1970s >> 1971 >> no-799-march-1971

A Bang or a whimper

Robert Carr — controversial figure. Tory M.P. for Mitcham; head of the Department of Employment and Productivity; supposed to solve strikes; responsible for getting the Industrial Relations Bill through Parliament. A controversial figure but also, according to those who know him, a Very Nice Man (Tom Jackson, leader of the Union of Postal Workers, said that Carr was “very decent indeed” about the postal strike.) Also the man whose expensive Georgian home in a posh London suburb was damaged by two bombs, planted by someone so impressed by Carr’s actions that they disregarded his personality.

The panic which followed the bomb attack, with armed guards for Ministers and the police visiting known “militants”, prompts the question: what next? According to Carr “We always imagine in Britain we would be free from this sort of thing” and although it is true that actual attempts on politicians’ lives are rare in this country recent events may mean that he was being rather optimistic. In the last few months there have been bomb attacks on the homes of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and of the Attorney General; the Department of Employment and Productivity’s building has had another attack and Carr’s deputy, Dudley Smith, has received a threat to his life. Then there was the incident when the M.P.s, who are responsible for the use of C.S. gas in, among other places, Ulster, were treated to a dose of it from a man in the public gallery. Apparently they acted under this assault with rather less than the sort of reckless courage they are continually urging in others.

A perceptible element in protest nowadays is a lack of respect for our political leaders. Ministers, whoever they are, are not always listened to reverently. Some politicians are actually assaulted when they go to certain university towns; men like Ronald Bell must be getting quite hardened to it by now. This is not a novel situation, even in Britain; the Suffragettes, for example, were much more violent, much more original, much more persistent.

Yet with all that British politicians have remained relatively safe and we have to go back some time for an example of an assassination. In May 1812 Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister, was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons. The man who did it was a bankrupt merchant who blamed Perceval’s policies for his ruin (Perceval had also been Chancellor of the Exchequer) but this was no isolated act of violence in a placid age.

Perceval’s ministry was a time of Enclosures, of 16 hour child labour in factories and of the Combination Acts. Poverty was at its cruellest; in the House of Lords a few weeks before Perceval’s death Byron lamented: “. . . never under the most despotic of infidel governments did I behold such squalid wretchedness” as he had seen in England. Most notably it was the time when workers who had been displaced by the new machines and factories hit back in the only way they knew, writing the name Luddite into the language.

It was during Perceval’s premiership that the Luddites began breaking machines to a systematic plan of action. The ruling class hit back, in no gentle fashion, raising the penalty for frame breaking from 14 year’s transportation (which was terrible enough) to death. Thereafter it was not unusual for multiple hangings to follow an attack on a factory. In April 1812 Cartwright’s mill at Rawfolds was attacked. There were soldiers waiting (one who refused to fire got 300 lashes) and the Luddites were beaten off. Two of them who were mortally wounded would not reveal the names of their comrades but in the end many were caught and four of them hanged.

A century later there was the killing of Field Marshall Wilson who was shot by two Irishmen outside his home in London in June 1921. Officially Wilson was described as a soldier but his activities during the first world war and in the struggle between the British government and the Irish nationalists made him more a politician. He was killed (the nationalists said “executed”) on the orders of Michael Collins, although it was not clear when the order had been issued. By the time it was carried out Collins may have preferred to forget it; he was then a respectable member of the Irish government, fighting a civil war against some of his old friends. He was himself killed in an ambush a couple of months after Wilson was shot down.

Here again, then, we were in violent times. The struggle in Ireland was a bloody, ruthless affair. After 1918 the British used battle-hardened soldiers, many of whom held life cheap. They were embittered by unemployment and the fear that they could not exist outside the Army. They were not gentle and their methods were matched by the other side. In one incident the Irish took a couple of Black and Tans hostage for an elderly woman held by the British as a suspected IRA supporter. Nobody seemed to expect that any of the three would be seen alive again and it was not clear whether the British shot the woman, or the Irish threw the Black and Tans into a furnace, first. The civil war which followed the treaty between the British and some sections of the Irish was no less ugly.

Compared to then (and to other countries now) England is peaceful, secure. Heath does not suffer the claustrophobic guard which surrounds Nixon. No British politician endures anything like the threats which became almost routine (and sometimes nearly reality) with De Gaulle. Yet poor, nice, Robert Carr is bombed and all he has done is try to restrict the unions and help control wages.

He might think that in this he is doing no more than any other politician; he is only doing his job of protecting the interests of British capitalism. This is hardly a reason for killing him, especially as his Labour predecessor tried to do the same job in almost exactly the same way. Carr might also argue that, whatever a militant minority might think, most British workers support his Bill. After all, most of them voted either Labour or Tory and both parties stand for new curbs on the unions. In fact one militant minority of workers showed what they thought of the attack on Carr’s home by working round the clock to repair it in record time.

But Carr can complain only so far. He said he refused to believe that “. . . this is going to be the way British life and society conducts itself” when he should know perfectly well that capitalism here and all over the world is a society of violence. A lot of this violence, like the massive social effort to manufacture weapons of obliteration, is legal and respectable but nevertheless must have the effect of conditioning us all to accept other violence which may not be legalised. In a world clouded with hydrogen missiles, how serious is a gelignite attack which damaged a couple of doors and some windows? And when political leaders exist (as they must) by cynicism (for example the Tories fought the election on a promise to hold prices; the pound of last June is now worth 97p.) can they wonder, or protest, when the extreme cynicism of violence is turned against them?

This is not to say that any socialist will be found planting gelignite. If the attack on Carr’s home stimulated anything among the workers it was sympathy for the man and his family. If it had killed Carr the sympathy would have been overwhelming, which would have been a useful mood for the new head of the department to come in on and start pushing the Bill through. In other words, Carr would have been replaced by another capitalist politician for the workers to vote for at the next election.

In the meantime the fumes of the bombs obscured the real issue. The legislation of capitalism is not dreamed up by politicians. It arises from the needs of the system and the system is kept in being by the support of the working class. These workers are ignorant in the sense that they are unaware of their own interests and it is that ignorance, not the results of it, which must he attacked. Are we recommending, then, bombs at all working class homes? In fact violence does not attack ignorance — it may stimulate it and sometimes produce it in its ugliest form. For the purpose of establishing Socialism, of making a better world for people to live in, violence is an obstacle.

If they ever catch the people responsible for the bomb they will charge them with all sorts of offences; the bombers will probably be convicted and get the sort of sentences which are supposed to teach us all a healthy respect for the morals of capitalism. Their real crime — confusing and delaying the revolution for a peaceful, humane society — will go unnoticed.