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This Unhappy Breed

British Politics in the Collectivist Age

by Samuel Beer
Knopf, 390 pp., $8.50

Happy the Country in which consensus and conflict are ordered in a dialectic that makes of the political arena at once a market of interests and a forum for debate of fundamental moral concerns.” With these words, reminiscent of the Whigs extolling the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the perfection of the eighteenth-century British Constitution, Samuel Beer concludes his admirable study of British political organization today. Why then is Britain today so notoriously unhappy?

Not because Beer has mistaken the nature of Britain’s politics. On the contrary, his model is wonderfully constructed out of the researches of the past fifteen years, which he has put together in an original form. He starts from the premise that a consensus exists among all parties and organizations on the necessity for governing the country through collectivism and a managed economy. He then demonstrates that this consensus does not result in dim Butskellism rendering Government and Opposition almost indistinguishable. In this two-party state the Conservative and Labour Parties hold completely divergent views about the nature of politics, and their ideas impose upon them different policies, different party structures, and a different conception of the relation of man to the State which create two opposed styles of politics. But their ideological differences are held in check by a third factor. In modern Britain the “interests” have become institutionalized. At every point in government, both central and local, but most especially in the Executive, i.e., in the Whitehall ministries, pressure groups are officially and unofficially brought into the process of legislation and administration, and mediate between the political parties and the electorate. It is not only the trade unions whose members sit in Parliament and on innumerable ministerial committees. Producer and consumer associations ranging from the automobile makers to the Cake and Biscuit Alliance, or welfare organizations such as the Society for Crippled Veterans are to be found pressing to initiate or amend legislation and lobbying M.P.s who will speak for their interests. Pressure groups are now a new estate in the realm and the parties have to modify their principles to meet them in practice. Here, he might have added, are the equivalent of grass roots politics in America, an outlet for the ordinary citizen to ensure that his own particular concerns are not ridden over roughshod by a centralizing government mounted on an ideological hobby-horse.

This thesis is refreshing because it convincingly challenges the prevailing mode among British historians and political scientists of playing down the role of ideas in politics. Beer is too polite to challenge R.T. Mackenzie openly but his whole book is a refutation of Mackenzie’s well known analysis of British political parties in which, after contrasting the apparently authoritarian Conservative Party structure with that of the apparently democratic Labour Party, he concluded that the Party Whips ensured that both were equally monolithic and impervious to revolts within the party. Beer is particularly successful in analyzing the way in which different strands of Tory and Whig principles have been modified but have remained dominant in the modern form of Conservatism, Tory democracy. The Tory emphasis on strong government has created the notion of a governing class which “is not primarily an owning class or a class of elegance and culture. It is rather a class that governs in business, education and political party; in church, army and state.” Such a class requires to be given a large discretion in the running of affairs and the nature of the task inexorably implies inequality in power. This notion has, however, been skillfully blended with the modern idea of mass participation in politics through ginger groups such as Rab Butler’s young men and the Bow Group. In contrast, the Labour Party’s distrust of elitism, and its view that the rank and file of the party create policy within the party in which differences of outlook are publicly revealed, is equally clearly stamped upon the record of the party in the last decade. He might have added that whereas the Conservative Party’s electoral program is directed at the electorate and acclaimed (it is rarely amended) at the annual conference, the Labour Party’s program is in a real sense the highest common factor of agreement which can be reached among the delegates. It forms the only authority for executive action when Labour is in power. Last autumn Civil Servants soon learned to consult the program if they wanted to learn how to frame legislation. To put forward measures which were not in the program was to endanger hard-won party unity. Thus, while both parties and the pressure groups accept responsibility for the state of the economy as a whole and are committed to welfare legislation, their ideals are fundamentally opposed: the Tory belief in social and economic inequality as a necessary condition of man involves a way of managing affairs essentially different from the Socialist vision of a classless society in which equality is the goal.

Beer’s interweaving of political ideas and practice is so skillful that he almost persuades the reader to overlook the existence of third parties in British politics. In fact monolithic two party government is of very recent growth. Until 1931 there were always three parties. The Left in Victorian times was an uneasy alliance of Whigs, Liberals, and Radicals, often voting against each other. When most of the Whigs and some of the Liberals crossed the floor of the House over Irish Home Rule, the Irish party under Parnell, and later Redmond, provided a new unstable element in the two-party structure; and in the 1920s Labour could not govern without Liberal support. Today the minute Liberal Party almost holds the balance in the Commons, and one of the reasons why a Lib-Lab pact is actively discussed is that it appears to some to be the only alternative to long periods of Conservative rule. The Liberal Party today is something of a ragbag of political discontent, but no less than the Tories and Labour it has modified its principles since the days of Self-Help and Free Trade. But then what is one to make of the fact that in a book on British political ideas the name of Bentham does not figure in the index and that of John Stuart Mill is mentioned in one footnote? The trouble is that over Beer’s account of Liberalism the ghost of Dicey hovers. A.V. Dicey’s famous book on law and public opinion, which for long was required reading in the universities, drew a picture of Tory paternalist rule at the beginning of the nineteenth century, being succeeded by a period of laissez-faire government, which in turn gave way to the new and menacing age of collectivism. Most historians have long ago emancipated themselves from accepting this model. If anyone needs further convincing, the proof is to be found in W.L. Burn’s The Age of Equipoise, in which Burn showed how even in the hey-day of laissez-faire theory Victorian governments could take drastic collectivist action to remedy some gross abuse or hopeless inequity. In fact, Benthamism was never the preserve of Liberal politics. It could become, as it did in India in the hands of Maine and Fitzjames Stephen, a working part of Conservatism; and when in harness, no longer with Ricardo’s, but with welfare economics, it could inspire the Fabians. It would also be easy to argue that the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number measured in the more sophisticated hedonistic calculus of modern economics is the driving force behind part of the present Labour government’s legislation. Similarly, Mill and, in the sphere of culture, Matthew Arnold introduced into leftwing politics under the Webbs the idea of an intellectual elite which was to stand in opposition to the governing class. The influence of this idea is manifest through British educational and cultural institutions. Compare the policies of the BBC and the NBC to see how strong an opposition exists in British left-wing circles to the idea of Populism. Or consider the structure of education, now under attack, which siphons off talent into narrower and narrower conduits—first to the grammar school and then in an even more distilled stream to the universities. The style in which the British have institutionalized culture and education is moulded by a belief in intellectual elitism which exists outside the Conservative Party. Mill’s conception of a body of dispassionate public servants, who stood above party ideology and group politics and who gave the people what was best for them, is also deeply ingrained in the Civil Service. The Civil Service tradition is indeed so strong that one can almost speak of it as a political force moulding legislation and administrative decisions. Although Beer is right to insist that party ideology is not just the froth of self-justification for decisions taken on other grounds, has he sufficiently taken into account the work done by Kitson Clark and Oliver Macdonagh, who have shown that in Victorian times ideology was in practice of less importance in framing legislation than the administrative tradition of the times?

The unhappiness of British politics rests within the categories which Beer analyzes. The famous consensus on fundamentals is produced by Britain’s economic situation. There is little margin of maneuver and both parties are hemmed in by obstinate economic facts, and each when in power finds that it can only juggle with the priorities and reset them slightly. Yet this is at a time when the House of Commons has ceased to be the best club in the country, when there is far less mateyness and senatorial courtesy between the parties, and when a change of government no longer means the exchange of one set of leaders for another, both belonging to the same class, but an exchange of those who consider themselves the country’s natural rulers for those who are bitterly opposed to their opponents on social and cultural grounds. As a result the consensus is not so much agreement as sullen acceptance by each party that it cannot govern as it would really wish to do. Moreover the rank and file of the parliamentary party are frustrated. Parliament’s proceedings have become more and more farcical. Everyone accepts that it cannot govern but its subservience to the Executive owning to the Party Whips means that Parliament spends too many hours bickering over legislation that everyone knows will inevitably be passed, and too little to discussing future policy and scrutinizing current administration. That is why there is talk, unheard of for generations, of reforming Parliamentary procedure and setting up the equivalent of Congressional committees to inquire into housing, the social services, planning, and the Civil Service machine. The ordinary M.P. has practically lost the power to take a meaningful part in government.

But the third cause of the discontent is the most important. The interests have grown too strong. Try to introduce change into any British institution and the log jam piles up at once. It is natural for an American faced by the overlapping committees and agencies in Washington and the separation of powers to sigh for the efficiency of the British governmental machine, where issues flow smoothly along from the committees for decision at Ministerial or Cabinet Committee level, all interests having been consulted. Yet the very efficiency and tidiness of the machine is its undoing. The interests are so faithfully represented and bring such pressure to bear indicating how far each is prepared to move—which is usually little distance at all—that the degree of movement is negligible. The reports of the committees go up, they are again submitted to democratic scrutiny in public debate, the debate is resubmitted to the committees for their comments, and by the time a decision is taken the problem under discussion has frequently changed its character. To make large-scale changes, for instance, in the field of transportation or town planning, is exceptionally difficult. As a result the British go around complaining of the diseconomies in life, but whenever each one’s own interests as parent, householder, or automobile owner are touched, irresistible opposition mounts—and because this opposition is so effectively institutionalized large-scale issues freeze into Byzantine immobility. The state of the British economy is a case in point. In order to export goods, industry needs to reorganize and investment to be increased in sectors where exports can be boosted. But since the 1880s the financial interests of the City have always taken priority over the needs of industry. The City is interested in having a free market for capital so that it can invest where it is most profitable; and the most profitable markets are usually overseas or in home industries producing for the home consumer which yield substantially higher profits than those engaged in the tough competitive markets of the export world. The City is not a sinister institution but it is the most powerful of all pressure groups; and whether any Government is capable of subordinating its interests to those of the export industry is problematical. On the major issues of foreign and fiscal policy Mackenzie seems to be proved right: Harold Wilson’s policies East of Suez and his massive deflation are astonishing replicas of Tory practice. On the other hand Beer certainly shows that not only does the style of Labour Party politics differ but also the initiatives and measures that the Labour Government takes on many domestic issues spring from different impulses and result in different shapes from those of their opponents. When you put down Beer’s book you are full of admiration for the concise and vigorous way he has constructed his model. But with perhaps excessive tact he has not shown how it works. When you put it on the rails you find it goes backward instead of forward.

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