exchange opened confidently.
Gilts, electrical and engineering shares up. FTI rose 3 points to 359.6

October 27th. 

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.

October 28th.

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

October 29th. 

Business slacker. Channel Tunnel shares one of the few to rise. FTI fell 2.8 points to 356.5

 

The Stock Exchange will continue to fluctuate, under various influences, throughout the life of the Labour Government. One thing it will not do is to go out of existence. It is an important part of capitalism’s financial mechanism and the Labour Party has no intention of abolishing capitalism. Fundamental social change is not to be the ally, nor even the nodding acquaintance, of the Wilson Ministry. They have no mandate for such change and indeed have never asked for one. To have campaigned on a programme of social revolution would have been to administer the Kiss of Death to themselves, and Mr. Wilson is a man who fights hard to stay politically alive. So he stood, in the Words of The New Britain, to ” .. . make government itself more efficient. . . . rekindle an authentic patriotic faith . . . ” This vague nonsense won many more votes than Socialism, which after all is only a clearly defined solution to the hardships and contradictions of the modern world.

 

By their records shall we know them. The first Labour Government was famous for the personal vanity of its Ministers, for its reliance upon Liberal support and for its bungling of a prosecution. The second went down in history as the government which presided over the doubling of the unemployed, which split over the proposal to cut the dole and which finally, in part, sold out to the Tories.

 

The third lasted longer. They will forever be connected with the austerity of post-war England, with the wage-freeze, devaluation and the dollar gap. And they will be remembered as the government which eventually disintegrated, personally and politically, as so many of its members were killed or incapacitated by the strains of trying to control the waywardness of British capitalism.

 

What shall we remember the Wilson Government for? Will it, also, be swept from power by an economic tornado? Will it have to fight the unions, to impose a programme of rigid austerity? Such is the unpredictable anarchy of capitalism that the government, for all its erudite advisers, cannot know the answers to these questions.

 

Mr. Wilson is said to want to be remembered as the head of one of the great reforming Ministries of British history. We have been warned. There will be a spate of Bills dealing with all manner of minor anomalies. Sometimes they will be measures designed to undo the work of previous reforms. Some of them may be a little useful to working class. Most of them will be the usual shifts and compromises, the weary rearrangements of the pressures of poverty exploitation and the degrading of human beings. And when Mr. Wilson has finished capitalism will still be there, waiting for the next lot of manipulators to arrive.

 

There will be no revolution, as of yet. But how long the “of yet” lasts depends on the knowledge and the wishes of the people who send the manipulators back to Westminster. And that, Mr. and Mrs. Average Voter—in Cheltenham, in Bloomsbury—means you.

 

Ivan