Thursday, September 1, 2016

Running Commentary: Who does Denis menace (1980)

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

Who does Denis menace?
Strange things happen to Labour politicians when they are out of office. They begin to get very concerned about unemployment and rising prices and cuts in public services and poverty and slums—as if these social problems had not been prominent while they were in office.

Occasionally they strike rebellious poses—a tired throwback to the days when they were more misled than hypocritical. At such times they are capable of saying the most surprising, or the most dishonest things. Consider, for example, the recent words of Denis Healey, Labour’s ex-Chancellor famous for his axe-swinging, union bashing, wage claim stifling act. All through his time at the Treasury, Healey struggled to hold wages down; his dying demand as Chancellor was that workers should accept rises of at most 5 per cent at a time when prices were going up at something like 10 per cent a year.

But now that his bottom is warming a seat on the opposition benches Healey seems to see things in a different light. Refusing to cross a picket line of striking technicians at Capital Radio, he explained: “I do not believe in strikebreaking”. He did not, as far as we know, add that he also does not believe in upsetting trade unions at the very time that he is in the running for election to the Labour Party leadership. It is not so long ago that the government of which Healey was a prominent member used troops to break the firemen’s strike and was almost daily denouncing workers who were combining to get better wages. Towards the end, such was their fervour in the battle against strikers that some ministers were openly encouraging workers to break picket lines.

Workers should not be misled by Healey’s sweet words now: his interest remains, as it was, to protect the privileged position of the British ruling class. If workers are misled enough to forget recent history and to give Labour another spell in power they will rapidly realise, as they survey the wreckage of their hopes, that nothing has changed.

Not Vestey taxing
The queues at Dewhursts the Butchers must have positively reeled under the weight of the customers’ sarcasm after the disclosure of the massive legal tax-avoidance dodges operated by the Vestey family.

Workers are very sensitive on this issue; seeing on each pay slip an apparent deduction for income tax, and reading on sales tickets the dread words “Plus VAT”, they not unreasonably come to the conclusion that they pay taxes. They further conclude that anyone who avoids paying taxes is thrusting a greater burden on the rest. From these first fallacies they argue that things like roads, nationalised industries and armed forces are actually paid for out of their wages. Some workers go so far as to imagine that they are share-holders in an enterprise called Great Britain Ltd. except that they never actually receive any dividends). What escapes them is the fact that, whatever the size of their wage, it is generally what is needed to reproduce their energies as a class—and this holds good however much or how little tax they see deducted from each payment.

So who does pay taxes? Or who does not when they should, as in the case of the Vesteys? Something of an answer to that question was contained in an indignant editorial in the Sunday Times, which first publicised the Vestey fiddle: 
. . .  its (the Vestey family) members have enjoyed the considerable pleasures of being rich in England without contributing anything near their fair share to the defences which kept those pleasures in being —against foreign enemies in wartime, against disorder and disease in time of peace.
This passage, perhaps unwittingly, illustrates the reasons for the existence of the armed and police forces, for the entire state apparatus: to preserve the rights and the privileges of capitalists like the Vesteys. It also implies that those same capitalists are obliged to pay for that apparatus; after all, even the Sunday Times is not daft enough to suggest that people who try to enjoy being poor in England pay to defend the pleasures of the Vesteys.

Workers who wax indignant at the self-image of them being robbed by the tax man would do better to consider the legalised robbery on which capitalist society is actually based. Much better, to talk about that in the meat queue.

To judge from the overwhelmingly popular reading matter on any tube train or in any ’bus queue, many people are not aware that reading certain newspapers can seriously damage their health. One danger, for example, is the development of chronic blind spots about society. At a time when, to take only two facts, some 15 million children die each year from the effects of malnutrition while the nuclear powers cosset the capability to destroy much of what we are encouraged to call civilised life, those same newspapers prefer to devote much of their space to crushingly boring non-issues.

There is, to begin with, the question of who Prince Charles will marry and whether, when he eventually gets to the altar, he will be capable of consummating the union so that the newspapers can have some more fun about a royal offspring. This matter commands a lot of attention in the popular press although it is about as relevant and meaningful as a London Transport ’bus timetable.

Then there has been another battle of suitors of a different kind—the epic struggle between Peter Cadbury and Lord Harris over who shall be boss of Westward Television, settled at last when Cadbury threw in the towel. Support for one side or the other in the non-history making event was determined by which contestant, in the opinion of the voting shareholder, offered the better chance of getting Westward’s licence to print money renewed by the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

Lord Harris was second-in-command at the Home Office during the Labour government; he did not become famous for any tolerant attitude towards the working class while he was there and prisoners hoping to get out a bit early were not cheered when, just before Labour were kicked out of office, the Home Secretary appointed Harris Chairman of the Parole Board. He was given a big job at Westward by Cadbury, in the hope that someone so much in the know would be able to do a lot to ensure the renewal of Westward’s franchise franchise.

The battle between these two representatives of the capitalist class had little promise, not even one to change the style of the TV programmes with which tired workers are wont to renew their energies during their off-work periods. Yet the media found the story of endless fascination, fit subject for much analysis and comment. Do the workers not resent being fed this sort of drivel? Are they satisfied, to be told that this is all they are able to absorb? Is there no limit to the weight of insults which, along with their exploitation, can be heaped on their heads?

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