CAN WE CHANGE OUR MINDS?

THREE things, according to the ancient story, changed Buddha's mind -a sick man, an old man, and a dead man. Buddha, whose childhood was protected, reached manhood before he caught sight of humanity in extremis; and the experience so shocked him that he resolved, there and then, to conquer what were to him the unfamiliar terrors of the flesh. His method was meditation. He sat under a tree for weeks, and when sleep threatened his concentration by pulling down his eyelids like roller blinds, he tore out those lids by the roots, scattering them to the winds and the soil, from which was invented the holy drink of tea.

Western traders, typically mistaking form for content, learnt how to exploit the detritus from contemplation, drying it out, packaging it and submitting it finally to the ultimate humiliation of perforated bags. They did not know, nor did they care about, what happened after the first tea ceremony; for Buddha at length concluded that we could only escape mortal ills by abandoning mortal desires-thus reaching a state of enlightened nothingness where death and life, sickness and health, age and youth merge into a single affirmation.

But is it strictly correct to say that three things changed Buddha's mind? If he had been brought up in the slums of Calcutta, he would probably have passed three hundred bodies by, in the different stages of dying and decomposition, without wasting a second glance. His startled horror, and his determined reaction to it, were consequences of his previous privilege. His childhood conditioning was at work in unfamiliar circumstances. Buddha's mind only changed after the meditation and the conquest, when he had attained Nirvana. But at what point did those minutes and hours of thought transmute themselves into a higher elation where minutes, hours and even thought itself did not matter? Was it when the original purpose of his curious enterprise had been forgotten?

Saul's conversion was a much simpler matter: a stroke of lightning on the road to Damascus. But did he change his mind, or did He? Can we, in short, even change our minds, by ourselves, just like that, if the will to do so was itself shaped at some unfathomable point in our childhoods, when we didn't want to go to bed unless the door was left open? Do we always require some outside agent, like an acupuncturist's needle, to divert our inner energies along new lines? Or do our minds change of their own accord, without us (or anyone else) willing them to do so? We can change our opinions, of course, our clothes, our sleeping partners, our houses and our politics; but underneath this range of surface choices, there beats the slow, insistent pulse of consciousness, whose variations lie as far beyond our control, as do the planets which, astrologers say, can change our minds.

But my purpose is more mundane. In Britain, we are facing a general election which, for all I know, may have taken place before this article appears. The chief question seems to me not who will win, but whether it will make any difference. I do not intend cynicism. I am not suggesting that the country is run by international conspiracies or by a pack of civil servants who will do what they like, whatever government is in power. I am not implying that the democratic process is useless or that Mr. Callaghan and Mrs. Thatcher are conducting mock battles. I am not being either pessimistic or optimistic; nor am I asserting that the real difference is between spending governments and saving ones. Least of all. do I believe that the British disease, if we have got one, is incurable.

But we have seen several governments elected since the war whose intentions, out of office, seemed radical, reformist and for the most part admirable. Within months, and sometimes only weeks, their manifestos looked as stale and impractical as the bottom of a butter mountain. Perhaps they were blown off course by events, to use a period phrase; or perhaps the situation which they discovered when arriving in office was different from the one which they had imagined when out of it. At all events, these bright-eyed idealists, fresh and beaming from their election victories like bridegrooms from a church, quickly assumed the hang-dog. careworn look of first-time adulterers, not knowing quite what to admit or to whom, couch-candidates and pill-takers; while the old rou├ęs soldier on, with their cautious cynical smiles and their airs of 'you may not trust me, but, by God, you need me!'

I have fought almost every election since 1962 and never, being a Liberal, on the winning side; and so cannot claim any detachment, only a consistency of failure. But I have lost any satisfaction I may once have felt from watching other people's chickens come home to roost. Even Liberals thought, when Harold Wilson came to power in 1964, that his government could do much good. With the support of the unions, he seemed in a strong position to modernise industry, to introduce the new technology and to prevent the resulting gains from weighing down the pockets of the few.

But we watched George Brown's plan to expand the economy fall into ruins, felt the 'white-hot' technological revolution grow cold and saw how the policy for conglomerates, modernising small firms by pulling them together into large ones, brought with it a mass of other problems in its wake. The unions demonstrated that they were prepared to co-operate with the government if it suited their interests, and not otherwise; and when the government at last abandoned Barbara Castle's attempt to reform industrial relations, through In Place of Strife, I was convinced, as others must have been, that whatever basic changes were needed in our society, they were not going to be brought about by Wilson's men.

Changes certainly happened, but not the ones which we expected. Whether wealth was spread or not, power was certainly centralised- through the government's increasing control over the economy, through the growth of quangos and ministerial patronage and through Wilson's highly personal style of leadership, whereby he had to be seen to be doing everything, from solving the problems of Vietnam and Rhodesia after his fashion to mopping up the oil from the Torrey Canyon.

There was a curious paradox. As the government's impotence over events became more noticeable, so was the government's determination to lay their hands on the visible levers of power. These levers failed to work. The TUC issued vain warnings against shop floor dissidents. The economic sanctions against Rhodesia not only didn't work within weeks, or months. or years, and they didn't work because oil was still being supplied by British companies with government stakes in them.

It was a sad decline from high hopes to French farce. What was the alternative? Honest, sensible government, no wild dreams, no rhetoric, an attention to central issues with the EEC and industrial relations among them, a reduction of the power of central government except in certain areas, a release of individual initiative and Edward Heath. The proposals of the Selsdon men might look naive on paper, but surely, they would learn in office.

Again, I do not wish to underrate the achievements of Heath's administration. He, after all, got us eventually into the Common Market, and fatally risked his government by trying to solve at a stroke the problems of pay bargaining, which led to the battle with the miners and the three-day week. Tories sometimes argue that Heath's downfall was caused by backing away from the policies on which he was elected. The pluralist became a de facto centralist.

I doubt whether history will support that view. The Selsdon men just had not realised how difficult it would be to decentralise quickly. They thought it was all a matter of cutting taxes and government spending. But the idea of nationalising and de-nationalising industries with the changes of governments had proved disastrous long before Heath came on the scene; and without such measures, you could only de-centralise by cutting back severely on the social services.

We only need to remember the furores over the introduction of small de-centralising measures in the social services-the abolition of free milk in schools, the introduction of admission charges for museums and art galleries-to realise how politically impractical it was to institute major cutbacks. Each careful tax concession within our confusing tax system brought with it abuses and petty profiteering, leading to lopsided pluralism, if pluralism at all. When the policy of not subsidising industrial lame ducks was put to its first major test, that of saving or not saving Rolls-Royce, Heath's decision was unavoidably the same as Wilson's would have been.

And so, after a few years of troubled peace, we are back into the election fray again; but what do we expect either from the return of a Selsdon woman or from a new Labour government, with or without a decent majority? Will it make any real difference?

Liberals, of course, have their own interpretation of events. They believe that because the two main political parties are financed by the opposite sides of industry, a class confrontation is unavoidable, whichever party is in power. The centralist-pluralist struggle seems to them purely theoretical, unless you previously attempt to define what the role of government ought to be, and the intended balance between the public and private sectors of the economy. We need to decide what can and should be better organised on a national, rather than local or private levels, and a host of other factors. To Liberals, the reform of our democratic system seems the unavoidable first step to escape the gladiatorial nature of our political disputes. If we are going to solve any problems at all, we have to solve them together, rather than in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion.

I would not disagree with any of this, nor perhaps would the majority of British voters, whichever party they vote for. The difficulty comes, first in changing the nature of the debate, and secondly in getting rid of various stock reactions which impede discussion. There is an old parable about a caterpillar with arthritis. He went along to the wisest sage in the jungle, an owl, who pondered and eventually said: "You have not got arthritis at all. You are trying to change into a butterfly. The caterpillar thanked the owl and limped away; but before he left, he creaked his tired old body around and asked, 'But how do I change into a butterfly?" "Don't bother me with little technical details,' retorted the owl, and fell asleep.

The curious situation in Britain today is that most people know what is wrong. They know that shop-floor anarchy can't continue and that we must have some accepted pay bargaining procedures, They realise that the political system is unfair and acrimonious; and that certain sections of the community, for various reasons, lose out in the power battle to gain money and status. They are prepared to be more productive, yes, and to accept the introduction of new technology which might temporarily increase unemployment.

But they are not willing to accept meaningless unemployment, futile industrial changes and absurd managerial or government fiddling. The more one canvasses, the more one realises that there is a consensus for change in Britain; and that few people in Britain are as bloody-minded or anarchic as commentators would lead us to suspect. But why has this mood not yet been changed into action? What stops the metamorphosis of the caterpillar? The problem is partly that nobody has bothered to explain, or if they have, it has not been generally realised, the way in which government has been encumbered over the years with the weight of previous legislation. It is necessary to tidy up the office before new work can be started. But governments are elected on promises for legislation, and so new bills simply pile on top of old ones, without anybody tackling the equally necessary task of simplifying the system, explaining it to the public and ensuring that the pattern has a coherent order. There can also be temporary political advantage in keeping things disordered and inaccessible to the public: mistakes are less readily noticed, which is why Clement Freud's bill attempting to secure a public right of access to information about official bodies is so important.

Untidiness and ill-temper are two states which any good administrator would wish to avoid at all costs; but they are, as it were, built in to our political system. But government is not solely about administration, not even primarily. You cannot administer your way out of genuine moral dilemmas. I dislike politicians who parade their consciences and am distrustful of those who pretend to be holier than thou; but choices must be made, and at a deeper level than our political debates allow. We change our opinions easily enough; but not our conditioning, not our minds,

Can we change our minds? How do we do so? David Steel made a very brave effort to concentrate the country's attention on two major political issues, pay bargaining and industrial relations, in a party-political broadcast which firmly declared itself against party politics.

It could, of course, be dismissed as a subtle form of one-upmanship; but the response in the flood of letters to all three political leaders indicated that many people were prepared on this occasion not to be cynical. The next few months will decide whether we can raise the level of political debate to meet the country's needs; and that is really the only decision which matters. But it is not a decision which will be reached at Westminster or in the caucuses of constituency parties. It may come through a sudden upsurge of impatience with the mediocre or even through a realisation, during the European elections, that Britain is not just a little island.

Or, of course, it may not come at all, in which case we can only hope that others may leam from our intransigent example, as the sick, old, and dead men once influenced Buddha.

May 1979

In May 1979, Margaret Thatcher won her first General Election for the Conservative Party.