THE uncertainty that is so characteristic of Great Britain today has some obvious contributory causes. This is a country in a totally new situation with quite new problems and almost a new population, but organized by, and now courted by, traditional political parties with largely traditional ideas.
Remarkable demonstrations of this uncertainty have been given by the opinion polls. Of two polls taken in the same week and published almost the same day, one recently claimed to show the Tories having picked up almost level with Labor, while the other reported an increasing Labor lead and a seventeen and a half percent gap between the parties. A Labor win was then forecast by both in the by-election at Devizes; but in the actual vote the Tories won comfortably.
The average swing to Labor shown by local government elections and by-elections would if sustained be sufficient to give the Labor Party a majority of eighty in Parliament next October. But the average and the actual are rarely the same thing, and the Tories have shown that, in certain circumstances, they can indeed win again, although if they do in October, the victory will almost certainly be very close. The Liberal Party, which rose to great activity on a wave of hope after the “middle-class revolt” gave it such a convincing win at Orpington, has faded badly.
Among the middle classes, particularly among the scientists and professional men, from whose ranks many hundreds every year are leaving for the United States and Canada, the most frequent political statement one encounters is this: ”I hate the idea of a Labor Government, but this present lot just can’t be allowed to go on.”
What the voters seem to have against the Labor Party is its lack of front-rank talent, as well as its excess of political dogma from the past. The two strikes called against the present government of Sir Alec Douglas-Home are its perpetuation of privilege in both politics and economics. To many of those who think about these things there seems little in either orthodox socialism or traditional conservatism that can cope with the new problems or develop the new situations that face the country.
The major insolubles
1. The inequality of wealth. This is both personal and regional — personal in that with no long-term capital gains tax at all, landowners and family industrial tycoons are inordinately privileged; regional in that with every hundred miles more in distance from London, an extra one percent is added to the unemployment figures.
2. A population explosion which is going to crowd this already crowded island even more, particularly London and southeast England. England itself may have an additional 12 million to 18 million people before the year 2000.
3. The interaction of these two forces. The impact of the population explosion on the value of land for city building, for instance, hardly needs further comment. And the inequality of employment opportunities as between north and south during such a population growth will also have equally obvious repercussions.
As for the new situations that face Britain, probably the two most important are these: the loosening of the ties between Britain and the “white Commonwealth,” particularly Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; and the economic division of Western Europe. This, still-divided Europe has an increasingly strong pull for Britain.
But a third new situation must not be underestimated. This is the development of a prosperous, leisured, urban society of great size for such a confined space. How can the two-car family live a civilized life in a place where almost twice the population of Australia is crowded, with its cars and leisure, into an area in southeast England about the size of Los Angeles County?
Labor’s bid for a reform policy
Naturally enough in this context, Harold Wilson, the Labor leader, is plugging away at his task of presenting a sound, commonsense, scientific, and socially responsible program. His chief lieutenant, George Brown, presents an image varying between the very good and the appalling. The new man in the top echelon is the “shadow Foreign Secretary,” Patrick Gordon Walker, whose reputation is growing.
Clearly, socialism in the Marxist sense is almost totally irrelevant to the new situation, for there are no socialist remedies for the difficulties of prosperity. The party under Wilson is therefore inevitably becoming reformist instead of socialist.
Its major proposal on the home front so far is control and possible government purchase of urban land for building. In Britain’s circumstances, however, this smacks more of Henry George than of Karl Marx. Today the growth of a new, rich, dynamic, and ever more crowded Britain is piling up unearned and so far untapped land values on a quite unprecedented scale.
For solving the problem of regional unemployment the Labor Party has little new to offer, except the threat of direct control of industrial development. The trouble is — and this is true for both parties — that regional political devolution is probably a necessary element of the cure. But the traditional policies of one party propose instead increased centralism, and those of the other continued rule from Whitehall.
On the foreign front, Labor offers a closer nuclear partnership with the United States and the hope of a new and closer partnership with the developing part of the Commonwealth. But its attitude both to the “white Commonwealth” and to Europe is ambivalent. Yet Britain’s changing relationships with these two circles of influence could have a bigger impact on the future than anything else.
The Tory leaders
Sir Alec Douglas-Home has done nobly for his party. When he speaks on foreign affairs he is commanding. But he is not himself a product of the modern age. And when he speaks on home affairs and on economics, he seems lost. In these days you do not automatically become a commoner, it seems, merely by giving up an earldom.
Reginald Maudling was a contender for Sir Alec’s job. But, although his economic touch is expert to a degree — in fact, his reading of the state of the nation has proved every time a great deal closer to the truth than the opinions of his own Treasury expert — he has shown a disappointing lack of command. He has the air of a man who sleeps soundly and dreams no dreams.
In the office of the Spectator, the Tory rebel Iain Macleod builds himself a sort of ark against the expected deluge, but observers have no very strong conviction it will float. Edward Heath, bustling from conference to conference, competent and (although a lonely man) companionable, collects slowly an increasing number of supporters.
In trade negotiations Heath is in his element. And this is possibly the element that is going to count for most in the immediate future. For, as has been seen already, Britain is entering an entirely new economic situation. Its trade relationships are changing. And, because across the Channel President de Gaulle is using trade relationships for strictly political purposes, what was once largely only of economic import now has unusual political and diplomatic implications as well.
De Gaulle’s Europe
This spring Britain’s share of Australia’s trade fell to its lowest level in the whole of that subcontinent’s history. This appears to reflect a natural and inevitable trend. Both Australia and New Zealand now are strongly influenced by the United States and by the Pacific area of which they are a part. Britain itself, while a large and prosperous market still offering virtually free entry to Australian and New Zealand goods, is no longer large enough on its own to take the lion’s share of the produce of such rapidly expanding countries.
At the same time, Britain is pulled more and more toward Europe. Great passions can still be stirred in London by debating the question whether or not Britain ought to join Europe. But the simple facts are these: Europe has become Britain’s greatest market; Europe is its nearest market; Europe is its most profitable market. But Europe is divided, into the Common Market (the European Economic Community) and EFTA (the European Free Trade Association).
Each of these groups by 1967 will be a free-trade area on its own. But, unless something is done, by that time tariffs between the two areas will be seriously detrimental to the growth of all. Neither is viable alone, and each is actually dependent upon the markets of the other.
Thus the question for Britain is not whether to “join Europe” or not. It is whether to join De Gaulle’s Europe or hope instead itself to create a “Europe of the Atlantic,” a fully united Europe that, in President Kennedy’s phrase, is interdependent with the United States. De Gaulle’s Europe, as everybody knows by now, is one based strictly upon France and its five Common Market partners, and would maintain its independence.
A new try at Geneva
At Geneva, during the summer trade talks, where everything was brought down to initials—UDC’s being Underdeveloped Countries, MFN being Most Favored Nation treatment, and so on — De Gaulle became known as TFL, Third Force Leader. De Gaulle, in fact, believes that unity is so essential to Europe that in the end, all, including Britain, will have to capitulate to his “independent and equal” concept and to join together on his terms.
Britain’s effort to join the Common Market may be viewed as a first try at uniting Europe on its own and America’s terms. For all of EFTA would have had to be included in the deal. This was blocked. Now the first part of a second British campaign to achieve a fully united Europe is centered on maximum support for the Kennedy Round of trade talks in G.A.T.T. It is less likely that De Gaulle can foil that. Unity may be so essential that it will be the General who will have to climb down this time.
The practical impact of a tariff division within Europe may be assessed by these facts: In 1961 Britain’s exports to the Common Market rose by 18 percent, in 1962 by 17 percent, in 1963 by 13 percent, and this year so far by about 8 percent. But they have in fact stopped rising now. Tariffs are already taking hold. The only immediate way to lessen the division and get pan-European trade moving again seems to be by achieving the Kennedy ideal of an across-the-board tariff cut of close to 50 percent.
Thus, for its own reasons, as well as out of traditional friendship, Britain, along with its EFTA partners, is the strongest supporter of the United States in G.A.T.T. Heath himself, in spite of his experience in Brussels when Britain’s entry in the Common Market was vetoed by France, believes that some kind of agreement will be achieved in G.A.T.T. He thinks, however, that the timetable calling for a package deal by next spring, with tariff cuts to begin on January 1, 1966, is probably optimistic.
This is the timetable to which the United States has had to reconcile itself in its effort to outwit De Gaulle. But there is a very strong case for supposing that something more will be found necessary in the way of American-British initiative before 1966 if the Atlantic alliance is to be kept firmly together.
In spite of all the attention that is currently focused in Britain on new trade possibilities with the Soviet bloc, and in America on Britain’s trade with Cuba in buses, this area would seem to be the most fruitful for significant action in the coming year. A new administration in the United Kingdom, as in the United States, will immediately have to consider it. Yet almost none of this finds reflection yet in the platforms that the two major political parties are building for the autumn election. And in the same way, the major problem of the growth of southeast England has attracted almost no political thought either.
London spills out
The Planning Conference for the London Region recently issued a forecast that commuter traffic alone is likely to grow at such a pace that, unless dramatic steps are taken to cope with it, “civilized life as we understand it” may be destroyed. This conference consists of local authority representatives from London and its surrounding counties.
By 1980 the number of people seeking to commute by train from outside London is likely to be doubled. Car traffic may be trebled. The London commuting area, which now has around 12 million people in it, may have to accommodate another 2 million even before 1970 and perhaps double that number extra by 1980.
Present plans aim to spread London out somewhat haphazardly over the countryside, with three new big cities and twelve new or expanded towns and fifty expanded suburbs within the area to the east of a line from the Wash to the Isle of Wight.
But is this anything like the correct answer? A lone voice for building high within the present London area, and for developing a metropolis rather on space-fiction lines, is that of Sir Geoffrey Crowther, under whose editorship the Economist gained its greatest modern fame.
The alternative to building high would seem to be to plan for an urban-parkland area covering the larger part of the southeast, built flat and with its many almost self-sufficient components separated by national parks, artificial lakes, and “recreational landscapes.” The economic viability of such a concept, however, would require an enormous road building program too. It is in construction that the bottleneck in Britain’s booming economy is likely to appear anyway, whichever plan is adopted and whatever the political complexion of the next government.
These are the “real” as opposed to the “political” problems of the day as Britons themselves begin to see them, a state of affairs which accounts sufficiently perhaps for the British mood of uncertainty. Neither political party is talking much yet about the real problems of Britain, 1965, at least as the voters themselves see and feel them.