the debate about Clause 4 is a debate which never really happened. Or rather, it would be truer to say that a phony debate, purposefully raised by Mr. Gaitskell and his close compatriots in order to strangle the subject of common ownership once and for all, and conducted by them in the most doctrinal manner possible, has come to an end without a clear decision having been declared one way or another. The Economist, throughout, prepared a sturdy ramp for the leadership, and The Spectator nobly fended off Michael Foot and the ‘rebels’ in its editorial columns. But despite the much-publicised National Executive meetings, and the calculated (and uncalculated) leaks to the press, and the passing of drafts in Swiss Cottage, the debate at the top failed to connect: it neither settled the question of ‘means’ and ‘ends’, nor did it envisage anything like a political timetable for the Labour Movement. While the National Executive laboured and travailed over words, the electorate yawned.
The compromise quite accurately reflects the present disposition of strength within the Party. Mr. Gaitskell carefully estimated that the shock of electoral defeat, the general torpor and the unpopularity of Morrisonstyle nationalisation, would be powerful enough to drive his policies through, setting “piecemeal engineering, within the framework of capitalism”, at the masthead of the Party. Instead, the Left—composed on this occasion of some Left MP’s, Tribune, the bulk of the constituencies and a scattering of centre Trade Unionists—managed to halt the drift towards tame Fabianism, without mustering enough strength to set a more socialist perspective before a faltering Party. The result, for the time being, is that Mr. Gaitskell has neither won nor lost: he has been stalemated. The New Testament, with its flabby, imprecise phrase about “the commanding heights” (which pleased everyone, without settling anything) now sits beside the Old, giving off its pale gloss. Mr. Gaitskell has been forced to accept, with better grace than he showed at Blackpool, a compromise solution, but he is still in possession of the only “commanding heights” that matter at the moment—the leadership of the Party itself.
The compromise also reflects the weakness of the Left. After ten years in the wilderness, it has failed so far to convert a manoeuvre, intended to destroy it, into a political debate which would transform the Movement. The opposition was a pretty ragged affair. The constituency parties are still instinctively inclined to the left, but they have not heard a convincing case for common ownership since 1945. Many Trade Unionists who rose to the defence of Clause 4, were acknowledging —rather guiltily—past loyalties, rather than affirming present principles. Mr. Cousins, who knows a mixed economy when he sees one—and doesn’t like it, held his hand until so late a point in the game (he did the same thing last year in the nuclear debate), that he preserved his independence, but weakened the quality of the resistance to creeping Gaitskellism. Mr. Bevan was ill. The Left, instead of being on the attack, found itself leaderless, without that compelling political vision which could give heart and direction to the Party, fighting a rearguard palace revolution.
Is the situation really so desperate? There are, surely, three main tasks for the Left. The first is to develop the moral and economic case for socialism in a developed and so-called ‘affluent’ society. The second is to recreate the tattered vision of a new society. The third is to discover the political means for taking us through to that society in the sixties, without the risk of nuclear extermination. Are there no answers to these questions?
In fact, the moral and economic case has been more cogently argued in the last few months than at any other time this decade. The case against a semi-stagnating, inflation-ridden, jerky and unjust ‘prosperity’ was presented by John Hughes, in his Tribune pamphlet, Socialism in the Sixties, in terms which even the News Chronicle was forced to admit had logic and cogency. Audrey Harvey’s pamphlet, Casualties of the Welfare State, ripped to shreds the Crosland thesis that managed capitalism is delivering the goods in the welfare sector. Professor Titmuss, in The Irresponsible Society, showed, not only the moral bankruptcy of a society of “private opulence and public squalor”, but also linked this with the compelling theme of the growing, built-in concentrations of wealth and privilege, which mock the concepts of equality and social justice. Mr. Gaitskell, who was bland and confident enough to preside over Professor Titmuss’s press conference, must either have lacked the time to read the pamphlet carefully, or be incapable of understanding its political point. Michael Foot, among others, stirred by the palpable insanity of a society which permitted the atrocity of Mr. Cotton’s Piccadilly monster, pushed Mr. Gaitskell into admitting that perhaps the Labour Party ought to consider the nationalisation of urban land!—a proposal so radical in its implications that it would put every policy proposal contained in the purple pages of The Future Labour Offers You into the shade.
The staring, unmistakable fact is, as Charles Taylor argued in his article, What’s Wrong With Capitalism (NLR 2), that the priorities of our society are hopelessly wrong, and wrong, not because of the ineptitudes of Mr. Amory but because of the nature of capitalism
“Are members really satisfied with a scale of values under which we are spending more on advertising than on industrial research, more on packaging than on education, and more on egg subsidies than universities?”