If there was one thing the General Election was supposed to be about it was leadership. Not just any leadership, but leadership of the tough, courageous, forthright variety which any politician worth his salt always exudes as he looks the television camera straight in the lens.
The Labour Party won the election to some extent on this issue. Their message, repeated again and again, was simple. In thirteen years the Conservatives had not provided leadership. In seventeen months Labour had given us firm government. Perhaps we didn’t agree with everything they had done but at least they had done it. We had had a taste of government with guts—and this had taught us that Labour Government Worked.(Did any Labour voter remember that this was the party which once claimed to stand for Socialism?) It was all summed up in the manifesto Time For Decision:
This is a Government that governs: it does not flop along from crisis to crisis as the Tories did, for so much of their thirteen years.
In face of this propaganda, what choice had Mr. Heath but to try to appear even firmer, even more pugnacious, than Mr. Wilson? He chose to make a frontal attack. Labour, he said, had talked about our problems but this was not enough. We needed to deal with the balance of payments, the Common Market, the burden of poverty among the old and the sick. What was needed was Action not Words. The theme was taken up eagerly by many a Tory candidate who later found that a preoccupation with Action can have some disastrous results at the polls.
It was taken up, too, in the press, which was also looking for determined leadership. In one of the unlikeliest partnerships of the election, the Daily Mirror dressed down its readers by reprinting an editorial from The Times which gave a number of reasons for the weakness of the £, among them “. . . because no government has the courage to face the British people with the truth.”
From all sides, then, there was a demand for leaders with courage, determination, vigour. It would have been surprising if this had not been reflected in the votes; when they were counted it turned out that over 13 million people had voted for firm government from the Labour Party; almost 11⅜ million had plumped for action from the Conservatives.
What is the reason for this general acceptance that firm government is essential and beneficial? The vast majority of the voters believe that we shall always need leaders who are supposed to be cleverer than the rest of us to take control of our affairs, to tell us how much we should earn, how hard we should work, when we should go to war, who we should love and who we should hate—and of course for whom we should vote.
Having accepted this notion, it follows dial the workers should want their leaders to be cast in a certain mould. Toughness is not always essential; Stanley Baldwin once won a famous election victory on the promise of Tranquility. The tough image becomes a vote catcher when the conditions of British capitalism require a special effort from the working class; in wartime or when a government is appealing, as it is now, for restraint in wage claims and for harder work.
It does not follow from this that tough, courageous leaders are always approved of. Let us go back for a moment to The Times, complaining that
. . . the world sees Mr. George Brown’s union—the largest in the country—defying the system on which the Government’s economic policy rests;
Now it is clearly an act of some courage, and considerable resolution for the Transport and General Workers’ Union to defy the government over the Incomes Policy. But The Times and the Daily Mirror are not applauding. We are accustomed to the attacks which are made upon unions firm enough to press home a wage claim. And the greater the determination which is applied in the claim—if a strike is called and is carried out with what the Labour Party calls, in another context, guts—the more furious are the attacks and the greater the impatience which many other workers express against the strikers.
A political leader who does his job with what the press judges to be resolution is headlined as a public hero. A trade union official who does his job in the same way is lampooned as a national enemy.
Clearly there is more to this leadership business than The Times is eager to reveal. The British press, and the British working class, like to see their leaders throwing their weight around in the world and consider that it is part of a natural order of things that they should do so. But what is their attitude to foreign leaders who do the same?
What, for example, did they think about Stalin when he was showing them all what ruthlessness and determination really meant? Was Castro a universal hero, when he displayed courage and single-mindedness in Cuba’s dispute with the United States? At another time and place the leader of a small country standing up to a large one can be good for a load of congratulation from the British press. Then what about de Gaulle who, although he is a politician of proven physical bravery and obvious determination, is popularly regarded in Britain as a stubborn, power-silly old man?
The truth of the matter is that it all depends on the interests of a country’s ruling class. This is what determines the propaganda which is pumped out, day after day, at the working class all over the world and which contributes to their delusions about leaders and many other issues. The British working class like their leaders to appear strong. So do the Cubans. And the French. And the rest of the working class in other countries.
This can be extended beyond the working class. Sir Paul Chambers, the Chairman of ICI. complained bitterly at his company’s Annual General Meeting last month about the competition which they are meeting from rival firms abroad. First he referred to what he called the “running sore" of competition from American-produced polymers which, he said, are “dumped” on the British market with the assistance of a relaxed tariff policy. Then he expanded his field to cover all the ‘science based ’ industries.
The danger is that the vigorous export policies adopted by American companies, with the full support of their Government. together with the very great advantages of their large internal market, will result, in a progressive transfer of manufacture in such industries to the United Stales. There is clear evidence of this already in industries such as aircraft manufacture and computers . . .
Sir Paul is the man who once claimed that ICI’s salesmen fought “like tigers” all over the world. Yet he complains when a foreign industry shows its claws. His words contribute to the idea that all strength, all commercial enterprise, can be confined to one country and that if rivals abroad show the same tendencies they must be resisted by adjusting import duties, or by ganging up with other countries. (Later in his speech Sir Paul was advocating making . . . the whole of EEC and EFTA a single market free of internal barriers for these industries.”)
ICI’s chairman knows perhaps better than most people that capitalism is not a gentle business. It is a system in which savage tigers survive more than sensitive fawns. Every capitalist nation wants its leaders to be firm and strong and clever, but if they were in fact all like that there would be a massive international stalemate in which they all outfoxed each other and so revealed their mutual futility. And that is something which ICI, for one, would not like.
In any case, what is a strong leader worth? First of all, how strong is he? Sir Paul Chambers is one of industry’s tough guys but he can do little more than complain about the jungle which he sends his tigers out to fight in. American chemical firms, he says, have a large enough home market to give them an incentive to invest in a massive plant. To get at a comparable market, the British industry must have access to Europe. But standing in the way are what he called “. . . all the other issues of the enlargement of the Common Market to include Britain . . ." Sir Paul did not think that these issues were insurmountable, yet up to now they have beaten the strongest of British industrialists.
Let us return now to the politicians. Mr. Wilson has promised firm action to defeat one of his government's biggest problems—inflation. Yet despite all the assurances inflation continues: according to the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury (House of Commons, 23/2/66) the £ of October 1964, when Labour came into power, was worth about 18s. 11d. in January 1966. What can strong government do about this? The Labour Party finds itself running British capitalism with a substantial problem of labour shortage, particularly in certain key industries. (In the election campaign Mr. Wilson actually claimed the credit for this!) In this situation Labour are acting in exactly the same way as (he Tories—they are appealing to the working class not to exploit their strength, they are threateningly brandishing legal penalties, they are promising firm and decisive action but in the end they are puffing up an already inflated currency. This is not necessarily weak government but neither is it strong government. It is simply running capitalism as the system says it must be run.
This leaves us with the final question. What benefits do leaders bring to the people who put them there? The workers vote for leadership in millions yet after centuries of it the problems of capitalism remain. Indeed, every election is an opportunity for leaders to claim that they are the men we have been waiting for; they can solve our problems—which in itself shows that the problems are still there, and that the previous “solutions” to them have failed.
It is not enough to discard one set of leaders for another; we must prepare ourselves with the knowledge that leaders are irrelevant to the advance of society. At the moment thirteen million people in this country have said that they know Labour Government Works. Which is nothing less than thirteen million people saying that they are not yet prepared to think for themselves.
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