Saturday, September 3, 2016

Running Commentary: Times past? (1980)

The Running Commentary column from the December 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Times past?
It was bad enough Lord Matthews laying the Evening News to rest but the possibility of closing down The Times was a threat to this thing called the British Way of Life nearly as grave as Tony Benn’s daft promise to create a thousand Labour peers.

Without “the Thunderer” the clubs of Pall Mall and the better class breakfast tables throughout the land would never be the same again. Little wonder that there was such agonising; the gutters of Fleet Street ran deep with the bibulous tears of potentially redundant hacks.

The Times, set concrete hard in smug self-esteem, could hardly have been expected to appreciate a certain irony about its plight. As a world famous pillar of support for capitalism, it has sounded some of its loudest thunder in defence of the system’s basic principle by which production depends on the chances of a profit being made.

The great newspaper itself is now caught in the net of this inexorable demand of property society no profit, no production. For years The Times has been published at a massive loss which has been smoothed over partly by profits from other parts of the parent group and partly by the Thompson family’s private wealth.

Now that the bleeding has to stop, The Times—and its nervous sisters in Fleet Street are predictably laying the blame on allegedly greedy and irresponsible workers. Of course if those workers had been prepared to work twenty-four hours a day without eating they could have gone without wages and The Times would have been profitable enough to satisfy even the Thompsons.

For the Thompson Organisation to blame workers who press wage claims which might be unwisely timed is as irrelevant as workers who become redundant blaming incompetent management. In these matters the capitalist system is the culprit and in asserting its profit prioritites it does not discriminate not even in favour of its most ardent supporters.


Fallen star
Even more shattering that the possible loss of The Times was the actual death by suicide of Lady Isobel Barnett whose famous charm, wit and intelligence earned her the admiration and gratitude of countless television-addicted workers throughout the land and so also contributed to the enrichment of this British Way of Life.

The downfall of so glittering a star

(who was also rich, which is often calculated to win the admiration and gratitude etc. etc. . .) was bound to provoke a flood of sorrow. There were many hints that it was somehow indecent to have prosecuted her for shoplifting and some questioning about the whole of this practice. (Shoplifting, when all is said and done, is outlawed by capitalism as theft; many shops display brusque notices “Thieves Will Be Prosecuted”.)

The offence is most typically committed by females who are under acute emotional and financial pressure single mothers struggling to feed and bring up a family on the laughable benefits of Social Security, elderly women who, because their children have grown up and left home and they are no longer readily employable, fear that their useful life is at an end.

Lady Barnett did not come into that category. The Daily Telegraph, which customarily has little sympathy for “public figures” who fall from grace, was unkind enough to indicate that she was an habitual, compulsive shoplifter, someone who may have been classifiable as needing treatment to programme her into conformity with capitalism’s property laws.

Except that she should not have needed that. She was, after all, once a magistrate who sat in judgement on others who had broken those laws. On this point, she seemed to have suffered some confusion; in the dock herself, she chose trial by jury rather than trust her fate to the local bench in which she might have been expected to have more confidence.

The point will not be lost on the sort of people Lady Barnett once dispensed the “justice” of capitalism to—the wretched, frightened, confused workers who, having broken capitalism’s law, are daily paraded through the courts and, having tremblingly accepted their punishment, are forgotten. Unlike Lady Barnett.


Turning the screw
Whose heart did not bleed for his shareholders, when Lord Matthews appeared on television to insist that, unless the Cunard seamen agreed to the line registering two of their ships under a flag of convenience, the company would sell the ships—and eventually even the QE2 as well.

Matthews argued that this was unavoidable because the ships could pay their way only by employing the cheaper workforce available under a flag of convenience one way of tapping an international pool of labour in order to bring down wages. Under this pressure the seamen accepted what Matthews, in his genial way, described as a “good old British compromise” and agreed that one of the ships would be registered.

On shore, workers in British Leyland did not have even a compromise open to them when they tried to resist the company’s 6.8 per cent pay offer. In yet another episode in their long retreat before the onslaught on their conditions by the Edwardes management, they accepted the terms. Had they resisted, the company was promising to shut down within 48 hours.

The Ford Motor Company, whose recent publicity campaign urged buyers to “share in our successes”, is in process of imposing a new code of discipline on their workers which will involve the sacking of strikers and the suspension without pay (which is not sacking) of anyone who refuses to do a striker’s work.

And over all this looms the government’s determination to keep essential workers like firemen and hospital staff and water and sewage workers to a 6 per cent rise — that is, to impose a severe cut in their living standards.

That the screw can be tightened on the workers in this way is a grim symptom of the deepening slump in world capitalism. Mounting unemployment is remorselessly undermining the workers’ bargaining strength, depriving them of many of their weapons in the struggle to maintain their standards and so leading to further turns of the screw.

The immediate future for the working class is grim. It promises that the class division of capitalism, with its unending strife, its disruption and its wastefulness, will never be more clearly, nor more harshly exposed.

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