Monday, September 5, 2016

Running Commentary: Embassy siege (1980)

The Running Commentary Column from the June 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Embassy siege
May was a spiffing good month for jingoism and “those qualities which made Britain great”. Not only did the Arsenal beat those “Eyties” in Turin (a feat verging on the impossible) but we were all submerged in suffocating patriotism and national pride after “our boys” had shown those “Islam Wallahs” what we’re made of. No doubt the Iranian Embassy storming during which not many foreigners were killed — will be the subject of News of the World “I was there and our policemen are wonderful” exclusives for weeks to come, and a film starring Omar Sharif as William Whitelaw. True, Keith Joseph rather spoilt the month by muffing his presentation of the appointment of that Scots-American chappie to run “our” steel industry (what’s wrong with an Englishman?), but this was a minor abberration and surely Thatcher will take Sir Keith’s bootlaces out should he create any more bother.

On May Day Prince Charles set the tone for the month by defying his doctors and attending a five-course lunch at the Cafe Royal with an inch long sticking plaster reaching from the base of his nose to his earlobe; he had fallen off his pony during polo practice but could not be deterred from launching into a strong call to electrical engineers to buy British. This example of royal stiff upper lip was fallowed by noisy scenes in the House of Commons, when the Prime Minister reported on her tough stand in the matter of British EEC contributions. Anti- and pro-Europeans united in a “Wogs begin at Calais’’ atmosphere as she made clear her determination to defend the mythical “national interest”. Remind me not to send any more cheques to those greedy French farmers.

The Embassy storming, however, was enough to bring out the patriot in Anthony Blunt. We had the Prime Minister praising the SAS and police who “made all of us, on all sides of the House, proud to be British”; young Winston Churchill, an authority on Iranian affairs, contrasting the “heroic action of May 5” with the TUC’s intentions for May 14; and Tory MP Tony Marlow asking whether it wasn’t noticeable that there was a “new respect by which Britain is held by the rest of the world, based on the confidence, sensitivity and determination now abiding in Britain”. A group of about 100 British and Americans sang Rule Britannia and national anthems at Princes Gate and “Grateful” of Bexley wrote that she “certainly slept better last night . . . it (the storming) will give Britain a much needed boost after months of petty fogging wrangling in industry”.

It is not surprising that, in the midst of all this nationalistic ' fervour, reference should be made to the performance of the British workforce. The Daily Telegraph of May 1, under the heading “Modesty is ruining economy”, reported Trade Secretary John Knott’s speech to the Advertising Association’s annual conference. “Britain should cast aside its characteristic modesty and advertise its success more widely”, he said; it was modesty which did the greatest damage to the British economy and “workforces would continue to be demoralised if constantly accused of failure”. Yes, indeed. If only workers could be made to identify with, and feel proud of, “their” country and industry, think how much better they would work and how much more profit would be made for the employing class.


Labour discipline
The leadership of the Transport and General Workers’ Union also came in for some patriotic stick last month, after announcing its decision to contribute £5,000 of Union funds to the so-called Communist Party’s daily, The Morning Star. Possibly Moss Evans had been impressed by the Soviet government’s new plans for their workforce, announced in the Soviet press on January 12 but strangely unreported in the CP rag.

The Russian ruling class, which is working overtime to stir up patriotism in its less than contented population, issued a major economic decree last July to make workers abide by centralised instructions, thus destroying the last remnants of economic reforms of the 1960s which granted certain limited autonomy to factory managers. The present five year plan had forecast a very low rise in the output of consumer goods, but now not even this target is being met and some tightening up is therefore necessary. The new decree, on poor “labour discipline”, is a response to frequent absenteeism, alcoholism, wasting work time and constant job changing among a workforce deprived of any means to defend their interests collectively. Entitled “On the further strengthening of labour discipline and the reduction of labour turnover in the national economy”, it ties the receipt of various benefits, pensions and privileges to length of service. In future Soviet workers will have to repay any financial assistance they have received if they resign without showing due cause, and should they be absent from work without “valid reason” will lose their extra holiday entitlement.

What probably clinched it for the Transport and General was the-January 13 editorial of Trud (Labour), the Soviet trade union daily, which stated that: “We must actively struggle against slacking, disorganisation, absenteeism, which not only bring economic damage but do enormous harm to the work of educating the new man —the man of Communist society . . . to our regret certain trade union organisations have shown little interest in energetically taking up the task of strengthening labour discipline”.

Should we conclude that the TGWU prefers government controlled trade unions to discipline the workers to the inefficient method adopted in Britain, where private employers endeavour to follow government “guidelines” on how to control their workforce”? The “new man” of Soviet mythology might well have something to say about that. For our part, we advise workers to resist the attempts of union leaderships to involve their organisations in the campaigns of political parties, and to recognise that industrial action alone cannot achieve for them anything but modest and temporary improvements in their living standards. Unionists who want a society without imposed discipline —where the means of production will be commonly owned and democratically controlled — should examine the case of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Cheques sent to 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN will be used in furtherance of this aim.
Melvin Tenner

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