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

The Passing Show: Merry Christmas You Suckers

— “A merry Christmas you suckers . . .” (Paddy Roberts).

This is the month when everyone is caught in a deluge of hypocrisy. It is the time of the year when the consumer goods market is stuffed with a horrifying mass of gadgets and gifts of all kinds, when traders are anxiously stocking their shelves in the hope of a sales recovery after the autumn slack, and when workers are getting their Christmas lists ready for the annual “exchange” of presents.

We mentioned hypocrisy. The G.P.O. takes on extra staff to cope with the mountain of mail which will appear in the fortnight or so before the 25th—a large portion of it greetings cards. Many of these cards will be sent to people whom, if you are honest with yourselves, you care little or nothing about; but such is the pressure of Yuletide tradition, that you convince yourselves to the contrary and then forget all about it for another twelve months.

Whatever one may feel about the religious origin of Christmas—and it’s worth hardly a shrug of the shoulders—we should perhaps examine the “peace and goodwill” message and ask ourselves whether it measures up to the world we know. First of all, is there peace in the world ? Maybe the various politicians would call it that, just because at this moment there is no major conflict going on. It could more truthfully be described as an uneasy lull while each side builds ever more terrible weapons, waiting for the day when they will be used. The conflicts leading to war are as strong as ever, and while they exist peace can never be a reality.

Then again, is there really goodwill to all men? Smethwick is a timely reminder of the conditions which make an empty mockery of the very sentiment. For the prejudices of Smethwick on October 15th are basically those of every non-Socialist the world over, on every day of the year. Prejudice between people takes many forms, racialism being only one of them, and will be with us in one shape or another as long as capitalism lasts. This is the system which throws us against each other in competition and provides the breeding ground for the petty snobberies, undignified squabbles, the race to keep up with the Joneses, the bitterness and often the outbreaks of naked violence.

No doubt many of you this season will eat and drink a bit too much, and tell your workmates what great guys they are. You will buy drinks all round on December 24th, and spew half of it up on the way home. You will listen to the maudlin platitudes of the Queen’s speech the next afternoon, and tell yourselves it’s not such a bad world after all. But in the bleary aftermath, the ugly truth will still be there. It will still be a capitalist world. You will still be members of the working class and the problems of twelve months ago will still face you in all their urgency.

The same old story

The past year or two have seen a lot of talk about a national wages policy. All the main political parties had this in their recent election programmes, suitably hedged round with meaningless adjectives such as “just,” “realistic,” “planned” etc . . . . But stripped of the verbiage, what does it mean in practice? Simply that workers’ demands for higher wages will be resisted, as always. True, the politicians will talk about “national interest” and the need to make ‘‘our” goods more competitive on the world market, and “sharing the burden more fairly.” They will try to convince us that increased production and static wage rates will mean a higher standard of living for all.

Do they themselves really believe what they are so persistent in telling us? If they do, you’d think they would be the first to cut their own incomes to the bone, but a glance at the salaries of some of the new Labour government ministers will quickly give the lie to this. And the rank-and-file M.P.s will probably be quick to vote themselves a rise of several hundred pounds a year if the opportunity presents itself.

But if you think that this is a peculiarity of English politics, you’d better take a good look elsewhere. All over the capitalist world, pressure for wage increases meets with the same bitter opposition as here. Some really hefty strikes have been fought out in such countries as Germany, France and U.S.A. over the past few years, to the usual claptrap talked by those in power. New Zealand, that example of state-subsidised paradise so beloved of the left, has certainly not gone unscathed in the field of labour disputes, and currently is suffering an economic crisis similar to Britain’s. Prime Minister Holyoake has called for ‘‘common sense, restraint, and adjustment” (Guardian Oct. 24th) to meet the situation, although only a few days previously, M.P.s had awarded themselves a 39 per cent salary increase.

Over the water in Australia too. Parliamentarians have been setting a grand example in abstemious living. Says The Guardian of Oct. 29th :

  The salaries of Members in both Houses are increased from £A2,750 to £A3,500, plus an additional £A250 on their constituency allowances which may vary between £A800 and £A1,050 a year. . . . All Ministers, Parliamentary officers, and Leaders of Opposition in both Houses receive higher salaries and allowances. The Prime Minister . . .  receives additional salary and allowances bringing them to a total of £A17,100.

Labour opposition leader Calwell supported the increases. He did not think it could be said “that members had been avaricious or greedy.” Of course not. They have just forgotten the dire warnings which they themselves have uttered about the disastrous consequences of higher wages. But then, they don’t believe what we’re told, and neither should we.

A touch of Smethwick

Despite the politicians’ protests, the racial issue poked its ugly nose into the recent election campaign and two Labour candidates were toppled by it — Fenner Brockway at Slough and Patrick Gordon-Walker at Smethwick. Even by the accepted standards of capitalist politics, the new Tory M.P. for Smethwick, Alderman Griffiths, was said to have fought a dirty campaign; he accepted the help of avowedly fascist workers like Mrs. Crow, and lost no opportunity of appealing to working class ignorance and prejudice along racialist and nationalist lines. His meetings were noted for the deliberate way in which he played upon the baser emotions and feelings of his audiences. In this way it was fatally easy for Gordon-Walker, whose popularity anyway had been falling in the area with each election, to be out manoeuvred and lose the fight. His party now supports immigration control, but apparently he was unable to square this with his opponent’s taunt that Labour voted against it when Gaitskell was their leader.

To all accounts, Gordon-Walker fought a “gentlemanly” campaign, but what about his own feelings on the racial question? During the election he hotly denied that his daughter was marrying a “black” or that he owned a house in Smethwick and let it out to coloured people. Perhaps at the back of it all he is not so full of brotherly love for those of darker skins as many people may have thought. Nor should we forget the record of the Labour Party when last in power.

 

Then, Gordon-Walker was their Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations. In 1950, he had no hesitation in exiling the Bamangwato Tribe’s elected leader Seretse Khama, from Bechuanaland, when he had the temerity to marry a white woman, Ruth Williams. There was strong suspicion that he had been influenced by the South African government’s hysterical opposition to mixed marriages: nevertheless, he maintained a gentlemanly but stubborn refusal to publish the report of the official enquiry into the affair.

 

However, times change somewhat, and with the emergence of more African independent states, the astute capitalist politician realises that overt racialism can be a very hot potato indeed. Even Alderman Griffiths has toned down his remarks since the election, as was obvious from his maiden speech, which played down the issue. Anyway, there will be an increasing “coloured” vote in Britain over the next few years, and Griffiths will probably not be the only one trying to forget the things he said in 1964.

 

Allowing for all this, however, colour prejudice is likely to be with us for some time to come. Why do we say this? Because in their ignorance of the real cause of their problems, workers will always seek a scapegoat. No legal enactment can deal with that. At the turn of the century it was the Jews of London’s East End who were blamed for overcrowding and squalor, among other things. Then it was the turn of the Irish. As these minorities have become assimilated, antagonism towards them has lessened, although by no means disappeared. With the Negro or Indian worker it is a different story. Their dark skin will pick them out in a crowd and provide a ready focus for the outbreaks of frustration and violence which are so much a feature of private property society.

 

Yes, workers everywhere have a lot to learn. They have yet to grasp the idea that what really matters is their class status, not the colour of their skins. It is a depressing picture —but not a hopeless one.

 

Eddie Critchfield