The Tory Left: A Politics of Community (Part 2.)

Macmillan’s Model of Economic Justice 

Image result for harold MacmillanWhat were the significant implications of Macmillan’s Anglo-Catholic politics? Remaining faithful to the idealistic politics he had known at Oxford, a chastened post-war Macmillian would publish two books in the 1930s while a fledgling member of Parliament, Reconstruction (1934) and The Middle Way (1938). In both texts, Macmillan demonstrates his debt to the same rich culture of public Christianity which had produced Sligger Urquhart’s fascination with Catholic socialism. While neither text is explicitly theological, both are rooted in recognizable Christian premises. Political commentators on Macmillan in the last half century have made much of the polarized era, noting his aversion to the destabilizing effects of both State-Socialism and unregulated Capitalism. Indeed as Macmillan notes in The Middle Way, ‘…the secure bulwark against reaction or revolution is an economic system they can satisfy the moderate needs of men for material welfare and security, while preserving at the same time the intellectual, social and political liberty essential to human progress in a wider field.’ Yet, what has often been overlooked by the commentators, are the theological roots of this position. Such a deep grammar can be uncovered however if we are attentive to Macmillan’s account of the human person. Framed by the optimistic Edwardian liberalism of his childhood, the postwar Macmillan not only that human beings had a spiritual destiny and essence, but such an essence was built in the first instance by satisfying basic material needs. Macmillan reflected on the nature of poverty in The Middle Way:

This poverty is accompanied by its twin evil, insecurity; a social disease which spreads its malevolent effects over a much wider area than actual poverty. Insecurity hangs like a black cloud over the lives of an overwhelming majority of the people of all classes. It eats away the very basis of personal confidence and ease of mind. It creates and perpetuates a morbid preoccupation with material needs, it centres a great part of the attention of the individual upon his own and his dependents’ elementary physical requirements; it gives rise to fears which curbs the development of generosity of spirit; it fosters self-interest; it limits and restricts the intellectual and social interests of the individual to a narrow concentration upon his own welfare; it is a social disease which militates against every forward impulse of mental, moral and spiritual development.

What we have here is not merely a humanitarian plea to deal with poverty on a purely utilitarian basis, but a plea which encompasses a particular view of human nature. Poverty is not merely an evil because it causes suffering (of this first fact Macmillan was in no doubt) it was an evil because it prevented people from cultivating the kinds of virtues which Macmillian’s developing Christian faith regarded as essential. How could the negotiations of poverty be reduced? Macmillan’s answer was economic moderation; to seek the just distribution of material resources. This could be accomplished not merely by the careful application of Keynesian economics (the staple of the post-war British state) but by building up institutions within the state to encourage the coordination of economic life and the sharing of wealth and power. Advocating forms of economic oversight in the form of Industrial Councils, Macmillan advocates extensive state intervention in order to guarantee maxim coordination between large-scale private enterprises. Yet, as Macmillan insisted, such harmonization was not aimed at the abolition of private enterprise, but rather its general improvement. Yet, ever the moralist and not merely the economist, Macmillan suggests a noble end in view; the abolition of the chief economic sin of old Christendom. As he notes in the concluding chapter of Reconstruction:

Usury and speculation in the evil sense would be eliminated and the rewards of productive effort more evenly distributed. The status of labour in the industrial life of the community could be progressively changed by co-operation of all classes in a common effort to construct a rational, intelligibly managed system in which the welfare of every section of the community would be considered, not in relation to preconceived notions of rights and privileges, but in accordance with wise representative institutions based their conclusions upon facts.

If Macmillan had believed that many of his ideas would come to the fore after 1945, he was not entirely disappointed. His work on various reconstruction committees with Labour ministers had at the very least guaranteed the survival of his Middle Way, although as the Attlee government proceeded, he saw a marked timidity among his Labour colleagues. Instead of advancing the judicious socialization of industry, he witnessed ministers weigh industry down with ill-advised central control and unnecessary bureaucracy. Speaking in the debate on the Coal Industry Nationalisation Bill in 1946, Macmillan observed (with more than a hint of mischief):

This Bill vests the ownership of all the colliery undertakings in a board of nine men – nine men not elected by, or even containing a single elected representative of, the mining community. It is not nationalisation in the old sense of the word….This is not Socialism; it is State capitalism. There is not too much participation by the mineworkers in the affairs of the industry; there is far too little. There is not too much syndicalism; there is none at all.

This tentativeness on the part of the Labour Party sits in contrast to the hopes of many miners, with whom Macmillan’s words probably, struck a chord.

The Point at Issue: Socialism versus Social Capitalism 

Harold Macmillan number 10 official.jpgFor contemporary Left wing Tories seeking new points of departure, Macmillan provides an enduring template; a politics which calls for moderation and ambition in equal measure. Organic Toryism as Macmillan conceived it frequently required the collectivization of portions of economic life. The market must be moderated through social enterprise and government oversight. There must be careful regulation of economic activity to ensure that consumers and workers are not left at the mercy of a capitalistic or public monopoly. For Macmillan such Tory propositions should always be contrasted with the socialist creed epitomized by the Fabianism of the late 19th century was for Macmillan unimaginative as well as economically suspect.

Once in government after 1951, Macmillan had the opportunity of putting his new radical centrism into practice; turning his attention to the postwar housing crisis as well as consolidating Tory statism within the Conservative Party. His work with Edward Heath and Ian McLeod under the banner of the One Nation group after 1945 did much to set the philosophical mood for his own premiership in 1957. While the second Churchill administration and (the brief Eden government which followed it) had left the new conserving apparatus intact, Macmillan was perhaps the first post-war Prime Minister to fulfill Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s dictum: ‘reform that you may preserve’. He not merely accepted Labour’s reforms, but sought to improve upon them. The key aim of Macmillan’s social philosophy was the construction of a social Capitalism which would provide prosperity, but also offer opportunities for workers to direct and shape their own industries. The formation of structures like the Economic Development Council in 1962 (bringing together unions, government, and industrialists) was an apt expression of Macmillan determination to find a generous middle path between political and ideological extremes. If discussed on different soils, we might say that Macmillan was an ardent Christian Democrat. It is not necessary to offer a litany of Macmillan’s policy achievements, but it is worth pointing out the following. Popular memory recalls Macmillan as a prosperity prime minister. Yet, this is an unfair and reductive portrait. Unlike some neo-liberal Conservatives who eclipsed the One Nation tradition in the 1980s, prosperity was never an end in itself and was understand within the framework of moral duties and theological postulates. The Thatcherite proposition that the market should be left to its own devices was as ridiculous to Macmillan as the suggestion that wealth was a self-evident good in all circumstances. What concerned Macmillan was the human degradation caused by an unfettered market system. Indeed, it was Macmillan’s suggestion that the economy was made for man and not man for the economy.

A Model for the Tory Left?

What lessons or ideas can be drawn from Macmillian’s politics for a contemporary revival of the Tory Left? Below are a few sketchy policy proposals, intended to recapture something of the spirit of Tory Democracy:

a) No to anti-social usury:

For Macmillan, it was a key task of a conservative government to ensure that the economy was productive for everyone, not merely a system to benefit a few at the very top. In a Britain of low growth, high in-work poverty and increasing levels of personal debt, what might a progressive conservative suggest?   

  1. The introduction of rent controls in high-cost areas of the UK
  2. The implementation of a new prices and incomes policy (covering transport, energy, and other utilities) to ensure that the minimum wage is a living wage.
  3. The introduction of strict dividend control to ensure that companies prioritize investment over payouts.
  4.  The introduction of a British ‘Florange law’- automatically granting shareholders in UK-listed companies double voting rights if they are held for two years or more. This policy is intended to discourage investor short-termism.
  5. Create a state-investment bank (to prioritize infrastructure and technological modernisation).
  6. The renewed public ownership of rail.
  7. The renewed public ownership of water companies.

b) A Better Deal for Workers

At present productivity turning out to be the great puzzle of the British economy. A new report by the IPA argues that involving employees at work is essential for boosting productivity in the UK. It highlights a wealth of evidence from a variety of experts, all showing that when employees are given a say at work, productivity is higher. Wouldn’t Macmillian have agreed?  

  1. The representation of workers on the board of large British companies.
  2. An introduction of a British framework of co-determination with employees taking part in elections for company directors.
  3. The representation of consumers on the boards of British companies.
  4. An Economic Council for the 21st century, bringing together unions, government, academics, and employers).

c) Sharing the Proceeds of Growth

 This was a phrase used by David Cameron and George Osborne to describe the direction of their early economic policies before the 2008 financial crisis. The aim is a good one and should continue to be a mantra of the Tory Left: 

  1. Make it a legal requirement for large companies to offer profit-sharing schemes to their workforce.
  2. Strengthen the tax incentives to set up co-operative enterprises.
  3. Peg the national minimum wage to economic growth in order to limit the impact of price rises on low earners.
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