Newsnotes 039 – January 1994

Notes on the News

by Gwydion M. Williams

The New Sacred Cows

Kenneth Clarke’s budget was aimed at middle-income groups, skilled workers and white-collar employees, workers by hand and brain. The richest 10% and the poorest 30% got off more lightly, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. I suppose that the poor have nothing more to give – they are already embarrassing the rest of society with their suffering. But the big shift in the Tory years has been a piling of more and more wealth upon the wealthiest 10%, and even the wealthiest 2%. Any further increase of their prosperity can only come from middle-income groups.

But how do you sell such a policy to the mainstream of society, the people who are to be required to give up their modest prosperity to meet the needs of the very rich? You can of course claim that you are ‘targeting’ the poor and needy, even while more and more money accumulates with a small rich minority. Or you can ‘leak’ a number of blatantly foolish and obnoxious tax ideas in the run-up to the budget, so that people are very happy when these ideas are not acted upon. Or you can play upon people’s prejudice or vanity. The mainstream in America have been finagled into accepting a continuous drop in their standard of living. Tax cuts remain popular with the public, even though the rich have been the main beneficiaries.

Via the media, people have been sold the idea of the rich as the new sacred cows. ‘The voice of money is the voice of God’ – as I showed in my article in the last issue, this is exactly how Adam Smith saw it. In less blatant forms, the notion has got to all sorts of places. Even a lot of Labour party people now seem to believe it. State-interventionist welfare states have since 1945 managed a growth rate at least twice as fast as classical capitalism. East Europe, Leninism and the USSR killed themselves off while attempting market-orientated reforms.

Britain today is in an even worse mess than when the Tories came to power. And yet market mysticism remains the dominant creed. Money gained in the free market is always good, state activity is at best a necessary evil. Feed money to the rich, and you will be rewarded with a general prosperity. The minor fact that the very reverse has been happening does not seem to shake anyone’s faith.

Lilly’s notion of a ‘don’t care state’ seems to have been set aside for the time being. With a whole deluge of pensions and insurance scandals breaking out, it is not the best time to try to persuade the mass of the population to give up the rights they have earned through payments of National Insurance. But if things pick up a bit, who knows?

And sacred cowboys

Supposing that you wanted to have one law for the rich and another for the poor. The establishment could quite reasonably have such a desire. Obviously they would want to crack down hard on the small fry who might try to steal from the establishment’s wealth. But when one of their own kind comes unstuck after gambles that break both the letter and the spirit of the law, is it really appropriate to take such a hard line?

How might you handle such a matter in a democratic society? You could make the matter unreasonably complicated. If a mugger hits someone on the head with a stick, there is no need to give the whole history of the stick from tree to shop to scene of crime. You just concentrate on the one action that is clearly unlawful. But when it comes to grand fraud, you can find plenty of unimportant details to bore the pants off everyone. After everyone was heartily sick of the matter, the culprits could be set free with no legal stain on their names.

You could also tolerate safe havens for rich criminals. Burglars would be very hard to control if there were a few streets of London where they could stash their loot, a place where the police could not recover it nor even go looking for it. No one wants burglars, so it doesn’t happen. When it comes to ordinary crimes, ‘no-go’ areas are not allowed to develop. But all sorts of peculiar little tax-havens do exactly the same job for those rich enough to use them. And no one seems to see anything wrong in doing business with firms registered in Crookhaven or the Dishonest Isles.

And supposing one of the ‘top sort’ does get convicted. No need to throw the book at them. Four to five hours community service per million pounds stolen is surely just and equitable. And then you get the remarkable matter of people being released with incurable illnesses from which they promptly recover. Or getting clean away when you would have thought someone would have been watching them carefully.

But I am of course just daydreaming. Who could suppose that there was any relationship between this fraudulent fantasy and anything serious.

Nuclear family? No thanks!

When Tories start calling something “traditional”, then it is time to call the undertakers. They are a party that was originally formed to protect the rights of James Duke of York, later James II [and 6th] and then James the Exile, with Toryism acquiescing in the deposition of the king they were supposed to be defending. As they begun, so have they continued. After some 150 years of continuous history, they repackaged themselves as ‘conservative’ in the 1830s. But of the things that people in the 1830s would have seen as worth preserving, very little indeed has in fact survived the next 150 years of Toryism.

It was thus a very notable omen when Tory back benchers started talking about the ‘traditional nuclear family’. I can remember a time when such things were not traditional at all. Back in the 1960s, ‘nuclear families’ were still remembered as an innovation of the 1940s and 1950s, as people started to let go of the wider and more genuinely traditional structure of the extended family. It was an American-led innovation, and a lot of people found it very satisfactory for a while. We 1960s people said ‘fine, but why stop there? Working husband plus housewife and kids may be perfect for some people. But there are all sorts of other possibilities. Why stop just with the last decade’s craze from America?” And that was pretty much how things worked out.

When the Institute for ·Fiscal Studies looked at tax burdens by type of household after the recent budget, guess who got hit the hardest? Precisely the traditional pattern of a couple with children and one wage earner. Single people – including single parents – got off very much more lightly.

If people in Britain had been serious about preserving family structures, they would never have allowed divorce. That was another American-led innovation in European culture. Did it never occur to people that increasing personal choice was not the best way to preserve established social structures? Radicals and reactionaries knew just what the issue was. But a vast middling mass supposed that they could have the best of both worlds. You no longer force people to make the best they can of a bad marriage. So of course, they no longer do so. Why is anyone surprised? With the stable small family business also very much on its last legs, nothing old or familiar is likely to last very long.

Clarke’s budget signals that the Tory leadership know that the American innovation of ‘nuclear families’ plus fairly free divorce has simply not worked. It was a halfway house between extended families and free individual choice. So single mothers are given a special childcare grant. It’s much cheaper than letting the poor tykes grow up as criminals, even leaving aside humane considerations, as Clarke very probably does. And now we have a Green Paper on divorce that promises to make the process about as easy as buying a house, or may be easier. As Thatcher used to say, there is no alternative.

[This has proved broadly true.  But the notion of Tories legalising Gay Marriage in the 2010s never occurred to me until it happened.]

Child’s Play 4 – Rupert the Bare-faced

People say a lot of harsh things about the behaviour of Rupert Murdoch. Actually they are simply describing the behaviour of a mass of money, a self-regulating social structure of greed which has a man called Rupert Murdoch attached to it.

Murdoch has stripped newspaper publishing of any other purpose than accumulating cash. But he could not possibly have done this without the acquiescence or active support of very large numbers of people. There used to be an understanding that newspapers were supposed to do something at a social level. Churning out any old rubbish that would sell used not to be considered acceptable. But in an epoch were crudely greedy capitalist relationships were sweeping away the last vestiges of the culture of the older British ruling class, something like Murdoch was very likely to happen

The man’s individual personality is more a product of the times than a cause of them. I doubt if he was always like that In fact his biography says that he was a bit of a leftist in his student days, being known then as ‘Red Rupert’. Former leftists often make the very worst sort of cynic. (Julie Burchill and Martin Jacques spring to mind.) But they only become cynical in a social situation that other people have made.

Private Eye have a lot to say about Murdoch’s misdeeds. But as the fag-end of the old ruling class, they can never see it as more than a personal failing. If that old ruling class bad wanted to preserve itself, they should not have spread free market capitalism all over the world, imposing it on people who wanted no part of it. Their supposition was that their own interests would remain sacrosanct, above the vulgar business of money making. Of course it didn’t work out like that. The vulgar business of money-making gets everywhere. And most of the practical defences against it get sneered at and undermined by Private Eye. Protection for anyone other than their own little crowd is seen as monstrous and unjust. Thus ‘Old Strawhead’ bangs on continuously about subsidies to the farmers, and never mind that more and more farmers keep on leaving the land as a whole way of life collapses. Vulgar market forces should be allowed to take their course, just as long as it is someone else who is suffering.

The Names that none dare speak about

The network of financial institutions known as The City was created by London gentlemen in the 18th century. (Many of the institutions being the means whereby Quakers laundered the money they made from the slave trade.) Lloyds was originally a coffee shop where insurers were in the habit of meeting, just as the original stock exchange was a street when stockbrokers were accustomed to meet. But as the social power of the London gentlemen ran out, the whole thing has been falling apart.

Lloyds was supposed to be a nice little tax haven for the rich. But the insurance business is always chancy. And by an amazing coincidence, most of the bad risks ended up with the outside ‘Names’, while insiders continue to do well.

Financial service were supposed to be the big alternative as Britain’s manufacturing base ran down. We had the sophistication, or so they said. But if the main sophistication lies in foolish gambles or even outright swindles, what future for all this?

[I have left out a final item, which is a weak and poor joke I should not have included in the original.]


These Newsnotes appeared in January 1994, in Issue 39 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and