British Blues

Barbara Wootton

  • British Government and its Discontents by Geoffrey Smith and Nelson Polsby
    Harper and Row, 202 pp, £7.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 06 337016 6

‘Many benefits and costs attend life in a middle-aged, middle-sized, formerly prosperous, presently semi-collectivised, freedom-loving, intensely tribal, modern society with tired blood, cultivated civil servants, weak industries, strong unions, and a flourishing high culture.’ So say the authors of this book, which originated in conversations between a British journalist well-known to readers of the Times and an American professor of political science in the University of California. Finding themselves ‘engaged in fairly intense discussions about British politics’, this pair asked why ‘the pleasure and instruction we were shamelessly deriving from hearing our own voices’ should not be ‘spread among a larger population’. The result is a wide-ranging, admirably readable study.

What is not always clear, however, is for whom the book is written. How far is it concerned with the present troubles of the British people and how far with those of their government? Does it seek to unravel for us and for others the mysteries of British policies, domestic or international, or merely to explain the peculiarities of our constitutional processes to someone well-versed in their American counterparts (as, for instance, by showing why our Parliamentary candidates cannot be chosen by ‘primaries’)? Or has the English author just hit upon a convenient vehicle to carry his personal political programme?

The opening chapter gives a vivid picture of the melancholic mood of the British public. Why do we worry so much? ‘Partly,’ say Smith and Polsby, ‘because we are told to.’ Never was a truer word spoken. The media are flooded with analyses and forecasts of the steady worsening of Britain’s plight, both absolutely and in comparison with other countries. With the recent appalling growth of unemployment, many of those forecasts are already fulfilled, and the authors’ cheerful reminder ‘that material security in and out of work is much enhanced for most individuals in Britain compared with their condition in 1945’ rings hollow. Moreover, recent evidence shows that it is the poor whose standard of living has recently been most severely depressed, while the very rich are still doing remarkably well.

In the authors’ view, two additional causes of gloom are loss of pride in ‘belonging to a major nation which compels the respect of others’, and the growing intrusion of government into people’s personal lives. But these images are, I would suggest, largely the creation of middle-class ideology. Mr and Mrs Average do not lie awake worrying because British ‘possessions’ coloured in red are no longer boldly splashed across the map of the world. Nor do most of us feel strangled by restrictions on personal freedom, even if we sometimes find the good intentions of the welfare state frustrated by bureaucractic idiocies.

In a lengthy discussion of what they regard as the current threats to British solidarity, the authors talk about the common impression that the British are a small homogeneous nation. Outsiders (notably Americans) are struck by the small number of British surnames, and from this they infer that we are just a handful of extended families. Smith and Polsby, however, find this family life to be far from harmonious, threatened as it is by the running sore in Northern Ireland, by the rumbling nationalism of Scotland and Wales and by immigrants from the ‘New Commonwealth’. Although their chapter contains about the best short history I have yet seen of Ulster’s troubles from 1968 to date, I am not myself persuaded that the authors have got their perspectives right. Admittedly, the title ‘United Kingdom’ is a misnomer, so long as the Northern Irish problem remains unsolved; and to that problem every British government must be permanently sensitive. But there is little doubt that residents in Great Britain, sheltering from their sister island, are all too ready to dismiss Ulster’s tragedy as unutterably boring, rather than to find it cause for compassionate concern. They just wish it would go away. If what is now happening on the other side of the water were happening regularly in London or in Yorkshire, public attitudes would be revolutionised.

As for Scotland and Wales, the devolutionary fiasco has left behind considerable murmurs of discontent, the more so as these regions have been particularly hard hit by unemployment. Even so, I would not accept this book’s thesis that Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales together are the most serious threat to our ‘social solidarity’. A much graver threat, I would say, lies in the racial tensions and hatreds resulting from the ex-colonial immigration: but to that issue this book gives less than a third of its chapter on ‘Threats to Social Solidarity’. Everybody knows that over the centuries Britain has given asylum to persecuted refugees from many countries: but only in the last few decades has she had to assimilate thousands of immigrants, differing in both colour and culture from her native-born, with whom many of them nevertheless claim common citizenship. So long as racial violence smoulders and periodically flares up as it does in Britain today, social solidarity is an empty phrase.

This book also underestimates the measure in which any real social consensus in this country depends on mutual understanding between governments (of every political complexion) and the unions. Two years of rare and chilly contacts with the unions were followed by the Government’s sudden capitulation to the miners’ threat. That bodes ill for the future. Although this book is more concerned with the political than with the economic aspects of British malaise, its authors might well ask themselves how much longer the unemployed will sit idly by, watching their numbers grow and their benefits shrink, while in each successive budget it is the top taxpayers who get the best of a hard bargain. The Government keeps very quiet on the subject, but it is no secret that they have contingency plans for coping with outbreaks of undisguised class warfare.

From this uneasy domestic scene, we turn to our ‘shrinkage in world influence’, and the transformation of the British Empire into the Commonwealth. ‘Of that transformation the authors say that ‘nobody ... could possibly claim that the process was uniformly successful. It was nonetheless a remarkable accomplishment.’ That is surely to undervalue the contrast between the bloodshed in which previous empires have dissolved, and the ceremonies in colony after colony in which the British flag was lowered and that of yet another new-born independent nation raised in its place with the benign welcome of that nation’s former rulers. Those ceremonies have no parallel in world history, and deserve to be seen as more than Britain’s timely recognition that the material basis of her Empire had been undermined, and that its dismantling was really no more than bowing to the inevitable. If, however, that is a fair assessment, at least we can claim that the bowing was exceptional in its graciousness and dignity.

For the British public, the transition was ‘aided psychologically by the belief that Britain was not so much losing an empire as gaining a commonwealth.’ By the authors of this book that gain is rated as a placebo rather than a genuinely therapeutic event. In the 1950s and 1960s, high hopes were entertained that the Commonwealth would prove to be the pioneer of a ‘new kind of international partnership’. But ‘it soon became evident’ that that partnership had ‘the weaknesses of its own merits’. The scatter of Commonwealth countries across the world and the wide differences in their economic development, culture and political alignment mean that the Commonwealth ‘can virtually never act as a unit on any matter of substance’. Inevitably, the members tend to look first to their neighbours or to other states with which they have more in common than they have with Britain.

In short, Smith and Polsby seem to have pretty well written off the Commonwealth as of little more than sentimental value. But there are those who suspect that, had Edward Heath shown more enthusiasm and a more comradely spirit at those Commonwealth Conferences over which he presided as premier, things might have turned out differently. Nevertheless, it is no small matter that, although wars between members of the Commonwealth are not inconceivable, they would, like wars between members of the more structured EEC, be seen as fratricide.

The second half of this book deals with British parliamentary democracy and our system of public administration. The authors believe that in spite of its violently adversarial character, our political system works best when there is ‘considerable underlying agreement’ about what the government of the day ought to be doing; and they seek to illustrate this by brief histories of successive post-war governments. Today this consensus, in their view, has broken down, and they see the fate of the ‘Thatcher experiment’ as a turning point for Britain, inasmuch as hostility to that experiment may be so strong as to preclude the establishment of a new consensus.

In its concluding chapters the book appears to turn into a textbook on the British constitution, written for the particular benefit of American students, who find it difficult to imagine our system of strict party discipline, and to whom it has to be explained that in this country you get your name on to the voting register by filling in a form kindly sent to you by the appropriate authority. Elementary instruction of this kind is, however, mingled with criticism intended for domestic consumption. Thus the delicate balance of power between Parliament and government is said to have been disturbed. Thanks to our first-past-the-post electoral system, combined with the assiduity of the Whips in watching their members’ voting records, total power is said to have ‘passed to the government’, which can push its policies through the House, even though it may never have won the votes of a majority of the electors. Thus the Labour Government of October 1974 secured a working majority of MPs on a popular vote of less than 30 per cent of the electors.

As a result of this situation, the unfortunate backbencher finds himself reduced to mere lobby fodder with no real function. His only hope of a worthwhile career depends on his success in winning the favourable attention of his leaders, culminating in an invitation to step forward and join them. But even then it may be a long time before he makes significant progress. Harold Macmillan himself served nearly fifteen years on the back-benches before he won his first ministerial post, and it was only after another 17 years that he became prime minister. Recently, however, hopes have been raised that the futility of back-bench life may be mitigated by the new system of Select Committees attached as watchdogs to each government department, although as yet with powers that are widely regarded as unduly restrictive.

As for the British Civil Service, that comes in for severe criticism, much of it the same as that which has lain unheeded for 13 years in the Report of the Fulton Committee. This book again finds the social and educational background of the typical civil servant to be unduly narrow. Although the Service ‘attracts recruits of ambition and ability’, it will never be a ‘hothouse of bold ideas’. Indeed, much of its thinking is characterised by ‘extreme caution’. Let us, however, take comfort in the fact that, apart from the occasional traitor, it has established a well-recognised code of integrity.

This is not a book of conspicuous originality, but it has brought together in palatable form a considerable body of material relevant to our present discontents. Its authors modestly renounce any ‘claim to have a remedy for the restoration of confidence in Britain’: they leave us, however, with the cheerful reminder that ‘the great civilisation that has been created in the British Isles has already outlived countless obituary notices.’