Thursday, 5 November 2009

Are Britons Only Socialist in Times of Crisis?

Many people argue that the British population is inherently conservative and for most of the time, Conservative, i.e. supporting the policies of the Conservative Party.  I suppose that most people who are generally comfortably off, no matter where they live have a tendency not to want that disrupted and to keep out others from enjoying what they and their families have.  It is a trend even in states such as China, which is Communist and founded on revolution and in which a lot of things still need to change, let alone countries, that whilst suffering from a recession currently, are far better off than those countries where the bulk of the world's population lives.  Recently I have noted people who whilst they want to reduce pressure or upset for themselves actually want other people to suffer more 'for their own good'.  Of course, the standard thing about pressurising unemployed people to take low-paid work and uproot and move right across the country or face punishment have been wheeled out again as the level of unemployment has risen.  However, I have encountered people saying Sweden is now lagging because its policies of equality means there is no 'edge' to drive people to work harder.  These people love having the whip cracked as long as it is on other people not themselves.

You might ask, well, 'what has this to do with Socialism?'  You may ask 'what is Socialism, anyway?'  It is a term that even the Labour Party dropped more than a decade ago.  The wealthy actor, Alan Cummings, when interviewed recently listed it as the extinct thing he would like see revived.  A lot of people equate it with Communism and they think that died the day the Berlin Wall was knocked down in 1989.  Of course, saying all Socialists are Communists is like saying all Conservatives are Fascists: inaccurate and ignorant of how the political spectrum works.  Of course, that was how many people have liked it.  In particular, Margaret Thatcher (British prime minister 1979-90), who, on more than one occasion said she wanted the elimination of a spectrum of political parties and preferred to have simply two very close to each other as is the case in the USA, often equated not only Socialism but the Labour Party (which often had more Liberal than Socialist policies) with the Communist.  In that way she could portray them as a the 'fifth column' or 'the enemy within', in league with the USSR to undermine democracy in the UK during the Cold War.  Of course, Socialists are passionate defenders of democracy as are most Conservatives.

What is Socialism? Well, the key word is 'social', it is a political philosophy which sees the benefit of the whole of society as the key driving force.  Of course, Margaret Thatcher argued that there was 'no such thing as society' and emphasised that it was individuals' desires and units no greater than families who should drive what happened politically and economically.  Socialism argues that people are different, they have different needs and abilities but they should be looked after when they cannot look after themselves (such as when ill, pregnant, unemployed or elderly) but also that they have responsibilities to the rest of the community and that whilst they are free to make their own way in the world and make profits (this is crucially where Socialism differs from Communism) they should not do so by exploiting people whether in their own country or in other countries.  This means employers should pay decent wages, have reasonable working hours and conditions and listen to the people that they are employing.  A key objective of Socialism is that everyone has equal opportunity, whether it is in terms of access to health care or education or to get on in their lives.  Vitally Socialism is against people being barred from certain jobs or other opportunities simply because of what social class they come, what gender, age or ethnicity they are.  In the 1960s this approach, seen with the creation of numerous new universities to allow people greater opportunity to go into higher education, was condemned as 'meritocracy', i.e. that people with ability could succeed.  Of course, this has been turned around from a negative term to a positive one.  As I have noted regularly on this blog since the 1980s we have moved too far away from a meritocracy to too many people simply getting good positions because of what family they were born into or which elite school they attended.  Opportunity is now less than it was thirty years ago.

A lot of Socialist principles overlap with Liberal ones and probably the most Socialist governments in British history, those under Clement Attlee 1945-51 actually pursued a Liberal policy.  Rather than having a controlled economy in line with what Socialism advocates, after 1948 they used Liberal Keynesian approaches, manipulating rather than directing the economy, notably through shifting interest rates.  In terms of health and social welfare, though they created the National Health Service, they permitted private, fee-taking doctors to continue practising and rather than funding a lot of health and social welfare from direct taxation as you would expect a Socialist government to do, they widened welfare insurance, which had been introduced in the 1910s and created National Insurance in line with what the Liberal, William Beveridge had advised during the war.  The idea is that you pay into national insurance as you would any insurance so that you build up a fund that you can draw upon when you need it, for example, when ill or elderly or out of work.  Of course, as with all insurance, some people never make a claim whereas others claim often, but that reflects the diverse needs of our society and that is not something we should try to restrain.

The most Socialist element was nationalisation of key sectors of British industry.  The focus was on the 'commanding heights', i.e. those sectors of the economy that fed through into many others.  Thus, coal mining and the railways were nationalised.  The fact that these industries had been run poorly or inefficiently before was a good reason for the state to take over.  Gas extraction and provision; electricity generation; water supply; coach transport; airlines; freighting and later steel manufacture were all nationalised; though some steps, such as with airlines had been taken before the war.  Other countries, notably France did the same kind of thing.  The British, however, even with nationalisation, tempered Socialism with Liberalism and had a very 'arms length' control by the state of these industries and did not direct them in the ways they should stimulate the economy the way that even right-wing governments in France did especially with the largest state-owned company in France, Electricite de France (now EDF Energy).  Often, as with the example of gas and water supply what we saw in the UK was really just grand 'muncipalisation'.  Many suppliers had been established by city councils in the 19th century and the regionalised approach to gas and water supply (and some water regions, such as City of York, were very small) was continuing this 19th century approach rather than moving to a really Socialist method. 

In later years nationalisation in the UK was not used as a way to try to stimulate the economy but rather to bail out failing companies such as Rolls Royce in 1971 (nationalised by Edward Heath's Conservative Government), British Leyland car manufacturers in 1976 and British Aerospace made up of a number of aeronautical manufacturing companies and British Shipbuilders, the same for that industry, in 1977.  It is unsurprising that nationalised industries that had failed continued to suffer but it meant that nationalisation was now seen as a failed economic policy and this was at the time when New Right ideas were rising both in the USA and the UK emphasising the reduction of all state control or even regulations and clearly nationalised industries were an anathema to such thinking (notably the economic viewpoint held by Margaret Thatcher).  Ironically Thatcher's government nationalised collapsed chemical company, Johnson Matthey in 1984. 

Despite the emphasis on nationalised industries the state sector was never larger than 20% of the economy compared to 90%+ in Communist countries.  In the 1980s and 1990s the nationalised industries were sold off by the government which brought revenue to the state.  The idea was ownership would be held by numerous small shareholders but generally they were bought out by large companies and increasingly ones from abroad.  Whilst there have been regulators of these former nationalised industries control over prices and profits and trying to keep up quality has not really worked; many have a near monopoly and as has been seen in the past couple of years attempts by government to stop them charging high prices and providing poor service have failed.

Conservative propaganda about Socialism has always been pretty successful.  In 1992, Labour did not win the election after a successful campaign arguing that its policies would lead to higher taxation, a view that even Labour supporters seem to come to believe.  In the 1950s the Conservatives argued that Labour's nationalisation was akin to a command economy and though Winston Churchill shot himself in the foot in 1945 likening the Labour approach to the Gestapo by the 1950s the Conservatives were successful in portraying themselves as the party of freedom against Labour's restraint and austerity.  In the late 1940s, of course, the public had been used to both restraint and authority so that argument had little impact.  In addition, Labour does seem to offer solutions to ingrained problems and in 1945 the public had been really voting on the problems of 1931 rather than the post-war era.

The reason why Tony Blair was so focused on manipulating the media was because he knew from history how long it had been manipulated against anything Labour had done.  However, he went so far in making the Labour Party seem acceptable to the media that he sheared it of the bulk of its Socialist principles.  Clause 4, the part of the Labour Party constitution which advocated nationalisation, was scrapped in 1994.  On coming to power in 1997, Labour in fact went further than the Conservative governments by denationalising the Bank of England and so giving up even Keynesian control over interest rates.  I believe that Tony Blair was neither a Socialist or really a Conservative, he was a Blairite and created a personal party out of the shell of the Labour Party; using Christian Democrat principles as the covered, but really based on his own ambitions and simply what he felt was 'right'.  This is why people feel Socialism is dead in Britain, but in effect we probably have not even seen a mildly Socialist government in Britain at least since 1976 if not since 1970 and that is the way company bosses like it.

The key problem for Labour, aside from the fact that the financial sector always tries to make a run on the pound and destabilise the economy, in fear of what constraints they will be put under, is that trade unions see an opportunity to get the deals that they have battled to achieve under a Conservative government.  Now, as in 1978/9, they are busily undermining the Labour government with demands and strikes that make it appear to voters, ironically most of whom will be workers, that the government has no control.  Of course, part of the problem is that no British government has been able to tackle the greed and huge profits of those who run business, so it is unsurprising that workers want more.  If the utility companies had been compelled to pay a windfall tax and bankers to limit their vast bonuses, ironically I think we would be seeing less industrial action.

Anyway, having cantered through Socialism, you might be thinking why is that relevant now?  Well, it is my suggestion that the British population while Conservative most of the time, turns to Socialism when things are going wrong.  In 1945 Socialism was seen as the way to avoid a return to the Depression of the 1930s and the economic slump that had followed the First World War.  In 1964 Socialism was seen as the way to stop Britain's industrial stagnation, unwillingness to modernise and thus its slipping competitiveness from worsening.  In 1974 Socialism was seen as a way to heal the sharp rifts in society and especially in industrial relations.  Of course, there has always been ambivalence as the elections of 1951, 1964 and 1974 showed and the wealthy always pull out the stops to prevent the advent of a truly Socialist government.  This is one reason why Gordon Brown who, unlike Blair, is a Labour leader, has come under sustained media attack throughout his term in office.  However, it is clear that the British public is drifting back in a Socialist direction once more.

Of course, it is not pure, unadulterated Socialism, there are other trends such as blaming problems of immigrants, which are an anathema to Socialism but almost seem to have become a norm in much discussion.  However, adherence to the National Health Service and a national innoculation programme to combat swine flu is one characteristic of a more Socialist outlook. People do not seem to realise that in the USA they would have to have health insurance for things they currently get for free and once they were elderly they would find it difficult to get cover.  Most likely they would be paying for innoculations.   I know prescription charges have risen but no-one pays for innoculation and the elderly and people like me with a lifelong condition, diabetes, who need constant medicines, do no pay.

There are, in fact, demands that the NHS expands it role and does more to provide treatment for the elderly, and for example, one-to-one care for premature babies.  Such things are costly and perhaps people are unwilling to tolerate the tax to pay for these.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whilst re-inforcing pride in the military among the British population, are seen increasingly as hopeless and people are calling for an exit.  The Conservatives argue that Labour has not provided the military with the equipment it needs, something I agree has been a problem, but how does anyone expect David Cameron with all his emphasis on cutting public spending to be able to afford to send even one more helicopter to Helmand province? 

The key area where we are seeing a return of Socialism is, ironically, in terms of the previously most controversial aspect of the ethos, nationalisation.  We now have a larger nationalised sector in the UK than at any time since about 1986.  The British government took over the Docklands Light Railway in 1997 and effectively the railway track of Britain is run by Network Rail a company without shareholders but underwritten by the government.  In 2008 Northern Rock building society and the mortgage lending part of Bradford & Bingley building society were nationalised. The government took over 60% of the Royal Bank of Scotland and 40% of the HBOS-Lloyds-TSB banking conglomerate giving it a large slice of the British banking sector, especially in mortgage-lending which has always been a key element in shaping the British economy.

It is unlikely that even Clement Attlee would have been able to control such a large aspect of the financial sector.  The closest we came was when Roy Hattersley, deputy leader of the Labour Party said around the time of the 1992 election that the investment group 3i would be nationalised under a Labout Government to form the basis of state investment in private industry.  The uproar was such that the idea seems to have been entirely forgotten almost immediately.  Interestingly, this year, finally, the government is compelling credit card companies to raise the minimum repayment level on the amount people owe.  This should have come in at least 10 or 15 years ago and could have restrained some of the overheated consumption and massive debt that amounted during the late 1990s and early 2000s that has distorted the economy in an unhealthy way.

All of these steps have been taken with no dismay from the general public.  When there is a crisis they expect the government to step in and sort it all out for them.  The rest of the time they whine about over-regulation, the 'nanny state', that taxes are intolerable and so on, not realising that lack of regulation has led to much of the crisis we are now in and that expensive bail-outs can only be funded by taxes.  Again nationalisation, which seems such a dirty word in most years, is seen as the solution.  Again, however, as in the 1970s, it is being used to catch falling businesses.  This is the wrong way to approach the economy.  Northern Rock should have been nationalised before it started its mad approach to mortgage lending.  I would have taken it over in 2005 at the latest and then, rather than it being a drag on the British economy it could have been used to stabilise house prices and provide stimulus to new business. 

With the first £1002 train ticket for the journey from Newquay in Cornwall to Kyle of Lochalsh in western Scotland, a distance of 2,720 Km (a round the world air ticket can be bought for £800 and you can travel from London to Zurich on the luxury Orient Express for £1000 or from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway - 5,806 Km for only £995) and most inter-city rail fare prices having trebled in the past 15 years, a period in which inflation has been below 3%, it seems apparent that if we want a mobile population using the greenest form of transport around, i.e. electric trains, then we need the whole rail system back in state control.  You find that the only people who praise the privatisation of the railways are people who never travel on trains.

So, are we seeing a Socialist conscience developing among the British population, wanting a tax on bankers' bonuses, limits on the pay of the wealthy, better value public transport and a health service expanding its scope combined with a tolerance, possibly even an enthusiasm for privatising what are now the controlling sectors of the British economy?  People would argue, as historian Corelli Barnett did in the 1980s that the British have become too used to the 'teat' of state intervention and would be traumatised to have it taken away from them and left to fend for themselves.  However, of course, with Thatcherite policies a great deal has been taken away and yet there are still billions of pounds of benefits that people who are entitled to them do not claim.  Britons are an independent people that still like to make their own way as best they can, despite all the propaganda about benefit swindlers and dole scroungers.  Ironically no-one goes after the tax defrauders who owe millions in total to the British economy but they have taken out to tax havens.  We need to go after these people and make them contribute the way I and the large bulk of ordinary British people do.  We have no choice about paying or not paying tax, so why should the wealthy get to make that choice?  Hopefully people are beginning to realise that only a tiny fraction of the population are ever going to win the lottery or set up a business we can sell for millions or become a pop star or some other kind of celebrity, so instead of thinking it is alright for the rich to get away without pulling their weight because one day we might be one of them, more of us need to make sure there are opportunities for a decent life for all.

The veteran Socialist politician Tony Benn often recounts when he was on a train that broke down and how it suddenly seemed as if people were becoming Socialist, sharing out the food and other supplies they had, working together to make the best of a bad situation.  When the train was running smoothly of course they did none of this.  People often refer back to the 'wartime spirit' when people supposedly collaborated in the way that Benn saw them do on that train.  Historian Nick Tiratsoo has shown that a lot of that was exaggerated and we know that 'outsiders', often Jews, were kept out of air raid shelters and whilst the bulk of the population was struggling to feed their families on rations, those who could afford to, could eat unrationed food in restaurants.  However, though it might have been exaggerated it does seem that, possibly counter to what you might expect, in crises Britons become less rather than more selfish.  It is a shame that they cannot maintain that attitude in the better times.  I know David Cameron thinks he will walk into being the latest Conservative prime minister but the recession has reawakened the dormant Socialist tendencies in the British population and if Labour appeals to those rather than trying to be a pale version of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative party, it may win at the next election.

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