1990s >> 1996 >> no-1104-august-1996

The Greasy Pole: New word, old trick

Thirty years of hurt haven’t stopped them dreaming . . . Well actually it’s a little more than 30 years since Labour Party supporters could stop dreaming, when the first Wilson government put an end to a long spell of Conservative rule. A lot of the people who will vote in the next general election had not been born then but they will have heard, many times, the kind of declaration which Labour was making in their 1964 manifesto, that “. . . the ending of economic privilege, the abolition of poverty in the midst of plenty, and the creation of real equality of opportunity . . . have now become immediate targets of political action”. Labour 1964 would transform Britain because they would plan the economy into a smooth expansion and use the opportunities of the scientific revolution which had been “disastrously wasted” by the Tories.


Wilson had outlined the policy of promoting Labour as the party of science in a conversation with Richard Crossman early in 1963. If he was elected leader, he said, the party would be able to “ . . . liberate the frustrated energies of thousands of young scientists, technologists and specialists, who feel there is no room for them under the present anti-scientific old-boy network in industry and Whitehall”. The result of the planning and liberation would be an enormous increase in productivity and profitability, which would benefit all of us. (This is not particularly original thinking; it was another version of the Tory one-nation policy, the delusion that all people of whichever class have a common interest in making the ruling class richer. Nowadays it is called the trickle-down theory.)


Grouse moors


The Conservatives, of course, were not the party of science but of the stultifying privileges of the aristocracy. They were the party whose leaders ran the country during short breaks from the organised slaughtering of helpless birds on the grouse moors. By a stroke of luck (for Labour) the Tories had just chosen as their leader Lord Home, a rich amiable Scottish landowner who, apart from an admitted bewilderment over the economics of capitalism, bore a striking resemblance to the birds he ritually brought down with his guns.


So it was all set, when Wilson ousted Home from Number Ten. The journey to the Promised Land could begin. Except that it quickly became clear that things weren’t so simple after all. Soon after taking over Wilson was appearing on television to warn us about the “. . . extremely serious situation which the country is facing” and to declare “We cannot afford attitudes anywhere, on either side of industry which stand in the way of higher production or lower costs. The old fashioned restrictive practices have no place.”
It was not necessary to be overly incredulous of politicians’ promises to understand Wilson’s message. In order to protect the competitive position and the profits of the British ruling class we would have to work harder and face up to a reduction in our standard of living. In this cause, trade unions should not use any bargaining power they had through what were called restrictive practices.


This opened the way to a long struggle between the workers and the Labour government, in which the high-flown plans and concepts of 1963/64 were virtually forgotten in the cause of boosting exports, saving the pound, getting the balance of payments right . . . But of course this provoked much bewilderment and disappointment in Labour Party ranks, where they had suffered those years of hurt but had thought they did this to build the revolution. What about, they asked, Labour’s principles? What about socialism—or rather what they thought of as socialism?




The response of the Labour leadership to these doubts was not oozing with sympathy and understanding. There was, rather, a certain asperity in dealing with the hopeless ideologues who were foolish enough to think they were in a party which aimed to change society. Among the impotent denunciations of those who still thought of themselves as the true keepers of the faith a new word was heard, again and again. Pragmatism.


This word was used not only to defend the basis of Labour government policy but also to verbally flog all those who questioned what they were doing. Such people were alright to do the party donkey work—stuffing envelopes, delivering leaflets, canvassing—but if they thought they were doing this in order to abolish poverty and privilege or whatever, they were irritating dogmatic theorists. While the theorists argued over the finer points of an irrelevant dogma the pragmatic people got on with the real work of running capitalism. “Mr Wilson,” wrote John Cole in the Guardian in March 1966, “defends aggressively his pragmatic approach to politics. All government, he says, is pragmatic.”


In fact pragmatism was another of the words which are called into use to divert attention from a government’s failure to keep its promises to do the impossible—to run capitalism as if it were not a class-divided society of riches and poverty, avoidable disease, war, crime, human despair . . . There have been quite a few such words since then and the latest of them is the one almost ceaselessly on the lips of the hopeful next prime minister Tony Blair.


That word is New. Blair is unable to speak in public (we don’t know whether it extends into his private life) without using the word. New Labour. New Britain. What is implied is that anyone who disagrees with Blair’s ideas is old, worn out, irrelevant. What New really means is that a Labour government will go back on its 1992 promises to give pensioners a hefty increase, to fix a National Minimum Wage of half male average earnings, to legalise some secondary picketing and so on. If they were to implement some of those old policies it would have made no real difference but the point here is that already, even before they are in power, they are frantically backtracking in an effort to attract votes. There is nothing New in this, just as there was nothing pragmatic in Wilson’s policies. Futile and decadent would be better words.