It was a fine clause, but it's too late to wave the banner of state con trol

Other countries have public railways, airlines and power stations living happily with market forces
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The Independent Online
LIKE MANY people I know, I keep going back to re-read that advertisement in Tuesday's Guardian, "Labour MEPs Defend Clause IV". And I am surprised at myself.

It is small in size, badly laid-out and jumbled in thought. Its claim to be signed by "more than half the European Parliamentary Labour Party" has turned out to be unreliable; five of those whose names appeared under it have already recanted or sobbed that they did not know what they were agreeing to. Tony Blair, in Brussels, called the advertisement "gross discourtesy" and "infantile incompetence". The British mass media agreed with him without, as far as I could discern, one dissenting voice.

Why, then, do I find myself stealing back and studying that advertisement again? Taken phrase by phrase, it does not make much sense. "Common Ownership . . . with Britain and much of the world in crisis, this is no time to jettison this powerful weapon for social and economic justice." What crisis in Britain? Society is becoming more unfair and a rotten, exhausted government is - we should all pray - approaching its end. But that is not what they call a crisis in East Timor, Chechnya or Haiti.

One of the most infuriating Dave-Spartisms of the British far left is to devalue the notion of "crisis" by using it whenever a factory is bought by the Japanese or a Secretary of State is found in the wrong bed. Anyway, why should common ownership of themeans of production, distribution and exchange in Britain have the slightest effect on the crises, real or imaginary, of the rest of the world? And if this is a bad moment to throw overboard such a "powerful weapon", then presumably times of non-crisis,peace and prosperity would constitute an even worse moment.

And the advertisement's list of Labour's core beliefs and values ("Opportunity, Equality, Fairness, Justice, Democracy") leaves out Liberty entirely, which may just be stupidity but may also be an unconscious statement about the old left in the party, and it says nothing about suspect concepts like Modernisation or Renewal or Community, and it implies that there is some basic difference between Fairness and Justice , and . . . but at this point, suddenly, an inner voice tells me to simmer down. What is all this heated pedantry really about? What exactly am I trying not to admit to myself?

Here, one more time, are the words which matter in the text of Clause IV, section 4, of Labour's 1918 constitution: "To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange . . ."

I confess that I cannot deny those words. Can there be any authentic vision of socialism which does not in some way respond to them? I do not think so. They are dry and passionless, but lucid enough. In 1918, they embodied the best method so far found toprevent a minority appropriating all resources and reducing the majority to helpless servitude.

Once it seemed that the vote, universal suffrage, would be enough to liberate that majority. But that proved an illusion. The rich minority found ways to preserve its domination even in a democracy, and the question of ownership and property itself had to be confronted. Clause IV dates from the early stages of that search for a way to assert community needs against the blind destructiveness of primitive capitalism. "Common Ownership" does not have to mean nationalisation - state ownership. Many socialists believe it ought to mean worker's control and self-management, a very different thing. But nationalisation is the only version ever applied by Labour governments and, if they are honest, that is what most of the defenders of Clause IV have in mind.

For most of my life, I have argued the noble, utopian case for Clause IV. Human beings seemed to me a "naturally" co-operative species. Our social instincts derived from times when we lived in small, egalitarian, peasant communities, holding land in common and sharing our surplus with one another. I now think that this analysis does not fit the known facts.

Even if it were an accurate description of - say - Neolithic agrarian society, the inference that it was "natural" and therefore appropriate for post-industrial European society in the 21st century cannot stand. What does "natural" mean, and why should it be synonymous with "good"? Anyway, archaeological research in the past 20 years or so has consigned the whole nostalgic idea of "primitive communism" to the dustbin. It looks as if even in a Neolithic village there was competition. Even in

a village community which owned most of its land collectively, there were aggressive individualists who sought to do their neighbours down.

At the practical level, there are promising forms of common ownership and obsolete ones. It is hopelessly too late now to build a public sector of industries and services which uses state funding to create an economic nature reserve fenced off from the world market - artificially low consumer prices, guarantees against redundancies, compulsory purchase quotas for state agencies and so on. That is what most of the Clause IV defenders want - a plan for stepping off the world.

But there is no reason why a public utility has to defy the market in order to stay public. It is a peculiarly British myth that all state enterprise is inefficient. Other countries run perfectly efficient railways, airlines, water supplies and power stations through public authorities living happily with market forces. And the difference between such an authority and a private corporation bound to fulfil strict guidelines of public requirement is not great. The Labour intellectual R H Tawney wrote in 1931 that "the important question is not whether an undertaking is private or public; it is whether, if it is private, adequate guarantees can be established that it performs a public function, and whether, if it is public, it perfor m s it effectively".

Tawney's thought is Tony Blair's. But both men are saying that ownership is not what matters. What counts is control, which in turn means a state able and willing to enforce "the public interest".

This is not socialism. This is the creed of "New Labour" a reforming party determined to end the callous laissez-faire which has outlawed common feeling and segregated society into winners and losers, to build a new, modern constitutional arena in which radical politics will move more easily. This is a party which can breach the dam behind which overdue changes have stacked up for 15 years.

But Clause IV no longer belongs to that sort of Labour Party. Real "common ownership" - not the National Coal Board, but small co-operatives where "producers by hand or brain" share the fruits of their labour - will always survive, but as a pattern of living, a token of all that is best in human nature, rather than a programme.

All socialism ultimately faces towards that ideal, and the Labour Party is full of socialists. But that is a Jerusalem which there is no hope of building in Britain at present. To pretend otherwise is to reject what really can be done in the green and pleasant land. Tony Blair cannot build Jerusalem. But he can overthrow the walls of Jericho, if his party gives him the right trumpet.