On Richard Pryke’s Labour and the City

Richard Pryke’s resignation is immensely to his credit, and indicates integrity that is hard to come by in the venal world of Wilsonian ‘consensus’. His article is an interesting account of what has happened since October 1964, but one is left with feeling that an analysis should begin where he leaves off. This is perhaps no accident, for he unconsciously indicates his theoretical basis in the body of his article. This needs to be noted and weighed.

Firstly, he says, ‘When Labour was returned to power in October 1964 it was not, nor does the fact now need emphasizing, as well prepared in the economic field as in some other areas.’ Later he goes on, ‘The Labour Party’s policy for the planned modernization of British industry, however excellent in general conception, had not been thought out in sufficient detail’. One must question the underlying assumption here, which is that the Labour Government’s failure (if failure it be) is somehow related to a lack of technical expertise. Rather than the lack of expertise, which is debatable, I think it is, or should be, clear that the policies now being pursued stem from a much deeper-rooted malaise, i.e. to a lack of a socialist strategy. Let me refresh some memories about what George Brown wrote in his introduction to that now forgotten document ‘The National Plan’. He said: ‘Most manufacturing industry and commerce is, and will continue to be, largely governed by the market economy . . . Care will be taken not to destroy the complex mechanisms on which the market economy is based’. This, in the light of that has happened since 1964, cannot be shrugged off as one of George’s ‘little mistakes’; rather it was an express commitment by the Labour Government that it did not intend to attack the capitalist power structure in Britain.

Richard Pryke continues, ‘One reason for the Party’s inadequate preparation in the economic field was that it was devoting most of its energy and resources to getting back into power . . . Watching the incredible mistakes of the Conservatives they thought they could manage things better’. Again one has to question the validity of the underlying assumptions here. Would it not be more correct to assume that the Labour leaders acted on the belief that once in power they would have the resources of the civil service at their disposal, and so did not need to be engaged in detailed planning prior to assuming office. This, of course, being predicated on the happy vision that the civil service is only an instrument, and will respond to a light touch of Wilsonian helmsmanship.

Again, one must ask, were the mistakes of the Tories so incredible from their own point of view’, and indeed were they mistakes? The fact that they almost scraped home in October 1964 indicates that perhaps their electoral judgment was not so misplaced. As far as their economic judgment is concerned their conjectural timing was admirable—the boom was in full spate for the election year. On a deeper level, i.e. the general malaise of the British economy, they were circumvented by the relationship of class forces within Britain. It has been left to a Labour Government to deal with this. I think that Richard Pryke makes an unwarrantable assumption that the preparation was inadequate; inadequate for what? For an assault on capitalism yes, but for other purposes—hardly. Within the given framework the Labour Government has not given such a bad account of itself.

When Richard Pryke writes that, ‘Any thorough examination of overseas expenditure . . . would have called into question Britain’s relations with nato and the United States’, it seems that he has misunderstood the whole basis of neo-imperialism. It is certainly true that these two relationships would have been called into question, but this leaves out the more fundamental question of the role of defence expenditure in relation to British investments overseas. He makes no attempt to relate the continued swollen expenditure with Wilson’s defence of sterling, surely an elementary deduction?

However, where one must take issue at a deeper level is on the question of the role of the City. Even a cursory reading of Pryke indicates that he is still a victim of the City fetish that is part of the armour of liberal radicalism èla Shonfield or Davenport. He quite correctly pours cold water on the ‘gnomic’ theory of crisis in relation to Zurich, but replaces it with a ‘viper in our bosom’ theory. It was precisely this kind of analysis that Tom Nairn tried to overcome in his ‘Labour Imperialism’ (nlr 32). It would be as well for the British left if it stopped using such emotive and comforting phrases as ‘Bankers Ramp’; they are not merely inaccurate, but positively misleading. Such phrases place the loci of the crisis outside of the British context, and savour of chauvinism. The role of the foreign banks, especially the central ones, has been very different in the present crisis to that of 1931. Moreover so has that of the City. It is certainly true that the Bank of England and the City have urged deflationary measures. It is therefore correct for socialists to expose their reactionary nature and role, but having done this it is not enough to assume that one has completed the job. Where Richard Pryke and the liberal-radicals fall down is to assume that today one can make a sharp distinction between financial and industrial capital. These two elements no longer comprise two distinct entities, but rather form wings of an intergrated class. Tom Nairn hit the nail on the head when he wrote, ‘The giants, Unilever, ici, bmc, have their own huge networks of foreign investment and association, independent of but parallel to those controlled through the City. That they are also parts of a relatively stagnant home economy alters nothing of this fact. This plainly means that these, the spearhead of British industrial capitalism, are also directly interested in maintaining the value of the pound.’