Articles

I’ll Bet on the British

A famous American radio commentator, lecturer and author gives a firsthand report on the new Britain under Socialism

JOHN W. VANDERCOOK November 15 1949
Articles

I’ll Bet on the British

A famous American radio commentator, lecturer and author gives a firsthand report on the new Britain under Socialism

JOHN W. VANDERCOOK November 15 1949

I’ll Bet on the British

A famous American radio commentator, lecturer and author gives a firsthand report on the new Britain under Socialism

JOHN W. VANDERCOOK

LONDON If permanence is the mark of success, Socialism in Britain has succeeded. No important measure of the Labor Government now in effect risks repeal, or even serious alteration, whatever party may next come to power.

If admonitions of bankruptcy as plain, as ominous, as the warning of a West Indian hurricane are proof of failure, Socialism in the United Kingdom has failed.

The paradox will be resolved by time, by history,

and by the British voter. Meanwhile, in an age in which almost every literate citizen from Peiping to Halifax has become however unwillingly—an amateur of high politics and even higher economics, Old England, briskly renovated, has probably become the most interesting single nation in the world.

If the carefully surveyed path between the abyss of totalitarianism on the Left and the peaks and valleys of the traditional free-for-all economy on the Right does lead to the promised land, that way may well become the common way for all mankind. If it ends in briars or a bog there will be much

heartbreak, some cheering, and the unceasing quest will begin again.

A majority (at most recent count) of reputedly the most levelheaded people of the earth are reasonably, not dogmatically, sure their cautious, bloodless, and, as nearly as they can manage it, painless experiment in social-welfare statecraft can be made to work.

The sense of the new7 Britain and the new effort is at once apparent. There is everywhere a bustle, a sound of hammers, a sense of things not. merely being put right again but, hopefully, righter than before.

In Britain, uniquely, the monstrous accident of World War II was turned into an opportunity. The necessity to reconstruct was immediate—and literal. On the compact target of the British Isles 4 million houses were damaged by enemy action. Half a million were either totally destroyed or made uninhabitable. Very well, they would build better ones.

In the first half year after the war’s end about 16,000 new housing units were completed, most of which were “temporary,” or, even worse, what in officialese were called ‘‘temporary temporaries.” Month by month the rate was accelerated.

By March 1949, 635,000 new houses were finished; and the job goes on to the stirring tune at present of 20,000 freshly completed dwellings a month, only 84 of which in one recent month were of the temporary type.

It is a record no other country has approached. Almost without exception (as was to be expected in a more ingenious decade) the new houses are handsomer, more roomy and convenient than those the Germans with such unconscious philanthropy smashed.

I put that most positive achievement first, for none is more conspicuous. Nurtured as most outlanders are on tales of British austerity, of Socialism being a device to distribute not wealth but poverty, and on Sir Stafford Cripps’ discouraging statistics, the enquiring visitor expects on arrival to be enveloped in a grey fog of discouragement. Instead, on almost every urban street in England he must look lively to avoid piles of new bricks, a paint splash from aloft, or a smart spraying from the steam guns of a crew cleaning some public or private structure.

A people building do not seem, cannot seem, a people discouraged.

Construction workers, with at least a million houses to go are working to the limit of their individual capacity, not to limits fixed by union leaders.

One corps of bricklayers, I was told by the Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan, has currently distinguished itself by laying three times more bricks each day than the prewar average. Bevan found their performance interesting for a particular reason. They were engaged in erecting fire walls for a group of ingeniously designed, prefabricated houses put out by a Liverpool manufacturer. Far from being sullen, or resisting the innovation, they found the speed with which each house was completed downright exciting. The sense of accomplishment spurred them to a record effort.

Whether as a result of war, Socialism, or some third unknown factor, it is undeniable that in England some new quality of energy has been released. Possibly other forms of energy—the

force which drove certain men for example to make great private fortunes and sometimes enrich a host of others in the process—have been quenched. The Conservatives say so.

But no one who knew England between the wars can fail to note that millions of people are today healthier, better clothed, even, incredibly, better fed than they were then. Whatever may be their individual occupations they share the sense of building (not of replacing; the difference is important) something new and, they think, better.

The Britons Feel Safer

After the unforgotten economic insecurity of the ’30’s and the bodily insecurity of the ’40’s, the great mass of Britons feel safer. Not altogether safe, of course, but safer. Inevitably those millions, with that double weight lifted, for the time being feel freer.

The British working class is happier in 1949 than it has been for a full century.

The obverse of the medal is that the upper class and an undetermined proportion of the middle class just as clearly are not happier.

Mile End Road is in fine fettle. Mayfair, pocked with blasted houses their owners do not hurry to repair because they could not afford to live in them if they were repaired, is gloomy. Birmingham is cheerier than Tunbridge Wells.

Socialists say the decline of the “better” people is not their fault. The real blame for that widespread phenomenon, they say, must be ascribed to those twin plagues of the 20th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler. To which Conservatives reply, in similar vein, that the immense improvement in the lot of the working class was an equally inevitable process.

Political discussion, however, except among professionals, seems to an American singularly tepid. Criticism is plentiful, but there is a want of issues. With a general election less than a year away the most rousing promise yet voiced by the Conservative Party on rare posters pasted on fences or the walls of bomb-sites is: “Wise national housekeeping by the Conservatives will lower the cost of living.”

By common consent talk is given second place. It has been reckoned the war (it is futile to consider the present except in light of the recent past) cost Britain $100 billions, of which nearly a third “came out of capital.” It has been made obvious to everyone from the dullest Bristol dock-walloper to the most flea-brained lady in Belgravia that there is only one way to emerge from such a plight, and that is to work out of it.

The first of the national—-as it is the first of human — problems, is to -eat. The British Isles are small, the population large. In the effort to balance that difficult equation agricultural output has already been pushed 30% above prewar levels. The Socialists expect that within two or three more years, by further increase of productivity, home fields will yield half the food needs of the population.

Surprisingly, British farming is now the most highly mechanized in the world. In what’s not, shall we say, the friendliest of climates, English wheat land now yields 2,240 pounds of grain to the acre, compared with 784 pounds in Canada and 674 pounds in the United States.

Paul Reynaud, in a recent broadcast from Paris meant to encourage his fellow countrymen to greater efforts, made this observation: “A French

peasant feeds five persons, a German feeds seven, a Belgian nine, an American 13, a Dutchman 16, and an Englishman 17.”

Some Dividends Still Soar

Despite the accusations made by both sides there seems little inherent difference between the output and efficiency of the nationalized industries and the overwhelming majority of manufacturing and industrial processes which are still in private hands. Both are spotty.

Coal, which had been limping along for years under private ownership, continued to limp when Government took over, but this year seems to have turned the corner. Better than 4 million tons are coming to the surface each week; the Coal Board for the first time has shown a profit; and tons-perman are higher. But absenteeism continues to plague the industry. Nor, in spite of more lures than are offered trout, are as many young men entering the mines as old men leaving them. Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, in short, has yet thought of a way of making digging coal attractive.

The steel industry, slated for nationalization if the Labor Party gets the voters’ go-ahead in the next election, has on the other hand done so brilliantly well under private management as to earn the public praise of Sir Stafford Cripps himself. Steelmaking is at an all-time high (nearly 15 million ingot tons last year) and is still rising.

Readers of the financial columns in British papers are bewildered to see that many free enterprises, even after heavy taxes and the setting aside of large sums for reserves, are paying extremely high dividends. Others are doing badly.

Taken as a whole British industrial production is 25% higher by volume than in 1938. Exports in the first four months of this year were half again greater than in ‘38. Unemployment is less than 2% and there are more available jobs listed than there are names on the unemployment rolls.

The average working week is just over 45 hours and average earnings (still not remarkable from a New World viewpoint) are about $18 a week, instead of a mean of $10 a week 10 years ago. With full allowance for higher prices, that still represents a substantial gain in the standard of

living for a great portion of the British working population.

Debate rages in other countries about Britain’s various social welfare schemes, loudest of all about the unbelievably complete National Health Service. Except in detail those measures, which are the very essence of the Socialist promise and the Socialist accomplishment, are no more debated on the spot than are the Alps in Switzerland. You may not like them. (For that matter you may not like mountains.) But they have come to stay. On that consent is universal.

20 Cigarettes are 50c

There is no longer anything novel about “social security.” What distinguishes the British system as finally rounded out by the Labor Government is its simplicity and its completeness. In many countries part of the population is insured against certain of the common disasters of joblessness, injury, old age, ill-health, maternity (“disaster” perhaps isn’t just the word there) and the rest. In England, since July 5, 1948, all people are insured against all such excessive though common burdens on the personal budget.

Practically every individual, with the exception of men over 70 and women over 60, whether employed, employer, self-employed, or nonemployed, makes a payment to the national insurance fund of from 31 cents to $1.01 a week. From that fund, on demand, the insured receive such varied benefits as 75c a week for each child after the first; a maternity grant of $8 plus $5.40 a week “assistance” for the first 13 weeks after the baby’s birth; and the same sum per week if ill or unemployed. A final $60 is then handed over to close the account—for burial.

Since the costs of both living and dying in England are high the sums are not lavish. Contrary to the oftenvoiced opinion there is little incentive to loaf at Government expense or to stop saving and planning for one’s own hard times. Few have shown inclination for so Spartan a life of leisure as can be afforded for 80c a day in a country where 20 cigarettes cost 50c and a pint of beer of the very feeblest alcoholic content costs 17c.

Though few realize it, even the beneficiaries themselves, the National Health Service benefits are not met by the weekly insurance payments—not nearly. Government has found out that its doctors’ bills are much bigger than it thought—and hoped.

“Free” medical care for the British people is just now (there is reason to think the figure will diminish) costing around £350 millions, or the equivalent of $1,074 millions a year. Only $123 millions of that total is provided from the National Insurance Fund. The rest comes out of general taxation revenue.

For those visible and invisible contributions everyone is entitled to medical attention of a degree of completeness it is difficult to comprehend. It works like this. You select your own doctor. He may be any one of the 93% of the British medical profession who have signed up for participation in the scheme. He may accept you or refuse you. Other than that each practitioner is limited to a maximum of 4,000 patients, there is no compulsion, no “assigning by the State,” on either side. If a patient for any reason becomes dissatisfied with his physician he can change.

Prescriptions are filled by any chemist and the Government pays. If an operation, a stay in hospital, a wooden leg, false teeth, eyeglasses, or, if the family mechanism is thrown out of gear from illness, even domestic help, are required, the bills are impersonally met out of the purse of the whole British people.

The chief complaint is that there are not enough doctors, dentists, nurses and technicians to go round. Nearly 42 million people have signed up for National Health Service care. Eyes, teeth, conditions of health neglected for years because of fear of bills, all are demanding attention at once. In one year 8 million pairs of spectacles were applied for.

Britain’s notoriously too few dentists are working to the point of exhaustion and, since they are paid by work done and not by a “capitation fee,” are earning sums which áre the envy of all other branches of the medical profession. Dentists who are grossing $1,500 a month, and even more, are not uncommon.

But, say the enthusiasts, demand will eventually assure supply. Today more young men and women are seeking admission to the medical schools (with which there is no state interference) than ever before.

The Opposition Keeps Mum

It is significant that the Opposition has not made political capital either out of the evident shortage of doctors or out of the conspicuous fact that the Government grossly underestimated what the costs of the National Health Service would be. The feeling is that what has chiefly been demonstrated has been the previous shocking neglect of the health of the British people, and that it would not be wise for the Conservatives to point it out.

The majority of people seem satisfied. Many, very many, are enthusiastic and declare NHS is the greatest boon ever conceived and put into execution by and for a whole people.

Contrary to the impression abroad the British Medical Association—having waged and won its long fight against Labor’s original plan to put general practitioners on salary—seems satisfied. The BMA is now officially convinced that what is still wrong will be put right and that the vital basic freedoms of the profession can be preserved. The Association also points out that, far from having blindly fought against a health service, it has fought for something of the sort for nearly 40 years. The almost rabid conservatism of the American Medical Association is viewed by its British counterpart with amused astonishment.

Since the highly publicized misfortune of Thomas A. Dewey in the United States there is a tendency in all nations to tread very, very lightly in matters of political prediction. It is still difficult in England to get even money on the chances of a Labor defeat at the next election. It is conceded the Government will lose seats, but its present majority is so large it could afford some losses.

Some middle-class voters who have wearied of austerity and heavy taxes have plainly lost their first enthusiasm for the social-democratic formula. On the other hand Labor experts believe the habitually Tory countryside has moved lately toward the Left.

What then is wrong? Why is there open talk of Britain suffering national bankruptcy? What forced the devaluation of sterling two months ago? What does this all add up to?

Last March in the dizzy realm of statistics, all was optimism. Exports were mounting. The yawning gulf of the dollar deficit had narrowed. By June the clouds of gloom had gathered so thickly over Whitehall as to seem all but impenetrable. In September

sterling tumbled, dragging a dozen other currencies with it.

So far as the life of the average British citizen was affected, nothing much had happened. There were plenty of jobs. Wages were better than they had ever been. The social services were performing their functions with no more hitches than time, patience and a politically highly conscious citizenry could someday right. The productivity and skill of Britain were increasing, therefore the true wealth of the nation was increasing. Things, broadly speaking, were perhaps getting just a little better every day. The newspapers were tiring of World War III in which few Europeans had ever believed anyway.

But the world of men, sadly, is not the world of high finance, high politics, or international exchange.

What happened—all too simply— was that in the great dollar country of the United States purchases of British goods were cut. The colossal uninjured lands across the sea grow and make what the people of the British Isles must have for sheer survival, have never bought in this market as much as they have sold. That is why, for common salvation, the dollar areas have had to arrange loans to Britain and juggle finances to aid her recovery.

North American production caught up with surplus demand, financial nerves grew shaky, shoppers more attentive to price tags. Whatever happened, British exports to the U. S. suddenly diminished like a snowman in spring sun. Canadian purchases in Britain were maintained, but that was all.

Dangerously for us all, most things the New World buys from the Old are luxuries, duplications—rarely absolute necessities. What the Old World must have are the raw materials of very life, industrial and private life alike. Obvious and often repeated though that plain truth is it is the central dilemma of our time. There is no easy answer.

Where Marshall Funds Go

In ordinary, human terms there is “money” enough in England, as there is in France, in Italy, in Norway. But that “money” is almost valueless in Missouri or Manitoba, in Hamilton or Houston.

In simple justice it appears pointless to blame Socialism for all of Britain’s economic troubles. Generalissimo Franco’s dollar problems are at least as grave. Nor is the statement often heard in the United States that Marshall Plan funds are “paying for” Socialism, though true by chance, true in essence. In 19 countries U. S. funds and generous Canadian credits, translated into food, machines and raw materials from many sources, are helping to “pay for” 19 different kinds of government, each of which, from a monarchy in Greece to a social-democratic-regency in Belgium, would be subject to change without notice if supplies from the Western Hemisphere were greatly reduced.

On one thing all observers whatever their political coloring agree. There is at any rate no people, no nation, anywhere which is trying more earnestly or working harder than is Britain to put its sorely damaged house in order. It is the effect not of a party but of a people.

Today that effort is taking place within the framework of an intensely anti - Communist, democratic Socialism. If the British voters decide on a change of housekeepers that effort will continue without slackening next year and the next under whatever party is in power. ★