19 NOVEMBER 1954, Page 5


IF a professional critic of democracy as it works in Britain in the mid-twentieth century were looking for ammuni- tion, he would find all he could need in the controversy over pensions which reached boiling-point in Tuesday's Commons debate. The story seems almost too apposite to be true: it reads like a nervous mid-Victorian's imaginings of What universal suffrage could do to us. A Maine describing the corruption of classical democracy, a Stephen or a Lecky looking into the abyss of demagogy which they believed to lie Mlinediately before their country, could not have improved on n. Everything is there: the sudden improvisation of a policy to meet a sentimental popular demand; immense sums of public Money, or the promise of them, thrown down to win a by- election; and, above all, a debate conducted by both sides on a basis of confused information and uncriticised assumptions. The sentimental popular demand no doubt has more than a grain of justice in it. It has been exploited, however, with a Contempt for taste and reason which makes it almost impos- sible to discover how much. The stories of Sunday dinners of vegetables and Oxo cubes bandied about by the National Federation of Old Age Pensioners carry almost as little con- viction as the Government's dry statistics proving that old People eat more than they used to. Sometimes, the propa- gandists themselves are not quite consistent. In the Isle of Man, where the technique of political agitation is no doubt less developed than in Britain, the elderly are resorting to threats to make sure that their local Parliament does for them what- ,ever the Parliament of Westminster does for their brethren here; they say that if they are disappointed they will tell British old age pensioners and their families not to go to Man for their summer holidays. If the threat has substance another item must be added to the current conception of that consti- tutes ' subsistence' for the British old age pensioner. No one need doubt that there are real cases of hardship, but no one need suppose either that the action urged by the Labour Party or, for that matter, that proposed by the Government, will do anything to alleviate them. Herein lies the 'hypocrisy of this campaign. There is not a single old age pensioner in the United Kingdom who is obliged to' live on his pension. fey all either have other sources of personal income or are free to go to the Assistance Board to have their pensions , Supplemented, a course which about a quarter of the single old be improved take. All the worst cases could therefore only 'e Improved by increasing the scales of National Assistance, ", ow higher in purchasing power than they ever have been, not °Y altering the pension rates. The effect of the new legislation, When it comes, will be to remove some people from assistance, 11.0t to increase the incomes of the very badly off. The impres- sion that very poor old people will be materially helped by raising pensions without raising the level of assistance, a thing which according to present law cannot be done until the Assistance Board has proposed it, has been deliberately fostered for political ends. It is a cruel fraud. To meet this sentimental demand a policy has been impro- v'sed : even as recently as last July the House of Commons, Labour r fully concurring, resolved that the increase in pension rates which everybody wanted should be brought about when certain investigations which are still in progress were com- pleted. The most important of these investigations is the quin- quennial report of the Government Actuary, only the heads of which have so far been received, but all of which will be available in a week or so. There is also the Treasury's Phillips Committee, which is on the verge of making its report on the financial provision for old age. Just as important but not so well known as all these is an extensive and thoroughly scientific investigation, conducted with the blessing of the Watkinson Committee on the employment of the aged, into what makes old people decide to retire, sometimes when they are still capable of working. All these questions are intensely complicated. There is the whole question of the method of financing old age pensions which Mr. Enoch Powell raised in his refreshing speech in the Commons. People who are bad at arithmetic, which includes a large number of MPs, laboured for long under the illusion that the growing annual deficit which arose from the decision to pay all old age pensioners from the start the ' subsistence ' rates, laid down by the Beveridge report only as an aim, would eventually rectify itself in the course of nature. The truth has now dawned that money paid into the scheme by the young contributor which should, with its accruing interest, have been reserved to provide for his own old age, has gone irretrievably on providing for the old 'age of people who were of pensionable age or nearly so when the scheme came into operation and had no, or a very short. record of contributions. As a consequence, we shall always be a generation or so behind, and old age pensions may eventually have to lose their insurance basis altogether.

This is only one sample of the kind of consideration about which, if our political arrangements left us time to reflect, we should be reflecting. There are plenty of others : it is perfectly possible that the inquiry now going on into the causes of retirement will reveal a direct connection between pension prospects and the decision not to work. There is probably no need for alarmism on the score of our having to support a perpetually ageing population; certainly, if' we are going to enter the Atomic Age in a Butlerian spirit of enterprise and expansion, we shall have more with which to support leisure; but, even so, the problem is there, and the Phillips Committee will presumably have something to say about it. The really fundamental question, whether it is ever likely to be practic- able or even, in principle, desirable, to assume a public responsibility for keeping the aged at a dezent level of sub- sistence without any inquiry into their means, cannot, of course, be even asked until the crust of prejudice which at present covers the whole discussion of home policy has been broken or loosened. The means test is an integral part of the schemes of Sweden, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand.

All this is academic: we could not wait for a fortnight to see what the experts, appointed with such a flourish, had to tell us. There was to be a by-election on Thursday, and Christmas is coming. It is impossible to give the old ago pensioners anything more by Christmas; but the Govern- ment must not look like Scrooge, so ministers have to guess at what the experts will say. draft a Bill,' give it its second reading, and possibly pass it into law before the season of goodwill, all to the greater glory of our free institutions and their inestimable tradition of government by discussion.

Tactically, the Government has been right to concede this much. It is certainly useless to bleat about the effects of universal suffrage on policy. The task of statesmanship is to ride the storm, but until a week or two ago the Government did not even begin to approach that task. This trouble could have been foreseen (so long as a decision was pending the subject was always potential dynamite); the various committees could have been hurried up; Mr. Osbert Peake could have talked to the Press and seen that the Government's unanswer- able case was heard; he need not have committed the Govern+ ment to the nonsense of restoring the purchasing power td that of 1946, slurring over the fact that the index of the coSi of living by which calculation was made then, has twicd changed since, and opening the way for an unending contro4 versy over definitions. Someone could have pointed oul ea Tier that increased contributions were a condition 01 increased benefits and could have established the distinction between pensions and assistance which the Opposition ha4 diligently blurred; but the Government has the Conservative vice, deplored by all the party's greatest leaders, of not really believing that the people will listen to reason, so it privateV laments and publicly yields.