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The Labour Party and the Left, 1934-39: Case Study I – How Red Were the Valleys anyway?; The Politics of Unemployment, Militancy & Migration.   1 comment

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‘Red Walls’, ‘Heartlands’ & ‘Little Moscows’:

We may well ask, in borrowing and adapting the title of Richard Llewellyn’s famous 1939 novel, whether Britain’s industrial valleys and towns were really quite so ‘red’ as some made them out to be at the time and over the decades since the Thirties. The myth of Maerdy in the Rhondda as a ‘little Moscow’ has remained a potent one, and has been used to justify the political hegemony of Labour in its ‘heartlands’ and, most recently, to explain the victory of the Conservatives beyond the ‘Red Wall’ of the ‘Northern’ constituencies in the 2019 General Election. In Wales, the metaphor of bridges seems more appropriate, since the Bridgend constituency, in the geographical heart of the region and on the edge of the Coalfield below the Llynfi, Garw and Ogmore valleys, was taken by the Tories (the town and the three valleys make up the County Borough of Bridgend). Maerdy became a myth because it was the base of Arthur Horner, Communist and future leader of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. As such, the intransigence of its miners’ lodge, which it shared with other pit villages, was deliberately channelled by the militants in the ‘Fed’ and the NUWM, giving it a longer life as a ‘little Moscow’. Its styles were present wherever there were some everywhere in the valleys. In the face-to-face conflict with the Labour Party nationally enjoined by the Comintern’s Class Against Class policy between 1929 and 1934, the CPGB took over the Rhondda Labour Party, stood Horner as a parliamentary candidate in 1933 and got within three thousand votes of getting him elected. Horner then renewed working with other left-wing organisations ahead of the ‘Popular Front’ policy adopted by the Communist International the following year.

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In the Thirties, as the expansion of the Social Service movement sought to ‘irrigate’ the South Wales Coalfield, it was accused by the ‘Left’ in general and Communists in particular, of becoming a form of ‘dope’ for the unemployed, contributing to the process of ‘demoralisation’ in coalfield communities, rather than alleviating it. Allen Hutt took this view, making no differentiation between the efforts of the churches, the Quakers, the ‘social service ladies and gentlemen and other charity mongers’. Wal Hannington, Communist leader of the NUWM, also argued that those who, by word or deed, divert the unemployed from the struggle against the Government were, whether they knew it or not, leading them into demoralisation rather than rescuing them from it, and in so doing, were acting as instruments of government policy. He pointed out that the word ‘demoralisation’ did not only refer to behaviour involving corrupt practices and indulging in mean and contemptible acts but could also be applied to a person being deprived of courage and self-reliance. Both the government and the movement itself remained extremely sensitive to this accusation which was echoed by Labour MPs and therefore could not be dismissed as the babbling of a militant minority. The 1934 Pilgrim Trust Report had suggested that the ‘generous impulse’ of the Nation had gone far to soften the bitterness of spirit that would brook no palliatives and Wyndham Portal stated that, whilst there was…

… no doubt that men were averse … to associating themselves with a club which was subsidised by Government monies, opposition was ‘gradually dying down’. 

However, while the hostility may have gone, the apathy had not, as his own report revealed that though there were a hundred and fifty unemployed clubs throughout the region, they involved only about twelve per cent of the total unemployed. Portal suggested that there should be a settlement with a warden and his wife carefully vetted to ensure that the ‘right type’ of people were appointed who would operate the occupational centres ‘on appropriate lines’. Firstly, they were to encourage transference by fostering a wider sense of ‘citizenship’, breaking down loyalties to class and locality. Secondly, they were to seek out and develop the right sort of leadership for the communities in which they settled. However, those who knew the valleys better could see the contradictions involved in this strategy. Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, the Honorary Secretary of SWMCSS expressed this concern in the Second Annual Report of the Council:

… Leaders in Churches and Sunday Schools, Trade Union Lodges and Workmen’s Institutes, Unemployed Men’s Clubs and Boys’ Clubs change with every month, while ‘Transference’ skims the cream from our community and leaves it with the same burdens of maintenance and ever-deepening problems of social leadership. … The flower of our young manhood, with all its potentialities for leadership is leaving us in a steady flow. 

Several less ‘official’ surveys confirmed that many of the younger unemployed ‘kept away’ from the centres for a variety of reasons. Apart from the obvious association of them with activities preferred by older men such as boot-repairing and upholstery, it soon became apparent that these institutions were not, as they claimed, run in the best traditions of democratic organisation which were the norm in coalfield society. In his survey conducted for the Carnegie Trust in the Pontypridd area, A. J. Lush found that, out of the ten occupational clubs in the area, only two allowed members ‘a fair measure of responsibility for control and management’ and that many of the organisers were ‘stalwart conservative zealots’, chiefly concerned to provide ‘strong moral leadership’ and often ‘terribly ignorant on the most vital subjects inherent in the work… .’ Their lack of understanding of the needs of the unemployed would lead them to organise programmes of lectures which had little or no relevance to their audience. One unemployed miner remarked to James Hanley that ‘these places’ were run like ‘a kind of honest British Working Men’s Club’. Communists were often excluded because it was feared that they might spread dissent and division:

… the Social Centre is not very keen on having you if you’re a Communist. They’re very worried about us, … and they’ll have to worry a lot more soon, for the whole valley is turning that way as time goes on…

Certainly, what one American sociologist, Eli Ginzberg described as ‘mendacious propaganda’ did contribute to the failure of settlement houses and clubs, which were constantly under attack from the ‘Left’. Percy Watkins, of the NCSS, encountered considerable opposition when he visited Rhydyfelin to suggest the setting up of an occupational club in Taff Vale. Communists regularly referred to settlement houses as ‘dope houses’ where injections were administered to the unemployed so that they might more willingly bear their lot. Referring to the Brynmawr Settlement, Ginzberg noted widespread resentment at the statement that Mr Peter Scott, who had first arrived there with the support and under the direction of the Society of Friends’ Coalfield Distress Committee, had taken this little town under his wing. This had led to a deep distrust, not just of the National Government, but also of the Society of Friends and the Council of Social Service, both of which were perceived as being under government control, so that when the populace learned that the Government was actually giving financial support to the Council, its distrust turned into hostility. Another American Sociologist visiting the coalfield, G. H. Armbruster, found a similar antagonism in the Eastern Valley of Monmouthshire:

Passionately class conscious, the population resents the charitable features of the institutions and their origin from the benevolence or deception of a class that tradition has taught them to hate.  ‘They are here to keep us quiet’ is a common oobservation … Individuals  who had long taken advantage of the facilities offered remarked that they initially had to face the derision of and open antagonism of their fellows. ‘Aye, you’d a thought we were blacklegs’ one man saidwho had largely been responsible for the start of construction of an unemployed men’s clubin his community told me. … The trades unions and the Labour Party also initially fed this opposition.

This antagonism was amplified by the way that the new institutions were seen to be in open competition with the miners’ institutes, despite the latter’s acceptance of financial support from the NCSS. Many older unemployed miners would have nothing to do with new Centres because they saw them as weapons in an ‘underground war’ to destroy the institutes. Some Hanley’s witnesses went into flights of rhetorical language on this issue:

Now a lot of miners don’t like the look of things at present, the way these centres and camps are spreading about. And I ask you – why will they bring these damned centres right on top of our own institutes? Many men think they’re out to break the Miners’ Institutes.

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Even those who attended the clubs shared this scepticism and explained their participation by suggesting that they had every right to whatever ‘crumbs’ they could snatch. Philip Massey, in his survey of Blaina and Nantyglo, concluded that the acceptance of these small benefits did not make people content with their conditions. Indeed, several of the activities started through social service grants were being run by men with firm left-wing views. They had decided that, by the mid-thirties, it was too late to start boycotting the centres and that, though the Social Service movement was ‘a farce’ and ‘a sop’, they should take advantage of the resources available and use them for their own ends. Others, however, continued to feel that the centres were a continual and humiliating reminder of their dependence on this damned charity and that damned charity and that they conditioned the unemployed to accept their worklessness:

… All the Centres have done so far as I can see is to create a lot of jobs for people who don’t really need them. They travel about in cars and ask us how we’re getting on, and we go on mending boots and making tables, and not a thought about work in the air at all.

It is evident from these responses that the majority of the unemployed, both young and old, saw the settlement movement as a further intervention by the State. It was not easy for communities already at the mercy of the means test and transference measures to interpret the actions of these alien social workers in any other way than those of a quasi-official group of officials who had been sent to bring further demoralising pressure to that which they already felt. Referring to the Tonypandy ‘riots’ of 1910, one miner suggested to Hanley that the intention of the government was the same as it had been back then – to break the miners’ spirit. It was this belief that conditioned many of the responses of these communities, families and individuals to unemployment and impoverishment. That is why it is important that one of the major responses ‘from below’, that of voluntary migration, should not be confused with the dominant official response to unemployment, that of ‘Transference’. The migration response has been too readily characterised as one of acquiescence and defeatism rather than one of resistance to, and escape from, the web of state intervention in the coalfield.

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Equally, it has been too easily assumed that the extent of resistance to state intervention from within the coalfield itself can best be measured by reference to the number and nature of demonstrations and the level of political action within its institutions and organisations. However, it is important to see both migration and militancy as complex responses in the context of the wider political and cultural traditions of coalfield communities, rather than simply assuming that the processes of immiseration led automatically either to widespread and uniform demonstrative action or to abject surrender. Given the diverse conditions of unemployment which existed in different communities, it is understandable that the ‘militant’ response should have been more detectable in some communities compared with others. The older coalfield communities which endured higher levels of long-term unemployment throughout the decade from 1929 to 1939 were those with the greatest propensity to direct political action. Although these ‘eruptions’ were the products of latent frustrations and resentment, they were sporadic events which occurred in response to specific grievances in the local operation of government policy and, although dramatic both in their nature and effects, they were rarely part of a broader political strategy. Therefore, the crude causal analysis of contemporary propagandists such as Donovan Brown when they wrote about the 1935 demonstrations against the new UAB scales, need to be treated with considerable scepticism:

There has always been in South Wales a tradition of militant struggle and extreme radicalism. English bourgeois standards have never penetrated deeply into the villages of the Welsh mining valleys. Steadily worsening conditions have replaced the spontaneous native culture of of the days when miners taught their apprentices the perfection of the Welsh metre, with a vigorous political consciousness. The village forms a perfect unit for unit for militant organisation around the pit; there class consciousness has arisen quite naturally, while the coal owners live many miles away in beautiful manors – we are reminded of the Chartist days when the Welsh mining villages constituted enemy territory  … poverty, and the traditional militancy of the Welsh workers, naturally produced a vigorous opposition … Ceaseless activity has also continued among the unemployed … Marches and demonstrations all over the area had previously been taking place … South Wales is ablaze with indignation.

Whilst the broad brushstrokes of this assessment provide a colourful backdrop to a portrait of coalfield society, historians must painstakingly pick out the details for themselves. Otherwise, they will leave us with stereotypical and distorted images of the communities that composed it. Whilst it is clear that the Communists had been active organisers among the unemployed for some years before the 1935 demonstrations, they did not seem to benefit from this in terms of membership and support for their ‘Class Against Class’ policy. Even when they discarded this policy in 1934, and despite Wal Hannington’s well-known efforts with the NUWM, he still failed to attract any substantial support from the voters of Merthyr Tydfil in the by-election of that year.

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However, this evidence of a lack of support for revolutionary socialism should not lead us to the conclusion that ‘the unemployed’ of Merthyr were acquiescent about their condition. In fact, they were far from apathetic, but whilst espousing socialist views, had practical priorities and commitments, like ‘GSW’ (the need to demonstrate to labour exchange officials that they were genuinely seeking work) which would simply not allow time for a marked degree of participation in demonstrations and other forms of political action. Though many had to wait at home for hours waiting for a call to work for three days at their collieries, they were also far from physically or mentally idle, dividing their time between the Miners’ Institutes and their allotments, the latter providing a vital supplementary food supply for their families. J. J. Williams, the local correspondent of the Glamorgan Gazette, commented on the juggling of priorities in the Garw valley:

The new Pantygog Allotments have already become known as ‘the little Moscow’, perhaps as a direct challenge to the old Sunday Market. One member who in debates often talks of ‘taking the gloves off to get down to concrete facts’ never touches the spade unless his hands are gloved.

There were many short-lived ‘little Moscows’, wherever the demands of struggle became so intense that a counter-community became necessary. At the height of the battle against non-unionism, described below, Bedlinog, which Gwyn Williams famously characterised as one of those villages where you need magnets in your boots to stand upright, at one time elected a Communist Chamber of Commerce.

Green or Red? Re-painting the Valleys in the Thirties:

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Graph showing the relationship between average annual unemployment and net out-migration (in black) in given years (July-June).

For Dai Smith pointed out in his book Wales! Wales? (1984), the thirties were ‘laundered’ in the post-war liberal mind to such an extent that their image of ‘passivity and pity’ has obscured the ‘sustaining humour and collective struggle’ that can be found, for example in the autobiographical stories of Gwyn Thomas or in the local newspaper columns of J. J. Williams. For many on the ‘liberal-left’, South Wales became a ‘case-study’. The American sociologist Eli Ginzberg spent some years in the 1930s investigating the social deprivation and institutional response in South Wales for his book, Grass on the Slag Heaps, published in 1942, his title perhaps picking up on the ‘green’ theme from Llewellyn’s novel, published three years earlier. Ginzberg concluded his book with the observation:

It is difficult to help people who will not help themselves, and many of the tragedies that befell the Welsh during the the postwar decades can be traced to their own shortcomings and the shortcomings of their allies, the trade union movement and the Labour party … As early as 1934 Lord Portal called attention to the fact that the leaders of South Wales were noticeably inept, a result of the fact that the most virile and able people had migrated. This kindly interpretation of the ineptitude of Welsh leaders cannot, however, explain … such stupid practices in sending trade union leaders to Parliament as a reward for faithful services to the Federation.

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The preface to Ginzberg’s book was written by Thomas Jones (1870-1955),  the arch-druid of the ‘Cymric’ liberals, who in the 1930s, with increasing success, began to fill the gap left by the collapse of independent working-class education and the decline of the Miners’ Institutes. The ‘Marxist’ Central Labour College and its offshoot of ‘Plebs League’ classes in the coalfield could no longer be sustained by the Miners’ Federation, much reduced in wealth and self-confidence. As Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust, Jones acted as dispenser-in-chief of aid to the stricken South Wales valleys and Percy Watkins became head of the Welsh section of the NCSS. Between them, they controlled the intersection between social service, educational provision and public guidance. In his memoirs, Watkins wrote of his puzzlement and irritation at the reception given to their attempts to restore ‘standards’ and ‘authority’ in the valleys:

It is a strange thing that these honest efforts of ours to bring cultural opportunities within the reach of the unemployed in the days of their helplessness and hopelessness did not receive the encouragement and support that might have been especially expected from the political side of the Labour movement and from the trade unions. The former preferred to regard the motives of our movement as nothing more than an attempt to provide ‘dope’.

Marching in Step Against the Means Test:

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The ‘dope’ was not intended to smother working-class militancy, which was patchy in any case, or their institutions, despite the rumours to the contrary. Where these were challenged directly, it was by victimisation, company unions, mass unemployment and mass policing. All of these ultimately failed to control the coalfield communities. The reorganisation and recovery of the  SWMF, the continued agitation of the NUWM, and the fact that more national political and public attention was focused on the contrast between the increasingly prosperous areas and the depressed areas within Britain, all meant that by 1934 protest could be better organised and could produce results. Massive demonstrations against the 1934 Unemployment Act took place when the previously abstract idea of ‘popular front’ politics became a living reality in South Wales in January and February of 1935, as hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated within their valleys. The protest marches were directed against new government regulations that would have reduced unemployment assistance in addition to operating the humiliation of the means test.

On Sunday, 3 February, knots of people gathered around banners: local committees of action, churches, chapels, co-operatives, women’s groups, the Salvation Army and the British Legion, Sunday schools, shopkeepers, shop-assistants, teachers, printers, ministers, the miners, the unemployed, women and children, all brought out onto the streets in a collective cry of anger against the continuing injustice of the unemployment allowance rates and the means test. The defiance was that of a whole community. In and about them moved their organisers, Labour and Communist and ILP, the NUWM, political opponents who had denounced each other endlessly in the previous six years. Bands formed up. Lewis Jones, the Communist spokesman for the NUWM, captured the moment in his ‘documentary’ novel, We Live, based on ‘Cwmardy’, based on the Rhondda:

At the bottom of the hill, before turning into the square which led to the rubbish dump, where the other contingents of the Combine were waiting. Len looked back. His eyes glowed with what he saw. The street behind him looked like a flowing river of human beings on which floated innumerable scarlet banners and flags … Although directly in front of the band, he heard running beneath its thrumming wails the deep monotone of countless boots  tramping rhythmically on the hard road … When the front of the demonstration was two miles advanced  and on the summit of the hill to the east of Cwmardy, people were still pouring into the assembling field. Len lifted his head shaply into the air when he fancied he heard the distant strain of music in the direction left of the demonstration. He turned to Mary and the workman next to her. ‘Can you hear anything?’ he asked. They both looked simultaneously past Len and he, seeing their amazement, turned his head to look in the same direction. He drew his breath sharply and his perspiring face went a shade whiter. The mountain which separated Cwmardy from the other valleys looked like a gigantic  ant-hill covered with a mass of black, waving bodies. ‘Good God,’ the man next to Mary whispered, ‘the whole world is on the move …’ 

On that Sunday, the whole population of South Wales seemed to have turned out on to the streets. There were sixty to seventy thousand in the Rhondda marching to Tonypandy; Aneurin Bevan spoke to thousands at Blackwood; Pontypool saw the biggest meeting it had ever had, twenty thousand listening to Ernest Bevin. There were marches and meetings in Neath, Briton Ferry, Merthyr, even in Barry. Down the Aberdare Valley, fifty thousand people marched to Mountain Ash in a procession two and a half miles long through wind and rain. Men and women wore their Sunday best as if at a ‘Gymanfa Ganu’ (Community Song Festival) George Dugger MPor a Sunday School rally, a cry from humanity for humanity, as a local journalist reported, adding the government cannot refuse to listen. Something of the order of 300,000 people marched that day. One person out of seven of the entire population of Wales was out in those valleys. It was the greatest demonstration Wales has ever known, before or since.

The marches were at their strongest and sometimes most violent at the heads of the valleys, especially in Merthyr and the Ebbw Fach Valley, which by this time had learnt to live with long-term unemployment and had come to regard benefit and relief as due by right, rather than as charity. Nowhere was the latent resentment of the effects of state intervention more visibly expressed than in Merthyr, where the UAB offices were ransacked, despite the imprecations of the previously well-respected Quaker, John Dennithorne. They shouted at him, Come down, Old Bug Whiskers! They would listen only to Ceridwen Brown from Aberdare and a local hero everyone knew as Jack Williams, the Communist from Dowlais. The smashing of the UAB offices horrified even the fiery radical, S O Davies, the Labour MP for the borough. His opinions were such that the Communist Party stood little chance of unseating him. On this occasion, however, he denounced the demonstrators as a rabble and was shouted down by Communists and ILP-ers.

Over in Blaina, the demonstrations also blew up into violence. The children of Nantyglo refused to go to school and the shopkeepers shut up shop. Take all necessary measures, their Labour MP George Dugger told them. In the Ebbw Fach Valley, there were seventy in the Communist Social Club and fifty in the Communist Women’s Club; the valley had Communist district and county councillors. The people unleashed a guerilla war against a tough police force and marched on Abertillery singing We’ll make Queen Mary do the washing for the boys! and Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? at Superintendent Baker. A big demonstration was planned for the offices at Blaina when the after the authorities had refused to listen to the Communist councillor Phil Abrahams. The Brynmawr and Nantyglo contingents met up with the Blaina and Abertillery squads near the Blaina Inn. The police came out of it flailing batons, and there were guerilla battles all over the heads of the valleys. At the ensuing trial, six of the rioters got six months in jail, three Communists in the NUWM got nine months and Phil Abrahams was stripped of his civic rights for ten years. In South Wales as a whole, three hundred thousand were estimated to have come out for demonstrations on three successive weekends. In Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham and in the other old centres of Britain’s industrial revolution, the same emotion filled the streets.

The National Government was forced to listen. In the Commons, Oliver Stanley announced a stand-still order on their regulations. They did not come into effect for eighteen months, and then in modified forms. It was in the heads-of-the-valleys communities that the unemployed stood to lose the most through the new regulations. This was the only known occasion in the thirties when popular protest, aligned with parliamentary opposition, led most memorably by Aneurin Bevan, actually stopped the National Government in its tracks. South Wales had been at the forefront, and from that moment, despite the continuing horrors, there was a sudden lift in morale in the coalfield communities. Bevan later commented: Silent pain evokes no response.

Staying Down, Striking Back & Reaching Out:

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Aneurin Bevan had been elected as MP for Ebbw Vale in 1929, finding himself in a Parliament in which thirteen of the fifteen Welsh Labour MPs had had, like him, an official connection with the SWMF, the miners’ ‘Fed’. During 1933-34, Bevan proposed the formation of worker self-defence militias against the small, scattered pockets of fascists who took root in south Wales. An eccentric Communist in Merthyr had a strong following among the most isolated and depressed communities and became something of a local hero to them and there were regular clashes around the town. There was some drilling of the militias around Bevan’s home town of Tredegar, and the Communists also organised their own vigilantes, but all such initiatives were smothered by the Labour Party.

Towards the end of 1935, a series of stay-down strikes erupted in pits where non-unionists and company-unionists were ensconced. These ‘stay-downs’ fired the imagination; they were a weapon of repossession. Hundreds of men remained underground in their pits across all the valleys of South Wales in an act of collective defiance that ultimately ensured the demise of company unionism. It was a desperate, tough fight to unhinge the ‘non-political’ union, regain members, and establish credibility among the unemployed in an industry being driven by utterly intransigent coal-owners. Gwyn Williams (1985) wrote of this:

It is a story of infinite patience, persistence, care, resolution, and where necessary ruthlessness in what had the makings of a civil war. It is a story of remarkable leadership … with the genius of Horner in the van. The ritual was endlessly repeated, the strikes and arguments, the brass bands, marching crowds, women in the lead everywhere, the police charges, the court cases, the pilgrimage of political prisoners, the banners … The process climaxed in those dramatic stay-downs which caught the imagination of a generation, the long, wretched hours underground, the drama at the pit-head, the upcoming to a triumph.

From 1934 onwards the Fed was reorganised with a rank and file executive, unemployed lodges and a more effective structure. It successfully harnessed the community to its purpose and, in its somewhat shrunken industry, it won. This was one essential core around which the popular mobilisation of 1935 formed. But that mobilisation also demonstrated the limits of the Communist initiative. The CP, with its new Daily Worker offering powerful support for a Popular Front, and a dedicated membership approaching three thousand, moved forward, in the words of Gwyn Williams, with its intelligent, learned, hardened, crusading yet earthily practical men and women with all its dependent organisations, only to run into a brick wall of Labour hostility. The reaction of the Labour party nationally put a brake on the shift towards the popular front in Wales. There was a major rally of the social democratic faithful with the chapels, in particular, setting themselves against the threat of atheistic Communism in the valleys. Following the early months of unity against the UAB and the National Government, throughout the rest of 1935, there was a marked hardening of the Labour position in south Wales. At the General Election of 1935, the Communist candidate in the Rhondda fell well back in the poll.

From the summer of 1936, the Communists in the valleys went on to develop their support for the popular front in the context of the outbreak of civil war in Spain between the populist left-wing Republican government and the Fascist supporters and militias of Franco. In all, 174 volunteers from Wales fought with the International Brigade; thirty-three of them died. The majority of them were South Wales miners, 122 of them, with a further thirty-four of them hailing from the coal ports. Nearly all of them were members or supporters of the CP, for whom serving in Spain was as much a badge of honour as having gone to jail for ‘the cause’. Lodges in the ‘Fed’ raised money and goods for the Republicans and took Basque children into sanctuary. Lewis Jones, the writer of We Live, spent his energies on the cause, dropping dead from exhaustion after addressing over thirty street meetings in support of it in the week that Barcelona fell.

A Royal Command or an Indicative Promise?:

In October 1936, the nervousness created by the mass demonstrations and strikes prompted Captain Ellis at the NCSS to warn against the Royal Visit to South Wales, due to take place in November, at the same time as the revised code of regulations for men on transitional benefits was to take effect. Although the two-day visit to the Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and the Monmouthshire Valleys had been planned for some time, on 12 October, Ellis wrote anxiously to Godfrey Thomas at Buckingham Palace:

I feel bound to say first that I think the day is ill-chosen. The new UAB regulations come into force on October 16th. On the whole they tend to affect South Wales more than most places, and it is extremely likely that between the 16th and 19th, which is the first day, there will be a great deal of demonstration against them. It seems to me that if that time is chosen for a visit of the King, the agitators will say that his visit is intended to distract attention from the regulations, and to mark by royal approval what is being done by the Ministry of Labour and other bodies. His visit will then be given a political significance … When Tom Jones saw the announcement of the date in the paper, he asked me to tell you that he felt very strongly that the King should not be taken to South Wales during that week.

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There was some basis in evidence for these apprehensions. In August, the Merthyr Unemployed Lodge of the SWMF had demanded that there should be a one-day strike, a march on London and a ‘monster petition’ of the whole of South Wales in the campaign against the new regulations. Later that month, the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge had decided to support the boycott of the Coronation, due to take place in the New Year. However, refusing to heed even the warnings of Tom Jones, Edward VIII chose to go ahead with the visit, albeit a month later than planned, on 18-19 November and, ironically, it was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks (that once employed nine thousand), that he made his (oft-misquoted) remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this. … to find them work. This may well have been an attempt to head off the kind of criticism which Ellis had suggested might accompany the King’s visit, rather than an attempt to embarrass the Cabinet, as some interpreted it. Whatever the case, his visit did indeed acquire a political significance and certainly did not earn him any friends in a government which was already beginning to call for his abdication. Desperately hungry men and women grasped at the words of the monarch but, on the Welsh Labour ‘left’, as the MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, was furious. It was an outrage, he said, …

… to organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go to the Congo.

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He said that the King was being used to mask persecution and that Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour who accompanied him,  was the instrument of that persecution. Brown was an unpopular politician, especially in an area that had seen rioting against the Means Test the year before. To counterbalance him and the Minister of Health, Sir Kingsley Wood, the King commanded that Malcolm Stewart, the Commissioner for the Special Areas, dine with him on his train that evening. Stewart had just resigned in frustration at the government’s failure to back him over the introduction of new industries into the special areas. Chamberlain, in particular, was opposed to these measures. Shortly before his resignation, Stewart had published a damning report on the feebleness of existing measures to tackle unemployment. Even before he stepped off the train, therefore, Edward was ‘walking’ into an area of acute political sensitivity. This was made more acute when, visiting a farming co-operative at Boverton in the Vale of Glamorgan, he remarked to an ex-miner working on the farm who said he would prefer to return to the valleys if there were work available, Yes, it is a great pity that something more can’t be done about it. As the tour continued past disused collieries, through maternity and child welfare clinics, into local housing estates, Edward was asked by everyone he met: tell Whitehall to do something for the valleys. The significance of his visit lay in the feeling that someone of importance actually cared.

From Merthyr Tydfil, the King’s party made its ill-fated detour to the Bessemer Steelworks in Dowlais, shut down six years earlier. Just as the closure of Palmer’s shipyards at Jarrow had blighted that town, its plight just highlighted by its well-publicised ‘Crusade’ to London, so the ending of steelworking in Dowlais had ruined that community. Coal mines could be kept running on ‘short’ time work, with miners working three shifts a week, but once a steelworks closed it very quickly became derelict with all its workers permanently laid off. As a result, in 1936, three-quarters of the town’s population was permanently unemployed. Two thousand came out and streamed along the pavements to greet the King on this unscheduled and highly improvised sojourn, and though many of them were radicals supporting the NUWM, they were intrigued to see him and raised their caps, even if they also raised clenched fists. He stood by the defunct blast furnace surveying the scene of desolation, his face drawn and grave, his bowler hat removed as a sign of respect. As he looked on, some of the men, quite spontaneously, started to sing the solemn but beautiful Welsh hymn, Crygybar. The King visibly moved, turned to those next to him and is reported to have said …

These steelworks brought the men hope. Something will be done to see that they stay here – working.

But it was the four words, ‘something must be done’ echoed around the country. Of course, in grammatical terms, there is an important difference between the use of ‘will’ and ‘must’ in his sentence, or phrase, regardless of the context, but perhaps the most important point is that it is expressed in the ‘passive voice’ so that no ‘person’ is specified as the agent of the promised action. Added to this, ‘will’ is expressed in an ‘indicative mood’ as a ‘promise’ and is not an imperative, or a command. It is not the same as ‘shall’ which, when used in the third person or in the passive is emphatic and fulfils the function of an ‘auxiliary verb’. ‘Must’ is a ‘modal’ verb which expresses an ‘imperative’ mood to refer to an obligation, and an internalised one. However, it could only be expressed as a ‘command’ by using ‘have’, as in ‘has to be done’ or, even stronger, ‘will have to be done’. In any case, ‘something must be done’ was a misinterpretation, deliberate or otherwise, of what the King actually said, resulting in an important, if subtle, change in the message he was trying to send out.

These four words, as they appeared in newspaper headlines, became a refrain taken up by those of all political parties who felt that the government had done too little to alleviate the suffering of the poor and unemployed. In fact, in his earlier visit to Boverton, Edward had been careful to avoid appearing to criticise the action already taken by the government and the social movement which, as the patron of the NCSS, he was already well aware of. The King’s words, like the Jarrow March, just ended, gained a significance that transcended the immediacy of the plight to which they referred. His intervention simply reflected the growing consensus that something had to be done to create a more just and fair society by bringing jobs to the ‘Special Areas’. As the King, he was expressing the national mood, and although he had told Baldwin the day before that he was prepared to abdicate rather than give up Mrs Simpson, he was now, buoyed up by the success of his visit, beginning to think that it was part of his destiny to put up a fight both for the people and the woman he loved.

Aneurin Bevan declined an intervention to meet the King at Rhymney the next day, saying that he could not associate himself with a visit which appeared to support the notion that private charity has made, or can ever make a contribution of any value to the solution of the problem of South Wales. But the whole event was turned into another mass demonstration by the coalfield communities visited. The visit to South Wales had demonstrated his immense popularity and ability to empathise with the sufferings of his people. When combined with the politics of long-term unemployment, it made for a heady brew. The King’s opponents became concerned. These escapades should be limited, Ramsay MacDonald commented sternly in his diary, they are an invasion into the field of politics and should be watched constitutionally. Geoffrey Dawson, writing in The Times, called the reported four-word comment of the King, monstrous. He penned a letter in which he dismissed it as a constitutionally dangerous proceeding that would threaten, if continued, to entangle the Throne in politics. The Daily Mail, under the title ‘The King Edward Touch’, praised his visit:

Never has the magic of personal leadership been better shown than by the King’s visit to south Wales. … As few Ministers have done, the Sovereign examined their plight and drew from (the unemployed) the tale of their trouble.

Edward later reflected that his words to the people of Dowlais were the minimum humanitarian response that he could have made to the suffering he had seen. The episode made him all too aware that the modern world had made it almost impossible for a monarch to continue to play the role of the Good King, free to move unhindered among his subjects and speak what is in his mind. His subjects in South Wales certainly did not object to the political tone of his comment. The Royal Archives at Windsor are the repository of thousands of letters addressed to the King during this crucial period, the vast majority of which are positive.  The following sentiments were shared and expressed by many:

You could profess concern and interest and yet stay stay away … but that you do not do, and may God bless you for it.

We like you for the concern you have for the welfare of the poorest and most unfortunate of your subjects. No other King has gone among them as you have done, or shown signs of appreciating their distress in the way you do.

With hindsight, there can be little doubt that the publicity given to the King’s visit and his spontaneous remarks had an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment. But it took a world war to bring work to South Wales and by then Edward VIII had become the Duke of Windsor and was leading the life of a useless aristocrat in France.

Today We Live: Re-making the Images of the Coalfield.

Rumours that the South Wales Miners were planning a march on London to restore Edward to the throne in 1937 turned out to be just that. These had been heard by David Alexander, who had first gone to South Wales as a Cambridge undergraduate to shoot a miners’ strike, and returned that year to produce a film called Eastern Valley, dealing with the relief work organised by the Quakers at the top of the Monmouthshire Valleys. In this short film, one unemployed miner explains that he was working now not for a boss but for myself and my butties, whilst an ‘old timer’  admits that although mistakes had been made, a new interest in life had been generated by the Quakers.

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The best known Welsh documentary was Today We Live, made in the same year for the NCSS. The Welsh scenes in this film were directed by Ralph Bond and they told a story in which the unemployed miners of Pentre in the Rhondda debate whether or not to co-operate with the voluntary relief agencies. It is obvious that these unemployed miners had been coached: they were told of the gist of what they had to say but put it into their own words. But although, therefore, a dramatised documentary, the difficulty of living on a shilling a day is movingly conveyed and it is not surprising that the film was so well received in the art-houses of London and New York. It was rare to hear the unemployed speak so authentically, but besides the dialogue, the film was also commended for its stunning images of life in the depressed valleys.

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Donald Alexander was Bond’s assistant on the film and his shot of the unemployed searching for waste coal on the slag heaps, no doubt prompted by his earlier experiences in the Coalfield, was destined to become the most famous image of the Depression years in Britain. The sequence was ‘cannibalised’ in many later documentaries. Alexander’s slag-heap shots became an iconic image of proletarian hardship and played some part for British intellectuals as Dorothea Lange’s monochrome still-photographs of the ‘Oakie’ migrants to California. As the Socialist cause strengthened towards the end of the decade, several groups attempted to challenge the commercial cinema by producing independent films and by arranging their release through independent outlets. In particular, the Communist Party attempted to make its own newsreels to accompany screenings of Soviet classic features. However, these were rarely shown in Welsh halls or even outside London and had little impact on the working classes. Also, they were mostly composed of badly-shot silent sequences of marches and demonstrations.

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Pursuing a Millenarianism of the Oppressed:

At the same time as all this was going on, the ‘Left unity’ of the early months of 1935 was wearing thin by the middle of 1936. At the Merthyr Conference against the Means Test held in July, the claim for direct representation by the NUWM was defeated and in the Autumn the Trades Council reject the request from the Communist Party for affiliation. Relations between the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge and the CPGB were not good either, even where the issue of Spanish Aid was concerned. In the Garw Valley, however, the Communist Party seems to have garnered much of its support through the role the party played in rebuilding the SWMF in the second half of the decade. It is significant that the peak to that support came in the year in which those communities began to recover, fairly rapidly, from the Depression. Linked with this, it is apparent that whilst the Party had failed to attract any significant support for J R Campbell, a well-known figure who stood as a candidate for them in the 1931 parliamentary election, the Glamorgan Gazette reported how, in the 1937 Council election, the people of Pontycymmer were prepared to vote for a respected local Communist and miner:

The declaration of the poll in Ogmore and Garw Council elections took place amid scenes of enthusiasm on Monday night, culminating in the singing of the ‘Red Flag’ when Communist candidate for the Pontycymmer ward, Mr James Redmond, miner, was announced as having gained the large total of 899 votes, and topped the poll. Edward John Evans (Soc) Schoolmaster, gained the other seat with 830 votes. Mr Daniel Davies (Soc) who has served upon the Council for eighteen years loses his seat, the number of votes in his favour being 814. Mr Redmond is the first Communist to be elected in the Garw Valley … After the declaration the crowd became most excited, and the election proved to be the most enthusiastic and keenly followed for years. 

Redmond’s election came in the same week that a new wages agreement between the SWMF and the coalowners was signed, giving increases in wages of between 2s.2d. and 10s. per week, and at a time when it looked as if the decade-long struggle against company unionism and non-unionism in the valley had finally secured almost a hundred per cent membership of the Federation. It is probable that these ‘victories’ and Redmond’s association with them, played a major part in his success. As in other parts of the coalfield, the growth in the electoral strength of the Party was not primarily a response to conditions of poverty and did not reflect widespread avowal of revolutionary socialism, but was a recognition of the organisational ability of its local leaders in helping the community to regain much of its self-confidence. However, in institutional terms, it was still excluded, as in Merthyr, from the official organisation of the unemployed. In November 1937, a series of protest meetings against the Means Test was organised by the Garw Valley Unemployed Lodge and the Pontycymmer Labour Party, with the CP excluded from these events.

Despite these activities, evidence of the existence of widespread apathy on political matters, particularly among the young unemployed, is found in the social surveys of other valley communities. For example, A. J. Lush’s Carnegie Trust Survey was based on interviews with five hundred young unemployed men in Cardiff, Newport and Pontypridd. Of these, only three per cent had any affiliation to a political party or organisation and in Pontypridd, apart from one Communist who was inexorably certain of the facts of the class war, there was evidence of vagueness about the election which was taking place at that time. Lush found no evidence of a swing either to the Right or the Left. The achievements of the Communists among the unemployed in South Wales have tended to be exaggerated by their own contemporary literature, the content of which exists in sharp contrast to that of the Social Service Trusts. Thus, although the NUWM existed in Pontypridd, a ‘coalfield town’, it showed no great success in organising the unemployed and was, in fact, quite reluctant to recruit the long-term unemployed to their ‘ranks’. As other organisers had ‘discovered’, the  physical and mental conditions of these men, old and young alike, would often prove a handicap to organisations based on active protest, including long-distance marches:

It has perhaps been assumed too readily by some that because people are unemployed, their natural discontent will express itself in some revolutionary attitude. It cannot be reiterated too often that unemployment is not an ‘active’ state; its keynote is boredom – a continuous sense of boredom. Consequently, unless a sense of subjective urgency can be expressed by objective political activity, politics can mean little … These young men, products of continuous uemployment, are not likely to believe that an active participation by themselves in affairs will permanently affect an order of things that has already, in the most impressionable years of their lives, shown itself to be so powerful and so devastating.

It is clear that, from Lush’s interviews and other interviews with ‘coalfield people’, including those conducted by this researcher, that there was no sustained militant response to the conditions of unemployment and impoverishment which involved significant numbers of people in any of the valley communities during the Thirties. The popular image, transmitted by contemporary propaganda newsreels and photographs of coalfield society continually on the march, is a myth. Demonstrative action was sporadic, localised and uneven and, where it involved large numbers, was motivated by immediate concerns and basic frustrations and resentments. These feelings could just as easily, and regularly did, produce a somewhat cynical withdrawal from political action. The unemployed did not adopt a revolutionary or militant outlook as a means of confronting their condition. Nevertheless, the determination of the SWMF leadership in the battle against its rival, the South Wales Miners’ Industrial Union and against non-unionism; of minority organisations such as the NUWM in its continual agitation, and of the general leadership of the institutional life of the coalfield communities, enabled a partial recovery of working-class life from the mid-thirties onwards. The ‘United Front’ which emerged from this, though precarious and transitory in many communities, enabled the people of the coalfield quite literally to find both their feet and their voices in a massive demonstration of their collective resistance to state intervention in their lives from the early months of 1935 onwards.

When Bevan and his colleagues in the ‘Socialist League’ were expelled from the Labour Party in 1938 for their advocacy of the ‘United Front’, the ‘Fed’ came to his defence. Bevan told a meeting in the Rhondda that the Welsh miners were the most class-conscious, the most advanced, the most democratic section of the working class. By then, the power and limits of the Communist Party had already passed its peak in the years of the Popular Front. Its base was the ‘Fed’ which by 1939 represented some 135,000 miners, sponsoring thirteen MPs and maintaining a presence in most local authorities. Its executive council was more powerful than that of the local Labour Party. Communists were entrenched within it; Arthur Horner became its President in 1936, proving highly effective. They had their own miners’ journal. In a wider social context, they also had a presence through their classes, their subordinate organisations, like the NUWM and their activism. They charged the atmosphere around the Labour movement in south Wales with their internationalism and within their own society, they had become a distinctive subculture, hated by many, admired by many others, tolerated as a dynamic force by most. The great majority in the Coalfield remained loyal to the Labour Party, but despite the isolation of the Communists during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939-41, the surge of pro-Soviet feeling during and after the siege of Stalingrad nearly carried Harry Pollitt to parliamentary victory in 1945. Bill Paynter, its post-war President, later explained the link between Union, politics and society:

The Miners’ Federation Lodges were pillars of the communities because the Miners’ Institutes and Welfare Halls provided places for the social and cultural activity, and their domination of the local Labour Parties decisively influenced local politics. It is not surprising, therefore, that this kind of background produces a loyalty to the Union so strong that the Union is regarded as a substitute for a political organisation.

… It has often been said of me that I was a miner and trade unionist first and a Communist second. … I have to admit that it has a great deal of truth in it. … It was true, too, of Arthur Horner and most leaders who have lived and worked in the mining valleys of South Wales.

Even though many self-styled revolutionaries were directing this ‘fight-back’ and even though the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments were clearly fearful of the potential for serious and widespread disorder, the successes of this leadership were rewards for their dedication as members of mining communities rather than the products of a ‘millenarianism of the oppressed’. In the longer-term, the acceptance of political reality was made palatable by the installation of ‘Labourism’ as an administrative necessity for an unreconstructed economy and society. The objection to the ‘dope’ perceived in the offerings of the ‘charity-mongers’ was partly a residual mistrust of those who elevated ‘citizenship’ above ‘class’. The assumption of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite was that they could translate the mutuality of these one-class communities into institutional forms ‘better’ served by administering politicians and public servants rather than visionary class warriors. Liberalism shaded into Labourism and the latter became bound by a social and cultural consensus that was addicted to the development of a meritocratic society through education. Neither revolutionary socialism and left-wing social democracy on the one hand nor reactionary nationalism on the other was able to contend politically because they did not see the Depression years as a fall from grace. Those who did were more in tune with popular conceptions and they demonstrated that despite the communal collapse, something could be done. As Dai Smith has put it:

The meaning of the rise and fall of the coalfield society as a collective society was thus undermined from within by a policy of piecemeal accommodation and overlaid by a mythology whose potency derived from its universality as a parable.

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Regaining Consciousness… To migrate or remain?

Research into contemporary qualitative sources reveals that a complex of economic, social, industrial, political and cultural factors determined the extent, nature and direction of the migration ‘streams’. Not least among these factors was the effect of state intervention. Besides political action, resistance to this intervention was expressed by a refusal to participate in government training and transference schemes and a wider rejection of the demoralisation involved in the invasion of the lives of individuals and families by a host of bureaucrats and social workers. Migration was an effective expression of resistance to this form of demoralisation. Thus, while similar factors influenced both transference and voluntary migration, and although contemporary propagandists frequently confused the two, the latter was far from being an acquiescent response to unemployment for many individuals and families. Their choice was partly determined by these factors and partly by the nature of voluntary migration contrasted with the provisions of the Transference Scheme. The sense of the retention of autonomy through migration was well expressed by one of the older unemployed of the Rhondda in a written statement to the Pilgrim Trust:

For an outsider, who views the situation from the angle of the people in the abyss, or the slum worker out of work, the idea he gets of the depressed areas or Special Areas may be totally wrong. … I want to suggest that our people are fully conscious of the economic principles which have brought change to the valleys. The question is, to migrate or remain? I have chosen to remain. …

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Migration thus deserves to be treated as far more than a simple knee-jerk response to economic conditions; it was a class-conscious response for the hundreds of thousands who undertook it. The fact that tens of thousands of Welsh migrants were to be found in Coventry and Oxford in the late 1930s, by which time they formed a significant proportion of the populations of these cities, was not simply due to a series of ‘push’ factors operating upon or from within coalfield society. It is still accepted, of course, that the primary causes of migration between the wars were connected with social and economic conditions. Historians of Wales and British historians on the left have continued to follow what might be called the ‘propagandist’ view of migration, i.e. that people were driven out of the depressed areas by unemployment. For instance, John Stevenson argued that miners left the pit villages in Durham and South Wales for no other reason than that they were desperate to find work. However, the sources show that unemployment was not the sole cause of migration, even if we regard it as the major factor.

Certainly, it is unimaginable that migration would have taken place on the scale which it did, had it not been for the onset of mass unemployment in the coalfield. However, other factors were at work in the period which played a significant part in providing the motivation to relocate. These factors were the general increase in geographical and social mobility; the expansion of new forms transport and communications, including wireless radio; increasing expectations among working-class people in terms of wages, working and living standards, especially better housing; the break-up of the ‘coal complex’, i.e. the acceptance of coal mining as the major means of employment. In addition to these factors, there were many secondary social and cultural factors which played significant roles in the nature, extent and direction of migration, including the decline in health standards in the depressed areas, the role of government and voluntary agencies, the growth of a ‘national’ British culture and the dissolution of the ‘Celtic complex’ concerning Welsh language culture, and the impact of fashion. Thirdly, there were several catalysts, including the decisions of friends and relatives, the attainment of insurable age, victimisation and marital status.

Indeed, given the strength of the practical obstacles to migration which also existed in coalfield society, there needed to be strong compensatory factors at work from within the recipient areas. These obstacles included family loyalties, local patriotism – the sense of belonging to a particular community, region and/ or nationality, house ownership (especially in the older coalfield communities), the sense of loss of skill and trade union traditions as a collier, the loss of the sub-economy of the coalfield. Besides these, there were also obstacles in the recipient communities to overcome; the problems of seasonal unemployment in the ‘new’ industries, homesickness, the shortage and cost of suitable accommodation. Besides, psychological resistance to intervention by state and voluntary agencies and the consequent process of demoralisation was also an obstacle to the success of the official transference scheme. These obstacles were overcome by the careful, autonomous organisation of migration networks which were able to supply information and practical support at every stage of the process.

A National Tragedy?

The cultural gap between the ‘old’ coalfield communities and the ‘new’ industrial centres was not, in any case, as wide as was often portrayed, but it was also bridged by the collective retention of the distinctive traditions and institutions of the coalfield in the recipient areas. These institutional networks were themselves important factors in the genesis of migration as well as in the success of the exodus itself. Yet Welsh historians have tended to follow the ‘nationalist’ perspective in representing the mass migration as a national tragedy. For example, Kenneth O Morgan, writing in 1981 book Rebirth of a Nation: Wales, 1880-1980, wrote of:

A steady drift … of young people … leaving their native land every year, leaving their closely-knit village communities to work in more impersonal … English factories, and to live in anonymous suburban housing estates instead of back-to-back valley terraces with their neighbourliness. Almost as a acutely as for the migrant who crossed the Atlantic to the United States in the previous century, it was a violent uprooting and cultural shock. But it was invariably and necessarily a permanent one, since, as Thomas Jones observed in a famous lecture, “the exiled natives (‘yr alltudion’ of Welsh folklore) never returned”.

Here the elements of alienation, culture shock and permanent displacement are overstated by Morgan, just as they were by many ‘Cymric-liberals’ at the time. He also overstated the importance of the transference policy in the migration to many English towns and cities, as we shall see in the second case study. In this, he is joined by several historians on the left, for whom it suits their purpose to treat ‘Transference’ and ‘Migration’ as synonymous.

(to be continued…)

Sources:

Please see the second part for a full list. Additionally,

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Posted January 22, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Agriculture, American History & Politics, anti-Communist, Austerity, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civilization, clannishness, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Communism, Compromise, Conservative Party, Coventry, democracy, Economics, Edward VIII, Egalitarianism, Ethnicity, Family, First World War, George V, Great War, History, Journalism, Labour Party, Leisure, liberalism, Linguistics, Methodism, Migration, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nonconformist Chapels, Paris, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Russia, Second World War, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; part three – Labour’s Slump: 1929-31.   2 comments

Labour Arrives; Summer 1929:

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In response to John Gorman’s request for photographs for his 1980 book (see the list of sources below), Helen Hathaway of the Reading North Labour Party contributed the picture of women supporters of The Daily Herald at the start of the circulation campaign for the election of the 1929 Labour government. Under the editorship of George Lansbury, before the First World War, the newspaper had become uncompromisingly socialist and was a paper for rebels, supporting strikes, opposing wars and providing a platform for suffragettes and syndicalists. But during the war, Lansbury’s pacifist stance meant that it could not compete with the war stories of the right-wing popular newspapers which were avidly sought by the public. From September 1914, the paper appeared only as a weekly. In 1919, there was a resurgence of the paper, financed by the trade unions and Co-operative societies, but it continued to struggle until 1922 when Ernest Bevin led the TUC and Labour Party into joint ownership. ‘Labour has arrived’, proclaimed the poster proudly held by the working-class women lined up for the photograph, ‘heralding’ the advent of the second Labour government, as shown below:

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Elected in 1929 for the first time as the largest party in Parliament, the second Labour Government had succeeded the Conservatives relatively smoothly, largely as a result of the usual ‘wax and wane’ of party popularity with the electorate. The Labour Party was now the second greatest of the political camps in Britain, having clearly displaced the Liberal Party as the main rivals of the Tories to power. Though its professed ‘creed’ was socialism, it had little in common with the socialist parties on the Continent. Its backbone was the trade unions, which were, according to the writer and politician John Buchan, the most English thing in England. They were more radical than socialist and in a sense more conservative than radical. Their object was not to pull things up by the roots but to put down even deeper roots of their own. Their faults lay in occasional blindness of eye and confusion of head, not in any unsoundness of temper or heart. As a Scottish Unionist MP, Buchan recalled that the hundreds of new Labour MPs …

… brought to the House of Commons a refreshing realism, for they spoke as experts on many practical things, and their stalwart vernacular was a joy amid the clipped conventions of parliamentary speech. But larger questions they were apt to judge on too low a plane and with imperfect knowledge. The corrective was to be looked for in the socialist intellectuals, of whom they were inclined to be suspicious, but who applied to policy a wider education and broader sympathies. … as a group they were serious students of public affairs, with a genuine scientific apparatus behind them. It was well for Labour, and well for the country, to have thislaboratory of experiment and thought. 

It had been five years since Labour had carried the ‘Bolshie’ tag and Ramsay MacDonald introduced his Cabinet as chosen for very hard work and because I believe the nation fully believes they are perfectly competent to perform it. In the event, they proved as incompetent as any of the previous governments to stem the rising tide of unemployment.  But although Labour was the largest party in Parliament, the Labour government of 1929 was still a minority government. Besides, any government, whatever its election programme, has to face the same problems as its predecessor. On taking office, the Labour government floundered in a quagmire of conservative remedies for the worldwide slump. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, the newly-appointed ‘Minister for Unemployment’, J. H. Thomas, had boasted I have the cure as he ‘hob-nobbed’ with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar. He demonstrated a complete lack of imagination and ineptitude but was not aided by the resistance of the Civil Service, the innate conservatism of Snowden at the Exchequer and the world-wide financial and economic crises which beset this administration. In her diary for 21 December 1929, Beatrice Webb recorded her conversation with ‘Jimmy’ Thomas, in which she tried to console the unfortunate minister, who naturally thought he was being scapegoated for the Government’s failure to keep its election promise:

We sat down for a chat together. The poor man was almost hysterical in his outbursts of self-pity; everyone had been against him and the ‘damns’ flowed on indiscriminately. Margaret Bondfield and her d_ insurance bill, the d_ floods, the d_ conspiracy between restless Lloyd George and weathercock W. Churchill to turn out the Labour Government, and the d_ windbags of the Clyde responsible for his not fulfilling the d_ pledge which he had never made, to stop this d_ unemployment. There is honesty and shrewdness of his deprecations of doles and relief work for the unemployed. But he took no counsel, not even with Mosley and Lansbury who had been appointed to help, either about the appointment of his staff or about remedial measures. Then he lost his nerve and with it his strength. Poor Jimmy is egregiously vain and therefore subject to panic when flattery ceases and abuse begins. For years he has looked upon himself as the Future Prime Minister; today the question is whether he will be fit for any position at all in a future Labour Cabinet. …

Labour’s Conservatives & Radicals:

Neither is there any evidence that the Labour Government of 1929-31 sought to abandon transference as the main means of dealing with unemployment, though Margaret Bondfield (pictured standing on the left below), now Minister of Labour (and first woman minister of any government), did not consider that the continuance of the policy should exclude attempts to attract industries to the depressed areas or to develop public works schemes. Oswald Mosley also tried hard to get Thomas, whom he considered a ‘useless minister’, to ‘do something’ about the unemployed. He had a ‘sensible plan’ for increased allowances and organised public works, but the ‘old men’ of the party didn’t want to know about it. So he walked out on it early in 1931 to form the ‘New Party’, taking some of the more dynamic men of the Left like John Strachey. But they soon left him when he took off down the right-hand road to Fascism. However, the scale and widespread nature of unemployment in these years, making it more than a structural problem in the ‘staple’ industries, tended to preclude either the possibility of a radical response to the problem, while at the same time preventing the effective operation of the transference scheme. There were few areas that were not experiencing a significant level of unemployment during these years which actually showed the greatest convergence between regional and national figures in terms of absolute volumes of workless.

 

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Ramsay MacDonald was, by all accounts, including that of René Cutforth, a young journalist at the time, a noble-looking creature, in the manner of some great Highland chieftain. Originally the Labour Government of 1924 had had some qualms about wearing even evening dress when attending Buckingham Palace or in Parliament, remembering the lone cloth cap in the House of Commons of their first independent Labour member, Keir Hardie. MacDonald never subscribed to such qualms, as the picture below shows, and the higher he rose in social circles, the more he was in his element. In fact, he became something of a ‘snob’; at one time he so frequently attended the soirees of Lady Londonderry, wife of the coalowner so hated in MacDonald’s own constituency in South Wales that, and an upper-crust socialite and political hostess, that James Maxton, the ILP MP asked him in the House of Commons whether the Labour anthem was still the ‘Red Flag’ or whether it had been exchanged for ‘The Londonderry Air’. Churchill said of MacDonald that he liked the Tory atmosphere and tradition; the glamour of old England appealed to him. Of course, MacDonald was to die with the curses of those in whose service he had spent his life ringing in his ears for the ‘great betrayal’ of 1931.

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The truth is that, even before taking office and despite its pledges to solve the problem of unemployment within three months, the Labour leadership had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. The proposal of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden (on the right of the steps below) to effect economies by cutting maintenance for the unemployed was to precipitate not just the political crisis which led to the formation of a National Government, but the biggest and most controversial demonstrations witnessed in Britain since the days of the Chartists, the hunger marches of the 1930s. Snowden, according to Churchill, …

 … viewed the Socialist creed with the blistering intellectual contempt of the old Gladstonian radical. To him Toryism was a physical annoyance, and militant socialism a disease brought on by bad conditions or contagion, like rickets or mange. …

Snowden’s rigidity of doctrine was otherwise inpenetrable. Free imports, nomatter what the foreigner may do to us; the Gold Standard, no matter how short we run of gold; austere repayment of of debt, no matter how we have to borrow the money; high progressive direct taxation, even if it brings creative enegies to a standstill; the ‘Free breakfast-table’, even if it is entirely supplied from outside the British jurisdiction! …

We must imagine with what joy Mr Snowden was welcomed at the Treasury by the permanent officials … here was the High Priest entering the sanctuary. The Treasury mind and the Snowden mind embraced each other with the fervour of too-long-separated kindred lizards, and the reign of joy began. …

... He was a man capable of maintaining the structure of Society while at the same time championing the interests of the masses. …

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Above: Forming the National Government, August 1931 (see full picture below).

Most of the published memoirs, with the possible exception of Churchill’s, still reek of contemporary prejudice, ignorance, and partisan blindness to facts. The historian’s interpretation of the contemporary judgements both of MacDonald and his ministers by others and by MacDonald himself should depend first on the evidence available, and secondly on analysis of this evidence on the basis of fair-minded, non-partisan criteria. The historian, seeking some ‘truer’ perspective, must recall how different the problems of 1925-31 were compared to those of 1945-51, though at both times Labour faced almost insurmountable obstacles. So, before we fast-forward to the failure and fall of the Labour government in 1931, we need to understand why and how it had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. John Buchan, writing in 1935, provides an alternative contemporary perspective to that of the Labour diarists. He took a longer-term perspective of the economic orthodoxy of the Twenties:

The main concern for Britain, as for other nations, was economic – how to keep body and soul together. In its preoccupation with material needs all the world had gone Marxist. The problem was how to pass from the unbridled extravagance of the war to a normal life. We had been living on stimulants, and we must somehow transfer ourselves from dope to diet. There was a brief gleam of prosperity just after peace, when the replacement of stocks required still further expenditure, and then the nation settled itself to a long, thankless toil in the shadows…

The first duty was to cease spending more than we could afford; no easy thing, for our obligatory expenses were almost beyond our earnings. We had to face some  eight thousand millions of war debt, and this meant a scale of taxation which crippled industry and bore crushingly on all but profiteers. … But while our costs had risen our business was declining. We had lost our industrial pre-eminence in the world’s markets … Our exports, visible and invisible, looked like soon ceasing to pay for our necessary imports. The whole nineteenth century fabric of British trade was breaking down. 

With shrinking markets, and the cost of Government, local and central, nearly three times what it had been in 1913, Britain’s economy was failing to pay its way. The fact was that industrial workers were already receiving a higher remuneration than could be justified according to the value of their products. The situation was met by a vigorous effort on the part of industry both to enlarge its range of products and to set in order its older ones. Agriculture had slipped back into a trough, but a second industrial revolution by which a variety of new businesses arose, chiefly making luxury products and based mostly in Southern and Midland England. There were also notable technical advances in production, which while improving industrial efficiency, also led to increasing unemployment. There was also a growing economic nationalism throughout much of the industrialised world, though not yet in Britain, so that the British industrialist, already heavily taxed, and facing rising costs, had to compete in export markets hedged around by tariffs, and in domestic markets against cheap foreign imports, often subsidised.

Added to all of this, at the heart of national economic policy was a banker’s policy. Deflation was the watchword of this, and the international stability of the currency was considered the key to a revival in trade. In April 1925, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill had taken the fateful step of returning to the gold standard at the level of pre-war parity. As a result, the amount of money was curtailed, leading to a drop in internal prices while interest charges and wages remained relatively high. In turn, this added to the costs of production at home, while the price of exported goods automatically increased. This return to orthodox fiscal measures re-established Britain’s role and reputation as the world’s financial centre, but at the cost of its export trade, leading to wage troubles in the exporting industries, especially coal.  Seven difficult years followed this decision as unemployment grew and it became clear that some of Britain’s heavier industries had sunk to a permanently low level of output. Under the futile system of war debts and reparations, the debtor countries could not pay their debts since their creditors had erected colossal tariff walls, and the consequence was that their exports were diverted to Britain, the one free-trade area that remained. But the payments received for these were not used to buy British goods in return, but to buy gold with which to pay off their creditors.

The disaster was already imminent by the time Labour took charge in the summer of 1929 as the whole mechanism of the world’s commerce was out of gear, and the climax began in the autumn of that year with the downfall of America’s swollen prosperity. Historians have since argued about the extent to which the Crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression which followed were caused by the First World War, as well as to the extent which it led, in turn, to the Second World War. However, from the perspective of the time, certain facts seemed undeniable. The money system of the world was no longer adequate to deal with the complexities of international trade, made even more complicated by political troubles and economic nationalism as well as by the unbalanced position of gold, and by a lack of trust of politicians and bankers among the general populations.

Bleak Scenes, Hard Times:

The bleak scene shown below from April 1930 at Ferryhill in the north-east coalfield features the lone figure of George Cole, local miner’s leader and militant trade unionist. The small contingent with banners and rucksacks are the north-east section of the unemployed march to London, on their way to join another thousand from Scotland, Plymouth, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands and Kent. The first march of the unemployed in the thirties, it was a small demonstration compared with those to follow over the rest of the decade, but what gave it special significance was that it was the first of its kind to be directed against a Labour government. The march was organised by the Communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), founded in 1921 as part of the British Communist Party’s ‘Class against Class’ policy. The marches, therefore, divided the loyalties of Labour members and supporters. Northampton Labour Party said that it could not support a movement in opposition to the government.

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The marchers arrived in London on May Day, to be greeted by twenty thousand at the entrance to Hyde Park, with another thirty thousand at the meeting inside. That night the weary marchers presented themselves at the Fulham Workhouse, refused to be treated as ‘casuals’, won the right to beds and food and, to the fury of the Workhouse Master, hoisted the red flag over their quarters. Ten months after taking office, the MacDonald government had failed to halt the steadily increasing number of jobless and in fact, unemployment had increased from 1,169,000 when Labour came to power to 1,770,000 by May 1930. After eighteen months in office, the numbers of workless under Labour had risen to two and a half million. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the NUWM, sarcastically remarked that as Minister of the Unemployed, J. H. Thomas is a howling success.

The conditions of working-class life had on the whole been greatly improved since the Great War. Higher wages did not lead to waste, but to higher standards of living. The average household had better food, better clothing, more margin for amusements and wider horizons of opportunities. Small wonder then that they struggled to maintain what they had won. That was for those in employment, of course. For the unemployed, who now (by the end of 1930) reached two million in number, there was a bare subsistence and tragic idleness, a steady loss of technical skill, and a slow souring and dulling of mind. In the heavy industry towns of Northern England and valleys of the South Wales Coalfield, unemployment became a permanent way of life, sometimes for whole communities. A problem of such magnitude required for its solution not only the energies of the State but the thought and good-will of every private citizen and public body. Owing partly to the work of the Prince of Wales and the National Council of Social Service, of which he was patron, these were forthcoming. People began to develop a  sense of personal and civic duty for the unemployed, especially the miners in the ‘distressed areas’.

By early 1930, the ‘social service movement’ had obtained a substantial footing throughout a wide area of the South Wales Coalfield in particular. At Brynmawr, one of the ‘blackspots’ on the northern edge of the Coalfield, over a hundred people took part in a Survey which was begun in 1929, but these were mainly professional and business people since the trade unions, the Labour Party and the Urban District Council refused to co-operate. As a former member of the ‘settlement’ reflected in the 1980s, …

… they felt that they had been slighted: they resented interference and they felt their dignity and authority undermined … the local people were suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town … the Quakers became known as the BQs (Bloody Quakers)!

Another settlement at Maes-yr-Haf in the Rhondda spawned over fifty unemployed clubs throughout the valleys from 1929 and provided an advice centre for the settlements which were established elsewhere, the first of which was at Merthyr Tydfil in 1930. Percy Watkins, Head of the Welsh Section of the National Council of Social Service, saw the settlements as representing the idea that those who had been privileged to enjoy university education should live and ‘settle’ among the workers. This was, in itself, not a new idea. Clement Attlee, the future Labour leader, had done this in the East End of London before the Great War. But what was new was the way in which these ‘settlers’ were to help open up ‘lines of communication’ between the coalfield communities and the outside world, to act as a means of cultural ‘irrigation’, in order to establish ‘an educated democracy’. Watkins and Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet before becoming Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust in the 1930s, combined to offer charitable help for Maes-yr-Haf for it to spread the settlement idea throughout the coalfield. At the beginning of 1930, it had become affiliated to the Educational Settlement Association and it soon became seen as a model of ‘intervention’ in working-class communities.

Some historians have suggested that the movement was not well enough funded to imply that the government saw it as a major barrier to revolution, but it was not the level of funding which the government itself provided which was significant, but the way in which civil servants were able to facilitate and direct charitable funds from the Mayors of various cities, the Society of Friends and those poured in by the Carnegie Trust and Pilgrim Trust. The last of these was established by the New York businessman, Edward S. Harkness, who provided a gift of over two million pounds. The trustees included Stanley Baldwin, Lord Macmillan, Sir Josiah Stamp and John Buchan. Although a Labour Government was in power committed to ending unemployment, these men continued to exert considerable influence over the affairs of the depressed areas both in South Wales and the North of England and over the Government’s policy towards the unemployed. It was the duty of the trustees, …

… to apply their resources at key points of the present distress,  … to prevent many places where moral and intellectual leadership is absent, from sinking into despair.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1931, 2,500 unemployed marched on London and were met by a baton charge of police in Hyde Park. The march was broken up on what, for a time and for some at least, became a very rough occasion (see the photo below, taken later in Hyde Park). They had deposited an enormous petition which they hoped to present to Parliament in the left luggage office at a London terminus. When they went back to pick it up, it had ‘unaccountably’ disappeared and so was never presented.

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However, the numbers involved in such demonstrations were often limited, of necessity perhaps, to a small segment of the unemployed. As the depression worsened, the political energies of an increasing number of the unemployed were drained away by decreasing resources. Successful political agitation depended upon the addressing of the immediate issues facing the unemployed, such as the actions of the ‘Courts of Referees’, and matters such as these took up nearly all of the time of the Trades Councils in the late 1920s as well as bringing about the growth of the NUWM under the leadership of Wal Hannington. But the available evidence does not suggest any accompanying widespread shift towards the ideological position held by Hannington.

The Crisis of 1931 & The Cuts:

In early 1931, as the Labour government continued to pursue the traditional conservative remedy for a recession by cutting expenditure and wages, the whole European credit system sustained a near-fatal jolt when the Austrian bank, Kredit Anstalt, failed and had to be shored up with a loan from the Bank of England, among others. There had been a steady drain of gold from the Bank of England ever since the US loans had ceased to flow into Central Europe, and now the Bank of England asked the New York banks for a loan. They refused this until Britain had taken steps to balance its budget. The Cabinet turned to the advice of Sir George May, former Secretary of the Prudential Insurance Company and Sir Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. At this point, few in the government were able to read the signs of the impending crisis. The warnings of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden, had little effect upon some of his colleagues, whose financial creed was a blend of mysticism and emotion. During the summer, a creeping sickness was spreading over Europe, and the symptoms were becoming acute, first in Austria, then in Germany and last in Britain.

The crisis came to a head in Britain in the late summer of 1931, beginning with a conference of European Ministers in London in July provided no remedy. At the end of that month, the May Report was published, showing that the Government was overspending by a hundred and twenty million a year. It proposed cutting expenditure by ninety-six million pounds, two-thirds of which was to be made by reducing maintenance for the unemployed by twenty per cent. There followed immediately a heavy withdrawal of foreign balances, but the Bank of England failed in its approach to the United States. Without the US loan, the Government faced the prospect of having to default on its repayments which would result in Britain having to go off the gold standard. The effect of that, the Government believed, would be a drastic reduction in the pound sterling, since the gold standard was viewed as a ‘holy cow’ in international financial circles at that time.

A programme of drastic cuts in Government expenditure was the only answer, and MacDonald and Snowden made a plan to reduce the pay of the armed services, civil servants and school teachers, and to cut unemployment pay by ten per cent. The TUC Economic Committee had warned in March 1931, that the application of such a policy can only intensify the slump by reducing the purchasing power of the community thereby leading to further unemployment. Now Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a trade union delegation to a Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield and a Secretary of State in the Cabinet, told his wife Beatrice, the General Council are pigs, they won’t agree to any cut of unemployment insurance benefits, or salaries, or wages. But although the Opposition said the cuts were too small, half of the Cabinet refused to accept the cut in unemployment pay. There was much to be said for their point of view as they were, after all, a Labour government which had been committed to ending unemployment within three months of taking office. Unemployment had stood at one million then, but now it had reached 2.75 million: all they had been able to do for the unemployed had been to go on paying them ‘the dole’.

So the Labour Cabinet dug its heels in and MacDonald resigned on 24 August, together with the rest of the government. The stricken statesman went to the Palace to tender his resignation to the King, who had arrived in Balmoral three days earlier, on the 21st, for his annual Scottish holiday only to have to return to London the next day. It was not for him to have any public opinion on economic policy or any preference among the parties. But as the ‘trustee’ of the nation,  the King felt that a national emergency should be faced by a united front. According to many popular Socialist narratives, ‘what happened next’, almost inevitably, was that MacDonald conspired with a ‘traitorous caucus’ which included Snowden and Thomas, in forming a National Government with the Liberals and Conservatives. In fact, the common procedure was would have been for MacDonald to resign, and he was prepared to follow this constitutional precedent, giving way to the Conservatives, but the King’s view was supported by the senior  Ministers, and MacDonald accepted his invitation to form a National Government composed of Conservatives and Liberals as well as some of his own senior colleagues. The next day MacDonald returned to Downing Street to proclaim the appointment to a mixed reception from his former Cabinet members, few of whom were willing to follow him.

Divided Opinion & Reaction – Mutiny & Gold Standard:

Contemporary reaction to the Cabinet split and creation of the National Government in August of that year can be seen from two points of view in the following extracts from The Times and The New Statesman:

The country awakens this morning to find Mr MacDonald still Prime Minister, with the prospect of a small Cabinet representative of all three parties. The former Cabinet resigned yesterday afternoon, and a statement issued last night announced that considerable progress had been made towards settling the composition of its successor, which would be a Government of co-operation formed with the specific purposes only of carrying through a very large reduction in expenditure and raising ‘on an equitable basis’ the further funds required to balance the Budget.

All concerned are to be warmly congratulated on this result, so fully in accord with the patriotic spirit which has inspired a week’s most anxious negotiations. The Prime Minister and the colleagues of his own party who have followed him deserve in particular unqualified credit, both for the manner in which they took their political lives in their hands by by facing and forcing the break-up of the late Cabinet, and for their new decisionto translate courage in the Cabinet into courage in the country. The readiness to share the responsibility – honour is perhaps the better word – of carrying through to the end the policy of retrenchment adds enormously to the prospect of its success.

The Times, 25 August 1931   

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In many respects the situation which confronted the Cabinet was like that of August 1914. … In 1914, Mr MacDonald refused to join a War Cabinet: Mr Henderson accepted. Mr MacDonald was denounced as a traitor: Mr Henderson applauded. In leading arguments in ‘The Times’, for instance, Mr MacDonald’s patriotism is extolled, while Mr Henderson is denounced as a man who put party before country. Meanwhile, in Labour circles all over the country Mr MacDonald is being denounced … for betraying his party. … Mr MacDonald’s decision to form a Cabinet in conjunction with the Liberals and the Tories seems to us a mistake, just as it would have been a mistake for him as a pacifist to join a War Cabinet in 1914. For he must inevitably find himself at war with the the whole of organised labour, and …with all those, in all classes, who believe that the policy of reducing  the purchasing power of the consumer to meet a situation of over-production is silly economics. … An effort is being made to represent the whole issue as merely one of a ten per cent reduction in the dole and the refusal to cut it could only be based on cowardly subservience to the electorate. … We oppose it … because it is only the first step, the crucial beginning of a policy of reductions, disatrous, we believe for England and the rest of the world. …

New Statesman, 29 August 1931    

On 11 September, a supplementary budget was passed by the House of Commons, which by heavy economies and increased taxes provided a small surplus for that and the forthcoming year. The cuts were duly brought into force by Philip Snowden, who remained as Chancellor. He added sixpence to income tax, ten per cent to the surtax, a penny on a pint of beer, and reduced teachers’ pay by fifteen per cent and Police, Army, Navy and Air Force pay by varying drastic amounts. The dole was reduced from seventeen shillings to fifteen and threepence.

There was an immediate reaction to the wage cuts, as on 14 September a naval mutiny broke out in Invergordon when the ratings of three ships refused to obey orders to put to sea. According to René Cutforth, it was the ‘politest mutiny ever staged’ since no-one was hurt or even intimidated and respect for officers was fully maintained. The few ratings who started to sing ‘The Red Flag’ were considered to be out of order by the other ratings, who preferred to sing, ‘the more we are together the merrier we shall be’, a popular drinking song. They sent a written representation of their case to the Admiralty, stating that while they refused to serve under the new rates of pay, they were willing to consider ‘a cut which they ‘consider within reason’. Although the incident was barely mentioned in the British press, garbled versions of it appeared in the foreign press, which made it look like a revolutionary rising. If the British Navy was disaffected, it was suggested, then Britain itself must be on the road to ruin.

As a result, there was another spectacular run on the Bank of England’s gold. The government dealt quickly with the situation, reducing the cuts and restoring the status quo almost at once. Twenty-four ratings were eventually suspended. But the run on the Bank was so exhausting that the Government which had been formed just a few weeks earlier to safeguard the gold standard was now forced to give it up anyway. Instead of crashing through the floor, however, the pound only fell to about seventy-five per cent of its former value which, if anything, improved Britain’s balance of trade. John Buchan commented:

The gold standard proved to have been largely a bogy; it had seemed the only palladium when we were on it, but we found that we did very well without it. The sterling group soon became a force in the world. There was no fall in the purchasing value of the pound at home, and its depreciation in terms of certain foreign currencies was in effect a bonus to our export trade. We had redressed the inequalities of our 1925 ambitions.

Nevertheless, the psychological impact of this event on those now in government could not have been more dramatic, as Paul Adelman pointed out, with a little help from A. J. P. Taylor, in his 1972 book on The Rise of the Labour Party 1880-1945:

On 21 September 1931 … Britain abandoned the gold standard. Bank rate was then raised to six per cent, and for the moment this brought to an end the long-drawn-out financial crisis. As Taylor comments (in ‘English History, 1914-45):

“A few days before, a managed economy had seemed as wicked as family planning. Now, like contraception, it became a commonplace. This was the end of an age”.

MacDonald – Man, Motives & Myth:

In October, the Prime Minister went to the country as the leader of a National Government, and they were returned to power with an immense majority. The General Election of 1931 was a straight fight between the Labour Party and other parties in office led by MacDonald. In an atmosphere of monetary panic, Labour representation in the house had already been cut from 289 to 46. The National Government was returned with 554 seats, while the Labour opposition was reduced to a mere rump of 52, with the Liberals winning just sixteen seats. The country was convinced that the Socialists had brought the pound to the verge of disaster, and it had only been snatched from the brink by the noble MacDonald. The photo below shows the Transport and General Workers’ Union secretary, Ernest Bevin (on the left), at Gateshead in 1931, with a band of loyal Labour Party supporters. Abolish poverty, abolish slums, wipe out destitution reads the poster on the election van. It was Bevin that was to be wiped out, temporarily, from the parliamentary scene, losing a safe Labour seat to the National Liberal candidate by 12,938 votes.

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In the Labour Party, and in the Labour movement generally, there had never been such an uproar as the one which broke out at the end of the election, and the wound would still rankle just below the surface right into the 1970s. No name was too vile for MacDonald and his ‘apostate crew’. Accused of ‘betraying his class’ and ostracised by his own party, he became a tragic, isolated figure for the rest of his political life. Since he was at heart a warm man who needed sympathy and valued loyalty, this rough handling deeply upset him and was directly responsible for his decline and deterioration as a public figure. René Cutforth praised MacDonald’s patriotism, which he identified as the main motivation for his political decisions:

MacDonald was a Victorian. His loyalty to ‘the Nation’ was quite unequivocal. When it was seen by him to conflict with his socialism, it was the socialism that lost out. Though for the rest of his life he was quite sure that he had done his duty by the nation and was unjustly put upon, something in him gave way. … 

According to Winston Churchill, Philip Snowden was similarly motivated by his deep love of Britain and his studiously concealed, but intense pride in British greatness. So, these two key questions still remain for historians to answer:

  • Was MacDonald’s decision to form the National Government one of patriotism or pragmatism?

  • How far did it demonstrate the importance of the consensual nature of British politics, even in times of national crisis?

From the 1960s, historians have been able to look at MacDonald’s decision in a slightly longer-term perspective than just the crisis of July-September 1931 and the subsequent October election. Robert Skidelsky’s analysis of the second Labour government, with his emphasis on the distinction between economic radicals and economic conservatives, began this discussion in 1970, although Ralph Miliband had published his Marxist critique of Parliamentary Socialism in 1961. Perhaps Skidelsky had this study in mind when he wrote that previous studies of MacDonald’s second government had tended to reinforce the tendency to view interwar politics in terms of a struggle between socialism and capitalism, between the Labour Party and the ‘Rest’. The real division, between radicals and conservatives, cut right across party lines, with the latter defeating the former. This economic debate was centred on unemployment, ten per cent of which Skidelsky claims was ‘endemic’ in the 1920s. It was often argued that before Keynes’ General Theory (1936) governments were bound to pursue conservative, orthodox, economic policies. Yet, as Skidelsky pointed out …

… most economists and most businessmen at the time rejected the ‘treasury view’, and dissent from orthodoxy increased progressively as traditional policies failed to restore prosperity. By 1929 there existed a substantial body of economic and political support for a radical unemployment policy embracing an expansionist monetary policy and a big programme of government investment. … 

Why then, he asked, did the Labour Party fail to make use of this dissent for the ends of a radical unemployment policy? He argued that the consequences of that failure determined the politics of the following decade and that it was a failure that could have been avoided. Usually, criticism of MacDonald and his colleagues started with their handling of the financial crisis which began in early 1931, rather than with their omissions over the previous two years. But whereas between 1929 and 1931 there were plenty of effective choices open to the Government, in 1931 itself there was virtual unanimity on the need to defend the gold standard. But MacDonald broke with half his Cabinet, not over economic policy, but over primary loyalty:

As Prime Minister he considered his first duty was to the ‘national interest’ as it was almost universally conceived; the Labour Party saw its first duty to its own people. … The real criticism of MacDonald is not that he formed the National Government, but that under his leadership, the Labour Government had drifted into a position which left it so little choice. … the Government rejected Conservative protection, the Liberal national development loan, the Keynesian and Mosleyite amalgams of both, preferring instead the advice of the least progressive sections of the ‘economic establishment’.    

Skidelsky’s ‘neo-Keynesian’ approach was challenged by Ross McKibben in his 1975 Past and Present article, who criticises the narrowness of an interpretation which was chiefly interesting as an explanation of the Labour Party’s apparent economic conservatism, but didn’t properly identify the alternative strategies available to MacDonald. McKibben provided some useful comparative material to support those who argued for a deflationary policy. He argued that the government fell essentially because it failed to agree on a programme of budgetary economies that would satisfy both the Conservatives and the Liberals, the latter party providing the majority which Labour, by itself, was short of in the Commons.  McKibben emphasised that …

The ‘desertion’ of MacDonald caused great bitterness and generated a partisan history usually designed to justify the behaviour of one side or the other in the debacle. … a newer school has sought only to explain why the Labour government did not adopt economic policies which might appear to have been obviously the right ones. Why did it not, for example, attempt to reverse economic contraction by a programme of public works financed by budget deficits, or by tax-cuts, or a policy less untypical of a socialist party – by a redistribution of income that might have raised demand? Why was the government apparently so inflexibly attached to existing monetary policies?

The 1929 Labour government assumed, first, that the problems of the British economy were partly structural, and secondly, that Britain’s place in the international economy almost uniquely influenced its monetary policies. These assumptions were related: structural weakness in the older export-based industries led to falling exports and payment difficulties. On the other hand, the requirements of ‘the City’ led to monetary policies that made internal economic reconstruction difficult. Both these problems weres were powerful disincentives to economic unorthodoxy when it had become obvious that British industry had failed in the Twenties because it was still focused on the old staples, producing goods that people no longer wanted or needed. McKibben further argues that there were practical alternatives available to the Labour government, but these were not ‘drift or reflation’ but rather ‘drift or deflation’. This strategy would not have been such a ‘leap in the dark’, as there was already plenty of evidence from around the world of its efficacy as a remedy:

Until the crisis of July-August 1931, Britain alone of the major countries seriously affected by the depression refused to follow deflationary policies. Her relatively generous social services were not only maintained but somewhat increased in scope; despite the shrinkage of the tax-base, government expenditure continued to rise; no serious attempt was made to balance the budget.

Consequently, when the pressure to abandon drift and adopt deflation became too strong, the government collapsed. Two pressures came together, in fact: the pressure to solve Britain’s internal budgetary problems by deflation which reached a peak when the May Report was published on 31 July, and, almost simultaneously, the pressure created by the European liquidity crisis reaching London, which immediately called into question the exchange rate of the pound. The budgetary crisis and the exchange crisis had been distinct phenomena before this point, but throughout August 1931 they played off each other like thunder and lightning in a perfect storm.

Adelman provided some useful criticisms of Skidelsky’s assertion that the economic failures of the Labour Government before the crisis of 1931 were a necessary consequence of the ‘Utopian ethic’ to which the party was committed. On this, Skidelsky had written:

The Labour Party’s commitment to a nebulous Socialism made it regard the work of the ‘economic radicals’ such as Keynes as mere ‘tinkering’, when in fact it was they who were providing the real choice. It was the failure of the Labour Party to recognise that this was the choice that doomed it to failure and sterility in this crucial period.

In a subsequent article, published in the Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin in 1970, Skidelsky went further, arguing that the Labour Party’s failure was a failure, not so much of socialism itself, but of Victorian liberalism, the parent ideology from which British socialism sprang and which, in its economic aspect at least, had persisted virtually unchallenged well into the twentieth century. Adelman argued that both Skidelsky’s original thesis, and this later refinement, seemed to exaggerate the influence of ideas, or their absence, as an explanation of economic and political events. Motivation is one of the primary interests of the historian, who cannot explain events without understanding the reasoning behind the people actually involved or connected with them. To deny its importance seems to imply that human action is somehow controlled by impersonal factors like economics or political philosophies, and this would lead on to a deterministic view, and a de-personification of history. Adelman argued the case for the analysis of motives behind MacDonald’s actions, suggesting that the second Labour Government’s failures had rather deeper roots in human psychology:

How are we to explain MacDonald’s conduct? It is probably true that, as his critics aver, he was a vain, ambitious and increasingly out of touch with rank-and-file sentiment  within the party, and this explains his inability to appreciate the depth of feeling over the ten per cent cut. But there is no real evidence … that MacDonald was either in sympathy with or had been planning to become leader of a ‘National Government’ before the events of August 1931 thrust the role upon him. For a generation after this crisis Ramsay MacDonald was branded as a traitor to the Labour movement, but most impartial historians now agree with the spirit of Bassett’s remark that ‘he was moved primarily by his sense of duty’, even though we need not accept his further implication that what was good for MacDonald was also  good for the Labour Party. What gave weight to MacDonald’s actions too was his belief that his leadership of the National Government would be temporary: as he stressed to his colleagues at that last fateful Cabinet meeting, it was to deal with an extraordinary crisis only, and, as had happened in 1918, he would return to the fold later on to lead a reunited party. 

For his Labour colleagues, as MacDonald himself seems to have accepted, the position was different: for them the primary issue was one of party loyalty and not the question of the unemployment cuts (over which the gap between the two groups was very narrow), or a vague ‘national interest’ over whose meaning no one could agree. After all, a majority of the Cabinet had supported all of the cuts, and even the minority must have accepted that they would in any case be imposed by the next Conservative/ Liberal government. For most Labour ministers the major question was, therefore, … how to avoid a major split within the party, and on this issue a majority preferred to resign together rather than follow the Prime Minister into the National Government and accept a major breach in the Cabinet and the party. 

The Dole, ‘Dope’ & The Means Test:

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The newly-returned National Government not only cut the dole by ten per cent but also introduced the means test. The photograph above shows a protest meeting developing spontaneously among the crowd of disappointed unemployed outside the St Pancras Labour Exchange in London. Of all the blows which fell upon the poor and unfortunate in the Thirties, whether by accident, intelligence or design, this measure was the best calculated to divide the nation and the most bitterly resented. The dole had grown out of the old poor law system and the old unemployment benefit system when, back in 1921, it had proved inadequate to cope with the new scale of mass unemployment. The unemployment fund had had to thirty million pounds from the Treasury in order to finance ‘the dole’, with a new bureaucracy growing up to administer it, which after 1931 enlarged itself to administer the means test. The unemployed man who had come to the end of his insurance stamps was now at the mercy of the Public Assistance Committee, empowered to enquire into every halfpenny that found its way into his household, camping out in his front room and then adjusting his dole accordingly.

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There was not much The Labour Party could do to help the unemployed and defend them against the cruelties imposed by the means test since it had put itself out in the cold in 1931 and remained there for the rest of the decade. Outside Parliament, protests and demonstrations were mostly led by the Communist Party and the NUWM. Labour politicians polished up their propaganda and tried to formulate a clear alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’. For a time its leader was yet another Victorian figure who had been in MacDonald’s cabinet before the split. George Lansbury was a Christian Socialist of real integrity and piety. His line was that all would be well when we had complete Socialism and power as well as office. In the meantime, he encouraged his comrades to sing the ‘Red Flag’. John Strachey wrote Marxist books and articles and gave speeches in which he seemed to hover between Fascism and Communism. On the Left, the Independent Labour Party, a few revolutionary Socialists, retained their seats. The most notable and charismatic of these was James Maxton, with his fringe of black hair falling across his burning eyes and reaching his shoulders, looking as if he was ready at any moment to ‘Man the Barricades’. Another ILP MP, John McGovern, recalled his intervention in the King’s Speech following the 1931 Election:

I happened to be standing beside Lady Astor M.P. , and she said “McGovern, this is a wonderful scene. This is what makes Old England such a great nation.” I replied, “But there are two Englands …” (As the King finished his speech) I called out, “What about the restoration of the cuts in unemployment allowances and the end of the Means Test?!” … 

The return of the National Government led to the Social Service movement becoming a clearly recognised substitute for direct State intervention. The Cabinet took the decision that neither local authorities nor the Central Government should assume direct responsibility for welfare work for the unemployed (but that such work could) more appropriately and effectively be undertaken by private agencies with limited financial help in appropriate cases from National funds. The role of the National Council for Social Service as the main agent in this was soon established by its patron, the Prince of Wales. In political, social and economic terms, the year 1931 marked the end of the Victorian régime which had given Britain prosperity. Changed conditions forced it to accept some degree of economic nationalism, and free trade of the nineteenth-century form had departed for good. The corporate effort of total war had led, eventually, to a greater acceptance of the need to seek collectivist solutions to modern problems, like the onset of mass unemployment. Capital came more under state control and direction because it had to seek the support of the State more often. In addition, there was a collectivist stimulus to clearer thinking and Planning. This was to bear greater fruit later in the decade. It was no longer simply a matter of ameliorating the effects and defects of industrialisation, but of transforming industrialism itself.

Socialism, Parties & Patriotism:

Yet the phrase, ‘the new socialism’ remained a misnomer. Collectivist methods were used, not because they were deduced from a particular creed, but because they happened to meet a particular need. In accordance with its long-held secular practice, Britain and its people remained largely uninterested in political theory, accepting change when there was a compelling case for it, supported by clear evidence. Above all, the English working-class remained deeply patriotic, as did the Scots and the Welsh. In 1937, a Nottinghamshire coal miner recalled his interaction with a Socialist speaker earlier in the decade and how his admiration had turned to annoyance when the speaker had turned to this subject:

“What is this England you are supposed to love? It is only a tiny portion of the earth’s surface.  Why should you be expected to love it, or be prepared to die for it, any more than you would for Russia, China or Greenland?”

I was thunderstruck. “Because it’s England!” I yelled out in a fury.

Didn’t he know that most of the happiness that ever I had came from this love of England that he spoke so contemptuously about? Didn’t they know that in the early winter mornings when the frost glittered on the half frozen fields and the air was so clear and so sharp that it hurt one’s nostrils, or in the hot summer afternoons when the forest of Sherwood was quiet under the heavy heat except for the popping of the bursting broom-pods – that England spoke to you? How she told you the wonderful stories of famous men who fought and ruled and died because of their love for her. Of the simple men who toiled, ploughed, reaped, loved every handful of her brown soil and died still loving her.   

In political terms, then, what was this England, and this Britain? In the Twenties, it was more of a changing landscape than it had ever been. Urgent facts had played havoc with party creeds. At no time previously or since, at least until recently, had the party interest sunk so low. That was due to the fact that British democracy had become essentially plebiscitary since that advent of the universal franchise in 1928. The 1929 ‘flapper election’ was the first to become a real scramble for votes and gamble for votes in the first-past-the-post system, compared with the well-planned binary contests which had previously taken place, leading to the turn-taking between the Conservatives and Liberals. The ‘arrival’ of Labour was one of the disruptive factors in this, but perhaps the major factor was the fact that in a crisis like war or national bankruptcy the ordinary party business meant little. The King’s view that a national emergency should be faced by a united front, which was supported by his ministers and confirmed by the people in the 1931 Election, had proved to be correct. As George Orwell was later to observe, patriotism was a far more potent popular force than socialism could ever become in Britain. The Labour Party has always done best when it has demonstrated its understanding of what appeared to be a ‘natural’ force, and worst when the party’s leadership show contempt for it.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935.  London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (ed.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of Working-Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Press.

Richard Brown (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands of England, 1920-1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD thesis.

Posted December 31, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Austerity, Austria, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Conservative Party, David Lloyd George, democracy, Domesticity, Economics, Education, Edward VIII, Family, George V, Germany, History, Humanism, Jews, Labour Party, manufacturing, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Patriotism, Population, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Unionists, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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Amritsar, April 1919: Mass Murder in an Indian Garden – the Primary Sources.   Leave a comment

Background – The Rowlatt Act, ‘Satyagraha’ & ‘Hartal’:

13-14 April 1919 marks the centenary of the Massacre at Amritsar, India, a tragic event, the aftermath of which led to the growth and development of the Indian independence movement. Early in 1919, The Rowlatt Act was passed providing special powers to the Government to suppress movements aimed against the State. It authorised arrest and detention without trial of persons suspected of anti-government activities. Gandhi was recovering from a long illness which began with an acute attack of dysentery when he read in the papers the Rowlatt Committee’s report which had just been published. Its recommendations startled him. He went to Ahmedabad and mentioned his apprehensions to Vallabhbhai, who came to see him almost daily:

‘Something must be done,’ said I to him. ‘But what can we do in the circumstances?’ he asked in reply. I answered, ‘If even a handful of men can be found to sign the pledge of resistance, and the proposed measure is passed into law in defiance of it, we ought to offer Satyagraha at once. If I was not laid up like this, I should give battle against it all alone, and expect others to follow suit. But in my present condition I feel myself to be altogether unequal to the task.

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A small meeting of ‘satyagrahi’ was called. ‘Satyagraha’ meant ‘clinging to truth or spiritual force as against physical force’ or ‘non-violent resistance.’ Gandhi wrote in his ‘Experiments with Truth’ that:

A Satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws … that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just, and which are unjust and iniquitous. … My error lay in my failure to to observe this necessary limitation. I had called on the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had thus qualified themselves for it, and this mistake seemed to me of Himalayan magnitude. … I realised that before a people could be fit for for offering civil disobedience they should thoroughly understand its deeper implications. That being so, before re-starting civil disobedience on a mass scale, it would be necessary to create a band of well-tried, pure-hearted volunteers who thoroughly understood the strict conditions of Satyagraha. They could explain these to the people, and by sleepless vigilance, keep them on the right path. … Whilst this movement for the preservation of non-violence was making steady through slow progress on the one hand, the Government’s policy of lawless repression was in full career on the other. …

As all hope of any of the existing institutions adopting a novel weapon like Satyagraha seemed to Gandhi to be vain, a separate body called the ‘Satyagraha Sabha’ was established. However, it soon became apparent to him that some of its members were sceptical about his emphasis on ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence), but in its early stages, the movement quickly gained momentum. The Bill had not yet been enacted when, still in a very weak condition, Gandhi received an invitation to go to Madras, and he decided to take this risk of the long journey. Once there, he met daily with lawyers there to discuss plans for fighting back, but he could think of no other tactics than holding public meetings. He felt at a loss to discover how to offer civil disobedience against the Rowlatt Bill if it was finally passed into law. It could only be disobeyed if the government made room for disobedience. Failing that, could they disobey other laws and, if so, where was the line to be drawn? These and a host of other questions formed the basis of their discussions. While these went on, news reached them that the Rowlatt Bill had been published as an Act:

That night I fell asleep while thinking over the question. Towards the small hours of the morning I woke up somewhat earlier than usual. I was still in that twilight condition between sleep and consciousness when suddenly the idea broke upon me – it was as if in a dream. Early in the morning I related the whole story … “The idea came to me last night that we should call upon the country to observe a general ‘hartal’. Satyagraha is a process of self-purification, and ours is a sacred fight, and it seems to me to be in the fitness of things that it should be commenced with an act of self-purification. Let all the people of India, therefore, suspend their business on that day and observe the day as one of fasting and prayer. The Musalmans may not fast for more than one day; so the duration of the fast should be twenty-four hours. It is very difficult to say whether all the provinces would respond to this appeal of ours or not, but I feel fairly sure of Bombay, Madras, Bihar and Sindh. I think we should have every reason to feel satisfied even if all these places observe the ‘hartal’ fittingly.”

His colleagues were immediately taken up with his suggestion, and he drafted a brief appeal. The date of the ‘hartal’ was originally fixed for 30th March, but then subsequently moved to 6th April. This was still short notice, but as careful preparations had to begin at once, it was hardly possible to give a longer period of notice:

But who knows how it all came about? The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages, observed a complete ‘hartal’ that day. It was a most wonderful spectacle.

After a short tour in South India, ‘Gandhiji’ reached Bombay, where the ‘hartal’ was a complete success. It was decided that civil obedience might be ‘offered’ only in respect of those laws which easily lent themselves to being destroyed by the masses. The ‘Salt Tax’ was extremely unpopular and a powerful movement had been going on for some time to secure its repeal. Gandhi suggested that people might make salt from sea-water in their own houses in disregard of the salt laws. He carried on his campaign against the tax as it was the only product with which the poor could afford to make their rice gruel or bread palatable. Later, in 1930, when he started his Civil Disobedience campaign for Independence, he chose the salt laws for a violation on a nation-wide scale.

On the night of 7 April, he began his journey to Delhi and Amritsar. However, he was prevented from reaching his destinations. Before the train had reached Palwal station, he was served with a written order to the effect that he was prohibited from entering the boundary of the Punjab, as his presence there was likely to result in a disturbance of the peace. Asked by the police to get down from the train, he refused to do so, saying that he wanted to go to the Punjab “in response to a pressing invitation, not to foment arrest, but to allay it.” He was taken off the train and put under police custody before being returned to Mathura, where he was put into police barracks. At four o’clock the next morning he was woken up and put on a goods train that was going towards Bombay. There he was met by a vast, cheering crowd of people who had heard of his arrest. It was confronted by a body of mounted police, whose objective was to stop the procession from proceeding further in the direction of the Fort. The crowd was densely packed, and had almost broken through the police cordon:

There was hardly any chance of my voice being heard in that vast concourse. Just then the officer in charge of the mounted police gave the order to disperse the crowd, and at once (they) charged upon the crowd brandishing their lances as they went. For a moment I felt that I would be hurt. … the lances just grazed the car as the lancers swiftly passed by. The ranks of the people were soon broken, and they were thrown into utter confusion, which was soon converted into a rout. Some got trampled under foot, others were badly mauled and crushed. In that seething mass of humanity there was hardly any room for the horses to pass, nor was there any exit by which the people could disperse. So the lancers blindly cut their way through the crowd. I hardly imagine they could see what they were doing. The whole thing presented a most dreadful spectacle. The horsemen and the people were mixed together in mad confusion.

The crowd was therefore dispersed and its progress was prevented. When the car was allowed to proceed, Gandhi had it stopped outside the Commissioner’s office, where he went in to complain about the conduct of the police. He went on to address a meeting on the Chowpati sands, a popular beach in Bombay. He spoke at length about the duty of non-violence and on the limitations of ‘Satyagraha’:

Satyagraha is essentially a weapon of the truthful. A Satyagrahi is pledged to non-violence and, unless people observe it in thought, word and deed, I cannot offer mass Satyagraha.

12-13 April – Ahmedabad & Amritsar:

Having heard of disturbances in Ahmedabad, in which a sergeant had been ‘done to death’, Gandhi went there and learnt that a Government officer had been murdered in Viramgam and that Ahmedabad was under martial law. He wrote that ‘the people were terror-stricken: They had indulged in acts of violence and were being made to pay for them with interest.’ A police officer met him at the station and escorted him to meet the commissioner, who was ‘in a state of rage’. Gandhi told him that he thought that martial law was unnecessary, declaring his readiness to co-operate in all efforts to restore peace, including holding a public meeting. This was held on 13 April, and martial law was withdrawn on the same day or the day after. Addressing the meeting, Gandhi sought to bring home to the people the sense of their wrong by declaring a three-day penitential fast for himself, encouraging them to join him for a day during which those who were guilty of acts of violence would confess.

Meanwhile, in Amritsar, a city of 150,000 in the Punjab, the two ‘hartals’ were successful, stopping the business of the city without collision with the police and with no resort to violence. Five days after they began, Brigadier-General Reginald Edward Dyer of the British Army arrived in the city. He immediately issued a proclamation, on 12 April, prohibiting processions and meetings. The following day about twenty thousand people gathered for an already planned public meeting in a small garden square surrounded by houses in the middle of the city. General Dyer entered the square with his troops and ordered the people to disperse.

The Hunter Committee Inquiry Report:

The Hunter Committee, an official board of inquiry into what happened later stated,

From an examination of the map showing the different places where the proclamation was read, it is evident that in many parts of the city the proclamation was not read.

The Hunter Report then tells the story of what followed on 13 April:

About one o’clock, General Dyer heard that the people intended to hold a big meeting about four-thirty p.m. On being asked why he did not take measures to prevent its being held, he replied: ‘I went there as soon as I could. I had to think the matter out.’

The meeting took place at Jallianwala Bagh (a ‘bagh’ is a garden):

It is a rectangular piece of unused ground … almost entirely surrounded by walls of buildings. The entrances and exits to it are few and imperfect … At the end at which General Dyer entered there is a raised ground on each side of the entrance. A large crowd had gathered at the opposite end … and were being addressed by a man on a raised platform about one hundred and fifty yards from where General Dyer stationed his troops.

His troops consisted of twenty-five Gurkhas from Nepal; twenty-five Baluchis from Baluchistan armed with rifles; forty Gurkhas armed only with knives. In addition, he had two armoured cars. The Report contradicts the statement made above, claiming that:

Without giving the crowd any warning to disperse … he ordered his troops to fire and the firing continued for about ten minutes. … As soon the firing commenced the crowd began to disperse. … The firing was individual and not volley firing.

The earlier eye-witness report says that within two or three minutes of ordering the crowd to disperse, Dyer ordered his men to fire. As a result, about four hundred died and one or two thousand were wounded, it claims. The official report estimated that there were three times as many wounded as dead. This added up to 379 dead, plus 1,137 wounded, or 1,516 casualties with the 1,650 rounds fired. The crowd, penned in the low-lying garden, was quite literally a sitting (or kneeling) target. In his dispatch to his superior officer, quoted in the Hunter Report, General Dyer stated (with his emphasis):

It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect from a military point of view, not only on those who were present, but more especially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.

Testifying himself before the Hunter Committee, Gandhi was asked to elaborate his principle and practice of Passive Resistance, or ‘Satyagraha’. He had already explained that the method was the clearest and safest because if the cause was not true, it was the resisters, and they alone, who suffer:

Q. (Sir Chimanlal Setalvad): Who … is to determine the truth? A. (Gandhi): The individual himself would determine that. Q. Different individuals would have different views as to Truth. Would that not lead to confusion? A. I do not think so. Q. Honest striving after Truth is different in every case. A. That is why the non-violence … was … necessary. … Without that there would be confusion and worse.

 

Reflections on the Massacre:

Reflecting on the Amritsar events in a later edition of  ‘Young India’ (shown above) in December 1924, Gandhi wrote:

All terrorism is bad whether put up in a good cause or bad. Every cause is good in the estimation of its champion. General Dyer (and he had thousands of Englishmen and women who honestly thought with him) enacted Jallianwala Bagh for a cause which he undoubtedly believed to be good. He thought that by that one act he had saved English lives and the Empire. That it was all a figment of his imagination cannot affect the valuation of the intensity of his conviction. … In other words, pure motives can never justify impure or violent action.

The repressive side of British policy had reasserted itself in the Rowlatt Acts, which severely attenuated judicial procedures in suspected conspiracy cases; in the Amritsar massacre; and even more, perhaps, in the reaction to that massacre in Britain, where its perpetrator was mildly censured by the army, then virulently defended by his superiors, by the House of Lords, by much of the press, by most Conservative MPs, and by a large number of ordinary people who subscribed twenty-six thousand pounds in a month to a fund set up on his behalf by the ‘Morning Post’. For the more senior members of the British population, memories of the 1857 Indian ‘Mutiny’ were still powerful. Terrorism and rioting were apparent in other parts of India, even if the Punjab had been relatively calm. For many of those back home, if not the British in India, Dyer had ‘nipped in the bud’ these dangers, and they regarded the government’s treatment of him as ‘shabby’. In addition to the intense feeling that the massacre itself had created, the effect of all this on Indian nationalist opinion was disastrous. Gandhi made it the occasion for his first non-cooperation campaign. In India, as in Ireland, British repression only undid the gains made by the policy of concession and ‘dyarchy’.

LSF QPS I object to violence Gandhi LR

Dyer’s unnecessary massacre was the child of the British mentality then dominating India. Jallianwala Bagh quickened India’s political life and drew Gandhi more overtly into it. He became involved in Congress proceedings at Amritsar which convinced him that there were ‘one or two things for which perhaps I had some aptitude and which could be useful to the Congress.’ One of these was the memorial for the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. The Congress had passed a resolution for it amid great enthusiasm. A fund of about five ‘lakhs’ had to be collected for it. Gandhi was appointed as one of the trustees.

Sources:

Louis Fischer (1962), The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology – His Life, Work and Ideas. New York: Vintage Books.

Bharatan Kumarappa (ed.)(1952), Gandhiji’s Autobiography (Abridged). Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

What, When & Where Was Socialism?: Hungary & Europe.   Leave a comment

 

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Thirty Years After the Fall: Is Socialism Dead?

Júlia Tar’s recent piece on the Hungarian government’s online media outlet, Hungary Today, points out that 2019 is the anniversary of not one, but three remarkable events of the 20th century: NATO’s 70th anniversary; Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic’s 20th anniversary since joining NATO, and the thirtieth anniversary of dismantlement of the Iron Curtain and of the Berlin Wall. According to Eugene Megyesy, the former Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister of Hungary and a Member of the Board of Trustees of the Friends of Hungary Foundation, publisher of Hungary Today, we might not have learned from these historical events. 1956 was a significant year for Hungary because of its revolt against the Soviet Union and dictatorial communism. The revolt was followed by the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Polish Solidarity movement in the early 1980s. Then,

Hungary opened the Iron Curtain toward Austria, allowing East Germans to flee the oppression of the Utopian socialist system, thereby rendering the Berlin Wall obsolete.

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This was on 11 September 1989 (not June, as stated), when a courageous decision was taken at the urging of leading Socialist reformers in the government like Imre Pozsgay, and in spite of threats of invasion from Berlin. By November, the Berlin Wall had itself been destroyed. In summarising Megyesy’s ‘view’, Tar claims that…

… socialism was always built on the promises of a Utopian system, equality and the ability to solve all social problems (“heaven on earth”).

Eugene Megyesy warns that this is happening again in some countries:

Sadly, there are politicians and bureaucrats in Washington and Brussels, supported by ivory tower academics, media pundits and Hollywood luminaries, who believe socialism is viable.

Megyesy urges today’s generation to look back and think about whether socialism was ever successful. It may have been, but only for a limited period of time. He cites the unsustainability of the capitalism-backed socialistic systems in the Scandinavian countries as an example. In Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela, it is even worse and only serves to highlight the gap between the poor and the leaders living in luxury, Megyesy explains. Before socialism, Venezuela was one of the richest countries; now it’s one of the poorest. According to Megyesy, socialism means…

… control over all means of production and the redistribution of wealth by the government.

Definitions and Debates:

But not every ‘socialist’ today would agree with this definition, and especially the idea that public control means control by the central or federal government. Neither does this interpretation match those of the multifarious strands of socialism in western Europe which developed from the middle of the nineteenth century. To define socialism and understand its roots, a longer and broader view is necessary, not just one which draws conclusions based on events since the spread of Stalinism across eastern Europe, or which focuses on recent events in North Korea or Venezuela for evidence of the failings of the Utopian Socialist system. Many of the twentieth century’s ‘dystopias’ may have had their origins among the nineteenth century ‘isms’, as in previous centuries they were often the product of misguided Christian millenarianism, like ‘anti-Semitism’, but that does not mean that we should simply discard the thinking of the philosophers and political economists who developed their detailed critiques of capitalism any more than we should reject two millennia of Christian theology. After all, as Marx himself noted, philosophers only interpret the world: the point is to change it. 

In seeking to change its own world, each new generation must produce its own reinterpretation of the ideas handed down to it from past generations and come up with its own solutions to its own moral dilemmas and social problems. That is, in essence, what socialism means to me. We should neither rely on theories from posterity nor reject them out of hand as if all who came before us were thieves and robbers. We can only learn from the past by giving it a fair hearing, remembering as the novelist J P Hartley famously wrote, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. We are solely responsible for our own ‘country’ in equity

the ‘present’, and for not learning from our own mistakes in its past. In this context, and according to the eminent ‘man of letters’ of the twentieth century, Raymond Williams (1983), ‘Socialist’ emerged as a philosophical description in the early nineteenth century. In that century and beyond, it could be used in two ways, which have had profound effects on the use of the term by radically different political tendencies. Of course, social was the merely descriptive term for a society in its now predominant sense of the system of common life; a social reformer wished to reform this system. But ‘social’ was also …

… an emphatic and distinguishing term, explicitly contrasted with ‘individual’ and ‘individualist’ theories of society.

Naturally, there has always been a great deal of interaction and overlap between these two meanings, but their varying effect can be seen in the beginning in the formation of the term. In the first sense, it was viewed as an extension of ‘liberalism’ as it referred to radical political reform of the social order, in order to develop, extend and secure the main liberal values for all members of society; political freedom, the ending of privileges and formal inequalities, social justice (conceived as ‘equity’ between different individuals and groups). In the second sense, it was seen as the ‘enemy’ of competitive, individualist forms of society, specifically industrial capitalism with its system of wage-labour. Truly social forms depended on practical co-operation and mutuality, which in turn could not be achieved while there was still private (individual) ownership of the means of production. Real freedom could not be achieved, basic equalities could not be ended, social justice (conceived as a just social order rather than simply ‘equity’ between individuals) could not be established unless a society based on private property was replaced by one based on social ownership and control.

H. G. Wells, writing his well-known book in 1922, A Short History of the World, expressed the dichotomy in the following terms:

On the one hand are the individualists, who would protect and enlarge our present freedoms with what we possess, and on the other hand the socialists, who would pool our ownerships and restrain our proprietary acts. In practice one will find every graduation between the extreme individualist, who will scarcely tolerate a tax of any sort to support a government, and the communist, who would deny any possessions at all. The ordinary socialist of today is what is called a collectivist; he would allow a considerable amount of private property, but put such affairs as education, transport, mines, land-owning, most mass production of staple articles, and the like, into the hands of a highly organised state. Nowadays there does seem to be a gradual convergence of reasonable men towards a scientifically studied and planned socialism.  

The resulting controversy among the many groups and tendencies all calling themselves ‘socialist’ has been, long, intricate and frequently bitter. Each main tendency has developed alternative, often derogatory terms for the others. But until circa 1850, the word was too new and too general to have any predominant use. The earliest known use in English is in Hazlitt’s On Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen (1826), in which he recalls a conversation from 1809 in writing those profound and redoubted socialists, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. There is also a contemporary use in the 1827 Owenite Co-operative Magazine. Its first recorded political use in French dates from 1833. However, ‘socialisme’ was first used in 1831 in the more generic meaning, and Owen’s New Moral World also contains a similar use. Given the intense political climate in both France and England in the 1820s and 30s, these references provide a sense of the period in which the word came into ‘common coinage’. It could not have been known at that time which meaning of the word would come through as dominant. It was a period of very rapid developments in political discourse, and until well into the 1840s there were a number of alternative words for ‘socialist’, some of which were in more common usage: co-operative, mutualist, associationist, societarian, phalansterian, agrarian, radical. As late as 1848 Webster’s (AmE) Dictionary defined ‘socialism’ as ‘a new term for agrarianism’. By that time in Europe, especially in France and Germany, and to a lesser extent in Britain, both ‘socialist’ and ‘socialism’ were common terms.

One alternative term, Communist, had begun to be used in France and England by the 1840s, but the sense of the word varied according to particular national contexts. In England in the 1840s, communist had strong religious associations, dating back to the Puritan sects of the seventeenth century. Thus its use was distinct from the secular word ‘socialist’ as used by Robert Owen, which was sometimes avoided for that reason. ‘Communism’ before Marx meant the primitive form practised in the early church when the followers of Jesus ‘held all things in common’. The ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’ of the English Commonwealth similarly wanted to abolish private property and social distinctions altogether. In the nineteenth century, their ideological ‘descendants’ believed this could only happen if a democratic state was to own all property. The French ‘anarchist’ philosopher Proudhon wrote that all property is theft. But the development of political ideas in France and Germany were different; so much so that Engels, in his Preface of 1888, looking back to the Communist Manifesto which he and Marx had written in 1848, observed:

We could not have called it a ‘Socialist’ manifesto. In 1847, Socialism was a middle-class movement. Socialism was, on the continent at least, respectable; Communism was the very opposite.

For a time, the stresses between employers and employees led to the worldwide dissemination of the very harsh and elementary form of communism which is associated with Karl Marx in particular. However, we need to view Marx’s political economy in its proper context as an integral shift in thinking about how to interpret the new industrial world which had grown up ‘like Topsy’ around the common man. It was only as the nineteenth century developed, according to H. G. Wells, that:

… men began to realise that property was not one simple thing but  a great complex of ownerships of different values and consequences … that there is a very great range of things, railways, machinery of various sorts, homes, cultivated gardens, pleasure-boats, for example, which need each to be considered very particularly to determine how far and under what limitations it may come under private ownership, and how far it falls into the public domain and may be administered and let out by the state in the collective interest. 

Socialism and Communism in Europe, 1871-1918:

Across the continent, the relative militancy associated with the word communist was further strengthened by the very visual effect of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted below), though there was a significant argument as to whether the correct term to be derived from the event was Communist or Communard. For at least a ten-year period, the word Syndicalist became at least as important across Europe as a whole. It described the development of industrial trades unionism as a revolutionary force which would overthrow the capitalist system through the use of the General Strike and revolutionary violence in general. The word appeared in French in 1904 and in English in 1907; but it went through varying combinations with anarchism (in its stress on mutuality) and socialism, especially with Guild Socialism and Cooperative movements, emphasising the important interests of the consumer in economic models for the future.

The Commune as Seen by Jacques Tardi (“Le cri du peuple”), 2002.

The decisive distinction between ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ came with the renaming, in 1918, of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party as the All-Russian Communist Party (the ‘majority’ or Bolsheviks). From that time on, a distinction of ‘socialist’ from ‘communist’, often with supporting terms and adjectives such as ‘social democrat’ or ‘democratic socialist’ came into common currency, although it is significant that all ‘communist’ parties, especially in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its ‘satellite’ states, continued to describe themselves as ‘socialist’ and dedicated to ‘socialism’. This is one reason why, in central-eastern Europe, socialism is still viewed by many as synonymous with communism in contrast to the use of the word throughout the rest of Europe. That does not mean, however, that the history of socialist and social democratic parties in southern, western and northern Europe can simply be tarnished with the same brush of the ‘Stalinist’ past, as Medgyesy and other politicians have attempted to do in the run-up to this year’s European Parliament elections. Even Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission and a member of the conservative European People’s Party has been characterised as a ‘socialist’ in the Hungarian press and media.

The First Hungarian Republic, the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ & the Horthy Era, 1918-44:

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The Proclamation of Mihály Károlyi as President of the new Republic of Hungary.

Elsewhere on this site, I have written about the roots and development of liberal democracy in Hungary, and of how both of these have been fractured by various forms of authoritarianism and dictatorship, more recently of a populist variety. Yet even in Hungary, we can trace the origins of socialist movements back to 1907, when a series of strikes and disturbances among both the urban and rural workers. But the promise of electoral reform, for which a crowd of a hundred thousand demonstrated for a second time on ‘Red Thursday’, 10th October 1907, came to nothing when Andrássy’s modest bill expanding the suffrage was rejected by the Hungarian parliament. Seven years later, the Social Democrats, as elsewhere in Europe, supported the patriotic war effort, perhaps hoping for democratic concessions in return. Following the Revolution of November 1918, with the establishment of a republic ruled by a National Council, the Károlyi government embarked on the programme of social and political reforms it had announced. These were badly needed, given the explosive atmosphere in the country. There was no political force in Hungary at the time that would have been able to answer all of the conflicting interests and expectations of these turbulent times. Although the elections to the new national assembly were conducted on the basis of a franchise including half the population, second only those in Scandinavia at that time, the effects of progressive social legislation, including the introduction of unemployment benefit and the eight-hour working day, the abolition of child labour and the extension of insurance schemes, could not yet be felt. The political scene became polarised, involving the appearance of radical movements both on the Right and the Left.

The streets, for the time being, belonged to the political Left. Appeals of moderate Social Democratic ministers to order and patience evoked the contrary effect and served to alienate the disaffected masses from them. Their new heroes were the Communists, organised as a party on 24 November 1918 and led by Béla Kun. He was a former journalist and trades unionist, who had recently returned from captivity in Russia, where he had become convinced of the superiority of the system of Soviets to parliamentary democracy.  Communist propaganda also promised an end to all exploitation through the nationalisation of property, as well as international stability through the fraternity of Soviet republics which were prophesied to arise all over Europe. Within a few weeks, this attractive utopia, underpinned by well-designed social demagogy, had earned the Communists a membership of about forty thousand. Their supporters, several times that number, mobilised among the marginalised masses and the younger members of the intelligentsia, susceptible to revolutionary romanticism. By January 1919, a wave of strikes had swept across the country, in the course of which factories, transport and communication installations were occupied; in addition, land seizures and attempts to introduce collective agriculture marked the communist initiative, which also included the demand not only to eradicate all remnants of feudalism, but also the proclamation of a Hungarian Soviet Republic, and a foreign policy seeking the friendship of Soviet Russia instead of the Entente powers.

While the radicals on both the Right and the Left openly challenged the fundamental tenets of the Károlyi government, his Independence Party evaporated around him. Unhappy with the reform projects which Károlyi embraced and seemed too radical for them, most of the Independent ministers left the government, leaving the Social Democrats as the main government party. But they were struggling helplessly to tame their own radical left, who effectively constituted an internal opposition to the government, and gravitated towards the Communists. On 21 March 1919, the Social Democrats accepted the invitation to take sole responsibility for the government, but only to accelerate and conclude negotiations with the imprisoned Communist leaders about forming a united workers’ party. A new government, the Revolutionary General Council, presided over by a Social Democrat but in effect led by Béla Kun, was formed on the same day, with the declared aim of establishing a Leninist ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

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Certainly, the measures introduced by the Revolutionary government went beyond anything attempted in Soviet Russia at that time. The counterpart of these measures in the administrative and political reorganisation of the country was the replacement of old local, municipal and county bureaucracies with soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers. A ‘Committee of Public Safety’ was organised to put pressure on the civilian population where it was needed in order to maintain the dictatorship of the proletariat, its head, Tibor Szamuely travelling in his ‘death train’ to trouble spots in order to preside in summary courts, assisted by the notorious ‘Lenin Boys’, created to supplement the ‘Red Guard’, which took over the ordinary functions of the police and gendarmerie. Besides common murders of actual or alleged enemies by the ‘élite detachments, some 120 death sentences were meted out by the tribunals for political reasons.

The great momentum of the changes was partly intended to convince people that the realisation of the ‘socialist utopia’ was imminent. Social policy measures, the expected alleviation of housing shortages through public ownership of accommodation in a country flooded by refugees, the nationalisation of large firms, improved educational opportunities, the more effective supply of food and consumer goods through rationing and supervised distribution met with widespread approval, especially among the urban population. The intellectual élite, who had applauded the democratic reforms of the autumn of 1918, was initially also allured by the attractive goals of the Soviet Republic. They not only included known Marxists like György Lukács, the writer, who became People’s Commissar for Education, but also members of the Nyugati (Western) Circle, who held positions in the Directorate for Literature, and Bartók and Kodály, who became members of the one for music. Gradually, however, these figures became disaffected, as did the intelligentsia and middle classes in general and the leaders of the October 1918 democratic revolution, some of whom emigrated the following summer. By then, the historian Gyula Székfű, who was appointed professor at the University of Budapest, was already at work on his highly influential Three Generations (1920), in which he was hostile not only towards the communist revolution but also towards democracy and liberalism, which he blamed for paving the way for Kun’s régime.

The revolution and the village were unable to come to terms with each other. Despite the steady urbanisation of the previous half-century, Hungary still remained a largely agricultural country, especially after much of its towns were taken away by occupation even before the Treaty of Trianon of 1920. Besides being economically unsound the amidst the shortage of raw materials and fuel to supply machinery supposedly more efficient large-scale co-operatives than in smallholdings, the nationalisation scheme embittered not only the smallholders themselves, who actually lost land, but also the landless peasants, domestic servants and the agricultural labourers whose dreams of becoming independent farmers were thwarted by the same urban revolutionaries who had formerly encouraged land seizures. Decrees regarding the compulsory delivery of agricultural surplus and requisitioning further undermined whatever popularity the government still enjoyed in the countryside. It blamed the food shortages on the peasantry, which exacerbated the already existing rift between town and country, and served as a pretext for further central control of the economy. The anti-clerical measures taken by the government also annoyed the traditionally devout peasants, concerned about the security of ‘the family hearth’.

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All of this made the communists more susceptible to counter-revolutionary propaganda, which did not fail to emphasise the foreign (that is, Jewish) character of the revolution (over half of the commissars were indeed of Jewish ethnicity). An ‘Anti-Bolshevik’ Committee was set up in Vienna in April by representatives of nearly all the old parties led by Count István Bethlen, and a counter-revolutionary government was set up at Arad on 5 May, later moving to Szeged. Paradoxically, the Soviet Republic was maintained in power for over four months, despite the increasingly dictatorial means it employed, mainly by the temporary successes it scored on the nationalities’ issue; it collapsed not in the face of internal counter-revolution but when its military position against the allies of the Entente in the region became untenable. The Entente powers, gathered at the Paris Peace Conference, sent General Smuts, the prime minister of South Africa, to Budapest, mainly to obtain reliable first-hand information about the situation there in April 1919. Smuts concluded that Hungary truly had a government of Bolshevik character, which gave weight to the French Prime Minister Clemenceau’s proposal to suppress German revanchist designs as well as the spread of Soviet communism into Western Europe by a cordon sanitaire established out of the new states of Central Europe. Harold Nicolson, the young British diplomat who accompanied Smuts on the train leaving Paris on April Fools’ Day, wrote about these concerns about the Germans turning to Bolshevism in a letter to his wife Vita (pictured below, together in Paris):

They have always got the trump card, i.e. Bolshevism – and they will go the moment they feel it is hopeless for them to get good terms. 

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Small wonder, therefore, that Béla Kun’s strike for communism triggered many anxious moments for the Supreme Council. The negotiations were conducted from the wagon-lit of Smuts’ train at the Eastern Station in Budapest, so as not to imply recognition of the régime, encircled by Red Guards with ‘fixed bayonets and scarlet brassards’. They centred on whether or not the Hungarian Bolsheviks would accept the Allies’ armistice terms, which would commit them to accept considerable territorial losses. As they hesitated, Harold decided to explore Budapest, a city he had grown up in before the war. He was alarmed and saddened by what he saw:

‘The whole place is wretched – sad – unkempt.’ He took tea at the Hungaria, Budapest’s leading hotel. Although it had been ‘communised’, it flew ‘a huge Union Jack and Tricoleur’, a gesture of good intent. Red Guards with bayonets patrolled the hall, but in the foyer what remained of Budapest society ‘huddled sadly together with anxious eyes and a complete, ghastly silence’, sipping their lemonade ‘while the band played’. ‘I shudder and feel cold,’ Harold remarked. ‘We leave as soon as possible. Silent eyes search out at us as we go.’

Kun desperately needed allied recognition of his government, but he inserted a clause into Smuts’ draft agreement that the Romanian forces should withdraw to a line east of the neutral zone established by the 1918 Armistice, in effect to evacuate Transylvania. Smuts would not countenance this, however, and the Bolsheviks were ‘silent and sullen’. Nicolson wrote that they looked like convicts standing before the Director of the Prison. Smuts concluded that ‘Béla Kun is just an incident and not worth taking seriously’. This proved to be only too true, as on 10 April, only a day after Harold’s account to Vita, a provisional government was set up in Budapest seeking to reinstate the old ruling Hungarian cliques. On 1 August, Kun fled the capital in the face of invading Romanian armies. He ended his days in Russia, dying in 1936, ironically as the victim of one of Stalin’s innumerable purges. The world revolution that was expected to sweep away the corrupt bourgeois politicians of the peace conference and their allies spluttered to a halt. The Bavarian Soviet Republic, proclaimed on 7 April, hardly survived into May and the communist putsch planned by Kun’s agents in Vienna on 15 June also failed. Meanwhile, General Deniken’s counter-revolutionary offensive in Russia thwarted hopes of help from across the Carpathians.

Facing an ever more turbulent domestic situation marked by widespread peasant unrest and an uprising of the students of the military academy in Budapest, the Revolutionary government, after heated debates, decided to give in to the demands of the Peace Conference, withdrawing Hungarian forces from Slovakia behind the demarcation line at the end of June. Aurél Stromfeld, who as Chief of the General Staff led the Red Army into Slovakia which led to the short-lived Soviet Republic proclaimed there on 16 June, resigned in protest against the ‘capitulation’. Some of his generals now started to join the National Army, organised by the counter-revolutionary government in Szeged, under the command of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the last commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian navy. When the Romanians refused to retreat behind the neutral zone as envisaged, the Red Army launched a surprise offensive along the River Tisza. The initial advance was aborted, however, and ended in a disorderly flight of the Red Army. On 1 August, with the Romanian forces threatening to occupy the Hungarian capital, the commissars handed back power to the Social Democrats on the advice of trade union leaders that the creation of a government acceptable to the Entente powers was the only way to avoid complete foreign occupation. The next day, a government led by the trade unionist leader Gyula Peidl, who had refused to accept the creation of a united workers’ party, took office.

Although it promised to end the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ while at the same time defying a conservative restoration, the new government was still regarded as crypto-Bolshevik not only by conservatives but also by Liberals, peasant democrats and Christian Socialists. It also failed to gain support from the Entente. Assisted by the Romanian army, occupying Budapest, a coup forced the government to resign on 6 August. The government headed by István Friedrich, immediately set about annulling all the measures associated with the Soviet Republic, especially the nationalisation process. It also dismantled all the major social reforms of the democratic revolution, including those associated with individual civil liberties. Revolutionary tribunals were replaced by counter-revolutionary ones, packing prisons with workers, poor peasants and intellectuals, and by the beginning of 1920 it had passed roughly as many death sentences as had the lackeys of the ‘red terror’, the ‘Lenin Boys’. The intellectual élite of the country suffered a serious blow. Bartók and Kodály were prosecuted, Móricz was imprisoned and several dozen left the country, including Lukács, Mannheim and Korda. Horthy’s ‘National Army’, now transferred to Transdanubia, controlled and gave orders to local authorities and its most notorious detachments were instruments of naked terror. In three months, they may have killed as many as two thousand suspected former Soviet members, Red Army soldiers, and ordinary Jews who were in no way associated with the proletarian dictatorship. Besides executions and lynchings, about seventy thousand people were imprisoned or sent to internment camps during these few months.

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Despite the protests of the Social Democrats and other left-wing forces, the occupying Romanian forces were replaced by Horthy’s National Army in Budapest. His speech before the notables of the capital stigmatised it as ‘the sinful city’ that had rejected its glorious past, Holy Crown and national colours for the sake of red rags. This suited an atmosphere in which most of the remaining adherents of the democratic revolution as well as the communist one were neutralised in one way or another. The returning conservatives promised to heal the country’s war-wounds by returning it to order, authority and the mythical ‘Christian-national system of values’. Sir George Clerk, the leader of the Peace Conference’s mission to Budapest in October 1919, abandoned his initial insistence that the Social Democrats and the Liberals should have an important role in a coalition government. As Horthy commanded the only troops capable of maintaining order and was ready to subordinate them to government control, it had to be acceptable to Horthy personally and the military in general. As a result, the cabinet formed by Károly Huszár on 24 November 1919 was one in which the Christian National Unity Party and other conservative-agrarian groups prevailed over those of the Independent Smallholder Party, the Social Democrats and the Liberals. Even though the great powers insisted that voting should take place by universal and secret ballot, the circumstances were unfavourable to fulfilling any illusion of a democratic outcome. Terrorist actions by detachments of the National Army and the recovering extreme right-wing organisations, designed to intimidate the candidates and voters for the Social Democrats, Smallholders and Liberals, led to the former boycotting the elections of January 1920 and withdrawing from the political arena until mid-1922.

On 1 March 1920, the army occupied the square in front of the Parliament building, and, accompanied by his officers, Horthy entered and, according to medieval precedent, was ‘elected’ Regent, with strong Presidential powers. This signalled the end of Hungary’s own short experiment with democratic socialism, following its even briefer experience of home-grown communism. Count Pál Teleki and Count István Bethlen, the dominant political figures of inter-war Hungary, both from Transylvanian aristocratic families, argued that the immediate post-war events had shown that the country was not yet ready to graft full democracy onto the parliamentary system. They advocated a limited ‘conservative democracy’, guided by the landed gentry and the aristocracy, as the proper response of the region to the challenges of the democratic age. They opposed all endeavours aimed at the radical extension of the liberal rights enshrined in the parliamentarism of the dualist. Liberal democracy seemed to them a mechanical application of the majority principle, undermining political responsibility and stability. They despised communism and were suspicious of social democracy because of its antipathy to private property. But they also opposed the right-wing radical and fascist trends epitomised by Gyula Gömbös and other ‘protectors of the race’ who thought that the parliamentary system had outlived its usefulness and ought to be replaced by an authoritarian rule which would facilitate a redistribution of economic functions in favour of the Hungarian Christian middle classes and away from the ‘foreign’ bourgeoisie (in other words, the Jews).

The fundamental character which the political system of the country retained until the German occupation of 1944 had emerged by 1922 as a result of Bethlenite consolidation. Hungary became a parliamentary state with strong elements of authoritarianism and a hegemonistic party structure, in which the institutions inherited from the liberal era were operated in an anti-democratic fashion. The government acknowledged a lawful political opposition, consisting on the left of Social Democrats, bourgeois liberals and, after 1930 a rejuvenated Independent Smallholder Party; and on the right of different groups of Christian Socialists as well as right radicals. One of the most important developments in the intellectual life of the Horthy era was the development of ‘populist’ writers, predominantly young and of peasant origin, who wrote ethnographically-based pieces revealing the economic and intellectual poverty of life in rural Hungary and drawing the attention of the ruling classes to the need for change. In ideological terms, some of them, most notably László Németh, advocated a ‘third way’ for Hungary between East and West, or between Soviet collectivism and capitalist individualism. Some, including Gyula Illyés and Ferenc Erdei, sympathised with socialism. Their top priority was the improvement in the lot of the poor peasantry through a genuine redistribution of land among them. But their willingness to engage with both the extreme Left and the extreme Right, as well as their emphasis on the ‘village’ as the root of ‘Hungarianness’, with its anti-Semitic overtones, led it into conflict with more cosmopolitan democrats and ‘urbanist’ intellectuals. This was symptomatic of a broader and longer-term division among Hungarian progressives which survived the attempts of even the Soviet communists to homogenise Hungarian society as well as the post-1989 transition to democracy and is resurgent in the propaganda of the current right-wing populist era.

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The Second Hungarian Republic & The Eras of Rákosi & Kádár, 1945-1989:

The second Republic of 1945 was equally as brittle as that which followed the First World War, ending in a Soviet-style government which lasted more than forty years. By the time of the elections of November 1945, the communist vanguard, which had numbered only three thousand a year before, had managed to create a mass party of half a million members as a result of an unscrupulous recruiting campaign. Unlike the Social Democrats, they did not mention socialism as being even their strategic goal, and their rhetoric concentrated mainly on the pressing tasks of reconstruction combined with reform. Their avowed programme was essentially the same as the Independence Front; however, they did not refrain from occasionally playing nationalist tunes. Workers and smallholding peasants out of conviction, intellectuals out of idealism, civil servants out of fear and opportunism, all augmented the party ranks; the surviving Jews of Budapest joined out of gratitude to their liberators and their search for a new experience of community. Besides boasting an ever-growing influence on its own, the Communist Party was also able to manipulate the other parties of the Left. The Social Democratic Party, whose 350,000 strong membership possessed a powerful working-class consciousness, found it increasingly difficult to resist the call of the Communists for working-class unity. Together with the National Peasant Party, the Social Democrats chose to join the Communists in the Left-Wing Bloc on 5 March 1946, following the elections of the previous November which was won by the Smallholder Party, who collected fifty-seven per cent of the votes, with both the Social Democrats and the Communists polling seventeen per cent each, and the National Peasant Party a mere seven percent.

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‘Forward to Peace & Socialism!’ The Young Pioneers’ Congress.

The elections themselves, by secret ballot and without a census, were the freest ever to be held in Hungary until 1990. Cardinal Mindszenty, the head of the Hungarian Catholic hierarchy, had condemned the ‘Marxist evil’ in a pastoral letter and called upon the faithful to support the Smallholders. Whatever the voters made of this intervention, the verdict of 4.8 million of them, over ninety per cent of the enfranchised, clearly showed their preference for the return of parliamentary democracy based on support for private property and the market economy over socialism with state management and central economic planning. But then the Smallholders gave in to Soviet pressure for the formation of a ‘grand coalition’ in which the communists were able to preserve the gains they had already secured and to secure a firm base from which they were gradually able to bully their way to power by 1949. After the tribulations of the Rákosi dictatorship, it was not surprising that, in 1956, what was initially a struggle between ‘reform’ communists and orthodox within the party, set off by and adjusting to changes in Moscow, and in the meantime itself triggering off a growing ferment among the intelligentsia, became a national anti-Soviet uprising. The events which began, from 20 October onwards, with meetings and demonstrations at the universities in Budapest and the provinces, culminating with a peaceful demonstration in support of Gomulka’s reforms in Poland on 23rd, became a ‘revolution’ when the crowd successfully laid siege to the radio station and fighting began the next day between Soviet tanks and young working-class ‘guerillas’ whom even the restored Prime Minister referred to as ‘counter-revolutionaries’ at this stage.

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All the insurgents agreed about was their desire to return national sovereignty and to put an end to arbitrary rule. They did not call for a reversal of nationalisation or a return to the pre-1945 order.  As fighting continued, by 28 October, Nagy had dropped the label ‘counter-revolution’ and started to talk about a ‘national democratic movement’, acknowledging the revolutionary bodies created during the previous days. The Hungarian Workers’ (Communist) Party was reformed as the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) and the old coalition parties became active again, including the Social Democrats. After his initial uncertainty, the PM kept pace with developments on the streets, closing the gap between himself and the insurgents step by step. His changes culminated in the formation of a new multi-party cabinet on 2 November, including reform Communist, Social Democrat (Anna Kéthély, below), Smallholder and Peasant Party members.

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However, this consolidation of power by a now avowedly ‘Revolutionary Government’ involved the collapse of the whole system of institutions of the party-state on which the cohesion of the Soviet bloc rested, and this was unacceptable for the Moscow leadership, Khrushchev included. It could not afford to lose a country of Hungary’s strategic location and mineral wealth from among its satellite states. But it was the radicalisation of the revolution in Budapest which made it impossible for a compromise deal to be struck. After announcing the formation of the MSZMP, also declaring himself to be in favour of neutrality and willing to fight in the streets, János Kádár left Parliament on 1 November for the Soviet Embassy. He quickly found himself in Moscow where he became the latest figure selected by the politburo to steer Hungary on a course acceptable to them. Having accepted this assignment, he entered Budapest with his cabinet in Soviet tanks on 7 November.

Although the pockets of armed resistance had been mopped up by 11 November, the most peculiar forms of the revolution, the workers’ councils, started to exert their true impact after 4 November, with an attempt to organise a nationwide network. Initially set up as strike committees, their basic idea was self-management in the factory, owned principally by the workers. On the initiative of the workers’ councils, a massive wave of strikes lasted into January 1957. The intellectuals, rallying mainly in the Writers’ Association, the students’ committees and the Journalists’ Association, founded the Revolutionary Council of the Hungarian Intelligentsia, chaired by composer Zoltán Kodály, which demanded the restoration of the country’s sovereignty and representative government. These movements marked out the Revolution as more than simply a defeated National Uprising. They were clearly socialist in their aims and membership. Kádár, on the other hand, did not have a clear policy to cope with this situation. The government programme which he drafted while still in Moscow, included promises of welfare measures, workers’ self-management and policies to aid the peasantry and small-scale enterprises. But these were clearly not the reasons for his ‘appointment’ by his Moscow patrons. To begin with, he was too busy organising special police forces for the purposes of retaliation and repression to spend time setting out policies. Although he negotiated with the leaders of the Budapest Workers’ Council on 22 November, on the previous day the special police squads prevented the creation of a National Workers’ Council and in early December, two hundred members of the movement were arrested on the same day that saw the abduction of Nagy and his associates.

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The revolutionary committees which had been set up were dissolved, and the police shot dead nearly a hundred demonstrators in Sálgotorján, Miskolc and Eger. The ideological justification for these actions and the continuing repression and the impending campaign of retaliation was created at a party conference which identified the causes of the October Uprising as the mistakes of the Rákosi-Gerő faction on the one hand and, on the other, the undermining of the party by ‘Nagy circle’ leading to a capitalist-feudal counter-revolution of Horthyite fascism… supported by international imperialism. Given the trauma created by the revolution, its repression and the retaliation which followed in 1956-58, it is not surprising that Hungarian society was in the mood for Kádár’s Realsozialismus, based on his personalised creed that the ‘little man’ was interested simply in a decent living, instead of the great political issues of the day. He used the scope created by the ruins of the revolt on which he built his power to buy the complicity of Hungarians by unorthodox methods. In November 1962, Kádár somewhat pompously announced that the foundations of socialism in Hungary had been laid and that the construction of socialism was an all-national task, dependent on co-operation between Communists and non-party members, irrespective of personal convictions. There was to be no ‘class war’; this was what became known as the ‘Kádár doctrine’. These were the foundations of the ‘Hungarian model’, often referred to as ‘Gulyás communism’ in the 1970s, which was a far cry from utopian models. With characteristic persistence, Kádár managed to earn legitimacy, retaining it until it became apparent in the 1980s that Realsozialismus was not a functioning system, but merely ‘the longest path from capitalism to capitalism’.

Conclusion: The End of ‘Class-War’ Socialism?

In late 1946 a group of historians, friends and members of the Communist Party started regularly meeting in Marx’s House in London, picture here.

Marx House (Memorial Library) in London.

Marx (before ‘Marxism’) based his theories on a belief that men’s minds are limited by their economic circumstances and that there is a necessary conflict of interests in our present civilization between the prosperous and employing classes of people and the employed masses. With the advance in education necessitated by the mechanical revolution, this great employed majority would become more and more class-conscious and more and more solid in antagonism to the ruling minority. In some way the class-conscious workers would seize power, he prophesied, and inaugurate a new social state. The antagonism, the insurrection, the possible revolution are understandable enough, but it did not follow that a new social state or anything but a socially destructive process would ensue. Marx sought to replace national antagonism by class antagonisms, but it is interesting to see how the two lines of thought, so diverse in spirit, so different in substance as this class-war socialism of the Marxists and the individualistic theory and socialist theory have continued to be part of a common search for more spacious social and political ideas and interpretations. In the long history of socialism in western Europe, as contrasted with the seventy years of Soviet-style Communism, the logic of reality has usually triumphed over the logic of theory.

Sources:

László Kontler (2001), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.

H. G. Wells (1922, 1946), A Short History of the World. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

  

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Borderlines: Remembering Sojourns in Ireland.   Leave a comment

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Edited by Sam Burnside, published by Holiday Projects West, Londonderry, 1988.

The recent ‘Brexit’ negotiations over the issue of the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have made me think about my two visits to the island as an adult, in 1988 and 1990, a decade before the Belfast talks led to the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. I had been to Dublin with my family in the early sixties, but recalled little of that experience, except that it must have been before 1966, as we climbed Nelson’s Column in the city centre before the IRA blew it up to ‘commemorate’ the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. I had never visited Northern Ireland, however.

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Nelson’s Column in the centre of Dublin in 1961.

A Journey to Derry & Corrymeela, June 1988:

In June 1988, while working for the Quakers in Selly Oak, Birmingham, I drove a group of students from Westhill College to Corrymeela, a retreat and reconciliation centre in the North. We drove to Belfast, being stopped by army blockades and visiting the Shankill and the Falls Road, witnessing the murals and the coloured curb-stones. Political violence in Belfast had largely been confined to the confrontation lines where working-class unionist districts, such as the Shankill, and working-class nationalist areas, such as the Falls, Ardoyne and New Lodge, border directly on one another (see the map below). We also visited Derry/ Londonderry, with its wall proclaiming ‘You are now entering Free Derry’, and with its garrisons protected by barbed wire and soldiers on patrol with automatic rifles. Then we crossed the western border into Donegal, gazing upon its green fields and small hills.

My Birmingham colleague, a Presbyterian minister and the son of a ‘B Special’ police officer, was from a small village on the shores of Lough Neagh north of Belfast. So while he visited his family home there, I was deputed to drive the students around, guided by Jerry Tyrrell from the Ulster Quaker Peace Education Project. He described himself as a ‘full-time Peace worker’ and a ‘part-time navigator’. I had already met him in Birmingham, where I was also running a Peace Education Project for the Quakers in the West Midlands. He was born in London but had come to live in Derry in 1972, where he had worked on holiday projects for groups of mixed Catholic and Protestant students. It provided opportunities for them to meet and learn together during organised holidays, work camps and other activities. He had left this in April 1988 to take up a post running a Peace Education Project at Magee College.

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Magee College, Londonderry.

Jerry gave me a copy of a slim volume entitled Borderlines: A Collection of New Writing from the North West, containing prose and poems by members of the Writers’ Workshop based at Magee College, including some of his own poetry. The Workshop promoted and encouraged new writing in the North-west, and acted as a forum for a large number of local writers. In his preface, Frank McGuinness wrote of how …

… freedom is full of contradictions, arguments, the joy of diversity, the recognition and celebration of differences.

After reading the collection, I agreed with him that the collection contained that diversity and that it stood testimony to the writers’ experiences and histories, their fantasies and dreams. Its contributors came from both sides of the Derry-Donegal border we had driven over, and from both sides of the Foyle, a river of considerable beauty which, in its meandering journey from the Sperrins to the Atlantic, assumes on its path through Derry a socio-political importance in symbolising the differences within the City. However, in his introduction to the collection, Sam Burnside, an award-winning poet born in County Antrim, but living in Derry, wrote of how …

… the borders which give definition to the heart of this collection are not geographical, nor are they overtly social or political; while … embedded in time and place, they are concerned to explore emotional and moral states, and the barriers they articulate are … those internal to the individual, and no less detrimental to freedom for that.

If borders indicate actual lines of demarcation between places and … powers, they suggest also the possibility of those barriers being crossed, of change, of development, from one state to another. And a border, while it is the mark which distinguishes and maintains a division, is also the point at which the essence of real or assumed differences are made to reveal themselves; the point at which they may be forced to examine their own natures, for good or ill.

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A page from an Oxford Bookworms’ Reader for EFL students.

In the short story ‘Blitzed’ by Tessa Johnston, a native of Derry where she worked as a teacher, Kevin has moved, in a fictional future (in 1998), from Derry to Manchester, to escape from the troubles, but the report of a car-bombing by the Provisional IRA in Manchester brings back memories of his encounter with a soldier in Derry as a schoolboy, fifteen years old. On his way from his home in Donegal to the Grammar School in Derry, in the week before Christmas, he had been blinded by the snow so that he didn’t see the soldier on patrol until he collided with him:

Over the years Kevin had grown accustomed to being stopped regularly on his way to and from school; to being stopped, questioned and searched, but never until that day had he experienced real hostility, been aware of such hatred. Spread-eagled against the wall he had been viciously and thoroughly searched. His school-bag had been ripped from his back and its contents strewn on the pavement; then, triumphantly, the soldier held aloft his bible, taunting him:

“So, you’re a Christian, are you? You believe in all that rubbish? You wanna convert me? Wanna convert the heathen, Fenian scum? No?”

On and on he ranted and raved until Kevin wondered how much more of this treatment he could endure. Finally, his anger exhausted, he tossed the offending book into the gutter and in a last act of vandalism stamped heavily upon it with his sturdy Army boots, before turning up Bishop Street to continue his patrol.

With trembling hands Kevin began to gather up his scattered possessions. Then, like one sleep-walking, he continued his journey down Bishop Street. He had only gone a few steps when a shot rang out. Instinctively, he threw himself to the ground. Two more shots followed in quick succession, and then silence.

He struggled to his feet and there, not fifty yards away his tormentor lay spread-eagled in the snow. Rooted to the spot, Kevin viewed the soldier dis passionately. A child’s toy, he thought, that’s what he looks like. Motionless and quiet;

a broken toy …

Then the realisation dawned as he watched the ever-increasing pool of blood stain the new snow.”

What haunted Kevin from that day, however, was not so much this picture of the dead soldier, but the sense that he himself had crossed an internal border. He had been glad when the soldier was shot and died; he had been unable to come to terms with the knowledge that he could feel like that. He had been unable to forgive not just the young soldier, but – perhaps worse – himself. The shadow of that day would never leave him, even after his family moved to Manchester. This had worked for a while, he’d married and had a child, and he had coped. But in the instant of the TV news report all that had been wiped out. The ‘troubles’ had found him again. They knew no borders.

Fortunately, this was a piece of fiction. Though there were thousands of deaths in Northern Ireland like that of the soldier throughout the troubles and bombings even after the PIRA cease-fire by the ‘Real IRA’, there was no renewal of the bombing campaigns on the mainland of Britain. But it could easily have been a real future for someone had it not been for the Good Friday Agreement.

An Easter ‘Pilgrimage’ to Dublin & Belfast, 1990:

Britain, Ireland and Europe, 1994-99: Peace, Devolution & Development.   Leave a comment

LSF (1947) Nobel Peace Prize obv

Unionists & Nationalists – The Shape of Things to Come:

In Northern Ireland, optimism was the only real force behind the peace process. Too often, this is remembered by one of Blair’s greatest soundbites as the talks reached their climax: This is no time for soundbites … I feel the hand of history on my shoulder. Despite the comic nature of this remark, it would be churlish not to acknowledge this as one of his greatest achievements. Following the tenacious efforts of John Major to bring Republicans and Unionists to the table, which had resulted in a stalemate. Tony Blair had already decided in Opposition that an Irish peace settlement would be one of his top priorities in government. He went to the province as his first visit after winning power and focused Number Ten on the negotiations as soon as the IRA, sensing a fresh opportunity, announced a further ceasefire. In Mo Mowlem, Blair’s brave new Northern Ireland Secretary, he had someone who was prepared to be tough in negotiations with the Unionists and encouraging towards Sinn Feiners in order to secure a deal. Not surprisingly, the Ulster Unionist politicians soon found her to be too much of a ‘Green’. She concentrated her charm and bullying on the Republicans, while a Number Ten team dealt with the Unionists. Blair emphasised his familial links with Unionism in order to win their trust.

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There were also direct talks between the Northern Irish political parties, aimed at producing a return of power-sharing in the form of an assembly in which they could all sit. These were chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell and were the toughest part. There were also talks between the Northern Irish parties and the British and Irish governments about the border and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the future. Finally, there were direct talks between London and Dublin on the wider constitutional and security settlement. This tripartite process was long and intensely difficult for all concerned, which appeared to have broken down at numerous points and was kept going mainly thanks to Blair himself. He took big personal risks, such as when he invited Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein-IRA to Downing Street. Some in the Northern Ireland office still believe that Blair gave too much away to the Republicans, particularly over the release of terrorist prisoners and the amnesty which indemnified known terrorists, like those responsible for the Birmingham bombings in 1974, from prosecution. At one point, when talks had broken down again over these issues, Mo Mowlem made the astonishing personal decision to go into the notorious Maze prison herself and talk to both Republican and Loyalist terrorist prisoners. Hiding behind their politicians, the hard men still saw themselves as being in charge of their ‘sides’ in the sectarian conflict. But Blair spent most of his time trying to keep the constitutional Unionists ‘on board’, having moved Labour policy away from support for Irish unification. In Washington, Blair was seen as being too Unionist.

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Given a deadline of Easter 1998, a deal was finally struck, just in time, on Good Friday, hence the alternative name of ‘the Belfast Agreement’. Northern Ireland would stay part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority in the province wished it so. The Republic of Ireland would give up its territorial claim to the North, amending its constitution to this effect. The parties would combine in a power-sharing executive, based on a newly elected assembly. There would also be a North-South body knitting the two political parts of the island together for various practical purposes and mundane matters. The paramilitary organisations would surrender or destroy their weapons, monitored by an independent body. Prisoners would be released and the policing of Northern Ireland would be made non-sectarian by the setting up of a new police force to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), whose bias towards the Unionist community had long been a sore point for Nationalists. The deal involved a great deal of pain, particularly for the Unionists. It was only the start of a true peace and would be threatened frequently afterwards, such as when the centre of Omagh was bombed only a few months after its signing by a renegade splinter group of the IRA calling itself ‘the Real IRA’ (see the photo below). It murdered twenty-nine people and injured two hundred. Yet this time the violent extremists were unable to stop the rest from talking.

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Once the agreement had been ratified on both sides of the border, the decommissioning of arms proved a seemingly endless and wearisome game of bluff. Though the two leaders of the moderate parties in Northern Ireland, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists and John Hume of the Nationalist SDLP, won the Nobel Prize for Peace, both these parties were soon replaced in elections by the harder-line Democratic Unionist Party led by Rev. Dr Ian Paisley, and by Sinn Fein, under Adams and McGuinness. Initially, this made it harder to set up an effective power-sharing executive at Stormont (pictured below). Yet to almost everyone’s surprise, Paisley and McGuinness sat down together and formed a good working relationship. The thuggery and crime attendant on years of paramilitary activity took another decade to disappear. Yet because of the agreement hundreds more people are still alive who would have died had the ‘troubles’ continued. They are living in relatively peaceful times. Investment has returned and Belfast has been transformed into a busier, more confident city. Large businesses increasingly work on an all-Ireland basis, despite the continued existence of two currencies and a border. The fact that both territories are within the European Union enables this to happen without friction at present, though this may change when the UK leaves the EU and the Republic becomes a ‘foreign country’ to it for the first time since the Norman Conquest. Tony Blair can take a sizeable slice of credit for this agreement. As one of his biographers has written:

He was exploring his own ability to take a deep-seated problem and deal with it. It was a life-changing experience for him.

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If the Good Friday Agreement changed the future relationship of the UK and Ireland, Scottish and Welsh devolution changed the future political shape of Great Britain. The relative indifference of the eighteen-year Tory ascendancy to the plight of the industrial areas of Scotland and Wales had transformed the prospects of the nationalist parties in both countries. Through the years of Tory rule, the case for a Scottish parliament had been bubbling under north of the border. Margaret Thatcher had been viewed as a conspicuously English figure imposing harsh economic penalties on Scotland, which had always considered itself to be inherently more egalitarian and democratic. The Tories, who had successfully played the Scottish card against centralising Labour in 1951, had themselves become labelled as a centralising and purely English party. Local government had already been reorganised in Britain and Northern Ireland in the early 1990s with the introduction of ‘unitary’ authorities.

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Scotland had a public culture further to the left than that of southern England, and therefore the initiatives on devolution came from the respectable middle-classes. A group of pro-devolution activists, including SNP, Labour and Liberal supporters, churchmen, former civil servants and trade unionists to found the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. In due course, this produced a Constitutional Convention meant to bring in a wider cross-section of Scottish life behind their ‘Claim of Right’. It argued that if Scots were to stand on their own two feet as Mrs Thatcher had insisted, they needed control over their own affairs. Momentum increased when the Scottish Tories lost half their remaining seats in the 1987 election, and, following the poll tax rebellion, the Convention got going in March 1989, after Donald Dewar, Labour’s leader in Scotland, decided to work with other parties. The Convention brought together the vast majority of Scottish MPs, all but two of Scotland’s regional, district and island councils, the trade unions, churches, charities and many other organisations, in fact almost everyone except the Conservatives, who were sticking with the original Union, and the SNP, who wanted full independence.

Scottish Tories, finding themselves increasingly isolated, fought back vainly. They pointed out that if a Tory government, based on English votes, was regarded as illegitimate by the Scots, then in future a Labour government based on Scottish votes might be regarded as illegitimate by the English. In a 1992 poll in Scotland, fifty per cent of those asked said they were in favour of independence within the European Union. In the 1992 election, John Major had made an impassioned appeal for the survival of the Union. Had the four countries never come together, he argued, their joint history would have never been as great: Are we, in our generation, to throw all that away?  He won back a single Scottish seat. Various minor sops were offered to the Scots during his years in office, including the return of the Stone of Destiny, with much ceremony. However, the minor Tory recovery in 1992 was wiped out in the Labour landslide of 1997, when all the Conservatives seats north of the border, where they had once held the majority of them, were lost, as they were in Wales. Formerly just contestants in middle-class, rural and intellectual constituencies, in 1997 Scottish and Welsh nationalists now made huge inroads into former Conservative areas, and even into the Labour heartlands, and the latter despite the Labour leadership being held consecutively by a Welshman and a Scot.

By the time Tony Blair became the party leader, Labour’s commitment to devolution was long-standing. Unlike his predecessor, he was not much interested in devolution or impressed by it, particularly not for Wales, where support had been far more muted. The only thing he could do by this stage was to insist that a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly would only be set up after referenda in the two countries, which in Scotland’s case would include a second question as to whether the parliament should be given the power to vary the rate of income tax by 3p in the pound. In September 1997, Scotland voted by three to one for the new Parliament, and by nearly two to one to give it tax-varying powers. The vote for the Welsh Assembly was far closer, with a wafer-thin majority secured by the final constituency to declare, that of Carmarthen. The Edinburgh parliament would have clearly defined authority over a wide range of public services – education, health, welfare, local government, transport and housing – while Westminster kept control over taxation, defence, foreign affairs and some lesser matters. The Welsh assembly in Cardiff would have fewer powers and no tax-raising powers. The Republic of Ireland was similarly divided between two regional assemblies but unlike the assemblies in the UK, these were not elected.

In 1999, therefore, devolved governments, with varying powers, were introduced in Scotland, Wales and, following the ratification referendum on the Belfast Agreement, in Northern Ireland. After nearly three hundred years, Scotland got its parliament with 129 MSPs, and Wales got its assembly with sixty members. Both were elected by proportional representation, making coalition governments almost inevitable. In Scotland, Labour provided the first ‘first minister’ in Donald Dewar, a much-loved intellectual, who took charge of a small group of Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers. To begin with, Scotland was governed from the Church of Scotland’s general assembly buildings. The devolution promised by John Smith and instituted by Tony Blair’s new Labour government in the late 1990s did, initially, seem to take some of the momentum out of the nationalist fervour, but apparently at the expense of stoking the fires of English nationalism, resentful at having Scottish and Welsh MPs represented in their own assemblies as well as in Westminster. But there was no early crisis at Westminster because of the unfairness of Scottish and Welsh MPs being able to vote on England-only business, the so-called Midlothian Question, particularly when the cabinet was so dominated by Scots. But despite these unresolved issues, the historic constitutional changes brought about by devolution and the Irish peace process reshaped both Britain and Ireland, producing irrevocable results. In his television series A History of Britain, first broadcast on the BBC in 2000, Simon Schama argued that…

Histories of Modern Britain these days come not to praise it but to bury it, celebrating the denationalization of Britain, urging on the dissolution of ‘Ukania’ into the constituent European nationalities of Scotland, Wales and England (which would probably tell the Ulster Irish either to absorb themselves into a single European Ireland or to find a home somewhere else – say the Isle of Man). If the colossal asset of the empire allowed Britain, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, to exist as a genuine national community ruled by Welsh, Irish and (astonishingly often) Scots, both in Downing Street and in the remote corners of the empire, the end of that imperial enterprise, the theory goes, ought also to mean the decent, orderly liquidation of Britannia Inc. The old thing never meant anything anyway, it is argued; it was just a spurious invention designed to seduce the Celts into swallowing English domination where once they had been coerced into it, and to persuade the English themselves that they would be deeply adored on the grouse moors of the Trossachs as in the apple orchards of the Weald. The virtue of Britain’s fall from imperial grace, the necessity of its European membership if only to avoid servility to the United States, is that it forces ‘the isles’ to face the truth: that they are many nations, not one.

However, in such a reduction of false British national consciousness to the ‘true’ identities and entities of Scotland, Wales and England, he argued, self-determination could go beyond the ‘sub-nations’, each of which was just as much an invention, or a re-invention, as was Britain. Therefore an independent Scotland would not be able to resist the rights to autonomy of the Orkney and Shetland islands, with their Nordic heritage, or the remaining Gallic-speaking isles of the Outer Hebrides. Similarly, the still primarily Anglophone urban south-Walians and the inhabitants of the Welsh borders and south coast of Pembrokeshire might in future wish to assert their linguistic and cultural differences from the Welsh-speakers of the rural Welsh-speakers of West and North Wales. With the revival of their Celtic culture, the Cornish might also wish to seek devolution from a country from which all other Celts have retreated into their ethnolinguistic heartlands. Why shouldn’t post-imperial Britain undergo a process of ‘balkanization’ like that of the Former Yugoslavia?

LSF RSF Lets build a culture of peace LR

Well, many like Schama seemed to answer at that time, and still do today, precisely because of what happened due to ethnonationalism in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the conflicts were only just, in 1999, being brought to an end by air-strikes and the creation of tides of refugees escaping brutal ethnic cleansing. The breaking up of Britain into ever smaller and purer units of pure white ethnic groups was to be resisted. Instead, a multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Britain was coming into being through a gradual and peaceful process of devolution of power to the various national, ethnic and regional groups and a more equal re-integration of them into a ‘mongrel’ British nation within a renewed United Kingdom.

Economic Development, the Regions of Britain & Ireland and the Impact of the EU:

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The late twentieth century saw the transformation of the former docklands of London into offices and fashionable modern residential developments, with a new focus on the huge Canary Wharf scheme (pictured above) to the east of the city. The migration of some financial services and much of the national press to the major new developments in London’s Docklands prompted the development of the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee line extension. The accompanying modernisation of the London Underground was hugely expensive in legal fees and hugely complex in contracts. Outside of London, improvements in public transport networks were largely confined to urban and suburban centres with light railway networks developed in Manchester, Sheffield and Croydon.

Beyond Canary Wharf to the east, the Millennium Dome, which Blair’s government inherited from the Tories, was a billion pound gamble which Peter Mandelson and ‘Tony’s cronies’ decided to push ahead with, despite cabinet opposition. Architecturally, the dome was striking and elegant, a landmark for London which can be seen from by air passengers arriving in the capital. The millennium was certainly worth celebrating but the conundrum ministers and their advisers faced was what to put in their ‘pleasure’ Dome. It would be magnificent, unique, a tribute to British daring and ‘can-do’. Blair himself said that it would provide the first paragraph of his next election manifesto. But this did not answer the current question of what it was for, exactly. When the Dome finally opened at New Year, the Queen, Prime Minister and celebrities were treated to a mish-mash of a show which embarrassed many of them. When it opened to the public, the range of mildly interesting exhibits was greeted as a huge disappointment. Optimism and daring, it seemed, were not enough to fill the people’s expectations. Later that year, Londoners were given a greater gift in the form of a mayor and regional assembly with powers over local planning and transport. This new authority in part replaced the Greater London Council abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986.

However, there were no signs that the other conurbations in the regions of England wanted regionalisation, except for some stirrings in the Northeast and Cornwall. The creation of nine Regional Development Agencies in England in 1998-99 did not seek to meet a regionalist agenda. In fact, these new bodies to a large extent matched the existing structures set up since the 1960s for administrative convenience and to encourage inward investment. Improving transport links were seen as an important means of stimulating regional development and combating congestion. Major Road developments in the 1990s included the completion of the M25 orbital motorway around London and the M40 link between London and Birmingham. However, despite this construction programme, congestion remained a problem: the M25, for example, became the butt of jokes labelling it as the largest car park on the planet, while traffic speeds in central London continued to fall, reaching fifteen kilometres per hour by 1997, about the same as they had been in 1907. Congestion was not the only problem, however, as environmental protests led to much of the road-building programme begun by the Tory governments being shelved after 1997. The late nineties also saw the development of some of the most expensive urban motorways in Europe.

In the Sottish Highlands and Islands, the new Skye road bridge connected the Isle of Skye to the mainland. A group led by the Bank of America built and ran the new bridge. It was one of the first projects built under a ‘public finance initiative’, or PFI, which had started life under Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont, five years before Labour came to power when he experimented with privatising public projects and allowing private companies to run them, keeping the revenue. Although the basic idea was simple enough, this represented a major change in how government schemes were working, big enough to arouse worry even outside the tribes of political obsessives. There were outraged protests from some islanders about paying tolls to a private consortium and eventually the Scottish Executive bought the bridge back. At the opposite corner of the country, the Queen Elizabeth II road bridge was built joining Kent and Essex across the Thames at Dartford, easing congestion on both sides of the Dartford tunnel. It was the first bridge across the river in a new place for more than half a century and was run by a company called ‘Le Crossing’, successfully taking tolls from motorists.

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Undoubtedly the most important transport development was the Channel Tunnel rail link to France, completed in 1994. It was highly symbolic of Britain’s commitment to European integration, and millions of people and vehicles had travelled from London to Paris in under three hours by the end of the century. The town of Ashford in Kent was one of the major beneficiaries of the ‘Chunnel’ rail link, making use of railway links running through the town. Its population grew by over ten per cent in the 1990s. By the end of that decade, the town had an international catchment area of some eighty-five million people within a single day’s journey. This and the opening of Ashford International railway station as the main terminal in the rail link to the continent attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies to the town. In addition to the fourteen business parks that were established in the town, new retail parks were opened. Four green-field sites were also opened on the outskirts of the town, including a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. Ashford became closer to Paris and Brussels than it was to Manchester and Liverpool, as can be seen on the map below. In addition to its international rail link, the town’s position at the hub of a huge motorway network was in a position to be an integral part of a truly international transport system.

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Modern-day affluence at the turn of the century was reflected in the variety of goods and services concentrated in shopping malls. They are now often built on major roads outside towns and cities to make them accessible to the maximum number of people in a region.

Economic change was most dramatic in the Irish Republic, which enjoyed the highest growth rates in Europe in the 1990s. The so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy boomed, aided by inward investment so that by the end of the decade GDP per capita had surpassed that of the UK. Dublin, which remained if anything more dominant than London as a capital city, flourished as a result of a strong growth in the service industries. Growth rates for the ‘new economy’ industries such as information and communications technology were among the highest in the world. Generous tax arrangements and the city’s growing reputation as a cultural centre meanwhile helped to encourage the development of Dublin’s ‘rockbroker belt’. Even agriculture in the Irish Republic, in decline in the early 1990s, still contributed nine per cent of Ireland’s GDP, three times the European average. In the west of Ireland, it was increasingly supplemented by the growth of tourism.

Nevertheless, while the expansion of Ireland’s prosperity lessened the traditional east-west divide, it did not eliminate it. Low population density and a dispersed pattern of settlement were felt to make rail developments unsuitable. Consequently, Ireland’s first integrated transport programme, the Operational Programme for Peripherality, concentrated on improving: the routes from the west of Ireland to the ferry port of Rosslare; the routes from Belfast to Cork; Dublin and the southwest; east-west routes across the Republic. Many of these improvements benefited from EU funding. The EU also aided, through its ‘peace programme’, the development of transport planning in Britain, with infrastructure projects in, for example, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In 1993, the EU had decided to create a combined European transport network. Of the fourteen projects associated with this aim, three were based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Larne in Northern Ireland, the ferry port for Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast mainline railway route in Britain.

The old north-south divide in Britain reasserted itself with a vengeance in the late 1990s as people moved south in search of jobs and prosperity as prices and wages rose. Even though the shift towards service industries was reducing regional economic diversity, the geographical distribution of regions eligible for European structural funds for economic improved the continuing north-south divide. Transport was only one way in which the EU increasingly came to shape the geography of the British Isles in the nineties. It was, for example, a key factor in the creation of the new administrative regions of Britain and Ireland in 1999. At the same time, a number of British local authorities opened offices in Brussels for lobbying purposes and attempts to maximise receipts from European structural funds also encouraged the articulation of regionalism. Cornwall, for instance, ‘closed’ its ‘border’ with Devon briefly in 1998 in protest at not receiving its EU social funds, while the enthusiasm for the supposed economic benefits that would result from ‘independence in Europe’ helped to explain the revival of the Scottish Nationalist Party following devolution. ‘Silicon Gen’ in central Scotland was, by the end of the decade, the largest producer of computing equipment in Europe.

The European connection was less welcome in other quarters, however. Fishermen, particularly in Devon and Cornwall and on the North Sea Coast of England, felt themselves the victims of the Common Fisheries Policy quota system. There was also a continuing strong sense of ‘Euroscepticism’ in England, fuelled at this stage by a mixture of concerns about ‘sovereignty’ and economic policy, which I will deal with in a separate article. Here, it is worth noting that even the most enthusiastic Europhiles, the Irish, sought to reject recent EU initiatives which they felt were not in their interests in their 2001 referendum on the Treaty of Nice. Nevertheless, the growth of physical links with Europe, like the Channel Tunnel, the connections between the British and French electricity grids, and the development of ‘budget’ airlines, made it clear that both of the main ‘offshore’ islands, Britain and Ireland were, at the turn of the century, becoming increasingly integrated, both in economic and administrative terms, with the continent of Europe.

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At the beginning of 1999, however, a debate began over British membership of the euro, the single currency which was finally taking shape within the EU. Though he was never a fanatic on the subject, Blair’s pro-European instincts and his desire to be a leading figure inside the EU predisposed him to announce that Britain would join, not in the first wave, but soon afterwards. He briefed that this would happen. British business seemed generally in favour, but the briefing and guesswork in the press were completely baffling. For Gordon Brown, stability came first, and he concluded that it was not likely that Britain could safely join the euro within the first Parliament. When he told Blair this, the two argued and then eventually agreed on a compromise. Britain would probably stay out during the first Parliament, but the door should be left slightly ajar. Pro-European business people and those Tories who had lent Blair and Brown their conditional support, as well as Blair’s continental partners, should be kept on board, as should the anti-Euro press. The terms of the delicate compromise were meant to be revealed in an interview given by Brown to The Times. Being more hostile to entry than Blair, and talking to an anti-euro newspaper, his team briefed more strongly than Blair would have liked. By the time the story was written, the pound had been saved from extinction for the lifetime of the Parliament. Blair was aghast at this.

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The chaos surrounding this important matter was ended and the accord with Blair patched up by Brown and his adviser Ed Balls, who quickly produced five economic tests which would be applied before Britain would enter the euro. They required more detailed work by the Treasury; the underlying point was that the British and continental economies must be properly aligned before Britain would join. Brown then told the Commons that though it was likely that, for economic reasons, Britain would not join the euro until after the next election, there was no constitutional or political reason not to join. Preparations for British entry would therefore begin. This gave the impression that once the tests were met there would be a post-election referendum, followed by the demise of sterling.

In 1999, with a full-scale launch at a London cinema, Blair was joined by the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and the two former Tory cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine to launch ‘Britain in Europe’ as a counter-blast to the anti-Euro campaign of ‘Business for Sterling’. Blair promised that together they would demolish the arguments against the euro, and there was alarmist media coverage about the loss of eight million jobs if Britain pulled out of the EU. But the real outcome of this conflict was that the power to decide over membership of the euro passed decisively from Blair to Brown, whose Treasury fortress became the guardian of the economic tests. Brown would keep Britain out on purely economic grounds, something which won him great personal credit among Conservative ‘press barons’. There was to be no referendum on the pound versus euro, however much the Prime Minister wanted one.

Very little of what New Labour had achieved up to 1999 was what it was really about, however, and most of its achievements had been in dealing with problems and challenges inherited from previous governments or with ‘events’ to which it had to react. Its intended purpose was to deliver a more secure economy, radically better public services and a new deal for those at the bottom of British society. Much of this was the responsibility of Gordon Brown, as agreed in the leadership contest accord between the two men. The Chancellor would become a controversial figure later in government, but in his early period at the Treasury, he imposed a new way of governing. He had run his time in Opposition with a tight team of his own, dominated by Ed Balls, later an MP and Treasury minister before becoming shadow chancellor under Ed Miliband following the 2010 general election. Relations between Team Brown and the Treasury officials began badly and remained difficult for a long time. Brown’s handing of interest control to the Bank of England was theatrical, planned secretly in Opposition and unleashed to widespread astonishment immediately New Labour won. Other countries, including Germany and the US, had run monetary policy independently of politicians, but this was an unexpected step for a left-of-centre British Chancellor. It turned out to be particularly helpful to Labour ministers since it removed at a stroke the old suspicion that they would favour high employment over low inflation. As one of Brown’s biographers commented, he…

 …could only give expression to his socialist instincts after playing the role of uber-guardian of the capitalist system.

The bank move has gone down as one of the clearest achievements of the New Labour era. Like the Irish peace process and the devolution referenda, it was an action which followed on immediately after Labour won power, though, unlike those achievements, it was not something referred to in the party’s election manifesto. Brown also stripped the Bank of England of its old job of overseeing the rest of the banking sector. Otherwise, it would have had a potential conflict of interest if it had had to concern itself with the health of commercial banks at the same time as managing interest rates. As a result of these early actions, New Labour won a reputation for being economically trustworthy and its Chancellor was identified with ‘prudent’ management of the nation’s finances. Income tax rates did not increase, which reassured the middle classes. Even when Brown found what has more recently been referred to as ‘the magic money tree’, he did not automatically harvest it. And when the ‘dot-com bubble’ was at its most swollen, he sold off licenses for the next generation of mobile phones for 22.5 bn, vastly more than they were soon worth. The produce went not into new public spending but into repaying the national debt, 37 bn of it. By 2002 government interest payments on this were at their lowest since 1914, as a proportion of its revenue.

Despite his growing reputation for prudence, Brown’s introduction of ‘stealth taxes’ proved controversial, however. These included the freezing of income tax thresholds so that an extra 1.5 million people found themselves paying the top rate; the freezing of personal allowances; rises in stamp duties on houses and a hike in national insurance. In addition, some central government costs were palmed off onto the devolved administrations or local government, so that council tax rose sharply, and tax credits for share dividends were removed. Sold at the time as a ‘prudent’ technical reform, enabling companies to reinvest in their core businesses, this latter measure had a devastating effect on the portfolios of pension funds, wiping a hundred billion off the value of retirement pensions. This was a staggering sum, amounting to more than twice as much as the combined pension deficits of Britain’s top 350 companies. Pensioners and older workers were angered when faced with great holes in their pension funds. They were even more outraged when Treasury papers released in 2007 showed that Brown had been warned about the effect this measure would have. The destruction of a once-proud pension industry had more complex causes than Brown’s decision; Britain’s fast-ageing population was also a major factor, for one. But the pension fund hit produced more anger than any other single act by the New Labour Chancellor.

Perhaps the most striking long-term effect of Brown’s careful running of the economy was the stark, dramatic shape of public spending. For his first two years, he stuck fiercely to the promise he had made about continuing the Major government’s spending levels. These were so tight that even the man who set these levels, Kenneth Clarke, said that he would not actually have kept to them had the Tories been re-elected and had he been reappointed as Chancellor. Brown brought down the State’s share of public spending from nearly 41% of GDP to 37.4% by 1999-2000, the lowest percentage since 1960 and far below anything achieved under Thatcher. He was doing the opposite of what previous Labour Chancellors had done. On arriving in office, they had immediately started spending, in order to stimulate the economy in classical Keynesian terms. When they had reached their limits, they had then had to raise taxes. He began by putting a squeeze on spending and then loosening up later. There was an abrupt and dramatic surge in public spending, particularly on health, back up to 43%. The lean years were immediately followed by the fat ones, famine by the feast. But the consequence of the squeeze was that the first New Labour government of 1997-2001 achieved far less in public services than it had promised. For example, John Prescott had promised a vast boost in public transport, telling the Commons in 1997:

I will have failed if in five years’ time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it.

Because of ‘Prudence’, and Blair’s worries about being seen as anti-car, Prescott had nothing like the investment to follow through and failed completely. Prudence also meant that Brown ploughed ahead with cuts in benefit for lone-parent families, angering Labour MPs and resulting in a Scottish Labour conference which labelled their Westminster government and their own Scots Chancellor as economically inept, morally repugnant and spiritually bereft. Reform costs money and without money, it barely happened in the first term, except in isolated policy areas where Blair and Brown put their heads down and concentrated. The most dramatic programme was in raising literacy and numeracy among younger children, where Number Ten worked closely with the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, and scored real successes. But unequivocally successful public service reforms were rare.

At first, Labour hated the idea of PFIs, which were a mixture of two things associated with Thatcherite economic policies, the privatisation of capital projects, with the government paying a fee to private companies over many years, and the contracting out of services – waste collection, school meals, cleaning – which had been imposed on unwilling socialist councils from the eighties. Once in power, however, Labour ministers began to realise that those three little letters were political magic because they allowed them to announce and oversee exciting new projects and take the credit for them in the full knowledge that the full bill would be left for the taxpayers of twenty to fifty years hence. In this way, spending and funding of new hospitals or schools would be a problem for a future health or education minister.

PFIs were particularly attractive when other kinds of spending were tightly controlled by ‘Prudence’. Large amounts of capital for public buildings were declared to be ‘investment’, not spending, and put to one side of the public accounts. The justification was that private companies would construct and run this infrastructure so much more efficiently than the State and that profits paid to them by taxpayers would be more than compensated for. Ministers replied to criticisms of these schemes by pointing out that, without them, Britain would not get the hundreds of new school buildings, hospitals, health centres, fire stations, army barracks, helicopter training schools, prisons, government offices, roads and bridges that it so obviously needed by the nineties. Significantly, the peak year for PFIs was 1999-2000, just as the early Treasury prudence in conventional spending had bitten hardest and was being brought to an end.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Simon Schama (2000), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Peter Catterall (et. al.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Posted November 23, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Balkan Crises, BBC, Belfast Agreement, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Celtic, devolution, Education, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, European Union, History, Immigration, Integration, Irish history & folklore, John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Migration, morality, nationalism, Nationality, New Labour, Population, privatization, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reconciliation, Respectability, Social Service, south Wales, Thatcherism, Unionists, Wales, War Crimes, Welsh language, Yugoslavia

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Britain and the World, 1984-89: From local difficulties to global conflicts.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Iron Lady’ at the peak of her powers, with tank and flag, in 1986.

The Brighton Bombing:

During the 1984 Conservative Conference, an IRA bomb partly demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, almost killing the Prime Minister and a number of her cabinet. The action was intended as a response to Mrs Thatcher’s hard-line at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The plot had been to assassinate her and the whole of the cabinet in order to plunge the country into political chaos, resulting in withdrawal from Northern Ireland. When the bomb went off at 2.50 a.m., Margaret Thatcher was working on official papers, having just finished her conference speech. The blast scattered broken glass on her bedroom carpet and filled her mouth with dust. She soon learned that the bomb had killed the wife of cabinet minister John Wakeham, he himself narrowly escaping; killed the Tory MP Anthony Berry and had badly injured Norman Tebbit, paralysing his wife. After less than an hour’s fitful sleep, she rewrote her speech and told the stunned conference that they had witnessed an attempt to cripple the government, commenting that…

… the fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.

The final death toll from Brighton was five dead and several more seriously injured, but its consequences for British politics, which could have been momentous, turned out to be minimal. If the IRA could not shake her, could anything else?

The Gorbachevs in London:

In November 1984, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived at the VIP terminal at Heathrow airport, together with his wife, Raisa. The British had spotted him first, in the summer of that year, if not earlier. He was a lawyer by training, which he had done at the end of the Stalin period. So, while he accepted there were rules to be obeyed, he also knew that they were only really there to be bent. He and Raisa did a great deal in their few days in London, but they did not perform the obligatory ceremony of laying a wreath on Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery. Instead, they paid impromptu visits to Westminster Abbey and Number Ten Downing Street. The Foreign Office arranged a formal lunch for the Gorbachev at Hampton Court Palace, to which they invited a couple of hundred worthies, including BBC journalist John Simpson. He was seated next to a man from Moscow who was to become Gorbachev’s most senior advisors. Simpson asked him whether Gorbachev would really be able to make a difference to the Soviet Union. The Russian replied:

“He will have to,” he said. I noticed he didn’t trouble to question my assumption that Gorbachev would get the top job.

“Why?”

“Because a great deal has to be done. Much, much, more, I think, than you in the West realize.”

The Thatcher Revolution at Home – “Don’t tell Sid!”:

If Labour had been accused of creating a giant state sector whose employees depended on high public spending and could, therefore, be expected to become loyal Labour voting-fodder, then the Tories were intent on creating a property-owning democracy. The despair of Labour politicians as they watched it working was obvious. By the end of the 1980s, there was a large and immovable private sector in Britain of share-owners and home-owners, probably working in private companies, SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and increasingly un-unionised. The proportion of adults holding shares rose from seven per cent to twenty-five per cent during Thatcher’s years in power. Thanks to the ‘right to buy’ policy for council tenants, more than a million families purchased the hoses they lived in, repainting and refurbishing them and then watching their value shoot up, particularly as they had been sold them at a discount of between a third and a half of market value. The proportion of owner-occupied homes rose from fifty-five per cent in 1979 to sixty-seven per cent in 1989. In real terms, total personal wealth rose by eighty per cent in the eighties.

Looking below the surface, however, the story becomes more complex. Of the huge rise in wealth, relatively little was accounted for by shares. The increase in earnings and the house-price boom were much more important. The boom in shareholdings was fuelled by the British love of a bargain than by any deeper change in the culture. There was always a potential conflict between the government’s need to raise revenue and it hopes of spreading share ownership. In the early eighties, ministers erred on the side of the latter. The breakthrough privatization was that of fifty-two per cent of British Telecom in November 1984, which raised an unprecedented 3.9 billion. It was the first to be accompanied by a ‘ballyhoo’ of television and press advertising and was easily oversubscribed. In the event, two million people, or five per cent of the adult population bought ‘BT’ shares, almost doubling the total number of shareholders in a single day. After this came British Gas, as natural gas fields had been supplying Britain from the North Sea since the late sixties, pumping ashore at Yarmouth and Hull, replacing the coal-produced system. With its national pipe network and showrooms, natural gas had become the country’s favourite source of domestic energy and was, therefore, a straightforward monopoly. The government prepared for the sale with another TV campaign featuring a fictitious neighbour who had to be kept in the ‘dark’ about the bargain sale – “Don’t tell Sid!” This raised 5.4 billion, the biggest single privatization.

With the equally bargain-price shares offered to members of building societies when they de-mutualised and turned into banks, Britain developed a class of one-off shareholders, ‘kitchen capitalists’. They soon sold off their shares at a profit, few of them developing into long-term stock market investors, as had been hoped. Those who kept their shares did not go on to buy more, and rarely traded the ones they had acquired as a result of the privatizations, demutualisations and former employment options. The long-term failure to nurture a deeply rooted shareholding democracy has added to the contemporary criticism that public assets were being sold off too cheaply. The then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson later admitted that wider share ownership was an important policy objective and we were prepared to pay a price for it. The failure, ultimately, to achieve that objective showed that there were limits to the Thatcher Revolution. The most successful privatizations were the ones where the company was pushed into full competition, as with British Airways, Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. The utilities – gas, electricity, water – were always different, because they were natural monopolies. Yet without competition, where would the efficiency gains come from? This question was left as a rhetorical one, unanswered until decades later. The water and electricity companies were split up in order to create regional monopolies, with power generation split into two mega-companies, National Power and Powergen. In reality, few people outside the ‘Westminster village’ cared who owned the companies they depended on, so long as the service was acceptable. Britain was becoming a far less ideological country and a more aggressively consumerist one.

Heseltine and the Helicopters:

In the winter of 1984-85, the great Westland Helicopter crisis that broke over the Thatcher government was a battle between ministers about whether a European consortium of aerospace manufacturers or and American defence company, working with an Italian firm should take over a struggling West Country helicopter maker. While this was a government that claimed to refuse to micro-manage industry, yet the fight about the future of the Yeovil manufacturer cost two cabinet ministers’ jobs and pitted Thatcher against the only other member of her cabinet with real charisma, Nigel Heseltine. The small storm of Westland gave early notice of the weaknesses that would eventually destroy the Thatcher government, though not for another five years.

One weakness was the divide throughout the Tory Party over Britain’s place in the world. By the 1980s, helicopters were no longer a marginal defence issue. They would become crucial to Britain’s capabilities, the new army mule for hauling artillery over mountains and across stretches of water. United Technologies, the US company whose Sikorsky subsidiary built the Black Hawk helicopter, wanted to gain control over part of Britain’s defence industry. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State who had been so helpful to Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands Campaign was now back at his old company and ‘called in his markers’ for the American bid. Adopting a position of outward neutrality would probably have favoured it anyway as a further strengthening of the Special Relationship between the UK and the US. But on the other side, supporting the European consortium, were those who felt that the EC had to be able to stand alone in defence technology. Michael Heseltine and his business allies thought this was vital to protect jobs in the cutting-edge science-based industries. The US must not be allowed to dictate prices and terms to Europe. So the conflict was concerned with whether Britain stood first with the US or with the EC. It was a question which would continue to grow in importance throughout the eighties until, in the nineties, it tore the Conservatives apart.

The second weakness exposed by the Westland Affair was the Thatcher style of government, which was more presidential and more disdainful of the role of cabinet ministers than any previous government. The Prime Minister was conducting more and more business in small committees or bilaterally, with one minister at a time, ensuring her near absolute predominance. She gathered a small clique of trusted advisors around her. Just before her fall, Nigel Lawson concluded that she was taking her personal economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, more seriously than she was taking him, her next door neighbour in No 11, her Chancellor of the Exchequer. She used her beloved press officer, Bernard Ingham to cut down to size any ministers she had fallen out with, briefing against them and using the anonymous lobby system for Westminster journalists to spread the message.  In his memoirs, Ingham angrily defends himself against accusations of the improper briefing of the press, yet there are too many witnesses who found the Thatcher style more like that of the court of Elizabeth Tudor than that of a traditional cabinet, a place which demanded absolute loyalty and was infested with sycophantic favourites. In the mid-eighties, this was a new way of doing the business of government and to ministers on the receiving end, it was freshly humiliating.

But if there was one minister unlikely to take such treatment for long, it was Michael Heseltine (pictured below at a Conservative Party Conference). He was the only serious rival to Thatcher as the ‘darling of the party’ and media star, handsome, glamorous, rich and an excellent public speaker. He was said by his friend, fellow Tory MP and biographer, Julian Critchley, to have mapped out his future career on the back of an envelope, while still a student at Oxford, decade by decade, running through making his fortune, marrying well, entering Parliament and then, 1990s, Prime Minister. Though Heseltine commented that he could not remember doing this, it was in character. As a young man, he had flung himself into the characteristic sixties businesses of property investment and magazine publishing. A passionate anti-socialist, he had won a reputation for hot-headedness since once picking up the Mace, the symbol of Parliamentary authority, during a Commons debate about steel nationalization, and waving it at the Labour benches in such a violent manner as to earn himself the nickname ‘Tarzan’. His speeches to Tory Party conferences were full of blond hair-tossing, hilarious invective and dramatic gestures. In her memoirs, Thatcher portrayed Heseltine as a vain, ambitious man who flouted cabinet responsibility. The Westland crisis was, in her view, simply about his psychological flaws. However, they agreed about much, but was a more committed anti-racialist than she was and more deeply in favour of the EC, and she always regarded him as a serious and dangerous rival.

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The two bigger beasts of the Tory Party in the eighties went to war on behalf of the two rival bidders for Westland. She was livid that he was using his position as Defence Secretary to warn the company’s shareholders about the dangers of going with the Americans, potentially shutting out European business. She thought he was tipping the scales against Sikorsky, despite Westland’s preference for them. Certainly, Heseltine repeatedly made it clear that the Ministry of Defence would not be buying their Black Hawk helicopter and did much to rally the European consortium. Thatcher, meanwhile, was deploying the public line that she was only interested in what was best for the shareholders while trying to make sure the Americans were kept in the race, ahead of the Europeans. Eventually, she sought advice from the government law officers about whether Heseltine had been behaving properly. A private reply was leaked in order to weaken his case. Furious about this wholly inappropriate act which he suspected was the responsibility of Thatcher and Ingham, Heseltine demanded a full inquiry. During a meeting of the cabinet, she counter-attacked, trying to rein him in by ordering that all future statements on Westland must be cleared first by Number Ten. Hearing this attempt to gag him, Heseltine calmly got up from the cabinet table, announced that he must leave the government, walked into the street and told a solitary reporter that he had just resigned.

The question of exactly who had leaked the Attorney General’s legal advice in a misleadingly selective way to scupper the European bid then became critical. The leaking of private advice broke the rules of Whitehall confidentiality, fairness and collective government. The instrument of the leak was a comparatively junior civil servant to the Trade Secretary, Leon Brittan. But it was unclear as to who had told Colette Brown to do this, though many assumed it was her boss, Bernard Ingham. He denied it, and Mrs Thatcher also denied any knowledge of the leak. After dramatic Commons exchanges during which she was accused of lying to the House, she pulled through, while Leon Brittan was made a scapegoat. Some of Thatcher’s greatest business supporters such as Rupert Murdoch then weighed in on the side of the American bid. Eventually, amid accusations of arm-twisting and dirty tricks, the company went to Sikorsky and the storm subsided. But it had revealed the costs of the Thatcher style of government. Getting the better of foreign dictators and militant trade union leaders was one thing, but behaving the same way with senior members of the cabinet and the Tory Party was quite another. Heseltine wrote later:

I saw many good people broken by the Downing Street machine. I had observed the techniques of character assassination; the drip, drip, drip, of carefully planted, unattributable stories that were fed into the public domain, as colleagues became marked as somehow “semi-detached” or “not one of us”.

‘Shadowing’ the Deutschmark & ‘Diva’ Diplomacy:

There were also debates and rows about economic policy in relation to the EC. The Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, wanted to replace the old, rather wobbly system of controlling the money supply targets, the Medium Term Financial Strategy, with a new stratagem – tying the pound to the German mark in the European Exchange Rate System (ERM). This was an admission of failure; the older system of measuring money was useless and in the world of global fast money. Linking the pound to the Deutschmark was an alternative, with Britain subcontracting her anti-inflation policy to the more successful and harder-faced disciplinarians of the West German Central Bank. Lawson was keen on this alternative ‘shadowing’ method; in effect, he was looking for somewhere firm to plant down policy in the context of the new global financial free-for-all. Thatcher disagreed, arguing that currencies should be allowed to float freely, but at the time little of this debate was known beyond the specialist financial world.

Other ‘Europe’- related debates were conducted more openly in general political life. The mid-eighties were years of Thatcherite drift over Europe. Jacques Delors, later her great enemy as President of the European Commission, had begun his grand plan for the next stages of ‘the union’. Thatcher knew that the ERM was intended one day to lead to a single European currency, part of Delors’ plan for a freshly buttressed European state. Lawson ignored her objections and shadowed the Deutschmark anyway. But when the cost of her Chancellor’s policy became excessive, she ordered him to stop which, under protest, he did. However, the Single European Act, which smashed down thousands of national laws preventing free trade inside the EC, promised free movement of goods, capital, services and people, and presaging the single currency, was passed with her enthusiastic support. She rejected the sceptics’ view that when the continental leadership talked of an economic and political union, they really meant it.

Back in the mid-eighties, personal relationships mattered as much in modern diplomacy as they had in Renaissance courts, and the Thatcher-Gorbachev courtship engaged her imagination and human interest. She was becoming the closest ally of Ronald Reagan, in another international relationship which was of huge emotional and political significance to her. In these years she became an ‘international diva’ of conservative politics, feted by crowds from Russia and China to New York. Her wardrobe, coded depending on where an outfit had been first worn, told its own story: Paris Opera, Washington Pink, Reagan Navy, Toronto Turquoise, Tokyo Blue, Kremlin Silver, Peking Black. Meanwhile, she was negotiating the hard detail of Hong Kong’s transitional status before it was handed over to Communist China in 1997. She got a torrid time at Commonwealth conferences for her opposition to sanctions against the apartheid régime in South Africa. At home, the problem of persistently high unemployment was nagging away, though it started to fall from the summer of 1986 seemed to fall.

The Bombing of Libya and ‘BBC Bias’:

Then there was the highly unpopular use of British airbases for President Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. This provoked a controversy, not for the first time, between the BBC and the Thatcher government. The PM’s supporters on the right of the Tory Party had long been urging her to privatize the BBC and she herself appeared to believe that it was biased against her government; by which she meant that it was too independent. She still remembered the irritation she felt at some of the phrases its leading broadcasters had used back in the Falklands War: if we are to believe the British version, etc.  Her view was that as the British Broadcasting Corporation, a public service broadcaster supported by the television license fee, it should give the British government’s view without questioning it. Yet it was perfectly obvious that the reason the BBC was so respected both in Britain and abroad was that it was genuinely independent of the British government. The BBC was legally obliged by its Charter to remain independent of party political control. Lord Reith, its first Director-General, had successfully resisted Churchill’s attempt to take over its radio service for government propaganda during the General Strike of 1926. It was one of the few great organs of state which Margaret Thatcher was not able to dominate in some way, a constitutional reality which made her visibly restless on occasions.

Because the American aircraft which bombed Libya took off from bases in Britain, that made it a British issue. The pretext for the attack was a terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub used by American servicemen, but far from being the work of Libyan agents, it proved to have been carried out by a group linked to the Syrian government. There was a good deal of public disquiet about it, especially since it was strongly suspected that the Reagan administration was primarily bombing Libya to teach bigger and more formidable countries, chiefly Iran, a lesson. Libya was a feeble, though intermittently nasty little dictatorship which could never organise significant acts of state terrorism. The real battle was a propaganda one. Colonel Gaddafi (pictured below in 1979) claimed that his daughter had been killed in the raid, and showed her body to the journalists in Tripoli at the time. It wasn’t until some time later that it became clear that he had adopted the little girl as she lay dying from her injuries. But whoever’s daughter she was, she was certainly killed by the American bombing.

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The British government was rather rattled by the hostility which sections of the public were starting to show over the bombing; and since, at the times of crisis, people tend to turn to the BBC for their information, some senior ministers felt that this public opposition was the fault of the BBC and wanted it to be taught a lesson. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit, announced that he would be investigating the BBC’s coverage of the raid. The BBC allowed itself to seem rattled by the threats he and his party made, which made him feel justified in his approach. John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor recalled sitting with a few journalists in the canteen at the Television Centre when the tannoy went:

‘PBX. Calling Mr John Simpson.’

I hurried over to the phone. The deputy editor of television news was on the other end.

“We’ve just had Tebbit’s report,” he said. “It’s serious. The editor would be grateful if you could get up here.”

I finished my fish and went up. A small group of worried-looking people were sitting round in the editor’s office. The editor handed me a copy of the document Tebbit and his researchers at Conservative Central Office had compiled. I looked through it rather nervously, anxious to see what it had to say about my own reporting of the attack. It made a few neutral comments, then one which was rather complimentary; that was all.

“That’s all OK,” I blurted out, voicing my own relief. Nothing much there.” 

The editor turned to me. I could see a faint ray of hope was glimmering for the first time.

“You think so?”

I realised that I had been speaking purely for myself. But it seemed unkind and unreasonable to destroy his only cause for optimism. He must have felt that his career was on the line.

“Oh sure, it’s full of loopholes. Just go through it carefully and you’ll find them all,” I said.

I hadn’t read it carefully enough to know if that were true, but I have never yet read a long document that you couldn’t pick holes in.

Chris Cramer, a tough character who was the news editor at the time… agreed. Cramer and I were both affronted by the idea that in a free society the government should presume to dictate to the broadcasters and try to make them report only what the government wanted. Maybe we were both chancers too.

“John’s right,” he said. “We should go through this with a fine-tooth comb. We’ll find lots of things wrong with it.”

Which is what happened. We divided the Conservative Central Office document up between us, and spent the next couple of days going through it point by point. The document compared the BBC’s coverage of the raid unfavourably with ITN’s, and tried to make the case that the BBC had been deliberately biased. Some of the individual points it made were reasonable enough: the news presenter on the night of the bombing had added various inaccuracies to the sub-editors’ scripts. (Soon afterwards she left the BBC.)

But it was silly to try to pretend that there was some underlying bias. I have never yet found a senior Conservative who really believed that…  

It hadn’t occurred to Norman Tebbit that the BBC would stand its ground since in the past it had fallen over itself with nervousness at the mere suggestion that the government of the day was upset with it. When it issued its response there was a big wave of public support for the BBC, partly because Kate Adie had established herself in the public eye as a brave, serious reporter, staying in Tripoli when the bombs were falling. Previously, women reporters had tended to be given social affairs to report on. Here was a woman who had become a war correspondent; something unprecedented on British television at that time, though there have been many equally brave successors since. But there was also public support for the BBC because, for all its failings, the BBC was considered to be as British an institution as any other in the country, and ninety per cent of the population had some contact with it each week in the pre-internet era. Norman Tebbit had failed to realise the British people did not like party political attacks on ‘Auntie’. An opinion poll taken shortly afterwards indicated that Conservative voters supported ‘the Beeb’ on almost the same scale as voters for other parties. Thatcher, aware that she would have to call a general election within the next year or so, quickly distanced herself from her erstwhile lieutenant’s campaign, leading to the first rift between the two of them. On the night she won the 1987 election, Simpson tried to interview her by the railings of St John’s, Smith Square, next to Conservative Central Office, amid rabid Young Conservatives chanting calls for the privatisation of the BBC:

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister, 18.6.87:

Speakers: Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher, PC MP (non-staff), John Simpson (contract)…

JS: The crowd here seem to want you to privatise the BBC. Are you planning to do that?

MT: Well, I think… Well, you know, I must really go and speak to them.

Of course, she never again considered doing so, even if she had been temporarily persuaded by Tebbit’s arguments. She knew what people would stand for, and what they wouldn’t; it was when this instinct finally deserted her that her decline and fall began.

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The ‘Poll Tax’ and the Peasants:

After the election, a wider dilemma emerged right across domestic policy, from the inner cities to hospitals, schools to police forces. Thatcher believed that government should set the rules, deliver sound money and then stand back and let other people get on with providing services. In practice, she often behaved differently, always more pragmatic and interventionist than her image suggested. At least, however, the principle was clear. But when it came to the public services there was no similar principle. She did not have the same respect for independent ‘movers and shakers’ in the hospitals, schools and town halls as she had for entrepreneurs and risk takers she admired in business. Before the Thatcher revolution, the Conservatives had been seen, on balance, defenders of local democracy. They had been strongly represented on councils across the country and had been on the receiving end of some of the more thuggish threats from Labour governments intent, for instance, on abolishing grammar schools. The town and county hall Conservatives had seen local representatives on hospital boards and local education authorities as bulwarks against socialist Whitehall. Margaret Thatcher herself had begun her political apprenticeship doing voluntary public work for her father, Alderman Roberts, sitting on various unpaid committees.

Yet in power, Thatcher and her ministers could not trust local government, or any elected and therefore independent bodies at all. Between 1979 and 1994, an astonishing 150 Acts of Parliament were passed removing powers from local authorities and switched to unelected quangos. The first two Thatcher governments transferred power and discretion away from people who had stood openly for election, and towards the subservient agents of Whitehall, often paid-up Tory party members. Despite his apparent love for Liverpool before the Militant takeover, Michael Heseltine attacked the whole of local government with new auditing with new auditing arrangements, curbs on how much tax they could raise, and spending caps as well. In the health service, early attempts to decentralize were rapidly reversed and a vast top-down system of targets and measurements was put in place, driven by a new planning organisation. It cost more and the service, undoubtedly, got worse. Similar centralist power-grabs took place in urban regeneration, where unelected Urban Development Corporations, rather than local councils, were given money to pour into rundown cities. The biggest city councils, most notably the Greater London Council, were simply abolished. Its powers were distributed between local borough councils and an unelected central organisation controlled by Whitehall. By 1990 there were some twelve thousand appointed officials running London compared with just 1,900 elected borough councillors. Housing Corporations took ninety per cent of the funds used by housing associations to build new cheap homes. In the Thatcher years, their staff grew sevenfold and their budgets twenty-fold.

Margaret Thatcher would say the poll tax, the name associated with the tax per head which was the catalyst for the bloody Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was actually an attempt to save local government. Like schools, hospitals and housing, local councils had been subjected to a barrage of ministers trying to stop them spending money, or raising it, except as Whitehall wished. Since 1945, local government had been spending more, but the amount of money it raised independently still came from a relatively narrow base of people, some fourteen million property-owners. Thatcher had been prodded by Edward Heath into promising to replace this tax, ‘the rates’, as early as 1974, but nobody had come up with a plausible and popular-sounding alternative. She had always disliked the rates system intensely, regarding them as an attack on self-improvement and other Tory values, and in government, the problem nagged away at her. Once, local elections were not national news; they were about who was best suited to run towns and counties, but in the late sixties and seventies they became national news, a regular referendum on the central government. Under Thatcher, the Conservatives lost swathes of local councils, resulting in more Labour-controlled councils which were even more distrusted by the central government, resulting in more powers away from them. The elections became even less relevant, fuelling more protest voting, and it soon became clear to government ministers that more councils were aping Liverpool by pursuing expensive hard-left policies partly because so few of those who voted for them were actually ratepayers themselves, therefore feeling no personal ‘pinch’.

One way of correcting this anomaly would be to make all those who voted for local councils pay towards their cost. This was the origin of the poll tax or community charge as it was officially called, a single flat tax for everybody. It would mean lower bills for many homeowners and make local councils more responsive to their voters. On the other hand, it would introduce a new, regressive tax for twenty million people, with the poorest paying as much as the richest. This broke a principle which stretched back much further back than the post-war ‘consensus’ to at least the 1920s and the replacement of the Poor Law. But Public Assistance or social security as it was now known, was no longer charged or administered locally so that there was some logic in the change to a flat, universal charge. This proposal was sold to the Prime Minister by Kenneth Baker at a seminar at Chequers in 1985, along with the nationalisation of business rates. Nigel Lawson tried to talk the Prime Minister out of it, telling her it would be completely unworkable and politically catastrophic. The tax was discussed at the same cabinet meeting that Michael Heseltine walked out of over the Westland affair. It might have worked if it had been brought in gradually over a whole decade, as was first mooted, or at least four, as was planned at that meeting.

But at the 1987 Tory Conference, intoxicated by the euphoria of the recent third election victory, party members urged Thatcher to bring it in at once. She agreed since there was some urgency resulting from the dramatic increase in property prices in the eighties. Rates, like the subsequent council tax, were based on the relative value of houses across Britain, changing with fashion and home improvement. This meant that, periodically, there had to be a complete revaluation in order to keep the tax working. Yet each revaluation meant higher rates bills for millions of households and businesses, and governments naturally tried to procrastinate over them. In Scotland, however, a different law made this impossible and a rates revaluation had already happened, causing political mayhem. As a result, Scottish ministers begged Thatcher to be allowed the poll tax first, and she also agreed to this. Exemptions were made for the unemployed and low paid, but an attempt, by nervous Tory MPs, to divide the tax into three bands so that it bore some relation to people’s ability to pay was brushed aside despite a huge parliamentary rebellion. When the tax was duly introduced in Scotland, it was met by widespread protest. In England, the estimates of the likely price of the average poll tax kept rising. Panicking ministers produced expensive schemes to cap it, and to create more generous exemptions, undermining the whole point of the new tax. Capping the tax would remove local accountability; the more exemptions there were, the lesser the pressure would be on the councils from their voters. Yet even the PM grew alarmed as she was told that over eighty per cent of voters would be paying more. Yet she pushed ahead with the introduction of the tax, due to take effect in England and Wales on 1st April 1990.

Bruges Bluntness & Madrid Madness:

The poll tax was one of the causes of her downfall in that following year, the other being Europe. This factor began to be potent in 1988, when turned against Jacques Delors’ plans and went to Bruges in Belgium to make what became her definitive speech against the federalist tide which was now openly advancing towards her. The Foreign Office had tried to soften her message, but she had promptly pulled out her pen and written the barbs and thorns back in again. She informed her audience that she had not…

… successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new level of dominance from Brussels.

There was much else besides. Her bluntness much offended continental politicians as well as her own Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Next, she reappointed her monetarist economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, who was outspokenly contemptuous of Lawson’s exchange rate policy. So, she was taking on two big cabinet beasts with great Offices of State at the same time, creating a serious split at the top of government. Then, Jacques Delors, the determined French socialist re-entered the story, with a fleshed-out plan for an economic and monetary union, which would end with the single currency, the euro. To get there, all EU members would need to put their national currencies into the ERM, which would draw them increasingly tightly together, which was just what Lawson and Howe wanted and just what Thatcher did not. Howe and Lawson ganged up, telling her that she must announce that Britain would soon join the ERM, even if she left the question of the single currency to one side for the time being. On the eve of a summit in Madrid where Britain was due to announce its view the two of them visited Thatcher together in private, had a blazing row with her and threatened to resign together if she did not give way. She did, and, for the time being, the crisis abated.

Piper Alpha – The Price of Oil and Who Profited?

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In June 1988, 185 men were burned or blown to death in the North Sea when an oil platform, Piper Alpha, blew up, yet there has been little commemoration of the tragic event over the past thirty years, in popular memorials (as contrasted with earlier coal-mining disasters of a similar scale), political memoirs or the general media. In the case of oil, the great adventure was lived out at the margins of British experience, halfway to Scandinavia, with its wild scenes played out in the bars of Aberdeen and Shetland, far removed from the media in Glasgow, never mind London. Exploration, equipment and production were also largely controlled by American companies. The number of British refineries actually fell in the eighties, the peak decade for oil production, from twenty-one to thirteen, and forty per cent of those were also owned by US-based companies. According to Nigel Lawson, the revenues from oil taxes gave ‘a healthy kick-start’ to the process of cutting the government deficit, though he always argued that the overall impact of North Sea oil was exaggerated, especially by the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). Ireland also benefited greatly from new investment from the United States in the search for new sources of oil and gas in Irish waters from the 1970s, and their exploitation in the eighties. In addition, as a poorer member state of the EU, the Republic gained a disproportionately larger share of the EU budget than the UK as a whole, so that by the end of the decade the Irish economy was expanding rapidly and the long-term pattern of Irish emigration was being reversed. Both British and Irish trade with the EU increased, and Ireland’s economy became less dependent on Britain’s.

Birt, the BBC & Beijing:

Following its own battles with Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit following the bombing of Libya, by the end of the eighties the BBC went on to become the biggest newsgathering organisation in the world and its reputation for accurate, impartial reporting continued to grow around the globe. In 1988, John Birt joined the Corporation as head of news and current affairs, reforming and revitalising that area before going on to become director-general. Under his leadership, there was a five-fold expansion. The foreign affairs unit grew to eleven people, and Simpson was made the head of it. The expansion came just in time considering how much the world was to change in the following year, in a series of seismic upheavals which affected almost every country on earth. In May 1989, Simpson and Adie teamed up in Beijing, covering the infamous massacre in Tiananmen Square:

In the BBC’s offices I found the redoubtable Kate Adie. She had been out in the streets all night with her camera team, and was in bad shape. A man had been killed right beside her, and her arm had been badly grazed in the incident. Together we assembled our reports. There was no time to edit words to pictures, nor even of seeing the pictures. All we could do was write our scripts, record them, and send them off to Hong Kong with the cassettes.

I sat at the computer, numbed by everything I had seen and determined not to get too emotional about it. I’d made real friends among the students in Tiananmen Square. The thought that they might now be dead or injured, that one of their best and most decent manifestations of recent times had been snuffed out in front of me was too disturbing and too painful for me to deal with. And so I took refuge in the old BBC concepts of balance and objectivity; there wasn’t an ounce of emotion in my script.

Kate’s report was very different. It was full of emotion. Six months later, when I finally watched the two reports side by side, I thought that while mine was perfectly accurate it had nothing to do with the real feeling of what had taken place. Hers did. I suppose the two were complimentary, and they were certainly used side by side on the news in Britain. 

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Above. The Morning of 20 May in Tiananmen Square.

A Tale of Two Cities – a Hell of a Dickens:

On 14th July 1989, Simpson was in Paris, reporting on the meeting of the ‘G7′, the leaders of the West’s seven leading capitalist powers, hosted by Francois Mitterrand, the French President. With hindsight, the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution was perhaps the single moment which best reflected the triumph of liberal democracy over all rival systems of government. The wealth, the grandeur, the personal liberty, the prestige and power which were on display were greater than the world had seen before. Soon, however, the decline in the power of the United States became more obvious. Margaret Thatcher still seemed unassailable as Britain’s prime minister, but would be politically vulnerable within a few months. While President Bush handed over the key to the Bastille which Lafayette had taken with him to America shortly after the Revolution, her gift to Mitterand was a first edition copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: inexpensive, and not very good as history. It was a grudging, insular gesture, typical of British attitudes towards France in the 1980s, which had chosen to follow an economic policy which was the exact opposite of Thatcherism. She disapproved not just of France, but of the occasion and the whole business of celebrating revolution. Her view was that evolution was greatly preferable to revolution, which was of little use to those, in 1789 or 1989, who lived under an autocracy which refuses to evolve. Although Mrs Thatcher may have helped to persuade Ronald Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was ‘a man to do business with’, according to John Simpson…

It wasn’t Mrs Thatcher’s economic principles which caused the changes in the Soviet bloc, but the simple, verifiable fact that Western capitalist society was effective, rich and reasonably free, while the countries of the communist bloc were manifestly not.

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In the same month, four weeks after her climb-down at the Madrid summit, Thatcher hit back at her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. Back in London, she unleashed a major cabinet reshuffle, compared at the time to Macmillan’s ‘night of the long knives’ in 1962. Howe was demoted to being Leader of the Commons, though she reluctantly agreed to him having the face-saving title of Deputy Prime Minister, a concession rather diminished when her press officer, Bernard Ingham, instantly told journalists that it was a bit of a non-job. Howe was replaced by the relatively unknown John Major, the former chief secretary. Lawson survived only because the economy was weakening and she thought it too dangerous to lose him just at that point. He was having a bad time on all sides, including from the able shadow chancellor John Smith. When Walters had another pop at his ERM policy, he decided that enough was enough and resigned on 26 October, telling the PM she should treat her ministers better. He was replaced by the still relatively unknown John Major.

Budapest, Berlin & Bucharest: Falling Dominoes of 1989:

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Meanwhile, all around them, the world was changing. On 23rd October I was in Hungary on a third, personal visit, when the country changed its name and constitution. It had dropped the word ‘People’s’ from its title and was henceforth to be known simply as the Republic of Hungary. My first visit, an ‘official’ one, as a member of a British Quaker delegation, had been exactly a year earlier, when the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been announced, along with the decision of the then communist government that the 1956 Revolution, which had begun on the same day, would no longer be referred to by them as a ‘counter-revolution’. A few days later in 1989, East Germany announced the opening of its borders to the West and joyous Berliners began hacking at the Berlin Wall.

Then the communists in Czechoslovakia fell, and at Christmas the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu was dragged from power and shot, along with his wife. According to John Simpson, who also witnessed all these events, including those in Bucharest at close quarters (as pictured above), found among the dictators’ possessions was a Mont Blanc pen given to him by the British Labour Party, presumably during the couple’s visit to London in 1978. This was instigated by the then Foreign Secretary, Dr David Owen who, along with James Callaghan, persuaded the Queen against her will that the Ceaucescus should be invited. The pictures below show them riding in State along the Mall. But I have written about all these events elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, just here, that, since the early seventies, politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlook Ceaucescu’s increasing megalomania and the unpleasantness of the government he controlled because he represented an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact, refusing to send Romanian forces to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. As early as 1972, a left-wing Labour MP had written:

As a result of unconditional acceptances of the past abuses of the legal system, Ceaucescu has declared that steps must be taken to ensure that such injustices can never occur in the future. The importance of democracy is therefore being increasingly stressed and… there is no question of rigging trials as occurred in the past. … Interference by anyone, no matter how important, is unacceptable in Ceaucescu’s view. 

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The not-so-beautiful relationship which came to an end with the shooting of the ‘Tsar and Tsarina’ who built their own palace (below) in Bucharest after visiting Buckingham Palace.  It was due to be completed just weeks after their overthrow.

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After meeting Ceaucescu on his state visit in 1978, Margaret Thatcher, then the leader of the opposition, commented:

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceaucescu … Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding.  

The ‘domino’ events of the Autumn and Winter of 1989 in the eastern part of the continent, in which Margaret Thatcher had played a ‘bit part’ alongside Reagan and Gorbachev, would have a ripple effect on her own fall from power the following year. That was not something many of us involved in East-West relations anticipated even at the end of that year.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

 

Posted October 7, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Apartheid and the Cold War, Balkan Crises, BBC, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Coalfields, Cold War, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, Conservative Party, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, Family, France, Germany, Gorbachev, History, Hungarian History, Hungary, Ireland, Labour Party, liberal democracy, Margaret Thatcher, Marxism, Memorial, Migration, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), Navy, Poverty, privatization, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Revolution, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Syria, terror, terrorism, Thatcherism, Uncategorized, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Warfare

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