1980s >> 1985 >> no-971-july-1985

The Man From Peabody

George Brown began his life as a lorry driver’s son in Peabody Buildings, Lambeth and ended it as Lord George Brown of Jevington in the County of Sussex — a place of tranquil prosperity in one of the lovelier parts of the South Downs. In between those two events lay the sort of political career which leads the obituarists to question whether things would have been very different if the dead person had made it to the top. To some, Brown’s career was a tragedy of unlucky timing: “(his) political career peaked too late or too early; he was more at home in the commitment world than in the manipulative era of the sixties “(Norman ShrapnelGuardian). Others laid stress on characteristics which might explain why the label of Labour’s Nearly Man fell so easily on Brown: ” . . . his greatest weakness the emotional extravagance . . .” (The Times, being  kind); . . often he was too drunk. . .” (The Mirror, being frank like Brown himself).

 

But among commentators, obituarists are uncommonly liable to miss the point which in Brown’s case was that he was not a Nearly Man. He did make it — not to Number Ten it is true but to the office where his cherished theories on how capitalism could be controlled and organised to the lasting benefit of us all were put into practice. Had these theories succeeded in the way Brown had promised, then recent political history would have been very different. There would have been none of the chronic economic crises, no disputes over wages, no recession or closures or redundancies. There would have been no winter of discontent for the Callaghan government, no Thatcher government to screw down ever fiercer on working class poverty, no coal strike, no cowed and beaten trade union movement.

 

But of course Brown’s theories didn’t succeed. They were tried and they failed wretchedly. The organisation he erected to put them into practice — a government ministry with enormous power — was allowed quietly to die and now lies buried with no memorial except the obituarists’ words. In the end. disillusioned. Brown left the Labour Party which he had first heard of in his youth in Peabody — “for the same bloody reasons that I joined” he grumbled — for the Social Democratic Party, which also has theories, somewhere, about how capitalism can be controlled, somehow.

 

Brown’s greatest hour struck with the election of the Labour government in 1964. The party came to power after a cleverly conceived campaign which persuaded large numbers of workers that their enormous technological and productive power was being held in check by tweed-suited Tory aristocrats who were more at home on the grouse moors than in the factory or the laboratory or the planning office. Prosperity was there, only waiting to be released from the shackles of Tory bumbledom by something called the White Hot Technological Revolution. As one of their 1964 election publications put it, Labour stood for:

 

A New Britain:
mobilising the resources of technology under a national plan; harnessing our national wealth in brains, our genius for scientific invention and medical discovery; reversing the erosion of thirteen wasted years of a moribund Tory dynasty . . . (When Labour Wins)

 

Labour’s case rested solidly on planning the economy. The Conservative government they were aiming at ousting from office had been through the normal crises and Wilson was successful in labelling their response to these as “stop-go-stop”. Labour guaranteed to do better; they had a plan which would relate growth of incomes — by which they meant not only wages but also profits, dividends and rent — to increases in productivity. In this way. they claimed, inflation — which was supposed to be an inevitable consequence of unco-ordinated increases in incomes — could be cured. The trick had so far eluded every government but Labour were not deterred. This time there would be a specially briefed ministry, the Department of Economic Affairs, to plan and co-ordinate the whole operation — rising productivity through advanced technology, rising (but controlled) incomes and prices. This new ministry would take over a lot of the Treasury’s responsibilities, on the argument that it was the Treasury’s miserly concern with purely financial matters which had helped to hold back economic development. The Chancellor (whoever that was to be) would be a lot less powerful than in the past. The importance of the new ministry would be asserted by the fact that its boss would be George Brown, who was to be. apart from other things, deputy prime minister.

 

With great energy. Brown got to work to set up the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) and produce his National Plan. The day after the election he “. . started telephoning all over the place. Sir Eric Roll, Sir Donald MacDougall, Tony Crosland and a number of others came round, and we spent most of the night working out just what we were going to do. Next morning we . . . opened shop “. (In My Way.) It quickly became apparent that before they could think about “economic expansion” the government had to tackle the issue of wages. If the unions, believing all that talk about lifting the burden of Tory stop-go, had begun demanding huge rises, Labour s plans would be in ruins. It has always been their claim that their special relationship with the unions gives them a greater possibility of moderating wage claims than the Tories but it was obviously advisable to combine wage restraint with some sort of check on prices. A government can try to do this by law, as had been the case during the war, or they can rely on a voluntary — or rather a cajoled — agreement by the unions and the employers. It was by no great stroke of originality that Brown chose the latter course.

 

After a lot of negotiation, on 16 December 1964 he proudly displayed the famous Declaration of Intent on Productivity. Prices and Incomes, signed by representatives of the unions, the employers and the government. The workers seemed hopeful, if not satisfied; perhaps, after all. prosperity could be won through moderation, negotiation, responsibility. . . If the employers had any doubts about the government’s intentions, Brown was anxious to set them at rest: “Business men have more hope of making progress and money under a Labour government than they had before”. (Interview in The Director, April 1965.)

 

The honeymoon did not last very long. Labour came to power facing a deficit of £800 million in the balance of overseas payments. They represented this as some sort of debt of the British working class; it was money which we owed and this meant that we had to work harder and receive less until it was paid off. They were also concerned about the effect of currency speculation on the exchange rate of sterling. Now speculators behave in a manner perfectly acceptable in a capitalist society — they concentrate on making as much profit as quickly as they can. In any case, one speculator’s gain must be another’s loss. But for the Wilson government they were at times almost an obsession; “confidence in sterling” became a priority which, according to Harold Wilson, justified some precautions bordering on the farcical:

 

  . . . watching the physical movements of the Chancellor, the Governor of the Bank of England, or the Prime Minister. Once, we virtually had to order the Governor, Lord Cromer, to proceed with his plans for a holiday in the South of France. lest cancellation might be construed as portending immediate devaluation.

(The Labour Government 1964 – 1970.)

 

So it was that a new Enemy of the People was born — the Gnomes of Zurich, sinister, subversive and foreign; Labour was not above stimulating a little nationalistic paranoia.

 

Crisis by crisis, the assumptions and the theories on which Brown’s ministry were founded were chipped away. In 1966 the Declaration of Intent was formally declared to be as dead as everyone had known it to be for some time, by a statutory freeze on prices and incomes. Brown described the failure of the DEA: “We were trying to persuade people to restrain wage demands and to hold down prices at the very time when the rest of the government, as a matter of deliberate policy, was forcing up prices”. He also decided, after the event (like Wilson), that the DEA’s scope was too wide and that it concentrated too much on prices and incomes and too little on productivity. But these were central to its operations. The plain fact is that the National Plan, and all that went with it, was a fraudulent, foredoomed pledge to do the impossible — to change capitalism so that it worked in an orderly, predictable way to the benefit of all the people instead of a minority. But intentions are not enough. Brown was not the first, nor the last, politician to fail in that. It was just that he seemed to take it rather more seriously than most.

 

He resigned from the DEA in August 1966 to become Foreign Secretary, in which job he gained a lot of publicity for his drinking (press photographers followed him relentlessly in the hope of getting a scoop picture of him falling over or behaving outrageously — and were not always disappointed). His place at the head of the DEA was taken by a very different character — the arid, schoolmasterly Michael Stewart, who personified the DEA’s decline into its impending euthanasia. Brown left the government finally in March 1968, in protest that he had not been properly informed of a decision to close the foreign exchange banks for a day, which could hardly have been a shattering blow to the residents of Peabody.

 

Did the DEA. and the National Plan, and the Declaration of Intent, have any effect on the conditions of the people who had voted for it? According to Inland Revenue figures in 1964, when the Labour government came to power, the top ten per cent of the population owned 73.5 per cent of the wealth. In 1970. when Labour lost office, the top ten per cent owned 70.1 per cent of the wealth. At the other end of the scale, in 1968/9 there were five million people in Britain living at or below the official poverty line. (Poverty in the United Kingdom. Peter Townsend). What this means is that the Labour government left capitalism undisturbed. We still lived — as we do now — under a social system in which a privileged minority hold a monopoly of the means of life. The Labour Party look back now — when they can steel themselves to face it — on the National Plan as an ill-advised, if well- meant, experiment (Brown remembered it as a “a social revolution that failed”). But his body can rest easy in its grave for his ideas live on; Labour has clearly learnt nothing from the experience of those disastrous days. In February 1983. in the magazine New Socialist, Roy Hattersley argued that an agreement with the unions about wages which an expanding economy can contain, was necessary to avoid inflation. Neil Kinnock waxed optimistic about Labour’s new version of the National Plan, now under the name of the National Economic Assessment.

 

These ideas are stale and discredited because there is in fact nothing for an organisation like the Labour Party to learn. Capitalism is not only an anarchic social system, it is also bankrupt of ideas. That should have been obvious to George Brown. But it wasn’t; so we shall have to rely on the people, in Peabody Buildings and Jevington and everywhere, who have the incentive and the power to change things.

 

Ivan