Devotees of political stereotypes will be comforted that the Conservative Party seems to be back to its old self again, after all those years when it clumsily posed as the working class's friend, as the party which cares, as the party of freedom and prosperity. All that is over now; one Tory at this year's conference symbolised it when he asked about one of the wetter junior ministers: “What’s a man who rides bicycles, drinks beer and sends his children to comprehensive school doing in the Conservative Party?
During the years between the wars (the two World Wars that is; for our present purposes we are ignoring the others which have cost so much in suffering and destruction) Stanley Baldwin, although he did not ride a bike, managed to deceive a lot of people that there was something called the National Interest, in which everyone's fortunes were involved and which they should trust him to protect. Baldwin was a rich man whose money came from the family ironworks. He spent some of it on a comfortable home in the lush acres of Worcestershire where he acted the part of the country squire, caring for his pigs in whom he perhaps recognised the same characteristics of productive docility as were displayed by his employees.
Baldwin's was an astute ideological base from which to attack the workers. The calm — sometimes indolence — of his exterior concealed a steely resolve which was pitted against the working class in their resistance to the lowering of their wages during the slump. Baldwin has an assured place in the history of class conflict through his handling of the General Strike, when he contemptuously outgeneralled the TUC and then sat back to contemplate the miners being starved into submission. There was cruel suffering for those people, for their children, their families and for the communities where they lived. Baldwin was unmoved; in his ideal scheme of social things there was a place for the workers — but they should know this and keep to it.
A more compassionate — if at times equally indolent — public face was worn by one of Baldwin’s successors, Harold Macmillan, who seemed to regard strikes as a personal affront to his ideal of a united, co-operative, unruffled country in which profits for the ruling class came out in a constant, tranquil flow. Macmillan was always ready to speak on the theme of there being One Nation, which was only to be expected because he owned rather more of the Nation than any of the people he was recommending it to. Now in his declining years, the ex-Prime minister occasionally grumbles that the policies of this government are another affront to his ideal, that they do nothing to promote the prime deceit of One Nation. His words should carry some weight, especially with Tories sitting on a slim majority, for Macmillan knew a thing or two about persuading the working class to vote his way.
If Macmillan were placed in parliament now he might well be among the wets, who are usually pleased to be known as Tories. There is a special irony in this because the Labour Party once used the word Tory as a term of abuse which implied a hard-faced Dickensian indifference to the plight of the poor. The Wets have reacted to this by trying to give the word a more charitable meaning. In the debate last July on the government's refusal to restore the 5 per cent cut in unemployment pay which they imposed in 1980 one outraged Wet, Richard Needham, said "... it is the basis of Tory philosophy that we help those who cannot help themselves" and he was supported by another Wet. Patrick Cormack: "... restore some traditional Toryism to the lobbies, and ensure that those people least able to look after themselves are looked after by us".
A Tory cast in just that mould is Ian Gilmour, who has carried his opposition to the Thatcher government to the extent of speaking at a Child Poverty Action Group fringe meeting at this year's conference. Now this was very bold of Gilmour, since those few Conservatives who have heard of the CPAG probably regard it as highly seditious in its work of highlighting the more extreme poverty among the working class. Well fed pigs are much more attractive and reassuring to look at than half starved children. Gilmour did not attend the meeting to congratulate or to defend the government; he demanded the restoration of the cut in unemployment benefit and larger payments for the unemployed. He is, of course, another very rich Tory — like the man with the bike and the beer he went to Eton - so it was strangely generous of him to worry about the unemployed being deprived of a pittance more each week. It is even more generous of the workers, whether they are unemployed or in an active exploitative state, to take such nonsense seriously.
In any case this government, as they never tire of telling us, are made of sterner stuff. They are unlikely to restore that cut; their resistance to wage claims will probably stay as firm as ever; their resolve to ease the path of British capitalism by forcing down workers’ living standards will not easily waver. And if the election results are any guide there is small prospect of the workers reacting against this. The same patience and optimism which was so effectively exploited by politicians like Baldwin and Macmillan — as well as by Labour leaders — is still there, still pulling in the votes, still keeping capitalism in being.
If the promises of those political leaders had any worth, we would now be living in secure prosperity; the problems which are so troublous now would simply not exist. Workers would be able to vote for parties who had fulfilled their pledges to organise capitalism into a benign, abundant society. But what has actually happened? In March the numbers of people living on Supplementary Benefit rose for the first time above 4 million. Supplementary Benefit was originally designed as a final safety net which would cradle those few people whose usual circumstances had pushed them through the other provisions of the Welfare State. It is now the everyday income which millions of desperate workers rely on to survive.
In April the Department of Health and Social Security (who are supposed to stop it happening) found that over 2 million people are living below the "poverty line" — below the level of existence on Supplementary Benefit which is itself barely enough to live on. That same month the Low Pay Unit and the Civil and Public Services Association reported that the outpacing of wages by price rises was hitting the lower paid particularly hard — that the poorer were getting poorer. There is little hope from the government that this will change. In August, Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe was warning that it will "take a long time” for unemployment to start to fall. There will be no less pressure on those workers who are in employment: in July the President of the Confederation of British Industry described as “bonkers” the idea that wage claims should attempt to compensate for price rises, so that “. . . we should get a bit more each year”.
As those with memories stretching beyond last week will recall, that was exactly the attitude of the last Labour government, who tried to get the workers to accept rises below the rate at which prices were going up. Now it is the policy carried out — or perhaps taken over would be a better term — by a Conservative government. In their efforts to protect the interests of the ruling class, every government is compelled to dispute with the workers over wages. From their point of view, the big problem of the post-war years was the high demand for labour power, which undermined every pay restraint policy, whatever name it went under. This situation was rapidly changing under the Callaghan government and as Labour went out of office unemployment had risen, and was still rising, and seemed likely to continue to do so. Coincident with the election of the Thatcher government the slump deepened and as unemployment has risen still further so the attack on workers' livelihoods has become particularly savage. At the Tory conference, it was the hard-liners, the people who openly express the intention of forcing the workers to suffer most acutely in this crisis, who got the standing ovations: the others won only a ripple of applause scattered among a stony, disapproving silence.
The political danger in this is that the workers are encouraged to blame the Conservatives — or perhaps the Dry Conservatives — for these problems and so to assume that a different party, or a different section of the Conservative Party, would be able to run things differently. Anger and despair at unemployment and extremes of poverty will become focused on the public figures of politicians like Thatcher and Tebbit who, although they do little enough to soften their Gradgrind image, are not responsible for the basic nature of capitalist society. A desire for revenge at the ballot box will obscure the memory that the problems existed under a Labour government and that all parties show themselves equally helpless in face of capitalism's waywardness and anarchy.