Ptolemy is supplementing his diet with a piece of bread pinched from the table.
Ivor the Engine, 1958, first series, sixth episode.
A couple of weeks ago I thought people might be interested in discussing Noel Skelton’s “Constructive Conservatism”.
I was wrong.
(4) But to pass to the Referendum—crown and apex of a constructive Conservatism in the new era. Accepted by Conservatives in the Constitutional crisis of 1910-1911, its value and necessity are infinitely more obvious now. It was called for then to save the House of Lords; it is needed now to protect democracy. For if democracy, faced in the new era by Socialism as its scarcely disguised enemy, is, from a constitutional point of view, to be made stable and safe, if its property and liberty are to be preserved, the people, in the last resort, must directly and for themselves decide their own fate. And for this duty they are ripe. Meantime, it needs only a blunder or two on the part of a Cabinet, a General Election dominated by passion or prejudice, and the flank of the Constitution is turned. The task of Conservatism in the new era would be only half done if the British democracy were to be denied a means of protection the value of which has been amply proved elsewhere.
And, in conclusion, whatever means be taken to stabilise democracy, this much is clear—that the Conservative Party cannot leave it a matter of guesswork what its outlook is. “Democracy,” Lord Balfour once said, “is government by explanation.” The mass of the people are profoundly perplexed by the paradox that Conservatism, in which they have so deep an instinctive belief, is apparently content to leave its view of life unexplained, its principles unstated, while Socialism, which they distrust exceedingly, is fearless and untiring in setting out its aims and ideals. Liberalism is dying because its principles are dead. It will fare ill with Conservatism unless it breaks its silence and makes clear to the nation that it, too, has a vision of the future—of a property-owning democracy, master of its own life, made four-square and secure, and able therefore to withstand the shrill and angry gales which, in the new era’s uneasy dawn, sweep across the world of men.
(2) Of small ownership in land, only a word can be said. In principle, generally recognised to be a most powerful factor in the stability of the State and in the development of a rural democracy of character and intelligence, the policy of small holdings has greatly suffered in Great Britain from the methods which have been adopted. Extravagant expenditure on equipment and administration by Government departments or County Councils has been combined with demands for payments from the holder, based upon the principle of making him pay rent for the land, and in addition interest on the full cost of erecting the buildings. No private landowner gets an annual return if he lets his land, or a purchase price if he sells it, calculated in this way. The result has been that our State-constituted holdings have imposed on their cultivators burdens which no other agriculturists in Britain have to bear. The resettlement of the land of England and Scotland, the development of intensive cultivation, the reconstitution of rural community, are matters so vital that every effort to devise sounder methods of instituting small holdings than those presently in operation must be made by Conservatism. And this is pre-eminnently a problem which Conservative knowledge and resource can solve. Let it not be forgotten that the Wyndham Land Act was the last and greatest constructive work which Unionism did for Ireland.
(3) And agricultural co-operation. The foundation of modern agriculture throughout the world, the way to prosperity for the small cultivator and large farmer alike, it is inextricably bound up with the Conservative view of life, because it is essentially the means whereby in the cultivation of the soil the individual can be helped to help himself. On this there can safely be neither silence nor indifference. All that the State can do, all that the politician can say, should be said and done to spread a knowledge and assist the development of agricultural co-operation, if in the new era Conservatism is prepared to give of its best to the nation.
And if it be here objected that apparently all parties in the State are alive to the importance of agricultural co-operation, it must be said, in rejoinder, that so preponderating is the influence of Conservative thought on at least two out of the three great agricultural classes, that without active and ardent Conservative support and exposition, confidence in co-operative principles in agriculture would advance only at a snail’s pace, since distrust of Liberalism is complete in rural England, and is rapidly increasing in rural Scotland, while the country populations of both nations agree in their contempt for the town-bred fallacies of Socialism.
(1) First, then, as to industrial co-partnery. It rests on a firm basis of principle. Capital and Labour by it are to the full recognised as partners in the work of the production of wealth, for each shares in the true profits of that production, arrived at after each, the one by way of a fair rate of interest, the other by way of a fair wage, has been paid the price for its services in the common work. And further, the wage-earner’s proportion of the profits is paid to him partly in cash, partly invested for him in the concern, while, as the workers become capitalists, “seats on the Board,” either for the domestic internal government of the concern, or for its general direction, very naturally follow.
Thus status and property-owning grow together; the wage-earner, as industrialist, from a machine becomes a man. Nor is this all. To the wage-earner, co-partnery brings a new incentive and a new kind of interest in his work, arising out of his new relation to it; a wider industrial outlook, since, as his savings in the business increase, so does his interest in its general prosperity, for that prosperity affects him directly as a shareholder.
To the community it brings all the results that flow form a real identification of interest between Capital and Labour—reduction of the number of strikes, with their waste of the national wealth and dislocation of the national life; the elimination of such crazy doctrines as that of “ca’ canny”’; improvement in the standard of both management and work, since the wage-earner will not readily submit to his own good work being neutralized by the slackness of his neighbour, or the incompetence of his manager.
Moreover, co-partnery is clearly on the broad highway of economic evolution, for it is the next available incentive to increased productivity. Increase of wages and reduction of the hours of labour have both contributed largely in he last hundred years to this result. But it is more than doubtful whether both of these factors have not exhausted their impetus, and from a purely economic point of view are not now “squeezed oranges”.
And finally, the development of co-partnery and profit-sharing is the natural and obvious concomitant of any system of protecting British industry. For it has told against Tariff Reform that it has seemed to many to be the sole constructive suggestion which Conservatism had to make, and it has, perhaps in consequence, acquired almost the character of a substitute for, instead of a part of, a general policy of improving the status of the wage-earner. Certainly many opponents have made haste to point out to the working classes that, in the existing industrial system, the lion’s share of any advantage would, in their opinion, fall to Capital rather than Labour.
Such a criticism would be of no avail under a system in which employer and employee clearly shared alike in the increased prosperity.
Yet there are objections. It is said, “Some industries are not suited to the system.” Possibly not. But has there yet been any determined effort to work out in practice the modifications necessary to make it suit the special circumstances of particular trades? The overcoming of practical difficulties is a matter for resource and will-power, once the value of the underlying principle is realised. Conservatism in the new era must refute Anatole France’s mocking remark that moderate men and women are those who have only a moderate belief in moderate opinions.
And again, “The Trade Unions are against it.” Perhaps their Socialist leaders are, but battle has to be joined with them in any case. That the great mass of the wage-earners is hostile can hardly be maintained, since the fact is that no political party has yet seriously addressed itself to the exposition of co-partnery in all its bearings. In any case, co-partnery is the ideal ground on which to fight Socialism, for it emphasizes the distinction, fundamental but neglected, between a property-owning democracy and the Socialist ideal, and if the Trade Union leaders hide away from their followers the more excellent way, so much the worse, when the truth is discovered, for them and for their leadership.
If, therefore, the master-problem in our highly industrialised country be how to bring the economic status of the wage-earner abreast of his political and educational, the master-key to that problem is clearly industrial co-partnery.
IV — Democracy Stabilised
In the preceding pages, an attempt has been made to sketch the main features of the new era, and to indicate the opportunity which opens to a constructive Conservatism to solve the problem it presents. It remains to state as clearly as may be some of the means which lie ready to develop a property-owning democracy, to bring the industrial and economic status of the wage-earner abreast of his political and educational, to make democracy stable and four-square.
These (to mention only subjects of the widest importance) are, it is submitted, four: (1) for the wage-earner, whether in factory or in field, industrial co-partnery, or its halfway house, profit-sharing; (2) for the agriculturist, who seeks to become completely his own master, small ownership; (3) for the rural world as a whole, agricultural co-operation; (4) for the community, to secure it against sudden assault, the Referendum.
One common principle underlies these proposals, making them a practical and accurate expression of the Conservative “view of life,” for each, in its own way and in its own sphere, at once develops the character of the individual, and the stability of the social structure. It may be objected that, of these, co-partnery and profit-sharing cannot successfully be brought into operation by Act of Parliament, but must grow as the nation’s understanding of them grows. So be it—though the extent to which the State can induce the adoption of profit-sharing by legislation has never been zealously or exhaustively explored. All the more natural and essential it is that Conservatism should make this great topic its own: for it offers a means of economic, social and national progress which the State cannot dole out with a spoon. And if Conservatism fails to show the nation an alternative line of advance, it would have to bear the blame should the people come to the conclusion that the only way forward lay along the Socialist path, however desperate and perilous that might be.