Paul Foot

Shirley, Shirley, quite contrary,
how will your garden grow?

(May 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981 : 5, May–June 1981, pp. 18–20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The ‘old politics’ are dead, according to Shirley Williams. Meanwhile the new Social Democratic Party have attracted 40,000 members in less than six weeks. Paul Foot explores their politics and their appeal.

Shirley Williams

No matter how often we blink our eyes in disbelief, the ridiculous reality is still there. A gang of four former Labour cabinet ministers, each one of them with deeply reactionary records both in government and outside, have broken from the Labour Party to present themselves as ‘a new force’ in British politics.

Without spelling out a single policy, they have attracted 40,000 dues-paying members, a seventh of the total Labour Party membership. The public opinion polls put this party without a policy ahead of all others and come to the preposterous conclusion that if there were a general election tomorrow the new ‘social democratic party’ would be able to form a government!

The mass appeal of this new party is not, I think, a mirage. It is here with us to stay for some time yet. This has nothing to do with the SDP’s policies, for it has none. As Dr David Owen blurted out to a questioner on the day of the SDP’s birth: ‘Look, love, if you want a manifesto, go and join one of the other parties’.

No. The appeal is based, first, and most solidly, on freshness. The ‘old politics’, Shirley Williams ceaselessly tells us in her book, Politics is for People, are dead. By ‘old politics’ she means in particular the politics of Labour.

In this, she is on strong ground. Three bouts of post-war Labour governments, two of them with huge majorities, (and two of them with Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins as senior ministers) are remembered without a trace of nostalgia. Who wants to go back to Wilson or Callaghan? They were backward, stale administrations whose few achievements in the field of social reform in the first blush of office were largely rubbed out by the slide into conformity.

Yet there is another side to the new party’s appeal which appears to contradict this freshness. It is that the new partly appears ‘safe’. It will not do any thing drastic or revolutionary. It will not upset the balance of the ‘market’ or ‘the mixed economy’, about both of which Shirley Williams writes almost lyrically.

‘The market’ she tells us (p46) ‘matches demand and supply better than the planners do. It responds more easily to changing fashions and needs. It is rather good at getting rid of unsuccessful enterprises.’

There will be no nationalising or intervening from her, we can be sure!

The limits for all Shirley Williams’ ‘new, radical policies’ are set by the forecasts of economists and the ebb and flow of booms and the slumps. In Chapter 4, How the World Has Changed, she abandons any responsibility for changing the rules which have brought about the recession. The ‘low or negative growth rate’ is there. It is inevitable. Anything that Shirley Williams can do must he within those boundaries.

She toys for a moment with the possibility that the priorities of modern capitalism could be altered by tough economic controls. ‘The only initiative that could radically alter the world’s economic prospects’ she tells us (p. 65). ‘would be the recycling of the oil exporters’ surpluses as well as some of the currency reserves of the industrial countries, in effect the Brandt Commission’s proposals in their most radical form’.

Yes, in its most radical moments, the Brandt Commission, which included such well-known revolutionary figures as Edward Heath, former Tory prime minister, and Willy Brandt, former German chancellor, argued that the only way to deal with the huge surpluses (OK word for profits) of the oil companies and the sheikdoms had amassed from the rise in oil prices was to ‘recycle’ (OK word for ‘direct’ or ‘force’) them to where they are really needed, to the starving millions for example.

What does Mrs Williams think of this policy?

‘Simply to state such proposals’ she goes on, ‘is to emphasise how improbable their adoption is, despite growing public understanding and support’.

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could get control of the economic resources and plan them so that the needy benefit and the rich were squeezed a little?

But that is ‘improbable’ because it means mucking about with the market, and the profits which are its mainspring. So we have to accept a shrinking capitalism, the end of economic growth, huge oil profits, starving millions – we have to accept all these things and find political solutions in spite of them. From Chapter 4 onwards, these matters are referred to constantly as ‘external circumstances outlined in Chapter 4’ (p. 171) or ‘the changes described in Chapter 4’. (p. 178)

What follows in terms of practical ‘radical’ politics, not surprisingly, is thin, if not pathetic. The only coherent philosophy is: ‘small is beautiful’.

Shirley Williams argues that industry and trade unions have become obsessed by size, and that smaller units and smaller businesses might prove more successful. She has discovered that there have been more jobs created in America in small business than in large business, and concludes that it’s the job of a new radical government to give more help and encouragement to small businesses. The type of help and encouragement she advocates is rather similar to the proposals in Sir Geoffrey Howe’s last (‘radical’? ‘reforming’? ‘new’?) budget, which scooped Mrs Williams’ book by a few weeks.

Sometimes. the proposals she advocates for smaller units are plain reactionary. For instance, she advocates greater use of labour rather than machines, in itself, quite regardless of the type of work which is to be done.

She completely forsakes the traditional socialist attitude that, for the vast majority of work, which is dreary, soul-destroying work, machines which do the job are in themselves a blessing and are only a curse when they are used for profit to create unemployment and poverty. Control of the machines by people, instead of the other way round as demanded by capitalism, could result in a better life for everyone. Instead, Shirley Williams seriously proposes scrapping machines in favour of masses of people. And because she has also found out that smaller businesses use more labour per machine than do large businesses (usually because small businesses are less efficient, by the way, not more so) she concludes (again) that small are better than big.

This is the main philosophical conclusion of her book. And of course it is quite fatuous. It is not the size of the enterprise which determines whether or not it is efficient or even quite pleasant to work for. It is its ownership, its dynamic, its organisation, its purpose. About all these things Shirley Williams has nothing to say, save to echo the conventional Liberal Party call for ‘more participation’ and ‘more democracy’.

She lumps industry and finance, where no one in control is ever elected, together with the trade unions, whose control is based on election and choice, however slack and infrequent the elections are. She is for workers and management sharing in the control of their firms, and she seems to favour the basic proposals of the Bullock Report for power-sharing. Yet to the question: how to get even that degree of power-sharing in the teeth of the most hysterical and bitter opposition from the unelected and irresponsible employers? – she has no reply whatever. ‘Governments, corporate powers of industry and trade unions,’ she argues simply, ‘should devolve some of their power downwards.’ (my italics).

No doubt they should. But what if they don’t? No reply. Once again, any question which might lead to confrontation is quickly side-stepped.

The obsession with ‘safety’ dogs all Shirley Williams’ book, which is, by the way, a series of essays. Most of the essays were written at different times either for American university students or for the shadowy Policy Studies Institute which stepped in fast to sponsor Shirley Williams when she lost her seat in the 1979 general election.

Her specific proposals are intended to span the gap between what Dr Owen has called the ‘caring tradition’ of the Labour Party, and the ‘market tradition’ of the Conservative Party. The ‘caring’ side includes a commitment to a wealth tax (which is more than Shirley Williams and the last Labour government could manage in five years) some very useful ideas about employing masses of people to improve older housing; and even a clear statement against all fee-paying education (which prospered so hugely during the last Labour government and Shirley Williams’ three years as education minister).

To balance the ‘caring’, there is the usual call to sacrifice. She warns:

‘The industrial countries have been wildly profligate in the booming post-war decades. Their governments and their peoples have enjoyed a material spree never paralleled before. Now, as the late Anthony Crosland said to Britain’s local authorities in 1977 [well, actually, he was dead in 1977, but Shirley Williams is as untidy with her facts as she is with her philosophy], the party is over.’

There we have it. Shirley Williams and her new party represent radicalism and newness on the one hand, safety and caution on the other; the ‘caring’ of the Labour Party and the spirit of sacrifice usually associated with the Tories.

The appeal is to all decent people who are fed up with the stick-in-the-mud approach of former Labour governments, who dislike the Thatcher Government’s meanness and class loyalty, but who are also nervous of anything drastic or immediate by way of reform. This, in the period of industrial quiescence in which we now live, is a very powerful appeal indeed.

It is easy enough to scoff at the Gang of Four themselves, their own political heritage, their middle class origins, their careerism and their cant. But the appeal remains, and will not be shifted by ridicule.

What can shift it is the argument which mounts up relentlessly against the likelihood of the SDP delivering even the most minor reforms. It is not just that their radicalism conflicts with their safeness; nor that their caring conflicts with their dedication to market forces. It is that such is the nature of the society we live in that when the two sets of opposites conflict, the former always loses; the latter always win.

Shirley Williams knows all about the inherent inequalities in our society. She cites the figures, and she wants them changed. There is at least one reference in her book to the need for equality.

But the figures of inequality describe more than something which is just ‘wrong’. They describe a power structure, in which a class of people control society’s wealth and therefore control society’s political power.

We know this happens. We have all those Labour governments and all the efforts of Shirley Williams and her colleagues to prove it. They became ministers of the Crown. They cared about private education, but they did not move to end it. They cared about unemployment, but they presided over the doubling of it.

Roy Jenkins cared about racialism, but he was in government when it increased beyond anything he could ever have expected. William Rogers was not in favour of juggernaut lorries, but while Minister of Transport he fought desperately to remove the few controls on them. The power of the people with properly lays down the law about what happens to all of us. And parliamentary democracy is too slender a connection with the masses seriously to disturb that power.

When caring people get to government in the way Shirley Williams intends to do, they find their caring conflicts with the economic reality and their caring is always shelved. A government headed by the Gang of Four would no doubt include most of the ideas in this book in its manifesto. But because there is not the slightest sign of how they are to be carried out, not the slightest moment of doubt about the capacity of parliamentary government to turn back the tide of corporate power, we will not even get Mrs Williams’ wealth tax, her abolition of fee-paying schools, her full employment or her increased social services. We will not get her house improvements or her small power stations. But we will get her bombs, her incomes policy, her stronger Common Market, her increasingly hysterical calls for sacrifice. In other words, all her freshness, and radicalism will take us straight back to the fudged stale capitalism of the last Callaghan government: exactly in the opposite direction, that is, to the one where Shirley Williams is now pointing.

There is an alternative; there is a new way of looking at politics. Shirley Williams knows it, and quite deliberately and shamefully refuses even to argue with it. After disposing quite easily with Russia and Russian-style Communists, she devotes a single sentence to ‘revolutionary romantics and Trotskyites’ who are

‘Wedded to an idea of politics which has never been attained anywhere but which in theory might one day be achieved if only revolution could in some way be harnessed to the perfectibility of human beings’.

Human nature will not have revolution! It will only put up with the continued stumbling of ‘caring’ politicians who serve the interests of property! ‘Human nature’ offers us the only hope for political advance, a mixture of half-hearted contradictions of the type voiced by Shirley Williams. Human nature demands sacrifice instead of growth; poverty instead of plenty. Human nature presents a social democratic party, peddling the failed dogmas of the Callaghan government as a ‘new radical alternative’.

Shirley Williams makes much of a quotation from Immanuel Kant: ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can ever be made’.

She should make that the central slogan of her dynamic and radical appeal at the next general election.

Last updated on 21 September 2019