George Walford: Editorial Notes (38)

WHATEVER happened to the Community Charge? Our choice now seems to lie between a government determined to introduce a poll tax and an opposition half-heartedly resisting it. The difference between them rests on political-ideological rather than economic grounds; many supporters of the government know the new tax will cost them more than their rates and many members of the opposition will find themselves paying less. (Whether the first group will be worse off overall, and the second better off, is of course one of the questions at issue).

The opposition case might look more attractive if they were proposing an alternative other than rates, with their specious distinction between ratepayers and non-ratepayers when great numbers of the “nons” are in fact paying, although indirectly; everybody renting accommodation from a landlord has an amount for rates included in the charge, and every young person contributing to the family income is helping to pay the rates. These things remain partly unrecognised, misleading many who pay rates indirectly into believing that education, police, roads, subsidised housing, sanitation and so on come to them as benefits provided without charge by whichever party happens to be in local control. Poll tax has at least the merit of making it clear to everybody just how much they are having to pay for local government services.

Against this, the opposition claim that by taking the same amount from rich and poor in each area poll tax will bear most heavily on the poor. This does not have to be so. Arrangements have already been made to reduce the burden on selected groups and there is no inherent barrier to the inclusion of other groups and increase of the allowances; inequality of impact can be reduced to any desired extent.

THE DANGERS from heroin, crack, cocaine and the like fall into proportion against the figure of 20,000 people killed or injured on British roads each year by drivers high on alcohol. (Figures from BBC News, 6.00 p.m. 21st December). These were victims almost directly of the drug, while the damage associated with needles and powders comes less from the drugs than from the attempts to enforce a ban on them.

INTERVIEWED by Didier Eribon, Claude Levi-Strauss complains of the increasing difficulties of anthropological field-work. In British Columbia you now have to fill in forms and questionnaires in multiple copies, to satisfy not the bureaucrats but the Indians themselves before they will allow you to go and work with them. Asked to narrate a myth, informants demand a written acknowledgment that copyright, with all it entails, remains with them. (ANTHROPOLOGY TODAY, December 1988). Levi- Strauss makes the routine comment that the Indians have acquired these practices from the whites, but one has to add that the speed and thoroughness with which they have picked them up suggests a predisposition in that direction.

DOES A VANGUARD stand on the back of a delivery vehicle?

UNINIELLECMAL POLITICS: “Thatcherism is a force which has won three general elections in a row and is if anything more firmly established in power than ever and yet, regarded simply as a doctrine, is devoid of intellectual substance. There is here a formidable political achievement, but it is not an achievement that anyone would think of attributing to the intellectual powers of Mrs.Thatcher’s cabinets.” (Dr. N. Boyle in NS&S October 14, 1989).

NO THEORY of politics can produce useful results without a definition of the behaviour of the great body of the people that agrees with the results of observation. In the 18th Century Edmund Burke came closer to achieving this than many more recent thinkers – these tend to complain that the people do not behave as their definitions require. This is how one reviewer summarises the account of Burke’s view given in Stanley Ayling’s recent biography:

It is not true that Burke ever considered ‘the people’ as synonymous with ‘the politically minded public’. Rather, the people were that indefinite mass of responsive persons without whom society would always be at a standstill from wrangling or speculation. Let them once be made aware of themselves as an aggregate and the people might help to shape ‘public opinion’, but it was the thoughtless, unintermitted routines of their life that formed a ground-note of all political practice. Indeed, ‘the people’, as Burke defines them, except when heated by civil disturbances, are sufficiently unreflective to evade the notice of every theoretical inquiry. (David Bromwich in TLS 16 December 1988).

Burke inclines towards rhetoric by modern standards, and it is not easy to be sure what he meant by “a ground-note,” but he seems to be still underestimating the role of what IC would call the non-political or expedient group. He seems to be seeing them as a merely potential influence, whereas it is they who set the main direction of political, economic and social life, the consciously political groups managing not a great deal more more than an occasional tweak and even that usually neutralised by their opponents.

GUN LOBBIES, especially in America, maintain that the presence of weapons does nothing to increase danger to life. It is, they argue, not guns but people that do the killing. If so, military weapons can be done away with. Unarmed soldiers will be just as effective and a great deal cheaper.

from Ideological Commentary 38, March 1989.