One nation — an emaciated myth

Few things are more consistently misrepresented than the past and now the Tory Wets are at it, with their talk of One Nation. There was, they tell us, something called One Nation Toryism when decency was the politician’s guiding principle. When those who held wealth and power and privilege regarded themselves as under an agonising obligation to the rest, who had little or none of those things. The poor and the sick had to be looked after — and of course kept poor — through a charitable concern for their welfare. Naturally there will be disputes occasionally to mar this blissful arrangement but these can be settled through a process of consensus, taking all interests into account so that the final decision is acceptable to everyone. Confrontation – the bitter, head-on fight to the death — is in very bad taste. Apparently One Nation Toryism operated in the past and as a result everyone kept their place and England was a green and pleasant land awash with milk and honey.

So far nobody has actually been able to tell us when that was and what it was like and why, if life then was so relaxed and serene, the principle of One Nation was ever allowed to decline into Divided Britain under Margaret Thatcher, who enjoys nothing so much as a good day’s searing confrontation with Neil Kinnock, the unions, the BBC or her own back benchers. Just how much some of those back benchers are in the grip of nostalgia for One Britain was made clear recently when Ted Heath attacked the government’s proposals on education reform on the grounds that they violated the sacred principles of real, caring Toryism. But it is less than 20 years ago when Heath was himself Prime Minister. Was there One Nation then? Have we forgotten something about life in Britain in the 1970s?

Heath, like Thatcher, was the offspring of a small-town grocer. He was brought up in Broadstairs on the Kent coast. Now there is much to recommend Broadstairs, a rambling town with white cliffs, sandy bays and rock pools which give it the air of a seaside town out of Enid Blyton. But it hardly seems a place likely to spawn a charismatic political leader and so it turned out to be with Heath — a dogged, stubborn man who lacked the art of showing himself as a person of real warmth or of clear principles. Of course this was not why he was sacked as Tory leader. In the eyes of his party, his real crime was to lose an election, in circumstances which seemed to make it almost entirely his fault.

And that is what makes his talk now about One Britain rather strange. Heath came to power in June 1970 after a campaign in which his party promised to do something to stop what seemed to be the unstoppable rise in prices. The Tory programme made it quite clear that they would apply a different economic strategy from that of previous Labour and Conservative governments. Harder-headed, more rigorous standards would be applied, the screw would be tightened on state subsidies to ailing companies and those which could not compete effectively enough would be abandoned — lame ducks as prey to the economic foxes and vultures. There would be an end to government intervention in wage disputes, which would be left to sort themselves out under the influence of market forces; Labour’s Prices and Incomes Board would be abolished.

The idea was partly to encourage employers to resist wage claims and the government led the way in this by enforcing the policy on its own employees who, apart from anything else, were among the weakest in their bargaining power. The postmen were a vital test case; they took their dispute to the lengths of a strike but theirs was an industry due for the sweeping changes which have since come about. Their defeat was predictable, as was the bitterness with which they faced it. It was no time to talk to a postman about One Nation Toryism.

The same can be said about the decision to abolish free school milk, which had once been held up as an example to the world of how a caring state ensured that no child should grow up with easily avoidable diseases of malnutrition. It can be said too about the rise in the price of school dinners, an early step towards their eventual virtual abolition. School dinners had been valued as a social service, an assurance that even the poorest kids would get at least one substantial meal each day (not to mention the poorly paid teachers). Thatcher was Minister of Education at the time; she later said that the attacks she received over these cuts would send her home weeping — a touching vision.

But Heath was perhaps a little before his time in these policies and it soon became apparent that if British capitalism was to compete in its established markets there was an urgent need for help from the state. In early 1972 Heath did his famous U-turn, when he reversed many of the policies on which his election victory had been based. Huge subsidies were made available to industry; Rolls Royce and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders were two of the more famous companies saved from collapse. Having abolished the Labour government’s Industrial Development Corporation, which organised these types of operation, Heath’s government now set up the Industrial Development Executive, whose function was almost exactly the same. In place of Labour’s Prices and Incomes Board we had a Price Commission and a Wages Board. Now committed to a policy of interference in wage disputes the government were faced with a series of them, in particular a strike by civil servants — the first in history.

The abandonment of the principle of non-interference was finally signalled with the imposition of a statutory 90-day freeze on wage rises, to be relaxed gradually over a long period. This was accompanied by an erosion of trade union bargaining power in the Industrial Relations Bill. The Labour Party attacks on this Bill ignored the fact that many of its proposals were similar to those in the previous Labour government’s White Paper In Place of Strife. When the Bill became law it did nothing to reduce tension and its inoperable nature was made clear in June 1973 when some dockers were imprisoned for contempt of court after refusing to appear before the Industrial Relations Court. The judge concerned was interpreting the Act correctly; he was doing what the government and parliament had wanted. But an acutely embarrassed government could foresee an unending procession of eager trade union martyrs pressing through the prison gates. Something had to be done to wangle out of this impasse of their own making. The Official Solicitor was urged to think of a way out; this shadowy figure enjoyed a brief spell of fame, the dockers were released and the Act and the Court thereafter discredited.

This monumental muddle came to a head with the oil crisis of 1973, as the miners, the electrical power workers and the train drivers were taking action over pay claims. The miners had already won a spectacular victory in their strike of 1972, when the flying pickets came onto the scene, Arthur Scargill first made his name and the Wilberforce Enquiry came down emphatically on the miners’ side. There is no need here to recount the story of the Three Day Week, the State of Emergency, the power cuts, the unlit shop fronts, the blank television screens after 10.30pm. It was hardly an ideal vision of One Nation. After that, no Prime Minister should have hoped to win an election (although in fact Heath almost pulled it off).

Perhaps Heath made some terrible mistake. Perhaps he simply got his timing wrong — many of his policies are in operation now, more appropriate to the interests of British capitalism in recession in the 1980s than they were in the 1970s. But one policy he did not try through all those crises was that of One Nation Toryism. For example his bitter denunciation of the miners in 1973 allowed nothing about the dangers of their job. In March that year seven miners were killed by floodwater; in May another seven in a collapse; in July 18 in a pit cage crash. At that time pneumoconiosis held some 40,000 miners in its painful, incurable grip. These workers were part of the useful, productive people in society; Heath’s policies, like those of all governments, were designed to protect the interests of the unproductive, parasitic minority of the capitalist class.

This class, when Heath lost power in 1974, still owned most of the wealth of Britain. The richest one per cent of the population held 22.5 per cent of the wealth and the richest ten per cent held 57.5 per cent. (In fact they increased their share considerably under the subsequent Labour government, who asserted that they would squeeze the rich until the pips squeaked; Labour has always claimed to be the real proponent of the One Nation principle.) That is the real, fundamental condition of society which makes all the talk of One Nation so much deceit. This is a class divided society of riches and poverty, of opulence and malnutrition, of palaces and slums. It is a society of conflict, of coercion of the many by the few, of exploitation. To attempt to revive the emaciated concept of One Nation hints that the Tory Wets must be getting desperate. It should be laid to rest, with all the other false theories by which capitalism lives on.