Paul Foot

The Old Firm

(July 1972)

From Reviews, International Socialism (1st series), No.52, July-September 1972, pp.41-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Competition and the Corporate Society. British Conservatives, the State and Industry: 1945-1964
by Nigel Harris
Methuen, £3.75

On the day this review is written (May 18) the front page of the Times reports ‘deep restiveness here and there inside the Cabinet and on the Conservative back benches about the Government’s volte face on industrial intervention policies.’ According to the report, the estate agents, stockbrokers, supermarket proprietors and used car salesmen on the Tory back benches are not a little perplexed about the Government’s Industry Bill, which contemplates even wider state powers over and subsidies for private industry than even the previous Labour Government had contemplated. Questions are being asked, in the polite way in which these things are done on Tory back bench committees, about the total somersault which the Government has turned on almost all its economic policies.

Quotations from leading Tories in the run-up to the last general election about ‘the efficiency of private enterprise’ about ‘standing on your own two feet’, about ‘disengagement from the State’ are nostalgically recited at meetings of the 1922 Committee. The Upper Clyde Shipyards, the Government is reminded, was to be dosed because the Government would not pay an estimated £6m to keep it solvent, but a few months later the same Government shelled out £35m in state aid to the same firm. Harland and Wolff in Belfast have been paid by the Tory Government in state aid some four times what the whole company is worth at current stock exchange prices. Sir Keith Joseph, chief shouter of pre-election ‘abrasive’, neo-Liberal slogans, has been kept well away from industry, and Mr Nicholas Ridley, one of the few Government Ministers who tried to practise what he preached, has been unceremoniously sacked.

No sooner are ‘abrasive Bills’ passed than the Government must try to retreat from them. In the week that the Industrial Relations Court looked like sending a Hull dockers’ leader to jail. Heath, the CBI and the TUC talk about ‘new conciliation procedures’. At the eleventh hour of the Housing Finance Bill, the Government watered down its most penal provision. Even the Government’s original determination to come to terms at any price with white racist Rhodesia seems to be wavering.

Back-bench Tories need principles to sustain them through the long Parliamentary winters. It is difficult to believe in profits and minority wealth, and the importance of both has to be explained in terms of principle. Chopping and changing from neo-Liberalism’ to ‘corporatism’ can, argue the backwoodsmen, do the Party and the class nothing but harm.

In fact, as Nigel Harris argues in this fine book, the party has survived and expanded because it has changed tack and emphasis to suit the changing needs of national capitalism. Disraeli’s strength was that he heaved the party into line with the demands of the new industrial bourgeoisie; Baldwin’s that he convinced the Tories of the 1930s that they had always been protectionists; Macmillan’s that he isolated his Suez backwoodsmen, avoided confrontation with the trade unions, instituted ‘planning’, and steered a wayward course to the corporate state.

There is no symmetry, no logic, no pattern to the capitalist system. Its logicians and its prophets are almost always wrong. ‘It is a contradiction in terms’ said Enoch Powell, prophet backbencher in 1955, (not to be confused with Enoch Powell, realist Minister 1960-1963) ‘to say that the railways cannot pay in an economy which is paying. It is a contradiction in terms to say that we can produce a profit, that we can export at a profit, but that we cannot, at a profit, transport the factors of production or the finished goods.’

Seventeen years previously, Harold Macmillan, who was better at Greek than Enoch Powell, but better also at preserving the interests of his class, had written in The Middle Way:

‘The coal industry ought now to be absorbed into the sphere of socialised concerns conducted in the light of wider national considerations-not making its first objective the securing of a profit on its own operations but seeking to serve other industries and assist them to become profitable.’

Macmillan saw what Powell, except in his brief period of high office, has never seen: that the only law of any importance in capitalism is the law of class preservation. The delicate private enterprise mechanism imagined by Powell (and, in less intelligible terms, by Winston Churchill), are fine for opposition or for the hustings, but useless for Tories in power. The best statement ever on Tory attitudes towards the State was made by Major Gwillim Lloyd George in 1946.

‘My idea is that when things are not going so well, the State should come in, but when things are going well, the State should keep out. In other words, it is a policy determined by the state of trade in the country.’

Who better to tell the Tories whether ‘things’ were going well or not than Paul Chambers when he was chairman of ICI? In 1958, when ‘things’ were going well and a pre-election boom was in the offing, Sir Paul wrote a pamphlet for the Conservative Party attacking the Government’s controls over business, which, he wrote, ‘are inconsistent with a free society’. ‘There are many ways in which the spirit of enterprise can be killed’, he went on, ‘One is the continuation of controls by a Conservative Government.’

Four years later, after the Selwyn Lloyd pay pause, when ‘things’ were going badly, Sir Paul told a lunch for the American Chamber of Commerce that legislation against concentration of economic power was out of date. What was needed, he said, was ‘industrial planning to eliminate surplus capacity.’

This class pragmatism determined the Conservatives’ approach to their greatest permanent problem: organised labour. Here is Iain Macleod, then Minister of Labour, speaking to Tory backwoodsmen at the 1956 Party Conference who were demanding a compulsory ballot before a national strike:

‘The idea, of course, is that the workers are less militant than the leaders. All I can tell you, speaking quite frankly, is that this is not my experience, nor is it the experience of any Minister of Labour.’

Macleod’s policy, and Monkton’s, was to co-operate with trade union leaders, to coax them into the corridors of power in exchange for worker apathy. The policy served the Tories well until 1964, and drew from TUC General Secretary Woodcock the famous remark that his movement had left Trafalgar Square for the committee rooms.

But the policy, like the corporatist approach to industry, did not and could not provide a solution to the problems of capitalism. It did not create the post-war boom; it served only to carve for British capitalism the best possible proceeds from it. As the boom inevitably faded, neither neo-Liberalism nor corporatism could extract the ruling class from the chaos of their international system, nor from the struggle with the workers in which they were permanently and inevitably engaged. The bulk of Nigel Harris’ book deals with the postwar period from 1945 to 1964, and only once, briefly, does he hazard the guess that ‘the British establishment is girding its loins for war’, and that the Industrial Relations Act ‘proclaimed its ... return to open class warfare in order to secure the survival of British business’. That is probably right. For the moment, at any rate, the workers are back in Trafalgar Square. But no one should underestimate the ability of the British ruling class, perhaps with the help of Labour leaders rather than Tory ones, to shy away from drastic confrontation whenever the remotest possibility presents itself.

Throughout these 288 pages of text (and another hundred of notes and references) Nigel Harris has stuck firmly (sometimes rather grimly) to exposing the myth that there is ideal, principle or consistency in the history of the British Conservative Party. In his final chapter, which has the same name as the book, and in which the slightly cramped style of earlier chapters seems to lift, he ridicules Tory ‘justifications’ of a class society as savagely as he chides social democrat leaders for assuming that the new corporatism has been brought around by the pressure of their workers’ armies. The central thesis, overlapping through all the chapters, is remorselessly proven.

What is missing from the book is the stench of property. A neutral reader could conceivably find himself sympathising with the bumbling Tory corporatists as they try to stave off the demands of their ‘principled’ madmen and ‘keep society going’. The lunacy and savagery of the class system is implicit not explicit in Nigel Harris’ book. The enemy’s cynicism, his demagoguery and his ability to shift his principles are there for all to see. But there is no call to arms to rout him.


Last updated on 20.3.2008