The Passing Show Column from the March 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard
Recently Lord Birdwood protested in the House of Lords about “misrepresentations of conditions in Britain which, he said, had followed an interchange of journalists with Czechoslovakia last year ” (Manchester Guardian, 11 / 2/59). One Czech newspaper, said Lord Birdwood, “carried a report of a bearded beggar, covered by a tarpaulin and with his feet in a paper sack, who lay asleep in Hyde Park ‘not far from glittering Piccadilly.’ This was intended to indicate that Britain could not maintain work and homes for all its citizens.”
Lord Home replied for the Government and defended the interchange. We had to accept, he said, “that there was a risk that journalists in Communist countries might toe the party line and produce the kind of misrepresentation of which Lord Birdwood had given examples.” There is no doubt, he lamented, “that from time to time we will find people coming here from other countries and reporting false information.”
The Czech newspapers, of course, would be very glad to tell their readers how badly off the British people were, in order to take their minds off the conditions which they have to endure under Czech capitalism. But to return to Lord Birdwood’s protest about misrepresentation.
Mutual admiration society
It is not recorded that any of the other peers expressed surprise at this Birdwood-Home duet. Augustine Birrell once said that the House of Lords represent nobody but themselves, and they enjoy the full confidence of their constituents. On this kind of performance, they certainly have little claim to the confidence of anyone else. For on the very same day as Lords Birdwood and Home were being indignant about foreign journalists suggesting that “Britain could not maintain work for its citizens,” in the House of Commons (whose members have to be elected, and therefore must maintain some kind of contact with the real world), the Minister of Labour was announcing that six hundred and twenty thousand of the citizens of Britain were unemployed. This means that six hundred and twenty thousand workers in this country are being denied by capitalism the chance to be of use to society, that hundreds of thousands of families are living on the dole and going short perhaps of those very things which the father of the family is not allowed to make because no one will get a profit out of it. Presumably Lord Birdwood hasn't heard about these 620,000 unemployed now drawing the dole. None of them, it is safe to say, belong to the House of Lords; nor do Lords Birdwood and Home have to remember their votes at the General Election—however baseless their statements are, the noble lords are in the happy position of knowing that at the General Election they will be returned to Parliament without the vulgar necessity of being voted for.
And what about the other part of the complaint? Surely that is justified? For the Tories make a great boast of their treatment of the housing situation. Since they took office each responsible Minister had been beating his chest about his successes in housing the people: foundation-stones have been laid, ceremonial openings performed, and our ears filled with torrents of speeches about how lucky the workers are to be having so much done for them.
And the facts? For BBC television, Robert Reid investigated the housing situation in Glasgow seven years ago, when the Conservatives had just been returned to power. There were then 100,000 applicants on the town’s housing list. Last month he returned to Glasgow to estimate progress. The number now on the housing list? 126.000.
But despite these facts, it is “misrepresentation” and “false information” according to Lords Birdwood and Home—to say that Britain cannot maintain work and homes for her people.
How comforting it must be not to know the facts of life under our social system! How fine to be able to assume that because you have a home and a solid income, everyone else has too! In short, how lovely to be a Lord!
The pot speaks up
You don’t have to be a baron to know nothing about what goes on. You can be quite ignorant even if you’re only a knight.
Sir Hugh Foot, Governor of Cyprus, commenting the other day on the Eoka truce, said: “ There will be no bargaining with violence” (Manchester Guardian, 14/1/59). No bargaining with violence! If there was no bargaining with violence, there would be no politics at all. For violence—that is war and armed conflict—is only the “continuation of politics by other means,” as Clausewitz put it. Sir Hugh may have forgotten, but the country on whose behalf he rules over Cyprus not only doesn’t condemn violence as a means of solving capitalism’s problems —it has actually engaged in two colossally destructive wars on a world-wide scale within the last half-century, and is now arming so that it will not be left out if a third one begins. Sir Hugh raised no voice against the violence used by Britain in the second world war, which included dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with a joint death roll admitted by the Allies to be at least 120,000. Sir Hugh reserves his condemnation of violence for the agents of the would-be Cypriot ruling class, when they use the same methods—killing and destroying—which all the capitalist powers have used to further their ends in every war they have ever engaged in. This does not justify Eoka: but a British Governor can no more complain about the violence of others than one iceberg can complain how chilly the other icebergs are.
When only the best will do
Many of the goods which crowd the shop-windows are only shoddy stuff, botched-up to sell at the cheapest price and yield the highest profit. But a Johannesburg reader sends me a cutting revealing that at least one article designed for the workers’ consumption is made to the highest specifications. The item was in the Johannesburg Star (30/12/58):-
"Rubber batons, designed and made in the Union, will gradually replace wooden batons in the police.
"An order for 1,000 rubber batons, which have been approved by the Bureau of Standards, has been placed with a large rubber concern."
So any unemployed South African worker, tenderly feeling his head after the dispersal of demonstrations, can comfort himself by reflecting that the lump upon it has been raised by a precision-made instrument of the first quality, and that the throb in his temples carries with it the full approval of the Bureau of Standards.