A Reviewer's Notebook - 1963/3
MARCH 01, 1963 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
The leader of the British Liberal Party, Mr. Joseph Grimond, has been visiting in America, telling college students that the old-time noncollectivist liberalism is not dead in his home country. Since there seems to be a crisis of leadership in the British Labour Party and since the Conservatives have been having their troubles, Mr. Grimond could be right when he predicts a measure of comeback for those who think like himself.
The Grimond optimism is borne out by a massive new book, Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain (Harper and Row, 662 pages, $6.95). True enough, the author of this encyclopedic work doesn’t come to any exhilarating conclusions. After his exhaustive but nonetheless enlivening tour of British social, political, financial, industrial, and educational institutions, Mr. Sampson remarks that Britain suffers from "a malaise among the few thousand managers of our society who have failed to absorb and communicate new challenges and new ideas." But his own work shows that Britain remains almost incurably pluralistic, even though we hear much about the "Establishment" which supposedly rules it. There is no all-powerful "They." As Mr. Sampson puts it, not knowing quite the full implications for individual freedom as something over and above mere political democracy that are wrapped up in his words: "The rulers are not at all close-knit or united. They are not so much in the centre of a solar system, as in a cluster of interlocking circles, each one largely preoccupied with its own professionalism and expertise, and touching others only at one edge—they are not a single Establishment, but a ring of Establishments, with slender connections. The frictions and balances between the different circles are the supreme safeguard of democracy. No one man can stand in the centre, for there is no centre."
Managers from the Market
Inasmuch as no one can presume to put his total impress on British life, a free and hopefully competitive capitalism continues to grow even though the Labour Party succeeded in 1945 and after in imposing "nationalization" on certain industries. The amusing thing about the nationalized sectors of the economy is that some of them have had to hire good men away from private industry to give them such amounts of efficiency as they have managed to create out of the shambles of the original "take-over."
To make the nationalized railroads cost-conscious, the government had to put them under the control of Dr. Richard Beeching, who had made his mark with the privately owned Imperial Chemicals Industries. Moreover, Beeching was granted the same salary he had been drawing from Imperial Chemicals—24,000 pounds a year. To help Beeching, an Australian accountant named Philip Shirley from the Unilever Corporation and Leslie Williams from the big international oil company of Shell were made full-time members of the Transport Commission, each drawing a salary commensurate with what he had always earned. Thus the government has had to draw upon the free sector of the economy and to honorits scale of incentives to save itself from the consequences of the Labour Party’s deplorable adventure in Marxian socialism.
A Change of Attitude
To be sure, Mr. Sampson doesn’t summarize it in this way; he doesn’t mind living in a "mixed economy." However, the really encouraging thing about his book is that a majority of his fellow countrymen seems to be showing no zeal about "mixing" the economy any further. It is no longer considered a mark of poor taste in England to wish to make money out of one’s own private business. "North American attitudes" are being imported—and invading Canadians, combining business acumen with a fondness for living in Britain, are becoming important factors in British business.
For example, Roy Thomson, the son of a Toronto, Canada, barber, came to Britain at the age of fifty-nine to buy the Edinburgh morning paper, The Scotsman. He already owned a chain of thirty American newspapers from Florida to Ontario. Thomson liked living among the Scots sufficiently to branch out into Scottish television, which made him a multimillionaire in short order. Soon he was moving south on London, completing his conquests by buying the Sunday Times. Surveying his career, Thomson was reportedly overheard murmuring, "There must be something wrong with this country if I can make money so easily out of it."
No Capital Gains Tax
The great incentive in England, of course, is the absence of a capital gains tax. This means that anyone who can build up his own business can parlay initiative into a fortune. As Britain moves slowly away from a steel-based economy, individuals have discovered new opportunities in service businesses. There have been lots of recent "one-man success stories" in the fields of interior decoration, property dealing, the building of supermarkets, and in shops that have created "a boom in clothing sales… better class foods and delicatessen… and drinks of almost every sort." A new non-landed propertied class has been growing up, one that thinks in terms of possessing small homes, television sets, refrigerators, washing machines, and cars. This class, used to a growing amount of comfortable leisure, has tended to desert the Labour Party. Although the first political beneficiaries of the switch of the nonlanded property owners were the Conservatives, the Liberals have high hopes of catching them the next time around.
When the Labour Party was in power, it regarded the London financial center—the "City"—with baleful eyes. But it was baffled by the difficulty of dealing with the complex world of bankers and brokers and arbitrage experts and hire-purchase schemes and investment underwriters. Since the "City" was the leading world market for commodities, chartered shipping, foreign exchange, and insurance, it provided the "invisible earnings" which helped Britain redress its balance of international payments. The importance of the invisible earnings was such that Labour did not dare monkey with the sensitive mechanisms of Lloyd’s insurance rooms or the various commodity or shipping markets.
Reprieved by the "nationalizers," the "City" lived through the dangerous period to regain its old elasticity. The merchant bankers in the "City" went on discounting and underwriting investments, sometimes acting stuffily, sometimes accommodating the most daring of the new "raiders." The great "aluminium war" shook the "City"—but when it was all over, though Americans had succeeded in getting a majority position in British Aluminium, it was as if nothing very damaging had happened. Indeed, the "aluminium affair" had created a more enterprising spirit; as one of the "new" bankers in the "City" has said, "there’s much more cut-and-thrust these days, much less of the ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours,’ and the ‘dear old boy’ business: the old Etonians aren’t as powerful as they used to be, and people no longer feel that they have to stick to their own preserve."
A Misplaced Concern
In the light of all the yeastiness he reports, Mr. Sampson’s worries about "a loss of dynamic and purpose" in British life would seem to be somehow misplaced. The author remarks on "a general bewilderment" that is "felt by many people, both at the top and the bottom in
So where, actually, is there any "loss of dynamic and purpose"? The "bewilderment" seems to be mainly in the heads of those who wish that Queen Victoria were still on the throne, or that Karl Marx’s predictions could still be accepted as a relevant guide to decisions in politics. Other Britishers and immigrants to Britain, seizing the individualistic moment, seem to be bringing the old island out of the long lethargy that stretched from 1918 to around 1955. A hopeful book, this Anatomy of Britain, despite the author’s distrust of his own material.
You may tell me that my views are visionary, that the destiny of this country is less exalted, that the American people are less great than I think they are or ought to be. I answer, ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny.