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Henry Judd

Economic Paralysis Proves Failure of Reformist Policies

British Labor Government Wracked by Coal Crisis

(24 February 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 8, 24 February 1947, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Although there is no question that the British Labor Government will surmount the current crisis without the need of either forming a coalition government with Churchill, or resigning and holding a General Election, it is clear that a severe blow has been dealt it – a blow which goes beyond the immediate aspects of the English crisis. In effect, the brand of “socialism” put into practice by Atlee and his Labor Cabinet has been tested by its first crisis and has, as was foretold by revolutionary socialists, failed pitifully. This failure, at the moment, has largely benefited the reactionary forces of American and British politics.

The English crisis is, obviously, due to more than the immediate situation. Just as it was expected, just as it is certain that the Labor Government will momentarily pull out of it, just so certainly can one predict its recurrence. It is a fundamental crisis, lying within England’s social structure, its world position and the steady decline of the Empire. Mrs. Anne O’Hare McCormick, N.Y. Times columnist, is correct in writing:

“The present emergency is not merely a coal strike. Nor is it the consequence of unprecedented cold weather or a failure of the Labor Government ... It is the climax of a series of crises, all symptomatic of what the war has done to Britain and to the entire economic and political structure of the Empire. British post-war policy of production for export and nothing for the home consumer is a policy of desperation. It lessens incentive to work and strains the Spartan spirit to the breaking point, but it is necessary if Britain is ever to be able to pay with her products for the food and raw materials she is obliged to import. Without world trade these islands might as well be sunk in the ocean, another Atlantis lost in the awful flux of the tides of power.”

Under the back-breaking strain of a month of incredibly severe winter weather, storms and snow, English industry came virtually to a full halt last week. Half the plants were closed; the other half operating only partly. Four million workers were completely idle; two million were drawing their unemployment insurance (the pre-war dole had revived).

A Deep-Going Crisis

Rations of bread and other foods were just as short and poor in quality as during the worst of the war periods. The famous British queueing up was on in full force in front of the greengrocer’s and restaurants, together with dimmed out and even blacked out cities and towns. An atmosphere of cold and darkness gripped the islands, though the war had ended, for England, almost two years ago. Transport, power, gas and electricity were in varying degrees of paralysis, as though a hundred atom bombs had struck the island. This is a social crisis that will not be removed by improvement in weather, and the resumption of coal deliveries.

At the conclusion of the war, the English working class overwhelmingly voted into power the British Labor Party. This government had a mandate from the masses to move forward on the road to socialism, to reconstruct a Britain damaged by the war, to modernize and improve the industrial plant and products of the country with a view to raising the living standards of the people. But the British Labor leadership, far from socialist and revolutionary in character, has proceeded to act within the premises and confines of the pre-war Britain – that is, capitalist, imperialist Britain, ruler of India and the colonies. Even the measures of nationalization of various industries (including the crucial coal industry) were steps taken to bolster capitalism. Now we see the results – a failure predicted by the English Trotskyists.

Great Britain today is a declining power, a power in retreat on a worldwide scale, before America and Russia. These two mighty rivals are squeezing her to the wall. England is broke economically, drained financially. To pay for its loans from America, England must export everything exportable. But then, what happens to the desire of the Labor Party masses for the rebuilding of their country, the lifting of their living standards?

Bevin’s Statement

That, clearly, becomes a mockery, given the policy of the Labor Government. You cannot build homes, repair dwellings, distribute needed consumers’ goods if the country is to sell everything abroad in order to get dollars with which to pay for American and Canadian food exports. It is precisely this contradiction of a chaotic, unplanned English economy competing in a world of mighty rivals that is responsible for the absolutely hopeless dilemma of British capitalism, administered today by the Labor Party.

Foreign Minister Bevin, in a recent speech, underscored this dilemma. Wailing about the inability of England to make progress at international conferences because of its obvious weakness by contrast with the Big Two, Mr. Bevins said England needs three things:

(1) Coal – England has not sufficient coal even for its own needs! This is the immediate cause of the crisis. In 1946, England mined 35,000,000 less tons of coal than had been dug nine years before, in 1937. There were 100,000 less coal miners working in the Industry: the entire trend of workers was away from the difficult and unpleasant task of coal mining. Two hundred and fifty thousand English miners are over 50 years of age; few youth enter the pits. The coal owners have successfully saddled the nation with the huge price paid to them for the nationalization of the mines they ran into the ground.

The industry is poorly equipped, not centralized or modernized and will be a losing proposition for a long time. An American miner averages four times the daily production of an English miner. Coal, England’s oldest major industry, suffers all the concentrated ailments of antiquated British capitalism. Its symptoms of illness are only the most pronounced.

(2) Manufactured goods for export – English workers will not work hard for export purposes. Furthermore, lack of power hampers full production; not to speak of America’s savage competition and Russia’s shutting of the door to previous markets in Poland, the Balkans, etc. To top this, England has no other power reserves besides its decrepit coal industry.

(3) Financial credits to extend abroad: England came out of the war with $14 billion in debts to America and the colonies, including India. England, far from being able to extend credits, finds herself unable to borrow for her own needs. The American $5 billion loan will shortly be exhausted. American imperialism will demand a heavy price for a further loan. The dilemma is impossible to resolve. The three things that Bevin demands for a strengthening of the imperialism voice are unobtainable.

The response of the British Labor Government is to call upon the masses – the same people who passed through six years of war – for greater “austerity,” “harder work” and “higher productivity.” All this, of course, to continue the export program of British imperialism. We do not think the response will be favorable. The Conservative Party of Tory Churchill, while utilizing the crisis to bait and throw discredit upon the alleged “socialist” program of the Labor Party, is impotent and programless in the situation. It has nothing to offer, except to stimulate the most reactionary circles of British politics for the future.

The Labor Party will muddle out of its current mess, only to face an even greater one in the near future – perhaps when it must again turn to America for further loans and help. But the Labor Party has undoubtedly lost much in popular prestige among its supporters. Next week we shall examine the program proposed by the English Fourth Internationalists as a way out of this situation.

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