Britain Down the Drain?


The Future That Doesn't Work, by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. 1977. 208 pp. $6.95.

Britain: A Future That Works, by Bernard D. Nossiter, Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1978. 275 pp. $9.95.

1985, by Anthony Burgess, Boston: Little, Brown. 1978. 272 pp. $8.95.

The Coming Confrontation: Will the Open Society Survive to 1989?, edited by Ralph Harris and Anthony Seldon, London: Institute for Economic Affairs. 1978. 250 pp. $8.50 paper.

Right Turn, edited by Patrick Cormack, London: Leo Cooper. 1978. 104 pp. £3.95/£1.95.

"Social democracy's failure in Britain" is the subtitle of the first of these books. The aim of the editor—who is also editor of that lively conservative journal the American Spectator—is to present the post-World War II British experience as an object lesson. It is a most important and worthwhile aim. In an earlier and better period, one of the greatest of our prime ministers hoped that, when England had saved herself by her exertions, she might proceed to save others, too, by her example. In these days of our national decadence, the saving example has to be not an inspiration but a warning. It is as contributions to the fulfillment of Tyrrell's salutary and constructive aim that I shall review all five works.

The Future That Doesn't Work consists of ten contributions, including the editor's introduction; five contributors are Americans and five British. Most of this is pretty good stuff. Yet the fact that much of it had previously appeared in print elsewhere made it even more necessary than usual with such multiauthor books to shape at least the semblance of a team performance by strong, knowledgeable, and industrious editing.

Emmett Tyrrell here is instead feeble, perfunctory, and—at a guess—ill-informed. He does nothing to standardize usage of key terms nor, failing that, to diminish consequent confusion by indicating and annotating discrepancies. Where we need a substantial introduction to pull the various other contributions together and to fill the major gaps they happen to have left, all we get is a four-page fragment.

It is significant and typical, though in itself quite unimportant, that no explanation of the allusion in the title is provided anywhere. It is to a once notorious remark made with shining eyes by the veteran American radical Lincoln Steffens, on his return from a first pilgrimage to the USSR: "I have seen the future, and it works!"


What does matter is the failure to provide, and to stick with, clear and definite meanings for the terms social democracy and socialism. Tyrrell begins by saying that for him the fundamental tenet of social democracy is "that government must attend to every need of the citizenry." A little later he throws in "the concepts that free enterprise is antediluvian, that profit is wicked, that achievers are exploiters, and that income—status, too, come to think of it—must be redistributed." But a page later he simply identifies social democracy with "British socialism."

This is an unpromising start, and nothing is done to sort things out when Patrick Cosgrave, in an excellent essay, "The Failure of the Conservative Party: 1945-1975," talks of "State socialism." What alternative sorts does he have in mind? Peter Jay in his powerfully argued "Englanditis" has nothing to say about social democracy. But he ends with a reference to "the 'socialist' alternative," as if the adoption of this by the Labour Party was just one future possibility. Finally, Irving Kristol, in "Socialism: Obituary for an Idea," takes that idea and ideal to be like life in an Israeli kibbutz. But then he also wants both to use the term socialist for the countries that are socialist in the established (and quite different) sense and at the same time to allow that really they are not.

The first essential is to insist that, at least in any discussion of the contemporary condition of Britain, the word socialism be defined as "the public ownership of all the means of production, distribution, and exchange." These are the original words of Clause IV of the constitution of the Labour Party, as first adopted in 1918. It is this clause, verbally but insubstantially amended in 1959, which is printed as the statement of aims on every party membership card. It is rather less well known that a similar clause is included in the constitution of the Trades Union Congress and in the constitutions of several of its largest constituent labor unions. This is the sense, therefore, in which the Labour Party is a socialist party, and it is in the same sense of socialist that one has to say that almost all the officials of the British labor unions, including those not formally affiliated with the Labour Party, are socialists of some stripe.

In this same and only proper British sense, the expressions State socialism and State capitalism are, respectively, tautological and self-contradictory. The second ought to be especially suspect and repugnant to libertarians, for it is forever being mouthed by socialists as a device for dismissing the unlovely realities of actual socialism as being somehow not the real thing.

Traditionally the members of the Labour Party have distinguished themselves as democratic socialists, meaning by this that they believe that their total socialist ideal both can and should be realized by democratic means rather than by revolution or coup d'état. The label "social democrat" has in recent years been reintroduced, mainly by outside commentators, to describe those members of and sympathizers with the Labour Party who are considered not to be wholeheartedly devoted to socialism in the Clause IV sense. The intended positive meaning is less determinate. But presumably it includes some commitment to more—ever more—State spending on and perhaps State monopoly in health, education, and welfare as well as more—ever more—progressive and redistributive taxation of wealth and income.

This reintroduction of the expression social democrat into British political discourse is confusing for those who remember the name of the original German party sponsored by Marx and Engels, to say nothing of the fact that it was the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party that executed Lenin's coup in October 1917. On the other hand, we may recall that in 1959, the year when the British Labour Party reaffirmed an amended Clause IV, the present German Social Democratic Party categorically repudiated socialism, while asserting its own new-found belief in a pluralist and competitive economy. (This miraculous political conversion of the old German socialists was perhaps the greatest triumph of the low-tax, free-market policies of Ludwig Erhard!)


Bernard Nossiter is London correspondent of the Washington Post, and his Britain: A Future That Works is a calculated counterblast to Tyrrell's collection. He labors, therefore, to make out that the situation, and particularly the Labour Party and the trades unions, are not as bad as others have said—and as they are. Especially in chapter one he quotes, and ridicules, "voices of doom." That the economic performance is abysmal even Nossiter does not deny, though his readers are not told that, if we discount the free-enterprise bonanza of North Sea oil, since the elections of 1974 every index has gotten sharply worse. His own diagnosis: "Britons are choosing leisure over goods, a choice that other advanced industrial states may someday make."

If this were the truth, then surely the most insistent union demands would be for shorter hours rather than higher pay? Yet we should certainly still have to be alarmed by what Nossiter admits to be the fact, "that British factory workers are far less productive than those elsewhere in the industrial world." For if 50 million people are to live at any tolerable standard on a tiny island, they have to make and sell things overseas against competition from increasingly efficient foreigners.

What is scandalous in Nossiter's book is his seeming dismissal of critics of British socialism as inconsiderable members of "Britain's more extreme right-wing organizations." Since in British terms any opponent of socialism must be right-wing—"being right-wing" simply means "being opposed to socialism"—this amounts to putting down all opposition as such. Having thus in his own way silenced "the doomsayers" he is able unopposed to remain silent about, or even to deny, most of the fundamentals that must be grasped by anyone who wants to understand the present condition of Britain.

Nowhere does he find space to remark that the Labour Party was in its foundation, and to this day remains, a creature of the labor unions: between 85 and 90 percent of the votes at party conferences are cast, in the name of their mass membership, by union officials; and a similar proportion of all party funds comes, in one way or another, from the same union sources. Nor does he notice that, in part as a consequence of the aforementioned fact of the structure of British politics, there is no other country in which the law leans so favorably toward labor unions. Their members acting as such are, for instance, free both to libel their employers and to break, or to conspire to induce others to break, any union-made contract.

Again, Nossiter contrives to ignore Britain's savagely confiscatory rates of taxation upon both income and capital, and how these crush effort and enterprise. His method here is to point out, superciliously, that Britain is roughly in line with other non-Communist industrial countries in the total percentage of national income extorted in taxes. What he should but does not say is that, at the time of writing, the top rate of tax on investment income—which is officially and disapprovingly labeled "unearned"—was, and is, 98 percent—yes, 98 percent. For other income the figure is 83 percent. Furthermore, these and all other high rates start from thresholds that are by international standards very low. (In West Germany the maximum extraction rate from any income is 60 percent.)

Readers of Nossiter's repeated assurances that the leaders of the Labour Party never actually implement their "fitful rhetoric about socialism" need to be told some of the facts to the contrary. For instance, former Premier Callaghan's chancellor of the exchequer, at the party conference immediately before gaining office, promised a wildly applauding audience that the taxes which he would—and forthwith did—impose "would make the rich howl in agony." (Indeed that, rather than the raising of revenue, appears to have been the aim. Certainly these taxes have in fact proved not only economically repressive but even fiscally counterproductive.)

Again, every Labour election manifesto contains, and every Labour parliamentary majority enacts, further proposals for the extension of public ownership and State monopoly, while the party remains vehement and solid against all moves for reprivatization. Even the 1979 manifesto, which through fear of electoral disaster generally deemphasized socialism, featured proposals both to hand over local authority construction jobs to what are laughingly called public service workers, rather than to contract them out to the more efficient competing private firms, and to impose yet another confiscatory tax on capital.

FROM 1984 TO 1985

Anthony Burgess is a well-known novelist. His book is a curious combination. The first part is a long essay on George Orwell's last appalling nightmare, 1984; in the second Burgess gives us his own post-Orwellian vision, 1985. Where Orwell presented a tatty totalitarianism, an overwhelming propaganda machine, and all-pervasive police control, the Burgess Kakotopia is a Britain totally crushed by trades union power. His hero is a man whose wife was allowed to be burnt to death by striking firemen. Among the appealing fringe characters are dissident schoolchildren, in revolt against the rubbishy pseudo-sociology and "Workers' English" taught in the State schools; they learn Latin from underground anti-State teachers.

The Burgess imagination here is not extrapolating all that far from the nasty bullying British actualities, although I admit I have yet to see any signs of a revolt, from the classroom floor, against the radical educationalists. (These at their worst actually do demand that education be limited to "working-class values" and "working-class culture").

On the other hand, the critical essay with which Burgess prefaces his novelette is full of inaccuracies. He is, for instance, diametrically wrong in saying that "English Socialism now involves a minimum of public ownership"; he confuses L.P. Hartley's antiegalitarian novel Facial Justice with some completely different book; he twice mistakenly says that during the Spanish War Arthur Koestler was imprisoned by the Republicans rather than the Franquistas; and he misquotes the splendid proverb that should run: "Take what you like," said God, "take it; and pay for it!"


The Coming Confrontation is a production of the Institute of Economic Affairs. This, as many readers of REASON will know—and all should—is a privately financed research and publications outfit headquartered a few blocks away from the houses of Parliament. Founded in 1957 "to analyze the working or non-workings of markets," it last year celebrated its coming of age. In that lifetime it has produced a vast amount of work, much of it of more than local interest; and it has grown, from what was once seen as a handful of eccentric heretics from Keynesian and statist orthodoxies, into the recognized intellectual powerhouse of the true heirs and compatriots of Adam Smith.

Right Turn is a collection of essays by "eight men who changed their minds." Dedicated to Margaret Thatcher, it is edited by a Conservative member of Parliament. Though Right Turn is party-political, whereas The Coming Confrontation—coming as it does from a tax-exempt foundation—neither is nor could be, both are in their different ways concerned to discover whether it is not in Britain already too late to check and reverse the long, accelerating downhill slide.

The greatest merit of the second is that it focuses on the recent transformation of both the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Labour Party. Contrary to what is so often asseverated by persons seeing themselves as political wiseacres, these organizations have within living memory always been, in the senses already explained, committed to total socialism, although over the years the urgency and intensity of that commitment has sometimes waxed and sometimes waned. But, in the period immediately following World War II, that commitment was combined—sincerely if not perhaps consistently—with the most absolute repudiation of Marxism-Leninism.

The London correspondents of the US media, recognizing the disavowal of Marxism-Leninism, saw it then as one of their most important functions to get the word around back home that the party of Attlee and Bevin could be relied upon to give wholehearted support to NATO and to every other move to hold back the thrusting imperial expansion of those who are in Beijing now so rightly excoriated as "the new Tsars." Since, roughly, the beginning of the '70s, all is changed. Yet the London correspondents continue in the ways of their fathers and, like Nossiter, dismiss all evidence of this change with a knee-jerk reference to the very dead and unlamented Sen. Joe McCarthy.

Take one straw to show Americans the direction in which the winds of change are blowing. A year or two ago the AFL-CIO entertained and honored Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In that same year the British TUC, with scarcely one dissenting vote, chose similarly to wine and dine Alexander Shelepin. As a former director of the KGB, Shelepin had been jailer of the Gulag Archipelago; and, at that time, he was state-appointed boss of the Soviet arbeitsfront.

Again, a decisive majority of the present National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, put into their places by card votes cast by those same union bureaucrats, are now people who regularly rally to the support of the Communist Party newspaper Morning Star, broadcast for Moscow Radio or its satellites, and generally show that their only reason for being in the Labour rather than the Communist Party is that they see the former as being—what indeed it now is—a far more effective instrument for enforcing the same ideals. (Hugh Scanlon, recently retired leader of the engineering union, always gave precisely this as his own reason for leaving the Communist and joining the Labour Party.)

So it is not surprising that the Labour Party has taken to exchanging fraternal delegations with the Soviet, East German, and other ruling Communist Parties. Nor that, when it sent a mission to Portugal after the military revolution there, that mission, including one of Mr. Callaghan's ministers, sided with the unreconstructed Stalinist Alvaro Cunhal and his Muscovite apparatniks rather than with the strongly socialist yet nevertheless still democratic party of Mario Soares. It is this sinister transformation, as well as a recognition of the ruinous results of the old policies, that has led the contributors to Right Turn into the arms of Mrs. Thatcher.

This right turn now includes some distinguished members. One contributor began the 1974 parliament as a Labour minister and is now in 1979 a member for a safe Conservative seat and may reach office once more. Another was at that same time editor of the socialist weekly New Statesman and has moved over to write far more effectively for the Conservatives. Lord George Brown, too, who had been deputy leader and foreign secretary under Harold Wilson, in the recent election begged voters to put Labour out. No other such shifts have occurred in British politics for at least my own more than 50 years. But let us have no optimistic exaggerations. The now highly volatile British mass electorate will soon in by-elections be voting socialist ultras back, while the great majority of leading members and supporters of the Labour Party, even those who well know the way it is going, will remain content to continue advancing their careers in and through the old firm.

Certainly Mrs. Thatcher and her team made it clear in the May election that a vote for the Conservatives was a vote for a sharp, last-chance change of course. But in their different ways, four of these five books show to what a near impossible task she, and they, and we are setting our hands.

Antony Flew is a professor of philosophy at the University of Reading. He is the author of numerous books; a recent one, A Rational Animal, is reviewed in this issue.