Middlemas on the British State

In 2014 I wrote a brief post on the role of superstition in economic management. Paul Schloss wrote an interesting response on his Serenity Science blog, which I entirely missed at the time. With his permission it is reproduced below:


Here’s something you might like.  It is a richer and more nuanced version of the Paul Samuelson quote you recently posted.  Its rich analysis identifies the creation of a shared political culture as the determinate factor in the limitation of debate within a society; a process whereby the public come to agree on a few quite basic assumptions, which then protects that culture from severe critical attack.  The author is Keith Middlemas, who has written one of the great books on British politics.  Here he is running at full speed (which may account for his somewhat clumsy sentences)…

Behind the formal doctrine, with its bland projection of the virtues of party and parliamentary politics and its tacit avoidance of discussion about the influence of pressure groups and institutions, lay the real and important process of opinion-testing and assimilation, accompanied by political education, and propaganda designed to distinguish, among other things, between legitimate and deviant forms of political protest and participation.  It can, of course, be argued that this diagnosis is old-fashioned conspiracy theory: a version of history open to the objection that:

The public is seen as an atomised mass, passive receptacles of messages originating from a monolithic and powerful source.  In the left-wing political version of this model, the source is controlled by and represents the interest of the ruling class… In some right-wing versions, the media are also seen as powerful, but their influence is in the direction of lowering cultural standards and propagating values of permissiveness. (S. Cohen and J. Young, eds., The Manufacture of News: Social problems, deviance and the mass media.)
Yet every case examined reveals a constant element.  From the days of Lloyd George, continually improved agencies transmitted to central government an ever-widening range of information about public opinion.  At the same time, a series of filters was evolved to reduce this torrent to a form manageable by, and palatable to, Ministers, thus enhancing the residual power of civil servants and the Cabinet Office, and tempering or diminishing the flow of party opinion in the majority of policy decisions.  The tightening of public secrecy, and security over the Ministers’ own freedom to reveal, must be seen as complementary to the creation, from an originally corrupt series of essays in opinion manipulation, of a formal system of opinion management.
Awareness of the need to take public opinion into consideration did not lead politicians and civil servants on to acceptance of popular democracy, but rather the reverse, as the political elite superimposed on the traditional cycle of general elections and party warfare something which can be called continuous contract.  Continuous contract means, simply, the fine measurement of opinion and its careful management by propaganda, together with the creation of a degree of mystification* about the political process, in the interests of harmonious government.  What governments considered to be their worst failures were precisely those where they got their estimates wrong, in highly contentious fields such as demobilisation after 1918, immigration, unemployment benefit, or rearmament.  These taught them that conformity could not be enforced.  Authority existed only where it rested on consent…  Wisdom about the tolerance of the public that government claimed to represent prevented opinion management from slipping back into manipulation, like precise metal transmuted downwards into dross; and this helps to explain why it survived unchecked into the brief golden age after 1945.
* I have in mind here not so much the formalities and fictions surrounding modern government, the orotund images of ‘government objectives’, ‘national interest’, etc., or the due processes by which citizens, individually or collectively, must approach government if they are to be heard, which are common to all modern societies, but their acceptance by the public.    To take the case of the hunger marchers: government, as the CPGB saw very clearly, could not concede their demands for direct representation, except at the risk of overwhelming the party electoral system.  In February 1934 MacDonald told representatives of the NUWM that they would not be received in Downing Street: ‘This deputation can do no service to the unemployed.  The Communist purpose of those marches is well-known.  The Government is responsible for a Bill which, when in operation, will facilitate the more satisfactory treatment of the whole question of unemployment, and that Bill is now receiving consideration in the House of Commons whose knowledge and experience enable it to discuss the best way to achieve the object of Government.’ [my italics]  What is curious, given the conditions of the depressed areas in the thirties, is that such dicta were not widely repudiated.  Bagehot’s theory of deference has to be modified to fit twentieth-century circumstances: only a theory of submission to the dominant political ethic, encouraged by opinion management and institutional collaboration, suffices. (Politics in Industrial Society)
This book, which contains many insights into twentieth century British politics, offers one answer to your question about why the trade unions are reluctant to set up their own TV studio (Why Don’t We Have an Alternative to the BBC and Corporate Media?).  The purpose of such a studio is surely to create an alternative political culture which radically questions the existing one.  But do the unions really want to own such a radical voice?  For we must remember that beginning in the First World War, the unions gradually became part of the process of government. After accepting its capitalist underpinnings their main concern was to negotiate with the state for a share of political power; not so much as to benefit their members, but so as to receive recognition as powerful institutions in their own right (one consequence was their relative indifference to improvements to working conditions in individual factories).1  Once accepted as a realm of state (Middlemas’ term) they participated in the obfuscation described above.  That is, they were as guilty as the politicians in deceiving the general population; helping to hide the truth that the business of government was no longer carried out in parliament, but had been transferred to the offices that surrounded it; the ministers and officials of state bargaining with a limited number of interest groups, such as the large corporations and the TUC, for a share of power and wealth.2  Trade unions want influence and respect, but they also want to maintain the corporate bias (Middlemas again) of the system, which they (correctly) believe will give them that influence.  After helping create this system, they have since lost nearly all control of it, as the British state has been taken over by the corporations.  Nevertheless, it is a system they want to retain, at least in some modified form.  Your ideas are as much a threat to them as Margaret Thatcher’s.
Neither must we forget that even in the social democratic decades after the Second World War the tendency of ministers and civil servants was to accept the received dogma of a limited state and a free competitive market.3  Indeed, one of the reasons for the relatively poor performance of the British corporate state was its inability to jettison its nineteenth century political culture, which found it difficult to adjust to the more state-managed capitalism of the twentieth.4  By now that culture is more ingrained that ever; making it even harder for the British government to intervene in the economy for the benefit of the nation as a whole (of course the structural constraints are greater now than in the 1950s, and so require an even stronger ideological faith to overcome them).
Middlemas also suggests one answer to your question about the supineness of the British Left.  It too has submitted to the dominant political culture, accepting its normative values through absorbing its messages and by participating in “institutional collaboration”; the long and complex history of the Labour Party a record of the incorporation, even repression, of much Left radicalism (Middlemas gives some interesting details, particularly on the early decades of the century).  Donald Sassoon seems to confirm this in his great work, A Hundred Years of Socialism; this book shows that by the 1920s the mainstream of the West European Left had accepted the legitimacy of capitalism; their role to make it work better and with more social justice.  In the 1960s the Communist Party reached the same conclusion.
The problem for Britain was that its Left accepted the nineteenth century idea of capitalism, while its European coevals had a later and more socially inclusive model with which to work, allowing them to help make their national capitalisms both more productive and socially just.  Indeed, according to Shonfield’s book, it would appear that the most radical and progressive activists, the ones that wanted a more integrated and planned economic system, tended to be the managers of the largest British corporations.  They were defeated by the conservatism of both the smaller, less technically dynamic, businessmen and the trade unions, who used the shibboleth of political representation to prevent the state acquiring the power it needed to reorient the economy.  The result?  In the crisis of British capitalism that occurred in the 1960s the City of London was to well-placed to emerge victorious; Thatcherism an ideology justifying the City’s eventual triumph, which was a return to the position of power it had lost during 1930s (Middlemas has some wonderful stuff on this too).5
The idea of a DIY radicalism that lives outside the existing political structure and seeks to replace it is a dangerous one for the organised British Left, and goes against its gut instincts, which is to complain about the system rather than to actively transform it (we must ignore all the utopian rhetoric).  That’s why its left to the bohemians, such as those at Resonance FM.  Those crazies live completely outside the established political culture, and are not affected by its norms and restrictive practices.  The American Left is a lot like these bohemian weirdos.  They also are too far outside America’s political system to be conditioned by it; and this is one reason that a show like Democracy Now! can be such a limited success; creating its own world that is yet recognisably sane and rational.
I only meant to post the quote.  I’ve gone on and on, of course.  But hey, you might like it.  I certainly did!


1. Andrew Shonfield’s Modern Capitalism contains some revealing details.
2.  For an insider’s account of the period see Ian Gilmour’s The Body Politic.  This book inadvertently confirms Middlemas’ thesis – Gilmour argues that while the British parliament is very stable it lacks the ability to act vigorously.  What he is actually describing is an institution losing its power.
One could argue that the 1960s were a failed attempt by the political class to reassert their control (over the executive, the corporations, the unions, the officials of the nationalised industries, and interest groups generally), in order to actually govern a country where the economy had become the source of both power and legitimacy.
Any future attempt to use politics to control the economy has to properly understand that failure, which had much to do with a lack of respect for history and culture (and their ability to create institutions and mentalities that shape and control change), and which led to the illusions of technocratic intervention, and the idea, particularly prominent in the early 1960s, that the experts would sort things out.*
We must also try to understand the limits of politics, and how little power politicians actually have in a democratic state.  Robert Michels in classic work (Political Parties) writes that the fundamental nature of modern democracy is organisation.  This is absolutely right!   Democracy is no longer about votes, and has very little to do with calling individual leaders to account. It is too organised for that.  It is a set of institutions which have created a system of processes that can only be changed from within the system itself.  To give a very simple example. In East London a number of active residents are opposing the planning decisions of the local council. However, they have discovered that calling a public meeting and demanding the presence of the lead official cannot change the planning process at all.  The same decisions will be made tomorrow as yesterday.  Why?  Because the council officials themselves have to follow the planning framework that has already been agreed; by the council in consultation with government, the European Community and big business; the whole process safeguarded by law. What can the local residents do?  They must form a group, with the aim of taking over the planning committee. They also need to form another group to lobby parliament; and perhaps another to go Strasbourg…  That is, in order to fight the institutions they have to become an institution themselves.
What I am describing is a kind of entryism, to which the Labour Party gave a bad name in the 1980s.  However, this is precisely how corporate power works; well described by Thomas Frank in his The Wrecking Crew.  The New Right are Trotskyists in reverse – they infiltrate Congress to bolster capitalism not destroy it.
Our first problem is that most people have no idea what a modern democracy means;  for we are still living with ideas and images from the 1840s, a time when British politicians really did have power, and used it.  A time, incidentally, before mass suffrage.
(*See my Freedom Against Freedom for an alternative history of this decade.)
3.  Shonfield has some extraordinary stuff on this.
4.  This is not the whole story.  David Edgerton’s Warfare State; Britain 1920-1970 is a useful corrective, showing how important the defence industry has been to the British economy, and how conventional Left-Liberal opinion has tended to dismiss it.
5.  Susan Strange’s Casino Capitalism has some very interesting things to say about the Labour Government’s encouragement of the City in the 1960s, and how this helped to create a more fluid and unstable financial services industry.  Britain, according to this argument, was a significant factor in the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system.




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