1970s >> 1974 >> no-835-march-1974

Who Governs Britain?

By the time you read this Socialist Standard the Election will be over. On 10th February The Observer listed slogans used by the Conservative and Labour Parties in General Elections since the war. A collection of phrases of such fatuousness and irrelevance would be hard to find: questions which should never be asked, appeals which might as well be in Linear B for all the meaning to be found in them.


The latest addition, in this election, is the Tory call “Who governs Britain ?” That is, of course, the question of every election, but its implication on this occasion has been of a vital conflict between representative government and attempts by agitators in trade unions to supplant it. In his first speech of the election campaign, Heath said:


Are moderates going to sound a call loud and clear that we have had enough of the extremists in our society and the danger and disruption they cause, these few who put so much at risk by their abuse of power? . . .  The future of Britain depends on this election.


Wilson has kept out of this argument for the tactical reason that he cannot accept at election-time that there is any alternative to Tory government except Labour government. But, in office, he has sounded the same cry that Communists and other “extremists” have been disrupting the work of running the country — notably, in the seamen’s strike of 1966.


Apparent awareness of the vacuity of election appeals did not stop the Observer a week earlier, on 3rd February, publishing grist for Heath’s mill in an article on the insidious scheming of left-wingers in the trade unions. Two things need to be pointed out at once on this subject. First, the complete failure of the “extremists” — the Communists for fifty years — to achieve what they set out to do with the unions. And second, that discontent with wages and poor living standards is not an agitators’ invention. As the satirical columnist “Yaffle” wrote in 1947 (in the Labour Reynolds’ News, under a Labour government):


No working man ever knows his wage is too small until some professional Fomenter strolls up with a microscope and tells him to look at it.
No working-class mother ever knows that her children are under-fed until some salaried discontent-monger calls round with a pair of scales and a tape measure and asks her to examine her offspring closely.
. . . Take warning from the past. Remember the last war and recall how easily a “hero” becomes a “work-shy” and a public nuisance.
All he had to do was to discover he hadn’t enough to eat, and say so.


Head Against Brick Wall
Does the possibility exist that industrial action on a large enough scale could damage capitalism and governments’ ability to govern? Undoubtedly this is the dream of several left-wing groups. In the speech quoted above, Heath “reminded” the miners’ union that its action “threatened the whole country”, and went on: “That is why we called this election.” Such a statement is likely to give delusions of grandeur to anyone who believes he can “threaten the country”, but it is absurdly untrue. A General Election had to be called before long, and the question for Heath was finding an advantageous time.


The fact is that capitalism and its means of rule, the state, cannot be overthrown by industrial action. Of course changes of government can and do take place — but only at the behest of electoral majorities. Since 1970 (but by no means for the first time) a lot has been heard of “political action” by the trade unions. It should be known that no strike has ever succeeded in unseating a government or even getting one to change its mind about legislation. Certainly from time to time militants are gratified by seeing a change, though it has resulted not from their actions but from a General Election. And what does it amount to? The new administration is committed to run capitalism as the old one was, and by the same means.


Capitalism is not the government but the social system. It means the class ownership of the means of production and distribution, in the modern world. Whether industries are in private hands or under state control makes no difference (as the miners and railwaymen should know). In one case ownership is vested in private individuals, in the other in the capitalist class as a whole. Both ways, the sole purpose of production is profit, and the economic pressures and consequences of capitalism are there. The immediate concomitant of class ownership is the non-ownership of the rest, who are thereby condemned to wage-labour.


The function of the state is to upkeep this system. Before anything else, it is capitalism’s self-provided sanction. It gives class ownership its fortification, through law supported by police and prisons and, in the end, armed force. This is the simple fact which makes the idea of confrontation between militants and the state ridiculous. Before the modem state arrived, mediaeval kings could be overthrown by whatever barons raised stronger armies. It is that world, romanticized, that the confrontationists and Heath both seem to be invoking; the good knight topples the evil one, and the peasantry applaud. Twentieth- century politics is nothing like that.


Seat of Power
What has to be understood also is that this function of the state rests on the support of the electorate. The truth against which militants shut their eyes is that the majority of the working class remain, to date, in favour of capitalism; that is, they have been led to believe it is the natural order or can be brought round on their behalf. (Indeed, it is impossible to grasp how left-wing organizations dc see the working class. Their publications show the workers on one hand duped and doped by the big parties and hypnotized by the Spectacle; on the other hand, permanently seething with revolt. Which is it ?)


Obviously there are rival versions of how to run capitalism. There have also been — not any more, however — groups and individuals who have gone to Parliament believing the system could be reformed out of existence; in these cases, foreseeably, the man was oblivious to the bite and the dog it was that died. The main factor in administering capitalism is finance. Discussing aspects of government in an article in The Guardian on 6th February, Dr. David Owen wrote:


The democratic process as it is represented through our parliamentary system has traditionally focussed on the control of expenditure and this remains the central control mechanism whether the policy issue is related to the EEC or is purely domestic.


The position is that the state is provided with money by the capitalist class through taxation. The differences between the major parties are therefore largely differences over how this money shall be collected and spent. Two important points immediately arise. The first is that taxation, so often used to inflame or allure the electorate, is not a working-class issue at all. The second is that these differences all stand on the assumption that capitalism must be kept in good running order. It is tempting to believe that Labour measures for “soaking the rich” are steps to equality, and to blame their failure on mismanagement; but their basic futility is that they are conceived within the taken-for-granted frame work of capitalism.


How to use Parliament
There is no hope, then, for reform to undermine or confrontation to overthrow the established order of who governs Britain and every other country. The strength of capitalism’s legality has been demonstrated again and again. Recently there has been the case of the local council which refused to implement an Act of Parliament, and had its powers removed and its members penalized; the same thing happened in the nineteen-fifties in attempted local rebellions against Civil Defence. In 1972 there were the ineffectual demonstrations against the government’s Industrial Relations Act and, later in the year, the disposal of the Angry Brigade group who claimed they could change society with bombs.


“Who governs Britain?” is a non-question. But Socialists have been putting forward for seventy years the means to get rid of the problems over which some workers fume and others think they must be resigned. The capitalist system continues because the majority support it. The day that support ceases, the situation will alter completely. What the majority have to understand is the nature of capitalism, including that a change of government is no change at all, and that only Socialism will be different.


The course of action then is easy. Delegates will be elected to Parliament with a mandate — which no industrial militant or reformist politician has ever had — not to administer capitalism but to abolish it. This is the state put to its final, and for the first time fruitful, use; instead of confronting the coercive machinery, the Socialists’ representatives take possession of it. Class ownership then falls to the ground, and the new world of common ownership can begin.


Robert Barltrop