Paul Foot

Without a paddle

(March 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 96, March 1987, pp. 15–17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What will the next Labour government (if elected) be like? What ideas will guide it and will they have any effect on its practice? Roy Hattersley’s new book entitled Choose Freedom is an attempt to explain his view of socialism and the future under Labour. Here Paul Foot reviews the book.


THE Sunday Times organised a Round The World Yacht Race in 1969. An unlikely entrant was one Donald Crowhurst, who left late and ill-equipped.

Before he crossed the Atlantic, he realised that he was not going to make it round the world. He had neither the equipment nor the navigational skill. He was reluctant to return to jeering reporters, disappointed family and friends – so he hit on a compromise. He said he was going round the world when he wasn’t.

He did in speech what he could not do in fact. For several weeks his brilliant reports of record-breaking sailing through the South Pacific hoodwinked the Sunday Times and everyone else. But as he realised he could never maintain the hoax once he got home, Crowhurst started to go mad. Eventually he walked off the end of his boat and drowned.

There is something of the tragic story of Donald Crowhurst in this latest and much reviewed book [1] by the deputy leader of the Labour Party. Not long ago Labour leaders did not even bother to set out their basic socialist philosophy. The very idea was rather vulgar, and likely to put off voters. There was no question of beckoning people to socialism, or even to a new social order. All that was necessary was to show people that Labour had plans for a better, more prosperous Britain than had the Tories. Labour would usher in “a new Britain” or “get Britain back to work”. Ideological niceties were luxuries for cloisters or for sectarians.

Then along came the SDP and Alliance to swipe 26 percent of the vote. The Alliance was very pragmatic – full of phrases about a prosperous new Britain and getting Britain back to work. It had hosts of top administrators and economists making detailed plans for every area of social policy.

Roy Hattersley and many others like him found it was necessary to remind people of “the ideological foundation” on which Labour stood. Labour, he insists, is not a pragmatic party which just weaves a lot of policies together at election times. It is founded on ideas, and above all on one very simple idea: equality.

To explain what he means Roy Hattersley goes back to the hero of his youth. He quotes again and again from the books of Professor R.H. Tawney. And well he might, for Tawney was a wonderful writer, who explained simple socialist ideas perhaps better than anyone else who ever wrote in the English language. Tawney’s great classic, Equality (1931), demolished the protests of capitalist supporters that private enterprise was a guarantor of freedom. “Freedom for the pike is death to the minnows,” he said.

Equality of reward was the only real guarantee of freedom, since it ensured that all could equally develop their own characteristics and abilities. Those who wanted the grotesque inequalities of capitalism to continue really wanted the freedom to continue to exploit others, and therefore to limit the freedom of the vast majority.

Roy Hattersley, who writes pretty well himself, rehearses these arguments (usually by quoting Tawney). He draws the line down from Tawney through the other theorists loosely described as right-wing Labour who have followed him.

He singles out Hugh Gaitskell and Evan Durbin, friends and contemporaries who went into parliament in 1945; and Anthony Crosland, who wrote The Future of Socialism in the year (1956) that Gaitskell became leader of the Labour Party. All three, like Tawney, were intellectuals of outstanding ability. All urged the creation of a new social order founded on equality. None of them belonged to the left in the Labour Party, and for most of their lives engaged in furious argument with the left. They were ideological in that they believed in equality, but they never allowed their ideology to outrun what to them was practical. What was practical was tied to one firm mooring point: the election to parliament of a majority Labour government.

Because their ideas were always firmly fixed on this reality, they were easier to read and more credible than their contemporaries on the left of the Labour Party, who drifted in the wide seas of rhetoric and Christian socialism where there was no mooring point.

COMMON to all Roy Hattersley’s heroes was the notion of government control of the economy. They were impatient with shibboleths about nationalisation of all industry since it seemed to them irrelevant to the central issue: control.

Thus Tawney, writing in 1931, took as his central theme the conversion of a political democracy in which the elected parliament of that democracy had control over the economy.

Gaitskell, writing before the 1945 election, put this bluntly:

“In a democratic country, the public must be the master of industry.”

Durbin, who is normally thought of as very right wing indeed, went even further:

“To the centralised control of a democratic community our livelihood and security must be submitted.”

Crosland, writing in 1956, based his whole book on the necessity of elected Labour being in control of the economy.

All this, for all those 25 years, was persuasive. The ideas struck a chord among millions of people for one basic reason. It seemed quite possible that a future Labour government would be able to seize economic control from the capitalists and create a more equal society. It seemed possible if only because it had not been tried. A road to socialism had been opened up by the franchise: the parliamentary road. Before a majority Labour government was elected (first in 1945) there was no proof of what it could or could not do.

Thus Tawney, Gaitskell and Durbin, who wrote mainly before 1945, and, to a lesser extent (because he wrote after 1945) Crosland all seemed credible figures with something important to say. The credibility of their ideas depended on the possibility that they might be carried out.

In the 30 years since Crosland’s book there have been two long periods of Labour government, which spanned most of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1966 a Labour government was elected with the highest percentage of the poll ever won by the Labour Party, and with a majority of nearly 100 seats over all other parties in the House of Commons in peacetime, full-employment conditions. Again in 1974 Labour came back to office with a majority, again in peacetime, and again when. there were comparatively (with today) few people out of work.

There is no need for me to recite what happened to these governments. Roy Hattersley does it well enough.

“On the elimination of poverty and the promotion of equality the evidence is categorical ... we have not become a more equal society. In the ten years since 1976 the number of families below the DHSS poverty line has steadily increased.”

Quite true. And in the first three years of that ugly process Roy Hattersley was in the cabinet. This applies to all forms of equality, not just economic equality, as Hattersley again concedes:

“The PSI study of 1984 showed that racial discrimination in employment was just as great as it had been before the Racial Discrimination Act was passed ten years earlier.”

The same goes for the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act and all the efforts of Labour governments to pass equality through parliament.

ROY HATTERSLEY is surprised by this.

“If, as socialists believe, equality and liberty are indivisible, it first seems extraordinary that the extension of democracy has not produced a simultaneous increase in both conditions.”

Extraordinary indeed. But why? The question must be answered. Hattersley has a shot at it from time to time in his book. For instance:

“Society remains unequal and unfree largely because the privileged have held on to their privileges by exploiting their entrenched position.”

But that is just a tautology. The rich remain rich because they have hung onto their riches. Later on he tries again:

“The status of the City within our society demonstrates the ability of the rich and powerful to subvert even governments.”

Here he gives a modest example, citing the commitment given by Tate and Lyle to the Labour government in 1976 that if it was allowed to take over Manbre and Garton (another sugar firm) it would not make any workers redundant. When the sackings followed hard on the commitment, complains Hattersley, who was in charge of these matters in the cabinet of the time, “the government did not possess the power to insist that the promise must be kept.”

These are not, as they appear in this book, minor matters to be shrugged off in a sentence or two and left unexplained and undigested. For if it is true that the “rich and powerful” can “subvert” a Labour government and reverse that government’s intentions to make a more equal society, if it is true that such a government “does not possess the power” to bring the monopolists to heel, then the central mooring point on which the whole theory is based is kicked away.

Everything Tawney, Crosland or Gaitskell wrote was credible only in so far as it could be put into effect by a Labour government. If a Labour government can’t put any of it into effect, the whole argument, including even the argument for equality, loses its force.

In order to maintain the argument, therefore, the upholders of equality have to discover why the Labour governments have failed in the past, and seek a remedy for the future. If Hattersley is to convince people of the case for equality, he must also convince people that measures for a more equal society can be carried out by the next Labour government.

His own line of argument demands that he analyse in depth why Labour (at least in 1974-9 and also, arguably, in 1964-70) ended up with a less equal, more unemployed and divided society than when it started. It demands that he explain how the “subversion” of past governments by the rich is going to be stopped next time; how a Labour government in the tradition which he claims to represent – Tawney, Gaitskell, Crosland, no more than that – will take control of the economy and rule supreme over the dark forces which subverted Labour governments in the past.

That he will not and cannot do. If he was logical he would conclude from the past failures of Labour governments that the measures required next time must be stronger, more ruthless, more draconian. But he cannot proceed with that logic for two reasons.

FIRST there is his immediate problem: to win the next general election. In an atmosphere created by the capitalist counterattack which he so effectively derides, in the stench of defeat and retreat, when labour at every level is paralysed by its enemies’ successes and by its own lack of confidence, Labour voters look less and less for drastic or draconian solutions. The rage is all for “safe” Labour, for “MPs in suits” who are deferential to their leader, their country and their Queen. So to win the next election the solutions must be soft, easy and nice to everyone.

The second reason is more fundamental. It is that Hattersley himself is infected, as all his colleagues are, by the long years of defeat in government and humiliation in opposition. He does not really believe that any of the old remedies can work again, because he knows they did not work last time.

An incident at the last Labour conference perfectly illustrates this mood. The old left wing warhorse Ian Mikardo made a speech in which he argued that as soon as Labour is elected it must impose rigid exchange controls, as it did in the past. He argued that if the Labour government lost control of the money in the country, it would lose control altogether.

Roy Hattersley replied for the executive. He pooh-poohed the idea of exchange controls. “We all know they wouldn’t work, Mik,” he said. “After all, they didn’t last time.” His solution, therefore, was to abandon all controls and leave the money to the monetarists.

In his political solutions he takes a huge step back from the very limited aspirations of the tradition from which he comes. He is far more reactionary even than Gaitskell and Crosland, let alone Tawney. In a key sentence, which is really the conclusion of the entire book, Hattersley writes:

“In a more realistic age we have to limit our aspirations to curbing the City’s power and to directing its enthusiasms in a socially desirable direction.”

This is the sentence which must be pitted against all the high-flown Tawneyite stuff about equality and a new social order at the beginning of the book. “In a more realistic age” – he means by that an age of consistent victories of British capital over British labour. “We have to limit our aspirations to curbing the City’s power” – how much lower can aspirations fall? And finally, magnificently, he pledges himself “to directing the City’s enthusiasms in a socially desirable direction”.

What is the City’s main, indeed its only, enthusiasm? It is, as Roy Hattersley knows perfectly well, to make money for a handful of people. And how does it do that? By gambling in other people’s robbed labour. The very notion “socially desirable” is hostile to everything for which the City of London stands. Yet Roy Hattersley limits his aspirations for the next five years to “directing its enthusiasms” in the direction to which all its enthusiasms are, by its very nature, utterly opposed.

This policy is flanked by little else: a murmur about slightly higher taxes for the rich; another National Investment Bank with far less powers even than the ones which were so humiliated in the past; a slightly tougher mergers and monopolies policy which would put the state of the law on such matters rather to the right of where Roy Hattersley, Consumer Affairs Minister, left it in the late 1970s.

He has cast away the very central plank of the political platform which he says he represents. When Tawney, Gaitskell, Durbin and Crosland wrote about equality, their words had some meaning because they all believed they would, as Labour ministers, get control of the economy. Their arguments, therefore, had some strength and resonance. Roy Hattersley does not believe he can get control of the economy. He still believes in the egalitarian ideas of his youth. He wants a more equal society.

Like Donald Crowhurst he knows he must get round the world. But also, like Crowhurst, he knows he cannot. He has not got the equipment. He is at the mercy of the wind and the tides. So, like Crowhurst, he solves his problem by saying he will do it when he knows he cannot. Crowhurst managed to delude a lot of experts for quite a long time. Perhaps that was because no one had ever tried the trick before.

Hattersley is entirely unconvincing. His long passages about equality, coupled with a rhetorical appeal at the end of the book to “recapture the spirit of 1945” are just so much Utopian waffle. He is exposed even before he embarks on what he knows is an impossible journey.

At least Crowhurst had the decency to commit suicide rather than be publicly rumbled. I doubt whether Roy Hattersley will go that far.



1. Roy Hattersley, Choose Freedom, Michael Joseph £12.95

Last updated on 30 October 2019