There is a real difference between Right and Left and, argues a Conservative politician, it is wrong to talk of ‘taking the big issues out of politics.’
In politics, certain words suddenly become fashionable. Sometimes they are just words. Sometimes they reveal a whole attitude of mind and influence the development of thought. Then they can be dangerous and set us on a false trail. Consensus is one of these.
It isn't difficult to see how it has become popular with some politicians. In the post-war years, all Governments in this country have tended to be more compromising in power than their policies in Opposition would have led an inexperienced observer to expect.
On the Left, Mr. Callaghan did not introduce the wealth tax he proclaimed as Shadow Chancellor, Mr. Wilson did not denegotiate the Nassau Agreement, Kenneth Robinsonthe Health Minister had to bring back prescription charges, and the immigration laws have been strengthened although Mrs. Barbara Castle said they would be repealed.
On the Right, we were not as successful in controlling public expenditure as we ought to have been, we were slow to get on to trade union law reform, we left surtax too high and estate duty at confiscatory levels. On both sides performance seemed to fall short of political philosophy—why?
Economic realities and administrative difficulties are the two greatest modifiers of policies, but they are too readily used as an excuse. The reason why a particular policy has been delayed may be given as “No money” ; but it is more likely that the Government has preferred to spend money elsewhere. And “administrative impossibility” so often turns out to be possible under another Minister or Government.
These factors make for a superficial similarity between the parties, but a deeper analysis of the system finds fundamental differences in approach. Consider the essential characteristics of British democracy.
A democratic system of government rests in some measure on the consent of the governed. But consent will never be unanimous. There will be a majority for and a minority against.
Consent does not therefore require that the Government be the Government of one's own choice. But it does require that a periodic choice be made. This in turn necessitates the development and discussion of rival philosophies and policies, and the free play of conflicting opinions.
Now apply the consensus theory. If the parties between whom the choice is made become substantially similar the differences dwindle to insignificance and so there is no real choice. There could be no change of policy. Only a change of people responsible for those policies. But the majority reacts against policies as well as against politicians.
Democracy therefore contains within itself the means of orderly change through choice and consent. Clash of opinion is the stuff of which democracy is composed.
It therefore makes little sense to talk of taking the big issues “out of politics,” or to imply that different approaches to a subject involve “playing politics” with it. They don't; they merely involve using the system for the purpose for which it was intended.
Take, for example, one of the great political issues, nationalisation and the extension of State control on the one hand versus free enterprise and reduction of State intervention on the other.
The Left wing believes that State ownership coupled with central control enables its Government to plan the production of each product in relation to the other, e.g. gas, electricity and coal. The control on investment is so close that, for example, British Railways has to ask the Minister's permission before it can spend on capital requirements any sum larger than a quarter-of-a million pounds. And each of the nationalised industries has to submit its annual investment programme for approval to the sponsoring Minister.
I marvel at the intellectual arrogance and conceit of any politician who thinks he knows so much that he can plan all this. But of course he doesn't. It is left to his officials; and those at the top are probably too busy with the general administration of the department. And as the job is passed down the line, and advice comes back through the hierarchy to a Cabinet Minister, the chances are that he doesn't spend more than the equivalent of two days a week, if that, on considering policy decisions; the rest is taken up with Cabinet meetings and committees, political speeches, Parliamentary and constituency work.
The real decisions therefore are taken by unknown people removed from the practical realities and probably lacking that experience and judgment which make the difference between right and wrong decisions. Before the final decision is made, the plans may be changed for political or social reasons. Whatever happens, the decision may prove wrong because of inadequate data or false forward assessments, and the consequences of this error are then magnified throughout the entire public sector. Perhaps this explains some of the bad investment decisions. [end p14]
Yet the old intellectual theories of nationalisation still remain. Aneurin Bevan once referred to an intellectual vested interest as the most stubborn of all. He said:
It defends itself against criticisms with a morbid self-consciousness. It refuses to yield at any point because it sees, in every inch it gives up, not so much a concession to reality as a surrender to its enemy.
The Conservative approach is different. We dislike monopoly and seek to break it up, we believe that competition is the best and the only final test of efficiency, that decisions should be made where the experience and knowledge are to be found, that the test of their correctness is the market-place and that the consequences of wrong decisions should not be borne by the taxpayer.
How far can the Right-wing approach, which is to increase the private sector, be put into practice?
To adopt the consensus theory would be to do nothing. To adopt the alternative policy approach would be to set about making those changes which would gradually reduce the public sector, thus saving the tax-payers' money and giving greater consumer choice.
Certain things would need to be set in hand:
1 Before a buyer or buyers could be found, those parts of industries which could be denationalised would have to be reorganised into units that make them attractive and saleable.
2 Where utilities like electricity were concerned, we should investigate the possibility of increasing the amount of private generation. In Sweden—a country which has had a Left-wing Government for many years—less than half of the electricity is generated by the State;
3 Sell off many of the subsidiary companies which should never be owned by the nationalised industries.
So far we have been dealing with broad issues. There are two other kinds of issues. First, those such as capital punishment and, second, those which concern a specific locality, such as the line of a motorway or the site of an airport. Neither of these, important though they are, raises questions of political philosophy. Nevertheless, any party may make a statement about them in its election manifesto.
We therefore come to the position that the Government of the day governs by consent of the majority on political issues, but may be without majority consent on certain specific matters.
This disproves the current doctrine that a party has a “mandate” to carry out everything in its election policy. The reason why specific promises of this kind should be honoured does not depend on a consent principle, but on the ground that they were promises and might have influenced someone's vote.
Any party should be wary of making too many detailed promises of a non-political nature. A political alternative is more than a catalogue of specific promises. It is founded on a different conception of ways of life tempered by reality.