All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1963

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1963/3

The leader of the British Liberal Party, Mr. Joseph Grimond, has been visiting in America, telling college students that the old-time noncollectivist liberalism is not dead in his home country. Since there seems to be a crisis of lead­ership in the British Labour Party and since the Conservatives have been having their troubles, Mr. Grimond could be right when he predicts a measure of comeback for those who think like himself.

The Grimond optimism is borne out by a massive new book, An­thony Sampson’s Anatomy of Brit­ain (Harper and Row, 662 pages, $6.95). True enough, the author of this encyclopedic work doesn’t come to any exhilarating conclu­sions. After his exhaustive but nonetheless enlivening tour of British social, political, financial, industrial, and educational insti­tutions, Mr. Sampson remarks that Britain suffers from “a malaise among the few thousand managers of our society who have failed to absorb and communicate new chal­lenges and new ideas.” But his own work shows that Britain re­mains almost incurably pluralistic, even though we hear much about the “Establishment” which sup­posedly rules it. There is no all-powerful “They.” As Mr. Sampson puts it, not knowing quite the full implications for individual free­dom as something over and above mere political democracy that are wrapped up in his words: “The rulers are not at all close-knit or united. They are not so much in the centre of a solar system, as in a cluster of interlocking circles, each one largely preoccupied with its own professionalism and ex­pertise, and touching others only at one edge—they are not a single Establishment, but a ring of Es­tablishments, with slender connec­tions. The frictions and balances between the different circles are the supreme safeguard of democ­racy. No one man can stand in the centre, for there is no centre.”

Managers from the Market

Inasmuch as no one can presume to put his total impress on British life, a free and hopefully competi­tive capitalism continues to grow even though the Labour Party suc­ceeded in 1945 and after in im­posing “nationalization” on cer­tain industries. The amusing thing about the nationalized sec­tors of the economy is that some of them have had to hire good men away from private industry to give them such amounts of effi­ciency as they have managed to create out of the shambles of the original “take-over.”

To make the nationalized rail­roads cost-conscious, the govern­ment had to put them under the control of Dr. Richard Beeching, who had made his mark with the privately owned Imperial Chemi­cals Industries. Moreover, Beech­ing was granted the same salary he had been drawing from Imperi­al Chemicals—24,000 pounds a year. To help Beeching, an Aus­tralian accountant named Philip Shirley from the Unilever Corpo­ration and Leslie Williams from the big international oil company of Shell were made full-time mem­bers of the Transport Commis­sion, each drawing a salary com­mensurate with what he had al­ways earned. Thus the government has had to draw upon the free sec­tor of the economy and to honorits scale of incentives to save it­self from the consequences of the Labour Party’s deplorable adven­ture in Marxian socialism.

A Change of Attitude

To be sure, Mr. Sampson doesn’t summarize it in this way; he doesn’t mind living in a “mixed economy.” However, the really encouraging thing about his book is that a ma­jority of his fellow countrymen seems to be showing no zeal about “mixing” the economy any furth­er. It is no longer considered a mark of poor taste in England to wish to make money out of one’s own private business. “North American attitudes” are being im­ported—and invading Canadians, combining business acumen with a fondness for living in Britain, are becoming important factors in British business.

For example, Roy Thomson, the son of a Toronto, Canada, barber, came to Britain at the age of fifty-nine to buy the Edinburgh morn­ing paper, The Scotsman. He al­ready owned a chain of thirty American newspapers from Flor­ida to Ontario. Thomson liked liv­ing among the Scots sufficiently to branch out into Scottish televi­sion, which made him a multimil­lionaire in short order. Soon he was moving south on London, com­pleting his conquests by buying the Sunday Times. Surveying his career, Thomson was reportedly overheard murmuring, “There must be something wrong with this country if I can make money so easily out of it.”

No Capital Gains Tax

The great incentive in England, of course, is the absence of a capi­tal gains tax. This means that anyone who can build up his own business can parlay initiative into a fortune. As Britain moves slowly away from a steel-based economy, individuals have discovered new opportunities in service busi­nesses. There have been lots of re­cent “one-man success stories” in the fields of interior decoration, property dealing, the building of supermarkets, and in shops that have created “a boom in clothing sales… better class foods and delicatessen… and drinks of al­most every sort.” A new non-landed propertied class has been growing up, one that thinks in terms of possessing small homes, television sets, refrigerators, washing machines, and cars. This class, used to a growing amount of comfortable leisure, has tended to desert the Labour Party. Although the first political beneficiaries of the switch of the nonlanded prop­erty owners were the Conserva­tives, the Liberals have high hopes of catching them the next time around.

When the Labour Party was in power, it regarded the London financial center—the “City”—with baleful eyes. But it was baf­fled by the difficulty of dealing with the complex world of bank­ers and brokers and arbitrage ex­perts and hire-purchase schemes and investment underwriters. Since the “City” was the leading world market for commodities, chartered shipping, foreign ex­change, and insurance, it provided the “invisible earnings” which helped Britain redress its balance of international payments. The im­portance of the invisible earnings was such that Labour did not dare monkey with the sensitive mech­anisms of Lloyd’s insurance rooms or the various commodity or ship­ping markets.

Reprieved by the “nationaliz­ers,” the “City” lived through the dangerous period to regain its old elasticity. The merchant bankers in the “City” went on discounting and underwriting investments, sometimes acting stuffily, some­times accommodating the most daring of the new “raiders.” The great “aluminium war” shook the “City”—but when it was all over, though Americans had succeeded in getting a majority position in British Aluminium, it was as if nothing very damaging had hap­pened. Indeed, the “aluminium af­fair” had created a more enterprising spirit; as one of the “new” bankers in the “City” has said, “there’s much more cut-and-thrust these days, much less of the ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours,’ and the ‘dear old boy’ business: the old Etonians aren’t as powerful as they used to be, and people no longer feel that they have to stick to their own preserve.”

A Misplaced Concern

In the light of all the yeastiness he reports, Mr. Sampson’s worries about “a loss of dynamic and pur­pose” in British life would seem to be somehow misplaced. The au­thor remarks on “a general be­wilderment” that is “felt by many people, both at the top and the bot­tom in Britain today, including many of the two hundred I talked to.” But meanwhile a Canadian succeeds in buying the Sunday Times, and a Warburg from Ham­burg, a refugee from the Nazis,builds a new London banking em­pire just like a Rothschild of Na­poleonic times, and the Shell Oil Company begins to recruit young administrators from the provin­cial colleges which are sarcasti­cally referred to by Oxonians and Cantabridgians as “Redbrick.”

So where, actually, is there any “loss of dynamic and purpose”? The “bewilderment” seems to be mainly in the heads of those who wish that Queen Victoria were still on the throne, or that Karl Marx’s predictions could still be accepted as a relevant guide to de­cisions in politics. Other British­ers and immigrants to Britain, seizing the individualistic mo­ment, seem to be bringing the old island out of the long lethargy that stretched from 1918 to around 1955. A hopeful book, this Anat­omy of Britain, despite the au­thor’s distrust of his own ma­terial.

Carl Schurz

You may tell me that my views are visionary, that the destiny of this country is less exalted, that the American people are less great than I think they are or ought to be. I answer, ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.