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Britain Sixty Years Ago (VII): Between Two Worlds, 1958-63   Leave a comment

Notting Hill, 1958 and After: Pity the Poor Immigrant…?

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Just as in the time of the Blair-Brown administrations of a decade ago, sixty years ago it was not regarded as respectable to express concerns about immigration to Britain, much less to voice anti-immigrant feeling. At both ends of the fifty year period of general prosperity, the elite turned its eyes and ears away from the door-slamming and shunning, and escaped into well-meant, windy generalities about the brotherhood of man and fellow-citizens of the Crown, or more latterly vacuous epithets about celebrating a mythological multi-cultural Cool Britannia, a land at ease with itself.  Most of the hostility was at the level of street culture, mostly covert and casual but occasionally overtly aggressive and violent, organised or orchestrated by white gangs of ‘nigger-hunting’ Teddy boys and small groups of right-wing extremists. The main motivation seems to have been young male testosterone-led territory-marking.

 

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From Austerity to Affluence: Britain, 1945-64.

This all came to a head in 1958 with the Notting Hill riots, more an event which symbolised change than one of real, bloody slaughter. In reality, no-one was killed in the rampaging and, by the standards of later rioting, there was little physical damage to either people or property. The trouble actually started in the poor St Ann’s district of Nottingham and only spread to London’s Notting Hill a day later. On 18 August, the Times reported on the Nottingham fight between coloured and white people and how some Conservative MPs saw it as a red light warning of further troubles to come. They intended to renew their demand for control to be placed on immigration from the Commonwealth and the colonies when Parliament reassembled in October. Thirty of them had already signed a motion (never debated) during the previous session, which had expressed their disquiet over…

… the continuing influx of indigent immigrants from the Commonwealth and colonies, thousands of whom have immediately sought National Assistance.

Even before the outbreak of the riots at Notting Hill, Norman Pannell, Tory MP for the Kirkdale division of Liverpool and leader of this group, had tabled a similarly worded resolution on the agenda of their autumn Party Conference. Pannell had commented to the Times the previous day:

The Nottingham fighting is a manifestation of the evil results of the present policy and I feel that unless some restriction is imposed we shall create the colour-bar we all wish to avoid… The object of my representation is to get some control, not to bar all Commonwealth immigration, but to see that the immigrants shall not be a charge on public funds, and that they are deported when they are guilty of serious crimes.

Yet what happened at Notting Hill was a large and deeply unpleasant outbreak of anti-immigrant violence which ran for a total of six days, across two late summer weekends. It was no coincidence that Notting Hill was the area where the rioting happened as distinct from, say, Brixton, which also had a very large and visible black population by the mid-fifties. Notting Hill had the most open, well-known street culture for black people, with Soho on one side and the new BBC headquarters on the other. This sub-culture was also well-advertised and celebrated by hacks, broadcasters and novelists. Known for its gambling dens and drinking-clubs, it also had a resentful and impoverished white population and, more importantly, in the words of two historians of British immigration put it:

It had multi-occupied houses with families of different races on each floor. It had a large population of internal migrants, gypsies and Irish, many of them transient single men, packed into a honeycomb of rooms with communal kitchens, toilets and no bathrooms.

Into this honeycomb poured a crowd first of tens, and then of hundreds of white men, armed first with sticks, knives, iron railings and bicycle chains, and soon with petrol-bombs too. They were overwhelmingly young,  mostly from nearby areas of London, and looking for trouble. They began by picking on small groups of blacks caught out on the streets, beating them and chasing them. They then moved to black-occupied houses and began smashing windows. The crowds swelled out until they were estimated at more than seven hundred strong, whipped up by the occasional neo-fascist agitator, but much more directed by local whites. Racist songs and chants of ‘niggers out’, the smashing of windows – although some local whites protected and fought for their black neighbours – this was mob violence of a kind that Brits thought they had long left behind. They shrunk away again, however, at the sight of black men making a stand, and fighting back with petrol bombs. There were a hundred and forty arrests, mainly of white youths, and though far-right parties continued to organise in the area, there was no discernible electoral impact, or indeed any more serious trouble. The huge press coverage ensured, however, that Britain went through its first orgy of national naval-gazing about its liberalism and its immigration policy, while overseas racist régimes such as those of South Africa and Rhodesia mocked their hang-wringing British cousins.

After the riots, many black people did ‘go home’. Returns to the Caribbean soared to more than four thousand. There, West Indian governments expressed outrage at the riots and made it clear that there would be no action by them to restrict migration in order to appease lawless white thugs. The Commonwealth retained a loose association between Crown, obligation and common citizenship which felt real to politicians of both parties. Pressure to close the open border for Commonwealth citizens hardly increased in the Tory Party after the Notting Hill riots, though extra-parliamentary campaigns, such as the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, did spring up. Of course, given that the violence was directed against immigrants by whites, it would have been grossly unfair had the first reaction been to send people home. Labour was wholly against restricting immigration, arguing that it would be disastrous to our status within the Commonwealth. 

The Notting Hill Carnival, begun the following year, was an alternative response, celebrating black culture openly. For many black migrants, the riots marked the beginning of assertion and self-organisation. They were looked back on as a ‘racial Dunkirk’, the darkest moment after which the real fightback began. Even in the ‘darkest’ days of 1958, there was a lighter side to the popular street culture which those ‘journalists’ who dared or bothered to walk the same streets, discovered for themselves. An Irish informant told T R Fyvel, author of The Insecure Offenders (1961) that the excessive interest of Teddy Boys in their own and each other’s clothes and hair-styles revealed a basic effeminacy and nothing else:

If you look into the motive you will find it was largely jealousy… of the girls for being the centre of attention. They just couldn’t stand not having it all to themselves. If you had listened to these Teds as I did when they stood about in dance-halls, all you would hear about was clothes and style. One would say: “I paid seventeen guineas for this suit at so-and-so’s”, the other, “I paid this new Jew tailor nineteen guineas for mine.” They could talk literally for hours about styles and cut and prices, the way you usually only hear women talk. But even if they all weren’t effeminate, though I know some of them were, the main thing with these Teds was that they had to outshine the way the girls dressed by the way they themselves were dressed. The Teddy boy was always the person who had to stand out.

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Within the young British West Indian community, clothes and hair did not need to be of a certain cut or style at this time; it was the “patois” which had a special role as a token of identity. But it was not a simple role for newly arrived immigrants, as one Jamaican schoolgirl living in London explained the complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican Creole in Jamaica, but that made it almost obligatory in London:

It’s rather weird ‘cos when I was in Jamaica I wasn’t really allowed to speak it (Jamaican Creole) in front of my parents. I found it difficult in Britain at first. When I went to school I wanted to be like the others in order not to stand out. So I tried speaking the patois as well … You get sort of a mixed reception. Some people say, “You sound really nice, quite different.” Other people say, “You’re a foreigner, speak English. Don’t try to be like us, ‘cos you’re not like us.”

Despite this mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it, “after a year, I lost my British accent, and was accepted.” But this was not, strictly speaking, Jamaican English. For many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was of a stylised form that was not, as they heard it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians had arrived from all over the Caribbean. Another British West Indian schoolgirl, who was born in Britain, was teased for her patois when she visited the Caribbean for the first time:

 I haven’t lived in Jamaica, right? But what I found  when I went out there was that when I tried to speak Jamaican (Creole) they laughed at me. They said I’m trying to copy them and I don’t sound right and that. They want me to speak as I speak now.

The experience convinced her that “in London, the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ‘Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into Patois as well.” By the early 1980s, investigators found that there were white children in predominantly black schools who used the British West Indian patois in order to be acceptable to the majority of their friends:

I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast. 

On the other hand, the same schoolboy knew that the creole was something for a special set of circumstances:

But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.

The unconscious racism of such comments points to the predicament faced by British black people. Not fully accepted, for all the rhetoric, by the established white community, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British, even by the 1980s. This was the poignant outcome of what British black writer Caryl Phillips called, The Final Passage. Phillips came to Britain in the late 1950s himself, and was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:

The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic schizophrenia – you have an identity crisis that mirrors the larger cultural confusion. 

His novel, The Final Passage, is narrated in Standard English, but the speech of the characters is obviously a rendering of nation language:

I don’t care what anyone tell you, going to England be good for it going raise your mind. For a West Indian boy like you just being there is an education, for you going see what England do for sheself … it’s a college for the West Indian.

The lesson of this college for the West Indian is, as Phillips put it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well.

The new ‘youth’ styles of late-fifties Britain, expressing themselves partly, as almost everything else in the period did, in terms of consumption patterns, also indicated subtle shifts in attitude and outlook: but no-one changed their life-chances by becoming a Teddy Boy or Mod. It can’t be said that adult members of the official culture displayed much sympathy into either of the ‘dreams’, of freedom or recognition, that Ray Gosling gave voice to in the following extracts, first of all from the BBC Programme, It’s My Life, and secondly from his article Dream Boy, which appeared in the New Left Review of May/June 1960:

I remember coming out of the Elephant & Castle, the big theatre at the corner, the Trocadero, and it was after seeing the Bill Haley film, ‘Rock Around the Clock’, and we all went down the Old Kent Road, and at the end… all the fire engines were there, and they got their hoses all ready, and it was a… terrible big thing. You felt you were it. Not only because you were young, but you felt the rest of your lives would be, well, ordered by you and not ordered by other people. We felt we could do anything we bloody well wanted, … anything at all, nothing could stop you. You were the guv’ner – you were the king. The world was free – the world was open.

The dreamland is always, like the win on the pools, just around the corner. The man with the big cigar from up West who discovers The Boy, and buys him up, never arrives … The haze that surrounds the life of The Boy is a fog of fear, and not the mist about to rise on a dazzling dawn of success. He lives in Birmingham, not Hollywood, a dead Empire in a sunset world, yet still hopes that somehow, an Eden will pull off the trick, Super Mac will open those golden gates, and here along the M1 the orange trees of California will begin to blossom … And so this boy with everyone and everything against him, plays out his own private drama to the fuggy street, with his god on a chain round his neck, his girl clinging to his arm. Against all of them: in search of the heaven he sees on the glossy page, the screen, and the hoarding.

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When the BBC Radio Any Questions panel was asked to comment on the events surrounding the showing of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, Mary Stocks remarked that young people were merely exhibiting a sort of unexpended animal spirits; Lord Boothby, the newspaper proprietor and Conservative politician, expressed the view that he’d rather they all wet off to Cairo and started teddy-boying around there, while Jeremy Thorpe, the future Liberal Party leader, said that Jazz to me comes from the jungle and this is jungle music taken to its logical conclusion. This is musical Mau-Mau.

Meanwhile, back in ‘darkest’ Notting Hill, not long after the riots, the intrepid reporter, T R Fyvel, was being enlightened by a youth leader about the increased use of ‘the gramophone’. Re-invented as ‘the record-player’, they were far cheaper than ever before, and cheap vinyl records were mass-produced for the first time, adding to the international popularity of performers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bill Hayley and the Comets, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Although cheap, they were beyond the pockets of most individual teenagers or their families, for whom the TV was still a greater priority, so youth clubs like that run by Fyvel’s informant became a means of ‘putting a roof over the street’ under which young people could share the listening experience:  

Record-players are the thing these days among the boys. You just don’t find a house without one; they’re just about taking the place of the telly, expensive ones, too. Television seems to mean little to the youngsters these days – the only thing they bother to watch is boxing and football – but it’s remarkable how well they know the records. Even little girls at the club will ask if we’ve got the latest hit, “Babyface” or something. Tunes are the one subject where you can be sure of getting them to talk.   

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However, for some young Britons, epitomised by Jimmy Porter, the character in Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, it was pretty dreary living in the American age, unless you’re an American, of course. The cold, statistical reality was that the number of British youths in the age-group seventeen to twenty-one convicted for violence against the person had risen to 2,051 in 1958, from 745 in 1954. By 1958 this new development was also apparent to the legal authorities. For example, in London and the Home Counties one magistrate after the other made comment on the fact that the criminal minority among young people had become noticeably much larger and more criminal. This increase in crime statistics was most alarming in the smaller towns and rural areas in the Home Counties. Noting that crime in Berkshire had risen by a third in the course of two years, the Chief Constable of that still largely rural county said, on 9th April 1958, that the average age of those responsible for burglary and other breaking-in offences was under twenty. In neighbouring Buckinghamshire, the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, Lord Birkett remarked:

There are thirty-six prisoners and of these there are no less than twenty-two who are twenty-one and under: among these, one is nineteen, two are eighteen, seven are seventeen, and five are only sixteen. Everyone reviews such a state of affairs with a profound taste of dissatisfaction, in these days when so much is done for the care and protection of the young.

It’s difficult to isolate specific causes of these social trends, but one general cause may have been that there were no good ’causes’ left for most young working-class people to fight for. John Osborne, the controversial playwright, expressed this sense of aimlessness through one of his characters, Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger:

I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave courses left. If the big bang comes, and we all get killed off, it won’t be in aid of the old-fashioned grand design. It’ll just be for the Brave-New-nothing- very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.

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Another cause of the increase in street-level violence and crime was the social alienation fuelled by the new vogue for high-rise flats, about which I have written in another post in this series. But, as the title of Osborne’s play reminds us, the fifties did see the rise of the Angry Young Men, and women, and led to the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  When the first ragged ranks of ‘CND’ swung into view on the first day of their march from London to Aldermaston in Berkshire, one Londoner, observing, commented to a radio reporter:

This must be a bunch of bloody psychotics, trying to extrovert their own psychic difficulties, you know, to neither end nor purpose. It’s like a bunch of tiny dogs yapping at the back door to the big house – it will accomplish sweet nothing.

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René Cutforth, the distinguished radio commentator and journalist, however, thought that the marchers might just be the only people left alive. Certainly, the shadow of what Jimmy Porter had called ‘the big bang’ lengthened across the whole face of ‘affluent Britain’ throughout this whole thirty-year period from the late fifties onward, and nothing the bunch of bloody psychotics, including myself, did could raise it an inch. Yet the ‘extra-parliamentary politics’ which so changed the face of political life in the western world in the succeeding decades, and which so powerfully crystallised the popular mood of protest and dissent against the enforced calm of ‘prosperous Britain’, had its beginnings here: it was fired in this highly respectable and law-abiding crucible. 

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The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the fifties prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. Only after Macmillan’s 1959 general election victory did pressure really begin to build up for some kind of restriction on immigration to Britain. Opinion polls began to show increasing hostility to the open-door policy. Perhaps just as important, both the Ministry of Labour and the Home Office wanted a change to help deal with the new threat of unemployment. This was a case of the political class being pushed reluctantly into something which offended the notion of their place in the world, the father-figures of a global Commonwealth. One study of immigration points out that what was truly remarkable was the passive acceptance by politicians and bureaucrats of Britain’s transformation into a multicultural society:

Immigration was restricted a full four years after all measures of the public mood indicated clear hostility to a black presence in Britain, and even then it was only done with hesitation. 

However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe and events such as the Notting Hill race riots in 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British citizenship. When, in 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act finally passed into law, it was notably liberal, at least by later standards, assuming the arrival of up to forty thousand legal immigrants a year with the complete right of entry for their dependents.

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Even so, it had only gone through after a ferocious parliamentary battle, with the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell making an emotional appeal and passionate attacks on a measure which was still privately opposed by some of the Tory ministers opposite him. One particularly contentious issue was that the Republic of Ireland was allowed a completely open border with Britain, which exists to this day. This may have seemed only practical politics given the huge number of Irish people living and working in Britain, but it offended in two ways. By discriminating in favour of a country which had been neutral in the war with Hitler and declared itself a republic, but against Commonwealth countries which had stood with Britain, it infuriated many British patriots. Secondly, by giving Irish people a better deal than Indians or West Indians it seemed frankly racialist.

Although the 1962 Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect. The new law created a quota system which gave preference to skilled workers and those with firm promises of employment. In order to beat it, a huge new influx of people migrated to Britain in 1961, the biggest group from the Caribbean, but also almost fifty thousand from India and Pakistan and twenty thousand Hong Kong Chinese. Fearful of losing the right of free entry, in the eighteen months before the restrictions were introduced, the volume of newcomers equalled the total for the previous five years. One historian of immigration puts the paradox well: in the three-year period from 1960 to 1963, despite the intense hostility to immigration, …

… more migrants had arrived in Britain than had disembarked in the whole of the twentieth century up to that point. The country would never be the same again.

Back to the Future: A New Relationship with Europe?

After the Treaty of Rome took effect at the beginning of 1958, French attitudes towards future British membership of the European Economic Community hardened. General de Gaulle, who had felt humiliated by Churchill during the war, returned as President of France, too late to stop the new European system, which he had opposed on the basis of his ‘nation-statism’, from taking shape. He, therefore, determined that it should be dominated by France and made to serve French national interests. Macmillan, always a keen European, became worried. Various British plots intended to limit the six founders and hamper their project had failed. London had tried to rival the new Common Market with a group of the ‘excluded’ countries; Britain, Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, calling it the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

‘The Seven’ as they called themselves, were nevertheless smaller in population than ‘the Six’ and were also more geographically scattered and far less united. Roy Jenkins, future Home Secretary and ardent pro-European, described EFTA as a foolish attempt to organise a weak periphery against a strong core. By 1959 Macmillan was worrying that,

… for the first time since the Napoleonic era, the major continental powers are united in a positive economic grouping, with considerable political aspects …

… which might cut Britain out of Europe’s main markets and decisions. In his diaries, he wrote of his alarm at the prospect of a boastful, powerful ‘Empire of Charlemagne’ – now under French, but bound to come under German control. There was much self-deception about the possible deal that could be struck, which would need to combine the sovereignty of the British Parliament and the interests of farmers throughout the Commonwealth with the protectionist system of the EEC. Macmillan was willing to sacrifice sovereignty if a deal could be reached. He might have seemed as safely steeped in tradition as country houses, but he had nothing like the reverence for the House of Commons felt by Enoch Powell or Hugh Gaitskell. But Gaitskell and the Labour Party had seriously underrated Macmillan from the outset of his premiership. In his Memoirs (1964), the Earl of Kilmuir wrote of him:

His calm confidence, courtesy and sharpness in debate, his quick-wittedness under pressure, and, above all, his superb professionalism, unnerved and disconcerted his opponents until he secured a quite astonishing psychological superiority in the Commons. Gaitskell never quite succeeded in getting Macmillan’s measure, and his ponderous tactics gave the Prime Minister a series of opportunities which he did not miss…

He imparted confidence to his colleagues and the Party in Parliament, and their confidence spread to the constituencies. It was a remarkable example of how a political revival must start from the top. 

… Macmillan’s refusal to have an ‘inner Cabinet’ of a few intimate friends was a source of strength and not of weakness. Imperturbable, hard-working, approachable, and courageous; he exercised a personal domination over his colleagues not seen in British politics since Churchill’s wartime administration. If it is alleged that Macmillan was singularly lucky after 1958, no man deserved it more. He led the country out of the bitter-black aftermath of Suez, gave them the unflurried leadership for which they craved, and proved himself a worthy successor to Churchill.

In the early sixties, the battle over Britain’s sovereignty, which was to dominate its internal politics for the next sixty years, was postponed because British entry was ruthlessly and publicly blocked. President De Gaulle was due to come to Britain for talks and told the Prime Minister that, rather than visit Downing Street, he would prefer to come to his private home, Birch Grove in Sussex. The two men had worked closely together during the war in North Africa and De Gaulle was grateful to Macmillan personally for his support when, as leader of the Free French, Roosevelt and Churchill had wanted to kick him out of the French government-in-exile which was being formed in advance of liberation. However, De Gaulle had also left North Africa more than ever convinced of the danger to France of a coming Anglo-American alliance which would soon try to dominate the world.

Following a series of domestic disputes at Birch Grove, the two men exchanged blunt views. Macmillan argued that European civilization was threatened from all sides and that if Britain was not allowed to join the Common Market, he would have to review everything, including keeping British troops in Germany. If De Gaulle wanted an “empire of Charlemagne” it would be on its own. The French President replied that he didn’t want Britain to bring in its “great escort” of Commonwealth countries – the Canadians and Australians were no longer Europeans; Indian and African countries had no place in the European system, and he feared Europe being “drowned in the Atlantic”. In short, he simply did not believe that Britain would ditch its old empire; and if it did, he thought it would be a Trojan horse for the Americans.

These seem like formidable objections, points of principle that should have been as a clear warning. Yet the detailed and exhaustive talks about British entry dragged on despite them. Edward Heath made sixty-three visits to Brussels, Paris and other capitals, covering fifty thousand miles as he haggled and argued. By then Macmillan was a fast-fading figure. A natural intriguer who had risen to power on the bloodied back of Eden, he was obsessed by possible political coups against him, and increasingly worried about the state of the economy. He was failing in Europe and looked old when seen alongside the young President Kennedy. Even a master illusionist like Macmillan had to face political reality.

The illusion with the most profound consequences was the economic one. In his 1958 book, The Affluent Society, J K Galbraith intended to sketch an outline of a developed society which had in large part solved the problem of production and would concentrate its energies on the challenges of distribution and redistribution. The class struggle was obsolete, so also were the ideologies which sought to justify it. Politics would no longer involve large general choices but disagreement over more limited and piecemeal issues. Uncritical transference of Galbraith’s thesis into the British context helped obscure the fact that Britain had not, in fact, solved its economic problems. The optimism of the early 1950s was perfectly understandable, but this miracle was built on temporary and fortuitous circumstances.

From 1955, Britain was bedevilled by a series of sterling crises which gradually forced upon the attention of politicians problems they wished to avoid. In 1955, when, as a result of a Government-assisted boom in industrial development, demand began to run ahead of capacity and the economy became over-strained, R. A. Butler, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, deliberately pushed up by raising purchase tax on a wide range of goods, and at the same time a number of measures were taken to discourage capital investment. Butler’s policy was followed by his two successors at the Treasury and only reversed at the onset of the recession in 1958. By then, the policy had eventually succeeded in slowing down the pace of wage increases, one of the major factors behind the 1955 inflation. But it took nearly three years to do so, at the cost of a virtually complete standstill and a number of financial crises and major industrial disputes.

One particularly unfortunate aspect of this period was the Government’s attempts to restrict investment in the public sector, an attempt which was largely unsuccessful because of the long-term nature of most of the projects involved, which made it quite impossible to turn them on and off like a tap to meet the short-term fluctuations in the economy.  If, by the time he made his famous election speech in 1959, Macmillan’s illusion of continuing affluence was already unsupported by the economic evidence, by the time he gave his interview to the Daily Mail in 1961, the claim that… We’ve got it good: Let’s keep it good was well past its ‘sell-by date’. As Sked and Cook (1979) pointed out in their reflections on the ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’, the Tories had, in fact, done very little in their fiscal policies from 1951-64, to pay attention to Britain’s sluggish economic growth or the problems created by the country’s superficial prosperity:

  … the Government sat back and did nothing in the belief that there was nothing to do, and for most of the time their energy was devoted  to maintaining Britain as a world power whatever the cost to the economy … 

Moreover, Tory economic complacency ensured that the necessary economic growth would never be generated. Not enough money was channelled into key industries; stop-go policies undermined the confidence of industry to invest in the long-term, and too much money was spent on defence…

With the economic crises of the early 1960s … it began to be apparent that Tory affluence would soon come to an end. The scandals of the Macmillan era merely served to reinforce the impression that a watershed had been reached in the country’s history and foreign affairs seemed to reach another lesson…  

In 1962 US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain has lost an empire: she has not yet found a role. The failure to rethink her world role was as evident in diplomacy as in economics. Macmillan foresaw and expedited the final liquidation of Empire, but he had few ideas about what to put in its place. The special relationship with the United States was to remain the cornerstone of British policy. But without the Empire, the relationship was bound to become one of master and servant. These illusions blinded Macmillan to the far-reaching changes occurring in Europe.

After a further unpopular budget in the spring of 1962, Macmillan drafted an alternative policy based on more planning and decided to sack his Chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd. The news was leaked to the papers, and over a brutal and panicky twenty-four hours in July, Macmillan expanded the circle of his sackings more widely, in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Macmillan called in and dismissed a third of his cabinet ministers from their jobs without notice. Macmillan’s own official biographer described it as an act of carnage unprecedented in British political history. However, compared with more recent cabinet ‘re-shuffles’ which happen with far greater frequency, many of those sacked then deserved to lose their jobs.

In November, Macmillan returned to his arguments with De Gaulle. This time, he went to France, to the grand chateau of Rambouillet, south of Paris, a venue used by French Presidents for summits as well as for holidays. After a round of pheasant-shooting, de Gaulle expressed his objections to British EEC membership even more aggressively. If Britain wanted to choose Europe, it would have to cut its special ties with the United States. At one point, Macmillan broke down in tears of frustration at the General’s intransigence, leading de Gaulle to comment later to his cabinet:

This poor man , to whom I had nothing to give, seemed so sad, so beaten that I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and say to him, as in the Edith Piaf song, “Ne pleurez pas, milord”.

Cruel or not, it was a significant moment for Macmillan, for the Tories and for Britain. When, a few months later, in early 1963, De Gaulle’s “Non” was abruptly announced in a Paris press conference, it caused huge offence in Britain. A visit to Paris by Princess Margaret was cancelled. At the England-France rugby international at Twickenham a few days later, England won six-five. The captain of the English team had assured Ted Heath, the failed negotiator, that he had had a word with the team before the game, telling them…

… this was an all-important game. Everyone knew what I meant and produced the necessary …

Macmillan himself bitterly recorded in his diary that the French always betray you in the end. 

 

Sources:

Theo Baker (ed., 1978), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds., 1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Educational.

Asa Briggs, Joanna Bourke et. al. (eds., 2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran & Robert MacNeil (1986), The Story of English. Harmonsworth: Penguin Books.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952-2002: Chapter One, Part Two.   Leave a comment

Chapter One (cont.): Never Had it so Good?

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In the Home Counties of Southeast England, Macmillan’s Bedford speech in 1957 may have rung true, but it soon began to have a hollow ring to it, as job insecurity by the mid-sixties was replaced by the return of serious structural unemployment by the mid-seventies. Real wages grew, on average, by fifty per cent between 1951 and 1964. In Coventry, this was partly due to the strength of shop floor bargaining in the motor industry. Until the early 1960s Coventry stood in a different league of union organisation to the biggest motor manufacturers – Morris, Austin, Ford and Vauxhall. The district conditions of Coventry clearly provided a favourable environment for union development, especially the pressing demand for labour, the drive for high output and the relatively slack cost constraints on products before the 1960s. At Ford, Vauxhall and Morris’, the managements determinedly set themselves to restrict the role of unions with considerable success: the case of Herbert’s shows that such dogged resistance was probably not out of the question in Coventry either. However, at Standard management opted positively to promote certain aspects of union organisation in pursuit of wider business goals, while Rootes and Jaguar both found it convenient to abdicate large areas of traditional managerial control and allow the piecework system to act as a rough proxy for works management. In Luton, Cowley and Dagenham, wartime union development was very patchy and the unions faced a long, hard uphill slog in the postwar years before they could achieve critical mass.

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Above: The Standard Strike of 1956 as seen by the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 30 April.

Wages were undoubtedly higher in Coventry motor firms than they were elsewhere during the 1950s and 60s. Yet the caricature of the greedy Coventry car worker out for all he could get, who worked half as hard as his counterpart in Cowley and yet was more prone to strike, is at best misleading. It may have become useful to the local and national press and politicians, particularly as a way of explaining the decline of engineering in the late seventies, but it does not match the evidence of what was actually happening on the shop-floors in the period of relative prosperity which preceded it. High wages certainly made motor firms magnets of attraction for semi-skilled workers, but against a background of general shortages of engineering labour there was still intensive competition to get these jobs. They were certainly not accessible to allcomers. There were already very definite bars to the entry of women and Indian workers. Those who got into these firms then climbed a ladder of jobs, moving from firm to firm and playing the paid-up union card to secure higher-paid work. On the other hand there were periodic intakes of green labour cutting across this. For example, in 1971 there was a large-scale intake at Ryton which coincided with a slump in the nearby Hinckley hosiery trade. The result was an influx of woollybacks and knickerstitchers into the plant, though there appears to have been little difficulty in their absorption into the industrial relations traditions of the plant. Previous to this, even in the mid-sixties and even in a firm like Jaguar, half the labour force had less than five years service. The fact that there was a loss of managerial control on the shop-floor, does not mean that the converse was true.

The shop steward system under piecework was fraught with inequity, lack of security, constant haggling and divisiveness. The results of sectional, fragmented bargaining were only partly satisfactory for stewards who recognised the bargaining advantages of piecework but were also critical of the system as dog-eat-dog and in the sometimes vicious way it both drove and divided the workforce. One result of the prolonged piecework system was the chaotic and widespread use of differentials with neither a managerial nor a trade union rationality behind them. The unions were able to disrupt the differentials imposed by the management, but could not impose their own. This meant that workers at the same skill grade had widely differing earnings within the same plant as well as the same job receiving different ratings within different plants. While differentials in the American automobile industry had become highly compressed by the 1960s, they remained very wide in the British motor industry. Moreover there was no incentive or natural tendency within the piecework system to change this, and shop stewards were often bargaining to maintain differentials even among semi-skilled workers. Perhaps because the system had become so complex and confused, workers on individual piecework were ready to tolerate surprisingly wide differentials between similar jobs. In fact, stewards had more influence over the internal plant hierarchy of wages than over the absolute levels of earnings of the workforce as a whole. Neither were the stewards very effective in mitigating job insecurity and instability of earnings, except perhaps at the Standard works.

So, exactly how effective was shop floor bargaining in raising earnings and what impact did it have on the economic performance of the firms concerned? Stewards were generally unable to develop broader strategic goals. Much of their bargaining advantage in the shops derived from astute manipulation of custom and practice, but this should not be confused with unilateral regulation of conditions in the workshops. There is a general correspondence between high wages and high levels of shop-floor bargaining, but there is an unresolved question of cause and effect. Standard was the best organised firm in Coventry when it offered the highest wages during its expansion in the late forties and early fifties, but it was still the best organised when its wages fell back towards the district average under the impact of economic decline. Nor did the onset of powerful shop floor bargaining in the motor inustry nationally result in carworkers outstripping the wages of workers in other manufacturing industries.

Workers in Ford, Morris, Austin and Vauxhall were poorly organised until the late 1950s, whereas in Coventry the trades unions had consolidated their position a decade earlier. However, the extension of union organisation to Cowley, Dagenham and Luton plants did not lead to a divergence of earnings in the motor industry compared with other trades. However, whereas earnings in motors were twenty-one per cent higher than the national industrial average in the period 1949-59, rising to only twenty-four per cent between 1959 and 1963, falling back to sixteen per cent from 1964 to 1968, and recovering only slightly to nineteen per cent in 1968-73. Given that motor industry productivity was above average and that union density was growing in the period 1949-63, more quickly than in the manufacturing sector as a whole, this could be an indicator that shop floor bargaining did not have a significant comparative effect on wages. Even in the mid-sixties, the rise in average hourly earnings in motors (19.2%) was below that for engineering as a whole (20%), and marginally below that for chemicals (19.7%). The case that shop-floor bargaining was a major determinant of motor industry wage levels is a weak one.

Certainly, at least on the surface of early sixties’ society, many British people were at last able to experience the affluence that they felt was their due. By 1963, three out of every four households had a vacuum cleaner, one in three had a fridge, and one in five a washing machine. BBC TV had begun in 1936, though it had been suspended during the war. Now it went from strength to strength. In 1955, commercial television began, and by 1959 new transmitters allowed over ninety per cent of the population to receive pictures, by which time three-quarters of the population had a television set, increasing to four-fifths by 1963. In 1962, J. B. Priestley took a critical look at the state of the new medium:

Television here suffers from a false importance… Outside light entertainment, where rewarding reputations can be made, it is nothing as important as programme controllers and producers imagine it to be. One enquiry had already proved that its political influence has been enormously exaggerated. It can make reputations very quickly, but they are not solid reputations, they are easy-come-easy go… The sheer quantity of attention that television receives is of course formidable, but the quality of that attention is dubious. If it were sharper and more demanding, half the stuff – particularly all those empty interviews – would never be tolerated. Most of us – enjoying a smoke after dinner, are content to stare at programmes we would never leave the house and go fifty yards to see. We watch and listen in an idle dream, passing the time digestion takes. No urgency is communicated. We could smile or yawn at scenes of torture or murder. Very little appearing on that tiny screen in the living-room seems quite real, even less of it excitingly significant. There may be something we all watch till our eyes ache – I for one drop all work when Test Matches are being televised – but out of programmes designed to pass everybody’s time painlessly we cannot expect much that will be either urgent or delightful. Really good television, I believe, will begin when we have to pay for something, on the night, to see it. We shall give it a different kind of attention, and demand value for money.

 

Some of Priestey’s criticisms began to be addressed by programmers and programme-makers when, in 1964, BBC2 started, providing more high-brow programmes, and in 1969 colour sets were introduced. Watching television soon became the most popular leisure activity in the country, while cinema audiences declined from twenty-seven million in 1950 to under four million in 1970. For those who preferred more physically healthy activities, ten national parks had been designated between 1951 and 1957, protected fom industrial and commercial development.

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Despite these outward signs of affluence, there were also warning signs of serious weaknesses in the economy as a whole, but especially in manufacturing industries. These were largely ignored by both Conservative and Labour governments until it was too late. By the mid-sixties there were growing government pressures for engineering employers to put their houses in order and to develop more orderly systems of collective bargaining. The Labour Government which was returned in 1964, led by Harold Wilson, was particularly concerned over the inflationary risks of payment by results. However, even the Coventry District Engineering Employers Association (CDEEA) recognised in 1968 that there were advantages in the piecework systems as they allowed management to have a flexible wage system which could readily and unobtrusively be manipulated in order to improve wage levels to attract or retain labour. They also recognised, however, that it was difficult to manipulate them in a controlled fashion. This was mainly due to the fluctuating increases in output and productivity which persisted in the motor industry, partly due to fluctuating and shifting demands, particularly in Coventry’s luxury car markets.

Certainly, the unions’ near obsessive focus on sectional earnings prevented progress on wider issues such as status, overtime pay, holidays, sick pay, pensions and fringe benefits, in other words on longer-term security for the unionised workforce. In addition, the Coventry Tool Room Agreement of 1941, which was introduced to control poaching by employers of essential skilled workers under wartime conditions, or playing the market by the workers themselves, was still operating throughout the factories, holding down the wages of skilled workers by comparison with the semi-skilled pieceworkers. Toolmakers were simply paid the average wage in each factory, but did not have the same opportunity for additional payments. However, both unions and management found the Toolroom rate useful in having a publicly agreed average wage as a pace-setter and bargaining tool for pieceworkers, averting attention away from peak earnings. When the CDEEA considered terminating the agreement in 1965, the argument that it was a stabilising element and a symptom rather than a cause of wage drift led to its retention by the employers, until it was finally scrapped in 1972, when British Leyland threatened to withdraw from the Federation otherwise. It was then, belatedly accepted that its continuation would hamper the wider restructuring of payment systems in the District and there was strong pressure from the Department of Employment and Productivity to get rid of it as an anti-inflationary measure.

The widespread working of weak piecework systems in Coventry was illogical, inelegant and erratic, leading to what the Employers’ Association itself called a wider derogation of managerial control. For over twenty-five years, management paid almost no attention to the need to control the labour process, to the integration of production engineering and workshop organisation, to the flow and scheduling of production in the workshops and to front-line supervision. The role of the foreman had shrunk in status, not least because he was often paid less than the men he supervised. Management had come to believe that it was not worth wasting resources on training shop-floor supervisors. Ford, who had always operated their day-work system had one supervisor for every twenty workers, while at Rootes it was 1:50 and in the mid-sixties the Coventry average was 1:45. However, by the late sixties employers had come to realise that the haphazard operation of loosely controlled incentives were a poor substitute for a properly managed workplace. However, since they had abdicated their roles for so long, they did not realise the range of managerial tasks that they would have to face in replacing piecework. Changing the workplace culture from one of working by incentive to one of coercive practice based on established and maintained norms required specialist personnel, knowledge and training techniques to be put in place. They lacked these at the outset, and it took another decade for them to acquire them, by which time the Coventry motor and engineering industries had already been decimated in terms of employment and seemed to be on a downward spiral of almost terminal decline.

 002

Predictably, in the short-term, the Coventry car companies found themselves unable to get continued sustained effort without incentives. Stewards ceased to attempt to correct production problems as they occurred, or to chase up materials in short supply, and inferior work was allowed to go down the lines since this no longer had any impact on earnings. However, instead of the focus of bargaining being exclusively on pay, it did shift towards effort, conditions and security of earnings. Extra labour was now welcomed on the sections because it eased labour without reducing earnings. Nevertheless, it was only after several years that management began to adapt to the new tasks of maintaining the flow of materials and the continuity and quality of production. Employers also began to integrate their new payments systems with the restructuring of shop-floor organisation and managerial systems and to follow through on quality control.

The elimination of piecework curbed wide variations in wages, but also opened up new patterns of comparability bargaining. For instance, workers at Chrysler’s Linwood plant became to demand the same wage levels as existed at the Ryton plant near Coventry. At the same time, pay differentials became an intense focus of conflict and disputes, especially among craft unions representing skilled workers like the toolmakers, who now re-emerged on the bargaining scene following the abolition of the CTA. In the early seventies these groups were involved in a string of strikes that were disproportionately costly to the numbers involved as they sought to re-establish themselves in the wage tables and achieve status and bargaining rights. The operation of the Labour Government’s wage restraint policy also made it difficult to resolve conflicts, settle disputes and develop more rational pay structures. Nonetheless, the dominance of semi-skilled and unskilled production workers was eroded, partly by the redistributive effects of government incomes policies and equal pay legislation which brought significant catching up by low-paid workers in society as a whole. At the same time, after 1975, vigorous workplace bargaining by skilled workers finally successfully re-established skill differentials and took them to the top of the wages tree.

Even in the recession-hit Coventry car industry of the mid-to-late 1970s, most employers preferred to enhance the authority of senior shop-stewards and convenors in continuingly close bargaining relationships with management, dealing with more hierarchical and centralised shop-steward organisations rather than seeking to abolish them. As a result the scope of bargaining widened, albeit at the cost of more direct shop-floor democracy. This, together with the general atmosphere of economic and political crisis, has helped to channel and control sectional militancy. However, throughout the period from 1952 to 1972, sectional bargaining was always more cooperative and less confrontational than was often portrayed in the media, both at the time and in the period of crises which followed. However, such bargaining techniques were primarily opportunistic, weak on co-ordination and longer-term strategy, and paid little attention to many broader aspects of workers’ lives. It also depended, in most cases, on a weakness of management which could not persist if the industry was to survive in the competitive export market of the last quarter of the century.

 001

Two parties shared between them the government of Britain in the thirty years that followed the second world war. Both had as a prime aim the restoration and expansion of the British economy by restoring and expanding industry and exports. Perhaps we should discount the period of the post-war Labour governments of 1945-51, given the handicaps it faced both in terms of wartime debts and continuing foreign and imperial obligations. Nevertheless, by 1977 both parties had had multiple opportunities in national government to create the conditions for growth in Britain. Both failed, and by the end of the seventies the downward spiral of the British economy was accelerating out of control. The country seemed to be in terminal economic and social decline. In the debate about the conduct of public affairs throughout these years, the focus was on what the government of the day was doing, and on whether what it was doing was right or wrong for the economy. This shows how government policy and action had become central to the management and direction of the economy, even though many industrialists deplored or sought to evade this development.

P. Calvocoressi, writing at the end of this period and just before the accession of Margaret Thatcher, and taking a long view of the British economy to 1975, saw the failure of successive governments as the result of their unwillingness to dismantle the mixed economy of private and public sectors:

Every government acted within the established system. None tried radically to change it. This system was and remained a capitalist system. Labour governments made significant changes in emphasis with the system by acts of nationalisation which diminished the area of private capitalism and extended the public sector, but there had long been these two sectors and both were and remained capitalist in structure and operation. The mixed economy… was mixed in different proportions… All governments accepted an obligation to contribute positively to the prosperity of both sectors… governments provided money or facilitated credit, and with this money private and nationalised businesses would invest, modernise and grow. At the same time… governments of both colours also saw it as part of their job to intervene in economic affairs to keep wages in check, whether by bargaining with the unions or by subsidising the cost of living by law… Government intervention of this nature was inflationary… A modern democratic capitalist economy is based on inflation, and in these years the wherewithal for recovery and expansion was provided to a significant degree by government…

 

Failures in economic policy led to criticism not only of the policies of successive governments, but also of the role of Government in the economy. Whilst there had been arguments within governments over the right means to stimulate the mixed capitalist economy, no-one had sought to deny that this was governments ought to be doing. Still less had they questioned the existence of the mixed economy. However, the failure of this economy to expand led to serious questions about its viability. In the sixties, before Bogdanor and Skidelsky wrote The Age of Affluence in 1970, it was usual to look back at the fifties as an age of prosperity and achievement. This was certainly the verdict of the electorate in 1959 who returned a Conservative Government to power for a third term in succession, with a handsome majority. However, by the seventies it was being reflected on by the above historians as:

an age of illusion, of missed opportunities, with Macmillan as the magician whose wonderful act kept us too long distanced from reality… what has altered the verdict on the 1950s has been the experience of the troubles of the 1960s, which stem in part at least from the neglect of the earlier decade. Already by 1964 the appeal of the slogan ’Thirteen Wasted Years’ was strong enough to give Labour a tiny minority; in the years following it has been confirmed almost as the conventional wisdom… perhaps the period of Conservative rule will be looked upon as the period of quiet before the storm, rather like the Edwardian age which in many ways it resembles. In that case its tranquility will come to be valued more highly than its omissions.

 

In his book The Affluent Society (1958), J K Galbraith had intended to sketch an outline of a developed society which had in large part solved the problem of production and could therefore concentrate its energies on other things, including the more even and fairer distribution of the wealth it created. The class struggle in such a society would be obselete and so also the ideologies which propped it up. Politics would no longer be about general choices but about incremental changes. Uncritical transference of Galbraith’s thesis into the British context helped obscure the fact that Britain had not, in fact, solved its production problems. While the optimism of the early 1950s was understandable, the production boom at that time was largely built on random, temporary circumstances. From 1955, the British was bedevilled by a series of sterling crises which gradually forced the politicians to pay attention to difficult structural problems they wished to avoid. From the early seventies onwards it became possible to see that the years 1952-64 were neither a period of continuous and uninterrupted expansion as the Conservatives pretended, nor the Thirteen Wasted Years of Labour propaganda.

As the Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, commented in 1962, Britain had lost its empire and now needed to find its role. Macmillan was slow to see that that role was not to be found in its special relationship with the United States, which, without the Empire, was bound to become more and more unequal, if there was ever any real equity in it, but in relation to the changes occuring within Europe. In economics, as in foreign policy, consensus reigned supreme, signifying the common political ground over the mixed economy and the Welfare State. It humanised and civilised the adversarial political system in Britain and ensured its emancipation from the ghosts of the past; unfortunately, as Bogdanor and Skidelsky pointed out, it also imposed a moratorium on the raising of new and vital issues, because it was based on traditional assumptions about Britain’s political and economic role in the world. The need to make real political, maco-economic choices was submerged under a generalised commitment to the objective of economic growth, without an effective strategy with which to bring this about. The Conservatives became convinced that…

capitalism could provide affluence for the working class while at the same time preserving the gains of the well-to-do… Consensus was the natural product of a lessening class antagonism, which in turn reflected a seeming trend towards embourgeoisement… Indeed, one of the striking characteristics of the 1950s was the absence of any major intellectual challenge to the dominant political assumptions…

 

Certainly, there was no-one of George Orwell’s stature to provide such a challenge, following his death in 1950. Writing in the year after Calvocoressi, on the cusp of the Thatcher era, Sked and Cook agreed that, on the surface, the thirteen years of Tory rule appear to have been successful ones. Great Britain still behaved as a world power internationally, while at home people experienced the affluent society and were told that they had never had it so good. They felt that they had earned the right to take things easy for a while and to take full advantage of Mr Macmillan’s hire-purchase society. In reality, as far as fiscal and economic policy was concerned, the Tories did little with their long period in power. Cushioned by the turn in the terms and balance of trade, largely the achievement of, if anyone, Stafford Cripps in the previous Labour government, they abolished rationing, reduced taxes and manipulated budgets, but they gave little impression of knowing how the economy really worked. Scant attention was paid to sluggish growth or to the long-term challenge posed by the resurgent economies of West Germany and Japan. Industrial relations were treated with an us and them managerial attitude and any thought given to the inflationary problems created by prosperity was little and late. Most of the time their energy was devoted, as in the Suez Crisis of 1956, to maintaining Britain as a world power whatever the cost to the economy. Sked and Cook concluded that:

Tory economic complacency ensured that the necessary economic growth would never be generated. Not enough money was channelled into key industries; stop-go policies undermined the confidence of industry to invest in the long-term; too much money was allowed to be exported abroad; and too much money was spent on defence… With the economic crises of the early 1960s… it began to be apparent that Tory affluence would soon come to and end…

 

It may have been the case that in 1957 a large slice of British society had indeed never had it so good. But this was hardly due to Conservative fiscal and economic policy, and may even be said to have happened in spite of it. Certainly, those policies, together with its continuing expenditure on defence and foreign policy in the face of economic and political realities, combined to ensure that, after 1963-4, the British people would never have it so good again.

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