Post-war empire socialism in the UK
Since the beginning of the twentieth century there has been almost continuous conflict over resources and control, and the first war never finished according to some analysis). After the second world war capitalist Europe was on its knees, the Soviet Union was strong and had been a major contributor to Hitler’s defeat. Working class people were quite happy to think of living under regimes that weren’t capitalist and the ruling class were scared. They didn’t want people to look to the Soviet Union and start taking apart the countries they came back to. In Britain the infrastructure was bombed and worn out, attempts at regeneration were held back by systemic problems like the coal and steel industries being a confused muddle of different owners fighting with each other. The shock of the war meant that the old empire was beginning to crumble, despite vicious repression meted out. The USA came out of the conflict unscathed, and quietly started to take control of the English speaking empire from the enfeelbled hands of the former master, forced to gradually withdraw over the next thirty years or so. US colonialism taking the form of economic domination through local proxies without going to the bother of conquering places, at least in part. But don’t forget the Pentagon admit to around six hundred US military bases that exist all over the world, some the size of small cities.
Our masters needed to keep us fat and happy, not thinking of sharpening pitchforks or constructing guillotines. The lesson from the first war was that the severe deprivation faced by the working class after the conflict was over and the stock market crash in the 1920’s would cause massive civil unrest and be very dangerous. After the exhaustion and destruction of the war they were in a much weaker position and the Soviet Union was a deep existential threat. It would also have been almost impossible to marshal any kind of army against working class unrest. After all, who had fought the war for them and knew how to fight with modern weapons, who were expecting better than the dreadful times their grandfathers and fathers had lived through after 1918? Out of a sense of fear, not compassion, they let the Atlee government do what it did.
One thing that gets brushed under the carpet is the colonial boot that extracted money and resources from places like Burma (now Myanmar), India, Malaysia, Kenya and a host of other countries to pay for this. While the people at home were enjoying the creation of the NHS, tearing down of slums, education reform, and the systemic benefits of nationalising and rationalising the coal, rail and steel industries, brown people far away were having their heads cut off by the British army. This is one of the reasons why the recent anti-austerity argument that the Atlee government did so much post-war with less resources and why can’t we do the same now was such bunk, it conveniently forgot the vast colonial plunder that was pouring into British coffers even as the empire began to fade. Aneurin Bevan, the architect of the NHS, said that he won the argument with the doctors by filling their mouths with gold. Well, the gold had to come from somewhere.
This is one of the key things to remember when you think about the empire-tinted goggles most people in the UK still wear. A great deal of the commons, the nominally publicly owned (but not controlled) industries that Thatcher started selling off, like water, gas, electricity, telecoms, rail, were indirectly built with colonial blood. This makes selling them off even more of a crime than it already was.
The post-war consensus was class-riven, social relations were not challenged in the slightest. The need for more educated workers meant the opening up of better education opportunities for the working class, but the same inbred idiots were still pocketing the lion’s share of the wealth and looking down their noses at those who enriched them, but a little bit more quietly than in the past. Why do we tolerate people like Boris Johnson’s father, and Cumming’s father in law? What have these aristos ever done apart from hold on to their unearned privilege and demonstrate that one can stand up and attempt to speak even after apparently drinking far too much? Why wasn’t their privilege dismantled? Because Atlee’s cradle to the grave was ultimately for aristos to give under pressure from the fear of people like us. Now they’ve decided we aren’t frightening any more. The empire socialists have never woken up to this fact, and still act like the post-war social contract exists. Thatcher and Regan’s legacy is the tearing up of that contract, and it was forty years ago. How long do they have to remain asleep and expect the rest of us not to wake either?
The post war boom was not constructed with anything as dangerous as workers’ control in it. At every nationalisation civil servants and managers were appointed often from the ranks of union-bashing public school clowns or safe hands from the unions, there was no democratic control of the retooling of the economy and shaping it for our needs. The needs were the needs of the capitalist economy in general. There was also little investment in a lot of cases, just rationalisation and penny-pinching. To this day the dreadful state of Britain’s infrastructure has not been addressed, for example some places still have electrical distribution systems that cannot carry the power modern living requires in the winter. This was the beginnings of the complacent, white, consensus that was carried along by the post-war boom and created the modern trade union movement’s love for the bosses. We can’t all be rich, but we can all have a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage, and maybe young Kevin will get an Engineering degree and help build a road or two in Surrey. The racist assumptions and colonial mind set of the pre-war Brit were still normal, and when challenged people were unable to understand what the problem was. In many people these assumptions still are normal, just buried a little behind a desire to be polite to BAME people, which is progress of a sort, I suppose.
There isn’t space here to discuss the arrival of the Windrush, and the Ugandan Asians, and all the other people who had British passports because of the old empire and how it changed everything, particularly who had access to British passports and the origin of the Windrush scandal. Neither to discuss how people who had lived under the colonial boot challenged the comfortable orthodoxy, or how that orthodoxy is still largely what gets taught in British schools. Despite this, it’s easy to see how the unchallenged, class-ridden, hierarchy-driven Britain we are blighted with came into existence. It’s unsurprising we in the UK are becoming, as put by a German diplomat, a ship of fools, but also a plague ship.
The left’s post war victory was ultimately nothing of the sort, it was a holding action while society recovered from the war and built up its resources, ripe for the picking. Keeping the hierarchies, crass snobbery and disdain in how things were done, meant that the mantra from cradle to the grave pushed by Atlee’s government left people unable to see what was happening. It set things up for the suffering we are experiencing now to arise, because the fight in us was quietly silenced by our betters. The consensus created a bureaucratic passivity, people waiting to be told what to do by their betters and how to act, that left them powerless when the boom finally ended with no orders given as we were abandoned to our fates. Nationalisation and re-ordering of broken industries isn’t socialism, it was a pragmatic response to the wreckage left behind by the war, where key industries needed to be got back on their feet quickly.
It’s also notable that the misconception of the state doing things for or to you is somehow socialist became current, when constant state interference in everything became a kind of norm. For example, in the early 1960’s the nascent British computing industry consisted of two moderately successful companies competing with each other. Harold Wilson’s government nationalised and merged them because it seemed like a logical thing to do given their mind set. Now neither exists, except as some initials on the odd building in Reading, assuming they haven’t been torn down. There is a whole trail of nationalised companies that weren’t run well, or were rescued and then left to decay into white elephants, when Thatcher came in she sold them off and closed down the ones that weren’t making sense any more. It’s likely, perhaps, that workers’ control would have made these companies work, instead of being victims of the limited vision of civil service grandees who hated unions and looked down on working class people, but of course we’ll never know. There are some hints at what could have in the 1970’s from the Lucas Plan, but the class-ridden system could never have allowed workers to demonstrate that the bureaucrats were unnecessary.
Even in more recent times the Labour party can’t help themselves with their old interfering modus. When Blair was in charge there was a constant undercurrent of silly laws attempting to control the minutiae of individual behaviour, while the real injustices and evils of the world pranced around, the elephant in the room playing loud jazz and smoking weed in the corner, undiscussed. Ministers were constantly attempting to micromanage how one should think and act, the same people who eventually became Change UK in some cases. It was risible and felt like the mentally challenged were over sharing their plans for mandatory shoe trees.
A more modern example of this is the meme where you see the same old drones bombing the same helpless brown people, but they’ve been painted with gay pride colours so that makes it all right.
The old handshakes across the class divide made it impossible for the empire socialists to react convincingly to the post-boom modern capitalism of markets and so-called small government. The world is a different place, and they held on to their rancid comfort blanket long after it should have been burned. For reference small government means the destruction of even nominal democratic control through privatisation, bumping up prices of services everybody needs, and unbridled capitalism for everyone who isn’t big business. Business gets grants and help, true socialist largesse, because it needs it to survive, the rest of us have the crushing markets, the threat of starvation, and are blamed for our poverty.
Here we have the biggest con trick of them all where the empire socialist negotiators, the mediators, the people in the middle supposedly holding the flame for the working class, became the oppressors with their identity switch. The post-war spectacle took them in and spat them out. They became fully fledged colonialists murderers and apologists for the ancient regime, as Marx called the old feudal structures that collapsed in the nineteenth century.
The suffering we are seeing now that comes from this sea change in how society is organised is waking people up again. Let’s hope soon, and quickly enough to save us. Let’s hope the cost of waking up isn’t too high.