At the time of writing it is not known whether the Imperial Chemical Industries will succeed in their determined bid to take over Courtalds, the biggest manufacturers of man-made fibres in Britain with a capital of £90 million. But whatever the outcome of this power struggle it shows that the already strong trend towards the emergence of monopolies and cartels in this country is becoming irreversible. The Conservative government is said to be disturbed. It must be, for nothing has tarnished more the image of capitalism as the system which permits and even encourages free competition, the chief merit of private enterprise.
The trend towards mergers is not new. The Imperial Chemical Industries’ bid has only brought it into sharp focus. According to The Financial Times, £560 million were spent on successful bids in 1960. In 1961 the figure rose to £866 million. In 1960 a thousand firms were added to the list of subsidiaries in Who Owns Whom. In 1961 thrice as many firms lost their separate identity.
This problem is bound to be vastly accentuated in Britain and other western European countries as a result of the Common Market. The Imperial Chemical Industries’ only justification for the bid is that a merger will help in facing the competition from the French and German combines when Britain joins the European Common Market. Of course there is nothing to prevent these giant undertakings in Britain, France and Germany from either merging or coming to some understanding to avoid competition in course of time.
The prospect is indeed disturbing because it has obvious social and political implications. Such concentration of economic power combined with the ascendancy of the conservative and even clerical parties in several countries in this part of the world could well spell disaster for democratic and progressive movements and encourage extremist movements. The chances are that a united western Europe will be a conservative and clerical Europe. Its international implications in terms of the cold war and escalation of the armament race can well be imagined.
There was never any scope for doubt that the European Common Market was not conceived as only an economic proposition. The Treaty of Rome between the existing original members clearly and emphatically stated that this would be a means to an end – political integration of western Europe. The United States administration guided partly by its own experience of prosperity flowing from the disappearance of barriers and partly to enable Europe to meet its own defence commitments encouraged the move. Its attempt to prevent the European neutrals – Austria, Switzerland and Sweden – from being associated with the Common Market follows logically from the second consideration.
This single-track approach to complex problems is already producing a rich crop of difficulties. France and West Germany, usually acting in concert, are proving difficult clients. They are unwilling to follow Washington’s lead. In fact they want to set the pace of Washington’s discussions with Moscow if not hold a virtual veto over the latter’s efforts to reduce tension. This problem will become more intractable once France is able to disengage herself from Algeria. Britain might, as on the question of joining the Common Market, find herself forced to follow the lead from Bonn and Paris instead of performing the present role of persuading Washington to go at least half-way in meeting the Russian rulers.
If Western Europe was emerging as an independent force on the international scene and the scene itself was not dominated by an intense ideological and power struggle it would have been a welcome development. In the present context America will not be playing the role Britain once did in Europe – holding the balance of power between nations and rival groups of nations contending for supremacy. The frontiers of cold war instead of being blurred gradually are threatening to be more sharply defined. At the moment the only hope is that the age-old differences between these nations may prove strong enough to hold up progress towards a political integration.
Despite Britain’s best efforts it seems inevitable that the interests of the Commonwealth countries will be adversely affected, in some cases fairly severely, as a result of her joining the Common Market. Canada and Australia which now enjoy preferential market in Britain for their food exports might turn out to be the worst sufferers.
It is being argued by the Inner Six that they cannot be given preference over America and as such only such arrangement as is in line with the one for the United States agricultural exports can be worked out for Australia and Canada. It is difficult to see how they can compete with the United States.
The problems of India and Pakistan fall in a different category. They need an arrangement under which loans from members of the European Community for development purposes can be repaid through trade. Such arrangements have already been worked out by India with the communist countries through rupee-payment schemes.
There is another aspect of the problem. There is no question that the former French colonies in Africa will be associated with the Common Market. They will also receive aid on a sizable scale to finance development projects. Britain seems to have fallen for the line that she will be satisfied if her former and existing African colonies can be treated on the same lines. This is likely to mean discrimination against tropical products like coffee for instance.
Many people in Britain share these fears which I have sketched out above. All that they argue is that Britain has no other way out of the dilemma posed by the rise of the European community. There is a general sense of helplessness and drift. And developments in Europe like the growth of influence of the secret army organisation in France underscore old memories. The future of democracy in West Germany is still regarded as an open question. They console themselves with the vague assurance that Britain might be able to exert a moderating influence.
Having at last overcome the differences among its members the Labour party has stipulated conditions on which it will support Britain’s entry into the Common Market. It seeks guarantees for British agriculture, the Commonwealth countries and the members of the European Free Trade Association and freedom for Britain to conduct her own foreign policy and use public ownership and planning as instruments of economic progress. All these are now pious hopes. The drift will continue. A united Europe under the present auspices means the demise of the languishing democratic socialist movements.
British society has a peculiar capacity for assimilating its rebels and heretics. It first makes them harmless by owning them. Last week the Queen herself witnessed a play, Beyond The Fringe, which lampoons her Prime Minister and the rest of the Establishment over which she presides. Now all seats are booked for the next three months or even longer. The “satirical storm-troopers of Britain’s post-war rebellion have become court jesters, by appointment.”
It was five years ago that John Osborne wrote his play, Look Back In Anger. His annual income is now placed at £20,000. Recently he bought a big estate and fenced it all around – apparently to nurse his success.
Arnold Wesker, the well-known playwright has put across the rebel’s lament in a fascinating article in the latest issue of Encounter. He had thought that such “an angry flood of writing and social protest” would have meant that “a new force was arising in the state” but nothing has moved. In Britain “all protest is allowed and smiled upon because it is known that the force – economically and culturally – lies in the same dark and safe quarters. We are a harmless wave of nothing but lukewarm delicate air,” he says in conclusion.
Only JB Priestly has protested that “times and men change; and though prominent members of the Establishment may be seen laughing at Beyond The Fringe this does not mean its well-tried method is working successfully”. But even he does not appear convinced, for he adds, “we are in danger of becoming a cynical, apathetic, lackadaisical people.” Only rebels can show Britain a way out, he says, which is not the same thing as asserting they are succeeding in doing it.
The Times of India, 10 March 1962