Thursday, November 14, 2019

Old King Coal in His Labour Robes (1947)

From the February 1947 issue of the Socialist Standard

January 1st, 1947, saw the opening of one of the funniest political farces for a long time, the inauguration of State coal mines under the National Coal Board: time must pass before the miners discover its tragic aspects. M.P.s who had sung the Red Flag when the law was voted presided over the unfurling of flags bearing the mystic emblem “N.C.B.” – an emblem the irreverent have already happily refashioned. Notice boards were erected at the pitheads informing the coal wage-slaves that the mines are now operated by the State “on behalf of the people.” Leaflets were handed out telling the men of the stupendous transformation. Meetings were held and speeches delivered, at one of which Sir Ben Smith, now a regional coal official, told his miner audience they had reached “the end of a road.” Enough time and energy were spent on publicity to have raised a hundred thousand tons of coal, and all of it based, it, seems, on the curious notion that if you really had removed a prisoner’s handcuffs and leg-irons and thrown open the gates of his prison, you have to tell him so in case it should look to him that to-day is just like yesterday.

Cabinet ministers graced a ceremony at the Board’s London headquarters and the Minister of Fuel. Mr. Shinwell, handed over a specially bound copy of the Act to Lord Hyndley, the Chairman of N.C.B. Mr. Shinwell spoke about the campaign for nationalisation having at last triumphantly reached its goal. He said a few words about the pioneers – Mr. Keir Hardie and Mr. Robert Smillie – though it is at least open to question whether those two, if they were alive to-day, would feel gratified at what has come out of their well-meant but mistaken labours for nationalisation. The workers asked for nationalisation because they thought it would mean higher wages, and security against speeding-up and unemployment. The industrial capitalists wanted cheaper coal for their factories and thought that unification and modernisation of the mines was the way to get it. The Labour Government has adroitly wedded the two by giving the capitalists what they wanted but under the name that appeals to the workers. The catch will disclose itself in due course.

At Horden Colliery, Durham, the secretary of the local miners’ union “dropped a hatchet into a hole dug in the ground under the National Coal Board flagstaff. They were burying the hatchet, he said, as a symbol that in future there would be no dispute between owners and men. It was the end of the old regime” (Manchester Guardian, 6/1/47). The hatchet is already being dug up again long before it has had time to rust, and it is obvious that some at least of the miners have no illusions. The National Union of Mineworkers, on January 2nd, issued a statement that the miners do not intend to abandon the strike weapon. The statement was issued, the Union explained, in order to correct “a mistaken impression” that had got into the Press (News Chronicle, 3/1/47).

Mr. Ernest Thurtle, Labour M.P., informed the readers of his column in the Sunday Express that “capitalism has been deposed.” “A Socialist theory of long standing is being put to an acid test. It is that if private profit is taken out of an industry, and that industry is owned and controlled for the benefit of the nation as a whole, then the workers in it will exert themselves with increased zeal and enthusiasm” (Sunday Express, 5/1/47). Of course, the tongue-in-its-cheek Daily Worker (4/1/47) had to lend itself to the same game, with a report of a fall in absenteeism under the heading “State Pits Spur Miners to Record Turnout.”

Then to crown the farce one of the “people” who now own the pits was had up in court for stealing “coal worth 1s. 6d. belonging to the National Coal Board” (Daily Express, 7/1/47). The magistrate, binding him over, said “the coal was now the property of the King and stealing it was a serious offence.” Apparently the man had thought it at least equally serious that “he had no coal at home.”

A week later another criminal act took place. Someone unknown, either “as a prank or as an expression of hostility towards nationalisation,” had stolen the N.C.B, flag hoisted at Upton Colliery, Yorkshire. He had taken it “from the 50-foot flagpole which stands near the main offices.” The local miners’ secretary told a reporter “its disappearance had caused indignation among the 700 miners at the pit” (Manchester Guardian, 13/1/47).

Then, by contrast with the flag-wagging and jollifications, Lord Hyndley, Chairman of N.C.B., told some sober facts about the Board’s plans. Writing in the Observer (5/1/47), he mentioned the problem of “the closing of uneconomic pits and consequent transfer of labour,” the raising of £150 million new capital to modernise the mines, increase output and eliminate waste, and the likelihood that out of the proceeds of the industry some £10 million a year will eventually be needed to pay interest on the capital. (What Mr. Thurtle calls “taking private profit out of an industry” is thus shown merely to consist of calling profit by another name.) Of course, Lord Hyndley gave assurances that in all that is done to secure the production of coal “at the minimum cost,” due regard will be paid to the miners; but they will find that being speeded up, and being eliminated from their jobs by labour-displacing machinery, tastes just as bitter when served out by the capitalist State under the N.C.B. Flag as it does without those trimmings.

Looking to the future, it can be seen that the pressure to screw more and more production out of the miners will he accelerated as cheaper fuels come into competition with coal. The likely development of atomic energy is one and oil is another. The Manchester Guardian (2/1/47) points out that the proposed oil pipe line from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean “would make it profitable to sell oil here at, half the present price. With the cost of coal being what it is and transport on the verge of a great; development of the continuous combustion engine or gas turbine, cheap oil would deeply affect Britain’s industrial future.”

These developments will also deeply affect the miners, and help prove to them that, far from having reached the goal of Socialism which will emancipate them and other workers from capitalist wage-slavery, the struggle has yet to be waged. The ballyhoo surrounding the inauguration of State capitalism in the coal fields serves only to mislead them and to direct their minds away from the real issue that concerns the working class.
 Edgar Hardcastle

The Economics of False Teeth (1947)

From the February 1947 issue of the Socialist Standard

The prolonged dispute between the official representatives of the dental profession and the Government over the scale of fees for the supply of dentures to panel patients under the National Health Insurance scheme has brought the art of mechanical (as distinct from surgical) dentistry rather prominently before the public eye. A few days before Christmas Mr. W. J. Brown, M.P., shocked the members of the profession by publishing a statement of some of the main facts relating to the production of dentures and the pay of the producers (Evening Standard, 20/12/46). In the words of Mr Brown, “In the West End you pay anything from 30 to 40 guineas for a set of teeth. In the provinces from 10 to 15. Even under the National Insurance scheme the price is over seven guineas. But the actual cost of the material which goes into a set of dentures is only about 15s. The balance represents the wages of the mechanics . . . and above all, the profit of the dentist. For the mechanic, on an average rate of £5 to £6 a week, will make several sets of dentures in a week’s work.” Here we have a fairly neat summary of small capitalist exploitation in a handicraft.

Artificial dentures, unlike boots and shoes, and clothes generally, cannot be mass produced. There is no such thing as making for stock. Every set of dentures must be moulded to a pair of models taken from impressions of the individual patient’s mouth. Hence there is little scope for machinery in the production of dentures and the capital outlay on a dental workshop is small as compared with that on the normal run of productive establishments. A considerable number of mechanics, financially more fortunate than the majority of their fellows, have set up such workshops, but the provisions of the Dentists Act of 1921 prohibits anyone not on the Dental Register from taking impressions. Hence the mechanic working on his own account can only deal openly with a member of the profession and not with the public directly. He cannot therefore obtain the full market price for his commodity under normal conditions. Moreover, even in this narrow sphere, the middle-man has managed to insert himself, and a few fairly substantial concerns, employing, perhaps, a few dozen of the more poverty stricken mechanics, have claimed their percentage of the dentist’s profit.

As Mr. Brown points out, however, the 1921 Act has not prevented mechanics from repairing and even reconstructing existing dentures, and during the war a regular rash of repair shops has sprung up in most large centres of population. The dental profession have a shrewd and probably well-founded impression that behind the mask of the repair shop a good deal of illegal impression-taking goes on. Hence their desire to wipe out the repair-shops by means of a clause in the new Health Services Bill. Side by side with this effort they are demanding nine guineas as the price of a set of panel dentures (representing about eight hours’ work on the part of the mechanic), to which the dentist himself contributes about an hour of his time, although, of course, it is highly skilled labour. Whatever the outcome of the dispute, the position of the majority of mechanics will remain that of wage-slaves. Their direct or indirect employers are not agitating for higher fees in order to have the pleasure of paying more wages. During the war the small “ sectional organisations of mechanics, inside the larger bodies such as N.U.D.A.W. (and the Society of Goldsmiths, etc., in London), gained official recognition from the associations of professional men. Little serious effort has been made, however, on the part of these associations to compel their members to take mechanics seriously by respecting the terms of the national agreement. A temporary scarcity of mechanics has enabled them to force up wages in an endeavour to meet the rising cost of living. This appears to have reached its limit and even a Trade Union hospital such as Manor House has scrapped the grading scheme and adopted a wage scale which private employers are quite willing to pay. Bemused by the fancied advantages of “nationalisation” (in some form or another), the mechanics’ officials attach more importance to co-operating with their employers on public bodies than to improving their ability to defend their own interests. Under the new National Health scheme the wage-negotiating machinery will remain, as now, under the control of a Joint Council of masters and men with an alleged common interest in “the welfare of the craft” as a guiding idea.

Mr. Brown’s article leaves the reader with the impression that the legalisation of impression-taking by the mechanics would solve the problem; but the general poverty of the major portion of “the public.” (i.e., the working class) makes intense competition either for work or customers more or less inevitable. Any considerable increase of mechanics working on their own account would lead to a considerable number going broke and losing their savings, much as happens in other branches of production, etc., where the small man seems, on the surface, to have a fighting chance. The fight is short and the longest purse wins the day. Attempts to answer Mr. Brown in the columns of the Evening Standard followed on January 1st, 1947.

Lt.-Col. Drury, representing a group of dental surgeons, held up his hands in horror that an M.P. should boast of encouraging a defiance of the law and roundly declared that mechanics had insufficient knowledge of anatomy to take impressions. Unfortunately for the Colonel’s argument, the 1921 Act also placed on the register hundreds of men who, without calling themselves dentists, had for years been operating on mouths (as well as taking impressions) without any college training. These men, obviously, had no more access to knowledge of anatomy than the average mechanic. Further, it is obvious to any layman that taking an impression is not a surgical operation. It still seems to be true that the “professional” section of society are distinguished from the rest of the working class chiefly by their larger conceit.
Eric Boden

Priority Imports (1947)

From the February 1947 issue of the Socialist Standard
  “A cargo of uranium ore from the Belgian Congo which arrived in the Elder Dempster ship, Fulani, is being handled at Toxteth Dock, Liverpool. It is contained in nearly 1,300 drums, weighing altogether more than 860 tons”
(Daily Telegraph, 20/11/46).

The Nationalisation of the Railways (1947)

From the January 1947 issue of the Socialist Standard

Railway nationalisation has a long and varied history. In comparatively recent times it has occupied a prominent place in the Labour Party programmes, has been backed by railway unions, and has been made an urgent problem for Governments because of the rise of competing motor traffic. Yet the first Act of Parliament giving the British Government power to take over the railways was passed over 100 years ago, more than half a century before the petrol motor was invented or the Labour Party was born. The Railway Regulation Act was passed in 1844 under Sir Robert Peel’s Conservative Government and was introduced into the House of Commons by Gladstone, at that time a Conservative Free Trader and President of the Board of Trade. The immediate purpose of the Act was to force the railways to reduce charges in the interests of the whole body of capitalist manufacturers and traders, by holding over their heads the threat of nationalisation. The power was never used, but the threat remained a useful weapon. It is an odd commentary on the broad continuity of policy under different governments that if the compensation terms of that Act had been applied before the recent War (25 times the annual profits based on a three-year average) the compensation would have been very near to the £900 millions that the Labour Government now offers. (If applied to the past three years when traffic and revenue were swollen by abnormal war conditions, the compensation would have been more.)

The Labour Government’s Transport Bill provides for the nationalisation of Railways, Road Haulage (except short-distance local carriers), Canals and Buses and Trams. London Passenger Transport Board will be included in the scheme, and power will be given to take over harbours. The present owners will be bought out. The whole organisation, employing nearly 1,000,000 workers will be managed by Boards set up by the Government. When the Bill becomes law British capitalism will have entered on a new stage in the organisation and control of inland transport, nearly a century after railway nationalisation began in some European countries. In Britain it has been a story of continuous conflict, between the sectional groups of capitalists who owned the various means of transport and the whole body of capitalists who depended on them. The former were out to get maximum profits; the latter wanted cheap and efficient service. The owners of the transport services also competed with each other. Proprietors of horse-drawn coaches on the 18th and early 19th century Turnpike roads were at war with the Turnpike Trusts over the tolls the latter charged for passage on the roads. With the first canal in 1761 an era of competition began between road and canal; followed after 1825 by the entry of a new competitor, the railways. The manufacturers needed the railways, but the canal and road vehicle proprietors used every effort in Parliament to protect their own investments by preventing the railways from being built. In due course the railways triumphed, then fought each other for traffic, then went in for amalgamation to protect themselves against wasteful competition.

At this stage a long battle was waged by traders to get the State to exercise more and more control over railway fares and charges. In the present century the petrol motor brought the roads back into the picture and it was now the turn of the railways to use their influence in Parliament against their road rivals. Already before 1914, many observers had become convinced that British capitalists’ problem of underselling the new great trading powers, Germany, America, Japan, etc., in the markets of the world required unification of inland transport with State ownership, or at least close State control, so that the whole body of manufacturers would get cheaper transport for their goods. Their chief argument was that national unification would eliminate wasteful competition and overlapping, and permit charges to be reduced. Supporters of the movement for nationalisation were the Fabian, Mr Emil Davies, the Liberal, Sir Leo Chiozza Money, and other Liberal and Labour politicians, as well as manufacturers and traders. It was, however, road competition that gave the movement new life, and in 1919 the Tory-Liberal Coalition Government declared its intention of nationalising, though it then drew back and contented itself with the compulsory amalgamation of the numerous large and small railways into the four existing companies.

It was Mr Lloyd George who, in March 1918, told a TUC deputation on nationalisation of railways and canals that “he was in complete sympathy with the general character of the proposals put forward”; and Mr Churchill, who said at Dundee, December 4th, 1918, “that the Government policy was the nationalisation of the railways (The Times, December 5th, 1918). It has remained for the Labour Government to complete what the Coalition Government in 1918 hesitated to do. Truly, as the Daily Herald remarks (November 19th, 1946): “the co-ordination of transport has been advocated by people who are far from Socialist in outlook”.

The reactions of the capitalists to the present Bill reflect their various sectional interests. The Manchester Guardian and The Times are much concerned with the new organisation that is to be set up, wanting to be satisfied that it will provide cheap and efficient transportation.

While most newspapers maintain that the compensation terms are harsh, one exception is the Beaverbrook Evening Standard (November 19th, 1946), which suggests that the shareholders have little to complain about and that it is the “taxpayer” to whom the deal “by no means represents a bargain”.

The Economist (December 7th, 1946) takes a cautious view. It starts off from the proposition that the railways and the road transport industry together are much more than is needed to carry the traffic. In fact, as the recent war showed, the railway system “is still about large enough to carry the whole burden”. Consequently it would be possible to divide the traffic between railways and road transport in such a way that each handled the kind of traffic it could deal with most efficiently and most cheaply. The railways could handle long-distance traffic and the road industry could act as “feeder” to the railways. The important point to notice is that this unification would enable both industries to dispense with a great deal of their present equipment (including railway branch lines) and reduce the number of workers employed, these economies being the chief object aimed at. Why the Economist hesitates about endorsing nationalisation is that it considers further inquiry is necessary to make sure that these economies can actually be achieved and that the structure proposed in the Bill is likely to produce them.

The Liberal Party issued a statement supporting the nationalisation of the railways (as it had also done at the General election, 1945), but opposing nationalisation of the general road transport industry. The Liberal view is that nationalisation will only give “cheapness and efficiency” if competition is retained. In their view there should be nationalisation of the railways, canals and docks, and also of the road transport services owned by the railways, but the rest of road transport should be left to compete with the nationalised concern. The Liberal Party also considers that the compensation arrangements are unsatisfactory (Manchester Guardian, December 11th, 1946).

Naturally the shareholders clamour for higher compensation. Their special grievance is that, unlike the Bank of England shareholders, they are not being guaranteed the same income as they were getting during or before the war. In effect, they are to receive a State-guaranteed income of about £22,500,000 a year in place of a larger but uncertain sum they received as shareholders in concerns the profitability of which had been rendered precarious by road competition. How the shareholders must regret not having jumped at Nationalisation on the much better terms they would have got in 1919, when profits and share values were higher!

So much for the shareholders. What of the workers? The workers merely change one employer for another; little else is changed, for the State undertaking, as the Daily Herald specially emphasises (November 19th, 1946), has got to pay its way. The Evening Standard remarks that nationalisation cannot bring any possible benefit to the railway worker—”for him it can mean neither higher wages nor shorter hours” (November 19th, 1946) And the Observer, in like vein, says, “It . . . leaves the transport workers and the consumers to wonder what difference it can make to them except for the worse” (December 1st, 1946). The sudden solicitude of these two journals for the worker is naturally suspect, but “Critic” writing in the Labour New Statesman (November 30th, 1946), also confesses that “nationalisation of the railways . . . really doesn’t much matter to anyone except the shareholders, who seem likely to make an uncommonly good thing out of it”. This deserves notice, coming as it does from a year-long supporter of nationalisation.

Another journal which has had a sudden flash of enlightenment is the News Chronicle. Writing on the trade union “closed shop”, and the danger it involves that if for any reason a man forfeits his union membership “he becomes an economic outlaw and may be unable to get a job at all in his trade”, the News Chronicle (November 21st, 1946) goes on to discover that “an even worse danger threatens in a society which is moving steadily towards ever wider nationalisation”, the danger that a worker will have to belong to one “monopoly union”, that union tending more and more to co-operate with the employer – the State – rather than represent the interests of the men. It will no doubt surprise the News Chronicle to be told that the Socialist Party of Great Britain at its formation 42 years ago was pointing out to the workers that nationalisation of an industry would put the worker even more at the mercy of the employer, the State. With competing concerns a worker sacked from one may seek employment in another, but the worker who earns the displeasure of the State monopoly and loses his job is effectively barred from the whole industry.

The other problem affecting the workers is that of redundancy.  Nationalisation, by eliminating overlapping will lead to the displacement of many workers, and even if some compensation is provided and they manage to get other jobs, it is bound to mean a worsened position for many of them. It was always the complaint of railwaymen, when the railways were being amalgamated, that a railwayman’s specialised training is largely useless for other occupations. The advocates of nationalisation have not been blind to the certainty that it would mean the displacement of many workers: it has, in fact, been one of their main arguments in its favour that it would eliminate waste. Mr Emil Davies in the Fabian pamphlet State Purchase of Railways (1910, p. 19), suggested that railway nationalisation ought therefore to be introduced gradually in order not to throw too many men out of work at once.

The Labour Government has kept its pledge to nationalise transport, but for the workers it is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Nationalisation is State capitalism and leaves untouched the real problem of the working class of emancipating themselves from capitalist exploitation.
Edgar Hardcastle