1980s >> 1988 >> no-1002-february-1988

Power to the people

The Socialist Standard apologises for being a little late with the news but last month Margaret Thatcher became the longest-serving Prime Minister of the century. The great, national sigh of gratitude and relief which greeted the fateful day when she passed the record of Herbert Asquith was quickly blotted out by the sound of frantically hammered typewriters, as political scribes launched into yet another assessment of her time in office, now compared with that of Asquith.

Modern capitalism demands that its executives in the state machine work a great deal harder now than they did eighty years ago. Thatcher, for example, rises at 6am and carries on throughout the day until the small hours of the next one. Only under protest does she take one brief holiday a year. Asquith, who was accustomed to taking several leisurely breaks, would have been horrified; but Thatcher revels under the pressure, drawing energy from the sense that she is at the centre of decision-taking, where policies are laid down and changes are wrought. She is, the scribes were agreed, politically dominant now; amid the column inches of awed admiration for her, a certain phrase began to creep in more and more often elective dictatorship. It means that Thatcher, having won power through the votes of millions of workers, uses that power as if she has an eternal grasp of it — as if she is a dictator. Her method is to ensure that British capitalism is run as she wants it to be by purging her government of all doubting or dissident influences and surrounding herself with people who, although nominally her advisers, rarely if ever question what she is doing.

An example of this was in the appointment of the new Cabinet Secretary, to replace Robert Armstrong who will be remembered for his squirming euphemism about being “economical with the truth” long after all his other work is forgotten. Poor Armstrong, going faithfully into the jaws of a ruthless cross examination on the other side of the world and, as always seemed inevitable, ending up an international laughing stock. But at least it proved one thing; it laid to rest the old myth that it is the Civil Service which runs capitalism rather than the people who are elected to be the government. Armstrong’s successor, Robin Butler, is renowned as a Thatcher devotee, having been her principal private secretary. An all-powerful Civil Service would hardly have allowed such an appointment, so soon after Armstrong s humiliation.

But as the myth of the omnipotent Civil Service faded, it was to some extent replaced with concern over the influence of the lobbyists. These are the people who operate behind the scenes of government, with the object of influencing decisions in favour of the organisations who have hired them. Lobbying is a growth industry — if that word can be applied to it — which has expanded over the past few years from a few small firms competing for a small total annual fee into a business with some big companies, often subsidiaries of advertising agencies (of course Saatchi and Saatchi has one) able to command fees in tens of thousands for their services. The lobbyists need to know their way around the corridors of power; many of them once worked as senior civil servants or advisers to politicians. Recent events where they were active were the Westlands affair, the Guinness bid for Distillers and the SAS attempt to take over a slice of British Caledonian. While there is no reason to accept the lobbyists’ estimates of their own influence — they have an obvious interest in exaggeration — it is true that they are an addition to what seems to many people a mass of confused influences, all operating on the government, which effectively blanket out any democratic content. There is Thatcher behaving as if she is a dictator; there is the civil service, through their position of the permanent factor whichever government is in power; there are the lobbyists, working behind the scenes to distort and frustrate governmental decisions. In all this, what happens to the wishes of the voters? To the promises on which the government was elected? Is there any point in ever voting again?

Anyone who suffers nightmares about a Britain in the grip of the faceless mandarins of Whitehall, or of the slick operators in the public relations business, can be re-assured. Whatever influence these people may be able to exert they can operate only within a certain system (after all, no recalcitrant civil servant has ever sabotaged a minute so as to help along the case for abolishing capitalism). We live under a social system based on a class division, into owners and non-owners — into capitalists and workers. This society cannot be democratic — it has to have its secrets, whether they are military, commercial or governmental (as Robert Armstrong knows only too well). The owning capitalists hold a privileged social position — privileged in their access to wealth, to information, to power and to the process of decision taking. The working class are never asked about decisions like the take-over of British Caledonian; it is simply not within the scope of their social position under capitalism.

This situation exists because the working class allow it to. At present the capitalist class — the ruling class — hold power but they do this through the fact that the working class agree to it. The workers are the majority; they are the useful, productive people who design and produce and operate all that society needs. As the majority they have the potential power; at present they surrender this power to the capitalists by voting in their millions for one or other of the parties which, whatever their incidental differences, are agreed that capitalism should continue. People who are concerned about the subversive distortion of governmental decisions should consider where the responsibility lies — how it is that an undemocratic system can be energised, again and again, through millions of democratic votes.

And that brings us to the important question of what can be done about it. How do we bring Thatcher’s elective dictatorship to an end? How do we unmask the shadowy figures behind Whitehall’s desks? How do we see off the subversive lobbyists? Well it is possible to have a society in which all people stand in equality in the sense that they all have the same rights of access to what society produces, whether it is wealth or a service or information. This will be a society which will work on majority consent, in the interests of the majority. It will have a universal, human unity in its objects and its achievements. Minority class interests will not exist and neither will the mess of deceits and cynicism which they entail. So there is no need to be down-hearted at Thatcher’s record; like all the events of capitalism, it puts some important questions and offers some illuminating answers. We can change things; as soon as the society of common ownership and free access arrives, the Socialist Standard will not be late with the news.

Ivan