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International Socialism, January 1978


Tim Potter

The Velvet Glove


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104, January 1978, pp. 29–31.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Inside Right – A Study of Conservatism
by Ian Gilmour
Hutchinson £5:95

‘Never rely on the stupidity of your opponents’, a phrase coined by Lenin, is still relevant Ian Gilmour, Secretary of State for Defence in the Heath Government, has written a very intelligent book. Not for him the emotional outpourings of a Rhodes Boyson, harking back [to a time when the] poor knew their place and a few waves of the red, white and blue kept them there. Nor does he go in for the brutal logic of Keith Joseph, with his policies of mass unemployment, bankruptcies and class conflict that worry our ‘leaders’ so much whether they be in the Stock Exchange or Congress House.

No, Ian Gilmour represents the interventionist, ‘liberal’ wing of the Tory Party, typified by the actions of Heath’s Government after 1972; the wing that went down to defeat when Thatcher was elected as leader of the party in 1975. Having taken on the power of the trade union movement and been defeated, and seeing the huge concessions given to British capitalism being frittered away on the property boom, the Heath Government did a U-turn. It began to intervene in the economy even going so far as to nationalise the bankrupt Rolls Royce and began to make frantic overtures to the trade union bureaucracy. It turned to a statutory incomes policy, to hold down the labour movement, a course which it had rejected for the previous two years. It is this ‘humane’ conservatism that Gilmour represents, not the harsh face of Thatcher. He is the skilled propagandist – the velvet glove of the Tories. Take for example the ‘major problem’ of trade union power.

He, like all good Conservatives, is worried by the fact that Jack Jones apparently is the most powerful man in Britain. But Gilmour doesn’t go in for crude trade union bashing like some of his colleagues in the Tory Party. Nor does he worry about the ‘denial of human rights’ in that evil institution which enslaves millions of workers – the closed shop. He rules out solutions favoured by parts of the Tory leadership and in so doing reveals himself as a sophisticated exponent of the interests of British capitalism. He rejects, for instance, the need ‘to smash union power by very high unemployment’, for as he correctly continues, ‘the trouble is that the free society (read British capitalism – TP) would be smashed at the same time.’

And in this he is undoubtedly right. The level of unemployment, even if it is the highest since the war has not seen a noticeable weakening in the power of the trade unions. Indeed union membership has risen, even though the number unemployed has increased. Of course, union organisation has taken a hammering over the last three years. But this is not primarily because of unemployment, rather it is due to the continued existence of union agreements with the government which stifle the autonomy of the shop-floor and disorientates former militants. Gilmour is right when he insists that unemployment cannot discipline the power of organised labour without, as he so delicately puts it, being ‘unlikely to help the promulgation of free-market doctrines’. In other words it will lead to unacceptable levels of conflict for a weakened capitalism.

His solution is altogether more acceptable. If you can’t beat them you integrate them. For Gilmour, the way forward is through consultation both in a national level and at the level of the firms. He is quite clear about it – ‘the conservative hopes ... to accommodate and domesticate trade union power in Britain. The dual loyalty of trade unions will in future, it is hoped, not always be resolved in favour of the union but more often in favour of the community, the firm and the family.’

Gilmour throughout the book is a model of sweet, acceptable moderation in the service of capital’s barbarities. ‘So far as philosophy or doctrine is concerned the wise conservative travels lightly.’ ‘The ... thing British Conservatism is not is ideological.’ Any alliance, any compromise is acceptable in order to defend the things which are dear to their hearts, and those are surprisingly few. When pushed Gilmour comes up with only two. ‘In their defence of the individual against socialism ... Conservatives rely chiefly upon the family and private property.’ And again he is very astute as a ‘transmitter of traditions’, as a ‘private’ world in which the individual can retreat and where the oppression of class society is both mirrored and enforced, the family plays a key role in the maintenance of stability. And as for private property, any wresting of control from those who Gilmour writes for, spells the end of the system.

In defence of these two pillars of capitalist freedom, Gilmour will countenance almost any tactical shift. If you can avoid any intervention in the economy that is fine; but if you must – that is just the way the cookie crumbles. This comes across from a quick glance through the book, it is studded with words like ‘flexibility’, ‘compromise’, ‘pragmatic’, and ‘the middle way’.

Unfortunately for Gilmour, his thoughts are ten years out of date – for two reasons. The first, and most obvious one, is, if capitalism needs a party of ‘compromise’, ‘pragmatism’ and capable of forming an alliance with the trade union leaders what does it need a Conservative government for – it already has one in the Labour Party. The argument comes across loud and clear in a major article in the Financial Times entitled Who needs the Tory Party? (29 November 1977). Written by Joe Rogaly the central theme of the article is:

‘I cannot for the life of me think of any reason why anyone should consider voting Conservative at the next General Election. In terms of what Mrs Thatcher’s Tories have to offer we are already served by about as good as a conservative Government as we are likely to get.’

Running through the major issues confronting British capitalism, Rogaly shows that on all of them the Labour Government has adopted policies no different from those of the Conservatives. And further Labour has one huge advantage over the Tories, their links with the Union leaderships. These they have exploited to the full in order to blind the trade unions to a policy which would have been swept away if the Tories were attempting it. The problem for Gilmour is that the Labour Government has stolen his clothes and he has not got himself fitted out with new ones.

His second failure is that the room for the ‘middle way’ is being rapidly narrowed. He bases his hopes yet again on ‘an industrial renaissance’ where British capitalism will once again be booming. Yet Gilmour gives no reasons for why he expects this to occur. The major economies of the world are once again predicting slower growth rates and higher levels of unemployment. Britain will be no exception to this trend. And what has Gilmour to offer then?

Another dose of pragmatism in defence of those things he holds dear. If that demands the smashing of the trade unions or the turning back of working class rights, then the Tory party in the name of ‘flexibility’ will take off the glove and reveal the iron fist inside.

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