HIS MAJESTY’S Socialist Government is taking a breather. Just two years ago they came to power, and, therefore, have roughly another two years to go. So, like a stagecoach in the old days, they have pulled up at Halfway House to let the passengers stretch their legs.
I have never doubted the importance of the political experiment now being carried out in Britain, nor will it be possible for this country ever to turn the pages hack and relive the story of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nations, like human beings, can regret the passing of the years hut they cannot recapture them.
The Socialist revolution in Britain had to be, and if the Conservatives had won the election of 1945 it would have been a mere postponement of the inevitable. The labor movement, horn of the Liberal party w'hich died in giving it birth (although the ghost still walks), could not forever be denied the full authority of office and power. Whether it attained power at the best time for the nation, or indeed for itself, is something which will engross the future historian.
Do not imagine that the adúlt political minds in the Labor party were entirely happy when they found that they had not only won the election hut with a gigantic majority. They were pleased to see the dawn of triumph but they wished the sun was not quite so red and menacing.
During the years the gospel of Socialism had become more and more simplified so as to appeal to more and more people. Gone were the days of the Fabian Society when Shaw and Wells and Snowden coiled their thoughts into wondrous, intricate shapes. The real Party leaders knew that what was needed were slogans, unequivocal statements in clear forceful language, pretty pictures to attract the dreamers, firm facts for the forceful. It is difficult even to write about it without acquiring the alliterative style which became the commonplace of Socialist exposition.
So through the years an ever-expanding body of public opinion was taught to believe these five things;
Under Socialism the means of production and distribution would he owned by the people and run for the people, instead of for private profit.
Free of the burden of making profits, wages would 1« higher, hours shorter and prices of everything would come down.
When industry is owned by the State, in other words the people, there would he no more strikes or lockouts because the owners and workers would be one and indivisible.
Under Socialism there would be no unemployment except temporarily from seasonal variation and there would be security from the cradle to the grave.
Under Socialism the inequalities of wealth and poverty, of education and ignorance as well as class distinctions would be wiped out. The brotherhood of man would become a fact and not a mirage.
Perhaps it was the last of these five articles of faith which counted most in the rise of Socialism. Every decent man deplores inequality of opportunity and regards unemployment as both stupid and blasphemous. Nor is he unmoved by the dream of everyone working happily for the general good and no one asking special rewards for his own contribution. After all, if a ship’s crew were wrecked upon a desert island the novelist or the capitalist would not expect more food than the ship’s mate. Yet he certainly demands more of everything in the outside world.
The Moon Too
NOW, HOWEVER, I must return to Halfway House where, if you remember, we left the Government stretching its legs and giving the tired horses a few minutes rest before taking again to that road which rises more steeply all the time.
I stated that the shrewd men in the Socialist Party wrere not altogether happy when they swept the board at the general election. Their alibi was gone. No longer could they plead that they held office but not power as in 1924 and 1929. Their majority was so big that if the Government brought in a bill to nationalize the moon it would be carried triumphantly. What is more, a terrific sweep like that of 1945 means that a number of faddists and cranks come in on the tide, who would normally have remained far out at sea.
Those stern realists, At tlee, Bevin and Morrison, felt like the Duke of Wellington who said, after inspecting some reinforcements from England; “I don’t know what effect they’ll have on the enemy but they terrify me.”
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But there was one factor far more worrying, an unavoidable factor which would have confronted any Government at that time. Britain was impoverished, undersupplied, underhoused and undernourished. Churchill had foreseen this when he urged the continuation of the Coalition Government at least until the end of the Japanese war, an offer which the Socialists would not accept.
The dilemma in 1945 was as difficult as it was inescapable. The country was in no condition for political experiment hut it had voted exactly for that. The people had spoken and the people were not to be denied. The Socialists were like a cricket team put in to bat with the wicket at its worst. Their hour could not have come at a darker time.
Almost at once the Government’s j position was weakened by the realizaj tion that the Government of the world j was to be carried on by the Disunited ! Nations instead of UN. British Socialism, with its policy of state j ownership instead of private enterprise, found itself dependent on privatej enterprise North America and in j conflict with state-ownership Russia. Communism is an ugly thing but it is the child of Socialism, as Socialism is the child of Liberalism. And just as i today Liberalism denounces its own offspring so does Socialism in the case of Communism but the facts cannot be denied.
Thus, at the very outset, His Majesty’s Socialist Government became the victim of a duality of exposition which soon found reperI eussions in its own ranks where nearly j a quarter of the party opposed Bevin’s I foreign policy. Nothing has played so big a part in the developing crisis of British Socialism as America’s en| lightened dollar foreign policy and i Russia’s insistence on European chaos ! as a prelude to world revolution.
However, the mandate of the elec¡ torate could not be denied and the
Socialists began their promised program of nationalization. The Bank of England was taken over, whereupon all its staff became state employees. Their salaries and pensions were higher than those of the Civil Servants in the Treasury but there would be no bringing down of the one or the raising up of the other. The paradise of equality was not to be found in Throgmorten Street.
The coal mines were bought out and the miner M.P.’s sang “The Red Flag” in the Parliamentary voting lobbies. At last the miners owned the mines and the wicked profit motive was gone forever. But did the Socialist Government hand the coal industry over to the men at the pit face? On the contrary, it went in to the open market of proved ability and offered salaries up to £5,000 a year and more for men to constitute the Coal Board of Management.
“A good and true Trade Unionist,” said the Government with astonishing candor, “is not necessarily a capable manager.” It was a brave thing to say—but it hurt.
In an attempt to bring men back to the mines wages were raised and a five-day week inaugurated. This was better. This was what the slogans had promised. But higher wages mean higher cost for the product unless the miner is willing to work harder for more money. But here the Government ran foul of its powerful backer, the Trade Union movement, which hates the idea of increased output for increased wages. The Trade Union mind still centres on the long-established principle of the rate for the job.
I do not want to exaggerate this point unduly hut it has a most important bearing upon the complex policy of nationalization. Take for example the position of Mr. Shinwell as Minister of Fuel and Power. He is in effect the Minister of Coal and now with the nationalization of electricity he becomes Minister of Electricity as well. Therefore he will at any time now have to go into conference with himself in a dual capacity in this manner:
Minister of Coal: “Sorry, old boy,
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but I’ve got to charge you more for your coal because of our increased wages and shorter hours.”
Minister of Electricity: “That’s bad news because I shall then have to charge you more for your electricity so as to pay for our coal.”
Minister of Coal: “But, my dear chap, then we’ll have to put our coal prices still higher.”
Minister of Electricity: “Then we’ll have to do the same with electricity.” Both: “Let’s go over and tell the Minister of Transport that he’ll have to pay us both more.”
Which, of course, would be an admirable solution except that railway rates would at once be raised (and have been) which would add a fresh embarrassment to the mines which are heavy users of railroads. So the spiral goes on with rising costs and rising incomes, and less and more costly goods in the shops.
The Socialist Dilemma
This, of course, is the weakness of any Socialist Government. Once an industry is nationalized the Government can no longer be neutral or detached, balancing the claims of any one section of the community against the interests of the community itself. The Government has become the owner, the employer faced with the demands of the workers on its wage roll. Nor is the position of the workers more satisfactory. If they strike they have to do so against the State which, in theory, is themselves.
Because of all this I believe that His Majesty’s Government will shortly take a brave, wise and unpopular decision. The deliberations are going on behind closed doors and the voices are by no means unanimous but the
men who matter—Attlee, Bevin, Cripps and Dalton—are said to have made up their minds. No doubt the announcement will be studiously vague, and hedged by this and that obscurity, but the meaning will be that the nationalization of iron and steel (the next on the list) will be postponed.
In other words the building of the new Socialist Jerusalem on England’s green and pleasant land is to be held up. I can state with authority that this is the decision up to the moment that I am writing these words, but we must remember that the Socialist tail is very strong and often wags the dog. Nevertheless 1 believe the reprieve for iron and steel will be signed.
If my prophecy proves true then we may see a significant alteration in the British political scene. As a shrewd political observer put it the other day: “In the next election you will see the Conservative Party demanding a planned economy while the Socialists defend the right of private enterprise to exist in a socialized Britain.” In other words the Socialists are moving rightward and the Tories leftward toward the centre where no doubt the Liberal middle-of-the-roaders will be crushed to death. The next election will be fought with great bitterness and mutual denunciation but in the minds of Socialists and Tories will be the thought of another Coalition Government to win the peace.
From that perhaps will emerge a strong centre party with the Liberals on the Right and the Communists on the Left carrying on a guerrilla warfare like the Cossacks swooping on Napoleon’s stragglers in the snow.
But broadly speaking Britain will find its natural unity again and a greater sense of responsibility toward the community will be born in the hearts of workers, and employers. ^
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