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Toward the Iceberg

The British general election of October, 1974, proved plain sailing for the Labour party, which gained a small majority of three members over the combined parliamentary strength—which will be difficult to muster—of the opposing parties. For a period of months they had governed without the benefit of a majority: now they are out of that hole. The Conservative party came to grief in the election, which must have been a dismal and grueling experience for its leader, Edward Heath. His yacht Morning Cloud was wrecked in a storm—by a freak wave, it is thought—just before the campaign began, and friends of his were drowned.

He and his party ran as if they expected the verdict forecast in the opinion polls, which was the verdict they received. Blamed for policies of confrontation and division in relation to the unions and to the miners in particular, they applied themselves to an unpromising plea for national unity which seems to have served only to deprive them of fight: Wilson waited till he had won before he played that tune. The Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe leaped over walls, and pranced from hovercraft and helicopter onto many a seashore and meadow. But the Liberals sustained a disappointment, and the recurrent “Liberal revival” of the years since the war will have to start all over again. The Scottish Nationalists increased their support at the expense of the Tories.

These are the impressions of someone outside politics who had no strong desire, this time, for any party to do well. They will not resemble the sort of “London Letter” which used to appear in American magazines, in the days when Americans were curious about the city, and about its cultural occasions. There is precious little “London” of that description to report. It is almost as if slump and slide and freeze have taken the heart out of literature and the theater, as if such activities have been shown to depend on the state of the economy. A numbness has descended on the passengers while the economy, dead on course, steams toward its iceberg.

Throughout the campaign, the faces of the Labour politicians beamed and blossomed like apricots as they grew more and more certain of success. From these faces issued talk of doom, of icebergs, of a determination to steer clear. Neither of the two main parties was willing to explain what it meant to do if it got back. Heath and Wilson were a pair of meaty, wary faces perched on a pair of small bodies, cartoons of managerial competence. Heath’s face displayed embarrassment and a consciousness of defeat. Now he has been beaten once too often by the man whose abilities he was presumed to match, and he will no doubt have to go, though there is no obvious successor. Res ipsa loquitur, as a certain type of Tory has already said.

Wilson has never fought a smarter campaign. He was in his element, a man for all seasons, including disaster. Labour was made to look like the natural government party, which is what he has wanted. His jokes grew funnier, more spontaneous, and more punishing. When Heath appeared, at one point, to be shirking his press conferences, Wilson remarked that he was thinking of taking out a writ of habeas corpus. These were a winner’s jokes. A less amiable Wilson was perceptible in the flow of sops and blandishments which he provided, in his usual manner. His managerial tact knows no bounds. Asked on television about Watergate and Nixon’s tapes, he said that Nixon had been ruined by his devotion to the muse of history. Well, Wilson, too, has a soft spot for the muse of history.

Nearly everyone seems agreed that the country is crashing. But it is cars that crash, not countries, and what is expressed here may be the thought that we shall go on having the bad time we have long been used to until the day arrives when the country can benefit from international accords, made over its head, in respect to inflation, energy resources, and raw-material prices: perhaps it will be counted into one of Kissinger’s deals. Nearly everyone seems agreed that neither the Tory nor the Labour governments of recent years showed any capacity to get us out of our troubles. With the currency rotting between our fingers, while insurance companies, aircraft companies blew up by the month, neither of them was willing to impose measures which might be politically unpopular or which might seriously upset the better-off, though the Tories did at least manage to upset the unions. During the election, the international background to the British crisis was virtually ignored. It was all very insular. As Thorpe observed, the arguments between the two main parties were mostly restricted to the size of the plughole down which we are rushing—to the authenticity of the other side’s statistics.

By way of covering the election, the BBC and ITV mounted a television spectacular, a kind of Miss World, in which computerized and other predictions of the result mattered as much as the result itself—it had to be scooped if only by microseconds. Britain’s TV psephologists, veterans of the field by now and household names, went on about their swings. Polls were piled upon polls, and the BBC afterward conceded: “We were a little too anxious to get in first with some kind of prediction.” MPs probably relished the limelight that was lavished on them in the course of these amusements, preferring it to the sort of attention they’d get if the television cameras were to be admitted to the House of Commons debates: they recently voted, once again, to prevent this happening. Eventually, as the hours wore on, it was known that there had been a poor turnout at the polls, and that Mr. Britain had obtained only 40 percent of the vote. These amusements looked worse than they might have done in view of the widespread apathy about the result which appeared to exist, and of which television’s fiddling with sums and contestants felt like an acknowledgement.

Britain has been smiling through her troubles, sometimes glassily, sometimes not. There were the confident grins of the Labour professionals, interviewed for the spectacular, and there was the ghastly smile summoned to the brave face of defeat. Then there were the jokes of Lord Rothschild when he resigned from the headship of the “Think Tank” created by Health. It was as if this had been hit by some wave in the early days of the campaign, or as if Lord Rothschild was already aware that he would not be wanted. Not for him—in his published letter of farewell to Wilson—the “mellifluous erudition” of Her Majesty’s ambassadors when they relinquish their posts and offer their “valedictions.” But he managed a good deal of graceful drollery and sarcasm instead. He spoke, in plain terms, of “inflation and social division” as “the most formidable enemies this country has so far encountered.” But no warning of disaster was ever less grimly worded.

There is not much dismay in the country, as far as I can detect. But many people are left stunned and fascinated, and smiling, by the signs of the times, by the nagging portents. Their stupor, their sweet dreams of kind Henry Kissinger and some relenting sheik, will not have been disturbed by this smiling letter.

At no election have the British been in a position to vote on whether the country should join the Common Market. The reason for this was that the Tory, Labour, and Liberal leaderships all favored entry. When Heath succeeded in negotiating membership, Wilson pretended that the terms were bad, and allowed the anti-Marketeers to the left of his party to talk about quitting. A national referendum was promised by Labour, and now that the great tactician is back in Downing Street, it will be interesting to watch the virtuosity which he will bring to the keeping of this promise. Britain will not be taken out of Europe, and perhaps Wilson will be credited with a victory here. But it is the kind of victory which has meant that most of the Labour voters I speak to are able to support only very reluctantly, if at all, a party which they judge to be a party of subterfuge.

Politicians have to dissemble. And Edward Heath has dissembled and changed his mind and coat with the best of them. Over a period of months, conservatism has successively been a matter of the virtues of private enterprise and individualism, a matter of putting through a statutory “incomes policy” (wage controls) and of squaring up to the unions, and then a matter of befriending the unions and of an appeal for unity. But if there is a decision to be made about the number and significance of the pretenses resorted to by a leader, that decision is unlikely to prefer Wilson to Heath.

Mr. Wilson and his colleagues suggest that referenda are part of the British parliamentary system: but they are not. Some of his ablest colleagues have suggested—admittedly in the heat of the election—that coalitions are a feeble and exceptional way of governing the country: but there have been several coalition governments, and some of them were successful, and in any case the Labour party is itself a coalition of opposing principles and hostile interests. Politics is the art of the plausible, but the Labour party—with, as I think, better policies and a higher ministerial competence than the Tories—has, since Gaitskell, given people more reason to regret that this should be so.

During the election, Labour ran to a surprising extent on talk of a “social contract.” Those who voted for this may have taken it to mean that the unions will hold back on wage claims in exchange for government consideration, and it is fairly widely held, anyway, that Labour is less likely to find itself engaged in an exhausting quarrel with the unions than the Tories would have been. Technically, the social contract appears to mean that the union leadership will work to limit wage rises to those guaranteed by the existing threshold agreements, which are linked to the movement of prices, and to special cases where there are clear grounds of economic necessity and social justice. Plenty of people feel that before long not much more will be heard of the social contract than is heard now of “the white heat of the technological revolution,” Britain’s “special relationship” with America, and the rest of the old Wilson watchwords. There are those, too, who feel that the social contract is simply a new way of saying yes to the interests that dominate, and manipulate, the trade-union movement.

At a time when half the British people want to secede from Europe, swallowing the pretense that a loss of sovereignty is involved if we remain, Scottish and Welsh separatism has succeeded in sending a sizable number of MPs to Westminster and in extracting promises of more regional independence, while, in Ulster, an armed confederacy has gone on killing and mutilating in the hope of union with the South. When a bomb attack destroyed two Guildford pubs at the height of the campaign, neither Wilson nor Heath reckoned they needed to give assurances that the population would be protected. They know it can’t be. No one feels safe in pubs any more, but this was not an election issue.

The strains to which the society has been subjected have produced apathy and numbness, but they have also produced a disposition to believe that it is all right to break the law if you feel strongly and are ideologically minded. Some leftists were inclined to sympathize for a while with the ira’s murders, on the grounds that these were freedom-fighters who had suffered under the tyranny of Unionist majority rule, not to mention that of the British Empire. When an apparatus for power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics which had been set up in Ulster was canceled by a huge strike of Belfast Protestants—an organized working class who refused to grant that the large minority of Catholic workers should be represented in government—these leftists were silent. By then it was evident that neither the Catholics nor the Protestants who were prepared to fight in Ulster were prepared to fight for a workers’ republic. Earlier, in Britain, in the course of the opposition that developed to Heath’s Industrial Relations Act—an act not very different from measures which Wilson’s government had previously tried and failed to induce the unions to accept—some London shop-stewards defied the law, were jailed, then rapidly released. During this affair most Labour party leaders chose to be silent, but there was one at least who suggested that we should be tolerant of unlawful resistance to an unpopular law.

There are those who welcome the current economic difficulties, and the likelihood of persistent shop-floor militancy, because they think that the end of capitalism will be brought nearer. But the majority of trade-unionists do not want the end of capitalism, and cannot want constraints on productivity and investment which are bound to injure the living standards of the working class. Workers who belong to unimportant unions or to none at all are the ones, of course, who stand to suffer most. Trade-union activism, which can be copied or simulated outside the industrial context—in universities, for example—is greatly distrusted now by many who would not have thought of voting for Heath, and who think that its worst feature is the harm it does to those who are unable to defend their own interests.

Activism in the universities, and in education generally, is a subject in itself. Let me touch on it. The abolition of the private sector in education is an intelligible and legitimate political demand, though it is not one to which the Labour government will be responding. The maintenance of privilege in Britain (which has been only very faintly affected so far by the arrival of inflation and social division) depends on the public schools, and it can scarcely be wrong—though it will continue to be difficult and delicate—for socialists to try to forbid them. What is certainly wrong is for a teacher to deprive working-class children of schooling by agitating for improvements in pay or conditions which the teachers’ unions do not support, and which most teachers do not support, at a time when urban schools in particular are starved of the resources to deal with their responsibilities.

One London state school has just had a day’s strike. Not many of the teachers wanted it, the unions didn’t want it, but the school couldn’t operate if the strikers stayed away. First thing in the morning, one of the women teachers took up a position by the gate. She was fresh from university, if not from wrecking exploits at one of the universities which have come close to breakdown as a result of such activities. She apparently wishes to raise the political consciousness of the masses. A male teacher approached, and asked if he was due to be picketed. “You shit! You cunt!” she replied. The other teacher said that he felt that his consciousness had been raised as by a shot of LSD.

Quite a few days have been lost this year in London as a result of teacher shortage caused by the high cost of living in the city. This, to be sure, is what the strike was about—but only nominally, as the girl admitted. And one can say that other days have been lost because of consciousness-raising. Anyone who won’t accept that story is asked to read Lord Annan’s report on the consciousness-raising that took place at Essex University in 1973. The British are sunk in indifference. When they are not, they quarrel, and coerce one another. In a sense, their quarrels and coercions are barely distinguishable from their indifference. At the same time, they seem to require that indifference.

Faced with an insolvent country, and one in which every single day’s news seems to include an industrial dispute, the new government is bound to have a hard time. The Times, which had thundered in bold type that “the best result would be a Conservative-Liberal coalition,” has betrayed, since the election, a certain Schadenfreude: “One is reminded of the story of the Arabs in Libya, who before the war had been accustomed to walk ahead followed by their donkeys. During the war minefields were laid, and the Arabs learnt that the prudent course was to walk behind and drive the donkey forwards. The Conservatives could well fell that it was now the Labour party which was walking ahead into the minefield.” Frightfully amusing.

The government has been told by newspapers that it has no mandate for “full-blooded socialism,” as Heath, ever the phrase-maker, has lately been calling it, and that a narrow majority will enable Wilson to keep his left-wingers in line. Wilson, in fact, is no one’s idea of a full-blooded socialist (it would be a funny sort of full-blooded socialist who chose as his friends some of the eager businessmen who have been close to the prime minister), and it looks as if there will be very few of them in his Cabinet. I doubt whether any impartial observer expects Labour’s nationalization plans to extend very far beyond those areas of industry where government money is already committed. In relation to the newspaper industry itself, however, the government may conduct itself in a manner that will be thought socialistic. A bill is in hand to compel the editors of papers to belong to the same union as their employees; this will expose editors to union discipline and to union pressure. Such a bill would almost certainly damage and diminish the press, which is unable, as it is, to write freely about certain union matters for fear of stoppages and strikes.

For all the black outlook, my own presentiment is that Wilson’s government will give satisfaction, and that in two years’ time he will be a popular figure. Perhaps by then he will have established a statutory prices and incomes policy. Both the main parties are against such a thing at this point, but it would easily bear presentation as a last resort and as a new clause in the social contract. It might even work.

Enoch Powell is a full-blooded Tory who, running as a Unionist in Northern Ireland, advised people to vote Labour on Common Market grounds. The art of the plausible and the politics of pretense are supposed to stop short at Powell’s door. He is a man of principle. But his career has not been without its complexities. He became famous a few years ago when he talked of the river of blood that might flow if colored Commonwealth immigrants were not banned from Britain. Both the Labour and the Tory parties concurred in deciding to limit their numbers severely, and the issue faded. Powell has now taken up the cause of the Protestants in Ulster, where a river of blood has been flowing for years.

He is hostile to the attempt to have power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics, which was brought to a forcible end, and during the election an academic named Cornelius O’Leary wrote to the press calling attention to the fact that Powell had formerly been in favor of power-sharing for Cyprus, where, as in Ulster, there are two communities sharing the one country, each of them eager, from time to time, to shed the other’s blood: “It is difficult to resist the conclusion that while Mr. Powell, in 1959, made an objective appraisal of the Cyprus problem, in 1974, for electioneering purposes, he is presuming on the ignorance and appealing to the feelings of the people in a province where hundreds of lives have already been lost through politico-religious prejudices.” Powell sneeringly replied: “A Mr. O’Leary in the Department of Political Science at Belfast wants to know ‘an alternative explanation’ other than ‘electioneering purposes’ of my rejection in 1974 of ‘power-sharing’ in Ulster under the 1973 Constitution. The answer he seeks is all over Hansard: I opposed ‘power-sharing’ continuously since it was first put forward in 1972.” But the charge was not that he had changed his mind about power-sharing in Ulster, but that he had changed his mind about power-sharing.

Powell is the strong man whom many Tories would dearly love to see in command of the Conservative party. Perhaps his time will come. He has always believed so. The press respects him for being logical and literary: “How comes it, then…” his sentences begin, as he smiles to himself the secret smile of the inner-directed crank. Powell is a crank, the cleverest crank in Christendom, or words to that effect. And it was a small relief that he did not do all that well as a Unionist, that he has not become—at a stroke, as they say in British elections—Mr. Ulster.

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