I am sad to confess that every time I fly back to London from any other major Western capital, my heart sinks. This may have something to do with the squalor of Heathrow airport, a dismal but perhaps fitting introduction to the new Britain for innocents from abroad. A few months ago, having touched down at Heathrow, I found myself swaying in the aisle with the other passengers for over half an hour, waiting for the steps to be rolled up to the plane so we could get off. The cabin crew were good enough to explain that “the ground crew have not finished their tea-break.”
But the squalor stretches beyond the airport, with its chaos of ugly hoardings and perennial notices couched in Newspeak, apologizing for “temporary inconvenience” due to “improvements” that are being carried out. The more I compare Britain with the countries that it still regards as its peers, the more I succumb to the uneasy feeling that Britain is becoming a Third World country. This is, of course, a subjective impression. But consider the following “Third World” symptoms:
The mañana complex. For many British firms, “immediate delivery” means delivery in six weeks. The average working day in the steel industry, according to a recent survey, is five hours, when time is deducted for lunch-breaks, tea-breaks, and so on.
The state-pensioner mentality. The belief that Big Daddy will provide is devastatingly widespread, and is not altogether irrational. It is more profitable for some people in the British welfare state to stay at home and breed children than to go out to work. A man with a wife and four children, for example, can claim as much as the net income (after tax) of a man earning £85 a week. Recent investigations of the welfare system have produced the case of one man who was given the money to buy a new set of tires for his Jaguar by the Department of Health and Social Security—on the grounds that he needed the car to look for a job—and of another who was given the cash to buy a color television set with fitted doors, which could be officially classified as “furniture.”
Animism. This kind of popular superstition is paid lip-service by many leading figures in the new British establishment, which is (contrary to what may be imagined by those reared on P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh) a socialist establishment. Its credo is in fact a not-particularly-sophisticated form of animism, based on the idea that “society” is a kind of great disembodied being that can be held responsible for everything that goes on within it. Hence the myth of “social justice,” which holds that all differences of wealth, education, or opportunity are “unjust,” and that “society” must act to eliminate them. This myth has been used to justify punitive taxes on higher incomes—which led to a record flight of professionals to other countries in 1975—as well as the effort to abolish private medicine and choice in schooling, and to impose a wealth tax.
Cargo cults. Like Solomon Islanders, the men who misspend public money keep watch for the ghostly ships that will bring miraculous “cargo”—oil from the North Sea. What is rarely mentioned is the fact that unless it mends its ways, Britain (with a forecast borrowing requirement in excess of £8.5 billion in 1977, even after the cuts made by Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey last December) will have mortgaged its oil revenues in advance. The slogan of the Scottish Nationalists, “It’s Scotland’s oil,” has begun, however, to give some people uneasy nights.
Resistance to technology, or inability to use it. You might have thought that automatic ticket-collecting machines at subway stations were not exactly a breathtaking scientific innovation. Maybe not. But at London subway stations, where they were installed several years ago, they still do not function. Passengers emerging from the subway still have their tickets collected by hand. Something similar has occurred with postal zip codes. When these were first introduced, there was a great publicity campaign to persuade people to put the full zip code on their letters. It later became known that—due to unspecified backroom difficulties—the computers could only handle six zip codes out of thousands. Evil rumor has it that, in both these cases, trade unions intervened to save jobs that might have been lost if the new technology had been allowed to function.
Currency fiddling and tax evasion. I do not know how much money is smuggled out of Britain each year, although our left-wing tribunes vie with each other in offering huger and huger guesstimates. But the police-state powers that have been given to tax inspectors in Britain (who are now authorized to enter a man’s home at any hour of the day or night, confiscate documents, and interrogate his family), are signs both of the totalitarian drift in government and of the decline of that sense of civic duty that had long made the self-employed Briton a scrupulous unpaid tax collector. Tax accountants have coined the word “evoision” to describe that twilight zone between tax “avoidance” (which is legal) and “evasion” (which is not). Old ladies are arrested at Heathrow with their life savings in a suitcase; the chairman of a well-known finance house says in private that he is ready to move his entire operation abroad “within seven hours,” and Bank of England officials are up on charges of currency fiddling.
Separatism and tribalism. The loss of confidence in central government, and of belief in a world role for Britain, has produced a mood of introversion and the substitution of regional (or tribal) self-identification for a sense of national identity. Hence the rise of Scottish nationalism—in spite of the fact that there are as many Scotsmen living in England as in Scotland—and the sharpening of the race conflict that stemmed from resistance to non-white immigration.
Economic dependence and begging-bowl politics. Britain still maintains a Ministry of Overseas Development, and can still indulge in gestures like giving cheap loans to the Marxist rulers of Mozambique—or the credits, worth almost £1 billion, that Harold Wilson offered the Russians, at a rate of interest that was only half what a housing mortgage costs in London. But Britain’s place among the major industrial nations is now that of the man with the begging bowl. The country goes on spending more than it earns, and goes on hoping that the International Monetary Fund will always be there with another loan. I am convinced that if the Labor government continues in office, it will be trying to touch the IMF for yet another emergency credit by mid-1977. The IMF, quite properly, insists that the British should set their economic house in order—but has achieved little more than the shifting around of the living-room furniture and squawks from our “Third World” economic nationalists who would like to set up a siege economy and send the capitalists packing.
The revival of feudalism. Every foreign visitor seems obliged to mention the “class problem” in Britain, as evidenced by Ascot, the House of Lords, and the fact that some of the natives still seem to be able to afford to drive a Rolls-Royce. Viewed from a different aspect, it is arguable that there are now only two classes that count: the people who belong to trade unions, and those who do not. A background paper recently produced by a certain John Hughes of the Trade Union Research Unit at Ruskin College, Oxford, contains the confident assertion that the British Medical Association is the only organized body outside the Trades Union Congress (TUC) that has any significant “social bargaining power.” This is a polite way of saying that no one else has the muscle to defend his interests, which indeed appears to be the case. The Labor government meets with the TUC in a special liaison committee. It negotiates with the TUC; it merely consults with the Confederation of British Industry. British trade-union leaders—most of whom are elected by fewer than 10 per cent of their members, some of whom are elected for life, and many of whom are openly committed to the overthrow of the mixed economy—enjoy a privileged social status and legal immunities that are not shared by any other social group. Hence the nickname that was recently conferred on them: the “new barons.”
I could go on with my list of “Third World” symptoms. Any recent visitor to Britain will have examples of his own to contribute. Britain is fast becoming an offshore industrial slum, where most executives earn less than a good secretary in Washington, D.C., and where the good things of life, although increasingly beyond the reach of an overtaxed, underpaid middle class, are so cheap that Frenchmen and Germans come over on organized shopping sprees. The British have not as yet developed a “gringo” complex, but maybe that, too, is coming: the Arabs, who look different, talk different, and spend sterling as if it were confetti, may turn out to be Britain’s gringos.
One of the more depressing aspects of this transformation of Britain is the decline of civility in everyday life: service is a rarity in shops and restaurants, wholly unknown in state-run industries, and something that affluent foreigners too frequently encounter only as a pimpish determination to fleece them.
The most sinister aspect, however, is the spread of political violence from the embattled province of Northern Ireland (where it continues to be financed by misguided Irish Americans) to the metropolis itself. The murder of Ross McWhirter, a man who believed that the responsible citizen should take action when governments fail to do their duty, and who therefore set up a private reward scheme for information leading to the arrest and conviction of terrorist bombers, marked an important stage in Britain’s national decline. He was shot at his own doorstep by IRA gunmen on November 27, 1975.
What is wrong with Britain? Where will the process end? These are urgent questions, and they deserve a serious and detailed answer. Perhaps even now it is not fully understood by Britain’s allies that its internal condition poses perhaps the single most serious threat to the Atlantic Alliance—although that may have become a little clearer when, in mid-December, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that further cuts in the defense budget (totaling £300 million) would be made over the next two years. Britain’s armed forces, when fully mobilized, were already smaller than those of neutral Sweden, Switzerland, and even Finland.
But if Britain is acquiring some of the social and economic characteristics of a Third World country, the most critical question of all is: will it end up with a Third World political setup as well—with a politburo or a junta?
In trying to answer this question, let me begin with a proposition that may appear absurd, or at any rate exaggerated, to most American readers. It is that Britain has traveled more than two-thirds of the way toward becoming a fully communist society, and that it is increasingly probable that it will either complete the journey or have to endure the most shattering social and constitutional crisis the country has known since the 17th century.
Note that I am using the word communism with a small c, in the exact sense that it is used in the original text: the 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Marx and Engels. Remember that the authors of that pamphlet suggested that communist theory could be summed up in a single sentence, as “abolition of private property.” They also suggested ten measures that might be employed to achieve communism in more advanced countries. Two years ago, Lord Chalfont examined the list (in a television program for which the Left will never forgive him) and concluded that about half the measures proposed had already been applied in Britain. Reexamining the list, I put the proportion rather higher; and the measures that have not been applied so far are part of the program of the Labor party and the Trades Union Congress.
It may be helpful to run quickly through the list.
Item 1 is the “abolition of property in land.” Well, it is not yet illegal to own a private estate in Britain, but increased taxation has made it ruinous to maintain one.
Item 2 is “a heavy progressive or graduated income tax.” There is no doubt on that score; tax levels in Britain rise to a maximum of 83 per cent on earned income and 98 per cent on what is officially classified as “unearned” income. There are plans afoot for a wealth tax as well. The Labor government, with a precarious majority of one in the House of Commons and plenty to worry about on other fronts, decided to shelve that proposal last December, but was firmly recalled to its socialist duty by the TUC, which compelled it to set up an official working party.
Item 3 is the “abolition of all right of inheritance.” This has been three-quarters achieved through death duties and taxation, and will no doubt be fully achieved if present trends continue.
Item 4 is the “confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.” You are still allowed to take something with you if you decide to flee England’s shores, but the maximum amount that a permanent emigrant can take out initially is not enough to support a family for a year. Another run on sterling and a further mass emigration of professionals (some 65,000 left in 1975) might bring that ceiling down even lower.
Item 5 is the “centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.” Through the Bank of England, the British government enjoys far-reaching powers to control credit and monetary expansion. But of course Marx and Engels were calling for more than that. So is the official Labor-party program, approved by 5,883,000 votes (to a pitiful 122,000 against) at the annual conference in Blackpool last year. This document calls, inter alia, for the nationalization of the major clearing banks and insurance companies. So we might say that Item 5 is coming up on the agenda.
Item 6: “Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.” This was achieved long ago in Britain, with the creation of state monopolies in these areas—including the post-office monopoly whose performance induced a Labor MP, Arthur Lewis, to say that it will soon be quicker to drop your letters in the gutter and hope that some altruistic passer-by will deliver them for you than to rely on the post office.
Item 7: “Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state.” No doubt about that one, either. The state takeover of private firms is proceeding apace, and the sheer weight of government intervention in the British economy can be grasped at once from a simple statistic: public spending represents 63 per cent of the gross national product. To put it more crudely, out of every £100 that are spent in Britain, £63 are spent by the government sector. I can find no other example of a non-communist society where government intervention has gone so far. John Maynard Keynes himself once said that the maximum desirable level of public spending was 25 per cent of the GNP. Beyond that, a society must begin to tremble for its freedom. Yet the appetite for still more government intrusion and intervention has not been slaked. Late last year, the chairman of the general purposes committee of the Labor-controlled Greater London Council circulated a study paper which proposed that professional football teams should be placed under the control of local councils, on the grounds that this would be a good way to get rid of “reactionary” managers and “democratize” the sport. Now that so many industries have been brought under state control, perhaps it is not entirely astonishing that the nationalizers have turned their attention to leisure.
But let us consider the last three items in the decalogue of the Communist Manifesto.
Item 8: “Equal liability of all to labor; establishment of industrial armies.” The power of the leaders of organized labor in Britain today—and their power to conscript new recruits under recent closed-shop legislation—leaves me in no doubt that Marx’s “industrial armies” already exist. Britain has not succeeded in making everyone work for a living. On the contrary, the excesses of the welfare state have encouraged widespread parasitism. But back in 1848, Marx and Engels were no doubt thinking about squeezing out the capitalist and the rentier, and both species certainly seem to be heading for extinction in Britain.
Item 9 reads rather strangely today: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country.” This can surely be said to have come about, but can hardly be said to have been decisive for Marx’s broader design except in one sense: the dwindling of the farming community (now only 4 per cent of the British work force) has added to the power of industrial and public-service unions. The voice of the farmer is barely heard in British life, and so one of the elements that is crucial to a system of social checks and balances in other societies is missing here.
The tenth and last item in the communist decalogue: “Free education for all children in public schools.” Well, of course. But British socialism has improved on the Communist Manifesto. The Labor government has set out to impose a uniform type of state school, the comprehensive. It is closing down grammar schools (what in America would be called public academic high schools)—although it has run up against determined last-ditch resistance from local parents—and intends to cut off all forms of state support for private schools of every kind. It even appears to have been won over to the notion that the cause of equality requires a “fair” distribution of intellect among schools, which is to be achieved by sharing out brighter students on a quota basis. This remarkable scheme, politely known as “banding,” would amount to a British arrangement for busing—based on IQ instead of color.
Six of the ten conditions for achieving communism that were laid down by Marx and Engels thus appear to be in the bag in Britain (Items 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10). The remaining four conditions can hardly be said to be remote. One (the nationalization of credit) is part of the program of the ruling party. Another two (1 and 3) will be as good as fulfilled if current proposals for a radical wealth tax are allowed to proceed. And the confiscation of their property is perhaps one of the last things that “rebels” would need to worry about (Item 4) if any were so rash as to rear their heads after the other foundations for communism have been securely laid.
If, then, we accept that what Marx and Engels published in 1848 provides a workable definition of “communism,” we are compelled to conclude that Britain has already acquired some of the definitive characteristics of a communist society—despite the fact that there is not a single overt member of the Communist party sitting in the House of Commons. This brings me at once to the distinction only hinted at so far: between communism with a small c and Communism with a capital C.
In Britain, many people who have been laboring to bring about communism with a small c for many decades do not regard themselves as communists or even Marxists and do not belong to avowedly Marxist organizations. Suckled by Harold Laski and R. H. Tawney, they honestly believe that they are working in the cause of social justice, equality, or (quite simply) the “labor movement,” and that history is laid out before them as a single linear progression toward more and more public ownership and the abolition of class differences through the redistribution of incomes and opportunities. They may be only dimly aware, if at all, that theirs is a quest which will lead, if successful, to the death of personal freedom and the abolition of the individual’s right to use his talents for his own purposes.
This mentality is now predominant within the British Labor party. It is symptomatic that the “moderate” lobby within the party is known as the Manifesto Group. The manifesto on which the party was elected in 1974 ends with the following commitment: “Our objective is to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favor of working people and their families.” It may be that for the “moderates,” the manifesto is the limit of their commitment to socialism. But for others in the party, it seems to be no more than the starting point.
Left-wing spokesmen within the party have recently taken to calling themselves “democratic socialists” as distinguished from “social democrats.” This apparently arbitrary play on words is actually quite revealing. A “democratic socialist” is a socialist first and a democrat second; whereas with a “social democrat,” it is the other way around. In a savage little article in Tribune (the paper of the Labor Left) Hugh Jenkins, MP, recently heaped ridicule on “social-democrat” colleagues who acted as if “Parliament is the end, not the means” and as if “parliamentary government is good in itself, irrespective of what it does or does not do.” Mr. Jenkins, of course, has a point. Parliamentary institutions are means, not ends. The purpose of political institutions should be to safe-guard the freedom of the individual and the family within a secure, orderly, and just society. But that, I fear, was not what he meant. Mr. Jenkins’s end is a form of “socialism” indistinguishable from the system outlined in Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto—a system that would make democracy obsolete since, once established, it is intended to be irreplaceable. From this perspective, democracy is regarded as useful and desirable only so long as it provides the means to bring about a British version of communism. Once that is achieved, you can forget about democracy.
Now it is true that someone like Hugh Jenkins does not speak for the majority of his colleagues in the parliamentary Labor party, and still less for the bulk of his party’s supporters in the country (who in turn represented only 29 per cent of those entitled to vote and 39 per cent of those who did vote at the last election). But as they never tire of pointing out, the “democratic socialists” are now the dominant voice within the “Labor movement”—which means the party’s annual conference, its national executive committee, its most important subcommittee, and, above all, the commanding heights of the trade-union movement. They have also profited from the attitude of pas d’ennemis à gauche (“no enemies to the Left”) which has been adopted by most of their more moderate colleagues. The best example of how deep that attitude has gone was the visit, last October, of Boris Ponomarev, the head of the international department of the central committee of the Soviet Communist party.
Ponomarev came to London at the invitation of the Labor party—to be specific, at the invitation of its international committee, in which the key figure is Ian Mikardo. It was a remarkable occasion. To begin with, the British Labor party had recognized, as a “fraternal” colleague, a Soviet party official who had been directly implicated in the Stalinist purges (he wrote the Pravda editorial which foreshadowed the show trials of 1937) and had earned successive promotions, within the Comintern and the Cominform, under the great tyrant. Second, it had picked upon the man directly responsible for subversive operations throughout Western Europe and, for that matter, the entire non-Communist world, the man who issues marching orders to local Moscow-line parties. Finally, what was supposedly a party-to-party occasion took on the aspect of a governmental visit. Ponomarev was received both by the Prime Minister and by the Foreign Secretary.
As it turned out, the Ponomarev visit produced a public uproar. He was greeted in the streets by angry demonstrations, organized by the Jewish community, various groups of East European exiles, the National Association for Freedom, and the Social Democratic Alliance. He beat a hasty retreat from the visitors’ gallery at the House of Commons when Conservative MP’s initiated a major debate in which Nicholas Ridley leaped to his feet to deliver the archaic cry, “I spy strangers!”—the cue for a vote on whether the public galleries should be cleared. Still, very few Labor MP’s spoke out against the Ponomarev visit. (Greville Janner was a notable exception.) However many may have felt privately uneasy about this public linkage between the Labor party and the Soviet Communist party, few were ready to rock the boat in public. This widespread refusal in the Labor ranks to draw an absolute distinction between social democracy and totalitarian Communism has been extraordinarily propitious, both for the party’s “democratic socialists” and for the people who can accurately be described as “infiltrators.”
Some light has been cast into that murky corner in the recent debate over allegations of pro-Soviet sympathies within the parliamentary Labor party, and over the appointment of a Trotskyist militant, Andy Bevan, as the Labor party’s national youth organizer. Lists have been produced of Labor MP’s who regularly write for the Communist Morning Star, speak on Communist platforms, take part in Communist-front organizations like the British Peace Council or the Chile Solidarity Committee, or spend their holidays by the Baltic Sea.
“There have always been Reds in the Labor party. I can’t understand what all the fuss is about.” That is how Sid Bidwell, past chairman of the Tribune Group and formerly active in a Trotskyist organization, described such goings-on in a recent exchange with the young Winston Churchill (spokesman on defense for the Tories). A member of the present government, the Energy Secretary, Tony Benn, provided a more reasoned defense of the same viewpoint in a paper defending Bevan’s appointment, which was published in the Guardian in December after the party headquarters declined to distribute the text.
Benn argues that it is an “indisputable historical fact” that “Marxism has, from the earliest days, always been openly accepted as one of many sources of inspiration within our movement.” While the Labor party has refused to admit members of other “socialist” parties who run candidates against the official Labor candidates in elections, “never since the earliest days of the Labor movement has Marxism itself been regarded as a disqualification for party membership.” In a curious peroration Benn concludes that “the influences that lead individuals to embrace democratic socialism have always been left to the individual conscience, and there are no inquisitions to root out Marxism any more than there are to root out Catholics, atheists, or followers of Adam Smith, Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky, or Milton Friedman.” I have yet to discover a rising star in the British Labor party who is a disciple of Smith or Friedman, and I doubt whether Benn seriously believes that they have anything to contribute to the cause of “democratic socialism.”
Benn’s defense of the carrière ouverte aux idéologies is singularly revealing. He is so little interested in the argument that there is a line to be drawn between those who are willing to work within the limits of a parliamentary democracy and those who wish to overthrow it that he does not even refer to it. He jeers at the Conservative editorialist who suggested that the appointment of a Trotskyist to the Labor-party headquarters is comparable to what would have been the case if a Nazi had been appointed to the Tory Central Office in the 1930′s, but then gives the game away by quoting Andy Bevan’s description of himself and the faction linked with the radical weekly Militant. “We proudly describe ourselves as Marxists,” Bevan declares, “and what we mean by that is that we stand on the traditions of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.”
Now it may or may not have been forgotten by Benn, but Lenin was the man who closed down an infant parliamentary democracy in Russia, and Trotsky was the man who helped him to impose a new form of serfdom on the country by force of arms. For a leading official of the British Labor party (since confirmed in his appointment, despite objections from the party’s professional staff) to say that he stands “on the tradition” of the Bolshevik revolution really is rather like a comparable Conservative figure proudly announcing that he “stands on the tradition” of the March on Rome.
Perhaps this example is enough to demonstrate the extent to which British socialism has succumbed to what Jean-François Revel has called the “totalitarian temptation.” But the case of Andy Bevan is more than an example of the assimilation of a revolutionary communist ideology. It shows, clear as a warning flare, the growing influence of revolutionary organizations within a mass party whose remaining social democrats have, at best, been flaccid in the defense of their own beliefs. Dr. Stephen Haseler, a Labor member of the Greater London Council and one of the founders of the Social Democrat Alliance, describes his fellow social democrats as “men with the stuffing knocked out of them.”
Andy Bevan is a living symbol of the success in Britain of the tactic that the Trotskyists call “entryism” or “deep entry.” According to figures supplied by Labor-party headquarters, there are about a thousand Trotskyists actively working within ten of the eleven regional organizations of the party. They have been particularly effective within the Labor Party Young Socialists (LPYS), where Andy Bevan first rose to prominence, and within local constituency associations, where they have placed the seats of moderate Labor MP’s in jeopardy through a series of well-organized putsches. Many of the Trotskyists working with the Labor party are associated with the Militant and with the shadowy Revolutionary Socialist League, a clandestine group whose aim is to penetrate and manipulate the Labor party at every level. The success of this group within the LPYS has been all but complete. Of the Young Socialists’ eighteen regions, seventeen are Marxist-dominated. The West Midlands region is not under Marxist control, but seven of the Young Socialists’ eleven branches in the city of Birmingham are controlled by Militant supporters. It is worth noting that the aims of the Militant include “the abolition of armed forces of any kind as soon as possible” with the single proviso that “as long as capitalism exists, so will workers’ militias, to defend the workers” (Kevin Ramage in the Militant, August 29, 1975).
The Labor party has not been organized to resist this kind of infiltration, although warnings have been issued by its national agent, Reg Underhill, and, very late in the day, by its former leader, Sir Harold Wilson. It has been clear all along to any intelligent revolutionary in Britain that the road to power lies through the penetration of the labor movement, since the openly Marxist parties have always been contemptuously rejected by the electorate; the Communist party counts itself lucky if it can pull in 0.3 per cent of the votes in a general election. Even more than the Labor party, the trade unions have been the prime target. Today, the TUC overshadows the British Parliament and might, indeed, be regarded as the de facto upper house. No major decision is made by the government without consulting the TUC.
Indeed, the most powerful man in Britain is not an elected member of Parliament, not even the prime minister. It is Jack Jones, the leader of Britain’s biggest labor union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Although, by contrast with some of his rowdier colleagues, Jones appears to be regarded by many people in Britain as a relative “moderate,” he made his own aspirations rather plain in June last year, when he visited East Germany and told a press conference that he felt “at home” in East Berlin. Jones is certainly not a crusader for the mixed economy, and anyone who lives in Britain must feel green with envy at the contrast between a union federation which promotes “fraternal” contacts with the state labor managers and factory policemen of Eastern Europe, and the AFL-CIO which provides platforms for Solzhenitsyn. Jack Jones is due to retire in 1977, but it seems probable that his successor will be a man from the same mold.
Trade-union power is the problem in Britain today, and it is exceedingly doubtful whether any other major problem can be solved until a solution is found for this one. The TUC has been praised, inside as well as outside Britain, for accepting voluntary wage curbs under the “social contract.” But the price that has been paid for wage restraint has been an unprecedented expansion of the powers of the union leadership to dictate the government’s overall economic policy and to bring the non-unionized sections of the work force under its control.
Although the various schemes for accomplishing these objectives are often described as proposals for extending “workers’ participation” and “industrial democracy,” it must be borne in mind that in Britain the union leaders who are most voluble in the use of such terms are no shining examples of democracy at work. Most of them owe their jobs to a singularly undemocratic process which presents enormous opportunities for tiny groups of radical left-wingers to win disproportionate influence. This can be gauged immediately from the political affiliations of the 345 members of the executives of Britain’s thirteen biggest unions. About fifty are open Communist-party supporters. Most of the others, except for a few Trotskyists and Maoists, are nominal Labor-party supporters—in many cases on the Marxist side of the party. None is a Conservative. Yet a Gallup poll taken in June 1975, when support for the two major parties was evenly matched in the country as a whole, revealed that while 49 per cent of union members intended to vote Labor, no fewer than 25 per cent intended to vote Conservative, and 10 per cent Liberal. The proportion who planned to vote Communist was a derisory 0.1 per cent.
Against this background, the constitutional threat that is posed by trade-union power in Britain can be seen in its true light. The most powerful union leaders in Britain are men who are openly bent on the destruction of “capitalism”—although the word is, to put it mildly, an unsatisfactory description of a mixed economy in which the role of the state looms larger than that of the private sector. Their self-confidence was greatly enhanced by the events of February 1974, when the Heath government, in an effort to break the miners’ strike, called an election on the issue of “who governs the country?”—and lost. The toppling of the Heath government produced a continuing mood of defeatism among politicians and the business community, many of whom concluded that it is now impossible to govern Britain against the wishes of the men who control the TUC.
Where does Britain go from here? The year or two that lie ahead represent the most dangerous and challenging period in the country’s postwar history, and the decisions that are made (or not made) over these months will determine whether or not Britain will survive as a democratic, pluralist society. It is anyone’s guess who will govern the country over the next two years. If James Callaghan’s government can cling to its hair’s-breadth majority in the House of Commons, despite sickness and death, by-elections, and possible defections, it is conceivable that he might try to delay elections until 1978. By that time, according to the shamans of the British cargo cult, North Sea oil will be flowing in, and Britain’s payments problems will at least be partly solved.
But what seems more likely is that Chancellor of the Exchequer Healey’s patched-up compromise (between the minimum budget cuts that the IMF would swallow as a condition for extending more credit and the maximum that the TUC would accept) will fall apart early next year, provoking a new run on sterling. The government would then be under renewed pressure to cut its spending program and its borrowing requirement. If it agreed, the long-threatened revolt of the Labor Left might finally come about. That could lead either to new elections (which the Conservatives would probably win) or to an attempt to create a government of national unity, including Labor moderates, Conservatives, and Liberals.
I think that it is not an overstatement to say that, if either comes to pass, Britain will have its last chance to shore up the foundations of its economy and its parliamentary democracy before they are swept away by the flood. If a Conservative government were prevented from governing by the trade-union Left a second time around, the Tories would be a write-off in the eyes of the electorate, and the Labor party that would return to office would probably have lurched even farther to the Left—with a figure like Tony Benn as its leader. If a coalition government failed, the whole political establishment would be discredited, opening the way for a non-democratic “solution” from the Left or Right—more likely the former than the latter. And if that should come to pass, the consequences would not only be tragic for Britain; they would be disastrous for the Western world as a whole.