Sunday, November 19, 2023

Rowton Houses (1957)

From the February 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard
Here the soul finds poppy-juice to ease and glad her,
   And the radiant lotus-flower of royal slumber.
Surely this cemented stair's a golden ladder
    Angel-cohorts, bearing lilies, climb and cumber . . . 
     (Rowton House Rhymes.)
Dirty washing never flapped more disconsolately on a line than these men. They hang over the barrier at the Broadway’s edge watching the traffic pass, stamping their feet among muddy newspapers. The neon lights flick on and off, touching their flesh first red and then green. They stare at the bright shop windows and at the painted faces borne perilously past on stiletto heels. Spasmodically, they drift off home to bed. For them, and for a few thousand like them, that means to the local Rowton House.

To most people, the term “Rowton House” evokes an image of a verminous flop-house where dead-beats and desperadoes rub shoulders, paying a copper or two for a couple of feet of rope under the armpits (has anyone ever slept like that?) The Houses are the butt of many a music-hall joker and the subject of much prejudice; few employers would take on a cashier who gave the local Rowton House as his address and it has been known for a mother hearing that her son was living at a House, to storm hotfoot from the provinces to take her boy away from such supposedly evil surroundings. Yet it is a fact that if such impressions ever find their way into print, a sharp solicitor’s letter is enough to extract a public withdrawal; once the B.B.C. had to climb down and apologise after a comedian’s crack about Rowton Houses in the programme “Palace of Varieties.”

So it seems that Rowton Houses are not as bad as most people think them to be. What is the truth of the matter? What are they like, what type of person uses them and what goes on inside them? And how did they come about?

Light-hearted Aristocrat
The founding of Rowton Houses was the work of Montagu William Lowry-Corry, who was a light-hearted 19th Century aristocrat, a favourite of Disraeli, who caught the famous man’s attention by livening up a stodgy party at Raby Castle. Corry became Disraeli’s private secretary and served unflaggingly through all the years of his chief’s prominence as Chancellor of the Exchequer and later as Prime Minister. When in 1875 Disraeli persuaded the Cabinet to try for a loan from Rothschild to buy a substantial interest in the Suez Canal Company, it was Corry who ran the errand from Downing Street to get the banker’s approval. Later, when Disraeli had relinquished power and was a pitiful figure, it was usually Corry’s arm he was seen to be leaning on in public. Corry got his reward in 1880 when he became the first and last Baron Rowton. When Disraeli died (with Rowton; of course, at his bedside), he left all his papers and letters to his secretary’s discretion.

Rowton conceived the idea of his Houses in the early 1890’s after the investigations into common lodging houses which he undertook as a trustee of the Guinness Fund. At that time the lodging houses of London were little better than the sort of place which Dickens described in Bleak House. The Lodging House Bill of 1851 had been drafted to stamp out the kip-houses where, it was said, the bugs could be scraped up by the handful and the only sanitary arrangements were communal buckets placed one to a room; a room which could hold anything up to 60 people. But there were many convenient loopholes in the Bill and it is certain that 40 years on there were still some unsavoury establishments for Rowton’s investigations. The aristocrat also made it his business to approach the Embankment sleepers—one story tells of him leaving the House of Lords of an evening and spending the best part of the night talking with the Thames-side down and outs. It was then that Rowton decided on his scheme to build cheap working men's hotels, where at prices they could afford, the homeless of London would find a clean bed, food and somewhere to sit of an evening. At the same time, the venture had to yield a return on the money invested in it; Rowton’s slogan was said to be “ Philanthropy—at five per cent.”

First Night
Brushing aside the warnings of his friends, Rowton put £30,000 of his own money into the building of the first House at Vauxhall. This was opened on the very last day of 1892, when only 77 men paid their sixpence for a night's lodging. Over 400 beds were left empty and the first day's takings in the catering department came to about 15s. 10½d. The building had been designed so that in the event of failure it could easily be converted and sold as a warehouse and it seemed that this would have to be, but business became brisker; in the first month over 200 beds were taken nightly and soon the 400 mark was passed. In 1894, a company, Rowton Houses Ltd., was formed with a capital of £75,000, of which £30,000 was given to Rowton in return for the money he had invested in the Vauxhall experiment. At the company's first annual meeting it was reported that the House had been full to capacity on nearly every night and a comfortable dividend of four per cent. was declared. Other, ’Rowton Houses were subsequently built at King’s Cross, Elephant and Castle, Hammersmith, Whitechapel, and Camden Town, each in densely populated areas, within easy reach of the principal transport termini and centres of employment in the markets, docks and railway goods depots.

The Houses have always been an interesting barometer of the prevailing economic weather; for instance during the slump of the thirties, there was a decrease in the number of beds booked by the week and a striking increase in reservations on the days when the dole was paid at the local employment bureau. At that time at least five doctors and nine journalists were resident at Rowton Houses, touching elbows with men whose living depended on a charity ticket. When the 1931 dole was reduced to 15/3d., the Houses cut their prices so that a man could live there (just about) on the money. Their budget allowed for nothing apart from food and lodging; not surprisingly, many men took to a bench on the Embankment rather than face a tobacco-less existence. During the two World Wars the Houses were variously used as barracks, refugee centres and unofficial air-raid shelters.

Rowton Houses To-day
Rowton Houses Ltd. is to-day a solidly flourishing £505,000 capital company, with assets of some £650,000 and a dividend steadily at about 8 per cent. It is not a charitable institution or a trust and has no connection with any religious organisation; business, pure and simple, is its line. “Although we are undoubtedly doing a good work,” said a one-time director of the company, “there is nothing of patronage or philanthropy about it.” The Houses never spend money on public advertisements, yet something like 98 per cent, of the 5,000-odd available beds are filled each night; how many hoteliers would like to be able to make a similar claim? The company has its own laundry and maintenance staff and supplies a barbering and cobbling service in the Houses. Charges have recently been increased from 2/6d. to 3/- a night (in 1910 it was 9d.). It is here that the profit is made— although the catering department pulled in nearly £130,000 during 1955, there is little profit in this side of the business. Post-war full employment has made its mark, in the Houses which now offer special private rooms, instead of cubicles, at 35/- a week. A dinner of soup, steak pudding with potatoes, followed by plum tart and custard, costs 2/8d. (in 1910 again, it would have set you back by 7d.)—and the House dining rooms are open to non-residents.

What are the Houses like? From the outside they are imposing, barrack-like buildings with their smooth red-brick and small windows. Their impressive size—for example at Hammersmith—is often blanketed by the buildings which have sprung up around them. Inside, overwhelming impressions are of the white and chocolate glazed bricks which are everywhere in all the Houses, the smell of cheap tobacco, the men who are openly down on their luck and looking for something cheap and quick, men who are existing on their wits (on one afternoon visit, nearly every other lodger seemed to be studying a greyhound race card). Men stand aimlessly in the entrance hall, despite stern notices asking them not to. The floors are stone or wood and there are no soft §eats— all the furniture is in wood, mostly with iron standards. The dining rooms and kitchens are unfailingly clean, with much up-to-date equipment. There is a billiards room (always well full of an evening), writing room and lecture room—now, of course, with television installed—in each House. For some reason, draughts is a passion of Rowton House residents; regular demonstrations take place, which give men the chance to show off their considerable skill at the game; the 1948 English champion was a Rowton House regular. All the Houses have their permanent lodgers—some of them have been booking the same cubicle, week after week, for over a quarter of a century. 

Queer Types
Because Rowton Houses offer such cheap accommodation, we can expect them to attract some poor types. Sure enough, there are descriptions of wanted men in the reception desks, alongside the file of past residents who are now banned because they fought or stole or carried lice or made a mess in their rooms. No one is allowed to book in unless he produces some evidence of identification, which is checked against these files. Occasionally, gangs form and make a nuisance of themselves until the management can weed them out. The reception staff show all the signs of being case-hardened towards people who, after all, are their clients. And among the residents are the simply queer cases: the man who wore two jackets (and this on a stuffy evening).

Apart from these, the Houses are used a lot by young men who have left home to follow a job—the list of letters awaiting collection reveals the number of Irishmen and foreigners in residence. For these the Houses are not a bad proposition; they are usually earning a wage on which they can afford to get out in the evening, when the glazed bricks and old men’s pipes are by no means at their most attractive. It is a different matter for the old ones, who make up a good part of Rowton Houses’ customers. These are the men who have no family to care about them, whose life has been reduced to the tightrope act of living on a retirement pension. For them, apart from the cheapness, the Houses offer the attraction of living in the company of fellow human beings instead of eking out their last days in a lonely room. Here is one of the tragedies of post-war conditions; the lot of old people is to-day as precarious as it has ever been—indeed, some say that it is worse since the Welfare State boys took over the running of British Capitalism. Evidence of the tragedy can be seen in the Rowton Houses, in the old men sitting out the long evenings on the hard wooden seats, staring with patient eyes at the walls, waiting for the next meal, for bedtime, waiting in the end to die.

None is Secure
The Houses are fond of describing themselves as working men’s hotels—one of their officials actually went so far as to use the term “residential Club.” (A brochure says “Up to London? Stay at Rowton House ”). Of course, all this is to rather stretch the meaning of words; no Rowton House lodger is ever called "sir” by the staff and nobody gets a hand with his luggage when he arrives. We can say that the Houses are not dirty or verminous, nor are they the stamping grounds of footpads and cut-purses. The most respectable among us could spend a night in them without fear. Because of this, a first inspection can give a strongly favourable impression; but that is only because one goes there expecting something much worse. In cold fact, they are places where men put up when they are too poor to have an independent home. The problem of not being able to afford the good—and some of the not so good—things in life is the bugbear of the great majority of us in the Capitalist world, where everything has its price and the amount we can buy is restricted by the narrowness of our wage packet. Some of us may live in a semi-detached in Accacia Avenue: but if some day we should be unable to work because there is a slump or because we have suffered an accident or have grown old then we could easily become clients of Rowton Houses. It is poverty which has been filling the places for over 50 years and will go on filling them as long as Capitalism lasts. Nobody is secure. The next time we see someone shuffling through the doorway of a Rowton House we may all reflect that there, but for the grace of something-or-other, go we.

Kennedy and after (1964)

From the January 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is part of the mystique essential to the leadership cult that the leaders themselves, dead and alive, are surrounded by myths. When they die in as dramatically horrible a way as the late President Kennedy, the myths may become more exaggerated than usual. Everyone, except for a few lunatics like the Deep South segregationists who cheered when they heard it, must have felt a chill of horror at the news of Kennedy’s assassination. Everyone must feel for Mrs. Kennedy in her endurance of an experience to haunt her for the rest of her life. It is never pleasant to look upon the results of violence, especially the sort of which simmers beneath the garish shell of a city like Dallas.

But the world is larger than one man, no matter how powerful he may be—and Kennedy was a very powerful man indeed. The eminence of the people who attended his funeral is proof—if more proof were needed—of the fact that the United States stands supreme in world capitalism today. But whatever sympathy we may feel for Kennedy we also feel for the millions of other people who suffer under capitalism. We feel it for those who meet, without headlines, equally horrible deaths in wartime. However much we sympathise with Mrs. Kennedy in her grief, we have the same feelings for the relatives of those who died in battle, or in air raids. We feel for all the unnecessary suffering which property society imposes on the human race—for the hunger and the fear and the cruel struggle that is so often the business of living.

Because we feel these things, and want to do something about them, we are Socialists. And because we are Socialists we try to dispel the myths which help to sustain capitalism, no matter what or whom they concern.

The first notion we have to examine is the one which is held, in different ways, by the man who shot the President and by the people who applauded, and by those who grieved, his death. This is the notion that murdering Kennedy will substantially alter the course of history. Predictably, there have been many comparisons with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at the end of the American Civil War. Yet Lincoln’s murder did not change anything. It did not alter the fact that the North had won and that as a result the American Union would continue to be solidified and to develop into the great power that it is today. If the American Negro is still, in many parts of the United States, held in near slavery, that is only because one of the real factors in the moulding of history—the massive will of a people—wants him to remain so and not because a man who is mistakenly supposed to have stood for Negro freedom was murdered.

In the same way, the policies which Kennedy followed, whatever superficial effect he himself had upon them, were basically determined for him by the conditions of his time. Kennedy, it is said, regarded politics as the art of the possible which means, among other things, that he tried to acknowledge the realities of modern capitalism. The new President, Johnson, lost no time in declaring that he, too, would work within these realities. Thus there will probably be no change in Washington’s new attitude towards the Soviet Union. This attitude sprang, not from a change of heart on the part of Mr. Khrushchev, nor from a pacific impulse on the part of President Kennedy, but from the new balance of power after the rift between Russia and China. This rift, incidentally, was symbolised by different reactions to the news of Kennedy’s assassination—regret in Moscow, jubilation in Peking. This situation has brought about a change in Russo/American relations; American policy is now the compound of firmness and caution upon which the dead President put his stamp.

We are accustomed, now, to hearing such changes described as the actions of peace-loving leaders. President Johnson has run true to form on this; in, his first speech to Congress he said:
“We will be unceasing in the search for peace—resourceful in our pursuit of areas of agreement even with those with whom we differ—and loyal to those who join with us in common cause.”
There will, too, be no change on civil rights. Racial intolerance is a considerable obstacle to the advance of organised industry in some parts of America; any government which faces modern realities must be opposed to it. Here was one of Kennedy’s greatest difficulties. He knew the importance of desegregation but he also knew that to push a programme of equal rights would cost him votes. And so it did. He was, in fact, in Texas in an effort to heal a split in the local Democratic ranks, and to rally support for his presidential campaign next year, when he was shot down.

The Kennedy policies, then, will continue because they expressed the conditions and the needs of American capitalism today. If some Congressmen opposed them, if fanatical racialist Senators from the South persisted in regarding Kennedy as a dangerous revolutionary, that is only a measure of the fact that they reflect the ignorance of the people who elected them. This ignorance need not concern only such things as class consciousness; it can also apply, as it does in the case of racial intolerance, to the realities of modern capitalism. Johnson will also do his best to make the United States face these realities. “I hate this as much as you do,” he once shouted at some obstinate Congressman, “But this is happening.” Which is a typically Texan way of summing it up.

Kennedy’s image was of a gracefully relaxed, yet energetically driving, young man. A cultured, sincere man; a man whose good looks, background and accomplishments made him something of a model for every modern sales executive. Kennedy was rich enough to have had, and to have taken advantage of, a very good education. One report put his personal fortune at between £3½ million and £4¼ million, and that of his father at something like £100 million. His social regime in the White House showed that he was deeply appreciative of the arts. But at the same time Kennedy was a very cool politician. He planned years ahead for his assault upon the Presidency. The manner in which he convinced the Democratic Party that his comparative youth and his Roman Catholicism did not weaken his power to attract votes was a classical example of his single-minded political campaigning. His professed sincerity and ideals did not prevent him, when he named Johnson as his Vice-Presidential candidate, from working the vote-catching compromise which is usual in American presidential elections. The campaign itself was a masterpiece, with Kennedy the man very much in control. Alistair Cooke reporting the campaign for The Guardian, contrasted the possible reactions of the candidates if they lost. Nixon, he thought, would take defeat bitterly but Kennedy would not let it worry him—he would “sleep sound o’nights.” 

There is no reason to suppose that Kennedy’s death will basically change anything. Perhaps there will be different decorations at the White House, or fewer famous musicians performing there. But the ideas and the policies which come out will be to all intents and purposes the same as if Kennedy were still alive. This is what American investors thought; Wall Street slumped when the President was shot, but a couple of days later it recovered with a rise the like of which has not been seen for over thirty years. The Stock Exchange in London, and its equivalent in other capitals, were also not slow to express their opinion that, whoever is in the White House, capitalism is going to live on.

The Cuban crisis made Kennedy the first man ever to have wielded, in apparent earnest, the threat of nuclear war as an instrument in capitalism’s international disputes. The manner in which he handled that crisis may be enough to set him down as one of the world’s more incisive leaders. Because of this, he will be buried in the myth that a leader’s political skill, or lack of it, substantially alters history. In fact, Kennedy was very much like the men who were Presidents before him, and the man who has succeeded him. He worked within the art of the possible. Perhaps at times he hated what he was doing yet was compelled to do it—because it was happening.

Press Exposure: Taking care of English (1995)

The Press Exposure column from the December 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s not what you say . . . 
The entire nation will have rejoiced at the news that Education Minister Gillian Shephard had set up a steering group to lead "a campaign for better English”. Shephard had declared herself fed up with "estuary English" and "communication by grunt" and felt the threat to our native tongue was so dire that only someone famous for their immaculate pronunciation would be good enough to head the steering group. So step forward—as they are fond of putting it in the newspapers which are not famous for their perfect English—Trevor MacDonald, newscaster at ITN. Of course a few obstinate people may have failed to rejoice, remembering that other famous person—Richard Branson, of the toothy grin, tousled hair, baggy pullovers and baggier bank balance—who was once appointed head of a similar steering group to get rid of street litter. Ministers were getting fed up with having to wade through discarded fast-food packages, old newspapers and homeless beggars on their way to their clubs. Whatever became of Richard Branson and his scavengers.7 We all know what became of the rubbish and the beggars—they’re still there.

But the really good news about MacDonald and his steering group was that he would be helped by Sir David English, who is chairman of Associated Newspapers which owns the Daily Mail and the Mail On Sunday. He reached these dizzy heights after a spell as editor of the Daily Mail and he is now editor-in-chief of both newspapers. His ‘wage’ is £440.000 a year, which will have been hiked up through a generous, secret share option scheme, while his newspapers lambaste "bonus bonanzas” for "fat cat" company chiefs and screams "Time’s Up For Greedy Bosses".

. . . It’s the way that you say it
English’s time as editor of the Daily Mail saw a great renewal in its fortunes as well as a consolidation of its reputation as one of the less reliable newspapers (not that there is much competition for the reputation as the most reliable). Consider these episodes in the newspaper’s recent life.

In May 1977 the Daily Mail claimed to have exposed "the amazing truth about Britain’s State owned car makers British Leyland". This "truth" was based on a letter from the chairman of the National Enterprise Board which discussed "Special Accounting Arrangements"— accountant-speak for a secret fund to finance bribes and undercover commission. Only the very naive would regard the “exposure" of such a fund as “amazing" but the problem for the Mail was that the letter was a hoax—a forgery. English had to apologise but did so grudgingly.

After Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, had been sentenced various newspapers were so desperate to get intimate stories about him that they competed to shower money like snowflakes on his relatives. The Daily Mail took a lofty stance above all this hysteria, piously insisting that as a staunch upholder of journalistic rectitude it would never stoop so low as to boost its circulation by paying Sutcliffe's family to tell all about him. But in 1983 the Press Council gave a different story—the Mail had negotiated £5,000 for Sutcliffe’s father, it had entertained other members of the family and had offered large sums of money to Sutcliffe's wife.

Later in 1983 (clearly, this was not a good year for English’s empire) the newspaper started up Millionaire’s Mail—a transparently specious title for what was actually just another version of newspaper bingo. Like most of the bingo on offer in the other papers, the Mail promised that some lucky people could win a million pounds. The paper did not mention that the odds were such that statistically a Mail millionaire could be expected to emerge once every 400 years (which was about three times more often than with some of the other papers).

Loyalty’s reward
We don’t have to worry about whether rich people give each other backhanders, or about workers expressing their delusions about capitalism in fatuous “games" run by newspapers, or about the reputations of government ministers. The point is if a newspaper can so consistently dabble in falsehood should anything it prints be regarded with anything but contempt? For example what about the slavish devotion to the Thatcher government by English’s papers, which earned him his knighthood? What have the working class in this country to thank Thatcher for? Under her government their poverty had sunk even deeper into the levels of despair.

Consider a recent development—the employment, sometimes re-employment after being sacked, of workers part-time with a consequent lower wage. Consider that more and more companies are operating with a small band of core workers who are supplemented at need with agency workers or those on short-term contracts. This technique has been seen at its finest in the Burger King fast-food chain, which clocked on its workers as the customers arrived, which meant paying them for only the time they actually worked, calculated by the minute. These developments make our poverty sharper as they benefit the employers by practically destroying any statutory employment safeguards.

In the face of this, what does it matter whether we express our disgust and anger at this social system in the kind of immaculate language to please a newscaster or a knighted purveyor of falsehoods like English. However we say it, let's make it clear that we’ve had enough of capitalism and its defenders.

Poverty — fiddling the books (1986)

From the August 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Creative accountancy is something which, it is claimed (by accountants, of course) can rescue companies from bankruptcy. It has nothing to do with production (so no need to worry about strikes, shortage of components and the like) and nothing to do with sales (so no need to worry about Japanese competition). It is an imaginative, elegant restructuring of the books so that what were once shown as losses can now be shown as profits. This can sometimes be done through hiding real costs in the accounts, for example:
. . . the (first) nuclear programme was politically determined and exempted from CEGB rate of return tests. Without that exemption no nuclear power stations would have been ordered between 1958 and 1964. (Atomic Crossroads. John Valentine).
Another example came during the coal strike of 1984/5. when it was argued that a change in the accounting method would move many of the pits which the NCB wanted to close out of the red. The mind of the ordinary person in the street may well boggle at such esoteric, unproductive wizardry; it might also grasp how this exposes the central motivation for production under capitalism, how the very concept of profit is so obsessional that it has to be seen to be assuaged regardless of what actually goes on in the real, physical world where coal is physically dug out of the ground by real, living human beings.

We can see a similar unreality when we compare how election promises and party propaganda compare to what actually goes on in the world. This social system is characterised by some horrifying problems, many of them so outrageous that it is difficult to appreciate their full enormity How, for example, do we confront the fact that each year millions of people endure slow, tortured. degrading death through starvation while in EEC countries there is such a "surplus" of grain on the market that the British government are considering paying farmers up to £80 an acre to let their land lie fallow? How do we cope with the fact that the way capitalism uses nuclear power — Chernobyl was the most recent case in such a way that it threatens to blanket vast areas of the world under lethal radiation? How do we keep in proportion the fact that the nuclear powers have amassed enough destructive force to wipe us all out many times over and to leave the world in a condition which no sane person is likely to want to be alive in?

Such things can be accepted — they are accepted by tens of millions of workers — with a little help from the political equivalent of creative accountancy, in which reality becomes lost behind expediency. In some cases, the aim is to convince us that certain problems don’t exist. Unemployment, for example, is due to workers being unwilling to look for work. British nuclear power stations could not possibly blow up like Chernobyl, which everyone knows was made of substandard cardboard and elastic bands. The best medical care is freely available to even the poorest people in this country, which makes us all overflowing with health and vital energy. Of course there are a few matters which still trouble us but they will be dealt with — they are, in Thatcher's recent words, dragons yet to be slain. This style of argument looks good on the political balance sheets in election programmes, newspaper articles, speeches to the party faithful.

This technique has been applied with special vigour and skill to the issue of poverty. First, there is the attempt to convince us that poverty has been wiped out; it was a problem. it is conceded, in the days when the hunger marchers came down from the idle pits and shipyards and when miners were photographed scratching desolately on slag heaps. But things are different now. with millions of cars choking the roads, millions of homes wallowing in the luxury of TV sets, washing machines, microwave ovens . . . Children are better fed, better clothed, than ever. Pensioners, who were once in so desperate a plight that they formed their own pressure group, can now survive comfortably on their benefits, topped up with lunch clubs, charity outings and so on.

However, in the face of these complacent assurances, the poverty lobby persists in churning out facts about the suffering of people who exist on the barest minimum people who are malnourished, who dress in jumble sale cast-offs, who are under the extremities of stress. When the evidence to show that this is happening is too compelling to be denied, another technique is applied, which allows an admission that the problem exists but asserts that it can easily be solved with some adjustments in state benefits or by fiddling with tax thresholds and rates. This is what the Labour Party meant, when they claimed in their 1974 election manifesto that they would ". . .  eliminate poverty wherever it exists in Britain . . . achieve far greater equality of income, wealth and living standards..."

That was a very ambitious promise and since then both Labour and Tory governments have had their chance to bring it to reality. And what have they been able to do? In Britain today something like nine million people — about one sixth of the population live at or below the official poverty line, that is to say at or below the level of Supplementary Benefit. (It is not possible to be any more exact about the numbers because the last official count to be made public was taken in 1981, since when there has been a convenient official silence in the matter; however we do know that since 1981 more than a million people have been added to those on Supplementary Benefit). To put this into proportion, it should be stated what this poverty level is. A single person gets Supplementary Benefit of £29.50 a week; a couple £47.85; a family with two children £68.05, with housing costs paid separately. Not surprisingly. there is some feeling that a more realistic measure of poverty would be rather higher, say 40 per cent above Supplementary Benefit. This would increase the numbers in official poverty to about 15 million, or one in four of the population.

Apart from the official line, there are many ideas about what constitutes poverty. Keith Joseph thought that it is not being able to afford to eat (perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Joseph once preferred to dine on a slice of wrapped British Rail fruit cake - the kind of eccentricity that only the rich can safely indulge). In fact, malnutrition is by no means unknown to people on Supplementary Benefit. Mrs L has five children between 11 years and nine months; her husband is disabled and unemployed and can't lose the drink habit he developed when he was a building worker. Their home reeks of material decay and of despair. Mrs L subsists on a diet of tea and apathy. Then there is Mr J who was a factory manager, many years ago, until the strain of his job pushed him into a mental breakdown and wrecked his marriage. He lives alone now with his anxieties and his bitter memories of the days when he could at least afford to pay the bills. He is, quite simply, starving to death. People like this are beset with advice, from Norman Tebbit's caustic goadings to social workers' desperate attempts to get Mr L to give up his drinking, Mr J to balance his meagre benefits against the costs of living. Against the inexorable effects of poverty, they are fighting a losing battle. In 1984 nearly a million council tenants were behind with their rent, to the tune of about £240 million; 1.5 million electricity users and over one million gas users are currently in serious difficulty over paying their fuel bills; nearly 11,000 people had homes which were described as "theirs" repossessed through mortgage arrears in 1985 — a fourfold increase since 1979. These symptoms are such as can be costed, recorded, put into statistical tables. Less calculable are the other, equally devastating effects of deep poverty — the inability to afford adequate clothes, or decent furniture, or a warm home in winter, or a holiday, or an outing . . .

In one degree or another these deficiencies, or the fear of them, exert a constant pressure on the entire working class — on everyone who depends on employment to live. There is however another group of people who can fall sick, or drink more than is good for them, without descending into unmanageable destitution. The present John Paul Getty suffers from a persistent disorder in his blood circulation; for the past 18 months he has been staying at the London Clinic, where it costs at least £200 a day to be a patient. This is no problem to Getty for his weekly income is in excess of £1 million. The Duke of Westminster recently suffered a reduction in his income, not because he was ill and off work but as a result of the 1967 Leasehold Reform Act which, the Duke complains. has cost his estate about £2½ million in income. There is no need to feel sorry for the Duke, or to offer him considerate advice for he is the richest man in England but we might speculate on the scale of ownership of the means of life which is required to produce an income of £2½ million and reflect that that is only a part of which the Duke owns and a fraction of his income.

Poverty is persistent because it springsfrom the existence of two classes in society — one which includes Getty and the Duke, who own the means of wealth production and distribution, and the other which includes Mrs L and Mr J who don’t own them. This second class needs to be in employment in order to live. When they are in work (although they often tell themselves that they are not impoverished) they receive wages which in general, overall terms amount to about enough to reproduce their working abilities. If for any reason they can't command a wage — if they are out of work or disabled or mentally ill or a single parent — they quickly slide down to the lower reaches of poverty where their very health is at immediate risk. Poverty can't be abolished unless something is done about the way society is organised at its basis. Reforms which promise an end to poverty at the most change its shape, or rearrange its emphasis, or shift its burden from one group of workers to another.

This is what has happened in recent years. The whole system of what is mis-called social security was based on the assumption that unemployment would never again amount to much and that workers who were in work would earn enough to fulfil the modest expectations about their standard of living without any state benefits. One consequence of this was that pensioners were relegated to the lower levels of poverty; in the early 1970s they made up a little over 50 per cent of Britain's worst-off people. There was much doleful debate, during the 1950s and 1960s, about the increase in the numbers of pensioners and about whether "the country" could "afford" to pay out more and more in benefits to them. And then the recession came to change the picture. In 1981 unemployment was said to be responsible for nearly three million people being at or below the official poverty line and was exerting a downward pressure on the wages of those in work. Nearly one million employed workers in Britain earn less than what the European Social Charter specifies as the "decency" wage and over a third of all adults off dally classified as being in poverty are families where the "head" is in full-time employment. Pensioners have now be superseded, as the worst sufferers from poverty, by couples, with or without children, who are in work.

Reformists and pressure groups, in which capitalism abounds, tell us that there is great merit in this shifting of the burden of poverty from one group of workers to another while the capitalist class enjoy their privileged riches. Some years ago, for example, there was a heated debate about whether allowance should be paid by voucher to the mother or to the father by means of an "income tax allowance". It was, as we say, a heated debate — so hot that it shrivelled the important issue of why workers should bother about so trivial an adjustment in their poverty. But the reformers had their way. As long as the working class allow this to continue their poverty, which cruelly represses them, degrades them and often kills them, will continue and the issue of creatively  ending it will not be confronted.

Caught In The Act: Politics and Sex (1992)

The Caught In The Act Column from the March 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Politics and Sex
Where were you when you heard the earth-shattering news of Paddy Ashdown’s affair with his secretary? If you can't remember where you were, do you care that you can't? Do you care about Ashdown's affair? Or about all the others which politicians are said to be continually involving themselves in? Well, it's perfectly healthy, from the point of view of a rational attitude to politics, that you shouldn’t care, except that this should not blind you to some illuminating aspects of the matter.

To begin with, Ashdown's dramatic confession enabled him to pose as the kind of clean-cut, honourable person to be expected of an ex-officer in Her Majesty's Royal Marine Commandos who, as we all know, are a fine bunch of men who would never stoop to anything mean or underhand. The truth is rather less clear-cut. Ashdown owned up, after an unusually determined effort to stifle the news, only when he knew the game was up. If it could have been managed, he would probably have continued with the deception. What worried him was not the deception, or the effect of it on his family or his ex-secretary, but the possible damage to his political career.

Then there was the indignation, so supportive of Ashdown, aroused by the activities of the media — in particular of the "popular" newspapers who rampaged on the ruthless intrusiveness which is almost instinctive to them. It was not a pretty sight but then neither is a politician exposed as a hypocrite. For news is what sells the papers and. however we look at it, Ashdown's private life — like that of any other political leader — is news. As a supporter of capitalism and its commodity economy he can hardly complain when he is inconvenienced because the sellers of one particular commodity jazz up their product with details of his sex life to make it more saleable, more competitive.

In any ease the media interest was that much more excited by the fact that they had uncovered a scandal involving the leader of a party which presents itself as morally superior to the others, as an alternative to the muck-raking, back-biting and blackmailing which is the very stuff of politics. A lot of Ashdown’s embarrassment was due to the exposure of him as really no different, no belter, than the others. Of course it would have been worse for him if the publicity had cost his party a lot of votes. But the anti-media campaign which instantly counter-attacked when the news broke seemed to have had the opposite effect and Ashdown's position as leader of the Lib Dems looks safe. At least, for the immediate future — which means until the general election results are in.

So how far should the media intrude into the private, family life of politicians? On this there is a large balloon of hypocrisy which needs to be pricked. Social attitudes being what they are — distorted by capitalism's property-based relationships — it is to the advantage of a politician to be married. Having a husband or a wife prevents awkward, vote-threatening, questions about any deviancy from what is defined as sexual normality. Constituency selection committees arc favourably impressed by a candidate who presents as someone with a stable marriage and two or three bright, well-groomed children. It is the image they are interested in, before the reality — the sort of image which can guarantee a sugary photograph of the candidate at home with the family which looks good on an election address. As often becomes apparent, reality can be rather less united. If politicians set themselves up in this way, using their family in order to win support, they cannot complain if the family — its stability and their loyalty to it — becomes an issue. So if there is a hint that all at home is less than idyllically happy it is not unfair for that to be used to expose the politician as a hypocrite who tries to persuade the voters to give their family the loyalty which they themselves don't give it.

What really concerns politicians in these situations — what really concerned Ashdown and his party — was what effect the news would have on the voters. For the Liberals, the memory of Jeremy Thorpe is too close and too damaging for them to take another scandal lightly. The effect of the exposure on the people concerned — in spite of the mock concern for Ashdown's wife takes a very low priority compared to the party’s preoccupation with what the voters may think. For capitalism's politics is not about consistent principles but about taking advantage, however and whenever it is on offer, and about stifling, as far as possible, any disadvantages. It is about ruthlessness before caring, about cynicism before sustainable standards.

To take this point a little further, it was reported that the exposure of Ashdown's affair brought a rush of support for the Lib/Dems. Could this mean that, as we approach a general election which threatens to be historically dirty and irrelevant. John Major and Neil Kinnock will try to attact the voters by bringing out some skeletons from their own cupboards — or, if none exist, manufacturing them? The mind, in an exceedingly unpleasant way, boggles.

More real than the Ashdown affair is the economy — or rather the current recession — which is likely to be a dominant issue in the election. Is the recession really the result of a deliberate policy by the Tory government? Could a Labour government cure it or should this be left to Major's crew, who say they are about to cure it anyway? In the Commons recently John Major, under pressure from Kinnock's argument that the recession is all the fault of the Tories, shouted that many other industrial countries are going through a slump at present. The Tories can hardly be blamed for that, can they?

Well no, they can't. But what they can be blamed for is the pretence, when it suits them, that there is something separate and unique about the recession in Britain so that it can be "cured" by some clever fiscal juggling by Norman Lamont or whoever happens to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. In fact Lamont has rapidly climbed to fame as a persistent exponent of false promises and quickly discredited economic forecasts. If the Tories refuse to accept the blame for the slump, on the grounds that it is a world wide problem, they can't claim the credit when, as world conditions change, the slump recedes to be followed by a boom.

But, of course, they will claim that credit; Lamont claims it now. even as all the economic indicators say there is no sign of an end to the slump. Because, as we said about Paddy Ashdown, politics is not about consistency of principles. And come to think of it, a few years back there was a flurry of scandal about Lamont and a disappointed woman . . .

Press, privacy and profit (1992)

Cartoon by Peter Rigg.
From the September 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

When David Mellor’s affair with the unemployed actress suddenly ceased to interest the newspapers it left room on the front pages for such trivial matters as the world economic recession, the fighting in Bosnia, the famine in Africa which threatens to kill three million people, the crisis in the Gulf, the riots in British cities . . . But of course there was more to it than a bit of prurient excitement about a Minister and a woman; for one thing, did Mellor and de Sancha merely drop out of the headlines or were they pushed?

The affair happened when Mellor’s marriage was in difficulty—although it was not clear which came first and whether one caused the other. In any event the Minister might have got away with it— like so many other prominent politicians—had he not revealed in a bugged telephone conversation that after a night with de Sancha he was too exhausted to write a couple of speeches. Some people might have thought that she had done us a favour but to the People newspaper the prospect of thousands of desperate voters being deprived of listening to Mellor was too much. In the national interest, they decided, they must act; we simply can’t have the country run by a lot of weary and wordless Ministers. However it may damage Mellor and the government—and of course with absolutely no regard to whether it increased the paper’s sales—all must be revealed.

And revealed it was, in all the detail customary to what is politely known as the “tabloid”—or, in the best of circles, the “compact”—press. To say that this area of the media operates on double standards would be to understate the arithmetic of how they operate. It is commonplace for them to denounce on one page an example of sexual excess— thunderously scourging some alleged sexual offender as a “beast"—while on another page they excite sexual tensions with pictures of a scantily clothed woman whose condition is explained in a succession of soggily provocative puns. This seeming contradiction survives and flourishes through the admitted skills of the newspapers’ wordsmiths. to devalue the whole thing as an innocent joke. This trick is pulled with the help of a specialised vocabulary, in which sexual intercourse becomes “bonking” and, for example, the ex-boss of Burtons is not just another customer of an expensive prostitute but “five times a night Halpern”. That type of vocabulary not only pushes up the sales of papers like the Sun and the Star but gets the readers chuckling, in the bus queues and the works canteens. at the discomfiture of the subjects of the reports.

This situation is so traditional in the press that there has been a long-running battle about whether reporters have an unrestricted right to invade a person’s privacy. Most recently this was scrutinised by the Calcutt Committee, which concluded that the press should be left for a probationary period to mend its ways voluntarily rather than be subjected to any legal restrictions. It is just possible that one of the motives behind the People publishing Mellor’s affair was to re-open the debate over privacy in such a way as to establish their right to intrude, at whatever cost to the victims, whenever they judged it would boost their sales.

The depths
The depths to which newspapers will sink in this quest are as yet unplumbed. Here is how the father of Julie Ward, who was murdered in the Masai Mara in 1988, reacted to the breathtakingly dishonest reporting of the murder by the Sunday Mirror:
David Barritt is a freelance reporter. Tony Frost was the deputy editor. Eve Pollard was editor and Robert Maxwell the publisher. I loathe them all . . . if I could have got my hands round Maxwells or Pollard's necks that morning I would have choked the life out of them.
In 1982 the loudly trumpeted patriotism of the Sun did not prevent it concocting an interview with Marcia McKay— whose husband had been killed in the Falklands war— which had never taken place. In 1989 Peter Bottomley, who was then Transport Minister, was smeared in a Mail On Sunday headline: “Minister in Sex Case Row”—an implied accusation for which the newspaper was later forced to apologise and pay substantial damages. And in 1990 two reporters from the Sunday Sport—which is hardly a newspaper—entered the hospital room where the actor Gordon Kaye lay seriously injured to take photographs of him and attempt to interview him. This kind of hard-nosed and callous intrusion is another tradition; according to Ray Snoddy, who is media correspondent of the Financial Times, “in the old days, dressing up as a doctor to get a hospital interview was just one of the tricks of the trade”.

Mellor’s attitude to all this might kindly be described as ambivalent, although some might prefer the opinion of one Tory backbencher that he had “made an ass of himself’. As a politician who has always been acutely aware of the need to keep himself in the public eye, Mellor did not know whether to plead to be left alone or to set up a series of photo opportunities. So, just to be safe, he did both.

The family
Of course there was the little problem that he was a member of Thatcher’s government when it suddenly began to espouse its peculiar version of “Victorian values”, which included a reverence for the sanctity of monogamous marriage. He was one of the Ministers instructed by Thatcher to go away during a parliamentary holiday and “think about the family”—because the Tories had decided that the supposed stability and protectiveness of the nuclear family was a vote winner. Finally there is the fact that Mellor, like other politicians, has used his family to appeal for votes, as if a conscientious and caring father could be trusted to run capitalism more humanely than one who has an affair with an out of work actress.

The People could hardly have believed its luck when it got the offer of the tapes which exposed Mellor’s hypocrisy. At a time when the newspapers were under a lot of pressure to clean up their act—to stop their reporters dressing up as doctors, to stop concocting and printing stories—Mellor had made his views clear. In a Hard News programme in December 1989 he posed as a fearless defender of truth and probity, saying that he was “almost embarrassed to live in the same society" as the people responsible for press invasion of privacy and for the ghoulish reporting of tragedies like Hillsborough. He moved right into the bull’s-eye in the sights of the press when Major put him in charge of the new ministry responsible for the press.

On the day after the story of his affair broke, Mellor announced that he was reviving the Calcutt investigation, which clearly implied that the press had failed its period on probation and might now expect the laws on trespass and intrusive technology to be tightened. The press responded to this by squealing that any such laws would be used to protect the government of the day, which would have been more impressive if the press itself did not use such disreputable methods to push its own political opinions. For example the support which the Murdoch papers give the Tory government is consistently and hysterically based on distortions of reality.

But just as the debate—if that is the word for it—was heating up the Mellor affair suddenly dropped out of sight. Anyone who was disappointed at not getting their daily ration of revelations about de Sancha sucking someone’s toes may ponder that this may have happened because a deal was struck between the government and the press: no more exposure of the Minister’s indiscretions in exchange for a promise not to impose any further restrictions on the press? If such an agreement would be a prime example of hypocrisy on both sides—well, that is what the whole matter was all about.

In a Commons debate in 1989 the Tory MP Julian Critchley said “the truth is that as standards drop circulation figures rise. Such newspapers lie in search of profit". It is all very well—and very convenient—for an MP to condemn some of the nastier effects of the profit system but this is done only by ignoring the fact that those effects are inseparable from the basis of the system, which they accept and support. Capitalism produces its wealth—including newspapers—for sale and profit and its morality is fashioned by that. If truth reticently stated sold newspapers the Sun would be as staid as the "quality" press. As it is, what pushes up circulation into the millions are lurid concoctions about private lives, a distortion of human sexuality, gruesome horror stories, pointless intrusions into grief, . . . None of that is a pretty sight but capitalism and its profit motive, and what that does to human beings, are not pretty either.

The Mellor affair was not pretty, nor was the way the press exposed him for the canting humbug he is; nor was the way the government and his fellow politicians responded. And while we are on the subject neither is this society pretty, with its seething problems beside which the wretched Mellor and his woman friend are reduced to the historical non-entities they are.

Press Exposure: Sun Stroke (1995)

The Press Exposure column from the March 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Nothing was more memorable in Dennis Potter's interview on the South Bank Show, shortly before he died last year, than when he revealed the name he had given to the cancer which was killing him. It was Rupert — after Rupert ("I’d shoot the bugger if I could") Murdoch. I look at the Sun said Potter, warming to his theme and I ask myself is this what we've come to.

Well yes. except that there’s a bit more to it than that. What we’ve "come to" is not just a malignant press baron and a newspaper which will stoop as low as it needs to boost its sales. We've "come to" a situation in which a quarter of the population lives below a Department of Social Security poverty line. A situation in which Shelter are handling a record caseload as more and more people are homeless. A situation in which the publisher of a string of soft porn magazines (the kind of man who is always liable to be "exposed" by the Sun) says he is flooded with requests from women anxious to pose for his publications. Because that's their only way of getting a living.

This situation — its poverty, misery, degradation — is not new. We have not "come to" it because we have lived with it for a very long time, however its details may have changed. How do we cope with it? Well one way is to understand it as the symptoms of a social system which is outworn and sick at its roots and which must be replaced by a fundamentally different way of running the world. Another way (but we would have to be like Rupert Murdoch) is to say we're doing very nicely so we’d like to leave things as they are. Or (if we're among Murdoch's devoted customers) we can defend our sanity with the kind of mental anaesthetic which makes the trivial important and vice versa. Flavour the anaesthetic with a large measure of fantasy and we "come to" the Sun.

Murdoch's odious rag was originally the Daily Herald which, owned 49 percent by the TUC, was the Labour Party’s only reliable supporter — and. in the 1930s, the biggest-selling newspaper in Britain. In the 1950s the Herald fell on hard times and in 1961 it was bought by Cecil King’s IPC group, which guaranteed it another seven years’ publication. In 1964, in an effort to stem falling sales, the paper was revamped as the Sun, with a large orange blob on its masthead. By the end of IPC's guarantee it was seen that the Sun could not survive and it was again up for sale. Robert Maxwell offered to take the paper off IPC's hands for nothing but fell foul of union opposition. This let in Murdoch, who already owned the News Of The World; in 1969 he got the Sun for the knockdown price of £800,000. It now makes him millions every year, the kind of profits which can easily stand expensive libel suits, like the one which made Elton John richer by £1 million and a grudging apology in the Sun.

Regal Pomposity
It takes the breath away now, but Murdoch's Sun promised to be a paper "that cares — passionately — about the truth, beauty and justice". Its editor was Larry Lamb, whose regal pomposity was in sharp contrast to the loud boorish cruelty of the man who succeeded him. Kelvin Mackenzie was diabolically clever at rapidly setting out the shock horror stuff which passes for news in the Sun. And he did not seem greatly troubled about whether what he was setting out with such skill was true or not.

Since then the Sun has been synonymous with the lowest standards of journalism and concern for human society. Page Three girls present a relentless distortion of our sexuality, hyped-up by the kind of puns which are a speciality of the paper. (A recent example was the invitation to readers to give their opinion on Princess Diana's new wet-look hairstyle in a "RefHAIRrendum".)

The sanitised semi-nudity of Page Three girls and cartoons — like a recent example in which a policeman was apparently having oral sex through a car window with a well-known TV actress — do not prevent the Sun sometimes taking a stridently moral stance on sex. Double standards are something the paper takes in its stride. Like the time it invented an interview with the widow of a soldier — Sergeant MacKay — who had been killed winning the Victoria Cross in the Falklands. As "The Paper That Supports Our Boys" the Sun might have been expected to respect Mrs MacKay's wish to be left alone in her grief. Instead they tried every trick in the book to get at her and then simply invented an interview out of information from other people and a rehash of material published by other papers.

We could go on. And on. The headlines (Gotcha; Stick It Up Your Junta; Up Yours Delors). The relentless hounding of vulnerable people like the dying Russell Harty. These are what have made the Sun such a success, with a daily sale of four million and a readership three times as much. For it as an extremely clever and sophisticated newspaper, whose success says a lot about capitalism in the latter part of the twentieth century. A malignant mouthpiece of a cancerous society.