THE recent British Parliament, running its full legal course almost to the very last day. was the longest of modern times. And it was the third Tory-dominated Parliament in succession. The three combined provided Britain with the longest period of uninterrupted rule by the same party for more than 130 years. The thirteen years have used up four Prime Ministers. They have gone through three hundred other ministers. R. A. Butler has been the only cabinet minister to have held office throughout.
To many observers Sir Alec Douglas-Home, formerly the fourteenth Earl of Home, represents, as it were, the final grace notes of the long fanfare of aristocratic rule. “It is the end of the Establishment” is the comment, for instance, of a business leader, Avison Wormald. deputy chairman of Associated Fisheries. He acknowledged that something remains of the Establishment’s prestige and power in the law, Lloyd’s, the Bank of England, and the great financial houses and brokerage firms. But, he said, “New forces have arisen, such as Warburgs, the foreign banks . . . and American brokers.” His comment indicates how the whole context of the times has changed in Britain.
But some things have happened that improve the chances of the Conservatives: the natural narrowing of the gap between the parties as the day of actual choice comes near; the nomination of Senator Goldwater in the United States; the confrontation in Vietnam; the gradual public awareness that Soviet Russia, for all its rapid statistical and technical growth, has not yet solved even the first real puzzles of prosperity.
A Labor victory would inevitably bring profound changes, to Anglo-American relations, to the Atlantic alliance, to nuclear policy, to defense, to relations with Russia, to economic policy, and even to trade.
Yet the British Labor Party itself has also changed. It may still open the most sacred of its meetings by singing the “Red Flag.” It may have refused to delete Clause Four — nationalization of all the means of production, distribution, and exchange— from its constitution. It may still include good old-fashioned rabble-rousing socialists like Ted Hill of the Boilermakers, and good newfashioned clinical socialists like Frank Cousins of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. However, the Labor Party can no longer be considered a socialist party in the Soviet sense. It no longer has much reason to be anti-American.
Socialists on the Swedish pattern
The new leaders — Wilson. Brown, Callaghan, Healey, Crossman, Stewart, Gordon Walker seem now to have developed into socialists on the Swedish pattern. And with the emergence of the European Tree Trade Association as a going concern. Britain and Sweden are constantly being brought closer together. Indeed, Harold Wilson agrees that he got much more out of his visit to Sweden than out of his visit to Moscow, although the public got more out of the latter, for it disclosed Mr. Wilson as a man of some influence even when in opposition.
An attraction of Sweden is that since 1935 there have been only two major labor conflicts. In a normal year fewer than one hundred trade unionists are involved there in strikes. And. while Britain has been a country of almost permanent conservatism, Sweden these many years has been a land of permanent monarchical socialism. The basis of labor peace in Sweden is the accepted sanctity of freely negotiated contracts, guarded by labor courts of three unionists, three employers, two jurists, and a professional judge.
In Britain, with Labor’s annual conference canceled because of the timing of the election, the Trades Union Congress had to make much of the early running. And it was noticeable how the September TUC meeting at Blackpool was more workmanlike and less aggressively left-wing than usual. .Nationalization figured only in resolutions proposed by minor unions and was confined to their areas of special interest. Only one motion was proposed attacking wage restraint. Several sought instead to deal in a practical fashion with the question of an “incomes policy,” now the accepted euphemism for wage restraint. Even Ted Hill’s Boilermakers called only for the establishment of the thirty-fivehour week but otherwise pledged themselves, and the conference, simply to “do everything possible to ensure an electoral victory for the Labour Party at the forthcoming general election.”
A sound, modern economy
Basically, both the Conservative Party and the Labor Party are fighting on the same platform modernization, England now is a country with a car in every garage, and often one under a carport too, and it is first the quality of prosperity that needs to be improved and then its chances of continuous expansion.
The ebb and flow of the market economy meanwhile has brought the Conservative Party very close to the familiar situation where, since expansion may have been going too fast, die monetary brake will have to be applied quite sharply. This knowledge is naturally of great electoral advantage to Labor, whose promise of a planned balance of trade has a sound and simple look.
A Labor victory would certainly add to those forces in the world that are making for the end of the postwar “free trade era.” Planned imports mean controlled imports. Controlled imports and free trade cannot easily be reconciled. Already, the Kennedy Round has run into serious trouble. Europe will not give up protectionism in agriculture. De Gaulle will not allow either a merger of the Common Market with EFTA or the development of an Atlantic zone of mutually liberalized trade. And the idea of controlling imports by means other than tariffs — by taxes and by Selective credit regulations — gains ground in a number of countries, Italy being one prominent example.
But for Britain, and thus for both parties equally, it is exports, not imports. that are crucial. Expansion in Britain automatically brings in more imports (of raw materials first, then of machine tools, and finally, with prosperity, of consumer goods), but expansion does not automatically sell more exports. With reserves that by a wide margin do not match the external liabilities, Britain, banker to the whole sterling area, must in the long run maintain a substantial payments surplus if it is to attain steady growth.
The export expansion
Britain actually has never been a great exporter. It has been instead always a great importer. And, if Britain acquired a vast empire in a fit of absence of mind, it acquired vast trade overseas in the same way. It ran, and for a long time built, most of the world’s shipping. Its engineers built the railroads that “connected the coast with the interior” and made Britain’s importing possible. Its coal powered half the young industrialized world. Its cloth provided covering for millions of workers on hundreds of plantations. And as the world gradually changed, and traditional trades declined, and socialists and “rebels” nationalized British railway lines and other capital assets in distant parts, Britain’s gold for a long time kept the nation solvent even with a continuing and growing deficit of trade.
So, exporting is a new business for Britain, and one for which its past has not prepared it. It may seem odd to recall now that only ten years ago Britain was all set up to export cars without heaters to cold climates, but it is a fact. In Britain’s current situation it is an illustrative fact of quite considerable significance.
For the key to the expansion of exports must lie in a rapid and substantial improvement in the competitive efficiency of British industry, and in particular of British private industry. Increased and improved private investment, improved salesmanship and technology are also crucial. This is by no means a traditional socialist recipe for growth. But it is a necessity.
This necessity helps shape the platforms of both the major parties. Both will seek trade wherever it is possible; in the Soviet Union, for instance, where, in spite of all the publicity for the sale to Russia of whole chemical plants. British trade has for a long time been virtually static. Both, however, must stress investment. competition, efficiency, technology, education, as the major components of their own “expansive society.”
Parties of the Commonwealth
Both parties also have become parties of the Commonwealth. A very diiferent atmosphere prevailed when Sir Alee met the Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London in July to that which existed when Macmillan met them in September, 1962. to explain the probable effects upon them of Britain’s intended entry into the Common Market. Conservatives and socialists alike now see the Commonwealth providing Britain with a new role in the world, as first among equals in an effective multiracial international grouping.
Inevitably, events in the United States have tended to magnify the possibilities that Britons see in the development of this role. President Nkrumah of Ghana shrewdly remarked recently that “the former colonialists” now begin to need the masses in the underdeveloped world not so much to exploit their labor as to take advantage of their purchasing power. Trade, which once followed the flag, may in future follow the affections, or emotions, and Britain’s good multiracial record may even help balance its payments.
The price of land
Both parties are coming close together even on the question of the rising price of land. Sir Alec is one of the great landowners of Britain, but his government has had to admit that the day of the landowner is over, at least in its traditional sense. As Britain becomes more crowded, as towns spread out, industry is dispersed, and the network of superhighways grows, enormous untaxed fortunes are made by individuals, often purely by chance.
The Labor Party would nationalize what it calls “development land.” Some independents call for the abolition of the whole concept of freehold and the substitution everywhere of the very British system of leasehold. Henry George’s single tax idea comes back into the news. And the Tories play with the idea of taxing perhaps one half of any increase in land value brought about by town planning decisions or the mere expansion of the population.
This brings both parties again to a wider and more urgent consideration of reform of the tax system as a whole. Whatever happens, capital gains cannot much longer go untaxed. Taxes on incomes are likely to become proportionately lighter, and those on spending proportionately higher.
For a long time Labor campaigned against the removal by Selwyn Lloyd of the “surtax” on earned incomes above £2000 and below £5000. This brought quite small earners into the upper tax brackets. But at this point, with education and science stressed, penal taxation of earnings can serve only to accelerate the “brain drain" to America and Australia. The familiar and traditional Labor prejudice against large incomes is disappearing fast, provided the incomes are earned.
A new figure in London is “the thousand a year bus driver.” Twenty-five years ago “a thousand a year” (then $4000) was the round sum of affluence, and although the same money is worth only $2800 today, the phrase still has enough evocative power to underline the wide sweep of the prosperity that Britain is enjoying.
Thus the effective political differences between the major parties are narrowed down to somewhat vague concepts of “planning” and “freedom” and to the pros and cons of an extension of the welfare state.
It used to be said that the majority of Britons are liberals who find themselves forced to vote either Labor or Conservative to form a government. For that little while in 1962, with the Tories excessively Tory in the Establishment sense and Labor aggressively socialist in almost a Soviet sense, it looked as if it were actually at last more practical to vote Liberal. But the day of the Establishment is about over, and that of British Marxism too, and the brief surge of the Liberal Party has ended. The voter again turns to a choice of Labor or Conservative. But this time each is a new party.