Enemies of Promise

Angus Calder

  • Breach of Promise: Labour in Power 1964-1970 by Clive Ponting
    Hamish Hamilton, 433 pp, £15.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 241 12683 5
  • James Maxton by Gordon Brown
    Fontana, 336 pp, £4.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 00 637255 4
  • Forward! Labour Politics in Scotland 1888-1988 edited by Ian Donnachie, Christopher Harvie and Ian Wood
    Polygon, 184 pp, £19.50, January 1989, ISBN 0 7486 6001 1

Just seventy years after Friday, 31 January 1919, when troops and tanks stood by to quell a mass rally, in Glasgow’s George Square, of West of Scotland workers campaigning for a forty-hour week, the event was remembered in the People’s Palace, the museum of labour history on Glasgow Green. A bronze bust of Willie Gallacher by Ian Walters was not so much unveiled as proclaimed. It sits at the top of the building, in the room where Ken Currie’s controversial Rivera-style murals of working-class history can be seen around the ceiling: but the speeches were made in the Winter Garden downstairs, where heavy rain dripping through the glass roof and a chill which gnawed one’s bowels did not dismay the two hundred people who had gathered to honour the man who from 1935 to 1950 was Honourable Member for West Fife (Comm.), and an activist long before that on the Clyde Workers Committee.

Speaker after speaker suggested that the bust was a tribute to countless nameless fighters as much as to Gallacher himself. The tradition of ‘Red Clyde’ was being celebrated, and this was an occasion for stirring songs and warm hearts, not for pedantic historians. Gallacher was one of those who put it about that John Maclean was out of his mind, literally hallucinating, when he ran his Scottish Workers Republican Party in opposition to the infant CPGB. Nevertheless, the name of the great Marxist dominie was repeatedly invoked, and Pat Lally, Glasgow’s Labour Provost, was much applauded when he seemed to promise that the Council would erect a statue to Maclean in George Square. The roll-call of Red Clyde heroes was fondly recited, Labour men, ILPers, CPers, heretics – Wheatley, McShane, Maxton ... And why was I there myself if not because I’d read as a boy a book about Maxton and fallen at once under the twin spells of the Red Clyde and of labour history?

The People’s Palace sells a postcard of Maxton. In an election advertisement of 1922, a man with a lovely smile wearing a huge cloth cap is holding up a solemn tot: VOTE FOR MAXTON AND SAVE THE CHILDREN. The image assimilates itself with that of Christ on the Sunday School wall: SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN TO COME UNTO ME. Complex crossovers between religion and politics help to explain why a version of socialism which is sentimental as well as pragmatic still dominates the political map of Strathclyde. Breach of Promise, the title of Clive Ponting’s study of Wilson’s governments of the Sixties, evokes, with its suggestion of sordid betrayal, a polarity which dominates structures of feeling within the Labour Movement. The shades of men like Maclean and Maxton whose failure in politics expressed a refusal to compromise are invoked against ‘traitors’ like MacDonald and Jenkins and wheeler-dealers such as Wilson. In particular, the highly intelligent Scottish politicians now so prominent on Labour’s Front Bench have to live with the oral history of folksong, and with comparison in young minds with Harry McShane, that Marxist saint who fought beside Maclean and died only recently, and with Mick McGahey, happily still with us, beaming serenely at the back of mat throng in the People’s Palace.

In this context, Gordon Brown’s biography of Maxton, now out in paperback, is a brave venture. Maxton did indeed try to ‘save the children’, with furious oratory at Westminster (sneered at as ‘pink’ by Maclean back home). He told how his own wife had lost her life struggling to save her baby’s. He denounced as ‘murderers’ those who voted to withdraw milk from the list of entitlements to mothers and children. In 1932, he led the ILP out of the Labour Party. Jennie Lee was a fellow Scot who went with him. ‘Yes, you will be pure all right,’ Nye Bevan chided her: ‘But remember, at the price of impotency.’ Others accused Maxton of being too lazy to want government office. Brown’s summing-up, which is more generous, sheds light on his own political values. Maxton was a ‘visionary’, and when he died in 1946, ‘the determined rebels of the Twenties had given way to the dark-suited grey men of the Labour establishment.’ Maxton was an ethical socialist who stood for individual freedom – ‘We must not allow ourselves to become ants in an ant-hill’ – and had ‘an inherent sense of human equality’.

For Brown and others who preserve a sense of socialist mission, it is hard to incorporate the heritage of protest into the public profile of Kinnock’s Labour Party. In Glasgow, exceptionally, people who know little history seem still to feel that Maxton and Maclean are somehow mixed in with the ethos of local councillors whose canny city-centre yuppifications stand in bizarre contrast to the miseries of the housing estates. Every Glaswegian inherits the Red Clyde. Elsewhere in Britain traditions have been ‘breached’ by the Wilson-Callaghan years when Labour’s chief raison d’être appeared to be to ensure that moderate trade-unionists and liberal dons got their share of chauffeur-driven transport and expenses-paid trips.

Clive Ponting’s survey of the first phase of the ‘breach’ is comprehensive, careful and acute. Its chief limitation is that it is political history written by a former civil servant (albeit one critical of Whitehall) who looks at events from inside. A lot can be explained from this position, but not the most remarkable fact of all: that the Labour Party survived the behaviour – cynical, baffled or plain incompetent – of the collection of Oxford graduates and self-made men who sat in its Cabinets. The Party, one might conclude, survived because it gave its poorer supporters just enough, and presented a humanitarian and liberationist face to middle-class campaigners. ‘The Government,’ Ponting points out, ‘had a good record on one of the most important areas for any Labour administration – economic equality.’ Its attempts at incomes policy did the lower-paid little good, its fiscal measures against the rich were ineffectual. But it increased pensions, supplementary benefits and family allowances. Public expenditure rose from 34 per cent of GDP in 1964-65 to 38 per cent in 1969-70. More went on health, social services and education. Feminist aspirations were acknowledged in the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Though it was private members whose Bills legalised abortion and adult homosexual intercourse, and got rid of the death penalty, the Government was helpful in these cases. Theatre censorship was abolished despite Wilson’s personal opposition. Divorce became easier. And it was Labour’s two Race Relations Acts which began to outlaw blatant manifestations of prejudice.

These points aside, Ponting’s book makes very depressing reading. Wilson, former Liberal, former don, former civil servant, had persuaded the Bevanite Left in the Fifties that he was their man. But Ponting presents him as an opportunist who enjoyed power and its trappings for their own sake and, still more fatally, ‘loved the Whitehall system. He admired its superficial efficiency in producing papers and moving work smoothly through a hierarchy of committees, and tended to believe that this was equivalent to dealing with and resolving real problems. Wilson would certainly have made a better permanent secretary than prime minister.’

Such strategy as Wilson had soon broke down in the face of economic problems and Whitehall sabotage. The new Department of Economic Affairs produced a National Plan in 1965, but there was no mechanism for implementing it, and within months it went into the dustbin, victim of the priority given to defending the pound and of deflationary measures which made its targets unrealistic. The new Ministry of Technology, intended to fan the ‘white heat’ of revolution, merely collected problems piecemeal as industries continued to decline. Labour opposed monopolies – but favoured mergers. Britain’s share of world exports of manufactures fell from 12.7 per cent in 1960 to 8.6 in 1970, reflecting its slow rate of economic growth and poor productivity. Socialists might have argued that national wealth was not the be-all-and-end-all of civic striving, but, except in wartime, such appeals rarely work. What was needed, it seems in retrospect, was a socialist strategy for shifting responsibility, along with power, from Whitehall and the City to the people, a return in a new context to the young Willie Gallacher’s version of workers’ control and to the ideals of municipal self-help. Wilson’s Labour Party, in the person of slick Dick Marsh, could do no better than renation-alising steel under a board which included a token trade-unionist but was headed by a conservative Old Etonian with no experience in industry.

Some Cabinet members – Crosland, Castle, Benn – retained elements of socialist vision and occasionally mentioned principles. Even George Brown was not entirely incapable of gut reactions in the Movement’s tradition. In January 1968, the Cabinet, discussing a package of cuts, was ‘split largely on class lines’ over a proposal to postpone the raising of the school-leaving age to 16: a commitment envisaged in the 1944 Education Act steered by the Tory Rab Butler. Just two graduates, Crosland and Benn, sided with formerly working-class ministers, amongst whom Brown challenged the Education Minister directly.

    Brown: I want a straight answer to a straight question. If you had to choose between these 400,000 15-year-olds and university students, which would you help?

    Gordon-Walker: If I had to make such a choice I suppose I’d help university students.

    Brown: May God forgive you.

The vote went 11-10 in favour of postponement for two years.

Since this would ensure fresh cohorts of the underprivileged for Jennie Lee’s new Open University to recruit, one could argue that Brown set up a false opposition. But nothing can justify the lies which ministers told their party because they knew that what they were up to was unacceptable.

The most nauseating case was the deception over sanctions against Rhodesia. Wilson appears at his worst in relation to this issue. The Government, anxious to expand trade with South Africa, was terrified of being pressurised into sanctions against Pretoria – which in itself was enough to ensure that action against Smith’s UDI regime would be merely cosmetic. Since all Smith had to do was to keep saying no to any solution acceptable to Commonwealth and world opinion, Wilson’s efforts at personal diplomacy were palpably ridiculous. Parliament was lied to over the role of Shell and BP in sanction-busting, and the Government took no action against them, while prating about the delinquencies of other nations.

The Labour Movement stood for colonial freedom and increased aid to the Third World but Wilson’s Cabinets were less than lukewarm about these issues. Britain’s support for Nigeria against Biafra was defensible: further Balkanisation of Africa was not self-evidently desirable. Despite having a case, however, Wilson’s government lied about the extent of British export of arms to Nigeria (70 per cent of the total acquired by that country in 1969). It did not even mention its action in clearing some two thousand people off the islands of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in order to hand these islands to the USA as a base. This operation, which cost over £15 million, was hidden from Parliament’s view. The Cabinet panicked in 1968 over the possibility of an influx of Kenyan Asians and passed the infamous Immigration Act invalidating the right of these British passport-holders to enter the UK – an Act which, as the Cabinet was told, ‘would have been unconstitutional in any democracy with a written constitution’.

The British Empire was finished, but Wilson and his colleagues didn’t want to admit it. More might have been made here of the role of the press in sustaining belief in Britain’s Greatness and the Powellite racialism which fed on that faith. Wilson, as Ponting shows, was obsessed with ‘defusing’ issues, such as immigration and Rhodesia, which might aid the Tories at the next election. He emerges, not for the first time in print, as a paradoxical mixture of over-confidence (in his clout as international statesman and his capacity to steer the economy) and paranoia (over the media and over real and imagined intrigues to oust him in favour of Brown or Callaghan). His addition to jetplane statesmanship diverted him from the horrible economic realities he inherited from the ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’ of Tory government.

Devaluation of the pound was overdue. From 1964 to 1967, Wilson’s government fought to avoid it, until there was really no alternative. Why? Wilson presumed to take over from Macmillan the role of ‘mentor to the brash inexperienced Americans in the complexities of world affairs’. The reserve-currency role of sterling gave Britain illusory economic status at a time when it was slipping further and further behind West Germany and France. Its role in Nato was seen as second only to the USA, and East of Suez it had commitments which the US were unwilling to take over. By maintaining what was thought to be a special relationship with the USA, Britain could, it was imagined, remain a great power. Entry into the EEC, the alternative finally pursued, was not the only one: there were Scandinavian models of effective social democracy outside the Treaty of Rome.

Ponting has looked at previously secret American documents which show that in 1965 a series of ‘undertakings’ were arrived at with the USA which gave Wilson, with his tiny majority, a basis for short-term electoral success. They were so secret that most of the Cabinet heard nothing of them. The US Government did not want devaluation because it would put the dollar under pressure. In return for American support for the pound, Callaghan, as Chancellor, would deflate. Though Wilson resisted pressure to send troops to Vietnam, diplomatic support for the US was ensured, and it was understood that Britain would not cut its commitments in Germany and the Far East. By 1967, however, when sterling entered a decisive crisis, he had been convert-to devaluation. The purchase of US F111 aircraft was one of the measures which followed devaluation, and withdrawal from East of Suez was brought forward. The US Secretary for Defence, Clark Clifford, expressed his Government’s scorn at this display: ‘The British do not have the resources, the back-up or the hardware to deal with any big world problem ... They are no longer a powerful ally of ours ... ’ Devaluation, then, marked the effective end of empire.

Meanwhile Britain’s over-commitment to defence, and the shibboleth of the ‘independent deterrent’, had cost the country dear. Considerable savings could have been made by scrapping Polaris, which was ridiculed in Labour’s 1964 Manifesto. It was kept. Britain badly needed to spend more on industrial Research and Development. Nearly 60 per cent of R and D input came from the Government – and nearly two-thirds of that went on military projects. For all Wilson’s blather in the 1964 election campaign about new technology, little thought was given to this problem. When Lord Zuckerman, as the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, produced a report in 1969 suggesting diversion of effort into the civil field, Wilson rejected it: ‘I am afraid there is no political capital in this because nothing we decide will have any effect until years after the next Parliament gets going.’

By this time, Labour was consistently well behind in the opinion polls. Its appeal to the electorate in 1970 would perforce be based not on any achievements in restructuring British institutions or the economy but on the ‘sound’ management which produced, in 1969, a huge balance-of-payments surplus of £440 million. That year saw two truly spectacular political disasters. A strange, half-cock plan for reforming the Lords proved impossible to force through the Commons, and Wilson, thrusting his most loyal colleague, Barbara Castle, in front of him for safety, took on the trade-union side of This Great Movement of Ours and lost.

Trade unions were increasingly unpopular. The proportion of the public which saw them as beneficial had fallen from 70 per cent to 57 per cent since 1964. Strikes were seen by nearly half those polled as the unions’ main problem. Strike legislation worked out with TUC consent might have embodied a sensible response to public opinion, though it would still have faced left-wing distaste. Wilson’s anti-TUC fervour enabled his rival Callaghan, breaching the convention of collective responsibility for Cabinet decisions, to gain support by public opposition, and the proposals in Castle’s White Paper ‘In Place of Strife’ could not be pressed. Obsessed with wresting the strike issue out of Heath’s hands, Wilson merely made rational discussion of it within the Labour Movement a short and long-term impossibility.

The Labour vote in the UK has been in decline since 1951. Between 1964 and 1970, individual membership dropped by half. Yet the Party recovered sufficiently to win two elections in 1974. Two overlapping factors explain the Party’s persistence. First, however dismal its recent record, there was no appetising alternative for the poor, the militant and the visionary. Maxton’s ILP, Gallacher’s CP, had failed to provide scope on the left, and the Liberal Party of Grimond and Thorpe was hardly likely to fire the urban masses or the young activists in CND and Anti-Apartheid. Secondly, the movement in which the Party was rooted had a life of its own. However often their argosies of hope foundered on the rocks of bureaucracy, Maxton, Jennie Lee and other ‘visionaries’ did articulate cries for fairness and friendship which had deeply-rooted popular support. If Labour is losing credibility as the voice of such values, it does not follow that it is dead. Mrs Thatcher has received lower shares of the poll in successive elections since 1979. Scotland, of course, contributed mightily to this effect in 1987. Scottish Tories polled over 50 per cent in 1955, but their fortunes have steadily slumped since then and recent polls show them at 20 per cent.

In the fine old Scottish tradition of self-righteousness against the odds, Tories talk as if there is a temporary time-warp: Thatcherite policies, remorselessly applied in defiance of three-quarters of Scottish opinion, will privatise council housing, make schools and hospitals opt out, replace old heavy industries with nice light ones and reduce the mental dependence on public funding of which they accuse their fellow Scots. These Tories can no more explain than I can why social categories (e.g. home-owners) likely to vote for Thatcher in England vote against her in Scotland. They tend to blame the insufficiently Murdochised Scottish media – and they may have a point. The Scotsman and Glasgow Herald, rival claimants to the title of ‘Scotland’s National Newspaper’, targeted at AB readers, both gave Mick McGahey a good send-off when he retired from the NUM leadership. Photographs of a Grand Old Man smiling in sunlight registered him as part of the Pageant of Scottish History, not as a Red Bogey.

Perhaps the Labour Movement’s respectability in Scotland has partly depended on the modesty with which it has pressed the claims of socialism in local and Westminster government. The many facts recited in Forward! rarely seem to justify its uplifting title. This is a valuable, long-overdue book, but it may have been as well for Labour that no such general account of its record has previously appeared. One is constantly struck by the fact that until the recent emergence of bright, youngish MPs, amongst whom Gordon Brown is by no means the only star, effective Scottish contributions from the Labour Front Bench have been tiny relative to the number of seats which Scotland has delivered to the Party over the years.

It is true that John Wheatley, of Housing Act fame, was the only creative minister of the 1923-4 Government. But Willie Ross, Wilson’s Scottish Secretary, hardly gets a mention in Ponting’s book. His most important Labour forerunner in the Scottish Office, Tom Johnston, who held the post during the Second World War, lived down his Red Clyde past to become a man above politics. In particular, his earlier enthusiasm for Home Rule – widely shared in Scottish Labour circles before the war, and endorsed by a Party ‘Plan for Postwar Scotland’ in 1941 – was apparently sated by his own success at ‘government by consultation’, strengthening the country’s postwar prospects by the use of powers delegated from Westminster. He gave Scotland what he thought was good for it. There were lots of Plans. After the war, planners with more clout imposed UK-wide plans, including centralised nationalisation, on Scotland, and the Labour tradition of support for Home Rule was increasingly left in the hands of the CP.

The respected historians who edited Forward! clearly worked on it long before the SNP’s victory at Govan last November, but they have managed to include a final article by James Naughtie which takes account of that event. Throughout, the book gives prominence to Home Rule as an issue and to SNP successes as a problem for Labour.

Michael Keating takes on the difficult job of explaining Labour’s advance in Scotland and Tory decline in the period 1951-64. He attributes this to the ‘resilience of class divisions’: Scottish Labour MPs, ‘compared to their English counterparts’, were ‘older, more working class, more likely to have been local councillors and less likely to lose their seats’. They were mainly unambitious and parochial in outlook. Only one in the entire 13 years was elected to the Party’s Parliamentary Committee. The continuing mediocrity of Scottish Labour representation at Westminster must have helped the SNP in its surge of 1967-74.

However, there were other factors bearing on that development and on the simultaneous and apparently unconnected emergence of Plaid Cymru in Wales and of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland. This was precisely the moment when Britain’s loss of prestige was felt in devaluation and reduced international status. The benefits of belonging to the United Kingdom were less obvious than before. All over the world nationalist movements were strong among ethnic minorities. If Tanzania could govern itself, why not Scotland? The Scottish Executive of the Labour Party, which had killed off Home rule as a policy commitment on ‘compelling economic grounds’ in 1957, found its spectre rising from the grave.

In some respects the most original and important contribution to Forward! is Frances Wood’s on 1964-79. The author has been a fully engaged Labour activist and conveys some of the pain and confusion which the movement suffered over devolution in the Seventies. Labour’s sketchy ‘National Plan’ had been scuppered by 1966, and its policies for regional assistance, assessed as ‘moderately creditable’ by Ponting, did not prevent a palpable decline in Scotland’s traditional industries, symbolised above all by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders agony of 1971. In 1968, the SNP polled 30 per cent in Glasgow and robbed Labour of overall control of the heart of the Red Clyde. By 1974 mounting Nationalist pressure had forced Scottish Labour to move back to Home Rule.

The Party was now divided between those well-entrenched, mostly older elements who hated the idea of Devolution, those, mostly Communist-influenced or younger, who positively liked it, and those, probably in a majority, who found the issue confusing if not downright boring. Labour did not really deserve to get away with the half-baked proposal for devolution which failed to arouse sufficient enthusiasm in the 1979 Referendum.

Since then, opposition to Home Rule within the Party has fallen silent and there has been a steady advance of neo-nationalism in its ranks. Visionary and pragmatist alike have been tempted to imagine a Scotland where Thatcher’s writ would not run. But a longer-term development has affected people inside and outside the Labour Party. Since the Sixties – or so everyone says – Scotland has been enjoying a cultural renaissance, led by poets and painters who give little heed to English example, by touring drama companies which utilise Scottish music hall and folk traditions, and historians (including the editors of Forward!) who have refused to accept accounts of the past which relegate Scotland to footnotes or appendices. Along with this, and largely through the debates over devolution in the Seventies, a distinctive ‘political culture’ comparable to those of other medium-sized countries, and embracing relevant sections of the media, has emerged. Hence the Labour defeat at Govan, comparable statistically with by-election debacles in England during the Wilson era, causes less gloom than excitement, in which a veteran trade-unionist speaks up for independence and Tory Home Rulers fly frail but surprising kites. Debates are conducted with backs turned on London and eyes towards Europe. Constitutional reform, dead as a dodo according to Hattersley, is a live issue for Dewar and Cook. Could it be that Labour in Scotland is moving, together with broader Scottish opinion, towards a version of democracy which would obliterate any possibility of Wilson-style ‘breaches of promise’?