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More Equal Than Others
SUGGESTIONS that I made on J une 22 and June 29 for rationalizing the wages structure in the road
. haulage industry have been echoed from an unexpected quarter. According to a statement of policy recently issued, the Labour Party have acknowledged that differences in earnings must exist, but say that these should not be excessive, and should be clearly related to well-accepted criteria, such as skill, responsibility and hard work.
Any claim on my part that I was preaching good Socialism would probably have to be qualified. It does not seem likely that the Labour Party were thinking about road haulage at the time they made the statement. For example, the increase to 30 m.p.h. in the speed limit for heavy goods vehicles, when it comes about, will hardly be due to the skill, responsibility or hard work of the drivers, but the Socialists do not suggest that they should be deprived of a differential.
The statement has the title "Towards Equality," and it has set off a succession of comments in the Press, for the most part unfavourable. Equality of opportunity for all was once considered a noble aspiration, but it has no more substance than a rainbow. The nearer one approaches it, the farther it recedes. Neither the Labour Party nor anyone else can say whether the " cherished opportunity is for the accumulation of wealth, the enjoyment of leisure, the display of luxury or the cultivation of the mind.
It is difficult to understand the importance of starting level when the Labour Party are equally determined that, with the exception of" not excessive" differences, everybody shall also finish level, like the animals in the caucus race. The process begun by income-tax and death duties will be completed by such devices as a tax on capital gains and the close scrutiny of expense accounts. About the only way left to get rich quick will be to win the pools. The principle behind the Socialist plan is that, because everybody cannot have a lot of money, nobody 'shall. Equality seems to mean levelling down.
Road operators cannot but approve of the slogan " towards equality." Handicapped by restrictions on their growth and activity and by the continued neglect of the roads, they would welcome competition on equal terms. Unfortunately, by the time the Labour Party come to the subject of industry they are on a different tack altogether. Economic resources, the statement complains, are mainly in the hands of a few hundred large companies, and there is more than a hint that the ideal solution of this state of affairs is nationalization.
Beyond this point, the law of equality no longer runs. New wealth created by the expansion of an industry after nationalization, says the statement, belongs to the community and not to private shareholders. In equity, the community should also bear any losses that accrue. The Labour Party deplore any such conclusion. The statement says that, as a result of borrowing on a large scale from private sources, expansion in nationalized industries has to some extent been mortgaged by a growth in public indebtedness.
The alternative is clear. To avoid a mounting volume of interest payments to private lenders, new capital expenditure in the nationalized industries should he
B20 financed either out of their own surpluses or by a Government Budget surplus. The community, in their role as taxpayers, pay just the same by whatever method the trick is done. Nothing is said about the competitors of the nationalized industries, who have no facilities for making copious drafts on the Exchequer.
The road operator has long ago given up all but the faintest hope of obtaining any satisfaction from the Labour Party. At the -moment he can find little consolation in the Conservatives. Perhaps not so much troubled by notions of equality, the Government are not hesitating to show their determination to help the railways. They have applauded the heroic refusal of the British Transport Commission to put up their charges, but nobody supposes this refusal would be possible if the Commission did not know that, however bloated their debt may become, it will ultimately be settled from some outside source.
Without mentioning road operators, the Minister of Transport has contrived to tell them exactly where they stand. "The Commission and I," he told the House of Commons recently, "have three objectives." The first was to give a lead in stabilizing costs and prices. One might expect that road operators would be included, or would at least be asked to follow the lead. A few days previously the Minister, after again taking the opportunity to praise the railways for their sacrifice, had added, "Now it is up to private enterprise to show the nation that it can go one better and not only stabilize, but reduce, its prices."
Road operators who put up their rates after this exhortation can scarcely claim they are doing so on the advice of Mr. Harold Watkinson. Apparently they would be equally wrong to put their rates down. The second objective to which the Minister referred in Parliament was to avoid the kind of general increase in the Commission's charges that would drive still more business off the railways on to the roads "at a time when the railways want to carry more and not less."
The third objective was to show that the railways could pay their way as the modernization plans speeded up. The Minister has-not completely ignored the need for better roads, but his programme is on a much less ambitious scale than that of the railways. The day before his statement in Parliament he declared, in a speech at Newport, that nothing would be more wrong than for the Government to make themselves temporarily popular by handing out tax remissions, incurring greater expenditure on roads and giving other benefits. The Government would not do this, he added, because they had not yet overcome the problem of exporting enough to pay their way.
The conclusion appears to be that the railways are allowed to embark on their programme of capital development in order to pay their way, whereas the Government must pay their way first before they will allow increased capital expenditure on the roads. One may begin with the doctrine of equality, as the Labour Party have done, or with Mr. Watkinson's three objectives, but the conclusion seems invariably to be that the railways come first. All men are equal, but some are more equal than others.