From the June 1943 issue of the Socialist Standard
Who are the Real Rulers of Britain?
This question was set and replied to by Professor H. J. Laski and Captain L. D. Gammans, Conservative M.P. for Hornsey, in the New York Times, and reprinted in the Evening Standard (March 29th and 30th, 1943).
That such a question should be debated at all in the pages of the capitalist press may surprise some of our readers. However, this issue is common topic among the workers here, whilst the dollar kings of the United States find it useful occasionally to deride the feudal moss with which British capitalism is still bedecked.
Professor Laski’s contribution is useful—so far as it goes. But it only goes half-way. For reasons best known to himself, the Professor shrinks at the implications of some of his own conclusions. Where he does not shrink, he clothes the living facts his article does contain with the cap and gown of academic jargon.
Here is how Professor Laski begins.
“The law which constitutes the form of government," wrote Saint-Simon nearly a century and a half ago, “is less important as it touches the happiness of a people—far less—than the law which constitutes property. It is the law of property which determines the real character of the people."
This is merely a half-truth. It draws a distinction between ownership of property and the mode of government. This distinction does not exist. The political constitution of a country corresponds to the needs of its property-owners, the people who own and control the means of life. In Britain the government depends on adult suffrage, and minorities are allowed to express contrary opinions. But to appreciate this fact does not mean that we must endow the British ruling-class with virtues they do not possess.
Professor Laski evidently feels under an obligation to the British ruling- class for their “permission" of political democracy. Such “permission," however, is not the prerogative of rulers. It is a historical product, based upon the needs of capitalism at a particular stage of its development. The decisive fact is this: That this particular form of governmental laws alone enables the owning class of Britain to secure the support of a majority of the population.
Having conceded to the mass of the people the right to elect their rulers, the question stands: Who does, in fact, control political power in this country?
Professor Laski answers, and rightly answers, that it is “the propertied class or their representatives . . . in whose hands all the vital controls of State power remains."
He goes on to specify the ruling-class elements in detail.
"Politically, the ruling class expresses its purpose through the Conservative Party. Anyone who analyses the composition of this Party in the House of Commons cannot avoid the conclusion that its essential purpose is the protection of the interests of private property in the means of production. Forty-four per cent, of them are directors of public companies; between them they hold nearly 1.800 directorships. All important economic interests are represented there—banks, insurance, railways, shipping, iron, steel, engineering, textiles, electricity supply, coal, oil, tobacco, foodstuffs, newspapers, and so forth."
On the role of our land-owning aristocracy he is equally enlightening:
“The great aristocrat of to-day is not merely a landowner. Like the Duke of Montrose, he may be a banker; like Lord Burghley . . . he may be a director of a railroad, a bank and an insurance company. And if to persons in the Conservative Party connected with the peerage we add members who hold either a baronetcy or a knighthood, we find that nearly 250 members of the House of Commons out of 815 fall into this category."
So far, so good. Since the demise of the Liberal Party after the last war, it is undeniably the Conservative Party which embodies the will and the interests of the propertied class in Britain. But then comes a gap in the argument. Professor Laski is completely silent on the two periods during which a Labour Government was in office. True, on both occasions it was a minority in the House of Commons (though in the second period—1929-1931—they constituted the largest single party in the House). The Professor’s silence is easily understood when it is born in mind that he himself is a prominent member of the Labour Party. For flowing logically from his own arguments is the inescapable conclusion that on both occasions the Labour Government willingly acted as caretakers for the property of the British capitalists.
Here is revealed the fundamental flaw in Professor Laski’s contribution. For there is no recognition of the fact that no matter which party assumes the responsibilities of government, whether it be Conservative, Labour or any other movement which may arise in the future, real power will remain secure with the owning class, so long as the avowed programmes of these parties—their labels notwithstanding—do not solely aim at the expropriation of the present owners of the means of production, etc., and their transference to ownership by the whole of society.
This is Socialism and, of course. Professor Laski's Labour Party does not aim at Socialism. Perhaps that is why he ends his article by asking tamely “whether Britain's ruling-class will adapt itself to post-war conditions by maintaining and extending its well-known capacity for compromise." As if the abolition of capitalism could ever be a matter for compromise!
Nevertheless, the substance of his article merited a better rejoinder than the naive platform-foolery which serves Captain Gammans as "argument."
"The majority of the British people," he says, “will have none of Professor Laski's Marxian theories of class struggles."
And again: "He has revived the theory of the ruling-class conception of government which the British electorate time and time again has refused to accept, and which to-day is as dead as the dodo in British political life."
But the issue of this debate is not which view a majority of the electorate appear to hold at the present time. The allegation which Professor Laski makes and which, as quoted above, is backed up by facts and figures, is that the propertied class impose their political rule through the Conservative Party. This allegation Captain Gammans does not attempt to refute. The mass of the people, including the workers, seem to have all kinds of ideas floating in their heads, from Churchill-worship to astrology. To what extent these ideas correspond to the realities of the world to-day is quite a different matter. Captain Gammans certainly appears to hold a very low opinion of the intelligence of people when he makes the following claim:
"With two short intervals, the Conservative Party was in power during the twenty years between the two wars. There is no reason for it to be very much ashamed of its record at home."
This is the kind of statement calculated to bring even the deadest of dodos back to life. Mass unemployment, slums, the wholesale reduction of the workers' standard of living (enforced, as in the case of the miners in 1926, by a lockout), all this pitiful record of poverty and downright starvation imposed consciously and deliberately on a people by the wealthiest ruling-class that ever existed—culminating in a world war! It is obviously not in the nature of a ruling-class to have any sense of shame.
Captain Gammans attempts to bolster up his boast by a reference to the social services which he claims "have effected an almost unbelievable improvement in the health and general well-being of the community."
The emphasis here must certainly be placed on the word "unbelievable." Enquiries conducted previous to the war by nutrition experts, such as Sir John Boyd-Orr, revealed that at least a third of the nation did not receive a sufficient income per head to provide themselves with the minimum food required to maintain a reasonable standard of health. And has Captain Gammans asked the Army Medical authorities to give him the percentage figures of working-class recruits found in good health?
What seems to have escaped the Captain's notice altogether is this question:
How is it that one section of the population is in a position to dole out social services and another, a majority, is forced to accept them in order to keep alive?
Surely the answer to that question alone can tell us who rules Britain.