1960s >> 1969 >> no-775-march-1969

A Matter of License

Every ambitious politician feels the need to attract publicity. Not, of course, any sort of publicity—one M.P. got a lot of space in the press some time ago because the Russian secret police had photographed him, in a Moscow hotel bedroom, in what was delicately described as a compromising situation. Another is involved in the complicated scandal of John Bloom’s Rolls Razor Company.

The kind of publicity a politician looks for plays up to popular fears and prejudices and makes him appear as the man who looks after the interests of the people. Very often this means an M.P. will make a speech which, without any real evidence in support, simply repeats popular bigotries. This stimulates the bigots into thinking that the rumours, half truths and malice on which they have fed have some substance; the politicians is “only saying what everyone else thinks.”

It was this sort of reaction which gave so much support to the inflammatory utterances of Enoch Powell and which brought the dockers to the Houses of Parliament to unburden themselves to, of all people, Gerald Nabarro. This M.P. had already done enough to give him the respected title of the man who says what everyone else is thinking; he it was who asked, on the Any Questions? programme, whether anyone wanted their daughter marrying a Negro and perhaps leading to coffee coloured grandchildren.

There were, of course, many people who thought the real issue was whether anyone would like their daughter marrying anyone as pompous and offensive as Nabarro but they were swamped in the general chorus of approval of his remarks. Something similar happened when Nabarro made his famous statement last month that he had irrefutable evidence of the government’s intention to put up the road tax on private cars from £25 to £35 a year. Here again, a politician was repeating rumours which had been going the rounds for some time—as indeed they go the rounds almost every year as Budget time approaches. Nothing the government could say could make any difference; for most people there was no smoke without fire.

If this was a somewhat hysterical reaction, it was because Nabarro was playing upon a very sensitive nerve. The British working class have yet to recover from the shock of finding a few million of them running motor cars; most are still too dazed by the realisation of this pre-war dream be able to take a balanced view of the situation. The motor car is one of their most cherished possessions—if we can use that word about something which is often owned or subsidised by their employers or in fact is owned by the finance company who have put up the money for its hire purchase.

This does not stop a worker who runs a car often feeling that he has been lifted out of his class by it, or at any rate has one foot on the ladder. This has raised motoring into a political issue. People who cannot afford the money to buy a car outright talk airily of the economics of investing hundreds of millions of pounds in new roads, as if the most important thing in their life was to be able to motor as quickly, and in as straight a line, as possible between one point and another. And of course any move to make motoring dearer—to put up the price of petrol, tyres, the road licence—is viewed as a deadly assault upon the dream and so becomes a part of the politics.

There is yet another aspect of this. “Irrefutable evidence” said Nabarro and millions of workers were stirred by the phase. But just a minute. Does this mean that there will now be a widespread demand for irrefutable evidence to back up everything a politician says? Will the Nabarros of the world start a new fashion of establishing the strength of their evidence before they release their statements to the press?

Imagine the Prime Minister coming onto television to tell us that he had irrefutable proof of his impotence to deal with the problems of British capitalism, undeniable evidence that he had made false promises and that he and all his colleagues were tricksters? What if President Nixon, given a little time to settle in, said the same thing? If the rulers of Russian capitalism confessed they had proof that they were running a bureaucratic dictatorship which had nothing to do with Socialism?

Nabarro, with his sudden thirst for proof, would have to tell all those dockers that he stood for the class they are constantly fighting over wages and conditions. He would have to admit that the evidence says that skin colour does not affect a person’s capacity to learn, to act, to think nor to live in harmony with others and that there is no scientific reason against interbreeding. What he would have to say, were he to spell out the evidence about himself as a politician, hardly bears thinking about.

The confessions would not end there, Politicians would have to eat an awful lot of their words. What, for example, is the irrefutable proof on a worker’s social standing? He lives by the wage he gets by selling his labour power; this is not a gratuity from the employer. In the long run it is based upon what it takes, under average social conditions, to keep a worker alive and fit for work and able to reproduce. The point is that average social conditions are variable, from place to place and from time to time.

It seems too obvious to say that the needs of a worker in Siberia are different from those of a worker in South America; variations in climate, for one thing, give them differing standards of housing, food and clothes. What is perhaps less obvious is that social conditions vary with time. Human knowledge is expanding; the industrial ’results of that expansion lead to new products, new industries—and to a need for new markets in which the products can be sold.

This process can move faster at one time than another. Since the war it has moved pretty fast with the result that many homes have a car, television, washing machine and so on. The other side of the coin is the fact that, if these products are now practically established as part of working class living standards, this is often a reflection of new pressures upon the worker and of the intensifying of their exploitation.

Washing machines and refrigerators, for example, are actually needed in a family where the wife goes out to work, as she often has to, to balance the family budget. A washing machine is needed to do the job which a woman who works all day has neither the time nor the energy to do by hand. A fridge is needed because she has time only for one big shopping outing a week and has to have somewhere to store and preserve what she buys then. In the same way cars are needed by those workers who, because they cannot afford the rent or the repayments on houses near the industrial concentrations, are forced to live twenty or thirty miles away from their workplace.

The important point here is not simply that a worker gets a car to get a job to get a car. Nobody has yet found a way of halting what they call progress and this means that a worker in the meanest circumstances today may have built into his living standards something which, say, Queen Victoria never dreamed of. But this does not elevate that worker into the same class as the Royal Family.

Now what about Nabarro and his licence fee? Fundamentally a worker’s wage, and the conditions which set the guidelines for it, are not affected by taxation. The price of petrol, for example, has gone up and down over the past few years apart from tax changes. And if the general, overriding trend has been upwards, then this is true of most commodities, including the labour power the worker sells for his wage, whether they are subject to taxation or not.

If, then, workers are concerned with their living standards, and with facts, they should spurn and despise the ambitious clowning of politicians. Let them look at the proof that they are endlessly fed with lies and promises and diversions, all of which obscure the fundamental facts of their social situation. If they will do that they will have ceased to make common cause with their enemies, and perhaps even started to identify their friends.