The long decline of British capitalism

What We Have Lost: The Dismantling of Great Britain

By James Hamilton-Paterson

Published by Head of Zeus, 2019, £9-99

Reviewed by Niall Mulholland

Up to 1939, Britain was the world’s largest exporter of manufactured goods and of energy (coal). From 1939 to 1945, it produced around 125,000 aircraft and a huge number of ships, motor vehicles, armaments and textiles. After world war two, Britain was a pioneer in antibiotics, radar, the jet engine and the computer. In 1950, Britain recorded the highest percentage of the workforce in industrial jobs and 80 percent of the population were classified as “working class”. In the 1970s, trade union membership was at its highest levels and inequality at its lowest.

Yet, within a few decades, much of Britain’s major industries, such as ship-making, coal mining, car-making and steel, were gone or greatly diminished, throwing millions out of work and rupturing working-class communities.

James Hamilton-Paterson, an accomplished writer of fiction, brings a novelist’s pace to this subject, excoriating the British establishment and politicians who presided over industrial decline. He recounts growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in a middle class family, when British industries, such as motorcycle making, which he has a passion for, were global names.

Hamilton-Paterson describes his parents as “socialist inclined” – his late mother burst into tears of anger when confronted with street homelessness under the rule of Thatcher – but his own politics are less clear. In the main, Hamilton-Paterson blames industry bosses and decades of incompetent mismanagement for the industrial decline but he also apportions some fault to trade union “intransigence”.

What We Have Lost looks at the rise and fall of industrial and manufacturing sectors, like air travel, trains, cars, ships, motorbikes, as well as once large scale employing industries like fishing.

Discussing the decades-long deliberations by several governments over whether to expand Heathrow Airport, despite it already being an overcrowded airport in a populated residential area and causing serious pollution concerns, Hamilton-Paterson comments that it is “a symptom of the British disease in microcosm: laissez-faire government that, in its ideological obsession with shareholder profitability, puts off planning the nation’s infrastructure in the hope that private enterprise will take care of the future: something that has yet to happen anywhere on earth”.

Should Heathrow be expanded, Hamilton-Paterson predicts “botched or delayed construction and prodigious cost overruns”.

When Hamilton-Paterson was a boy in the 1950s, he recounts, there were thirty five British owned car makers. Mergers saw the British Motor Corporation command 40 per cent of the UK market and become the fourth largest car company. Yet by 1994 “virtually all were defunct or foreign owned”. German car production, which saw greater investment and productivity, overtook Britain in 1956. Capitalist ‘M&A’ (‘mergers and acquisitions’) and ‘rationalisation’ of car makers and other industries “effectively meant managers favouring the short term interests of their shareholders”.

Hamilton-Paterson condemns successive governments for “not only giving the private car clear priority over public transport but its environment over that of human beings”. In 1948 there were just over a million cars on Britain’s roads. By 2016, there were thirty one million. And this “hellish flood” has left Britain with the unenviable position as  “Western Europe’s worst country for traffic and one of the world’s ten most gridlocked nations”. Pollution in cities “can daily reach, and surpass, levels the WHO classes as lethal, especially to children and the elderly”.

Hamilton-Paterson falsely argues that union militancy played a role, albeit secondary to the bosses, in threatening the “very existence” of British Leyland car maker and other industries. But he concedes that factory workplaces were “abominable and often downright dangerous” and workers often took industrial action due to a bullying and incompetent management to try and save their industries and jobs. He quotes Tony Benn favourably, who argued, “…when you bring in managers from a business studies course who’d got a degree in business management but who couldn’t mend a puncture in a motor tyre – and you speak about the people who made the cars as the problem?”

Hamilton-Paterson is broadly sympathetic to individual union leaders, like Derek Robinson (labelled ‘Red Robo’ by the tabloids), who in a high profile case was victimised by British Leyland management in the 1970s. Robinson “was wrongly lumped into the same ‘Bolshie’ category” as other union Trotskyist “firebrands”. This, Hamilton-Paterson, states, was “confusing two very different forms of politics”. Robinson, was a “typical CP member in his savage disparagement of ‘the Trots’ and their premature talk of revolution”. (For a socialist analysis of this important episode in industrial strife see On the Track: An account of trade union struggles at British Leyland in the 1970s, by Bill Mullins)

At times the author seems to argue against himself. He is aghast that during world war two workers building ships and in other industries could even contemplate going on strike. More working days were lost through strikes each year between 1942 and 1945 than had been in the last full peacetime year of 1938. But, at the same time, Hamilton-Paterson recognises a “management still essentially Victorian in attitude” and the “belligerent class grievances” of many workers, emerging from the ‘hungry thirties’, who were marginalised and alienated and many “well read in socialist literature”.

Industrialisation, including “the mastery of steam and the development of the iron steamship”, meant that for a century Britain had the most powerful navy and merchant marine. In 1948 it was building just under half the world’s tonnage of ships. But by 1956 Japan overtook Britain as the world’s leading shipbuilder. Short-term profit seeking, management complacency in the face of new shipping methods, and a lack of investment by the bosses led to quick decline: between 1948 and 1959 “Britain’s share of the global output of new ships of all types slumped from fifty to a mere fifteen per cent”.

Further decline and crisis in the shipyards saw the high profile Upper Clyde Shipbuilders ‘work-in’, led by Jimmy Reid. This action by UCS workers, which had a “good deal of support and sympathy” nationally, forced Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, to keep UCS going as Govan Shipbuilders in 1972.

However shipyard nationalisations were undone by Thatcher and subsequent governments’ privatisations. Today, a mere 0.8% of the world’s merchant ships are British registered and the number of merchant sailors dropped from 90,000 in the 1970s to 19,000 today.

Hamilton-Paterson presents a similar bleak decline of the once extensive motorcycle, nuclear and fishing industries. In the early 1970s, the EEC, forerunner of the EU, imposed a ‘common fisheries policy’ to greatly restrict the fishing waters of Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Norway. These four countries, then applying to join the EEC, controlled the overwhelming majority of Europe’s fisheries. Hamilton-Paterson lambasts Heath’s Tory government for agreeing to the EEC’s terms, thereby ruining the national fishing industry. 

While eloquently making a scathing case against the epic failings of the bosses of industry, private and state-run, Hamilton-Paterson misdiagnoses the primary reasons for this malaise and provides no solution. He speculates that Britain’s industrial decline may be down to ‘national psyche’ and ‘character’ and asks why a ‘national plan’ could not have been developed over decades.

But this assumes that the worker and the boss have common interests. The bosses are always out to maximise profits from the labour of the working class, who, in turn, will resist this class exploitation.

The world financial and economic crisis of 2007-08 and the subsequent decade of austerity led to enhanced class bitterness. But that working class anger needs clear political expression. A mass party of the working class, with bold socialist policies, would struggle for a workers’ government carrying out their own ‘national plan’ – a democratic reorganisation of society based on the needs of society, not for the interests of the billionaire elite. The highly integrated character of the world economy requires a socialist economic plan on not just a national but a global scale, as well. Such a harnessing of productive forces and modern techniques would see a blossoming of socially-useful industries that would be environmentally-friendly, clean and safe, and for the benefit of all.