Closeup/The World

The collapse OF Britain

When there is no will, there is no way

Barbara Amiel April 4 1977
Closeup/The World

The collapse OF Britain

When there is no will, there is no way

Barbara Amiel April 4 1977

The collapse OF Britain

When there is no will, there is no way

Closeup/The World

Barbara Amiel

When Air Canada’s Boeing 747 landed in the grey confusion of London’s Heathrow Airport, it was a homecoming for me. The rows of semidetached brick houses lining the access roads to the airport, with their postage stamp gardens and opaque lace curtains, are childhood memories from the years I spent growing up in London. Most of my family is still there, still convinced that for all of Britain ’s economic woes and despite skepticism that the largesse deriving from North Sea oil will be anything more than a temporary stopgap—a source oj income already mortgaged to the hilt—England is still a bastion of justice in a world where barbarians outnumber the enlightened. My weeks in England chilled me as the consequences of the nation ’s social and economic ills became visible. Yet the grass in London’s sprawling Hyde Park is strangely green even in winter, and as I turned a corner of a square in Islington, a cockney street sweeper joked with tough but cheerful humor. For a moment, even on the littered streets of London N.W.l, I could remember the magic smell of the bluebells of my childhood. But for all that, the United Kingdom is afflicted with what other Europeans now call the British Disease. Like the crumbling Turkish empire before World War I, John Bull’s once-imperial island has become the sick man of Europe.

The symptoms: From a diagnostic point of view. January, 1977, in Britain ushered in new evidence that the British illness had not gone into remission over the Christmas holidays.

• British television reported on January 14 a British Transport plan to solve the chronic problem of London-bound trains not running on time. “The plan,” proclaimed the commentator, “is breathtaking in its simplicity. Trains that are late will not stop at stations until they have caught up with their schedules. Today’s trial run of the plan was the first attempt. Said one city-bound man left standing on a platform: The driver seemed terribly pleased. He gave me the victory sign as he passed by.’ ”

• The London Times missed one day of publication in January because the printers’ union refused to set an article—originally published in the Index On Censorship, an international quarterly magazine—and written by a former editor of the prestigious Sunday Observer. David Astor. The contentious article accused the printing unions of censorship.

• The leader of London’s bread delivery men assured his drivers of the support of

the United Road Transport Union in their boycott of bread deliveries until the minimum price of bread was raised. The public. understandably mystified by the workers’ eagerness to make bread more expensive, was not soothed by the union leader’s explanation that price-cutting wars between supermarkets and small groceries would endanger the jobs of his men.

• Tax plans to make life more challenging for the dwindling number of self-employed Britons took an interesting turn with the announcement that the self-employed would be required to contribute as much to the state social security system as anyone else, but would not be allowed to draw the same benefits.

• A bill to help beleaguered property owners, who nowadays often find their homes occupied by squatters, was said to have a slim chance of passage by parliament in the spring session. As matters stand, anyone who finds unoccupied accom-

modation in Britain and enters it without force—canny squatters always argue that someone else jimmied the lock—cannot be evicted. This had made vacation-going a high risk activity for many Britons.

All in all, it was business as usual in Britain this spring. On Mayfair’s Park Lane flocks of neatly dressed, oil-rich East-ofSuez gentlemen, clad in exquisitely cut

suits and wide, old-boy striped ties, congregated in the marble and gold lobby of the splendid, now Arab-owned Dorchester Hotel conducting business with rumpled Englishmen sporting eager smiles and slightly soiled prospectuses. There were, as yet, no little English children scurrying about holding out their hands for baksheesh, but the terrible thought was that this might not be far behind. On the High Street in the spiffy neighborhood of London’s fashionable Kensington district, one ancient Briton muttered imprecations as he passed his once favorite restaurant, Au Coin de Feu, now reopened as the Arabflavored Dervish, and almost directly opposite the old Kensington Town Hall— now a branch of the Iranian Bank of Melli.

It was clear that the same tolerance that British colonizers had expected from, for example, the people of India when, like mad dogs, they went out into the noonday sun to play cricket and indulge in other exotic tribal customs, was not forthcoming on the occasion of Britain’s own foreign invasion.

Still, trade unions, trains and telephones, which operate with bureaucratic rigidity coupled with an almost Mexican capriciousness, and free-spending foreigners, remain only the symptoms of the British malaise. The disease itself is Britain’s low productivity, on the one hand, and her

excessive spending on the other—coupled with an inertia or an inability to correct the situation. Some observers believe that the disease is caused by a surfeit ot socialism, but rampant statism might be a more accurate label. Statism puts the interests of the People, as perceived by government, above the interests of the people who in fact make up the People. This increasingly popular social ideal raises fundamental questions for the few countries left in the world that cherish the values of free enterprise and parliamentary democracy. What has caused Britain’s present situation is a lesson Canada could well ponder.

The Myths: There is no shortage of explanations for Britain’s decline. Everything from the loss of the Empire to the British class system have been cited as the cause of her present debt-ridden, socially chaotic woes. But other nations—for example, Spain and France—have survived the loss of empire. Even Britain’s oft-cited lack of natural resources fails to explain why equally resource-poor countries such as Japan and Switzerland have made a go of their economies. As for the class system, well, anyone with the slightest acquaintance with Europe knows that the French, Italian and German class systems make the British look relatively egalitarian.

Even that old story about how British workers tend to produce less because of the antiquated equipment they have to work with turned out to be false when in November. 1975, a government study of the British auto industry discovered that “with the same power at his elbow and doing the

same job as his continental counterpart, a British car assembly worker produces only half as much output per shift.”

Recently, popular sentiment has focused on the policies of Britain’s ruling Labor Party as the cause of all woes. But the differences between the Conservative and Labor parties have always tended to be more apparent than real. As one of the franker and more highly regarded Tory MPs, John Biffen, puts it: “It gives me no joy to see a Tory government carrying out collectivist legislation. Curiously, it’s the Labor Party that has a strong tradition of fiscal puritanism. The last time we had a balanced budget was under Labor Chancellor [of the Exchequer Roy] Jenkins. The real harm in recent years has been committed by Tory collectivists.” Shortly after making this statement, Biffen resigned his post as Conservative critic on industry.

The most fashionable myth is that the British have made a conscious choice to opt out of the rat race of industrial society. They are prepared, so the theory goes, to sacrifice certain material benefits in order to gain something vaguely referred to as a “better quality of life.” This view has much currency among the British establishment, which, confident that under their mandarinate the country can still prosper, make such patronizing comments as those recently delivered in Toronto by the British High Commissioner, Sir John Johnston. In discussing the British Way of Life Sir John added a special flourish of his own: “Change? Yes—change, in plenty. But decay—not on your life. People are traveling less—and are becoming more neighborly. More people are gardening and growing more of their own vegetables. Sales of books are up, not down. We have so cleaned up the river Thames that it now boasts 91 varieties of fish.”

This greening of England might be commendable, were there a shred of proof of it. All signs, however, point to a burgeoning obsession with material well-being and consumption of such luxury goods as automobiles, dishwashers, processed foods and all the noisy, smelly accoutrements of technological industrial society. The British, it appears, are not ready to opt out of tin and plastic and take their fishing nets down in the morning to the Thames. In short, while the sons of Albion may dream of a pastoral paradise, they also want the standard of living of a super-productive industrial society and are prepared to sack the government that can’t give them both.

The Disease: In the small Church of St. Lawrence Jewry in the heart of London’s financial district, a lunchtime lecture is given by a highly controversial MP, the Rt. Hon. J. Enoch Powell. The subject of his talk is “Patriotism” and the church is packed. Powell will speak once again of the problems presented by the presence of about two million blacks, Indians and Pakistanis among Britain’s population of 55 million. Up by the pulpit where Powell will speak are representatives of every major British newspaper. They are waiting for one of his fiery orations. When at last he begins the words are not inflammatory but sober.

“Though legend relates otherwise,” he explains, “I would not have chosen, if I could have avoided it, to become the eponymous exponent of the conviction that by no contrivance can the prospective size and distribution of ‘New Commonwealth Ethnic Origin’—the expression is not mine but that of the Office of Population Surveys—prove otherwise than destructive of this nation. The basis of my conviction is neither genetic nor eugenic; it is not racial, because I can never discover what ‘race’ means and I have never arranged my fellow men on a scale of merit according to their origins. The basis is political. It is the belief that self-identification of each part with the whole is the one essential pre-condition of being a parliamentary nation, and that the massive shift in the composition of the population of the inner metropolis of major towns and cities of England will produce, not fortuitously or avoidably, ever increasing and more dangerous alienation.”

At the end of his speech the applause is long and sustained and Powell slips quietly away between the rows of policemen. Three days later, on January 21 in Manchester, Powell delivers one of his fieriest speeches yet, warning of an “impending catastrophe” and “civil war” between whites and non-whites in England. Support for his words comes from an unexpected quarter: MP Maureen Colquhoun, treasurer of the influential left-wing faction of the Labor Party known as the “Tribune” group. “The Labor Party,” says Mrs. Colquhoun, “ought to listen. I am rapidly concluding that Mr. Powell, whom I had always believed to be a racialist be-

fore I went into the House of Commons, is not one. All my life I have worked for a multiracial society, but I am now living in one and my attitude has shifted. I think this is a problem the government has got to deal with and not pretend it isn’t there.”

It is tempting to describe the palpable antagonism of Britons to newcomers of different complexions as racism, but that may not be altogether accurate. Societies need an identity of their own, and have often forgone economic and political advantage in order to preserve or achieve it. Quebec’s search for identity, which might some day result in separation, is an expression of this need. It is something a majority needs

as much as a minority, and to label it racism, and thereby hope to put an eternal curse on it, may not be useful. As with the Irish or the Québécois, the British have a desire to keep their country British and preserve their peculiar customs, habits and institutions. This is not threatened by a few foreigners in their midst, but it may be threatened if they come in millions. It might make little difference if they were not brown and black, but hordes of blond Teutons turning the pubs of London into the beer gardens of Munich. The growing alienation Britons feel from their own society may be one of the reasons for their indifference to its future.

Britons have to deal with a different problem of identity as well. The welfare state is addictive, and even those who perceive and dislike its structure are loath to give up its comforts and benefits.

Michael Redstone, a cheerful man in his twenties, is celebrating his first day at a newjob. Some months earlier, he had been rendered “redundant” at his old factory, but found work within a few days. Still, he couldn’t officially start working right away. “The government coughs up one week’s salary for every year I’ve worked,” he explains. “But you have to be unemployed and on benefits for the required length of time to get that. So 1 hung around the offices of my new employer for a couple of months, giving him the benefit of my experience, and when I started work proper I was given a very satisfactory starting bonus equal to my two months salary. See, it’s a full-time job working out skivving [/'.e., ripping off the government.]”

In a square in Islington, a poorer part of London where 69% of the houses are stateowned, two carpenters are fixing up the privately owned home of a doctor. They are both officially unemployed. “It doesn’t pay to work,” says one. “After you run out of the dole you can get on social security. I make £40 ($72) with my supplementary benefits and none of that is taxed. When I worked 1 made £60 ($108) and paid £24 ($43.20) of it to the government. Now I do a bit of carpentry on the side, quiet like, and everything’s lovely. I had my union card but the union took it away from me when I wanted to become self-employed and they fixed it so I couldn’t get my selfemployment certificate. You need one of those to get hired. The union doesn’t like you being on the dump’ [self-employed] because that cuts down their power. So now I do it my own way, like most of my mates, and soon 1 figure I’ll have enough to open my own business. Let the buggers

have their Jaguars and go to Ascot racetrack. Just give me a chance to get mine.”

In a small Italian restaurant in London’s garish Soho district, a senior civil servant, B. O. White of the Cabinet Office, soon to take up his appointment as ambassador to Cuba, muses over the state of affairs in England. White, a man of impeccable taste and quiet manners, was an Oxford scholar in classics with a special flair for ancient Greek and Hebrew which, upon graduation, seemed only to qualify him for government work in the fisheries department. White is concerned about the redistribution of wealth in England. To this end he advocates the prohibition of inheritances “so that Mr. X’s fortune will benefit all children of the state and not just his own.” He also believes in the progressive income tax which currently starts at 35%. By the time an income earner reaches £9,500 ($17,100) his income is taxed at 83%. “What a civilized society has to do,” he explains, echoing government policy, “is even out the differences between the rich and the poor.”

Diagnosis: Everybody wonders about the reason for the British disease, yet on the face of it, it seems the least mysterious of this century’s historical events. People work hard when they are propelled by necessity; Britons are not. In fact, they sometimes can make more on the dole—or the “fiddle”—than by breaking their backs at a job. People work hard when the state compels them to work: the British state doesn’t—at least not yet. Whatever stands the state may be forced into later because of declining morale and productivity, at this point in the development of benign statism the government giveth to the worker but demandeth relatively little.

People work when they have ambitions for themselves or their country. Individual ambition can no longer motivate Britons because of increasing disincentives for any kind of achievement, while the glory of the country—which might mean something, say, to a Chinese worker today—would only be greeted with hoots of derision in England.

The British might work, at least in the sense of pulling together, when they feel the enemy is at the gates. But Britons don’t seem to feel that at all: the Huns are gone and nobody really believes in the reality of the Russian Bear. Under the circumstances you’d have to be “a bloody fool” to work and, whatever else they may be, Britons are not fools.

Throughout history, civilizations have only been successful in one of two ways. They either structured themselves around individual achievement and put a premium on accomplishment and relative freedom, encouraging their most venturesome and productive members through rewards and incentives, or they constructed themselves around essentially spartan ideals, and created a highly structured, centralized state. But in a declining, unsuc-

cessful society such as England’s, the state neither extorts performance and service as in Hitler’s Germany or Mao’s China, nor does it reward productivity and initiative. In fact, such qualities are discouraged through severe taxation in the economic field and a belittling and denigration in the areas of the spirit.

Declining nations usually turn away from individualism to embrace the comforting collectivism of the flock. But the egalitarian impulse brings its own problems. The brave cry of the French revolution, égalité, fraternité, liberté, was the start of an ethical self-deception. For where there is égalité, there can be little liberté. It seems that all of organic life, including human societies, are by nature hierarchical, and if left to their own devices arrange themselves, like crystals, in their own patterns of order and symmetry. They can only be made equal through the imposition of an artificial matrix, the very antithesis of liberty. Societies may of course opt for this, but they should understand what they are buying. The consequences of the British drive for egalitarianism may be the most serious problem facing them today.

The Consequences: By 1975 the labor movement’s strategy of mass picketing in England had become almost as sophisticated as the bully tactics of the young Nazis of Germany on their way to power. When, for example, a local newspaper in the Midlands town of Peterborough was struck by a union, busloads of pickets and student sympathizers were brought in to prevent—illegally—other employees from crossing their lines and exercising their liberty to work. The local police chief was helpless. Looking at the size and temper of the massed pickets he advised the newspaper to surrender on the grounds that he was unable to enforce the law. In one sense, it was a first for England where citizens are not usually advised by the law to concede to the mob. This used to be the speciality of Germany’s Weimar Republic.

The phenomenon had begun, perhaps appropriately enough, on the playing fields. In the summer of 1970, the all-white

South African rugby team came to play. Pickets were organized and at various points began to march onto the field to stop the game. Spectators wishing to exercise their liberty to watch the match intervened, and a fight broke out. Most rugby fans probably abhor South Africa’s apartheid policies. But abhorring, say, the Gulag Archipelago would hardly give people the right to mob the Soviet hockey team on the ice. Incredibly, instead of preventing further excursions onto the playing fields of Britain, the government exercised unofficial pressure on the Marylebone Cricket Club, which regulates cricket in England, to cancel the South African cricket tour that summer—thus punishing the victim.

This year an updated version of the British Race Relations Act comes into force. The revised wording of the act makes it illegal for anyone to write or utter words “likely” to incite racial hatred. Intent to incite racial hatred is no longer required for criminal liability. The act is clearly designed to eliminate vicious or mindless racial abuse, but in fact it opens the door to censorship of any speech, article or book that anybody may misinterpret in any way. Logically this should include the classics— Shakespeare’s Shylock demanding a pound of flesh or the blackamoor Othello strangling a white girl is clearly racist—but court testing of this aspect of the law is yet to come. It is as if today’s politicians had borrowed the maxim of the social philosopher Helvitius that “people must be put under the necessity of being virtuous” without understanding the paradox he was illustrating. Virtue is meaningless when imposed by necessity.

On the educational front, the British government moved to bring egalitarianism into the school system. This meant ending grants to private schools, eliminating state grammar schools, which offered free academic education for promising students, and substituting instead all-purpose “comprehensive” schools. In a recent policy decision a new wrinkle was added.

Children were to be transferred to schools according to their academic achievement in order to maintain absolutely equal achievement levels in schools throughout each district. This “busing for academic integration” is called “banding.”

Not everyone in England is indifferent to the conflict between the rights of the state and those of the individual. Specialinterest organizations sprang up to defend their members against the government. Some were short-lived. Others, such as the National Federation of the Self-Employed, were concerned largely with economic issues. In 1975 an organization was formed to challenge statism in the traditional British way: through the courts. Called the National Association for Freedom and headed by a bluff English aristocrat, Lord De L’Isle, the NAFF was originally the idea of The Guinness Book Of Records editor Ross McWhirter, who was assassinated, on the front steps of his London home by, police believe, Irish Republican Army terrorists shortly before the formal launching of the association.

Through court actions initiated by NAFF’S administrative director John Gouriet, the group has had some initial success in delaying or circumventing government plans. Parents in Thameside, who were enraged by legislation that would have turned all their grammar schools into compréhensives, successfully fought the plan in the courts with the aid of NAFF. Earlier this year, in a sensational case given daily front page coverage by every British newspaper, the Attorney General of Britain, Sam Silkih, was rebuked by three judges of the Court of Appeal for failing to grant an injunction to NAFF temporarily preventing the postal union from arbitrarily, and illegally boycotting all mail and telephone calls to South Africa for one week.

Ultimately, the egalitarian impulse behind such actions as the Race Relations Act or the phasing out of academically streamed schools depends upon a misconception on the part of its authors. People who initially demanded fairness at the starting line now want to impose equality at the finish. The strangest part of it all is that these well-intentioned people have turned today’s Britain into an unhappy nation. It is strange because, though liberties are weakened, opportunities limited and the country shrouded in a grey, amorphous cloud of inefficiency like that of some East European state, the fact is that British statism does have its advantages. Never in recorded history have the majority of British citizens been more secure from actual want or misery. Never have they enjoyed such relative security—and there is clearly more in the offing. Presumably all these government policies are devised to bring about contentment and happiness: the curious fact is they don’t. What makes it much less curious is the frequently observed fact that animals seem happier amid the perils of the jungle than behind the glass panes of the best designed zoo.