MANY people vaguely feel that Parliament is a lot of eye-wash, that MPs just shadow-box with each other, and that the real decisions aren't taken there anyway. One of the most important results of the RSG disclosures was to document this in the clearest possible way.
Parliament is — and always has been — a favoured instrument of capitalist class rule. It is part of the great apparatus of mystification. It is the façade of political democracy.
In theory anyone can stand for election. In theory people have a real choice between real alternatives. In theory Parliament is a forum for free and open discussion between elected representatives of the people, reflecting all shades of opinion on all vital issues. In theory, MPs are responsible to the people who elected them. In theory Parliament is a sovereign body: the supreme legislative authority in the country. In theory key decisions governing our lives are taken there, after full discussion and in broad daylight.
The unchallenged revelations of the Spies for Peace show a very different picture. The decision to build the RSGs was never taken in Parliament. Public money was never openly allotted to this purpose. No MP knows how much has been spent in digging these big holes. The principle of selective survival has never been debated by our rulers. Who was to survive in the bunkers and who to die, vomiting blood, on the surface, has never been discussed by the 'Honourable Members'. The decision of the top bureaucrats that their own survival was in the interests of the State has never been publicised. We very much doubt whether even Cabinet Ministers were aware of all these decisions.
But all this has been going on for years. The 'Spies' just focused attention on a particular aspect of the parliamentary racket.
What is the reality behind the democratic façade? At every level, the fraudulent nature of our institutions will be shown up if we but scratch their surface.
Do the main political parties really stand for different things? Do they stand for different relations between rulers and ruled? Have they different attitudes to the Bomb? To the value of human life? Was not a Labour government in power when hundreds of thousands were murdered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Did not a Labour government vote the military appropriations which helped build Aldermaston? Have the major parties different attitudes to 'official' secrets? Or to those who divulge them? To the 'rights' of the State? To the deception of the people by official soothing syrup? Would a Labour government have published the results of Fallex '62?
Or do the main parties just stand for different ways of doing the same thing, for more or less 'efficient' methods of achieving the same objectives.
The British parliament has always been a two-party system. Whigs and Tories until the First World War. Then Labour and Tory. The structure of the electoral system strongly discriminates against any third challenger. As Ivor Jennings it it: The whole constitution, from the electoral process to parliamentary procedure assumes the two-party system; and because it assumes that system it assists in maintaining it'.1
The true character of this gigantic hoax is summed up in the phrase: 'Her Majesty's Opposition'. As far back as 1912 a shrewd American observer, Lowell, said that this conception was 'the greatest contribution in the 19th century to the art of government: that of a party out of power which is recognised as perfectly loyal to the institutions of the State and ready to come into office without a shock to the political traditions of the country'.2
To ensure the perpetuation of the said 'political traditions' the ruling class directly controls the day to day administration of the state through a carefully selected civil service. This non-elected body is completely insulated from any kind of democratic control. Even Tory ministers are sometimes amazed at how limited is their control over their own staff.3 All major decisions taken by the Executive are largely based on the 'professional advice' of the civil service, administrative, economic or military.
Can this state of affairs be changed? Could Party members really determine the policies of their respective parties. This is another of the carefully fostered myths.
In both parties all major decisions are taken by the leadership and are imposed from above. The 'leader' is neither responsible to his own Party Conference nor even to his colleagues in the House of Commons. The 1949 Report on Tory Party organization put it quite bluntly: 'Endorsements and pronouncements on Party policy are the prerogative and responsibility of the leader'. Basing himself on the same principle, Hugh Gaitskell rejected the Scarborough decision of the Labour Party Conference on unilateral nuclear disarmament. He would not be bound by rank and file decisions but would 'fight, fight and fight again' against them. With all the strength — and administrative apparatus — at his disposal.
The Party Conference cannot instruct the Parliamentary Party. The Parliamentary Party cannot instruct the Cabinet. Herbert Morrison put it quite clearly nearly a decade ago: 'Neither Party, when in power, would accept the view that its Parliamentary Party could instruct or control the Cabinet'.4
The Party leader is not chosen by the Party Conference or even by the National Executive of the Party. But he alone elects his cabinet. He is under no obligation to consult his Parliamentary Party or his own party membership at any level. Many of those chosen for the highest positions on the 'Executive' have never been elected at all. Lord Home, the present Foreign Secretary, is an obvious example.
A glance at the structure of our political parties shows how power has moved steadily away from the rank and file and into the hands of powerful bureaucracies, who manipulate the political machine in their own interests. All our political institutions are becoming increasingly authoritarian. Authoritarian in their attitudes to ordinary people (who are seen as a mass to be manipulated from the outside) and authoritarian in their patterns of internal organization. In all this, our political institutions merely reflect the basic conflict in any class society, the conflict which starts in production and from there spreads to affect all social relations, the conflict between those who own, manage, and decide, and those who merely execute and obey.
And are the major decisions now taken in Parliament anyway? For that matter are they even taken by the Cabinet?
The discipline of the modern party machine guarantees the Cabinet a mechanical majority in Parliament. Despite this most major decisions are taken nowadays without reference to MPs. The record, on the subject of nuclear weapons alone, is quite illuminating.
In 1943 Churchill and Roosevelt agreed, at Quebec, on the production of the atom bomb. Other members of the War Cabinet were not informed of this momentous decision, either before, during or after the discussion. Even Mr. Attlee who was then Deputy Prime Minister, didn't hear about it until after the formation of the Labour Government in 1945.5 As for the 'Representatives of the people' in the 'Mother of Parliaments' — they only learnt the full text of the agreement about 11 years later, on April 6, 1954.
The decision of the Labour Government to manufacture an all-British atom bomb was another instance. Writing in the Sunday Times (18/9/60) Emmanuel Shinwell described the background to this 'democratic' episode:
'I was Minister of Defence in 1950. But I knew nothing of how the decision to manufacture the atom bomb was reached. Only recently, as a result of my investigations, did I discover that the decision to undertake research and development was taken in 1947, in consultation with a few of my government colleagues. So far as I am aware the subject was never mentioned at any of the Cabinet meetings … In his book, Earl Attlee omits any reference to the subject and gives no details of how this momentous decision came to be made'.
'Socialist' secrets, perhaps, to be kept from the people?
The decision for Britain to enter NATO and the decision to station American atom bombers here were both taken without previous discussion in Parliament. So was Anthony Eden's decision to send
British troops to Suez in 1956.
The House of Commons is not consulted about appointments, however important they may be. The heads of the Armed Forces, the chiefs of the Civil Service, the Chairmen of the Boards of nationalised industries, ambassadors and colonial governors as well as judges of the High Court are all appointed without reference to the House. The relation of the House of Commons to the Executive was neatly summed up by Mr. Lloyd George when he said: "Parliament has no control over the Executive: it is a pure fiction".6
One last point about Parliament: its control over the money spent by the State.
Financial initiative, in our parliamentary 'democracy' belongs to the top bureaucrats alone. Whoever heard of an MP making a proposal to spend public money? Or not to spend public money? Whoever heard of a 'representative of the people' even moving an amendment to a Finance Bill?
When Government departments present their annual estimates to the House, there is never 'enough time' to debate them in detail. MPs can never find out how much it is proposed to spend on any individual item. The estimates are voted 'as a whole'. They receive automatic approval. MPs are the dummies mechanically endorsing — or squealing about — decisions taken elsewhere. The 'Opposition' may feebly criticize the administration of the department concerned, but it can't even make sensible comments. It is denied the inside information. This is one of the standard ways whereby bureaucracies perpetuate themselves.
The general public and even Members of Parliament, are moreover often quite deliberately misled by the faceless ones behind the top government bureaucrats. Money needed for one purpose is often entered under another heading. Double book-keeping is rampant. For example the Post Office vote of £75 million for 'capital expenditure on telephone, telegraph and postal services' in 1952 included £25 million which, it was finally admitted under pressure, really belonged to the rearmament programme. Mr. Gammons, then Postmaster General, revealed that this had been the practice for many years.7 The almost unbelievable state of ignorance in which MPs are kept was well illustrated when Mr. Churchill, disclosing in the House of Commons on October 23, 1952, that Britain's first atom bomb explosion at Montebello had cost something over £100 millions, admitted that, as an old parliamentarian, he was 'rather astonished' that this sum 'could be dispersed without Parliament being made aware of it'.8
Earlier, in July 1950, the Labour Government had perpetrated a similar swindle. On July 26-27 the House had debated exhaustively and voted an increase of £100 million on the arms estimates of £780 million. Parliament then went into recess. On August 3rd, the Government announced that the rearmament programme would be increased to £3,400 million in the next three years. This announcement had followed the dispatch of a note from the U.S. Government. So much for the respect of the 'socialist' bureaucrats, for the elementary principles of democracy.
It will be seen from all this that today ordinary people have least to say over those very matters which are of the deepest concern to them: the questions of life and death. What will the government do with the money it compulsorily takes from you in the form of taxation? Will you decide? Will your 'elected representatives' decide? Will it be spent on armaments? On Blue Streak or Skybolt missiles? On the V-bombers which the Labour Party has just promised to retain? On any other obsolescent weapons which protect no one and make us a sitting target? On deep shelters for the privileged few? Or on proper homes, on the care of the aged and infirm, and on making our lives worth living in the here and now? Were YOU ever asked what you thought about it all? And if you said what you thought, who the bloody hell paid any attention to it?
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Behind Parliament and behind the Cabinet stand the other State institutions, bulwarks of the ruling class and guarantors of their right to rule. Space prevents us from here discussing them fully. There is the Monarch to whom State power 'legally' belongs, who convenes and dissolves Parliaments, who gives insignia of office to Cabinet Ministers and without whose assent no Bill can become law. Their interventions in current political affairs are usually only revealed a decade or two later — in the form of memoirs by some indiscreet politician or embittered hanger-on.
There is the House of Lords, which still retains the right to delay acts of Parliament. And the Armed Forces, an instrument of imperialism abroad and of repression at home, to be used should the police force prove inadequate. This is the same whichever political party is in power. The use of troops against striking workers by the Labour Government showed this quite clearly.
There is the Police. And the Secret Police, who open mail, tap phones and until recently had a monopoly of photographing people in public. Parliament has neither knowledge nor control of this Gestapo force. Questions about them in Parliament are always evaded as 'not being in the public interest'.
And interlocked with all the organs of coercion and repression is the whole paraphernalia of the legal system. Its prime function is the protection of private property, of managerial rights, of the 'legal right' of the rulers to rule. The law is literally something to be 'interpreted' by the magistrates in the light of whichever 'precedent' they choose to follow. This gives them considerable scope.9 The façade of democracy is further welded together by the careful 'education' and manipulation of the people through the mass media: the press, the cinema, BBC and television. The Church of England plays its part, teaching the child his catechism: 'My duty … is … to honour and obey the Queen, and all that are put in authority under her: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters …' Even the Boy Scouts are dedicated to 'God, Queen and Country'.
Despite these massive built-in safeguards our rulers have regularly pushed through Acts to transfer even greater powers to the Executive, such as the Defence of the Realm Act (1914), the Emergency Powers Act (1920), the Official Secrets Act (1920) and the Trades Disputes Act (1927). The purpose of the Official Secrets Act should by now be apparent to all who have heard official pronouncements in relation to 'Spies for Peace'. In 1931 George Lansbury's son was prosecuted under this act for publishing the substance of a Cabinet memorandum on unemployment. Its purpose is not only to keep information from an enemy power. It is increasingly used to keep the British people themselves in ignorance. These acts are all designed to protect the rulers from the ruled. They are extremely elastic, and cover practically every contingency. Liberals may protest in horror at the recent decrees of the South African government. Little do they realise that the British government would not need such legislation. There are more than enough acts on the statute book already to cope with any potential opposition which reached revolutionary proportions.
Against this background, how pathetic are the claims of those who believe it possible to advance to a new and better society through parliamentary action, by 'capturing' positions', by building a 'left-wing' in the Labour Party, or by other such means. Real power does not lie in Parliament. It lies in the hands of the people. The composition of Parliament is a purely academic interest.
1. The Government of England (1912), vol. I, p.451.
2. Parliament (1939), p.504.
3. In a revealing letter to The Times (June 25, 1954), Mr. R. H. Dorman-Smith, Minister of Agriculture in 1939-1940 wrote: 'One of the very first lessons my Permanent Secretary thought fit to teach me was "Whatever you may think of me or any other Civil Servant here, you cannot sack us" … I was amazed to find that a Minister had no individual control over his staff from the newest joined junior clerk or typist right up to the top.'
4. Government and Parliament (1954), p.135.
5. The Times, April 9, 1954.
6. Harvey and Hood, The British State (1958), p.52.
7. [no source given]
8. Quoted by Harvey & Hood, The British State (1958), p.55.
9. The outlook of the typical magistrate can be deduced from the following observation made by A. M. Sullivan, Q.C., in his memoirs: he said the Bench: 'is exclusively composed of men who have grown up in the artificial atmosphere of the ruling class, the public school, the university, the well- provided apprenticeship to the Inns of Court, lucrative practice and the accumulation of wealth. None have ever suffered that excellent corrective of theoretical opinion, hunger for the price of a meal.'
The Last Sergeant (1952).