We live in an age of conspiracies. They are far more successful and well-managed conspiracies than the conspiracies of history. Perhaps the improvement in efficiency is one of the benefits which we owe to the technological revolution. At any rate, the age of the old-fashioned conspirator is no more. He no longer gathers with his fellows in tiny groups, admitted by password to huddle round a dark lantern in a dingy garret. Today the conspirators sit in the seats of the mighty, at the desks of Ministers and editors; they live in the blaze of continual publicity; their weapons are the organs of opinion themselves.
The politics of the last few years have been little more than a series of conspiracies conducted by the politicians and the Press against the common sense of the public. They have for the most part been brilliantly, audaciously successful. Opposition, criticism, questioning have been beaten into the ground, not by force but by something much more efficacious: by tacit agreement on the part of those who speak and write to speak and write the same kind of nonsense, year in year out, until ordinary men and women no longer dare trust their own wits but give up the struggle and deliver themselves passively to the guidance and domination of their betters. The Higher Nonsense is a mightier instrument of mass repression than machine-guns, grapeshot and cavalry charges ever were.
The success has been so complete that we fail not only to be astonished at it, but even to perceive it.
A fortnight ago people were hailing it as a unique and paradoxical event that trade unionists in various parts of the country downed tools in order to show their agreement with what one Tory politician was understood to have said. The most laughable and far-fetched explanations were invented to account for a happening which seemed to many people so improbable. The adjective out of all those applied to it which I personally found the most attractive was ‘surrealist’. Yet all the time something far more paradoxical and absurd was going on, as it had been going on for years, and the very same trade unionists and their fellow-employees throughout the economy were the examples and the victims of it.
The entire trade union movement has been brought to accept that the trade unions are responsible, wholly or partly, for rising prices and the falling value of money. It is really an astounding spectacle: the trade unions have clapped the handcuffs on to their own wrists, gone into the dock, and pleaded guilty to causing inflation. Mind, I am not blaming them. We are all lenient when the captives of the Cheka, after weeks of imprisonment, long interrogations, noise, blinding lights, lack of rest and nameless other threats and tortures, are brought into court and voluntarily confess to whole catalogues of crimes against the state. That is nothing to what has happened to the trade unionists. All the economists (almost), all the newspapers (almost), the political parties and, especially stridently and confidently, the party which had been regarded as their ‘own’, the Labour Party, are at them day after day declaring that they, the workers, the men in the street, are to blame for inflation by doing too little and asking too much.
Everybody around them seems to accept it. The public at large apparently believes it; the parson in the pulpit preaches it; unkindest cut of all, their own trade union in most cases, and certainly the Trades Union Congress on behalf of all the unions, admits the accusation and merely argues about who else is to blame and about how their own members are to be ‘restrained’ – the same word as one applies to a dangerous madman. Who shall complain, then, if even the sturdy common sense of the British working man gives way at last under the onslaught? ‘I suppose,’ he murmurs, ‘it must be my fault, since everybody says so. I don’t understand how it possibly can be but apparently I ought to try to be ashamed of myself and to mend my ways in some unexplained manner.’
Yet all the time the common sense of the people tells them that it is not so. Everyone has heard the story of how Galileo, as he rose from his knees after recanting the heresy that the earth moves round the sun, was heard to remark softly to himself: ‘But all the same it does.’ A dangerous situation builds up when an accusation which they feel in their bones to be false is fastened upon whole classes of men and women, indeed upon a whole people. They become resentful, and not without reason, feeling that everyone is leagued in a conspiracy against them to pretend that black is white and innocent is guilty.
This indignation of ordinary people at being made the butt and scapegoat for evils from which they themselves are the first and principal sufferers has already gone far to destroy the Labour Party whose offence in their eyes was not merely conspiracy but betrayal as well. In itself, I would not regard the downfall of the Labour Party as tragically as Mr. Shinwell does. The evil is that the thing does not stop there. The whole atmosphere of industrial relations, the whole attitude of the citizen to his country and its future has been poisoned for years by this unanimous determination of the vocal organs of opinion to pin the blame for our financial and economic ills where it does not and cannot belong. Inflation with all its attendant evils, comes about for one reason and one reason only: the Government causes it.
To say anything as plain as that is to arouse a chorus of imprecation. All the clever people start talking at once in a loud voice about ‘cost push’, ‘demand pull’, and ‘monopoly power’. But look who is doing the talking. If it is true that governments cause inflation and that the citizens are the innocent victims, who has the vested interest in denying it? Answer: governments themselves, and all those who thrive on an increase in the power and expenditure of governments. Governments, and their attendant host of commentators and propagandists, have executed what is perhaps the greatest confidence trick of all time, a confidence trick on a gigantic scale: they have caused inflation year after year, and at the same time persuaded everyone that somebody else was to blame. It is equivalent to stealing a man’s wallet and then getting him locked up for theft. The achievement is all the more remarkable because the facts are so blatant.
Whose claim on the national income has been rising? That of the employees? No: their money income since the war has barely kept pace with the rise in prices and in production. In fact, every year since 1961 the income of employees has been falling as a proportion of production, and that proportion is considerably lower than it was in 1938. What element in costs has been rising? Wages? Again, no. In fact, the share of wages in the cost of turning out a unit of production has been falling over the last ten years and more. Whose claim has been rising, then? Answer: the Government’s. The Government’s claim on production now is half as large again as it was in 1938; and although it fell in the earlier half of the 50s it has been rising again ever since, until today it is right back to immediate post-war levels. The effect on costs is even more startling. If one looks at the money cost of producing a unit of output, it is the tax element which has increased over three times as fast as the payments to employees. Looked at in real terms, the proportion of costs which is accounted for by tax has doubled in the last ten to twelve years, while the other items have remained the same or fallen. There is no doubt who and what has been doing the pushing and the pulling: it is public expenditure.
Yet by the unanimous din year in year out which has been proclaiming the falsehood that all this is the fault of the people themselves, they have been cowed into a condition of passive acquiescence in the absurd charge. In that condition, they are vulnerable to the next stage of the operation, which is to subject them to control, to a dictatorship, benign, bureaucratic, even parliamentary, but still a dictatorship, which is to prescribe and enforce the whole content of their lives – prices, wages, production, the lot. This is the operation of which Mrs. Castle has been put in nominal charge; but the same machine will be working at full volume churning out the Higher Nonsense, like some mighty Wurlitzer, chanting: ‘Prices and incomes policy. We need a prices and incomes policy. We’ve got a prices and incomes policy. Our prices and incomes policy works’ ... and so on ad infinitum.
I prefer however, this afternoon, not to enter the gloomy tunnel of that prospect. Let us instead make the opposite assumption. Let us suppose that the people of this country were somehow to wake up out of the mesmeric trance in which they lie and with one mighty gust of Homeric wrath were to shout to the politicians and the economic priesthood, to the planners and the leader-writers: ‘Stop talking nonsense at us! It is your fault – yours, not ours.’ What would they then want some party in the state, and surely the Tory Party, to say on their behalf? They would want us to say: the Government henceforth will not ride on the backs of the people but will keep its demands within the growth of the nation’s general wealth. This is something the electorate cannot do themselves; they do not make up the Budgets and estimates, nor do they frame the programmes of expenditure. Let the Government do but this, and the sermons and threats, the controls and boards, the prices and incomes acts, the dreary apparatus of punitive Budgets – all can be shot into the dustbin.
Next week, this Government will publish, and the week afterwards they will try to force through second reading in the House of Commons, yet another Prices and Incomes Bill. It ought to be entitled, ‘An Act for blaming the British people and interfering in all their affairs in order to distract attention from the real causes and the true remedy of this nation’s financial predicament’; but I suspect the actual wording will be a shade less candid. This is our opportunity. This is the Tory Party’s opportunity to speak out for the people as a whole. It is not a time to hum and ha, or to blur the issue by talking about ‘voluntary’ this and ‘non-statutory’ that. These subtleties are not understood, and for the very good reason that they are not intended to be understood are not capable of being understood. What we have to say is that the Government ought to conduct its affairs, and that we as a Government would conduct our affairs, in such a way that the excessive demands of public expenditure, the sole ultimate cause of inflation, cease to plague the people of this country and to interfere with all their plans and all their actions. Let us give that promise. Nothing else will do.