Film: “The Spirit of ’45“
Ken Loach’s ‘The Spirit of 45’ shows how the post-war Attlee government undertook the most extensive and radical overhaul of industry and public services, despite the economy being in dire straits. ‘The Spirit of 45’ legacy lives on in the NHS, but it and many other public services are under attack; the divide between the rich and the rest, has become greater; and the nation’s political and financial power resides again, within a very small circle of decision-makers. So what stands in the way of reviving the ‘common good?’ And how do we pay for it?
8 June 2013
Panel Discussion: The ‘Spirit of 45’ – reviving the ‘common good’ and how to pay for
(Intro) Deborah Burton, Tipping Point Film Fund
(Chair) John Hilary, War on Want
John Christensen, Tax Justice Network
Lord Maurice Glasman (academic, social thinker and Labour life peer)
Polly Courtney (author Golden Handcuffs, a biting semi-autobiographical exposé on life in the Square Mile and a regular commentator in the press as well the BBC and Channel 4 News)
Chris Ford, Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB)
Special thanks to Dogwoof and the Barbican.
made by Lin Ho-Chih
photographed and transcribed by Isabelle Chaize
Deborah: The theme of today, we’ve had three events today under the broad title of ‘Tax and Civilised Society’. The conversation we’re going to have now is around the idea of reviving the ‘Spirit of ‘45’ and more importantly how to pay for it. John Hilary is going to chair for us, John is executive director of War on Want, author of upcoming Poverty of Capitalism. …
John H: Thanks very much to the Barbican for giving us the time to take forward the discussion about the movie we’ve seen and how that feeds into the present. Can I call the people on the panel, Polly and Maurice, and also Chris Ford who’s also been involved with the cleaners’ movement outside as well. Thank you everyone for coming and I hope you found that as moving as I did, the idea that at a time when Britain was completely bankrupt after the Second World War there could be that level of ambition, that level of vision and that level of inspiration to create a decent civilised society. I think it’s really that spirit that Ken has wanted to try to put into this, but not just as a historical record. The idea is that this is a political project that gets us to think about what the situation is today, and why we’re sitting in a completely different world to the one which we saw in 1945. And we’ve got a really fantastic panel of speakers here to start this discussion, and I want it to be a discussion which we can all take part in…
I’m going to start with a short introduction from each speaker, and then I’m going to throw it open not so much for questions to the panel, although if you want to ask a question you’re welcome, but more for a general discussion. Starting with John Christensen, who is the director of the Tax Justice Network and has been working for many years to try to plumb the depths of exactly what’s gone wrong in the passage of time from ’45 until now, and I think that’s my question to you John.
John C: The rot set in very early on, in fact even as Attlee took power the neo-liberal were already fighting back. They’d organised even before the war, starting in Paris, and almost immediately afterwards they started to convene meetings. To begin with very covertly but funded by others. They were absolutely determined not to allow the welfare state to flourish. And they did it partly by ensuring that every single step taken by any progressive government would be countered by, for example, the Bank of England ensuring that our exchange rate policies were never geared to assist with a proper post-war construction; to ensure that our tax policies in Britain were always geared to promote the interests of the rich. You heard Attlee talking about the rent-seekers and the capitalists and of course our policies have always been to their favour.
And almost from the very start their counter-attack included ensuring that not only were our tax policies were geared to favour the rich, but also that our banking regulation would be undermined and that British capital could go straight back to its pre-war, in fact to its imperial past. Because we in Britain never really had a very successful capitalism from the start, even though the Industrial Revolution began in this country, by the end of the 19th century we had already lost the productive battle. Our capitalism was already conceding ground to German capitalism, to French capitalism, above all to the United States, and we had become, or rather our banks had become, geared to the interest of financial capitalism.
The big project was to revive the power of the City of London by keeping sterling as high as possible; by making sure our tax policies always favoured the rich; by allowing Britain’s tax havens to become very powerful at a global level to attract capital from across the rest of the world. By the mid-1960s we were already, that is we the progressive left, were already beginning to lose that battle, the Bank of England was winning, the City of London was regaining its independence, and I would argue that by 1986 we had a completely different spirit in this country.
The spirit of 86 was a spirit of greed, it was a spirit of neoliberalism, a spirit of deregulation, of privatizing absolutely everything, of taxing middle and lower-income households and not taxing the rich. That came from somewhere; that came from a massive project, very heavily funded and largely funded, it has to be said, from within Britain. It began with organisations like the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute, the Mont Pelerin Society, look it up if you aren’t familiar with it. They had already invested, virtually every single economics department, the vast majority of our newspapers already had, journalists who had been indoctrinated by this idea that Britain’s future lay with a deregulated economy, a powerful City of London.
And as it happens I grew up in Jersey, I grew up in a very privileged little island which already by the 1960s was emerging as a tax haven, and I grew up in that spirit which became predominant here, that spirit of ‘socialism is a bad thing, everything collective is a bad thing, collective education is a bad thing, collective health is a bad thing’. And these places, Jersey in particular, saw collections of bankers and so on, bankers, accountants, lawyers, who saw it as their project to undermine everything that progressive forces stood for. And they were prepared to sabotage every single effort if they had to, they would sabotage sterling and indeed they did in the 1960s and the 1970. And they had very powerful allies in this process; they had for example the Bank of England, which right from the start, right from the moment it was nationalised, saw it as their project to hinder every single thing that Attlee aimed to do. And in that respect it’s absolutely extraordinary that the first Labour government managed to put into place the National Health Service, the Education Act, and everything you saw there, despite the fact that right from the start the City of London and its agents like the Bank of England were trying to sabotage their efforts.
So to sum up, I think that the really big failing of the first Labour government was not to take control, they didn’t take control of the Bank of England, they didn’t take control of the banks, they didn’t regulate the banks sufficiently. If we are to move forward we must now roll back on the power of the banks, we must now put into place tax policies which actually tax the rent-seekers and the capitalist class, we must tax land, if you look at land ownership in this country it has one of the most concentrated landownerships in the world, over 70% of the land belongs to less than 1% of the population. We need to roll back on the power bases which by and large remain hidden. So I think there were mistakes from the very outset, but we can learn the lessons now and one of the lessons we need to learn is that our banking industry, far from being the gem that we delude ourselves into thinking that this is what we’re really good at, our banking system is completely unfit for purpose and must be completely changed because without that we will not be able to restructure the economy back towards a productive rather than a rent-seeking economy.
John H: Thank you very much for that. It’s very important to move it to that structural discussion, obviously we saw the face of Thatcher and when the question was posed, what got us into this mess, and up comes her face, it satisfies a very easy answer within us, but there are structural, very deep concerns. And I think that’s a nice point on which to bring in Polly, who has worked in the heart of the beast, in the City for many years, and written about it. Polly I suppose the question to you is, what is it that is actually continuing that whole tradition of capitalist assault on society, and what can we do about it?
Polly: Hi, I don’t work in the City any more, in case anyone’s going to throw anything at me! I left quite a long time ago. And I left for exactly the reason that has been reiterated in various guises today i.e. that the City, I discovered in my less than two years there, was this centre of greed, the nice word is aspiration but it’s greed basically, and narcissism, and all the things that I’m sure you imagine, and now are coming out in the headlines and we know all about. But in terms of why it’s like that and why it’s a problem, and what we can do about it, it’s a really, I’m sure some of you have had experiences and are familiar with the financial industry, and it’s a really strange place, for anyone who hasn’t been in it. It’s hard to describe.
From a personal perspective it was like a bubble, being there. Anyone who’s walked from Moorgate to here this afternoon will know that it’s a very weird place, it’s a very different environment from your average part of the country, it doesn’t represent the people or the place or anything about real life. And to be in it, that’s exactly what it is like. It’s removed from society. And I remember there were specific conversations like, on bonus day and when we were told our bonuses, the amounts we would be getting, someone who was a VP, who would be getting definitely in the six figures for their bonus, came back and joked ‘it’s like working for charity!’ And I thought, that’s, are you joking? These are the sort of hilarious, I don’t know if they’re jokes or just the way people are, but that’s kind of representative of what goes on in the City. And it’s very…they are removed and aloof and they know they are, and they don’t need…people talk about them and us in terms of how the riots started and the people on the ground were saying it’s them and us. Well actually the City thinks that, they know it’s them and us, and they are the ones in control and in power.
Someone asked me the other day if it’s got any better as far as I could tell in the last ten years, because I left nearly ten years ago, and I wish I could say ‘yes, it’s got better’, but the only thing, as far as I can tell, that’s happened, is that people have become more aware of people watching them. So the City is very aware that the media and the people at the other end of the spectrum are hating them. But I don’t think they’re doing anything to change the way things are. So I’m afraid greed and narcissism are still ingrained in that culture. And because it attracts a certain type of person, it’s this bubble that’s self-contained, and self-sustaining really. I wish I had the answer. I think regulation is one of the answers, but also on a bigger scale diversification of industry so that we are less reliant on the City. But the City itself is just carrying on as it always was.
John H: Thank you for that, it sort of meets our expectations. I suppose the structural challenges are clear, but I want to bring a bit of politics into it because our next speaker is Maurice Glasman, Labour peer. And in a sense you heard right from the end there, the problem for us is not the Tory party, because the Tory party has remained constant, that’s an unchanging body which is set up to satisfy the aspirations of capital. The problem for us is the Labour party and the stunning difference between the vision and the aspirations of the people we saw – Clem Attlee we saw speaking there at Westminster Central Hall, Nye Bevan and the others. What’s gone wrong? How can we get a Labour party which will actually bring us back to that type of vision and that type of aspiration?
Maurice: Well, first of all I’d like to say that the best part of the day for me was meeting the living wage campaigners outside, it brought back very good memories of my life and of living wage campaigning, and they started that campaign about seven years ago, and to see that they’ve actually… Now, this comes to the difficult bit – I really hated that film. I thought it was manipulative, one-dimensional, propagandistic, I didn’t like it at all, I’ve just got to get that out there and say that the 1945 government is a huge problem. It’s a huge problem on three levels.
The first, which was kind of raised, is that the model of nationalisation, basically, was a free pass for PPE graduates for four generations to rule us. And that’s what we’ve still got. So the Labour party was technocratic, managerial, Fabian; there was no worker representation, there was no user representation in the nationalised industries. This meant that they were genuinely authoritarian things. If you look at the pre-existing trade union history, going back to the 1890s right up ‘45, there were genuine ideas of worker ownership, partnerships. They talked about the canal, that was constantly supposed to be a partnership between workers, locals and users, that was all smashed by people who constantly stress the structural, what are we going to do… So I’m saying that I think your response to the film is naïve, I think you’re not looking at a whole range of problems relating to a very bureaucratic administrative and elitist form of management that was characteristic of ’45 that didn’t do us any good at all. So the first is the nationalised industries, that was horrid.
Secondly the National Health Service, which when I sit in the Lords and I see Labour peers speak of the National Health Service I get a really full understanding of what it means to live in the Soviet Union. Every one of them pays tribute to the heroism of the workforce, everybody involved with the National Health Service. However, people are being abused and neglected on the National Health Service and I don’t know why we can’t speak of this. And they’re abused and neglected once again because – and the interesting thing with the nationalisation model which wasn’t brought up, I noticed Manny Shinwell vaguely appearing, Manny Shinwell invited the National Union of Mineworkers onto the boards and they wouldn’t go. They wouldn’t go because trade unions in England, in Britain, didn’t want any form of partnership with businesses. This was a catastrophe that we have to look at.
Now, a very parallel world opened up in, of all places, Germany, where there was worker representation on boards, there were constraints on capital. Capital, banks were endowed, they could not lend outside the regions and the sectors. So there was worker representation on boards, there was vocational regulation of the labour market, and there were constraints on capital. Now the whole legacy of Thatcherism, and it’s a shocking thing, we saw it last week in the football, is that essentially Germany won. That’s the shocker of ’45, Germany went a different path that wasn’t nationalised, it was decentralised; it wasn’t based on nationalisation but partnership models; it wasn’t based on PPE graduates from Oxford but actual workers making decisions with managers who actually had some experience of working the industry they were involved with, rather than dependence on management consultants. This is a huge issue I want to raise. So I just want to say it was really great meeting the workers at the door. It was a lot worse watching the film, for me. And to see Tony Mulhearn, a militant SWP figure as a kind of casual observer in the thing, just added to general unbearable idea that I was being deceived. So I just want to put that out there.
So on the one hand you had a huge problem with nationalisation, on the second hand you had a problem with state centralised administrative systems. But the third level, the worst level, is that it didn’t challenge capital. This is the terrible thing. The City of London remained completely outside parliamentary jurisdiction; there were no constraints on the way that the City of London operated outside those constraints in terms of global capital and the maritime economy. So that’s where…where we are is we have to rediscover each other, we have to discover the pre-1945 labour movement that didn’t surrender all power and authority to social science graduates and economists and accountants and the rest of the people who’ve been bossing us about for the last 60 years. And what we’ve got to do is organise each other to challenge the domination of both capital and the state. And that’s the dilemma we face.
John H: Thanks Maurice, and that will come up when we have the discussion later and we can look at different models of common ownership, because I think one thing we do all understand is the past is not there to be repeated, the past is an inspiration for a better present. One of the things I noted from the film is that it was a very strong image of a Labour aristocracy which is white and male, and I think that was one thing that came across very strongly to me as being a very different era from what we’ve had today. And I’m very happy to be able to give the floor to Chris Ford, who is the secretary of the IWGB which is the organising union for the cleaners who are outside. Chris, one of the things that came out of this is the importance of decent work and a living wage and the opportunity to work your way to a better future. And I know that’s been at the heart of the mobilization that you’ve been doing here. So I’d love to hear your reaction to the bit of the film you saw but also more generally about the cause at the moment.
Chris: Thank you very much. I want to begin by talking about the spirit of 1940 as opposed to the spirit of 1945 because I think it’s quite pertinent, particularly because of the issue of race and class in the labour market in London in particular. Because I would say at the present time we have a very dangerous atmosphere being created which is quite toxic, of intolerance, racism, which has become much more explicit in the workplace than at any time before, and I want to relate it back to 1940, to what precedes the spirit of ’45. And that is when it was quite OK for us to hail the presence of Polish, Czech, Romanian pilots flying spitfires against the Nazis, and build statues to celebrate East Europeans coming here and helping us keep this island safe from an invasion. It was perfectly OK, for a period, to recognise the presence of Indian and Caribbean and African soldiers in the British Army to resist the Nazis, and celebrate that as part of the overall struggle. Whereas today we have a completely different atmosphere being created where we’re told there is an invasion of Romanians, Poles are lowering our wages, God knows what the next story will be, probably an invasion from Mars probably coming via the Daily Mail. The atmosphere is poisonous, and it’s reflecting something that’s actually been happening for some time, and building up in workplaces.
So let’s start by knocking the myth on the head. Polish workers, and Latin American, and African workers, workers, don’t determine the wages in London. They don’t come here and as has been pointed out they certainly don’t have a vote on the board, to decide they’re going to get paid poverty pay, have to leave their homes in the middle of the night, do three jobs in a day, earn a pittance and have crummy, despicable accommodation where they then have to struggle all week to bring up their families. That’s the reality for many, many workers, and increasingly it’s the reality not only for migrant workers but for many others who already live here in this city.
And I want to begin with that, because the dispute which we’ve been lobbying here today on, regarding the Barbican, and it in fact includes the Guildhall, it began several years ago around the City of London Corporation, is quite symptomatic of this overall problem we face. The City of London Corporation, I would invite everyone to see the film called The Secret City, about the semi-feudal relic which we live under in this place, it’s not democratically elected.
If you work in a bank you can have a vote for the Common Council, but if you have to clean the toilets, just consider yourself lucky that you’re doing that. The conditions for the people who are the cleaners here in the City of London are quite frankly disgusting. In the Guildhall, where we began a few years ago, we began the strikes just to get paid the wages, which were £6.19 an hour, that people were entitled to get, they weren’t even receiving them. Twice they had to strike to get them. Then they asked for the living wage and they faced a torrent of union busting by the companies that were brought in and by the Corporation. In the Barbican Centre, which we’re sitting in here today, which holds itself up as one of the leading institutions of culture in Europe, similarly we found the pattern of union busting, not actually responding to the desires of the people. It’s disgraceful, here in the 21st century, here in these premises, where we have managers who can openly describe their workers as ‘black midgets’; it’s disgusting that we have pregnant workers who are simply requesting what is their rights, to different working when they’re heavily pregnant, being made to clean seven flights of stairs and collapsing in a pool of blood in the toilets and not even receiving an apology. These are the realities, and the response we’ve received from this hasn’t been to sit round the table to actually react, it’s been lies and excuses, and it’s been aggressive attacks.
Even today, I’m sitting here talking to you, they weren’t going to let me in here today because I’ve got this union flag in my bag. I’m going to hold it up because I want to stick this up to the Corporation of London, because they banned me for having this. It took the intervention of the platform to get me on here. And that’s quite symptomatic of them in reality. Now I want to knock it on the head because you’re probably going to get a statement going out after today and the fact that I’ve been here saying, ‘the Corporation are willing to pay the living wage, but the cleaning company won’t’; and then the cleaning company will say that they’re willing to pay the living wage but the Corporation won’t. Well let’s just say they’re both liars. If both of them are happy to pay the living wage, then let’s just say on Monday hopefully they will. But if they don’t, we’re going to be continuing to struggle. And it’s similar to the same struggles that are happening all across here in the City area.
Because there’s two spirits, and that’s where I disagree with the film; even under Thatcher there were always two spirits, there is a spirit at the bottom, where there people who always felt collectively, people who weren’t imbued with greed but actually did care about the people next to them, who attempted to associate with others and make it better in society; and that spirit continues to exist and it was out there on the pavement today. And then there was another spirit, and it’s always been there, it’s not new under Thatcher, it was greed, it was profit, and it’s called capitalism. That’s the problem, and you can’t control it, you need to abolish it.
John H: Thank you very much. I want to open it up to people, and I want people to respond in terms of what they’ve heard here which they agree with, and to respond about the things that they don’t feel that they agree with. This isn’t going to be a question and answer where you get one and one, but actually to open it up for a discussion. So if you’d like to ask a question, you’re welcome to ask a question and I’d ask the panel to register it in their heads, who’s asked them a question and they’ll respond to it eventually. But put your hands up if you’d like to respond to anything you’ve heard or anything you felt moved you about the film itself.
Question 1: I feel that you missed the point that was made in the film that what was being presented, as far as I could see, that it wasn’t perfect, there were plenty of people who were being interviewed who accepted that it wasn’t a perfect model, but they were trying to do something hugely radical. And I feel that the Labour party has lost that momentum from where I’m sitting, because if they’re for anything, they’re meant to be inspiring us, and they haven’t inspired me for a long time.
Question 2: What I think it was missing is what the Labour party did after 1997. For example, I think Tony Blair promised that he would abolish the internal market and GP fundholding, that was the creation of John Major’s government. What he did was NHS Plan 2000. What he did was establish what for 13 years would allow the Conservative government to pass the NHS Act 2000. Is there any sort of political will remaining in the Labour party today, that’s what I can’t answer.
Question 3: I do agree with Maurice, what you say about centralisation, it seems like it’s the major problem, and to solve all of the problems of capitalism by centralisation and to make governments that are already so complicit with capitalists, to make them powerful or any sort of concentration of power, it feels like that’s the problem. And whether you’re right-leaning or left-leaning, either way it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be solved by having more concentration of power in a few people’s hands.
Question 4: I don’t think there’s anything conflict with Maurice in terms of enjoying the film and still agreeing with some of his analysis. This is a Ken Loach take, I think it’s a fascinating one, I think it’s stimulating us to try and think of how we generate the spirit even if we don’t agree with some of the mechanics. But if I could pick up on one element that’s troubled me over many years as someone who’s been involved in the trade union, is the element that Maurice touched on and I don’t think developed which was about sensitivity to users. Because I think a lot of the traditional problems with nationalised industries and state control, whether at national or local level, has been that element. Someone at RMT was eulogizing about the wonderful feeling of involvement in the railway industry but I think if we’re honest, not that I’m defending nationalisation, but if I’m honest it could done have with a lot more sense of user input into it because a lot of us got deeply pissed off with the way in which it was run for the users rather than for the consumers and services. And I think that runs quite a way across many of the nationalised industries and it’s something that needs attention, whatever mechanisms we want to develop.
Question 5: I’d like maybe to offer a modest defence of the film. It may be unnecessary since everybody seemed to find it inspiring in one way or the other with the exception of Maurice perhaps. It seems to me the film is called the Spirit of ’45, it’s about the spirit. What made those particular conditions capable of producing such radical change, when after all, the Labour party was still led by a bunch of well-meaning, spirited reformists. How were they actually able to do so much and do it so well, even for a limited period of time and even so misguidedly; and what comes to me I suppose, is what I came in with, it was illustrated in the film, is the spirit of the people. What they had learned; how they had been empowered by the experience of the war and their role in it. You never get a progressive Labour government ever, still less one doing anything, unless the people have the radicalism and the experience and the radicalism and the power and the guts to drive them to it.
Now there was one other lost decade which was one of those areas which the film – the film did not cover everything. This was one of those areas it did not cover: the ‘70s. The ‘70s was a decade that has been lost to the neoliberal analysis, the 70s was a disaster, a failure, Thatcher had to come in and do something. The truth of the matter is that in the ‘70s, unions were stronger, inequality was far less, wage levels were higher in terms of the share of the GDP, and everything that allows a country to potentially to flourish leads Richard Wilkinson to find in his book that the index of happiness, an index whose scientific basis I’m still a bit lost by, was better in the ‘70s than at any other time.
Now just to make one final, brief point, I read last week as a non-economist that the German economy over the last three months grew only by 0.1%. In German terms and expectations this is a near economic disaster. But some senior official in some major German bank was saying, ‘this is no problem, because the economy will grow. It will grow because the share of wages of the GDP in Germany is significantly higher than anywhere else in the rest of Europe, and these people will spend their money, this will stimulate growth, and the German economy will be secure’. What a solution for the rest of us.
John H: Can I come back to the panel for some thoughts – it’s the spirit; it’s about concentration of power; it’s about sensitivity and responsiveness to people outside the industries; but also this political question, and there’s more to say about the political question – what can we hope for from the left? And I think that’s something we’ll come back to even more.
Maurice: Thank you for hearing my initial rant, I’ve now equilibrated, it’s been said, obviously there were some very good things, and it’s completely correct to talk about the spirit of ’45. What I wanted to talk about was that spirit was dashed pretty early on in the game. I hear your question and what you’ve said. Let’s just think about what a new politics, what a new unionism is going to look like. I particularly appreciated what you said in relation to the organisation of the user interest being vital moving forward. So let’s look at three, relevant for today.
We’ve got an elected Mayor of London with no body politic whatsoever, with no power over the City of London, it’s a bit like electing a game-show host. Very, very, very little democratic control. So one thing I would suggest, and it’s a campaign I’ve been thinking about for a while as regards New Labour politics, is a renewal of citizenship. How about getting London recognised as a city? That would be a really good one, to integrate the City of London into the whole city; the oldest continuous democratic citizenship in Europe, started in 1190, held the monarch to account, protected common law, and then got completely taken over by the financial interest. So one thing I would like to see is a campaign for a unified London city.
The second thing is related the NHS: a new form of corporate governance in the public and the private sectors. So there’s a third workers, a third funders and a third users. And that’s a way that you could have the workforce elected and the workforce represented.
I completely disagree with the abolition of capitalism, I thought that the Cambodian experiment didn’t go so well. The abolition of capitalism is worth talking about, that’s not on the agenda. Obviously I’m looking for a balance of interests. And when there is talk about the abolition of capitalism, it has led pretty consistently to quite nasty kinds of politics. So what you’ve got to do is domesticate capitalism, constrain capital. This is the failure of ’45 to do that. And you’ve got to do it at source through these regional, sectoral and firm levels.
And so one, a democratic London would be a very significant challenge to the power of capital; second, a third a third a third in all forms of corporate governance: worker, user and funder whether in the private sector or the state, so there can be a balance of interests in the governance. And the third area is to do with housing and community land trusts. Not council housing, not controlled housing, but the transfer of the freehold of housing to communities so that they can build homes. These are areas that are alive and being thought about.
Polly: I agree in terms of not your entire mantra but…just listening to what everyone’s been saying following on the film, I think this isn’t really about privatization versus nationalisation or capitalism versus socialism. These things can actually co-exist, that’s what taxes are for. There is a model that’s sensible, where someone who has aspirations can go for, and social mobility, whatever definition you use, it does exist, people can do things with their lives and be fulfilled, and the happiness index, whatever it is, can soar high. But that doesn’t mean that we have to live in a completely nationalised society and I actually don’t think that would work in any way. And the other thing I would say is that the film talked a lot about the working man, and obviously as you said we’re not going back in time, we’re not going back to the time of miners and railwaymen and women in their households, but we do have the equivalent, which is people who want to work and people who are fortunate enough to be in work. And as far as I can tell there is actually no political party that represents them, and until we have that I think we’re in a lot of trouble.
Chris: I want to begin by agreeing about the ‘70s. I was born in 1968, and I think the ‘70s were fantastic. I do remember a lot of power cuts etc., but what was fantastic was that the laws that were introduced by Thatcher were completely smashed by ordinary working people by 1972, and those were the laws that restricted trade unions. We think Thatcher was bad, Heath put trade union leaders in prison; hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike in 1972, and freed them from prison. In 1972 those laws were dead in the water. Throughout the 1970s, trade union membership doubled to 15 million by 1980. That’s why we have the progressive change and the erosion of inequality you’re describing. That’s why we got the Equal Pay Act, Race Relations Act, Sex Discrimination Act, Health and Safety at Work Act, and that’s why so much effort is made to discredit the ‘70s. Because one of the big things that Thatcher and her acolytes managed to achieve, which I’m afraid my learned friend to my right is repeating like a mantra, is that there is no alternative. That capitalism is here to stay, there is no alternative. Look at Russia, look at China. Well they love China now because they can say, you can call yourself Communists and wrap yourself in the socialist flag, but in essence it’s still capitalism, you still have inequality, you still have a lack of democracy, and you still have exploitation.
The question is, can we have an alternative to this system? Because the reality is, millions of people know capitalism doesn’t work. But what they don’t know is what kind of alternative we have. And the difference I have with I think most of the platform here is, I haven’t given up hope in replacing it, and I still have the spirit of ’45 which did say that we could have a socialist alternative. And lots of people were in a thing called the labour movement, not just the labour party, and that’s what we need to rebuild.
John H: let’s open up to more thoughts. And while we’re waiting for more hands, just to say what I do know from this and what Ken Loach has as one of his political ideas is the formation of new left parties of unions which will challenge from the left. And I just want to say as a public thing before anybody goes, in two weeks today in Westminster Central Hall where you saw Clem Attlee speaking, is the People’s Assembly. The PA is something that has been called from a broad left position, War on Want included; there are already 2800 people signed up to be attending that day of discussion, of mobilisation, of thinking and debate. And I really urge people to try and go along to that.
Question 6: I suppose I’m slightly confused because I didn’t think the film was some sort of polemic in favour of a totalitarian socialist state. From what I could see, and it was repeated several times, is the idea that nationalisation is the best option where there were natural monopolies, where it made economic sense. It was also quite nice that people ended up better off as a result, infinitely much more preferable. I think also the idea that capitalism and socialism can co-exist, I suppose in some sense they have to where there are myriad people there will be different political opinions. But I think it doesn’t really matter what we call things, I agree what matters is what things actually are. And where you have a position where something is clearly unjust then it falls to us, the people, to do something to change that. What came to me most strongly was the power of the people acting together to get things done, because rest assured I don’t think any of this, admittedly I wasn’t alive at the time, would have been possible without the will of the people, indeed the same people who voted in Clement Attlee.
I absolutely agree with Maurice, going back to his earlier point, I think PPE graduates should be barred from politics and possible the Civil Service as well, it would be a much leaner place without them. I must question, you raised the point I believe, I apologise if I’m paraphrasing or misquoting you, that your position is that we should have not power collected in the hands of individuals in the form of nationalisation or indeed any sort of oligarchy or plutocracy, but also that there should not be too much of the alternative, that we should find a middle way. How I interpret that, and you can accuse me of cynicism of you like, is that you don’t stand for this or that, so what do you stand for? I don’t think for me that you’ve made the case strongly enough.
Question 7: I was wondering, because everyone talks about capitalism versus socialism, whenever I’ve heard people talk about it people seem to have such different definitions of what capitalism is, whether its mercantilism or free market… I was just wondering, if you’re arguing against capitalism, what is it?
John H: Well we’ve got about another ten minutes, so that’s going to challenge us…
Question 8: I was thinking about the banking problems that we have, and I just wondered if the Islamic form of finance and banking where they don’t have interest, and the banks actually do share the risk of what’s going on; whether or not that might be something that people might think about?
Question 9: At the time of the ’45 changes coming into place, the make-up of the British population in terms of health, as far as I’m aware, was actually in some ways better than today, in that as a broad stroke we had a healthier, or more equitably healthy population than we even do now. Which I think is worth considering when you’re going to go into a debate about whether it’s capitalism versus socialism, well it is a good thing to have a broadly healthy populace, and there is statistical evidence to suggest that that is what we had.
Question 10: One thing I hope we don’t inherit from the spirit of ’45 is the ’47 agriculture.
John H: We don’t want to go back the 1947 Agriculture Act. Can you expand on that a touch?
Questioner: I’m not an expert at all, but there were some fairly unpleasant social consequences of enforcing that act, and also there were some pretty significant facts that we switched ourselves over to our petrochemical agriculture.
John H: That’s a very good point because one thing that hasn’t come up is the ecological aspect of any of this.
Question 11: I just want to say that I think we cannot continue looking for solutions to keep the welfare state, without thinking about the rest of the world. This morning we did a very interesting tour around the City, related to tax avoidance of the big companies. We often wonder what we could do with the money, the taxes they don’t pay. But we rarely think about where this money is coming from. And this money is coming from exploitation of people in, narco in Mexico for example in killing thousands of people a year, Monsanto is taking the land of a lot of people in South America, India, just two months ago we saw more than 1000 people die in Bangladesh, so these are the examples of where the money’s coming from. Looking at what the solution might be, capitalism, nationalisation, a mixed system, I don’t know but I think this system is not sustainable from the ecological point of view, it’s not right from the ethical point of view, and it’s not working from the political point of view. We all, from the developed countries, should think in a more global way, and think about the rest of the world, because this system shouldn’t carry on without human rights for everyone.
Question 12: This is very short, inspired by the promise of a one-word definition of capitalism which is about to ensue. There aren’t many places where one can say what I’m about to say and I’ll probably get the quote wrong but usually you can get away with it because nobody knows, but if somebody does know please correct me. ‘The choice’, I think or remember, Rosa Luxemburg must have said, ‘is not socialism or capitalism, or socialism or anything else, other than socialism or barbarism’. Which just about encapsulates every reservation we have about the limitations of capitalism, so I thought I’d offer it here.
Question 13: Just an addition to the previous speaker: we buy from these big companies, shopping is a political act too. And dealing with corporate power and globalisation is the biggest problem that we’ve got. It’s not a particularly political thing, it’s about, when the chief executive of Google can say he doesn’t pay tax, he’s buying from educated people, he’s transporting things on our roads and all the rest of it, he should have to live without that if he’s not prepared to pay the tax.
John H: We have four minutes left. One minute each.
Chris: For me, I start from a worker, the fact that they’re reduced to a commodity. And human beings have to cease being commodities; in order to live they have to sell their labour. I want an economy and a society which is human, cooperative not competitive, and when democracy doesn’t end when you walk through the door to start working. That’s the core of democracy.
Maurice: Capitalism is based on the commodification of human beings and the maximum returns on investment, which can only be resisted in my view by democratic association, that’s the key played by unions and civic self-government. So I think where we’ve got to go to is precisely to assert the non-commodity status of human beings and to build the organisations and relationships necessary to protect the person and the country they live in.
Polly: I wanted to quickly pick up on what the two ladies either side of the room said, which is that we’re playing on a global playing field, so you can’t think about anything in isolation, and on that note I think new models like interest-free, there are all sorts of ethical models coming out, I think it’s great, but I don’t see them making much headway. And I think the main way we can make headway is have politicians who understand the bigger picture, who are willing to put in place structures that are quite bold, including tax structures, that actually do claw back some of the money from those oligarchs.
John C: So far all very good. Obviously coming out of a cooperative movement I think that the cooperative movement is what was missing from this film actually. The labour movement was much, much more than central planning and five year plans. And Britain above all has a very strong tradition of not just retail cooperatives, but cooperatives going back to the 19th century and before. And if you look at the strengths of the German economy, what you were talking about, their cooperative banks have been at the heart of their development at regional level and at local level right the way through from the 19th century, and we should be looking to that cooperative model, not necessarily as a third way but as one more alternative…a better way.
But getting to the point about internationalisation, I think that it is time we revived the spirit of international cooperation because one thing that’s missing from this Spirit of ’45 was also the United Nations, what happened there. They of course won the war, it was the UN that won the war, and then came forward with this idea that we should move forward into an era of international cooperation. And if we want to tackle the Schmidts and all the other tax avoiders we have to arrive at new international rules for taxing multinational companies, which of course is what Tax Justice Network is all about. And to do that we have to revive the spirit of international cooperation that came out of ’45.
John H: Just to build on that with a final comment before we close, there are actually some very inspiring examples from around the world of societies in transition away from capitalism; societies which recognise that that is a long term project. I’m thinking particularly in Latin America in the last decade, thinking about Venezuela with mass nationalization, the taking back of the commanding heights of the economy, mass expansion of cooperatives, from 1000 when Chavez took over in 1997 to 180,000 by the time he died earlier this year. Bolivia, Ecuador; these are experiments with no pre-determined blueprint, experiments which have involved an enormous amount of democratic popular participation. And they offer real signals of hope I think, for around the world. And not just in those places, you get places like Iceland which has already had its own constitutional assembly to rethink the constitution there; you get Tunisia and the Arab Spring and all of that. So there are models of hope which I think we can hold to.
Deborah: This has been a wonderful end to a really great day. On behalf of Tax Justice and Tipping Point I want to thank also our volunteers who helped to make today happen, to our speakers and panellists, thanks a million. It has been a really good day. Keep up to date with Tax Justice and as you are all ending on co-operation, I am thrilled to say we’ve just developed a film about the power of cooperation, which we hoped to get funded over the next year. It has been lovely to have you all. Thank you.