1970s >> 1970 >> no-795-november-1970

Putting on the style

Fashion, in its very nature, must constantly be changing. At times, praise be to Georgie Best and Jean Shrimpton, it changes more violently. There is more to it than whim or the inspired flash of a struggling courturier. The gaudy boutiques may try to hide a fact so sordid and worldly but there is much money to be made in “fashion” and changes can bring such rich dividends that change can be represented as a virtue in itself.

Naturally, politicians have seen the possibilities in this. Not that Wilson or Heath has yet come out in flared trousers and a tie-dyed shirt. But they seem to agree that style is important and changes of style vital.

That was why at the last election Heath promised us a new style of government. The details of this were suitably cloudy but we were given to understand that it was all something to do with taxes and integrity and giving business men more say in the running of British capitalism from Whitehall and getting rid of the Wilson gimmicks which have been such an entertainment over the past six years.

This was all very well — many people were fed up with Wilson and he had lost his glamour for the voters — but it took no account of the fact that Labour had themselves come to power on the same sort of promise. It is almost like a history lesson, now, to look back on those days when Wilson, as soon as he had taken over the Labour leadership, launched out on his promises of a new style of government.

Then we were told that we needed to throw out the men who held their power as the result of friendly deals over a glass of old port or during a day out on the grouse moors and replace them with thrusting, ambitious technologists. We needed a plan — in fact a National Plan, no less — which would take care of absolutely everything. And of course we were going to get a new method of collecting taxes, because every political party should make some sort of gesture to the frustrations of the workers who sigh each week when they check the deductions on their pay slip.

This Labour propaganda is now so stale and discredited that it seems incredible that it was ever tried and even more that it came off. And now the Tories are trying the same trick although their new style seems to be that, while Wilson started off with a bang, threatening to devour us all in the white heat of his energy. Heath has projected an image of self-effacement and inactivity.

As the day-by-day problems and crises of capitalism blow up, the government seem determined to give the impression that they are allowing the ship to drift before every wind and current. They have been in no hurry to get out one of those emergency budgets with the object of telling the working class that they have been living too high and must reduce their standards. Problems like Ulster remain sore and festering; a crisis like the skyjackings, which was a great chance for Heath to emerge as a strong man who could be relied on to teach the lesser breeds where they stood, was let pass. The Heath government seems to be sunk in lethargy.

Perhaps this will turn out a successful (in the sense of a vote-winning) style of government. But the people who vote for capitalism usually do so within the assumptions which are necessary to the system and one of these is the assumption that leadership is indispensable. There are few experiences more threatening to the supporter of capitalism than the feeling that his leader, voted into power with such high hopes and confidence, is impotent. Nothing is more comforting than the feeling that the leader is strong, capable, honest . . .

Whatever the mass of the voters are thinking about Heath’s image of inactivity, we can expect the Conservative Party to become restive, perhaps even rebellious, under such stress. There was a similar situation soon after Eden took over as Premier, when the frustrations of the Tories eventually spilled over in the famous “smack of firm government’’ article in the Daily Telegraph. Eden, it was said, was quite unhinged by this attack (he was never famous for his patience and in any case at that time was a very sick man) and conducted much of his subsequent policy in that same angry, impulsive mood.

Perhaps Heath would not lose his composure under such an attack; we do not yet know whether he has the nerve needed by a Prime Minister. Previous Tory Premiers who have affected an air of indolence were figures of comfort to the working class, who showed their gratitude by voting them into power again and again. There was Baldwin, who sucked his pipe and gazed at his pigs and who came over as the humane father figure who would keep us all safe from harm. There was Macmillan, who would not (at least for a long time) allow himself to be flapped and who seemed to have persuaded millions of workers, with their council schooling and in their council houses, that they were as prosperous as he with his Eton background and his sumptuous home in Sussex.

Beneath the lazy, courteous exteriors of these men there was a ruthless, calculating concern to win and keep power. They were both very clever at this; perhaps too clever, because their exposure was quick and cruel and those who had found them once such assuring father figures turned on them with the wrath of betrayed sons. (There is a theme here for a Freudian essay — the Oedipai factor in politics). Baldwin in the end wondered why they hated him so; Macmillan confessed tremblingly to being out of step with the times.

No Labour government has ever felt able to present the same relaxed image as a Baldwin or a Macmillan. Like the car hire firm they have always been Number Two and so have had to try harder. Labour governments have been periods of intense gloom and apparently endless crisis with Labour leaders working hard to cripple the working class with an outsize guilt complex over their alleged indolence and extravagant living.

 

Our first experience of this was in the MacDonald governments, who added to the gloom a fair measure of buffoonery and panic. It was never possible to think of those governments as being in touch with events and when they finally went down in confusion they left the Labour Party — what was left of it — with a reputation for irresponsible stupidity when all they deserved was an exposure for promising to do the impossible and for prostituting the name of Socialism.

 

The post war Labour governments were not thought of as buffoons, whatever sport the Tories made of bread rationing and snoek. But they too were a doleful bunch; Stafford Cripps with his vegetarian’s face and his hair-shirt speeches; Wilson grumbling about the longer skirts; Shawcross going for strikers. And over them all Attlee, like an austere head master wielding the cane over us for not learning our lessons and for smoking behind the gym.

 

The style of a government is in many ways its surface appearance — what the public, the voter, sees. Whatever differences in style there may be between one government and another, they are all determined by a basic similarity. Government exists to organise the affairs of capitalism and to make its own capitalist class as secure and prosperous as can be. But capitalists cannot be run on the basis of free hand outs to the working class; for example, industry cannot compete profitably without some check on wages. The property basis of capitalism must be preserved and protected; workers who are propertyless must be persuaded that they can get the goods they need only by the legal method of paying for them. The international trading and investments of a capitalist class must be protected and fostered. All of this, and more, is the concern of a government, whatever its party label and whatever its pretensions.

 

It is an uncomfortable fact, for politicians, that none of this can be made attractive to the subject class in capitalism. The working class dream of a society free of the restrictions and poverty of capitalism but the feeblest memory should have no difficulty in recalling that working class problems persist in spite of all the pledges to get rid of them. Every government says that it can do something about poverty, every one promises to clear up the housing mess, every one has a policy for ending the threat of war. Yet nothing effective and permanent is ever done about these things. The simple fact is that governments can’t do anything about them.

 

At the same time the politicians are caught in their own trap; they can’t admit to their impotence, they can’t tell the workers not to vote for them and to start thinking about a fundamental change in society. So they are driven to make false promises; they write a selective history, and. simply, tell them lies. They put on the style, they change the style.

 

When Heath, then, says that the Tories will brings us a new style of government what he is really saying is that they will try to tell us some new lies. These may be different from the lies which Wilson told us but the effect will be the same, the promises equally empty, the future equally grim.

 

If there is impatience with Heath it would be better directed at the social system which needs leaders and which lives on lies. Capitalism has had its day and it is time for the fashion to change to give us a new society and a new style of living.

 

Ivan