A Short Story from the November 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard
Once upon a time some people were persuaded to join a pleasure cruise to an Island Paradise in the South Pacific, on the liner SS Capitalism: Captain Harold Wilson, First Mate Denis Healey.
After being at sea for some time they ran into dirty weather and asked the captain if there was anything to worry about. He confidently dismissed their fears. “Remember”, he said, “my own sterling character, my past successful cruises, and above all that I learned seamanship from the world’s most famous navigator”. Leading them into the captain’s cabin he pointed to a well-thumbed Manual. It was "How to Navigate a Ship — Smooth Voyages Guaranteed” — Author, John Maynard Keynes.
But a few nights later there was a terrific crash and the ship lurched to a standstill. Some passengers rushed up on deck and hurried back to tell the captain that as they could see icebergs they were beginning to doubt whether the ship was nearing the sunny beaches that had been promised.
The captain was as confident as ever. He gave them his personal assurance that there was nothing wrong, there were no icebergs and the ship was still on course. He said the whole story was a malicious invention by the Press.
But when daylight came the icebergs were still there and the captain admitted that the ship was not in the Pacific at all. Though he could not be sure, he thought they had run on to a rocky coast in the Arctic Circle; he had set up an urgent committee of enquiry to discover who had been responsible.
When some passengers wanted to hold the captain responsible he said he was deeply hurt — it was obvious that everyone else was to blame but not him. They could surely not be serious in suggesting that the captain of an ocean liner ought to know something about such an absolutely unprecedented event as a storm at sea.
He blamed the passengers for their selfishness and want of foresight and the crew for being a mutinous lot, overpaid and overmanned. But it was, he said, time to make a new start. Let them all forget their differences and be one happy band of brothers thinking only how to help each other. It was in this spirit of unity that he had drawn up his new plan, “Attack on Inflation”.
Two chief items in the plan were to reduce the pay of the crew, and to take five per cent of them and throw them overboard; this would lighten the ship and help to refloat it. It was all to be done democratically and in full consultation with the TUC.
Captain Wilson laid some part of the blame on former Captain, Ted Heath. Though he had studied navigation in the same Keynesian Manual he was only a yachtsman, knew nothing of handling sailors and had left the ship in a most unseaworthy condition.
He also blamed some pirates who had cut off the ship’s oil supplies. When this was reported in the world’s Press the captain received a radiogram: —
NOT PIRATES. JUST ORDINARY GREEDY CAPITALISTS LIKE ALL THE OTHERS. RESENT YEARS OF BEING PAID FOR OIL IN FUNNY MONEY THAT KEEPS ON SHRINKING. NOT THINKING OF OURSELVES BUT OF OUR POOR DEAR WORKERS.
(Signed) TEN OIL MILLIONAIRES.
The captain called a meeting of passengers and crew so that he could explain to them how they had nearly wrecked the ship and to hear what they proposed about putting things right.
A ship’s officer, Wedgwood Benn, offered a simple change which would refloat the ship and prevent it ever running on the rocks again. It was to re-name the liner SS State Capitalism. This was received with rapturous applause by “left-wingers” among the crew.
The First Mate said he had been unhappy about throwing redundant sailors into the sea. He thought they should now be fished up again and put on the payroll, along with any other unemployed sailors they could find.
Two sailors, Hugh and Clive, while professing undying loyalty to their captain, rejected his Plan. They said it was self-evident that to refloat a ship you had to put everyone’s pay up, not down, and that this was what Harold used to say before he became captain.
The passengers also had their say. One group thought that the crash (and the similar one under the previous captain) would never have happened if they had had as captain, a woman, Mrs. Thatcher.
There was loud laughter at this point when Jeremy, a cabin boy, said that the only safe and democratic way was to have three captains.
Mrs. Thatcher, wearing her new see-through chiffon cape top over a strapless dress, gave an interview to the ship’s newspaper. She said that with her well-known housewifely shopping skills she would never have let the ship’s oil tanks run low. She thought there was too much equality about, so that while supporting the reduction of the pay of the crew she thought that shareholders’ profits should go up.
Another passenger, Geoffrey Howe, suggested lowering the luxury class fares to induce millionaire pop stars to join the cruise.
Mrs. Thatcher was seen to wince when Sir Keith Joseph thought they ought to go back to the tried and trusty sailing ships of the nineteenth century.
The captain entertained the ship’s company with his lectures on navigation, but in the bar there was entertainment of another sort. A ship’s steward was telling of strange goings-on in the captain’s cabin. Hearing noises he had peeped through the keyhole and saw the captain, looking very worried agitatedly turning over the pages of the Manual as if he was looking for something. He was muttering to himself: “Keynes never told us about storms”.
On another occasion the steward saw the captain trying to make a speech while standing on his head, and at the same time stuffing bits of paper into his mouth, looking like torn-up election pledges.
After his lectures on the arts of navigation the captain handed out a pamphlet to passengers and crew. It turned out to be a prospectus for a new cruise. Not a pleasure cruise this time but a rough, tough voyage lasting for years, though the first year would be the worst. This time it was to be a Treasure Hunt, diving for Fools’ Gold in the North Sea.