Socialist Worker

A party terrified of workers’ resistance

In the second part of our series Simon Basketter looks at how the Tories adapted to economic change

Issue No. 2203

The Tories have always been loyal to two things—the needs of the ruling class and hostility to workers.

This does not mean that the Tories are always in favour of an all-out assault on workers.

Sometimes wise class leadership requires manoeuvre, retreat, alliances and a careful analysis of class forces.

And the Tories have shown their ability to do this.

Quintin Hogg, a Tory MP later to become Tory cabinet minister Lord Hailsham, warned parliament in 1943, “If you don’t give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.”

So, for instance, in 1938, the future Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan wrote:

“The coal industry ought now to be absorbed into the sphere of socialised concerns conducted in the light of wider national considerations—not making its first objective the securing of a profit on its own operations but seeking to serve other industries and assist them to become profitable.”


Macmillan saw that the only law of any importance in capitalism is the law of class preservation. In office, Macmillan isolated imperial adventurers, avoided confrontation with the trade unions, instituted “planning”, and steered a wayward course to changes in favour of corporations.

In the post-war years the Conservatives went along with the creation of the welfare state. They rightly perceived that such a compromise was necessary to prevent their electoral annihilation.

The Tories agreed to support welfare schemes and full employment in return for Labour acceptance of the dominance of free enterprise.

The Tory chancellor “Rab” Butler wrote in the early 1950s that “modern conservatism would maintain strong central guidance on the operations of the economy”.

This deal could hold while economic growth allowed the poor to raise themselves up a bit and the wealthy to grow richer.

The best statement of Tory attitudes towards the state was made by Major Gwilym Lloyd George in 1946. He wrote, “My idea is that when things are not going so well, the state should come in, but when things are going well, the state should keep out. In other words, it is a policy determined by the state of trade in the country.”

A concrete example of this was Paul Chambers, chairman of ICI in the 1950s.

In 1958, when “things” were going well and a pre-election boom was in the offing, he wrote a pamphlet for the Tories attacking the government’s controls over business, which, “are inconsistent with a free society”.

“There are many ways in which the spirit of enterprise can be killed. One is the continuation of controls by a Conservative government,” he wrote.

Four years later, when “things” were going badly, he said that legislation against concentration of economic power was out of date.

What was needed, he said, was “industrial planning to eliminate surplus capacity”.


This pragmatism also determined the Tories approach to their greatest problem—workers.

So Iain Macleod, then minister of labour, faced demands for compulsory ballots before strikes at the 1956 Tory party conference.

He replied, “The idea, of course, is that the workers are less militant than the leaders. All I can tell you, speaking quite frankly, is that this is not my experience, nor is it the experience of any minister of labour”.

Macleod’s policy was to cooperate with trade union leaders—to coax them into the corridors of power in exchange for holding back struggle.

But this approach to industry did not and could not provide a solution to the problems of capitalism. It did not create the post-war boom. It served only to carve some proceeds from it for British capitalism.

As the boom faded, neither neoliberalism nor partnership could extract the ruling class from the chaos of their international system, nor from the struggle with workers.

As major economic crisis reappeared in the 1960s and 1970s, Tory governments turned to confronting workers head on.

But the Ted Heath government collapsed in the face of trade union resistance.

It prompted John Davies, then minister for Europe, to recall, “We were at home in Cheshire and I said to my wife and children that we should have a nice time, because I deeply believed then that it was the last Christmas of this kind that we would enjoy.”

The Tories were back where they started—terrified of workers’ resistance.

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