Britain’s Shaky Labour Government
by Tung Fang-hsiang
[This article is reprinted from Peking Review, Vol. 9, #6, Feb. 4, 1966, pp. 17-22.]
Clinging to office by a wafer-thin majority in the Commons, the Wilson government has had few balmy days in its 15 months of existence. As monopoly capital’s watch-dog and U.S. imperialism’s accomplice, the Labour government has been described as the weakest and most unpopular administration in postwar Britain. Mounting political uncertainty, a balance of payments crisis and unending financial and economic difficulties—all of which keep Wilson on a razor’s edge and may force him to go to the country at any time—offer his administration small prospects of a breather in 1966.
MORE than 15 months have gone by since Labour scraped home in Britain’s general elections and became Whitehall’s new tenant. As head of the third Labour government since World War II, Harold Wilson came into office at a time when British imperialism faced an ever deepening crisis. After 13 years’ rule, the failure-ridden Tories had been forced to step down and Labour took over running the British establishment.
Since that time, the struggles of the revolutionary people of the world against U.S.-led imperialism and its stooges have grown in momentum and the contradictions between the imperialist countries themselves have become more acute. This has had inevitable repercussions on Britain where the political situation has been in a state of flux, the clash of interests between the ruling and the oppressed classes has sharpened and the economy has stagnated. All these, together with the worsening sterling crisis and the rapid disintegration of its colonial system, spell out tough going for the Labour government which is the weakest, most unstable and most unpopular administration Britain has had since the end of World War II.
The Wilson government is British monopoly capital’s faithful watch-dog. Its ruthless exploitation and oppression of the working people at home have reduced their living standard and, as a result of intensified armament expansion and war preparation efforts, many have been forced to leave Britain and serve as cannon-fodder in colonial wars or wars of aggression. Wilson and his men have been active accomplices of U.S. imperialism, worked hand in glove with the modern revisionists and fostered the reactionaries of various countries in trying to suppress the revolutionary movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. But these anti-communist and anti-popular policies, which point up the truculence of the British imperialists have come home to roost with the Wilson administration and have plunged Britain into deeper trouble.
Unstable Political Situation and a Vulnerable Government
Paper-Thin Majority. Wilson formed the government after Labour won the general elections in October 1964 with a small majority of five seats, which was later reduced to three. By the first week of November last year it dropped to one as the result of the deaths of Labour M.P.s. At present, of the 630 seats, Labour has 315, Conservatives 302, Liberals 9, three go to the Speaker, the Chairman (Deputy Speaker) and the Vice-Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means who do not vote in the House of Commons, and the remaining seat is vacant. Labour’s precarious position could lead to total collapse at any time. In May last year, it barely managed to scrape through with a majority of one when the vote was taken on an Opposition’s amendment to the Finance Bill. In early July when the same bill was debated, the Conservatives tabled three amendments and defeated the Labour government by 13, 14 and 15 votes in quick succession. Only behind-the-seenes consultations between the two parties saved Wilson from surrendering office. That the Labour government has managed to cling to office under the strains of a paper-thin majority makes a great mockery of the bourgeois two-party system’s sham democracy.
In its desperate effort to hold on to a majority in votes and thus to better meet the Opposition’s attacks in the Commons, the Wilson government has resorted to all kinds of gimmicks. It has prescribed that its ministers should attend every session of Parliament. Eight Labour M.P.s have asked to retire because of old age or failing health. Their requests were turned down, however. To guarantee that sick M.P.s attend every session, beds were installed in the lobby. When the time came to vote, some of them were carried in on stretchers, thereby giving Parliament the air of a hospital ward. No Labour M.P., it was also prescribed, should absent himself from the House of Commons on pain of disciplinary action without first “pairing” with a Tory who has also promised not to be present. As another precautionary measure against a crisis that may result from the absence of Labour M.P.s, vote by proxy has recently been proposed.
“Hilson” and “Weath.” How did the Wilson government manage to last so long in view of its shaky position? The answer is that Labour, following virtually the same domestic and foreign policies as the Conservatives, has become an obedient servant of big monopoly capital. Making no bones about the fact that Labour and Tory are birds of a feather, the British press calls Wilson “Hilson” and Heath, the Tory leader, “Weath.” To keep itself in power, Labour tries to enter into a de facto alliance with the Liberal Party or, failing this, to prevent an alliance between the Conservatives and the Liberals in Parliament. Exploiting to the full the present situation of a small majority in the Commons, Labour’s Right-wing leaders are doing everything to force the so-called Left-wing back-benchers into line, warning them not to “rock the boat” or commit “political suicide.” Wilson has invited several leaders of the party’s former “Bevan faction” to join his government and has appointed Shinwell, an elder Labour statesman, to be the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. In order to silence mounting criticism of the government’s handling of home affairs, Wilson reshuffled his cabinet on December 22. All this was done to keep the Labour M.P.s under his thumb. Wilson even appointed monopoly capital bigwigs top advisers to his cabinet. On major questions of policy, he has never failed to consult with Tory leaders Heath or Home behind the scenes. In this way, the Labour government has temporized and tided over the crises.
Day-to-Day Viability. Notwithstanding all these devices, the Wilson government will be forced to dissolve Parliament and announce general elections at any time if any one of the following arises: a combined non-confidence vote by Conservatives and Liberals; defeat of Labour’s important bills; loss of an overall majority in the Commons resulting from further setbacks in by-elections; an emergency crisis which Labour cannot surmount. This clearly indicates the government’s vulnerability, Britain’s internal instability and the utter bankruptcy of the Labour Party’s rule. Wilson himself would have liked to have held another general election at an opportune moment in order to secure a greater majority in the House of Commons. But since taking office, he has had a difficult time coping with the situation both at home and abroad. Beset with difficulties for which he has only makeshift solutions, he has to content himself with a day-to-day viability.
Worsening Economy and Sharpening
of Class Contradictions
Sterling Crisis. The pound has been in the throes of a crisis and on the verge of devaluation several times. Britain’s international financial position has never been as weak as it is now. Though there have been signs of a slight turn for the better since last September, the sterling crisis is far from ended.
Contributing factors to this include: long-time stagnation in industrial production and Britain’s weakened position as a result of cut-throat inter-imperialist competition for markets. The total value of Britain’s national output, down from one-fifth to one-seventh that of the United States, has already been outstripped by West Germany. Britain’s share in the export of capitalist world manufactures fell from 22 per cent in 1953 to 13.7 in 1964. Its share in the total volume of exports to the sterling area plummeted from 58 per cent in 1954 to 38 per cent in 1963; during the same period its exports to countries outside the sterling area also dropped from 13 to 11.9 per cent.
Large Deficits in Balance of Payments. At a time of a general decline in trade among the capitalist countries and when the major imperialist countries are restricting imports and increasing exports in dog-eat-dog competition with each other, Britain’s economy has suffered a staggering blow. A large deficit in the balance of payments has brought with it the sterling crisis. The causes of this unfavourable balance are manifold. First, huge military expenditures. The military budget climbed from 1,700 million pounds in 1961 to 2,100 million in 1965. Well-informed sources claim that Britain spends 15 per cent of its national output, and not 7 per cent as announced by the British Government, on armaments and war preparations. Second, the crucial factor in the severity of the 1964-65 balance of payments crisis was increased government expenditures overseas, mainly for military purposes. Government expenditures abroad on current account totalled 695 million pounds in the three-year period 1953-55. In 1962-64 they totalled 1,304 million. This increase of more than 600 million alarmed the British rulers. Third, increase in overseas investment—200 million to 300 million pounds of private investment and some 150 million pounds of foreign “aid” per year in the postwar period. These huge expenditures and the widening trade gap account for Britain’s serious deficits in the balance of payments in the past few years. In 1964, the deficit was 765 million pounds and last year it was about 450 million. It decreased by less than half, but the deficit is still the pound’s Achilles’ heel.
Helping Big Monopoly. To save the pound, the Labour government has adopted a series of reactionary measures favourable to big monopoly and unfavourable to the people. Last year, Britain had to ask for massive loans from the International Monetary Fund and other foreign creditors totalling more than 3,500 million dollars; it raised the bank rate to 7 per cent, resorted to two “little budgets” as stop-gap measures and introduced drastic measures in July. In addition, there were the credit squeeze, restriction on bank loans, increased taxation, cutting back of social services, reduction in local government housing mortgages, restraint on wages, cuts in public investment and government expenditures, premiums on exports, and a surcharge and restrictions on imports. All these are aimed at shifting the burden of the sterling crisis and financial and economic difficulties on to the people of Britain, its colonies and the Commonwealth.
Harming the Working Class. Labour has gone to great lengths to undermine the interests of the British working class. The main purpose of so-called industrial rationalization and automation is to use modern methods to wring bigger profits from the workers and to throw large numbers of workers out of employment. According to government figures, the number of unemployed in May-August of last year was 338,900. It dropped slightly to 331,892 in mid December, which is 1.5 per cent of the total labour force. The general estimate is that it will rise to 2.5 per cent this year. Reduction in production or shut-downs and the laying off of large numbers of workers in the motor-car, building, steel, textile, ship-building and coal industries have seriously threatened the working class. From October 1964 to October 1965, retail prices of consumer goods went up 5 per cent, while the index for wholesale prices also rose 3.5 per cent. The purchasing power of the pound sterling again decreased by 4.5 per cent during the same period. Sales by hire purchase last July reached 1,178 million pounds which, if divided among Britain’s total population, meant 22 pounds per person. All this constitutes a sizable burden for the working people.
The Wilson government has introduced a so-called “incomes policy,” putting a 3.5 per cent ceiling on increases in workers’ wages. A royal commission was set up to allow the government to control the trade unions and to participate in talks between capital and labour. While offering no objection to increases in profits and commodity prices, the commission has done its best to keep down the living standards of the working people who constitute the overwhelming majority of Britain’s population. These reactionary measures have contributed to the further sharpening of class contradictions and led to a series of strikes. In the first half of 1965, the year which saw the biggest trade union movement upsurge in Britain since 1960, 1,365 strikes took place. Most of these were in the motor-car, coal, machine-building and manufacturing industries and in the railway and air transport departments. Five hundred and sixty-six thousand workers were involved, resulting in a loss of more than 2 million work-days.
Deceptive Reformist Measures. The Wilson government has resorted to various reformist gimmicks to deceive the working people and take the edge off their mounting dissatisfaction: making pension increases, abolishing prescription charges in the National Health Service, introducing “security” for tenants threatened by the serious housing shortage and soaring rents, introducing a capital gains tax and publishing a so-called five-year national economic plan covering the period 1965-70. But such highly vaunted promises, followed only by measures giving meagre benefits, have been coldly received by the people.
Meanwhile, Labour has been doing everything possible to spread the fallacious idea of “labour and management partnership”; the big bosses controlling the industrial enterprises are euphemistically called “managers” and the working class is asked to “co-operate” with them so as to enjoy an “equal share” of the “national cake” in “the interests of the nation.” The “nationalized enterprises,” which account for one-fifth of Britain’s economy, have representatives from the huge monopoly enterprises, which make up four-fifths of the nation’s economy, at the helm. Thus, the “nationalized” enterprises have been whittled down to satellites of monopoly capital. Wilson has departed farther than ever from the “nationalization policy” which Labour bragged so much about while still in the wilderness. In the Queen’s speech on the opening of Parliament in November last year, there was no reference at all to steel re-nationalization—an omission designed to please both the Conservatives and the Liberals and, of course, the big monopoly capitalists whose interests will be left intact.
Many small and medium-sized enterprises have been forced to shut down or cut production owing to the tightening of bank credits, the suspension and calling back of loans and a tight money market. The credit squeeze has cut down the sales of hire-purchased cars, the number of which is 22 per cent lower than a year ago. This is a pressure on the small and medium-sized enterprises whose pent-up complaints against the government are often reflected in home politics.
In Britain, there have always been “two nations,” one represented by Wilson and Heath and the other by the working class. Because of the deepening of imperialism’s general political and economic crisis and the sharpening class struggle at home, Wilson and his partners are more isolated than at any other time.
Disintegration of the Empire
Widening Cracks in the Commonwealth. The British Commonwealth now consists of no less than 21 independent members. There is an increasing tendency among these countries to move away from Britain, and the Commonwealth’s colonial system is rapidly disintegrating. To prevent the situation from getting out of hand, the Labour administration called a Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference last June. A Commonwealth Secretariat was later formed to facilitate exchange of information, to co-ordinate views and to strengthen the Commonwealth. A Commonwealth Foundation was also set up to administer a fund for increasing interchanges between Commonwealth organizations in professional fields. Among other things, the Prime Ministers emphasized the need to encourage and expand trade between member states. But, within the Commonwealth, the colonialist and neo-colonialist countries have insoluble contradictions with the nationalist countries. The declaration of independence by Singapore which nearly brought about the break-up of the “Malaysian Federation,” India’s aggression against Pakistan and other important events in 1965 revealed the widening cracks in the British Commonwealth and added to Wilson’is setbacks.
Seething Struggles in Colonies. Britain now has about 30 remaining dependencies, with only 7 million inhabitants. Under the hammer blows of seething revolutionary struggles, the Labour government had little choice but to promise to “grant” independence to British Guiana and Mauritius this year and to Bechuanaland, Swaziland and Basutoland in 1967. On the other hand, it is putting together mergers such as the “South Arabian Federation” and the “East Caribbean Federation,” which are neo-colonialist products, to ensure British control. But where there is oppression there is struggle. The Wilson government is bound to run into disaster no matter how desperately it tries to turn back the wheels of history.
Labour Government—A Ruthless Colonialist. True to type, Labour has acted out the ruthless colonialist since assuming power. In December 1964 it succeeded in subverting the legal Jagan government of British Guiana and sent in troops to put down people’s opposition. During the rape of the Congo (Leopoldville) a month earlier, it placed its bases in Malta and Ascension Is. at the beck and call of the U.S. and Belgian aggressor troops for use as staging areas. When U.S. imperialism rushed in marines and airborne forces in the Dominican Republic last April to smash the people’s uprising, it supported U.S. aggression, saying that it was “necessary” and that it was “not aggression.” Towards the end of 1964 and in the early part of 1965, it dispatched large reinforcements to Malaya and Singapore in an open threat against the people of Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. In addition to these actions, it crushed the demonstrations of the students and workers on Bahrein Is. in the spring of 1965; it wantonly slaughtered, wounded and arrested the people of south Yemen and winked at the unilateral declaration of “independence” in November 1965 by the white settlers of Southern Rhodesia who have imposed a fascist-racist rule on the Zimbabwe people. These and other iniquities by the Labour government have met with firm resistance from the revolutionary people and severe condemnation by world progressive opinion. The claws of British colonialism, like those of U.S. imperialism, will be chopped off by the revolutionary people of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the rest of the world.
Hoop-la! Cartoon by Jack Chen
Cost of Toeing the U.S. Line
“East of Suez” Aggressive Policy. For years, British imperialism has been a junior partner of U.S. imperialism playing the inglorious role of an accomplice. The Labour government has outdone its predecessors in relying on the United States and collaborating with it. In its wild ambition to push British imperialism’s policy of aggression, throttle the Afro-Asian people’s revolutionary movements, support U.S. imperialism’s war of aggression against Vietnam and abet the Indian reactionaries in their anti-Chinese manoeuvres, the Labour government went to the extent of declaring that Britain’s frontier was “at the Himalayas.” It has spared no effort to keep its military bases extending from Aden to Singapore under tight control and to plunder the Asian and African countries around the Indian Ocean. Discharging its duties as U.S. imperialism’s active accomplice, the Labour government has strengthened its troop deployment for carrying out its “East of Suez” policy of aggression. It has concentrated a large number of troops, warships and military aircraft in the Indian Ocean region and, together with Washington, has undertaken war preparations directed against the people of Asia, Africa and the rest of the world. Slandering China as the “main threat to Asia and Africa,” Wilson shouted about the need for a “close alliance” with the United States to cope with what he called the menace extending from the Red Sea to the South China Sea. The United States, on its part, has recently brought pressure to bear on Britain to take on a larger share of the military burden east of Suez and to provide its bases in this region for American use.
Subservience to U.S. on Vietnam Question. On the Vietnam question, the Labour government has slavishly backed the United States in escalating its war of aggression against Vietnam. It has done everything in its power to help push the Johnson Administration’s “peace talks” hoax, viciously attacking the heroic Vietnamese people and persisting in its hostile attitude towards the Chinese people. While Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart said that U.S. bombing and aggression were “proper,” Wilson had the audacity to speak up for the U.S. aggressors’ use of poison gas in Vietnam. He alleged that it did not violate the 1925 Geneva Protocol or any other instruments, and he defended the United States by claiming that Washington’s poison gas was “not poisonous.” In a deliberate move against the people of China, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, the Wilson administration has allowed the U.S. imperialists to use Hongkong as a base for aggression against Vietnam. These and countless other acts add up to a disgraceful record of working cheek by jowl with U.S. imperialism in the latter’s aggression in Vietnam. The Labour government’s subservience to the United States on the Vietnam question has aroused strong opposition from the British people, and anti-government demonstrations have been frequent. At the annual conferences of the Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress, a third of the participants took Wilson’s policy on this question to task. Among other prominent figures, well-known British philosopher Bertrand Russell, a Labour Party member for 51 years, recently tore up his membership card and declared his withdrawal from the party in an open protest against the government’s support for U.S. aggression.
Britain Through Washington’s Eyes
To maintain its semblance as a world power, in which the so-called British Commonwealth serves as a facade, Britain has cast its lot with U.S. imperialism and often harped on the Anglo-American “special relationship” and “interdependence.”
The harsh fact is that while this “special relationship” is one between boss and junior partner and “interdependence” means greater dependence on U.S. imperialism, Britain’s “professions of love” are seldom reciprocated. Washington and its spokesmen are not averse to calling a spade a spade. Dean Acheson once twitted the British, saying that they had lost an empire but had not yet found a role. Two articles in the New York Times on January 23 openly urged Britain to hand over the British Commonwealth to U.S. imperialism.
The British empire, wrote C.L. Sulzberger in one of the articles, “except for fragments, is already gone. Now it is time to abandon the legend that the Commonwealth exists.” He added: “Pretending there is a Commonwealth when there isn’t has both hampered Britain’s freedom of diplomatic action and sapped its waning economic strength.... Is it not time for Britain to adjust diplomatic, military and economic policies to the reality of a post-Commonwealth period?” Sulzberger suggested, as a substitute for the Commonwealth, a rearrangement on separate regional bases. “For example, in the Americas, Guiana and Honduras must find freedom and, together with Canada, should join the Organization of American States and continental defence arrangements.... Australia and New Zealand are already linked in Asia to U.S. defence through ANZUS. Together with Britain and other interested nations, they should join the U.S.A. in a grand Pacific alliance extending all the way up through the Philippines to Japan.”
In the other article, Anthony Lewis ridiculed “the oversimplified view of the Commonwealth which prevails in British school syllabuses” and wrote sarcastically: “For Britain, the Commonwealth represents an avenue to world influence—a moral substitute for empire. A tiny island stripped of these imperial pretensions would just look much less like a world power.” But, he warned, “politicians as well as school syllabuses may go on too long talking about rosy but non-existent dreams.”
Greater Dependence on Washington. The Labour administration has resorted to greater dependence on the United States in order to prolong Britain’s colonialist rule. Defence Secretary Denis Healey admitted that economic difficulties had made it impossible for Britain to continue its role as the policeman of the whole of Asia and Africa and he asked the United States to share the responsibility. He also hoped to make more use of the United Nations to stamp out the revolutionary struggles of the Asian, African and Latin American people. Regarding the question of nuclear weapons, the Labour government considers it impossible for Britain to have an “independent nuclear deterrent.” It holds that the only basis for Britain’s security in the nuclear age is Anglo-American “interdependence” that the Anglo-American alliance is the anchor of British policy. The Labour administration has completely subscribed to the U.S. policies of aggression and war. This inevitably leads to a sharp decline in Britain’s international position.
The Labour government’s reactionary home and foreign policies have run up against strong opposition from the British people and world condemnation. Quarrels and complaints are loud even among the British ruling circles themselves. Selwyn Lloyd, former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, made a blistering attack on Labour’s financial and economic policies, saying that the government had “arranged the toughest credit squeeze for 40 years, the biggest increases in taxation since the darkest days of the war, the biggest increase in prices since the last Labour government, and the worst drafted and most complicated Finance Bill of all time.” Peter Thorneycroft, former Conservative Defence Secretary, censured the government for the cancellation of three British-designed aircraft and placing orders for American planes instead at the expense of the British aircraft industry. The government’s “East of Suez” policy has also been under fire from Enoch Powell, Tory’s “shadow” defence minister. Tory leader, Edward Heath, called on de Gaulle during his visit to Paris and had a tête-à-tête with him on the question of Britain joining the Common Market. Christopher Soames, chairman of the Conservative back-bench committee on foreign affairs, stated that “the Conservative Party’s desire to see Britain join the Community at the first favourable opportunity is clearly understood by the Governments of the Six. But where, they ask, does the British Government stand?” This statement in a letter to The Times revealed Soames’ impatience to get the Wilson government to clarify its ambiguous attitude on this issue.
British imperialism, which once was, in Lenin’s words, the “richest in colonies, in finance capital, and in imperialist experience,” is on the skids as a result of the deepening of the general crisis of capitalism and the British Government’s increasing dependence on the United States. Under these circumstances, the Wilson administration, which serves the interests of monopoly capital, is now deap in a tunnel with no light in sight.
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