ONE sharp spring morning three workmen came down Northumberland Avenue from Trafalgar Square, erected on the sidewalk a green canvas screen that hid them from the gaze of passers-by, then chipped and chiseled away the name stone across the portals of the Royal Empire Society. The next day they inserted in its place a new name stone. It bears the legend: “Royal Commonwealth Society.” Today it stands out, a single square of white limestone against the dark face of the building. A touch of color runs on either hand below on a long line of recently scrubbed stones, the obstinate remains of another legend daubed in red paint the night after Queen Elizabeth had signed the royal warrant authorizing the change of name: “Royal Scuttle Society. Colonies for Sale, Apply Within.”
The midnight painters were reputedly members of the die-hard League of Empire Loyalists. But it is inside the society, in daylight, that one sees perhaps the real loyalists. They are dignified gray-haired gentlemen and ladies, Fellows of the Society, to whom empire is not and never was a naughty word. And now they take their afternoon tea in the Australian Room and attend lectures on bird watching, archaeology, and foreign policy in the hall in amicable company with the new Fellows to whom empire is and always has been anathema — the visitors and residents from Ghana, Nigeria, India, Malaya, and other tropical places East and West.
The British are realists. More than the simple change of name and status, as in this case, it is the resolute acceptance of change, even painful change, that marks the new Great Britain. Step by step, out of the past right up to Egypt, Cyprus, and the Rhodesias and Nyasaland in the present, the British have climbed to the point where almost all that was imperial has become international, and consequently much that was internal politics has become foreign policy. The old problems now begin to look different from the new angle — police actions seem like little wars and security looks a great deal like repression — but they seem no less urgent.
This explains one crucial problem that has been much on Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s mind. Should the old rule now be tested, and perhaps disproved, that no British election is ever won or much influenced by foreign policy?
Timing the election
Returning from Moscow, and later from Paris, Bonn, and Washington, Macmillan was pressed from several sides to nominate May for an election rather than October. Lord Beaverbrook was back in England, and “the Beaver” went to work at once. His Daily Express published polls showing that 60 per cent of the electorate thought Macmillan’s mission to Moscow successful and that a majority would now vote for him. Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard said that “the strongest argument against going to the country in May — the international situation — is rapidly becoming the most powerful one in favor of such a move.”
The Labor Party’s policy on Germany seems to have been formulated to hold the party, rather than the nation, together. It is a policy of “major disengagement”: an immediate end to nuclear tests, the thinning of forces near the East-West frontier, international control of those forces, some form of German reunification, and the establishment of a neutral zone at the center of Europe.
The public might think all this too close to Khrushchev for comfort. But then it might not. Nobody could tell without a test. It has been on his own judgment of this unknown factor that Macmillan has had to make his most crucial decision. Will his energetic Summit-hopping, coupled with a timely expansionist budget, bring his voters to the polls in full measure? Or will home affairs, particularly unemployment, always remain the decisive issue?
Labor goes ahead
Ever since winter, the unemployment figures have urged Macmillan to wait. The most striking political fact of the winter was the loss by the Tory Government of its considerable lead in public favor, so that the two main parties again began to run neck and neck, with Labor perhaps leading by a nose. Previously there seemed to be a great deal in Macmillan’s favor: the pound sterling was strong, the price level stable, austerity dismissed, and Cyprus settled.
At the turn of the year the Tories were running four points ahead of Labor. A big Tory election win seemed such a certainty that socialists like Paul Johnson, in the New Statesman, talked about its requiring “an unforeseen national catastrophe” to shift Macmillan.
Then abruptly, released perhaps by the unemployment figures, the pendulum swung the other way, erasing the Tory lead and reminding Macmillan that no Tory Government in this century has won three elections in a row, as his will have to do to stay in office.
The pound may be strong, trade may be in surplus, the budget may be generous, skyscrapers may be rising in a gay and buoyant London, but production has been static for three years. It seems at last to be picking up slowly. But employment is picking up more slowly still. In England unemployment is 2.5 per cent; in Scotland it is 4.8; in Northern Ireland it is 9 per cent.
On top of this, if world trade gets back to normal and primary prices rise a little again, it is feared that they will uncover a hidden guilt. Wages have risen 4 per cent on top of the previous year’s 6 per cent increase, without any compensating rise in output in either year. A firm basis has been laid for expecting a new inflation. A generous budget was built on that base by setting free more spending money.
So it may be not only unemployment that bothers the public. It could also be an unconscious judgment that the real threat of Communism will not issue from Berlin but from the ability of the Soviet Union and China to achieve steady economic expansion without continuous inflation (even though it is accomplished at the cost of liberty). No Western government can yet answer this threat, nor can either British political party.
How much tax relief?
The dilemma of Heathcoat Amory as he prepared the April budget typified the wider dilemma of all the West. On the current account, excluding capital spending, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had a total tax surplus of $1 billion. Britain needed a shot in the arm. Business interests urged him to give maximum relief now to an impatient nation whose income tax rate had not fallen below 42 per cent since the last war. Anyone who earns more than $6000 a year has to pay an additional supertax and, on top of that, new automobiles carry a 60 per cent sales tax.
The unions urged instead that the widest relief be given the lowest end of the scale, in the form of increased exemptions, increased pensions, and removal of purchase taxes and the tax on house ownership. If wage earners are ready to accept pay increases this way in 1959 instead of through new wage claims, the danger of inflation is much reduced.
Hugh Gaitskell offers money for homeowners, money to nationalize rented houses, for more schools, more hospitals, higher pensions, higher wages, full employment, and greater security. The effects of the consequent inflation would be kept in check by one or two minor controls, notably exchange control.
The support the Tories lost in the winter has obstinately failed to rally to the socialist cause, and it may be that public suspicion of inflation has so far kept Labor’s program from being popular.
One alternative explanation, however, is that the Labor Party is growing old. It has disbanded its League of Youth. It inspires few young revolutionaries. Indeed, those young socialists who still look forward in anger are very close to total desertion from the party.
The betrayed young men
What proportion of the 2.5 million new electors who have come of age since the last election is sympathetic to the Labor Party is unknown. There is no doubt that a new revolutionary group is growing up, without form or organization, without policy, but at least with a great deal of feeling. Its first political groupmemory is that of 1945, when the vague but painful idealism and comradeship of war, fused by sacrifice, put into the election an unprecedented fire. The fire went out afterward. “John Bull died at Dunkirk,” writes Norman Mackenzie, “and his place has been taken by Archie Rice [the hero of John Osborne’s The Entertainer], well intentioned, incompetent, and desperately bored.”
Their own type-figure is more nearly Jimmy Porter of Look Back in Anger. The young leftists are articulate, fierce, powerless, and betrayed. They have been betrayed even by Marxism. For what is the Communist goal? “To overtake America.” In what? In equality? In liberty? In brotherhood? No, comrade, in production. The acquisitive state is to be overtaken by one more acquisitive.
To these intellectuals the politics of Gaitskell is “blatant opportunism.” Paul Johnson even seriously debates whether the intellectuals should help Gaitskell in the next election. He finds one lonely reason to do so: the possibility of “a true anti-colonial initiative” from a Labor Britain. To him it is only in the international scene that Labor politics has any relevance.
The young socialists want “a radical new departure in foreign affairs, seriously and simply aimed to create a better world.” As to home affairs, they demand “equality,” “classlessness,” “public ownership of capital, yes, but the distribution of decisionmaking throughout industry and society.”
A ear in every family
The man in the street is also in favor of virtue. But on a day-to-day basis his wants are less political and more simple. If he has a job, then first of all he wants an automobile. Prime Minister Macmillan mentioned on the Moscow TV that one British family in three has a car already. It will not be long before every family has one. More than half a million new cars have come on the road in twelve months. This is the astonishing and significant fact: even during a recession automobiles have been increasing steadily in numbers by 10 per cent a year.
Fewer and fewer people are traveling by those splendid great galleons among buses, the red London twodeckers. There have even been mutinies down in the tube, where sturdy individualists among the passengers, resenting the exercise of petty and arbitrary authority underground, have staged sit-down strikes inside trains and threatened the subway system with chaos. Britons would rather use their cars.
This was never anticipated by any government and could soon give rise to a new major political issue. Britain’s roads are inadequate. The public wants the situation remedied.
The Preston Bypass, Britain’s first and only superhighway, which is but eight and a half miles long, was opened personally by Macmillan. Five major roads are planned. Work has begun on three of them leading into the industrial midlands. Spending on roads in 1958 was £l2 million and made Britain “bottom of the league” in Europe. This year it is to be pushed up to £40 million; in 1962 it is to be £60 million.
This sounds better. And yet motorists, as motorists, pay not £40 million but £400 million a year in excise, gas, and sales tax. They are beginning to demand value for money, If this demand is granted, fresh money will have to be raised. The motorists’ money pays for the National Health Service. Who then is going to pay for the roads?
But of course in so tight a little island as this, building roads not only takes money, it also takes room. Britain already has two miles of road to every square mile of territory, most of them the twisting leafy lanes that 1.25 million visitors come especially to see in the summer.
Yet there have to be new motor roads, for already there is one vehicle to every thirty-five yards of road. In ten years’ time there could be one to every fifteen yards. Plans have nowbeen passed for the first two-decker road from Chiswick out toward the west. It may be that new freeways will have to be built over railroads.
The vicious traffic circle
As far as London is concerned, besides lack of money what most hinders the replanning of traffic on modern lines is the fact that there are 108 different highway authorities in Greater London, In addition to these 108 local authorities, any traffic matter also concerns the Minister of Transport, Scotland Yard, the London County Council, and, possibly, the Stopping Places Advisory Committee, too. No single group or person among them exercises the full responsibility even for making the best use of existing streets, let alone for planning new routes.
The realistic answer, recommended by a royal commission, is the establishment of a new, single, powerful, and independent executive authority to concern itself solely with London’s road traffic. This recommendation is being fought by local governments as “a root and branch attack on local democracy.”
It is no wonder that others cast around for more radical solutions. Ian Nairn, in the Spectator, urges Britain to forget about new roads, to leave the automobile to stew in its own jam, and to concentrate instead all possible scientific and engineering effort on producing “new patterns of personal transport which take up no more room than a man himself.”But London is in no such escapist mood. It is unthinkable. Londoners as 8.5 million butterflies? There must be a more realI istic solution than that.