When Lord Acton penned his famous dictum that, because of the corrupting influence of power, “great men are almost always bad men” his knowledge of history led him to distinguish between the restricted power that corrupts and the absolute power that corrupts absolutely. The reason is obvious. The more brutal the rise the more brutal the fall; and if capitalism's Parliamentary politicians choose to cling like limpets to the pleasures and profits of office their opposite numbers in the dictatorships have no choice at all. Dictators, like gangsters, can have little hope of retiring to die in their beds. For them and their entourage the saying: “Gentlemen we must hang together or we shall hang separately” is no mere Downing Street jest. Still it is only a question of degree, and if dictators have to liquidate their old but insufficiently adaptable comrades Labour Governments, grappling with the day-to-day problems of capitalism, are constantly having to kill or maim the no longer useful pledges and doctrines that raised them to power. In the present government the task has fallen to that one-time pacifist and later organiser of victories, military and electoral, Mr. Herbert Morrison. If back-benchers mutiny, if rank-and-file sheep stray into forbidden pastures, if indiscreet ministers scare away camp-following electors, if some bitter pill has to be sugared, Mr. Morrison is the man for the job. His manner is that of the Elder Statesman dispensing wisdom, his method that of dressing up new doctrines to look as if they flowed from the old, and his technique that of the disguised fallacy masquerading as self-evident truth.
On Friday, November 17th, at Finchley he spent an evening explaining away and covering up, with the twofold object of winning back deserting so-called “middle-class” voters and of allaying trade union discontent in the ranks of the Party. The speech was reported at length in the Manchester Guardian (18/11/50) from which following extracts are taken.
Regretting “the popular antithesis between the black-coated and the manual worker” he made the point that “skill at a craft makes heavier demands upon your mental equipment than many black-coated occupations, and surgeons and many scientists have to be more skilled with their hands than the average craftsman.” Apart from a doubt whether it is true that a craftsman’s skill with his hands is any less than that of a surgeon the point is a good one—and a commonplace on S.P.G.B. platforms, from which source perhaps Mr. Morrison picked it up in his political infancy some 40 years ago. But if so he learned only half the lesson, for his remarks to the clerks of Finchley opened with the nonsensical flattery of addressing them as those “broadly known as the middle classes.” They are not “middle class” being neither a class nor middle. They are a section of the working class and it has been one of the trends of the past 10 years for the pay-packets of clerks even to fall relatively to those of craftsmen. Almost the whole of Morrison's speech was a defence of the inequalities of present day society as administered by his Government, and inevitably it had to bring in the old guff about the dignity of labour—“an honest and dignified job with their hands.” Nowhere did it do more than scratch the surface of argument and most of the awkward points were avoided. In the old days when a member of one of England's “hereditary ruling families” told the horny-handed sons of toil that the dignity of labour is more to be prized than cash and coronets he might be forgiven on the ground that he didn't know what he was talking about never having done any labouring. But now we get the same stuff from a government half of whose members have done some, and have since spent their lives getting away from it as far and as fast as possible.
Mr. Morrison's general defence of inequality might have been taken from any defence of capitalism in the past century:—“The right approach was to value each man and woman by the contribution they made to the community . . . As a good Socialist I believe in paying a fair price for honest hard work and for the special skills which a man or a woman has the aptitude and the energy to acquire.” He added that he did not advocate “a society in which everybody is on the same level.”
A host of objections to the argument call for answer. How does Mr. Morrison, holding the views he put forward at Finchley, justify his government's refusal to concede equal pay for men and women doing the same job? How does he explain away Mr. Attlee’s declaration in 1935 of his belief “in the abolition of social classes and in the creation of an equalitarian society”? How does he or anyone else measure and compare the respective contributions to the community of, say, the £5,000 a year ex-trade union official who as Minister of Labour opposes wage increases, a £5 a week ploughman, the highly paid “Party-line” editor of a Government newspaper, the lucky inheritors of millionaire fortunes, the hospital nurse, the high-fee'd lawyer who successfully defends company profits against Inland Revenue claims, and any working-class housewife? And how does he answer the still true statements made by himself in 1932:—“the landlord as landlord and the investor as investor do not produce wealth. Yet they take in rent, interest and profit a large proportion of the products of labour,” (“A New Appeal to the Young"; Herbert Morrison); and ". . . the brain workers and the manual workers of our country are poorer and less secure than the idle rich class who do no productive work” (“An Easy Outline of Modem Socialism,” Herbert Morrison).
And above all what did Mr. Morrison and others in the Labour Party mean in the past, when they gave lip service to “the abolition of the wages system”? And how does he, as a self-styled “good socialist,” justify his opposition to the abolition of capitalism and establishment of Socialism and defend the fact, as admitted last year by one of his ministerial colleagues, that 10 per cent. of the population own 90 per cent. of the wealth of the country? Does Mr. Morrison really believe that they “contributed” the wealth they own?
Like the astute debater that he is Mr. Morrison, in his Finchley speech, side-stepped the main issues by an appeal to the prejudice he may have expected to find in his audience. An older generation of Tory defenders of the profit-system used to beg you to shed a tear for the poor widow woman struggling along on the dividends from her small holding of shares. Similarly bent on fogging the issue, Mr. Morrison begged his audience to avoid the slippery slope of equalitarianism which would give us “the slacker or the persistent absentee . . . paid as much as the man who works hard ”; but nothing about the ex-shareholders in mines, railways. Bank of England, etc., who will go on drawing their government guaranteed interest indefinitely while indefinitely absenting themselves from the dignity of labour.
Mr. Morrison deplored the evils of advancement being given by favour (vulgarly known as “jobs for the boys”) and also hoped there would be an end “to the snobbery which sometimes retards the advancement of the able man with the wrong kind of accent or social background.” Nice soothing words, but when we look at them closely what do they mean? Where does the working class boy or girl acquire “the wrong kind of accent”? Where but in the “working class” school that a Government “which stands for a square deal for all classes” provides for the mass of the population? And what is the wrong kind of social background but the working class homes and working class incomes that Labour Government intends to perpetuate?
It is an old trick of the politician who is covering up a retreat from a past theoretical position to make it appear to be an advance or at least a firm stand. This is done by using the old phrases but each time with a qualification that destroys their meaning. At Finchley he repeated the old Labour Party principle of “sympathy and support” for the infirm who are unable to work. Then it was coupled with a demand for drastic increases of old-age pensions, but now Mr. Morrison, who had not the brazenness to mention the actual 26/- a week, slipped away with the evasive: “Food subsidies, too, had been a godsend to pensioners and other retired people on small incomes.” On what principle we may ask does the “sympathetic” Labour Government give them such miserably small incomes?
Mr. Morrison knows of the vague belief among his Party's membership that class divisions and class privilege should be abolished, but in place of the substance of Attlee’s former “abolition of social classes” he now gives them the shadow of his being against “any idea of rigid class relationships"; we must “break down the barriers which separate the classes"; we must not “attach labels to people according to their social position and supposed class”; and “we as a party are opposed to anti-social privilege, whether it is privilege for the rich or the not rich.”
Of course, as Mr. Morrison knows, the class division of the capitalism we live under is not a supposition but a fact; but Mr. Morrison's party is not going to abolish the class system and its class division and class privilege. What they offer instead to any who do not see through the subterfuge, is to make the class division "less rigid," stop attaching labels to the capitalist class, keep privilege but say that it is no longer anti-social. This will be satisfactory to the capitalists and their hangers-on, political and managerial, but what is there in it for the workers? Not for them any “anti-social privileges” (what a pity Mr. Morrison did not tell us what these are). For them there is to be unlimited “dignity of labour.” Let us however not overlook the other benefit they are to receive, in the new social name and status coined freshly by Mr. Morrison. Is poverty under Tory Governments hard to bear? Then how much more endurable it will be now that the poor have been re-christened the “not rich.” By a simple masterly stroke of the pen the age-old gulf has been bridged at last and the Rich and the Poor are almost one; now to be almost indiscernably differentiated only by that tiny three-letter word not. Glorious indeed are the bloodless victories of the Labour Party “revolution.”