Archive for the ‘Second World War’ Category

Two Cheers for Democracy!? – The Forward March of Women in Britain, 1903-1931.   1 comment

6 February 2018 marked the centenary of the passing of the ‘Representation of the People’ Act which extended the right to vote, the franchise, to working men over the age of 21 and to ‘propertied’ women over the age of thirty. Although a significant milestone on the long road to a full parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom, it was by no means the end of that road, and the elections which followed in 1918 and throughout the 1920s did not bring about either a major advancement in women’s rights nor the empowerment of working men and women in general. In fact, much of the reforming work done in social and working conditions by the two Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-31 was undermined by the economic and political crisis of 1931, followed by a decade and a half of social upheaval resulting from the depression, mass migration and the Second World War. To understand the significance of the electoral reforms of 1918 and 1928, we need to see them in the context of the broad social changes which began before the First World War, were accelerated by it, and continued into the inter-war years. These changes affected both men and women, though perhaps, at least until the 1930s, were more generally positive in their effect on the lives of women.  We might then be able to give two cheers for democracy in Britain, but only two…


Source: The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History (2001)

In  January 1913, the more militant ‘Suffragists’, nicknamed ‘Suffragettes’,  began destroying property in all parts of Britain in an attempt to coerce the Liberal government into granting women the vote in parliamentary elections. They torched churches and cricket pavilions, set letter-boxes ablaze, slashed works of art and detonated bombs. Excluding property of ‘incalculable value’, the most conservative estimate suggests that properties worth well over half a million pounds were destroyed within eighteen months. The ‘arson campaign’ continued right up to the outbreak of World War One. A case in point was Felixstowe, the quiet seaside town in Suffolk, flared, very literally, into the national news one day in April 1914. During the previous night the resort’s most exclusive hotel, the Bath Hotel, had been totally gutted by fire. Arson was immediately suspected, particularly when leaflets were picked up which had been scattered around the building:

There can be no peace until women get the vote!

No vote means war!

A few days later two visitors to the town, Hilda Burkett (31) and Florence Tunks (26) were arrested and charged with the crime. During their various judicial hearings, according to the press, the two women ‘behaved in a hysterical manner which we have now come to expect from fanatics whose devotion to a cause leads them into acts of terrorism’. They shouted, laughed and ridiculed the court. “I am not going to keep quiet,” cried Miss Burkett, when ordered to be silent, “I have come here to enjoy myself”. Reportedly ‘truculent and abusive to the last’, they eventually left the assize court at Bury St. Edmund’s, ‘screaming and shouting’, to begin long periods of imprisonment and hard labour. The damage to the hotel was in excess of ten thousand pounds.

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The arson campaign was the culmination of a long-standing demand for female suffrage. As early as 1832, the year that The Great Reform Act extended the franchise to propertied middle-class men, Mary Smith had presented the first female suffrage petition to parliament. In 1867, the year that some working men got the vote, the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee was established, quickly followed by suffrage associations in London, Edinburgh and Bristol. By the 1870s, suffrage societies existed all over Great Britain, from Orkney and Shetland to Brighton. In 1872, these local societies united to form a Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which became the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897, presided over by Millicent Fawcett. This became the largest suffrage organisation in the United Kingdom.


The arson campaign, however, was organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in 1903 with Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, at its head. Although initially, they concerned themselves with lobbying for the vote for women, they soon became disillusioned by the slow progress being made. In contrast to the NUWSS, they proposed a violent approach. From 1909 onwards, the violence of their attacks grew progressively until, by July 1910, a year after he had been attacked by the suffragette Theresa Garnett wielding a whip, Home Secretary Winston Churchill declared in parliament that he would not support the enfranchisement of women.


As with the rioting south Wales miners, on whom he had unleashed the Metropolitan Police and had threatened to unleash the troops earlier that year, earning himself a place in the demonology of the Labour movement, Churchill had at first been, on principle, tepidly sympathetic to the cause of votes for women, not least because his wife Clementine was a warm supporter of it. But as Asquith, at first a principled opponent, squirmed and procrastinated to the point of yielding a ‘Conciliation Bill’ intended to enfranchise women property owners, but then got the legislation snarled up in procedural delays, the patience of the WSPU had, not unreasonably, run out. Cabinet ministers were stalked and harassed, before being physically attacked. Churchill, among other MPs and government ministers, felt that this use of violence should not be given in to by the Government and that it had proved that these women terrorists, at least, were not presently worthy of ‘being given’ the vote and thereby access to the democratic constitutional rights of His Majesty’s law-abiding subjects.


Of course, the majority of King Edward VII’s female subjects had also been law-abiding, and not just the middle-class members of Mrs Fawcett’s nonviolent ‘suffragist’ movement. Working-class and lower-middle-class women were perhaps the main beneficiaries of social and economic, if not political, change before 1914. The preference for smaller families, which became more marked in the middle classes in the later nineteenth century, and had begun to spread to certain sections of the working classes in ‘Edwardian’ Britain, was making the lives of many married women considerably easier; and the coming of the typewriter and the telephone were among the developments which added more employment opportunities for girls and young women. More scholarships, often to the new schools and technical colleges gave bright young people of both sexes a better start in life than their parents had had.


All of these changes, however, were coming about slowly. There may have been more women teachers and nurses, shop assistants and telephonists, typists and machine-operators; but there was still a vast army in domestic service. Added to this, the Liberal government’s reforms which took piecemeal shape after their 1906 landslide electoral victory could not come about quickly enough for working-class families. Under increasing pressure from Labour MPs, old age pensions began to be paid by the state only at the beginning of 1909, and health and unemployment benefit did not begin until the beginning of 1913 after the battles with the Conservative majority in the House of Lords were won. Even after this, poverty was still alarmingly extensive in 1914. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many working-class men and women did not always see an automatic relationship between gaining the franchise and the improving their immediate conditions of life and labour. They were more likely to turn to the trades unions to achieve these improvements through more direct, syndicalist methods in this period.

Although Mrs Pankhurst’s slogan was ‘Votes for Women’, she only wanted women to get the vote on the same terms as men. Many working men did not have the vote since they owned no property, so Mrs Pankhurst didn’t want working women to have the vote either. When her own daughter, Sylvia, called for votes for working women, her mother had her thrown out of the suffragette movement.

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As Home Secretary faced with industrial action by revolutionary trades unionists in south Wales and elsewhere, and, at the same time, with mass suffragette demonstrations in Parliament Square, Churchill gave directives to the police not to arrest the demonstrators but, on the other hand, not to allow them access to parliament. Intended to be cautious, the guidelines for ‘handling’ what he imagined would be disorganised ‘crowds’ of women protesters were, in fact, a recipe for disaster. Thousands of women and their male sympathisers, extremely well-marshalled in phalanxes, pushed hard against the massed ranks of the police. Helmets were naturally knocked off in the mêlée, and rude words were exchanged. Spectators also gathered and the police found themselves in unknown territory, not being used to being mocked by one crowd and physically pressed by another. On 18 November 1910, ‘Bloody Friday’, the pushing and shoving turned into six hours of fighting, with the police manhandling and beating up as many suffragettes as they could get their hands on, and discovering, in their turn, the power and pain of the raking scratch and the well-aimed kick. Instead of zero arrests, as Churchill had wanted, there were 280 by the end of the day.

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Naturally enough, too, this only added fuel to the fire as far as the WSPU was concerned. Inside Holloway prison, following the lead of Mrs Pankhurst and Mrs Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, suffragette prisoners went on hunger strike and in response were brutally force-fed using metal clamps, rubber tubes and nauseous fluids that they usually vomited up again. Ice-cold water was hosed into some of their cells to a depth of six inches. Outside, the WSPU campaign was evidently targeting property, especially that associated with men’s stereotypical images of womanly behaviour. Stores such as Marshall & Snellgrove, Swears & Wells and Liberty had their big windows smashed in. The fancier streets of London – government offices in Whitehall, clubland in Pall Mall – became carpets of broken glass. Other sanctuaries of the British way of life were ‘shockingly’ violated. ‘Votes for Women’ was spelt out by acid-burns on the greens of golf-courses including one at Balmoral.


In the years 1912-14, WSPU members began making even more serious attacks on property. They had been deliberately encouraged to do so by Emmeline Pankhurst, speaking in the Albert Hall in October 1912:

Those of you who can break windows – break them! Those of you who can still further attack property so as to make the government realise that property is as greatly endangered by Women Suffrage as it was by the Chartists of old – do so! And my last words to the government: I incite this meeting to rebellion!

The arson campaign certainly brought the suffragettes, the militant wing of the movement, to public attention, but it also alienated many politicians who had been broadly in favour of reform and led the barring of suffragists, the moderate, propagandist wing, from large halls and other public platforms. In part, this escalation in violence was a response to the frustration at the slow rate of progress and the increasingly violent response of the police and prison officials. This was particularly noticeable after the hunger strikes of imprisoned suffragettes led to forced feeding and the passing of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act, better known as the Cat and Mouse Act, in April 1913:


One of the most militant of the suffragettes, Emily Wilding Davison, was constantly coming up with new tactics to take the women’s guerrilla war into the heartland of ‘the respectable classes’. First, she was caught standing by the Parliament Square postbox holding a paraffin-soaked piece of linen, about to light it. After a spell in prison, she then organised an attack on Lloyd George’s new house at Walton-on-the-Hill in Surrey, which succeeded in destroying half of it, although she was not caught in the act. And, finally and most famously, Emily achieved what to some has been seen as her evident wish for martyrdom by throwing herself under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby on 31 May 1913.

Although the suffragettes did indeed gain their first martyr by her Derby Day death, most recent historians writing about the event  refer to the evidence of close witnesses and those who knew her best, who regarded it as an accidental attempt to pin the suffragette colours in the form of a banner or sash onto the bridle of the first horse as it sped past, and not as an act of suicide. It just so happened that the king’s horse was in the lead when she launched herself from the rails. She was trampled under the horse, as pictured below, dying later from her injuries.

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The photograph below shows another arrest at the same demonstration, with Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial behind the mounted policeman:


The geography of the arson campaign was remarkably wide, the exception being Ireland, which was scarcely affected outside Dublin and northeast Ulster. There, feminists faced a dilemma as to whether they should support the campaign for national independence first and foremost. Most decided that this was their top priority over the campaign for female suffrage. Wales had many active suffragists but saw little of the arson campaign. Nonetheless, the campaign spread like wildfire throughout England and Scotland (see the map at the top of this article), in part because it was largely carried out by a relatively small group of highly mobile women.


The police, in general, showed little sympathy for the women’s cause. Indeed, it was the intolerance of protest shown by the authorities, and the government’s refusal to listen to the suffragettes, that drove them to violence.


By July 1914, the Liberal Government was only just in power, propped up by Labour and the moderate Irish nationalists in Parliament. Its programme of social reform lay behind it and a vast agenda of social unrest awaited it every day. The wave of strikes which had begun in 1910, continued to sweep through the country, leaving a legacy of bitterness on all sides, with every prospect of a ‘final’ confrontation in the autumn. Instead, Britain suddenly found itself going to war on the continent, and the same men who had been involved in strikes and clashes with the police just a few days before were now marching away to Flanders. On the declaration of war at the beginning of August 1914, the WSPU became overtly patriotic. Its paper, The Suffragette, was renamed Britannia and pledged itself… For King, For Country, For Freedom. The “hysterical, wild women” became “indomitable war-workers” almost immediately.


In July 1914 there had been 212,000 women employed in the various metal and engineering industries that were to become the ones most directly connected with war production. The figure for July 1915, 256,000, showed only a relatively small increase; but by July 1916 it was 520,000. By July 1917 the figure was 819,000. In industry as a whole, the total employment of women and girls over ten had increased by about 800,000 between 1914 and 1918.



The initial answer of the government to the shortage of labour was the Shells and Fuses Agreement whereby the unions would accept ‘dilution of labour’ for the duration of the war. In June 1915 the new coalition government dropped all pretence at negotiation on the question of existing practices in industry and introduced a Munitions of War Bill to force upon the unions the dilution of labour by unskilled men and women. While many trade union and labour leaders who supported the war acquiesced in the dilution of labour, others resisted this by demanding the rate for the job where new workers were introduced, a control of company profits and a guarantee that the men away at the front would have jobs to return to after the war.

011One of the effects of these protests and the continued agitation by women trade unionists was an amendment to the Munitions Act to give statutory force to ‘the rate for the job’ where women did the same skilled work as men. Tram, bus and railway companies were forced to pay the rate for the job when the women substituted for men and scores of unions took up the campaign on behalf of women at work. The unions emerged from the war with an increase of two and a half million members. Women and girls who had been unorganised domestic servants and working class housewives had been introduced to a range of jobs never before open to them and had thereby been brought into the organised trade union movement. The photographs below are of workers in a shell factory and oxide breaking at Beckton Gas Works.


The imposition of universal conscription in 1915 was an event of central importance in the social history of the war: it began the second and definitive growth in women’s employment and determined that the changes involved should go far beyond a limited expansion and of industrial labour, given additional piquancy by the entry for the first time into hard physical work of a few adventurous members of the upper classes. Just two weeks after the passing of the Act, the Government launched its first national drive to fill the places vacated or about to be vacated by men. The advent of so many female workers into the wartime labour force was already having a major impact on the general perception of the role of women in society. The editor of the Observer, J. L. Garvin, wrote in a leader on 13 August 1916:

Time was when I thought that men alone maintained the State. Now I know that men alone never could have maintained it, and that henceforth the modern State must be dependent on men and women alike for the progressive strength and vitality of its whole organisation.

For the Coalition government, E. S. Montague, Lloyd George’s successor as Minister of Munitions echoed the views of many others when he said, on 15 August 1916:

Women of every station… have proved themselves able to undertake work that before the war was regarded as solely the province of men… Where… is the man now who would deny to women the civil rights which she has earned by her hard work?


Above: Female guards employed on the London underground.

By February 1917, the total number of bus conductress had jumped up to around 2,500. Transport showed the biggest proportionate increase in women’s employment, from 18,000 in 1914 to 117,000 in 1918. After transport, the biggest proportional increases were in clerical, commercial, administrative and educational activities. In banking and finance, there was a fantastic rate of growth, from a mere 9,500 in 1914 to 63,700 in 1917, demonstrating the rise in importance of ‘the business girl’. In creating simultaneously a proliferation of Government Committees and departments and a shortage of men, the war brought a sudden and irreversible advance in the economic and social power of women civil servants.


Besides working as lamplighters and window cleaners, working-class women also did very heavy work in gasworks and foundries, carrying bags of coke and working among the furnaces. One of the simple remedies used when the women succumbed to the arduous conditions is remembered thus:

Many is the time the girls would be affected by the gas, the remedy being to walk them up and down in the fresh air, and then drink a bottle of Guinness.

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Outside the factories and foundries, women replaced men in making household deliveries, including milk and coal (above).  Despite repeated government-initiated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, however, these had not been conspicuously successful. In July 1915 there were about 20,000 fewer permanent female workers on the land than in July 1914. As in the case of domestic service, the war had liberated many women and girls from tied working relationships.

Active campaigning for votes for women had ceased with the war, but debates in 1917 about changing the law to re-enfranchise men who had served in the armed forces overseas for more than twelve months gave the NUWSS an opportunity to lobby again for female suffrage. On 29 March, Michael MacDonagh reported for The Times on the debate which took place in the House of Commons the previous day, which led to its voting by 341 to 62 in favour of Women’s suffrage to be included in a scheme of electoral reform which would come into operation at the end of the War:

The motion was moved by Asquith, who in a fine speech recanted the stout opposition which he gave to votes for women before the War. Women, he said, had worked out their own salvation in the War. The War could not have been carried on without them: and he felt it impossible that to withhold from them the right of making their voice heard on the problems of the country’s reconstruction when the War was over.

While the suffragettes ceased to exist after 1918, the suffragists continued to fight for universal female suffrage on the same basis as men. Millicent Fawcett agreed to negotiate the terms of a Reform Bill as it would affect women. Many men had supported the Suffragettes, but others still thought that their militant campaign showed that women were too unstable and unpredictable to be entrusted with the vote. Some soldiers at the Front saw it as a ploy by the Government to get married women to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, and one of them wrote home to his wife in no uncertain terms on the subject in May 1918:

Well, I am afraid there will be trouble if they try to take married women into the W.A.A.C. We men can stand a lot, but they are nearing the danger zone when they wish to force our wives into service. Goodness, the damned infernal impudence of wanting our wives! Why, if anyone came for you whilst I was at home, I’d slit his throat open. I’m not bragging, I’m saying what I mean. How little they understand us, they are running up against trouble with a vengeance, they will find they have signed their death warrant.

It has long been argued that it was the mass participation of women in the war effort – in industry (factories and munitions works), in transport (on the buses, tramways and railways), in the Civil Service, and in the Forces – which produced this result so deeply desired by the pre-war suffragist and suffragette movements. The Bill was not greeted with universal enthusiasm, however, nor were the means by which it was achieved always admired. The arson campaign had alienated many politicians, as it had women who had disapproved of the suffragettes’ rejection of conventional femininity or resented the upper-middle-class domination of the suffragette movement. Certainly, in 1918, Asquith continued to declare that women had proved themselves worthy of the vote by the way they had “aided in the most effective way the in the prosecution of the war”. Nevertheless, its terms were limited in their effects on female suffrage, as the historian Simon Schama has recently reminded us:

Would post-war Britain, then, as Lloyd George had promised, be a ‘country fit for heroes’? It would at any rate be a democracy of twenty-seven million, even if the vote at last given to women in 1918 began at the age of thirty whilst twenty-one-year-old men were deemed adult enough to exercise it; there would be no flapper franchise.  

Both the ‘flappers’ and the working-class heroines would have to wait for another decade until social attitudes to the role of women in society had changed more radically.  But broader changes in society, some hastened by the war, were decisive.

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The historian of ‘total war’, Arthur Marwick, has argued that to say that the war brought votes for women is to make a very crude generalisation, yet one which contains essential truth. The question of women’s rights needs to be seen in the context of social relationships and political change. He has pointed out that in 1914, the political advancement of women was still blocked by two great fortresses of prejudice: the vigorous hostility of men, and the often fearful reluctance… of many women. The war, he has argued, brought a new confidence to women, dissipated apathy, silenced the female anti-suffragists… Added to this, the replacement of militant… activity by frantic patriotic endeavour played its part as well. Above all, the concentrated shared experience showed up the absurdities of the many prejudices about what women were capable of.


Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses.

On 19 June 1917, the House of Commons accepted the female-suffrage clause in the Representation of the People Bill by 385 votes to 55. In the House of Lords, it was passed by a vote of 134 to 71. It became an Act of Parliament on 6 February 1918, giving the vote to women over 30 who were local government electors or married to them or who were university graduates. In other words, they had to meet a property qualification as well as being restricted by age compared with male adults. The basic and most important terms, as they affected both men and women were:

1. (I) A man shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector for a constituency (other than a university constituency) if he is of full age and not subject to any legal incapacity, and –

(a) has the requisite residence qualification; or

(b) has the requisite premises qualification… 

4. (1) A Woman shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector (other than a university constituency), if he or she –

(a) has attained the age of thirty years; and

(b) is not subject to any legal incapacity;

(c) is entitled to be registered as a local government elector in respect of the occupation in that constituency of land or premises (not being a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not less than five pounds or of a dwelling-house, or is the wife of a husband entitled to be so registered.

 (2) A woman shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector for a university constituency if she has attained the age of thirty years and… would be entitled to do so if she were a man…

(3) A woman shall be entitled to be registered as a local government elector

(a) where she would be entitled to vote if she were a man; and

(b) where she is the wife of a man who is entitled to be so registered…

Thus, although women’s war work helped to change the minds of many men towards female suffrage, the women who did most of the work on the ‘Home Front’, working-class women, were not among those who gained the vote at its conclusion.

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Margaret Bondfield in 1919.

Leading Labour figure and ‘adult suffragist’ Margaret Bondfield (pictured above) described the Act as “mean and inadequate … creating fresh anomalies”. Bondfield was born in humble circumstances and received a limited formal education. After serving an apprenticeship to an embroideress, she worked as a shop assistant in Brighton and London. She was shocked by the working conditions of shop staff, particularly within the “living-in” system, and became an active member of the shopworkers’ union, working untiringly to improve the conditions of shop assistants. She began to move in socialist circles, and in 1898 was appointed the assistant secretary of the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks (NAUSAWC). She was later prominent in several women’s socialist movements: she helped to found the Women’s Labour League (WLL) in 1906 and was chair of the Adult Suffrage Society (ASS). Her standpoint on women’s suffrage—she favoured extending the vote to all adults regardless of gender or property, rather than the limited “on the same terms as men” agenda pursued by the militant suffragists—divided her from the militant leadership.

Nevertheless, in the general election of 1918, 8.5 million women joined 12.9 million men in voting. The 1918 general election was also the first in which women could stand as MPs, and seventeen out of the 1,623 candidates were women. Only four were Labour candidates, even though the party supported female suffrage. The suspicion of many suffrage leaders of party politics was evident in the fact that of the seventeen candidates, eight were independents. Only one, Constance Markievicz, won a seat, as the Sinn Féin candidate for a Dublin constituency. As an Irish nationalist, however, she refused to sit in the House of Commons and joined the parliament in Dublin. It wasn’t until December 1919 that the first woman, Nancy Astor, took a seat in the Commons, after a by-election, replacing her husband, who had entered the House of Lords. She was neither a suffragist nor a political activist but did devote herself to the rights of women and children.

In November 1923 Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government fell. In the following month’s general election, more women were elected to Parliament in the General Election of 1923, including Margaret Bondfield (below) who had been elected President of the Trades Union Congress in May of the same year.


Bondfield was elected in Northampton with a majority of 4,306 over her Conservative opponent. She was one of the first three women—Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson were the others—to be elected as Labour MPs. In an outburst of local celebration her supporters, whom she described as “nearly crazy with joy”, paraded her around the town in a charabanc. In January 1924, she became Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Labour in the first Labour (minority) Government, at the same time turning down a chance to become the first woman Cabinet Minister. However, she lost her Northampton seat at the 1924 Election, being returned to Parliament in the Wallsend by-election of 1926.

It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women won the vote on the same terms as men. Even then, Winston Churchill, writing for The Sunday Pictorial in 1931, claimed that when a private member’s bill proposing this had come before Parliament in 1927:

The Conservative Party, especially its strongest elements, were much opposed to such a step. It would never have been carried through Mr Baldwin’s Cabinet if the ordinary processes of reasonable discussion and conclave had been followed. But here was a private member’s Bill, debated on a Friday. No-one took it very seriously. It fell to ‘Jix’ (Sir William Joynson Hicks, Home Secretary) to wind up the debate. Interrupted by Lady Astor, he quite unexpectedly, and without the slightest consultation with his colleagues, said that the Conservative Party would enfranchise men and women on the same terms ‘at the next election’. Two years later this formidable gesture had to be redeemed. Never was so great a change in our electorate achieved so incontinently.

Lord Birkenhead, writing on 13 April 1927 had expressed a similar opinion of the proposition:

The Cabinet went mad yesterday, and decided to give votes to women at the age of twenty-one. Every speaker was against the proposal on its merits. It was universally conceded that there was no demand for change in the country. We were nevertheless to be precluded from voting according to our convictions by a pledge which our light-hearted colleague, had given to a Private Member’s Bill on a Friday, with the Prime Minister sitting beside him. It was not even argued that any Cabinet decision had authorised a change so dangerous and so revolutionary. But against the strong protest of Winston, myself and others, it was decided that we were such honourable men that we could not possibly fall short of a pledge which was delivered without even the pretence of consulting the Cabinet.

The following summer, the private member’s Bill had been replaced by a government-sponsored Equal Franchise Bill. The Bill proposed to repeal and amend the 1919 Representation of the People Act by providing that the parliamentary franchise shall be the same for men and women. Therefore, subsections (1) and (2) of Section Four (see above) were to be repealed and replaced with the following clauses:

(1) A person shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector for a constituency… if he or she is of full age and not subject to any legal incapacity; and

(a) has the requisite residential qualification; or

(b) has the requisite business qualification; or

(c) is the husband or wife of a person entitled to be so registered in respect of a business premises qualification…

A new clause was then to be added,

for the purpose of providing that the local government franchise shall be the same for men and women:

4. (1) Every person registered as a Parliamentary elector for any constituency shall, while so registered (and in the case of a woman notwithstanding sex or marriage) be entitled to vote at an election of a member to serve in Parliament for that constituency… 


Regardless of the Conservative male opposition faced in the Commons, the Bill was passed on 2 July 1928, becoming the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act. The vote on the ‘equal vote’ came shortly after the death of Emmeline Pankhurst, at the age of sixty-eight in June (pictured above).  Ellen Wilkinson, by then one of a number of women Labour MPs elected under the franchise of 1918 was one of the feminine voices now raised in its favour alongside that of Nancy Astor. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this quieter ‘revolution’ in women’s rights became associated in the popular picture press with other changes in women’s lifestyles in the decade, including new fashions associated with the ‘jazz era’ and the ‘dance craze’:


The ‘flapper Vote’ helped the Labour Party to form its first majority government the following year, and Margaret Bondfield became the only female minister in MacDonald’s Cabinet, returning to the Ministry of Labour.



Margaret Bondfield (top left)

Margaret Bondfield’s term of cabinet office in 1929–31 serves as a fitting post-script to the fight for women’s suffrage, marked as it was by the economic crises that beset the second Labour government and also demonstrating the challenges facing women in power. The Baldwin Government’s response to the problem of the onset of long-term mass unemployment in the ‘distressed areas’ had been to establish the Industrial Transference Board in January 1928, under the Ministry of Labour. Neville Chamberlain had been insistent that nothing should be done to detract from the policy of transferring unemployed men, boys and girls, out of these areas to the more prosperous new industry towns of the Midlands and South-East Of England and Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, Bondfield’s predecessor as Minister of Labour,  had echoed this view. Winston Churchill, however, had attempted to bring relief of a different kind to the depressed areas. He had been responsible for major sections of the Local Government Act of 1929 which reformed the Poor Law and brought about de-rating and a system of block grants. He had seen this as a means of relieving industry in these areas and combating depression. In a speech on the Bill in the House of Commons, he had argued that it was…

… much better to bring industry back to the necessitous areas than to disperse their population, as if you were removing people from a plague-stricken or malarious region.

This view had not been supported by Chamberlain, however, who saw in the Bill a means for the more careful management of local authorities, rather than a means of equalising the effect of low rateable values of these areas. Despite Churchill’s more radical stance on the issue, there is no evidence in the cabinet and ministerial papers of the Labour Government of 1929-31, to suggest that Bondfield, as its Minister of Labour, wanted to abandon the transference policy as the main means of dealing with the problem of unemployment, though they did not consider that its continuance should exclude attempts to attract industries to the depressed areas or to develop public works schemes which could, temporarily, absorb some of the unemployed. However, the widespread nature of unemployment in these years, together with the lack of imagination and ineptitude of J. M. Thomas as Minister for Employment, the bureaucratic resistance of the Civil Service and the innate conservatism of Philip Snowden at the Treasury, and the impact of the general economic crises which beleaguered this administration, precluded either the possibility of a radical response to the problem of unemployment or the effective operation of the transference scheme.

As the cost of unemployment benefits mounted, Bondfield’s attempts to control the fund’s deficit provoked further hostility from her former colleagues at the TUC and political attacks from the opposition parties. In February 1931 she proposed a scheme to cut benefit and restrict entitlement, but this was rejected by the cabinet as too harsh. Bondfield was prepared to cut general unemployment benefit, provided the neediest recipients—those on so-called “transitional benefit”—were protected.  Her willingness to contemplate cuts in unemployment benefits, including its abolition for married women, alienated her from much of the Labour movement, and the Labour government soon fell as a result.

When the National Government was formed in August 1931, although claiming to admire the PM for his courageous stance, Margaret Bondfield refused to follow him back into government and almost inevitably lost her seat again at the next election.  It was to be another fourteen long years before more women returned to government, Ellen Wilkinson and Barbara Castle, joining Attlee’s post-war Labour Cabinet. Wilkinson, who as MP for Jarrow, led the famous Jarrow March of the unemployed men from the Tyneside shipyard town, became Minister of Education.

Margaret Bondfield continued to work for the rights of women workers until she died in 1953; despite her years of service to party and union, and her successes in breaking through gender boundaries, she has not been greatly honoured by the Labour movement. According to Barbara Castle, Bondfield’s actions in office had brought her close to a betrayal of the movement. Whatever element of truth there may be in that judgement, it was certainly the case that with the downfall of the Labour Government and the bitter feud that followed, the forward march of reforming working-class women into government was effectively halted until after 1945.


These Tremendous Years, 1919-1938 (unknown author/ publisher), 1939/40.

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

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

Theo Baker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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

Simon Schama (2003), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Joanna Bourke, et. al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.



Britain Sixty Years Ago (VII): Between Two Worlds, 1958-63   Leave a comment

Notting Hill, 1958 and After: Pity the Poor Immigrant…?


Just as in the time of the Blair-Brown administrations of a decade ago, sixty years ago it was not regarded as respectable to express concerns about immigration to Britain, much less to voice anti-immigrant feeling. At both ends of the fifty year period of general prosperity, the elite turned its eyes and ears away from the door-slamming and shunning, and escaped into well-meant, windy generalities about the brotherhood of man and fellow-citizens of the Crown, or more latterly vacuous epithets about celebrating a mythological multi-cultural Cool Britannia, a land at ease with itself.  Most of the hostility was at the level of street culture, mostly covert and casual but occasionally overtly aggressive and violent, organised or orchestrated by white gangs of ‘nigger-hunting’ Teddy boys and small groups of right-wing extremists. The main motivation seems to have been young male testosterone-led territory-marking.



From Austerity to Affluence: Britain, 1945-64.

This all came to a head in 1958 with the Notting Hill riots, more an event which symbolised change than one of real, bloody slaughter. In reality, no-one was killed in the rampaging and, by the standards of later rioting, there was little physical damage to either people or property. The trouble actually started in the poor St Ann’s district of Nottingham and only spread to London’s Notting Hill a day later. On 18 August, the Times reported on the Nottingham fight between coloured and white people and how some Conservative MPs saw it as a red light warning of further troubles to come. They intended to renew their demand for control to be placed on immigration from the Commonwealth and the colonies when Parliament reassembled in October. Thirty of them had already signed a motion (never debated) during the previous session, which had expressed their disquiet over…

… the continuing influx of indigent immigrants from the Commonwealth and colonies, thousands of whom have immediately sought National Assistance.

Even before the outbreak of the riots at Notting Hill, Norman Pannell, Tory MP for the Kirkdale division of Liverpool and leader of this group, had tabled a similarly worded resolution on the agenda of their autumn Party Conference. Pannell had commented to the Times the previous day:

The Nottingham fighting is a manifestation of the evil results of the present policy and I feel that unless some restriction is imposed we shall create the colour-bar we all wish to avoid… The object of my representation is to get some control, not to bar all Commonwealth immigration, but to see that the immigrants shall not be a charge on public funds, and that they are deported when they are guilty of serious crimes.

Yet what happened at Notting Hill was a large and deeply unpleasant outbreak of anti-immigrant violence which ran for a total of six days, across two late summer weekends. It was no coincidence that Notting Hill was the area where the rioting happened as distinct from, say, Brixton, which also had a very large and visible black population by the mid-fifties. Notting Hill had the most open, well-known street culture for black people, with Soho on one side and the new BBC headquarters on the other. This sub-culture was also well-advertised and celebrated by hacks, broadcasters and novelists. Known for its gambling dens and drinking-clubs, it also had a resentful and impoverished white population and, more importantly, in the words of two historians of British immigration put it:

It had multi-occupied houses with families of different races on each floor. It had a large population of internal migrants, gypsies and Irish, many of them transient single men, packed into a honeycomb of rooms with communal kitchens, toilets and no bathrooms.

Into this honeycomb poured a crowd first of tens, and then of hundreds of white men, armed first with sticks, knives, iron railings and bicycle chains, and soon with petrol-bombs too. They were overwhelmingly young,  mostly from nearby areas of London, and looking for trouble. They began by picking on small groups of blacks caught out on the streets, beating them and chasing them. They then moved to black-occupied houses and began smashing windows. The crowds swelled out until they were estimated at more than seven hundred strong, whipped up by the occasional neo-fascist agitator, but much more directed by local whites. Racist songs and chants of ‘niggers out’, the smashing of windows – although some local whites protected and fought for their black neighbours – this was mob violence of a kind that Brits thought they had long left behind. They shrunk away again, however, at the sight of black men making a stand, and fighting back with petrol bombs. There were a hundred and forty arrests, mainly of white youths, and though far-right parties continued to organise in the area, there was no discernible electoral impact, or indeed any more serious trouble. The huge press coverage ensured, however, that Britain went through its first orgy of national naval-gazing about its liberalism and its immigration policy, while overseas racist régimes such as those of South Africa and Rhodesia mocked their hang-wringing British cousins.

After the riots, many black people did ‘go home’. Returns to the Caribbean soared to more than four thousand. There, West Indian governments expressed outrage at the riots and made it clear that there would be no action by them to restrict migration in order to appease lawless white thugs. The Commonwealth retained a loose association between Crown, obligation and common citizenship which felt real to politicians of both parties. Pressure to close the open border for Commonwealth citizens hardly increased in the Tory Party after the Notting Hill riots, though extra-parliamentary campaigns, such as the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, did spring up. Of course, given that the violence was directed against immigrants by whites, it would have been grossly unfair had the first reaction been to send people home. Labour was wholly against restricting immigration, arguing that it would be disastrous to our status within the Commonwealth. 

The Notting Hill Carnival, begun the following year, was an alternative response, celebrating black culture openly. For many black migrants, the riots marked the beginning of assertion and self-organisation. They were looked back on as a ‘racial Dunkirk’, the darkest moment after which the real fightback began. Even in the ‘darkest’ days of 1958, there was a lighter side to the popular street culture which those ‘journalists’ who dared or bothered to walk the same streets, discovered for themselves. An Irish informant told T R Fyvel, author of The Insecure Offenders (1961) that the excessive interest of Teddy Boys in their own and each other’s clothes and hair-styles revealed a basic effeminacy and nothing else:

If you look into the motive you will find it was largely jealousy… of the girls for being the centre of attention. They just couldn’t stand not having it all to themselves. If you had listened to these Teds as I did when they stood about in dance-halls, all you would hear about was clothes and style. One would say: “I paid seventeen guineas for this suit at so-and-so’s”, the other, “I paid this new Jew tailor nineteen guineas for mine.” They could talk literally for hours about styles and cut and prices, the way you usually only hear women talk. But even if they all weren’t effeminate, though I know some of them were, the main thing with these Teds was that they had to outshine the way the girls dressed by the way they themselves were dressed. The Teddy boy was always the person who had to stand out.


Within the young British West Indian community, clothes and hair did not need to be of a certain cut or style at this time; it was the “patois” which had a special role as a token of identity. But it was not a simple role for newly arrived immigrants, as one Jamaican schoolgirl living in London explained the complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican Creole in Jamaica, but that made it almost obligatory in London:

It’s rather weird ‘cos when I was in Jamaica I wasn’t really allowed to speak it (Jamaican Creole) in front of my parents. I found it difficult in Britain at first. When I went to school I wanted to be like the others in order not to stand out. So I tried speaking the patois as well … You get sort of a mixed reception. Some people say, “You sound really nice, quite different.” Other people say, “You’re a foreigner, speak English. Don’t try to be like us, ‘cos you’re not like us.”

Despite this mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it, “after a year, I lost my British accent, and was accepted.” But this was not, strictly speaking, Jamaican English. For many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was of a stylised form that was not, as they heard it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians had arrived from all over the Caribbean. Another British West Indian schoolgirl, who was born in Britain, was teased for her patois when she visited the Caribbean for the first time:

 I haven’t lived in Jamaica, right? But what I found  when I went out there was that when I tried to speak Jamaican (Creole) they laughed at me. They said I’m trying to copy them and I don’t sound right and that. They want me to speak as I speak now.

The experience convinced her that “in London, the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ‘Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into Patois as well.” By the early 1980s, investigators found that there were white children in predominantly black schools who used the British West Indian patois in order to be acceptable to the majority of their friends:

I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast. 

On the other hand, the same schoolboy knew that the creole was something for a special set of circumstances:

But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.

The unconscious racism of such comments points to the predicament faced by British black people. Not fully accepted, for all the rhetoric, by the established white community, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British, even by the 1980s. This was the poignant outcome of what British black writer Caryl Phillips called, The Final Passage. Phillips came to Britain in the late 1950s himself, and was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:

The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic schizophrenia – you have an identity crisis that mirrors the larger cultural confusion. 

His novel, The Final Passage, is narrated in Standard English, but the speech of the characters is obviously a rendering of nation language:

I don’t care what anyone tell you, going to England be good for it going raise your mind. For a West Indian boy like you just being there is an education, for you going see what England do for sheself … it’s a college for the West Indian.

The lesson of this college for the West Indian is, as Phillips put it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well.

The new ‘youth’ styles of late-fifties Britain, expressing themselves partly, as almost everything else in the period did, in terms of consumption patterns, also indicated subtle shifts in attitude and outlook: but no-one changed their life-chances by becoming a Teddy Boy or Mod. It can’t be said that adult members of the official culture displayed much sympathy into either of the ‘dreams’, of freedom or recognition, that Ray Gosling gave voice to in the following extracts, first of all from the BBC Programme, It’s My Life, and secondly from his article Dream Boy, which appeared in the New Left Review of May/June 1960:

I remember coming out of the Elephant & Castle, the big theatre at the corner, the Trocadero, and it was after seeing the Bill Haley film, ‘Rock Around the Clock’, and we all went down the Old Kent Road, and at the end… all the fire engines were there, and they got their hoses all ready, and it was a… terrible big thing. You felt you were it. Not only because you were young, but you felt the rest of your lives would be, well, ordered by you and not ordered by other people. We felt we could do anything we bloody well wanted, … anything at all, nothing could stop you. You were the guv’ner – you were the king. The world was free – the world was open.

The dreamland is always, like the win on the pools, just around the corner. The man with the big cigar from up West who discovers The Boy, and buys him up, never arrives … The haze that surrounds the life of The Boy is a fog of fear, and not the mist about to rise on a dazzling dawn of success. He lives in Birmingham, not Hollywood, a dead Empire in a sunset world, yet still hopes that somehow, an Eden will pull off the trick, Super Mac will open those golden gates, and here along the M1 the orange trees of California will begin to blossom … And so this boy with everyone and everything against him, plays out his own private drama to the fuggy street, with his god on a chain round his neck, his girl clinging to his arm. Against all of them: in search of the heaven he sees on the glossy page, the screen, and the hoarding.


When the BBC Radio Any Questions panel was asked to comment on the events surrounding the showing of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, Mary Stocks remarked that young people were merely exhibiting a sort of unexpended animal spirits; Lord Boothby, the newspaper proprietor and Conservative politician, expressed the view that he’d rather they all wet off to Cairo and started teddy-boying around there, while Jeremy Thorpe, the future Liberal Party leader, said that Jazz to me comes from the jungle and this is jungle music taken to its logical conclusion. This is musical Mau-Mau.

Meanwhile, back in ‘darkest’ Notting Hill, not long after the riots, the intrepid reporter, T R Fyvel, was being enlightened by a youth leader about the increased use of ‘the gramophone’. Re-invented as ‘the record-player’, they were far cheaper than ever before, and cheap vinyl records were mass-produced for the first time, adding to the international popularity of performers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bill Hayley and the Comets, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Although cheap, they were beyond the pockets of most individual teenagers or their families, for whom the TV was still a greater priority, so youth clubs like that run by Fyvel’s informant became a means of ‘putting a roof over the street’ under which young people could share the listening experience:  

Record-players are the thing these days among the boys. You just don’t find a house without one; they’re just about taking the place of the telly, expensive ones, too. Television seems to mean little to the youngsters these days – the only thing they bother to watch is boxing and football – but it’s remarkable how well they know the records. Even little girls at the club will ask if we’ve got the latest hit, “Babyface” or something. Tunes are the one subject where you can be sure of getting them to talk.   


However, for some young Britons, epitomised by Jimmy Porter, the character in Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, it was pretty dreary living in the American age, unless you’re an American, of course. The cold, statistical reality was that the number of British youths in the age-group seventeen to twenty-one convicted for violence against the person had risen to 2,051 in 1958, from 745 in 1954. By 1958 this new development was also apparent to the legal authorities. For example, in London and the Home Counties one magistrate after the other made comment on the fact that the criminal minority among young people had become noticeably much larger and more criminal. This increase in crime statistics was most alarming in the smaller towns and rural areas in the Home Counties. Noting that crime in Berkshire had risen by a third in the course of two years, the Chief Constable of that still largely rural county said, on 9th April 1958, that the average age of those responsible for burglary and other breaking-in offences was under twenty. In neighbouring Buckinghamshire, the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, Lord Birkett remarked:

There are thirty-six prisoners and of these there are no less than twenty-two who are twenty-one and under: among these, one is nineteen, two are eighteen, seven are seventeen, and five are only sixteen. Everyone reviews such a state of affairs with a profound taste of dissatisfaction, in these days when so much is done for the care and protection of the young.

It’s difficult to isolate specific causes of these social trends, but one general cause may have been that there were no good ’causes’ left for most young working-class people to fight for. John Osborne, the controversial playwright, expressed this sense of aimlessness through one of his characters, Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger:

I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave courses left. If the big bang comes, and we all get killed off, it won’t be in aid of the old-fashioned grand design. It’ll just be for the Brave-New-nothing- very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.


Another cause of the increase in street-level violence and crime was the social alienation fuelled by the new vogue for high-rise flats, about which I have written in another post in this series. But, as the title of Osborne’s play reminds us, the fifties did see the rise of the Angry Young Men, and women, and led to the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  When the first ragged ranks of ‘CND’ swung into view on the first day of their march from London to Aldermaston in Berkshire, one Londoner, observing, commented to a radio reporter:

This must be a bunch of bloody psychotics, trying to extrovert their own psychic difficulties, you know, to neither end nor purpose. It’s like a bunch of tiny dogs yapping at the back door to the big house – it will accomplish sweet nothing.


René Cutforth, the distinguished radio commentator and journalist, however, thought that the marchers might just be the only people left alive. Certainly, the shadow of what Jimmy Porter had called ‘the big bang’ lengthened across the whole face of ‘affluent Britain’ throughout this whole thirty-year period from the late fifties onward, and nothing the bunch of bloody psychotics, including myself, did could raise it an inch. Yet the ‘extra-parliamentary politics’ which so changed the face of political life in the western world in the succeeding decades, and which so powerfully crystallised the popular mood of protest and dissent against the enforced calm of ‘prosperous Britain’, had its beginnings here: it was fired in this highly respectable and law-abiding crucible. 


The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the fifties prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. Only after Macmillan’s 1959 general election victory did pressure really begin to build up for some kind of restriction on immigration to Britain. Opinion polls began to show increasing hostility to the open-door policy. Perhaps just as important, both the Ministry of Labour and the Home Office wanted a change to help deal with the new threat of unemployment. This was a case of the political class being pushed reluctantly into something which offended the notion of their place in the world, the father-figures of a global Commonwealth. One study of immigration points out that what was truly remarkable was the passive acceptance by politicians and bureaucrats of Britain’s transformation into a multicultural society:

Immigration was restricted a full four years after all measures of the public mood indicated clear hostility to a black presence in Britain, and even then it was only done with hesitation. 

However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe and events such as the Notting Hill race riots in 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British citizenship. When, in 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act finally passed into law, it was notably liberal, at least by later standards, assuming the arrival of up to forty thousand legal immigrants a year with the complete right of entry for their dependents.


Even so, it had only gone through after a ferocious parliamentary battle, with the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell making an emotional appeal and passionate attacks on a measure which was still privately opposed by some of the Tory ministers opposite him. One particularly contentious issue was that the Republic of Ireland was allowed a completely open border with Britain, which exists to this day. This may have seemed only practical politics given the huge number of Irish people living and working in Britain, but it offended in two ways. By discriminating in favour of a country which had been neutral in the war with Hitler and declared itself a republic, but against Commonwealth countries which had stood with Britain, it infuriated many British patriots. Secondly, by giving Irish people a better deal than Indians or West Indians it seemed frankly racialist.

Although the 1962 Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect. The new law created a quota system which gave preference to skilled workers and those with firm promises of employment. In order to beat it, a huge new influx of people migrated to Britain in 1961, the biggest group from the Caribbean, but also almost fifty thousand from India and Pakistan and twenty thousand Hong Kong Chinese. Fearful of losing the right of free entry, in the eighteen months before the restrictions were introduced, the volume of newcomers equalled the total for the previous five years. One historian of immigration puts the paradox well: in the three-year period from 1960 to 1963, despite the intense hostility to immigration, …

… more migrants had arrived in Britain than had disembarked in the whole of the twentieth century up to that point. The country would never be the same again.

Back to the Future: A New Relationship with Europe?

After the Treaty of Rome took effect at the beginning of 1958, French attitudes towards future British membership of the European Economic Community hardened. General de Gaulle, who had felt humiliated by Churchill during the war, returned as President of France, too late to stop the new European system, which he had opposed on the basis of his ‘nation-statism’, from taking shape. He, therefore, determined that it should be dominated by France and made to serve French national interests. Macmillan, always a keen European, became worried. Various British plots intended to limit the six founders and hamper their project had failed. London had tried to rival the new Common Market with a group of the ‘excluded’ countries; Britain, Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, calling it the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

‘The Seven’ as they called themselves, were nevertheless smaller in population than ‘the Six’ and were also more geographically scattered and far less united. Roy Jenkins, future Home Secretary and ardent pro-European, described EFTA as a foolish attempt to organise a weak periphery against a strong core. By 1959 Macmillan was worrying that,

… for the first time since the Napoleonic era, the major continental powers are united in a positive economic grouping, with considerable political aspects …

… which might cut Britain out of Europe’s main markets and decisions. In his diaries, he wrote of his alarm at the prospect of a boastful, powerful ‘Empire of Charlemagne’ – now under French, but bound to come under German control. There was much self-deception about the possible deal that could be struck, which would need to combine the sovereignty of the British Parliament and the interests of farmers throughout the Commonwealth with the protectionist system of the EEC. Macmillan was willing to sacrifice sovereignty if a deal could be reached. He might have seemed as safely steeped in tradition as country houses, but he had nothing like the reverence for the House of Commons felt by Enoch Powell or Hugh Gaitskell. But Gaitskell and the Labour Party had seriously underrated Macmillan from the outset of his premiership. In his Memoirs (1964), the Earl of Kilmuir wrote of him:

His calm confidence, courtesy and sharpness in debate, his quick-wittedness under pressure, and, above all, his superb professionalism, unnerved and disconcerted his opponents until he secured a quite astonishing psychological superiority in the Commons. Gaitskell never quite succeeded in getting Macmillan’s measure, and his ponderous tactics gave the Prime Minister a series of opportunities which he did not miss…

He imparted confidence to his colleagues and the Party in Parliament, and their confidence spread to the constituencies. It was a remarkable example of how a political revival must start from the top. 

… Macmillan’s refusal to have an ‘inner Cabinet’ of a few intimate friends was a source of strength and not of weakness. Imperturbable, hard-working, approachable, and courageous; he exercised a personal domination over his colleagues not seen in British politics since Churchill’s wartime administration. If it is alleged that Macmillan was singularly lucky after 1958, no man deserved it more. He led the country out of the bitter-black aftermath of Suez, gave them the unflurried leadership for which they craved, and proved himself a worthy successor to Churchill.

In the early sixties, the battle over Britain’s sovereignty, which was to dominate its internal politics for the next sixty years, was postponed because British entry was ruthlessly and publicly blocked. President De Gaulle was due to come to Britain for talks and told the Prime Minister that, rather than visit Downing Street, he would prefer to come to his private home, Birch Grove in Sussex. The two men had worked closely together during the war in North Africa and De Gaulle was grateful to Macmillan personally for his support when, as leader of the Free French, Roosevelt and Churchill had wanted to kick him out of the French government-in-exile which was being formed in advance of liberation. However, De Gaulle had also left North Africa more than ever convinced of the danger to France of a coming Anglo-American alliance which would soon try to dominate the world.

Following a series of domestic disputes at Birch Grove, the two men exchanged blunt views. Macmillan argued that European civilization was threatened from all sides and that if Britain was not allowed to join the Common Market, he would have to review everything, including keeping British troops in Germany. If De Gaulle wanted an “empire of Charlemagne” it would be on its own. The French President replied that he didn’t want Britain to bring in its “great escort” of Commonwealth countries – the Canadians and Australians were no longer Europeans; Indian and African countries had no place in the European system, and he feared Europe being “drowned in the Atlantic”. In short, he simply did not believe that Britain would ditch its old empire; and if it did, he thought it would be a Trojan horse for the Americans.

These seem like formidable objections, points of principle that should have been as a clear warning. Yet the detailed and exhaustive talks about British entry dragged on despite them. Edward Heath made sixty-three visits to Brussels, Paris and other capitals, covering fifty thousand miles as he haggled and argued. By then Macmillan was a fast-fading figure. A natural intriguer who had risen to power on the bloodied back of Eden, he was obsessed by possible political coups against him, and increasingly worried about the state of the economy. He was failing in Europe and looked old when seen alongside the young President Kennedy. Even a master illusionist like Macmillan had to face political reality.

The illusion with the most profound consequences was the economic one. In his 1958 book, The Affluent Society, J K Galbraith intended to sketch an outline of a developed society which had in large part solved the problem of production and would concentrate its energies on the challenges of distribution and redistribution. The class struggle was obsolete, so also were the ideologies which sought to justify it. Politics would no longer involve large general choices but disagreement over more limited and piecemeal issues. Uncritical transference of Galbraith’s thesis into the British context helped obscure the fact that Britain had not, in fact, solved its economic problems. The optimism of the early 1950s was perfectly understandable, but this miracle was built on temporary and fortuitous circumstances.

From 1955, Britain was bedevilled by a series of sterling crises which gradually forced upon the attention of politicians problems they wished to avoid. In 1955, when, as a result of a Government-assisted boom in industrial development, demand began to run ahead of capacity and the economy became over-strained, R. A. Butler, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, deliberately pushed up by raising purchase tax on a wide range of goods, and at the same time a number of measures were taken to discourage capital investment. Butler’s policy was followed by his two successors at the Treasury and only reversed at the onset of the recession in 1958. By then, the policy had eventually succeeded in slowing down the pace of wage increases, one of the major factors behind the 1955 inflation. But it took nearly three years to do so, at the cost of a virtually complete standstill and a number of financial crises and major industrial disputes.

One particularly unfortunate aspect of this period was the Government’s attempts to restrict investment in the public sector, an attempt which was largely unsuccessful because of the long-term nature of most of the projects involved, which made it quite impossible to turn them on and off like a tap to meet the short-term fluctuations in the economy.  If, by the time he made his famous election speech in 1959, Macmillan’s illusion of continuing affluence was already unsupported by the economic evidence, by the time he gave his interview to the Daily Mail in 1961, the claim that… We’ve got it good: Let’s keep it good was well past its ‘sell-by date’. As Sked and Cook (1979) pointed out in their reflections on the ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’, the Tories had, in fact, done very little in their fiscal policies from 1951-64, to pay attention to Britain’s sluggish economic growth or the problems created by the country’s superficial prosperity:

  … the Government sat back and did nothing in the belief that there was nothing to do, and for most of the time their energy was devoted  to maintaining Britain as a world power whatever the cost to the economy … 

Moreover, Tory economic complacency ensured that the necessary economic growth would never be generated. Not enough money was channelled into key industries; stop-go policies undermined the confidence of industry to invest in the long-term, and too much money was spent on defence…

With the economic crises of the early 1960s … it began to be apparent that Tory affluence would soon come to an end. The scandals of the Macmillan era merely served to reinforce the impression that a watershed had been reached in the country’s history and foreign affairs seemed to reach another lesson…  

In 1962 US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain has lost an empire: she has not yet found a role. The failure to rethink her world role was as evident in diplomacy as in economics. Macmillan foresaw and expedited the final liquidation of Empire, but he had few ideas about what to put in its place. The special relationship with the United States was to remain the cornerstone of British policy. But without the Empire, the relationship was bound to become one of master and servant. These illusions blinded Macmillan to the far-reaching changes occurring in Europe.

After a further unpopular budget in the spring of 1962, Macmillan drafted an alternative policy based on more planning and decided to sack his Chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd. The news was leaked to the papers, and over a brutal and panicky twenty-four hours in July, Macmillan expanded the circle of his sackings more widely, in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Macmillan called in and dismissed a third of his cabinet ministers from their jobs without notice. Macmillan’s own official biographer described it as an act of carnage unprecedented in British political history. However, compared with more recent cabinet ‘re-shuffles’ which happen with far greater frequency, many of those sacked then deserved to lose their jobs.

In November, Macmillan returned to his arguments with De Gaulle. This time, he went to France, to the grand chateau of Rambouillet, south of Paris, a venue used by French Presidents for summits as well as for holidays. After a round of pheasant-shooting, de Gaulle expressed his objections to British EEC membership even more aggressively. If Britain wanted to choose Europe, it would have to cut its special ties with the United States. At one point, Macmillan broke down in tears of frustration at the General’s intransigence, leading de Gaulle to comment later to his cabinet:

This poor man , to whom I had nothing to give, seemed so sad, so beaten that I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and say to him, as in the Edith Piaf song, “Ne pleurez pas, milord”.

Cruel or not, it was a significant moment for Macmillan, for the Tories and for Britain. When, a few months later, in early 1963, De Gaulle’s “Non” was abruptly announced in a Paris press conference, it caused huge offence in Britain. A visit to Paris by Princess Margaret was cancelled. At the England-France rugby international at Twickenham a few days later, England won six-five. The captain of the English team had assured Ted Heath, the failed negotiator, that he had had a word with the team before the game, telling them…

… this was an all-important game. Everyone knew what I meant and produced the necessary …

Macmillan himself bitterly recorded in his diary that the French always betray you in the end. 



Theo Baker (ed., 1978), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Educational.

Asa Briggs, Joanna Bourke et. al. (eds., 2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran & Robert MacNeil (1986), The Story of English. Harmonsworth: Penguin Books.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Britain Sixty Years Ago (V): With Love and Laughter.   Leave a comment

In mid-fifties’ Britain, political satire, exuberantly popular in Georgian times, now returned in full force with the advent of the new media of radio and TV. It also featured savage cartoons in the newspapers, staged lampoons and fortnightly mockery in the magazine Private Eye. Among the two million regular listeners to The Goon Show in the mid-fifties were key members of the next generation of comics, men like Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook. The Goons passed the baton to Beyond the Fringe, which passed it to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, from where it went to Little Britain. Each generation built on the humour of the previous one, changed it and then passed it on. Peter Cook, Spike Milligan’s only rival as the outstanding comic genius of his age, sent a schoolboy script to Milligan at the BBC which was good enough for him to be invited up to London for lunch. In turn, the group of comedians who became known as The Pythons were transfixed by Cook and his friends. In the decade that they grew up after the war, Britain was still dominated by the private schools, which were often bleak institutions. The austerity years meant little heating, poor food and few modern facilities, a life conditioned by brutal customs and petty hierarchies often dating back before the Edwardian years to the founding of many of the ‘public schools’ in mid-Victorian times.

Peter Cook’s school, Radley in Oxfordshire, still ’employed’ a régime  which deployed frequent beatings, cold showers, complicated dress codes, compulsory star-jumps, thumpings with hockey sticks for minor transgressions, and a great deal of other forms of bullying, all of which went undeterred by the staff. This forced bright but vulnerable children like Cook to develop mimickry and mockery to deflect bullies. He would make people laugh so that they wouldn’t hit him. Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye, attended Shrewsbury School, whose new boys were called ‘douls’ after the Greek for slave; its day started with cold baths; it too had a byzantine dress code, involving different colours of scarf, tie and waistcoat, and when the whole school was sent on cross-country runs, the boys were chased by men with whips. Ingram’s humour was less about mimickry and more about writing mock school magazines with Paul Foot, son of the Labour leader Michael, and Willie Rushton. In many ‘public-private’ schools, such as at John Cleese’s Clifton College in Bristol, boys developed underground languages to cope with their aggressive, closed communities. They knew little of women, which meant that the humour that emerged from them was often ridiculously naive about sex. They were rarely politically radical, since they were from a privileged élite. Cook’s father had been a colonial civil servant in Nigeria and Gibraltar. Ingrams was the son of an eccentric banker and intelligence agent, a one-time member of a pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship Society, and a Catholic mother whose father had been doctor to Queen Victoria. Both men were brought up to look down on the working classes as essentially inferior and comic. Their satire was biting, with underlying layers of anger and hurt. But it would be very public schoolboyish as well, involving much juvenile tittering and snobbery.

The brightest of these ‘boys’ then went on to Cambridge or Oxford, still then mainly male societies, and where in those days there was a direct line from the world of Oxbridge student reviews, like The Cambridge Footlights to the West End theatres. Future satirists mingled with fellow students who would go on to become politicians and business leaders. Peter Cook’s generation at Cambridge in 1957 included the later Conservative cabinet ministers Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke (just returned sixty years later as an MP and ‘father’ of the House of Commons) and Leon Brittan, as well as various actors and impresarios. Cook’s biographer, Harry Thompson, has pointed out that:

One reason has traditionally produced so many political satirists is that its undergraduates come face to face with their future political leaders at an early age, and realise then quite how many of them are social retards who join debating societies to find friends.

It could be added that the same could be said of those joining theatrical societies and satirical magazines. At Cambridge, Cook simply transferred his monotone sketches about the Radley School butler to his new environment and eventually had half the undergraduates mimicking him and repeating his one-liners. Cook found his voice as a schoolboy and maintained the same deadpan drawl at Cambridge to Edinburgh’s Beyond the Fringe review, to London, New York and global success. Similarly, Ingrams and Rushton transferred their jokes and cartoon characters to the pages of Private Eye. There were, of course, many other comics and satirists from other backgrounds, including Alan Bennett, the Yorkshire grammar school boy and Dudley Moore, the working-class boy from Dagenham who became the other half of the comedy duo with Peter Cook in the TV series Not only… but also… There was also David Frost, the son of a Methodist preacher from Kent. But it was the dominant personalities of Cook and Ingrams which gave them so strong a hold over the satire boom which began in the second half of the fifties. If Cook had any politics of his own, they were difficult to discern, and always took second place to a good punchline, though Fluck and Law, who went on to create the latex satirical puppetry of Spitting Image, were socialist friends of Cook. At the time of the satire boom itself, there was no organic link between the left of British politics and the wave of comedians, mimics and journalists who tore down the facade of Tory Britain towards the end of their thirteen years in power. There could not have been, since too many of the satirists were public schoolboys,  getting their revenge on the nation’s authority figures for the way they had been bullied. Macmillan for them was the image of the head of a decaying prep school, but Labour was also worthy of snobbish ridicule – full as it was with lower middle-class and working-class people with funny accents and petty, mundane concerns.

Ian Fleming was also a fine example of how the British society was tightly twisted at the top. He was yet another Etonian, and yet another character who flitted between journalism, intelligence and high society. From a Scottish banking family, he had tried Sandhurst, foreign correspondence – including in Stalin’s Moscow – and the City, before joining Naval Intelligence during the war. There his wild schemes for sabotage and dirty tricks were widely considered more fit for novels. After the war he ran a network of foreign correspondents and tried to work out ways of moving out of the dreary reality of austerity London. He eventually built a house in Jamaica, then still a colony, which he called Goldeneye. It was here that the Edens fled after the Suez Crisis to recuperate. In different ways, all these people, from Nöel Coward to the newspaper barons, Hugh Gaitskell to the Flemings, were struggling with time warp lives and challenged patriotism. Morals were becoming more fluid and new kinds of pleasure were seeping in. Gaitskell in particular was able to appreciate Fleming’s books, writing of the Bond books in the New Statesman that:

I am a confirmed Fleming fan – or should it be addict? The combination of sex, violence, alcohol and – at intervals – good food and nice clothes is, to one who lives such a circumscribed as I do, irresistable.

There’s probably no better testimony to the way in which the austerity years gave way to the affluent society. James Bond became one of the most successful if mildly ironic symbols of recovering British pride after Suez. From Russia, with Love, first published in Britain in April 1957, is the fifth novel by Fleming to feature his fictional British Secret Service agent. Fleming wrote the story in early 1956 at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica; at the time he thought it might be his final Bond book. The novel deals with the East–West tensions of the Cold War, and the decline of British power and influence in the post-Second World War era.

Fleming’s sketch showing his concept of the James Bond character.

From Russia, with Love received broadly positive reviews at the time of publication. The book’s sales were boosted by an advertising campaign that played upon a visit by the British Prime Minister’s visit to Fleming’s Goldeneye estate. Fleming’s first work of non-fiction, The Diamond Smugglers, was also published in 1957 and was partly based on background research for his fourth Bond novel, Diamonds Are Forever. Much of the material had appeared in The Sunday Times and was based on Fleming’s interviews with John Collard, a member of the International Diamond Security Organisation who had previously worked in MI5. Even before they were transformed into the endless films, the novels provided a glorious fantasy for a nation in trouble, and in his earlier Bond stories Fleming worked to satisfy the almost pornographic lust of the British for the richer, more colourful consumer culture over the Atlantic. But though Fleming was a connected member of the élite, and had pictured his hero as an Old Etonian, it was a Scottish working-class body-builder, Sean Connery, who was chosen to play him in the first films. After that, Bond became, ironically, something of an outsider figure in the popular imagination, which perhaps helps to explain his endurance as a British cultural icon. Fleming’s original establishment character might not have appealed to a mass film audience in the more egalitarian atmosphere of the sixties.


Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.


What a year that was: Britain and the World in 1947: Part II.   Leave a comment


The Winter of 1947 has gone down in history and personal memory as a time of almost unbearable bleakness. For three months, Britain endured not only the shortages of almost everything in the shops, and a virtual medieval peasant diet, heavily based on potatoes and bread, nor only the huge state bureaucracy bearing down on so much of daily life, with its 25,000 regulations and orders never heard of in peace time before. Neither was it just the smashed and broken homes, and the irreplaceable war dead. The crisis of 1947 was also the product of that most common of British complaints, the unpredictable weather.

Towards the end of January, a great freeze had swept across from Siberia and covered the country in thick snow, a bitter cold which brought the exhausted British people very nearly to their knees. The country still ran on coal,  newly nationalised under the National Coal Board, but the piles at the pits froze solid and could not be moved. The collieries’ winding gear ceased to function and drifting snow blocked roads and rail lines. At the power stations, the remaining stock piles ran down swiftly until, one by one, the stations were forced to close. Lights went off, men dug through snow drifts, tamping for miles to find food to carry back to their families and neighbours. Cars were marooned on exposed roads. Factories across the Midlands and South of England had to stop work and within a week two million people were idle. Electric fires were banned for three hours each morning and two in the afternoon. As people ran out of coal, they had only blankets to keep them warm. Around London, commuters were unable to reach the capital. Scotland was cut off from England.

Government ministers were not immune to the health problems which resulted. Herbert Morrison was nearly killed by thrombosis when new drugs given to him caused his kidneys to pour with blood. While he was still in hospital, Ellen Wilkinson, the education minister who adored him and may have been his mistress, died from an overdose of barbiturates. Wilkinson, a small flame-haired woman who had led the pre-war Jarrow Crusade for most of its length to London, was much-loved in the party, but became increasingly depressed by the slow pace of change, particularly in education. On 25 January, in the middle of the blizzard, she insisted on opening a theatre school in a blitzed, open-to-the-sky building in south London. Ellen became ill and seems to have muddled up her medicines, though others believed she killed herself, out of a mixture of frustrated love and political disappointment. In some ways, her death was symptomatic of the strain Attlee’s government was under.

Then things deteriorated further as the coldest February for three hundred years began. Another half million people had to stop work. The sun was so little seen that when it came out, a man rushed to photograph the reassuring sight for the newspapers. The greengrocers ran out of green vegetables. After a short thaw, March brought terrible storms and snow-drifts thirty feet high. There were ice-floes off the East Anglian coast. Three hundred main roads were impassable. These conditions were then followed by the worst floods in living memory, cutting off towns and drowning crops in huge areas of low-lying England. Sheep were dying on the hills, unable to be brought down to lower-lying pastures. Their carcasses had to be burnt in huge pyres, causing foul-smelling smoke to hang over the hillsides of rural Wales.

As people were digging out frozen vegetables from fields and despairing of the empty shops, the run on the pound resulting from Keynes’ Washington ‘deal’ and the balance of payments crisis meant that the Treasury was running out of dollars to buy help from overseas. This was the moment when the optimism of 1945 died for many voters. But the summer did come, and it was a good one, the sun blazing away with the cricketers at Lords as the nation sweltered. However, the pound continued to fall dramatically against the dollar, and with the Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, unable to buy food from the USA, secret preparations were made for a ‘famine food programme’ which included a provision to take children out of school to help with the harvest. It was never instigated, but the rationing of bread, which had not been necessary during the war, was put in place, as wheat supplies could no longer be bought from the United States. At the same time, British ministers had to ensure that there was no famine in other parts of the world for which they were responsible, including India, Germany and Palestine. Bread rationing at home was hugely unpopular and long remembered.

As Aneurin Bevan’s visit to Coventry had demonstrated, housing was the most critical single social issue of the post-war era, remaining at the top of the political agenda throughout the early fifties. Half a million homes had been destroyed or were made uninhabitable by German air-raids and a further three million were badly damaged. Overall, a quarter of Britain’s 12.5 million homes were damaged in some way. London was a capital with a background of ruins and wrecked streets. Southampton had lost so many buildings that during the war officials reported that the population felt the city was finished and ‘broken in spirit’. Coventry had lost a third of her housing in a single night in the November Blitz of 1940. Birmingham had lost 12,000 houses, with another 25,000 badly damaged. Together with the impact of demobilization of young men eager to marry and start families, the government estimated that 750,000 new houses were needed urgently. In addition, there was a need for further slum clearances in London and the older industrial cities, the grimy terraces lacking proper sanitation, gas and electricity supplies.

The demand was for more than bricks and mortar, since the war had separated husbands and wives, deprived children of their parents and, in general, shaken the familial fabric of the country.  Some 38 million civilians had changed addresses a total of sixty million times. Despite the break-up of many marriages under the strain of war, most people wanted a return to the security of family life. There were more than 400,000 weddings in 1947 and 881,000 babies were born, the beginning of the ‘boom’ that would reshape British life in the decades ahead. In all, a million extra children were added to the population in the five years after the war. Since there were not nearly enough individual homes to go round, hundreds of thousands of young people found themselves living with their parents or in-laws, deprived of privacy and trapped in inter-generational conflict.


It was, in positive terms, a time when people were prepared to live more communally than would be the case later. Wartime queuing had revived a kind of street culture which lingered among women, as they spent hours standing together. Cinemas and dance halls continued to be crammed with people trying to escape the cold of their homes which as yet had no television (only 0.2 per cent of the population owned a television in 1947) or central heating, and not much by way of lighting. People really were in real austerity together, managing without much privacy and with the ongoing effects of wartime requisitioning, evacuation and the direction of labour, lodging in unfamiliar rooms. The sharing of toilets and kitchens in the late forties was therefore just a continuation of conditions they were already used to, like the meagre food and dreary clothing.

The most dramatic government response was the factory-made instant housing, the ‘prefabs’. Although designed only for a few years’ use, many of them were still lived in forty or more years later. Between 1945 and 1949, under the Temporary Housing Programme, a total of 156,623 prefabs went up, a welcome start in the provision of mass housing. They were more than huts, but a prototype bungalow, with a cooker, sink, fridge, bath, boiler and fitted cupboards. It cost fractionally more than a traditional brick-built terraced house, it weighed a fraction of the latter and was prefabricated in former aircraft factories using a fraction of the resources, then unloaded and screwed together on a concrete plinth, ready for families to move into within days. They were all weatherproof, warm and well-lit. The future Labour leader Neil Kinnock lived in one, an Arcon V, from 1947 to 1961, and remembered the fitted fridge and bathroom causing much jealousy among those still living in unmodernised colliers’ terraces in the south Wales valleys: Friends and family came to view the wonders. It seemed like living in a spaceship. They came to be regarded as better than bog standard council housing. Communities developed on prefab estates which survived cheerfully well into the seventies; I remember visiting these, homes to many of my teenage friends at that time.

The British Housewives’ League, formed in 1945 by a clergyman’s wife to campaign against rude shopkeepers and the amount of time spent queuing, helped remove the hapless food minister Ben Smith over the withdrawal of powdered egg. Other foods brought into the country and foisted on consumers were regarded as disgusting. Horses were butchered and sold, sometimes merely as ‘steak’. Whalemeat was brought from South Africa, both in huge slabs and in tins, described as rich and tasty, just like beefsteak. It was relatively popular for a short while, but not long, because it had a strong after-taste of cod-liver oil. Then there was snoek, a ferocious tropical fish supposed to be able to hiss like a snake and bark like a dog. The young Barbara Castle was then working for the fish division of the Ministry of Food. She was quartered at the Carlton Hotel, which had generously sized baths which she filled with the fish, which she observed for experimental purposes. Her report on its behaviour must have been favourable because in October 1947 the government began to buy millions of tins of snoek from South Africa. So ministers tried to persuade the British people that, in salads, pasties, sandwiches or even as ‘snoek piquant’, the bland-tasting fish was really quite tasty. The people begged to differ and mocked it mercilessly, buying very little. Eventually it was withdrawn from grocers and sold off for almost nothing as cat-food.

The Labour government’s attempts to import alternative sources of protein became a great joke in newspapers and in Parliament. The Conservatives put out pamphlets showing pictures of a horse, a whale and a reindeer to show the wide choice of food you have under the Socialists. Labour tried hard to keep the country decently fed during the forties when most of the world was at least as hungry. But between the black market organised by ‘spivs’, the British Housewives’ League, whose rhetoric influenced a young student called Margaret Thatcher, and the spontaneous uprising against the snoek, the public was becoming fed up to the back teeth with rationing. From 1948, Labour ministers began to remove the restrictions and restore something like a free market in food.

It also took a long time for British clothes to brighten up. Well into my childhood in the sixties, children were still wearing baggy grey trousers and home-knitted jumpers throughout the week and all year-long. Our fathers were still dressing in heavy grey suits, with macs and hats, and older women still wore housecoats and hairnets. However, younger women did try to dress more fashionably. One of the women who attended the unveiling of Christian Dior’s New Look in London in 1947 said that she heard for the first time in her life, the sound of a petticoat, realising  at once that, at long last, the war was really over. However, the British Guild of Creative Designers complained that they did not have the materials to compete or keep up with French frippery. Yet from the young princesses downwards, women were ignoring matronly MPs like Bessie Braddock and doing everything they could to alter, buy or borrow to achieve the Dior look. Clothing became a powerful symbol of a return to the prosperity of the 1930s for many women, if not men.

001A Honeymoon Couple at Billy Butlin’s Hotel near Brighton, 1957

The Holidays with Pay Act, passed shortly before the outbreak of war, was another postponed pleasure, but few workers could afford to travel abroad for these in 1947. For one thing, total time on holiday was limited to a fortnight in total. For another, the amount of money a person could take out of the country was severely restricted. Just over three per cent of people holidayed abroad, the vast majority being wealthy. Few of these went further than Northern France or the Riviera. They didn’t drive around the British countryside, as they had done in the thirties. Nonetheless, in 1947 slightly over half the British did take some kind of holiday. Many took the train to one of the traditional Victorian-era seaside resorts, soon bursting with customers. Others went on cycling or camping expeditions, since the roads were almost entirely empty of traffic. Yet more began to take the ‘charabanc’ or train to one of the new holiday camps, run by such entrepreneurs of leisure as Billy Butlin. He opened his first at Skegness in Lincolnshire in 1936, and by 1947 he had become a millionaire. To begin with, he was targeting the middle classes as much as the better-off workers. Opera singers, Shakespearean actors, radio stars, sporting heroes, politicians, archbishops and royalty were all invited to his camps, and came. Although Butlin had his fingers burnt with an attempt to open a Caribbean camp in 1948, for millions of British people the camps remained a synonym for a summer holiday well into the age of cheap overseas tourism in the 1970s.

On reflection, and with the benefit of seventy years of hindsight, 1945-1947 was not the best time to set about building a new socialist Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed. The direction of factories to the depressed areas brought few long-term benefits to those areas. Companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets ahead. Inflation, a major part of Britain’s post-war narrative, appeared as an economic factor for the first time by the end of the forties.

Again and again, Britain’s deep dependency on the United States was simply underestimated by the politicians. Harold Wilson, for example, slapped import duty on Hollywood films in 1947, when the sterling crisis made saving dollars a priority. The Americans responded by simply boycotting Britain, a devastating measure for a population so reliant on film as its only real means of mass entertainment. Some wonderful British films were made to fill the gap, but already glamour was something that came from the Pacific coast. Could Labour’s 1945 dream of a socialist commonwealth, high-minded and patriotic, standing aside from American consumerism, still be built on Britain’s grey and muddy land? The reality was not only that she was dependent on her transatlantic cousins, but also upon an Empire which, paradoxically, she was having to let go, at least in piecemeal fashion.

MOOC pic

India and Pakistan had become independent on 15 August 1947, ten months ahead of Attlee’s original schedule. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, had arrived in Delhi on 22 March. He appealed to everyone to do their best to avoid any word or action which might lead to further communal bitterness or add to the toll of innocent victims. He soon decided that the June 1948 transfer date was too late, as the communal rioting had reached a state of which he had no conception when he left England. In making this decision, he was also indulging his lifelong fondness for acceleration. It seemed to him that a decision had to be taken at the earliest possible moment unless there was to be risk of a general conflagration throughout the whole sub-continent. He had a remarkably careful yet quick and businesslike method of working. As soon as he finished an interview with a leader, and before proceeding to the next, he would dictate a résumé of the talk, a copy of which would be circulated to each member of his staff. He held staff conferences every day, sometimes twice and even thrice a day, to study and discuss how events were shaping.

Consultation with the Governors certainly gave him a good idea of the colossal administrative difficulties involved in a transfer of power based on partition. Within six weeks of his arrival Mountbatten had produced a plan which marked the first stage towards the transfer. In all his discussions with party leaders and others, despite their divergent views, which he was forced to adjust and reconcile, there was nowhere any evidence of an attempt to question either his own impartiality or the bona fides of His Majesty’s Government. The greater the insistence by Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, on his province-wide Pakistan, the stronger was the Congress demand that he should not be allowed to carry unwilling minorities with him.

In reality, Mountbatten came down on the side of the Hindu-dominated Congress by bringing forward the transfer of power. Perhaps one factor in this was Lady Mountbatten’s rumoured affair with Jawaharlal Nehru. In particular, Mountbatten put pressure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe  – cruelly mocked by W H Auden – to make critical adjustments in India’s favour when drawing the frontier through the Punjab.  Nevertheless, the last Viceroy’s achievement was only surpassed by those of Gandhi and Nehru, to whom he paid tribute in his address to the India Constituent Assembly in New Delhi on what the India Independence Act referred to as ‘the appointed day’:

The tasks before you are heavy. The war ended two years ago. In fact it was on this very day two years ago that I was with that great friend of India, Mr Attlee in the Cabinet Room when the news came through that Japan had surrendered. That was a moment for thankfulness and rejoicing, for it marked the end of six bitter years of destruction and slaughter. But in India we have achieved something greater – what has been well described as ‘A Treaty of Peace without a War.’ India, which played such a valiant part… has also had to pay her price in the dislocation of her economy and the casualties to her gallant fighting men… Preoccupations with the political problem retarded recovery. It is for you to ensure the happiness and ever-increasing prosperity of the people, to provide against future scarcities of food, cloth and essential commodities and to build up a balanced economy…

At this historic moment, let us not forget all that India owes to Mahatma Gandhi – the architect of her freedom through non-violence…

In your first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, you have a world-renowned leader of courage and vision. His trust and friendship have helped me beyond measure in my task. Under his able guidance, assisted by the colleagues whom he has selected… India will now attain a position of strength and influence and take her rightful place in the comity of nations.

It would have been an ideal arrangement if Mountbatten had been able to continue as Governor-General of both Dominions. But even as General-Governor of India, he could still be of immense service. It was his personality that had helped to bring about some measure of common action and had prevented a bad situation from getting worse. His presence would be of great help in solving the problem of the Indian States. It would also have a reassuring effect on serving British officers, particularly in the Armed Forces, where their retention for at least some time was indispensable.

The communal rioting and the two-way exodus of refugees provided the Government of India with a task which was so stupendous as any nation ever had to face. If in its initial stages the situation had not been controlled with determination and vigour, the consequences would have brought down the Government itself. It is to the eternal credit of Lord Mountbatten that he agreed to take over the helm of responsibility at that critical stage, and it redounds to the statesmanship of Nehru that he unhesitatingly and confidently offered it to him.

According to V P Menon, the Constitutional Adviser to the Governor-General from 1942 to 1947, reflected in 1957 that the main factor in the early transfer of power was the return of the Labour Party to government in 1945. The Attlee Government’s decision  to quit India not only touched the hearts and stirred the emotions of Indians, he argued, it also produced an immediate reassuring effect on the whole of South-East Asia and earned Britain universal respect and goodwill in the region. India and Pakistan both chose to remain in the Commonwealth and this was taken by a demoralised Britain as a tacit but welcome vote of thanks. Burma followed on India’s heels into the ranks of newly independent nations in January 1948, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in February. Both of them had far too much independence already for the full version to be denied to them. Ceylon remained in the Commonwealth, but Burma did not. The first stage of Britain’s decolonisation came to an end there, with the letting go of what, after the war in the East, just could not be held.

In some ways, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the break-up of the British Empire happened with astonishing speed compared with the two centuries it had taken to build it. Once the British had made up their minds to get out, they aimed to catch the first boat home, regardless of the consequences in their former colonies. In the words of the Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton:

When you are in a place where you are not wanted, and where you have not got the force to squash those who don’t want you, the only thing to do is to come out.

This had its disadvantages. In their haste to get shot of India, they left behind a chaos that almost undid two centuries of orderly government.

For those colonies in other parts of Britain’s global empire who wished to pursue India to independence, it was not simply a matter of following along a path beaten flat by her. The hurdles she had knocked down Britain erected again for the others. To become free, they would need to fight. What was chiefly standing in their way was their value to an all but bankrupt Britain. That value was not quite what it had been, but Britain had plummeted quite disastrously in the world’s league table of great economic powers. She no longer had a significant surplus to send abroad. In 1900, she was responsible for a third of the world’s exports in manufactured goods. Sixty years later this share had declined to 18 per cent. Just before the war the empire had accounted for 40% of her imports and 49% of her exports. After the war the imperial proportion of what trade she had left was even greater. Between 1946 and 1949 it accounted for 48 per cent of imports and 58 per cent of exports.

It followed  that Britain’s political interests in the world were not so very different either, though her capacity to safeguard them may have been. Britain still had stakes in certain parts of the world, like Africa and south-east Asia, where security or stability seemed to depend upon her maintaining a political presence there, or nearby. In addition, these stakes and all Britain’s others in more reliable parts of the world, like North America and Oceania, together made up a network of interests which was thought to require continued political presences elsewhere to safeguard it; forts and garrisons at strategic points to protect the traffic between Britain and the world. For a colonial people ambitious to be free, either of these interests, or both, would continue to present a considerable obstacle to their independence.

In the years after the war African nationalism sprang very suddenly and very rapidly into full growth. Out of the plethora of welfare associations, tribal associations, community leagues, friendly societies, youth movements, trade unions and all the other vehicles for African discontent which had proliferated before the war, there arose in the 1940s most of the main colony-wide movements for national liberation which took the battle to Britain in the 1950s, and most of their leaders. They took encouragement from India, and from the general tide of world opinion at the time which seemed to be swimming with them. Very early after the war they showed their teeth. There was a six-week general strike in Nigeria in 1945, and another one in the Sudan in 1947.

The British could not afford to ignore these events, claiming that the nationalists were trying to push things too fast, to achieve in one jump what the government claimed to be preparing them for in easy stages, and far in advance of the bulk of the people they professed to represent. Some in Britain resisted the nationalists because they resisted the whole idea of colonial independence. But for many of those who did not, who had reconciled themselves to losing Africa, it was still to be some years before they would accept the ‘extreme’ nationalists, the ‘power-seekers’, as their ‘proper successors’.

In the  immediate post-war period, there had been various grand designs for a ‘new’ Empire. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was convinced that the road to domestic recovery began in Africa. As A H Poynton of the Colonial Office told the United Nations in 1947:

The fundamental objectives in Africa are to foster the emergence of large-scale societies, integrated for self-government by effective and democratic political and economic institutions both natural and local, inspired by a common faith in progress and Western values and equipped with efficient techniques of production and betterment.

There was a new Colonial Development Corporation and an Overseas Food Corporation, and marvellous-sounding schemes for growing groundnuts in Tanganyika and producing eggs in the Gambia. The Crown Agents travelled the world, selling old British trains and boats to any colonial government that could pay and some that could not. There were ambitious plans for the federation of West Indian colonies; of East Africa; of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland; of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Borneo. There was even talk of a new building for the Colonial Office. The old Empire meanwhile continued to attract a steady stream of migrants: from 1946 until 1963 four out of every five emigrants leaving Britain by sea were headed for Commonwealth countries.

The imperial renaissance might have led further if the United States and Britain had made common cause. Imperial recovery was dependent on American support and Clement Attlee certainly saw the need for it, although he was more realistic than Churchill about the future of the Empire as a whole. He recognised that the new military technologies of long-range power meant that…

 … the British Commonwealth and Empire is not a that can be defended by itself… The conditions which made it possible to defend a string of possessions scattered over five continents by means of a fleet based on island fortresses have gone. 

In their place, he had argued in 1946 that it was now necessary to consider the British Isles as an easterly extension of a strategic arc the centre of which was in the American continent, rather than as a power looking through the Mediterranean and the East. The North Atlantic ‘Alliance’ was, of course, mainly a product of the Americans’ growing awareness that the Soviet Union posed a far more serious threat to American interests than the British Empire. With the beginnings of the Cold War, the White House and the US Chiefs of Staff both agreed that there was something to be said for British imperial and maritime power after all, especially its network of military bases which could complement their own. All this made Bevin bullish:

Western Europe, including its dependent overseas territories, is now patently dependent on American aid… The United States recognises that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth… are essential to her defence and security. Already it is… a case of partial inter-dependence rather than of complete dependence. As time goes by (in the next ten to twenty years) the elements of dependence ought to diminish and those of inter-dependence to increase.

Of course, within that next decade, the Suez crisis was to reveal that the fundamental American hostility towards the Empire lingered on and the facade of neo-imperial power collapsed. 

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Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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

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

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan-Pan.

What a year that was: Britain & the World in 1947: Part I.   Leave a comment

The deep nostalgic vision of Empire was dented in 1947. The King ceased to be Emperor. The jewel in the imperial crown, India, was moving towards independence long before the war. Gandhi’s brilliant insight that through non-violence the British could be embarrassed out of India more effectively than they could be shot out, had paid off handsomely during the war years.

London was dragged to the negotiating table despite the attempts by Churchill and others to scupper every deal from the thirties to the late forties. The war delayed independence but showed how much goodwill there was on the subcontinent, if Britain was wise enough to withdraw gracefully.  During the conflict some two million Indians fought on Britain’s side or served in her forces directly, their contributions being particularly strong in the campaigns in North Africa, against the Italians and the Germans. Gandhi himself was sentimentally fond of Britain and kept a photo of his old school, Harrow, in his cell.


As soon as Attlee’s government took power, it organised talks on British withdrawal from India. Anti-imperialism had been a genuine strand in Labour thinking since the party’s formation, but there were now other motives behind the determination to pull out of the sub-continent. There was gratitude for Indian support throughout the war, especially in North Africa and in Iraq. Attlee thought that a rapid handover to ensure a united, independent India with both Muslims and Hindus sharing power in one vast state connected by trade and military alliance with Britain. This would also act as a major anti-Communist bulwark in Asia, to stem both Russian and Chinese expansionism. He passed the job of overseeing the transition to Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been supreme commander in south-east Asia, and as such had organised the reconquest of Burma.

The partitioning of the sub-continent had become almost inevitable by 1947. Muslims would not accept overall Hindu domination, and yet across most of India the Hindus or Sikhs were in the majority. British India was duly split into Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu India. The border line was drawn up by a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, and kept secret until after the handover of power. Mountbatten then announced, to widespread shock, that independence would take place ten months earlier than planned, on 15 August 1947. Churchill was so appalled by this that his former Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had to keep him away from the chamber of the Commons. While the speed of the British was a political necessity, the consequences were appalling. According to some counts, a million people died as Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the border fled their homes. Sikhs rose up against Muslims in the Punjab, Muslims drove out Hindus, as it became apparent that central authority had simply held older religious and ethnic rivalries at bay. Some 55,000 British civilians returned home, as their political masters’ scheme to hand over to a united state as a strong military ally, fell apart in chaos and killing.

The demarcation between India and Pakistan continued to be deeply  unsatisfactory, as it could not have been otherwise after two centuries during which the ‘natural’ divisions between India’s peoples had been obscured and cushioned and allowed in some places to run into each other under the vast, protective and essentially artificial blanket of the old raj. For months after the devolution of power there were massive, panic-stricken and bloody adjustments to the new gravity: wholesale exchanges of population east and west between the borders of the new states, running into millions, rioting in Delhi and elsewhere which killed more than half a million; almost immediately a war broke out between India and Pakistan which the United Nations had to step in and settle; and running disputes over contentious territories to the present day. Pakistan in the awkward bisected shape which 1947 had put it in survived for only twenty-five years. It was all something of a shambles.

Labour ministers were far less enthusiastic about dismantling the Empire in Africa. Herbert Morrison, deputy leader, agreed: He said that to give the African colonies their freedom would be like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank-account and a shotgun. Attlee himself speculated about creating a British African army, and the Colonial Office described Africa as the core of Britain’s new world position, from where she could draw economic and military strength. For a while it seemed like the Raj would be transplanted, in fragmented form, in Africa.

Back in the mother country, in the summer of 1947 work began in deepest secret of to build a plutonium-producing plant at Windscale, a little on the coast of Cumbria. At the same time, the government sought to rescue Britain’s position as a major world power by having a nuclear bomb designed under the guidance of one of the British scientists who had been at Los Alamos, William Penney.

In the years immediately after the war Britain contained about ten million fewer inhabitants than it has today. The thirties had seen a fall in the birthrate and there was much official worry about another natural shrinkage. In William Beveridge’s war-time report launching the modern welfare state, he had suggested that a bit of fast breeding was needed, or with its present rate of reproduction, the British race cannot continue. To his generation, the British race meant the white natives of the British Isles. Before the war, 95 per cent of the population had been born in Britain, and the other five per cent was made up of the white British whose parents had been serving in the Empire in India, Africa or the Middle East when they were born. There were black and Asian people in Britain, but very few. In the thirties the Indian community numbered about eight thousand, and there were a few Indian restaurants and grocery stores in the biggest cities.

During the war, Irish people came over to Britain to fill the labour shortage left by mobilization. Immigration continued at a rate of thirty to sixty thousand per year through the forties. The cabinet committees excluded them from debates about immigration as they were considered to be effectively indigenous. There were more ‘exotic’ groups by the end of the war, like the 120,000 Poles who had fled both the Soviets and the Nazis, many of them serving in the British forces, most famously as pilots. Most chose to stay and 65,000 found work in coal-mining and factory work.

It would be wrong to portray Britain in the forties as relaxed about race. Despite the refugees who had come to Britain in large numbers since 1938 and the widespread revelation of the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism was still evident throughout British society. It was no longer the ‘property’ of the aristocratic establishment of the 1930s who had promoted the policy of appeasement, or of Mosley’s Blackshirts who had eventually been disbanded and interred by the wartime government.  in the five years before the war, sixty thousand  Jews from Germany and central-eastern Europe arrived in Britain, many of them highly qualified, helping to transform the scientific, musical and intellectual life of forties Britain. In their invasion plans for 1940, the German SS reckoned the Jewish population to be above 300,000, and hugely influential. After the war, the assumption that ‘they’ dodged queues or somehow got the best of scarce and rationed goods, erupts from diaries and letters as well as anecdotes from the time. After Jewish attacks on British servicemen in Palestine in 1947, there were anti-Jewish demonstrations in several British cities, including attacks on shops and even the burning of a synagogue, mimicking the actions of the Nazis in the late 1930s. More widely, trade unions were quick to express hostility to outsiders coming to take British jobs – whether European Jews or Gentiles; Poles, Czechs, Irish or Maltese. Belief that people belonged to different genetic ‘races’ was underpinned by the government continually referring to the central importance of the British race and, by implication, to a largely unquestioned belief in its superiority to all other ‘races’. Today’s post-modern multicultural Britain would leave a visitor from immediate post-war, post-medieval Britain totally bewildered.


Yet in the 1930s some parts of England, especially its cities and industrial conurbations, had already become quite mixed in terms of their white populations. In Coventry, for example, the proportion of migrants rose to 40% of the local population in 1935, the majority of newcomers coming from other UK regions than the Midlands. This continued during and after the war, so that immigrants from outside the UK made up just under two per cent of the local population. Of these, 1,046 were Poles, 953 were Ukrainian, and the third significant workers were the 1,100 unskilled textile workers recruited during the war who had stayed on and settled.

The small wartime Indian community expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954. They soon ‘colonised’ some of the more rundown housing stock in the Foleshill Road area to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry the Indians were anxious to protect their own identity and cultures. However, the ‘coloured’ minority represented less than 1.5 per cent of the city’s population and coloured workers were never a threat to the jobs of those employed in local engineering factories. Nevertheless, by the late 1940s Coventry had become predominantly a city of newcomers. Estimates were given that only thirty to thirty-five per cent of the city’s population of 258,000 had been born in the city, though it needs to be borne in mind that some ‘new’ areas like Walsgrave-on-Sowe were, in fact, as in Oxford, which had been incorporated from rural areas, still retaining something of their village characteristics. Nevertheless, they were incorporated because they had also outgrown their status as villages, also having their share of British ‘foreigners’. The birthplace information for the 1951 Census reveals that over 97,000 of the population were born outside the West Midlands and that, of these, 32,000 were from the industrial areas of south Wales, the North West of England and Northern England.

These ‘newcomers’ were divided roughly equally between the three ‘depressed districts’, each one contributing more than the 10,034 from London and the South East and the 9,993 from Ireland. There had been only 2,057 Irish in Coventry in 1931, but this number expanded rapidly during the building boom of the 1930s and the post-war reconstruction of the blitzed city centre. The streets surrounding St Osburg’s and St Mary’s churches had a distinctively Irish atmosphere. These two inner-city areas were well supplied with lodging houses and multi-tenanted buildings, whilst their proximity to Roman Catholic churches, increasing to six in number by 1939, made them an ideal port of call for itinerant building workers or those ‘after a start’ in local factories. The Irish also began to settle more permanently in the post-war period, forming a more permanent community. The expansion of Catholicism illustrates both the Irish determination to retain their religious identity and the establishment of Ukrainian and Polish congregations at separate churches. Three already large chapels in the city centre developed a distinctive Welsh identity, attracting large numbers of migrants who first arrived in the city during and following the miners’ lock-out of 1926, now forming the largest ethnic minority.

Although the Ministry of Labour insurance book exchanges highlighted a dearth of migrants from the coalfields to Coventry other than from Wales before 1940, the war had apparently increased the Geordie’s willingness to move while Coventry’s high engineering wages helped to keep him in the city once he had arrived. Early studies also suggest that, in this period, almost as many people were leaving the city as were moving in. Reports suggest that this was not simply due to failures to find suitable accommodation or work, but due to a more general failure of integration. Besides overt racial prejudice, Coventrians were reputed to be anything but welcoming to newcomers generally. Friendship and social networks typically followed regional and ethnic lines. Clubs, pubs and religious institutions often catered for particular migrant groups. The reputation of Coventry as an immigrant city since the early twentieth century mitigated against some of the standoffishness of the indigenous population. New immigrants therefore felt encouraged to socialize inside their own regional or ethnic networks, rather than establishing neighbourhood friendships.

At the same time, there were many among the migrants became overtly involved in public life. It is apparent that the political attitudes of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were conditioned, in part at least, by their mythologized memories of the depression years elsewhere, especially as they were predominantly from older industrial areas such as the coalfields, iron and steel-producing areas, or desolate shipbuilding towns of south Wales and the north-east of England, being joined now by tens of thousands more relocating from Lancashire’s declining textile towns. It is therefore not insignificant that when the government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Tredegar-born Aneurin Bevan should choose to defend it in Coventry. He issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. The growth of Coventry’s own distinct brand of municipal socialism from 1937 onwards can be seen, like Bevan’s own work, as a practical expression of an ideological impetus to reform, progress and planning which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to obtain better living conditions to those which many had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period.


Above: On the line in Cowley, in 1946

Coventry was not the only new industry town where immigrants from the south Wales valleys made a political impact and rose to positions of public prominence as councillors through their determination to improve conditions for their fellow workers in their new environments. A string of former Welsh miners turned car-workers, militants who became moderates, won seats on councils in Oxford, for the Cowley and Headington wards in the east of the city. Frank Pakenham, Patrick Gordon-Walker, Philip Noel-Baker, Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman were among those of this first generation of Labour leaders to come to power as a result of rubbing shoulders with those whom one Coventry Conservative councillor had referred to, in 1938, as the sweepings of Great Britain. In Birmingham, William Tegfryn Bowen, born in the Rhondda in 1902, became a real ‘Dick Whittington’ in the making. After working as a collier from the age of fourteen until the General Strike of 1926, he moved to Birmingham and studied economics, social services and philosophy for a year before entering employment with the Austin Motor Company. In 1929 he became a trade union official and led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior officials. He was victimized for doing so and endured various spells of unemployment and odd jobs. He became a city councilor in 1941, an alderman in 1945 and in 1946 became both the Chairman of the Health Committee, Bevan’s right hand man in the second city. Later, on becoming Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for the Labour hold on city which, under the Chamberlain dynasty,  had been considered a conservative ‘fiefdom’. His answer referred to the large influx from other areas, with a different political outlook.

One of the former Welsh miners who became a car worker and foreman at the Pressed Steel Works in Cowley also claimed, we changed their attitude. This role in municipal affairs in England attracted the early attention of leading politicians in London too. As early as November 1935 Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of London County Council, spoke at a meeting in support of Labour’s successful parliamentary candidate for Coventry, Philip Noel-Baker. In his speech, he contrasted the failures of government ministers with the successes of a new breed of working class politicians, remarking that the Chairman of the London Public Assistance Committee was a common workman, formerly a South Wales miner, yet… better than all the Oliver Stanleys in the Tory Party. 

Interviewed for a post-war social survey, Coventrian women often repeated a stereotype of Welsh women, as well as Scots and ‘Geordie’ women, that they were unemancipated compared with themselves. The related charge that Welsh women were ‘highly sexed’ was one which was first made in a 1942 book by an American writer, Eli Ginzberg. Statistical studies found no correlation between migrant women and rates of fertility, though there is some anecdotal evidence relating to the ‘moral’ consequences of overcrowding among immigrants in Coventry. The Employment Exchange officer, Philip Handley, gave anecdotes to the Civic Aid Society in 1937 of three recent cases in which the husband had gone on night shifts and the lodger had run away with his wife. Social Service agencies in both Oxford and Coventry were continuously sensitive to charges that migration led to greater immorality.

In Coventry, the marked tendency of Welsh women to select their own countrywomen as friends rather than their immediate neighbours was noted in the University of Birmingham’s Survey conducted at this time. So, too, were the continuing stereotypical ‘mirror’ attitudes towards the immigrants. Interestingly, as well as being accused of being ‘clannish’, ‘all out for themselves’ and ‘rootless’, they were also said to be ‘thrusting’, trying always to get on committees and councils and to ‘run the town’, thereby showing a lack of respect for the true Coventrians. By this time, however, it was very difficult to tell who the latter were anyway. In Oxford, more so than in Coventry, the paradoxes of the stereotyping led to the Welsh becoming even more ‘clannish’ in their attempts to re-establish themselves in a hostile environment; the more they relied upon familial and institutional networks as a means of mutual support and encouragement, the greater the was their contribution to the social and cultural life of the cities and the greater their integration into full citizenship. In finding their inner strengths in collective action and solidarity, they found the means to overcome a plethora of prejudice. They were able to define, develop, articulate and promote a self-image of ‘respectability’ which could counter the one of ‘rawness’ which was so often reflected on them. For example, a Coventry Welsh Rugby Club, originally founded in May 1939, became the cradle for the City of Coventry Rugby Club after the war, with many of the latter’s post-war players being nurtured by the Welsh Club. In Oxford, Cowley FC nurtured various Welsh players who went on to play for Oxford City and then West Bromwich Albion. One of them was Eddie Wilcox, the youngest son of the Wilcox family who had moved, like many other families, to Oxford from the Garw Valley. He became ‘wing half’ for ‘the Baggies’ at the age of twenty-one. J M Mogey’s post-war study of Oxford reveals that the tendency for the immigrants to be more actively involved in autonomous and collective forms of working class culture than their Oxford fellows was a major feature of the social and institutional life of the city in this era. The origins of the active leaders in the establishment of the community centre were in Scotland, Wales, or London, rather than in Oxford itself or its surrounding villages. Whilst Oxford people might continue to resent this domination by ‘foreigners’, they themselves did little to redress the imbalance. In both cities, Welsh Male Voice Choirs had been established early in the interwar period and, alongside the chapels, continued to maintain a distinctive contribution to cultural life in the post-war years. I have written more extensively about these in other articles.

Over the previous century, India had been regarded as the keystone of the British empire; the raison d’être of much of the rest of it, including Egypt, east Africa and the Transvaal, which were supposed to secure Britain’s sea-lanes to the sub-continent. With India gone the rationale for the rest of the Empire might seem to have gone: but some did not see it that way. Traumatic though it may have been, the transfer of power to India and Pakistan was not necessarily the beginning of the end, for the empire’s rationale in recent decades had changed quite considerably from what it had been in the nineteenth century, and could now accommodate what earlier might have seemed like the removal of its heart. In addition, the ‘inevitability’ of general decolonisation did not seem as inevitable then as it seems in retrospect. Of course, in 1947 the imperialists saw the ‘danger signs’, but not necessarily the death-knell of Empire.


The Bevin Boys leaving St Pancras in 1944 for training as miners – mixed messages?

At ‘home’, patriotic pride cemented  a sense of being one people, one race, with one common history and fate. But, besides the divisions between ‘natives’, immigrants and internal, long-distance migrants, there were also profound barriers between classes. Estimates suggest that about sixty per cent of the nation was composed of the traditional working class – factory workers, agricultural labourers, navvies, riveters, miners, fishermen, servants and laundry workers. War aside, most would spend all their lives in their home cities, towns or villages, unless they were long-distance migrants from industrial Wales, Scotland, and the north and north-west of England to the Midlands and Home Counties of England. The war had softened class distinctions a little and produced the first rumblings of a coming cultural revolution, as men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds found themselves jumbled together in the services, and lower middle-class or even upper working-class officers found themselves ordering well-spoken ‘toffs’ around. The ‘Blimps’ – the older, more pompous upper-class senior officers of World War One ‘infamy’ became the butt of popular humour in the forces, a symbol of a Britain which was dying, if not already dead. On the ‘Home Front’, middle-class women worked in factories, public schoolboys went down the mines as ‘Bevin boys’ (supervised in Coventry by my collier-grandfather), and many working-class women had their first experiences of life away from the sink and the street.

With severe skill shortages and a national drive for exports, wages rose after the war, especially in the engineering factories in and around Coventry. The trades unions became powerful and self-confident, organising production in gangs almost independently from management. In other European countries, however, trade unions became fiercely political, but not so in Britain, where they remained more focused on the immediate cash-and-hours agenda of its members. This didn’t mean they were quiet, however, as many younger shop stewards had taken control from the older organisers who had crossed the line into management, especially in the newly nationalised coal industry, which came into being on 1 January 1947.


For Labour MPs, nationalising the coal industry was what they were in parliament for, as well as sweet revenge for 1926 and all that. The job was given to one of the government’s older and more ideological members: Manny Shinwell  had been a tailor’s boy in London’s East End before moving to Glasgow and emerging as a moving force on ‘Red Clydeside’.He was a stirring speaker and veteran MP but when handed the task of nationalising coal and electricity, he found there were almost no plans or blueprint to help him, except for a single Labour pamphlet written in Welsh. Shinwell managed the job by the day, but this timing was catastrophic, since the freezing weather stopped the coal being moved and the power stations began to fail. Added to this, many mines operated under Victorian conditions by families which had owned them for decades, simply needed to be closed. In other parts of the coalfields, new mines needed to be sunk for, by 1947, Britain was producing a lot less coal than before the war. Modern cutting and winding gear was desperately needed everywhere. So was a better relationship between managers and miners to end the history of strikes and lock-outs, bred of mistrust. The miners got new contracts and a five-day week but the first major strikes spread within months of nationalisation. Over time, however, relations between the miners and the managers improved as former colliers became overseers and inspectors, and investment did occur. But the naive idea that simply taking an industry into public ownership would improve it was punctured early.  Yet there was still a broad assumption by government and workers alike that the future of industry in general would be like the past, only more so – more cars and ships, more coal, more foundries and factories.

The classes which would do better were the middle classes, a fast growing minority. Government bureaucracy had grown rapidly during the war, and was continuing to do so. Labour’s Welfare State required, in addition to more professionals, hundreds of thousands of new white-collar jobs  administering national insurance, teaching, and running the new National Health Service, about to be born.

The problem for the old ruling classes was whether the arrival of a socialist government was a brief and unwelcome interruption, which could be st out, or whether it was the beginning of a calm but implacable revolution. The immediate post-war period with its high taxation was a final blow for many landowners. Great country houses had to be passed over to the National Trust. It was hardly a revolutionary seizure of estates, yet to some it felt that way. Tradition was being nationalised. In 1947 the magazine Country Life protested bitterly that the aristocratic families had been responsible for civilisation in Britain:

It has been one of the services of those currently termed the privileged class, to whom, with strange absence of elementary good manners, it is the fashion not to say so much as a thank you when appropriating that which they have contributed to England.

Evelyn Waugh, an arriviste rather than a proper toff, sitting in his fine house in the Gloucestershire village of Stinchcombe, considered fleeing to Ireland:

The certainty that England as a great power is done for, that the loss of possessions, the claim of the English proletariat to be a privileged race, sloth and envy, must produce increasing poverty… this time the cutting down will start at the top until only a proletariat and a bureaucracy survive.

A day later, however, he was having second thoughts:

What is there to worry me here in Stinchcombe? I have a beautiful house furnished exactly to my taste; servants enough, wine in the cellar. The villagers are friendly and respectful; neighbours leave me alone. I send my children to the schools I please. Apart from taxation and rationing, government interference is negligible.

Yet he smelt the reek of the Displaced Persons’ Camp in the English air, and he was not alone in this. Noel Coward said that, immediately after Labour’s 1945 victory, I always felt that England would be bloody uncomfortable in the immediate post-war period, and it is now almost a certainty. These fears had some substance in reality, but the changes in atmosphere had very little to do with Attlee and Bevan.The old British class system, though it still retained a feudal air, much exploited by novelists and screen-writers, depended in practice on the Empire and a global authority that Britain was about to forfeit. Nevertheless, there was a sense of grievance and abandonment which hung about the political Right in Britain for decades.

Initially, it was unclear how well the monarchy would fare in postwar Britain. The leading members of the family were popular and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, and there is little sign of it in their private diaries either, though there were many Labour MPs pressing for a less expensive, stripped-down, more contemporary monarchy, along Scandinavian lines. Difficult negotiations took place over the amounts of money provided by cash-strapped taxpayers. Yet the Windsors triumphed again, with an exuberant display which cheered up many of their tired, drab subjects. The wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II and the then Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947 was planned as a public spectacle.   Royal weddings had not been so well organised in the past, and this was an explosion of colour and pageantry in a Britain that had seen little of either for ten years, a nostalgic return to luxury: Presents ranging from racehorses were publicly displayed, grand cakes made and a wedding dress of ivory clinging silk by Norman Hartnell.

There had been interesting arguments before the wedding about patriotism and Philip’s essential Britishness. The nephew of Lord Mountbatten was sold to the public as thoroughly English by upbringing despite his being an exiled Greek prince, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and having many German relatives. In the event, Philip’s three surviving sisters were not invited to the wedding, all of them being married to Germans. The wedding was a radio event, still, rather than a television one, though the newsreel film of it packed out cinemas throughout the world, including in devastated Berlin. In lavishness and optimism, it was an act of British propaganda and celebration for bleak times, sending out the message that despite everything Britain was back. The wedding reminded the club of European royalty how few of them had survived as rulers into the postwar world. Dusty uniforms and slightly dirty tiaras worn by exiles were much in evidence: the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret remarked that people who had been starving in little garrets all over Europe suddenly reappeared.

(to be continued)

‘The Tribunal of History’: The Death of Rezső Kasztner, 15 March 1957, and his Legacy.   1 comment

15 March 2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Rezső Kasztner. The following post is based on Anna Porter’s 2007 book, Kasztner’s Train, and includes extensive extracts from it.


“The affair of the Judenrat (and perhaps also the Kasztner case) should, in my view, be left to the tribunal of history in the coming generation. The Jews who were safe and secure during the Hitler era ought not presume to judge their brethren who were burned and slaughtered, nor the few who survived.”

David Ben-Gurion, quoted in Weitz, The Man Who Was Murdered Twice.

Five years ago, Zsolt Zágoni published a translation of a handwritten notebook of Rózsa Stern, written in Switzerland following her escape on the train via Bergen-Belsen (1,684 people were deported on the train to the camp and from there in two groups to Switzerland – I have summarised her account of the transit elsewhere). Rózsa’s father, Samu Stern, was the President of the Hungarian Jewish Community in Budapest at the time of the Nazi occupation on 19 March, obliged to negotiate with Eichmann about the fate of the Jewish community, not just in Budapest, but throughout Hungary and the Hungarian-occupied territories. Rózsa’s notebook confirms that Rezső Kasztner encouraged Samu to leave with his daughter and her husband, György Bamberger, because if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either (if there are no Jews left in the city, there is no need for a President of the Jewish Council).


Above: The memoir written by Samu Stern in 1945 (he died on 9 June, 1946).

Stern’s photo is seen on the cover

In the accompanying historical essay, written by Krisztián Ungváry, the historian also confirms Porter’s account that in the early Summer of 1944 the Kolozsvár-born Kasztner had made a deal with the SS Commander in Budapest, Adolf Eichmann, the man sent to Hungary that Spring to complete the Final Solution. It was as a Hungarian lawyer and journalist, a leading Zionist and member of the Rescue Committee that he had been given the approval of the Jewish Council to meet with Eichmann, the Nazi architect of the Holocaust, in Budapest. Following the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March that year, Eichmann had been charged with the deportation of all six hundred thousand Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz within a matter of months. By the end of June, more than 440,000 had been deported from the countryside, first placed in ghettos, and then transported in cattle wagons on trains to the death camp. Yet Kasztner and his colleague Joel Brand secured Eichmann’s agreement to allow 1,684 Jews to leave for Switzerland by train.  These negotiations and the deals they struck with the devil continued to haunt Kasztner for the rest of his life, and help to explain why he has never been fully honoured for his role in saving so many lives.

Dealing with the Devil:

In exchange for getting the Jews to Switzerland, Zionist organisations would transport military trucks through Switzerland to Germany. The wealthy Jews of Budapest and Kasztner’s native Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (now and previously Cluj in Romania) paid an average of $1,500 for each family member to be included on the lists of those who would eventually leave for Switzerland by train and emigrate to Palestine. The poor families included were to pay nothing. Kasztner also negotiated to keep twenty thousand more Hungarian Jews alive in Budapest – Eichmann called them Kasztner’s Jews or his Jews on Ice – in exchange for a deposit of approximately $100 per head. It was the right and duty of Kasztner’s Rescue Committee to decide who would get on the train that would mean survival. In order to include some of the poorest, who paid nothing, they had to select mainly wealthier, educated people and, controversially, relatives and acquaintances from Kolozsvár. Had he told even these people what would probably happen to  those left behind, he would certainly have risked the success of the entire rescue mission, including the futures of the twenty thousand Jews on ice, as Eichmann called them, who would not be deported, in exchange for $100 per head. Rózsa Stern’s journal confirms that of those interned at the Aréna  Street (now Dózsa György Street) Synagogue on 30 June, awaiting the departure of the Aliyah train most… were families from the countryside who were saved from the brick factories. Only about a dozen people died on the way to Switzerland, so that the survivors on the Kasztner train could consider themselves the ‘lucky’ ones.

After the war Kasztner was a witness at the trial of major war criminals and was a defence witness six times in the case of Kurt Becher in Nuremberg, the SS officer with whom Kasztner was negotiating in 1944 and who later settled in Israel. In 1953 Kasztner was accused in a newspaper article of collaborating with the Nazis. Since he had ambitions for a political career in Israel, he was told that it was essential for him to clear his name, and he therefore filed a lawsuit. However, this backfired on him and although he won his libel case, the evidence presented led to the widespread public conclusion that he had sold his soul to the devil. In Israel, Kasztner’s case turned into a political scandal. The survivors whose lives were not saved by the train and whose families died in Auschwitz or on the trains and forced marches there, saw in Kasztner a mean, calculating collaborator. His alleged favouritism for family, friends and acquaintances in the selection of the ‘survivors’, together with the fact that , knowing the whole truth about the death-camp, from the so-called Auschwitz Protocols, he chose not to reveal this to the wider public, strengthened the subsequent hatred against him. In fact, those who really wanted to know what was happening to those deported had had many channels from which they could get information from as early as 1942, and had access to these since well before the Auschwitz Protocols arrived in Budapest via Bratislava. Porter’s book gives evidence that many of the Jewish leaders, including Samu Stern, did not want to give credence to what the Eichmann and the Nazis repeatedly dismissed as malicious rumours aimed at starting an uprising, which would be met with severe repression should they be repeated or publicised in any way. Certainly, it was made plain to Kasztner that any rumour-mongering would lead to the breakdown of his plans for an exodus of remaining Jews. 

In Israel – Accusations of Collaboration:

In Israel, after the war, the exiled Kasztner was vilified in an infamous libel trial for ‘collaborating’ with the Nazis. As a result of the libel case, the Israeli government was forced to resign. The Israeli political right labelled their opponents as Gestapo agents and Kasztner became an obvious scapegoat. It was the first time that the general public, in Israel and elsewhere, became aware of the contacts between Zionist organisations and the Nazis and, not having experienced the terror of 1944 in the Hungary, they failed to understand the pressures which the Budapest Rescue Committee and the Jewish Council in Budapest were under, pressure which led to almost continual friction between the two organisations over tactics in dealing with the Nazis, whether at home or abroad.

In Tel Aviv, Kasztner and his whole family were subjected to appalling hate crimes. His young daughter, Zsuzsi, was stoned on the streets and his wife Bogyó became severely depressed. While awaiting the Supreme Court verdict that would eventually vindicate him, he was assassinated outside his apartment block in Tel Aviv. Kasztner did not think of himself as a hero, but as a proud Zionist who believed that promises, even those made to the Nazis, had to be kept. Anna Porter, born in Budapest and educated there after the war, has written a compelling account of him, subtitled The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust, based both on written sources in Hungarian and English, and on eyewitness accounts, collected at a time when there were few recorded references to the victims of what she (properly in my view) calls the Hungarian Holocaust. There were even fewer references to Rezső Kasztner, although the better-known Oskar Schindler, who had met Kasztner in Budapest in 1942, had written of his actions that they remained unsurpassed. Soon after the war, Schindler was recognized as a Righteous Gentile, supported by grateful survivors, celebrated and lionized. Kasztner, by contrast, became a symbol of collaboration with the enemy. Porter acknowledges that:

… the deals Kasztner made with the SS… raise questions about moral choices, courage in dangerous circumstances, the nature of compromise and collaboration, and how far an individual should go to save other people. These questions are as valid now as they were in the 1940s. They continue to haunt the world today.

Yet moral questions must be set alongside historical ones and Porter’s book, though a work of popular history, is meticulous in its use of diaries, notes, taped interviews, courtroom testimonies, and memoirs – both written and oral, including those written in German and Hebrew. Since Kasztner’s only goal was that of saving human lives, she concludes that Kasztner achieved more in this way than any other individual in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The Consequences of the Libel Trial, 1956-57; Extracts from Porter:

In March 1956, the chief magistrate in Jerusalem dismissed the charge of perjury against Kasztner… but the year presented greater trials than the re-trial of the perjury case… On October 29… the Israeli army invaded Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula. It was a pre-emptive strike at the heart of Egypt’s occupation of the Suez Canal. The invasion’s chief achievement, as far as the Israelis were concerned, was that it signaled to the surrounding Arab states that Israel could preserve its security against its enemies. Headlines in Israeli papers were occupied with news of the victory and the ensuing peace negotiations. Kasztner was no longer in the headlines. The government cancelled his protection.

He continued to work for ‘Új Kelet’ (‘New East’) and co-produced some radio programmes. He took on some freelance work as a translator… Tomy Lapid  (a colleague) said that Kasztner seemed aware of his life being in danger. “He became a hunted man,” Lapid said… Kasztner now looked along the street carefully before he stepped out of a doorway; he hesitated when he turned corners; once, when a car backfired he ducked into a store; he stayed close to walls; he had seemed nervous even when government-appointed guards followed him. There were so many abusive, threatening calls that he stopped answering the phone at the office. At home, too, he disconnected the telephone. He didn’t want his wife or daughter listening to the deranged ravings about how his life was to end.

On March 3, 1957, Kasztner was working the night-shift at the editorial offices of ‘Új Kelet’. He drove a colleague… home. A few minutes after midnight, Kasztner parked his car in front of his apartment building at 6 Sderot Emanuel Street. While he was still in the driver’s seat, he was approached by two young men. A third, he saw, was standing in the shadows of the building. One of the men asked if he was “Doctor Kasztner.” When he replied that, yes, he was, the man drew a gun, but it misfired. Kasztner opened the car door, pushing his assailant aside, then ran toward the entrance of the building. The man fired, twice in quick succession. This time the bullets found their target. Kasztner ran a few more steps, then collapsed. He shouted for help as the three assailants fled. He saw the gunman run to a jeep and speed off.

He was still conscious when the first person from the building arrived at the scene and tried to administer first aid. A woman who had gone to her balcony when the shots rang out ran to wake Bogyó (Kasztner’s wife). Another man heard Kasztner say that the assailant had gone in a jeep; that neighbour jumped on his bike and gave chase. Two men emerged from the jeep near the city zoo, where their pursuer, a former army man, found a phone booth and called the police.

A crowd gathered around Kasztner. Someone had called an ambulance. Bogyó, a neighbor reported later, seemed strangely calm when she saw that Rezső had been shot. Perhaps she, too, had been expecting something like this to happen. She knelt next to her bleeding husband, put a pillow under his head, covered him with a blanket, stroked his forehead and whispered to him…

Friends and a few passengers from the Kasztner train went to the hospital with flowers. There were hundreds of telegrams with good wishes for a speedy convalescence… Newspapers that had denounced Kasztner now shouted in headlines that the attackers had aimed at the heart of the nation of Israel.

Kasztner’s room was guarded by two policemen. He was conscious but spoke little. He wished to see no visitors except his immediate family and Hansi (his Zionist colleague Joel Brand’s wife and Rezső’s long-term lover). Bogyó had intended to bar Hansi from the room, but she managed to plead her way in. At one point he asked her, “Why did they do this to me?” Hansi was with him on March 12 as his condition began to deteriorate. 

On March 15, at 7:20 a.m., Rezső Kasztner died.                                                                                                                                                                                         

The Aftermath of the Assassination:

On Sunday, March 17, 1957, Rezső Kasztner’s coffin was set up in front of the Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv to provide his many admirers with an opportunity to pay their respects in public and to show their solidarity with the family. His mother, his two brothers, Bogyó, and Zsuzsi (his daughter), stood next to the coffin. Though neither David Ben-Gurion nor Mohse Sharett came, the Mapai (the ruling party) were represented by Attorney General Chaim Cohen and State Secretary Teddy Kollek. Some of his old colleagues from Budapest and Kolozsvár, and the halutzim who had worked with him paid their respects. Hansi stood near the coffin but out of Bogyó’s immediate circle. Yoel Palgi was there, as were many of the passengers from the Kasztner train. At the Bilu Synagogue, Rezső’s brother Gyula, his voice breaking as he read the words, recited the Kaddish, a prayer for the dead…

Kasztner was interred at the Nachlat Yitzhak Cemetery in Givataim, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, amid numerous declarations of friendship and tears. Most of the speakers vowed to continue the struggle not only to clear his name, but also to enshrine it among the heroes of the Holocaust. Those he had helped to survive promised to take promised to take care of his family.

‘Új Kelet’ published a moving obituary written by Ernő Márton. He praised Kasztner’s capacity for wit and erudition and his obsession with saving Jewish lives, his death-defying courage, his self-sacrifice, and his ambition to do something great, something “eternally significant for his people.”

Within days of the murder, the police arrested a twenty-four-year-old man, Zeev Eckstein, and his evidence led to the arrest of two other men, John Menkes, a former member of the Stern Gang, and Yaakov Cheruti, a lawyer. The three were tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment the following January. A week later, on 15 January 1958, the Supreme Court exonerated Kasztner in a four-to-one decision. In the key matter of the original libel of his collaboration with the Nazis, the majority of the judges accepted the appeal of the attorney general and convicted Malchiel Grünwald. In the midst of the joy of vindication that followed the Supreme Court ruling, notes of doubt remained.

The Supreme Court of Israel had acquitted Kasztner of all the charges brought against him, except for the one of helping Becher escape prosecution at Nuremberg. This led to remaining doubts concerning his affidavit  written on Becher’s behalf at that time, and his subsequent confused evidence in the libel case about this. In his statement about this following the initial Grünwald trial, Kastner had written:

I cannot refrain from expressing again my sorrow over the impression which may have been made in some people regarding the phrasing of my testimony about Becher, and the result of it. Neither I nor my friends have anything to hide in this whole affair, and we do not regret that we acted in accordance with our conscience, despite all that was done to us in this trial.

Several journalists continued to criticise Kasztner as having sold his soul in his deal with the Nazis. Nevertheless, the promise made by Alexander Rosenfeld at his funeral; We shall not rest, nor shall we remain silent until your name is cleared had been fulfilled by the Supreme Court’s verdict. His widow and daughter expressed their sadness that the new verdict had come too late to save his life. He had died aged just 51.

Despite the justifications of Kasztner’s role in Budapest, his fate of making friends with the devil, still divides the shrinking number of survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust of 1944-5. In 2006, István Bubryák made a three-part documentary about his life and several academic works, including Anna Porter’s book, have been published about his life. By way of postscript, an Italian book by Andrea Schiavon has also been published about one of the subsequently famous survivors on the train, Shaul Ladany. He was a member of the ill-fated Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972. When the book was published (2012), he was in his seventies and still taking part in various walking competitions (see picture below).

001 (2)

These accounts lend support to the evidence presented by Anna Porter, that, while human beings always have choices to make, even in the most difficult of times, there was no doubt that Kasztner acted with integrity during those months between March and December 1944, and that his actions saved many thousands of Jews from deportation to Auschwitz, not just the 1,684 who went on his train, but those who might have died on the subsequent death marches, or at the hands of the Arrow Cross. It is this very fact of survival which enables the ultimate vindication of Kasztner and the Budapest Rescue Committee.


Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.

Zsolt Zágoni (ed.), (2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Budapest.

Budapest between the Holocaust and the Uprising, 1946-56: Part Three; The Crucible, 1953-56.   1 comment

Family days and Events in the Fifties… 

Family days in Tom’s extended family had started before the war as enjoyable social events, but increasingly became times for sharing anxiety and problems caused by increasing persecution of Jews. After the holocaust, they then became a means of rebuilding a strong sense of family of those  who survived.  During the dark years of the communist era these family get-togethers were a time of mutual support, of sharing problems and giving advice, of debating the subtle political changes in the regime and generating some hope amidst the gloom. These events in extended Hungarian families continued throughout the Kádár era and even into the transition period which followed the collapse of communism in 1989-91. Tom’s direct memories were of the gatherings of the early to mid 1950s:

Everyone tried to make sure that we children had a good time, with special cakes and sweets, usually made by great-aunt Manci, my grandmother’s younger sister. We played games, while the adults were deep in conversation. The oldest of us was my second cousin Éva, two years older than me. I was next in age, my three cousins Jani, Andi and Juli (all children of my aunt Juci) were all younger as was my second cousin Kati. Her sister Marika and my other two second cousins András and Isti were all born in the early 50s. Éva made up some exciting ‘murder in the dark’ type of games, which involved hiding in cupboards and getting into some mischief.

There were occasional raised voices. It was often Éva’s mother Magda who was in some trouble. Like my mother, she had lost her husband in the holocaust in one of the ‘death marches’ and she never regained any kind of equilibrium. Her life seemed to go from one crisis to another. My grandfather Ármin (who was generally regarded as the ‘head of the family’) was always ready with advice, which Magda was not ready to receive. It was often my great-uncle Feri (Ármin’s younger brother) whose mild-mannered voice acted to mediate and bring calm to the proceedings. He was a much respected architect whose advice was sought by many.  Workplace problems were discussed, ways of getting round food shortages, childcare issues and, of course, politics. Most of the family were generally inclined to be liberal and tending towards socialist ideas, which dominated amongst the Jewish middle class.

Anti-semitism was generally linked to the old right-wing nationalism and the horrors of the holocaust were inflicted by the fascists. The Soviet Red Army, while bringing its own atrocities in some areas, meant liberation for the remnants of our family. So there was initially a lot of tolerance towards the proclaimed aims of the communist regime. The disillusion and the realisation of the total loss of freedom and the fear brought by the dictatorship of the Rákosi era dawned on members of the family at different rates.

Following the ‘turning point’ year of 1949, it only remained for the Hungarian Communists to apply some cosmetic surgery on the face of the Stalinist system to invest their de facto rule with a thin gloss of constitutionality. The rumps of the remaining parties, largely consisting of Communist fellow-travellers, merged with the Hungarian Workers’ Party (MDP) in the Hungarian Independence-Popular Front and undertook to submit to the decisions of its national board led by Rákosi as President, Dobi and Erdei as deputies and Rajk as General Secretary. They also pledged themselves to the leading role of the  MDP in the construction of socialism. Those who espoused alternative programmes were denounced as enemies of the Hungarian people, rather than being seen as any sort of ‘loyal opposition’. Predictably, on 15 May, 96 per cent of the electors voted for the candidates of the Popular Front, of whom more than seventy per cent were communists.

Shortly after the creation of the Popular Front, organised opponents of monolithic communist rule either evaporated or were forced into compliance through general repression. Within a week, the Democratic People’s Party dissolved itself and Cardinal Mindszenty was brought to court on fabricated charges of espionage and subversion. Having struck at the two pillars of the Catholic Church, landed property and youth education, the Communists had, early on, evoked the wrath of the militant prelate who was determined not only to defend religious liberty but also to preserve many of the Church’s anachronistic privileges. Now they turned on him as the head of what they termed the clerical reaction of 1947-49. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis of an extorted confession. Despite this, there was no break in the adherence of ordinary Catholics to their Church, but its power to openly resist did decline sharply decline, as became evident on 5 September 1949 obligatory religious instruction was abolished, and circumstances were made unfavourable for parents sending their children to optional classes. By 1952, only a quarter of elementary school pupils took them.

Religion was rarely discussed in the extended Leimdörfer family, either, as it was such a sensitive subject among many surviving Jewish families. Most of the family remained Jewish, but only practised at the time of festivals, while Edit (Tom’s mother), aunt Juci and her husband Gyuri became committed Christians in the Reformed (Calvinist) Church following their conversion. Tom recalls his mother’s distress over the recurring rift this decision had created in the family:

The only time I saw my mother in tears at a family day was when her right to bring me up as a Christian was being questioned. It was my grandmother Sári who smoothed out that particular row. Although we might have been playing, Éva and I heard what was going on in the adult conversation. Occasionally, when they noticed us listening, the conversation would switch to German. All the adults spoke fluent German, but only ever used it in these circumstances.

One of Tom’s more distant relatives had been in the French resistance during the war (having been a student at Grenoble university) and was the only one of the family who was actually a member of the Communist Party. As a sideline from his office job, he made up a game called Five Year Plan, which became available in the shops to replace the banned Capitali (a Hungarian version of Monopoly). As a ‘western communist’ he was, no doubt, in just as much danger from the secret police and the ‘Muscovites’ who were leading the party, as were the other members of the family. Even the seventy-one member Central Committee of the party was dwarfed in its significance by the Political Committee which met every week; even within this body, the ‘Muscovites’ formed an ‘inner circle’ within which the ‘triumvirate’ of Rákosi, Gerő and Farkas reigned supreme, with Rákosi surrounded by a personality cult second only in its dimensions, within the Communist bloc, to that of Stalin himself.

If any complex financial questions arose, the family turned to Pali (Hédi’s father, my grandmother’s younger brother) who was an accountant. Pali had another daughter, Márti, who had Down’s syndrome. She was a much-loved and nurtured member of the family:

We children adored her as she always played with us and always had a warm smile and a hug for us. She joined in with our games and clearly enjoyed playing with our toys. She was well-known in her neighbourhood and could do some shopping for her parents as well as helping at home. Márti was not the only member of the family with a disability. My young second cousin Kati had a genetic disorder resulting in very restricted growth and associated mobility problems in later life. However, she was bright, always even-tempered, went through mainstream school and university, took a doctorate and became a very competent and respected accountant.

Sixteen members of the extended family had died in the holocaust, but those who survived remained close to each other through thick and thin, notwithstanding any strains of religious, economic, political or philosophical differences. The dark years were hard for everyone, but when anyone was in acute hardship, there was always help. If things got difficult at home for anyone, there was always a listening ear. Tom recalls an occasion when, aged about nine, he ran away from home:

I forget the reason, but Mami and I had a row and she took to her periodic silent phase. I took the 49 tram, then changed to the 11 and arrived at my aunt Juci and uncle Gyuri’s flat. The adults had a quiet word, decided I might as well stay the night, play with my cousins, and start next day as if nothing had happened. It worked, I guess we just needed some ’space’ from each other. Juci and Gyuri’s home was a lovely flat and I always liked going there. They were always very busy, both working full-time and with three young children, but they always had time for me. Jani, Andi and Juli liked having me around and regarded me as an older brother. Their paternal grandmother, Ilonka mama, lived with them, helped with household chores and quietly fussed around us. Feeling at home in their family in Budapest laid the foundation for my crucial years as a teenage orphan in London, but surrounded by a loving family.

In the period after the war, throughout the 1940s and even through to 1956, the cultural scene in Budapest remained vibrant, with a vigorous and colourful press at first, in which all the trends that survived the war-time crucible represented themselves with excellent periodicals. There were renowned musical and theatrical performances and a host of films which represented the highest standards of international cinematography. For Tom, this creative atmosphere was a central part of his upbringing:

Music was very important in our lives. It was my mother’s great source of comfort and it became one of the strongest bonds between us, though occasionally also a source of strain. I grew up listening to classical music on the radio and started going to concerts, the opera and the ballet at an early age. Tickets were cheap for everyone and sometimes even free for us, once Mami started to work for the Hungarian Philharmonia, the state bureau which organised all major musical events in the country and distributed all tickets. Its offices were just opposite the sumptuous classical building of the Opera House.

My parents were concert goers during their courtship and the short married life they had together before the war tore them apart. Mami now just had me and she started taking me to concerts and the opera at what might be considered a very early age. Works deemed suitable for children, like Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ ballet, Massine’s ‘La Boutique Fantastique’,  and Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ I saw before the age of six. I was not yet eight when I saw ‘Carmen’ at the Opera in a mesmerising performance…  Apart from the two opera houses of the capital (the classical Opera House and the more modern Erkel Theatre), there were outdoor performances in the summer. The outdoor theatre was near the zoo and occasionally a hapless tenor or soprano had to compete with some noisy peacocks or other nocturnally vocal animals.

There were a lot of excellent Hungarian musicians of international renown, who were not able to travel to the west. With visiting artists from the other communist countries, the quality of performances was always high… After Stalin’s death, when the regime became relatively less repressive, the first western artist to visit was the great Yehudi Menuhin. He played both the Beethoven and the Mendelssohn violin concertos in the same concert, one each side of the interval. Mami managed to get three tickets. She and her best friend Gitta (my friend Dani’s mother) were both looking forward to the concert as a high point of the year. Dani and I were to share the third ticket. He played the violin, so he had first choice and chose the Beethoven (which is longer). I was satisfied, because the Mendelssohn was my favourite, having been told that it had been one of my father’s best loved pieces of music. In any case, we could each listen to the other half outside the door. It was a magical performance and the four of us talked about nothing else for weeks.


Tom, all dressed up for a night at the opera

Nagy’s New Course & Rákosi’s Return:

It is no wonder that Hungarians received the news of Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 with almost unanimous relief. Gyula Kodolányi recalls how in school the next day they had to stand for a minute. Most of his friends bent their heads down, he remembers, not in mourning, but to hide glances of outright joy. Life on the streets was also commanded to halt for minutes of silence, but the attitude of the adults was similar, except for a few hysterical party members sobbing theatrically on the departure of their demigod.

As the new Soviet leadership recognised the possibility of peaceful co-existence with the West, this resulted in their recognition of the wider crisis which existed throughout their Empire in general, and Hungary in particular. Mátyás Rákosi, who was also Premier since 1952 and thought that things would return to normal once the power struggle in the Kremlin was over, was summoned to Moscow in the middle of June. In the presence of a party and state delegation he was reprimanded in a humiliating fashion by Lavrentiy Beria and the other Soviet leaders, who brutally dismissed him before his comrades for developing a personality cult and presiding over the collapse of the absurdly centralised Hungarian economy (due to policies implemented on their own demands, it has to be recognised, including the senseless industrialisation and forcible collectivisation of agriculture) and appalling living standards. At the same time, Beria announced that Imre Nagy, present in Moscow as Deputy Prime Minister, would be the new leader of Communist Hungary.  Nagy had fallen into disfavour in 1949, due to his dissent over the issue of collectivisation, and although he had gradually returned to the leadership of the party, he had managed to remain untainted by the terror. However, the ‘cadres’ in Budapest remained perplexed, since Rákosi had retained the party secretaryship, and it was therefore difficult for them to predict whether the Soviet leadership in the future would favour him or Nagy. Nevertheless, in the twenty-one months that followed, the Nagy government implemented significant corrections, justifying the description of the period as the new course. Nagy moved energetically to proclaim his policies for the new course on 4 July 1953. Kodolányi, then aged twelve, remembers walking home on a blazing hot evening in Budapest, in which all the windows were open to let in a cooling breeze:

… from every window Imre Nagy’s maiden speech as Prime Minister resounded forth from radios, often from radio sets placed on the window sills. It was a somewhat rasping but pleasant and unobtrusive voice, with intimate overtones of his native dialect of southwest Hungary… the unbelievable happened after so many years of Communism: a human voice speaking in Parliament, to real human beings. A Hungarian to fellow Hungarians. Morally and intellectually, Communism fell in Hungary at that moment – although in the world of power it remained here to pester us for another 37 years, an obtrusive carcass.

Imre Nagy may have been unaware of the full immense effect on the nation of the speech and his voice. He found his way to the hearts of the people, and at this moment already his road to martyrdom was fatally decided…


At the earlier meeting of the party central committee on 27-28 June, Nagy had already stated that, in his view, Hungary had become a police state, and its government a shadow government in the service of the Communist Party. He demanded that the Party had to resort to ‘self-criticism’. In his historic Parliament speech, he promised the restoration of legality, the curbing of police power and the bringing of the ÁVH back under the control of the Interior Ministry. He promised a partial amnesty for political prisoners, the stopping of deportations and forced labour, and greater tolerance for religion. He also promised a sharp rise in living standards and the restructuring of the economy.  This would involve the abolition of costly development priorities in heavy industry, the restructuring of agricultural policy, the easing of burdens on the peasantry and the granting of their right to return to individual farming. His most urgent and important reforms were all codified in Parliament within a month. The effect was an immediate, immense sense of relief in society as hope, self-confidence and creativity emerged in all walks of life, despite the resistance which lurked in many pockets of Stalinist power. Too many people in positions of influence had been involved in the excesses of the Rákosi régime. Although the refreshing breeze of a new freedom of speech swept through the country, and the sins of Stalinist past were discussed widely, passions were kept in check.

However, partly owing to the power struggle ongoing in the Kremlin itself, the Soviet leadership became increasingly convinced that Nagy’s New Course was progressing too fast and dangerously. In early 1955 it decided that Rákosi had to be brought back to power. In January Nagy was censured by Khrushchev, who had displaced Malenkov, for the ‘radicalism’ of the reforms and ordered to correct the ‘mistakes’. His subsequent illness was used by Rákosi to prepare charges of right-wing deviation and nationalist tendencies against him and to arrange for his dismissal (18 April). Initially, Nagy’s replacement was András Hegedűs, a young man whom Rákosi and Gerő hoped to manipulate. However, Rákosi had not learnt the lessons of his fall from ‘grace’ and came back with the intention to take personal revenge in the spring of 1955, even though, by then, Stalinism had become a dirty word throughout the Soviet Empire. Another wave of forcible collectivisation of agriculture and a sharp increase in the number of political prisoners were among the most visible signs of re-Stalinisation. Nagy was ousted from the Hungarian Communist Party and withdrew from public life, but wrote memoranda defending the Marxist-Leninist basis of his reforms. He was supported by a large group of reformist intellectuals and revisionist Communist politicians, who still regarded him as their true leader. Tension continued to run high, so that the Soviets felt driven to interfere for a second time. The Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956 indicated that the Kremlin now deemed the use of widespread terror to maintain the pace of the armaments race as unaffordable. Although Rákosi claimed, on his return, that the ‘secret speech’ had confirmed that no further steps were necessary to restore socialist legitimacy, the illicit listeners to it in central and western Europe knew that it put the seal on the policy of de-Stalinisation, the toleration of different national paths to Communism and the peaceful co-existence of the two world systems.

Catalysts of the Uprising:

On 21 July 1956 Rákosi was finally deposed and sent into exile in central Asia. But instead of bringing back Imre Nagy, Mikoyan appointed Rákosi’s hard-line henchman Ernő Gerő as Prime Minister, a grave miscalculation as it turned out. It was mistakenly believed in the Kremlin that by dropping Rákosi things would return to normal, but his replacement by another veteran Stalinist did nothing to satisfy either the opposition in the Hungarian Communist Party or the Yugoslav Communists, whose voice had started to matter again following the reconciliation between Moscow and Belgrade. It is clear from the 1991 account of the then British Ambassador to Budapest, Peter Unwin, that by the time of Mikoyan’s deposing of Rákosi on 17 July 1956, only Nagy had any chance of replacing him successfully as both party secretary and prime minister. But although Nagy was once again becoming a figure of influence, he was not only no longer prime minister, but was still out of office and suspended from the Party indefinitely. In appointing Gerő, Mikoyan missed the chance to make a clean break with the Rákosi régime. Gerő was an experienced, hard-working apparatchik who had been close to Rákosi since their days in exile in Moscow during the war. Although less hated than his erstwhile boss, he was equally discredited among his colleagues in Budapest. He also lacked the flexibility and skill of Rákosi.


If Mikoyan had chosen Nagy in July, he would have given him the chance to create a position like Gomulka’s in Poland, strong enough both to resist both popular Hungarian and Soviet pressure. But the Kremlin remained distrustful of Gomulka’s efforts to come to terms with its own people and did not want to replicate these conditions in Hungary almost simultaneously. As a result, Nagy’s return to power was delayed for three vital months during the summer and early autumn of ’56, months which were also wasted by Gerő. Many Hungarians concluded that in replacing Rákosi with Gerő, the Soviets had made no decisive change in substance, even fearing that Rákosi might reappear yet again. All the old régime’s critics were equally convinced that real change could only be brought about by the return of Imre Nagy. Mikoyan kept in touch with Nagy, concluding that, should Gerő fail to establish his authority as a loyal Soviet subordinate, he would still have time to turn to the insubordinate and unrepentant Nagy.

During August and September the rehabilitation of political prisoners continued and there was no attempt made to silence the reformists clamouring for liberalisation and freedom of the press. Their success depended on their ability to stay ‘within bounds’, to gain popular control of peripheral spheres of national life, but not to threaten the central core of orthodox party power. Gerő remained reluctant to give Nagy a platform for renewed political activity. Yet the former prime minister was also a Bolshevik of nearly forty years’ standing and, as such, the one individual who could unite the nation and most of the party. Yet at the same time Gerő ignored the various unofficial promptings from Nagy, refusing to take action against him and his associates. When Nagy applied in writing for readmission to the Party on 4 October, he specifically accepted democratic centralism, in other words the right of the Party to discipline him, and Gerő’s leadership, despite the outrage of his friends. Gerő took nine days to respond to the application, making the strained atmosphere between the two camps even worse.

Discredited party functionaries were exposed in the press and the Petöfi Circle continued with its debates on burning issues like economic policy, the condition of agriculture and educational reform. After discussing the matter with Moscow, Gerő finally agreed to Nagy’s readmission. He was finally re-adopted by the party a week after the reburial of Rajk on 6 October, which turned into a 100,000-strong peaceful demonstration against the crimes of Stalinism. A delegation of Hungarian leaders visited Belgrade, and, by the time they returned, matters had already slipped beyond the party’s control. What had begun as a struggle between revisionist and orthodox Communists, set off by and adjusting to changes in Moscow, had turned into growing ferment among the intelligentsia and become a full-scale anti-Soviet revolution.

Following the reburial and rehabilitation of László Rajk and the victims of the purges of 1949, on 6th and 13th October, the newspapers carried the decision of the Political Committee to readmit Nagy to party membership. His Chair at the university and his membership of the Academy of Sciences were restored soon after, but there was no word of a return to public office. Demands for reform continued to spread and the country was soon ablaze with debate and discussion groups, which became local ‘parliaments’. But both sides seemed to back away from confrontation while events in Belgrade and Warsaw took their course. Events in Budapest were shaping as Nagy had predicted they would, with the nation facing crisis. He was close to power. The British Minister in Budapest reported on 18 October that…

Nagy’s star appears firmly in the ascendant and I am reliably informed that it is only a question of time before he obtains high office.


As he relaxed on a short break at Lake Balaton, there was tumult throughout the country. Besides Budapest, students were calling for marches and demonstrations in Miskolc, Szeged, Pécs and Sopron.  The news of the Polish success in the showdown with Khrushchev on 19 November intoxicated them and excited mass meetings began by passing resolutions in support of Poland and ended in the formulation of demands for reform in Hungary.


The origins and causes of the events of 1956 are often viewed through the prism of more recent attempts of central-eastern European states to wriggle free from the overarching and all-pervasive control of Soviet communism. However, whilst we may conclude that the 1956 Hungarian Uprising was an anti-Soviet revolution, based on contemporary and eye-witness accounts, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that it was not intrinsically anti-Communist, despite the justifications used by apologists for the Kádár régime which followed. Like many of the subsequent rebellions, even that of East Germany in 1989, both the leadership and the bulk of their followers were committed communists, or Marxist-Leninists, seeking reform and revision of the system, not its total overthrow. In her detailed and well-informed analysis of the Hungarian Revolution, Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote in 1957:

This was a true event whose stature will not depend upon victory or defeat: its greatness is secure in the tragedy it enacted. What happened in Hungary happened nowhere else, and the twelve days of the revolution contained more history than the twelve years since the Red Army had ‘liberated’ the country from Nazi domination.

This was certainly the case, although, as we have seen, the twelve previous years were hardly uneventful. However, anyone who has lived through one of the accelerations of history which have happened in Europe in more recent years may have some idea of the sense of headiness engendered at that time. Arendt marvelled at the way in which the Revolution was initiated by the prime objects of indoctrination, the “over-privileged” of the Communist system: left-wing intellectuals, university students, workers; the Communist avant-garde: their motive was neither their own nor their fellow-citizens’ material misery, but exclusively Freedom and Truth”. This was, she concluded, an ultimate affirmation that human nature is unchangeable, that nihilism will be futile, that… yearning for freedom and truth will rise out of man’s heart and mind forever. What, for her, was also remarkable, was that, given the atmosphere and the lines drawn by early October 1956, there was no civil war. For the Hungarian army, the interior police and most of the Marxist-Leninist régime and its cadres, those lines were quickly swept away by the tide of events. Only the Ávó remained loyal to the hard-line Stalinist cause.

The eye-witness evidence of Sándor Kopácsi, the Budapest Police chief, and Béla Király, the commander-in-chief of the Hungarian National Guard, both committed communists, of itself provides sufficient evidence that the Revolution was not an anti-Communist counter-revolution. More recently than their accounts, a memorandum of István Bibó, a Minister of State in the Nagy government of 1956 has been translated into English. Bibó was not a Communist, having been delegated by the re-established National Peasant Party, re-named The Petöfi Party. Between January and April 1957 he wrote down his thoughts for world leaders and delivered his memorandum to the US Embassy. He was later arrested along with Árpád Göncz and others and tried for treason and conspiracy. Although given the death sentence, he was released in 1963 under the general amnesty negotiated by the US and the Vatican with the Kádár régime. In the memorandum, his contemporary interpretation of the causes of the Uprising comes across even more clearly than those of Kopácsi and Király, who were caught up in its events:

In a word, the Hungarian action of the Soviet Union, which had been meant to avoid surrendering a position, has only dealt a blow to the position of communism… … the movements in Hungary, Poland and other Communist countries have most amply demonstrated that there is a genuine and active demand for the reality of freedom and its most developed techniques… These movements have proved that the demand for change is not limited to the victims of the one-party régime, it indeed came forth from those the single-party system brought up, its youths; there need be no worry that they would lead to the restoration of outdated social and political forms… The Hungarian Revolution and the popular movements of Eastern Europe mean that the Western world can and should follow a policy line that is neither aggressive nor informed by power considerations but is more active and enterprising and aims not to impose its economic and social system on others but step by step seeks to win East European countries and finally the Soviet Union over to Western techniques of freedom and the shared political morality in which it is grounded.

The fact that this was written in hiding and smuggled out of the country lends a certain poignancy to Bibó’s perspective, since it is not influenced by the western surroundings  of exile in North America. I have dealt elsewhere with the events and outcomes of this spontaneous national uprising, as the UN Special Committee described it in 1957. What is clear from the reading of the available evidence about its causes is that Kádár’s propaganda that it was inspired and led by fascists, anti-Semites, reactionaries and imperialists, echoing, strongly at first, all the way down to the recent sixtieth anniversary, no longer has any place in the national discourse.


Bartók Béla Boulevard elementary school Class 8a, spring 1956

Tom is third from left in the middle row, Dani in front row extreme right

Form teacher Benedek Bölöni (Béni bácsi)


Hungarian Review, November 2016, Vol VII, No. 6.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Tom Leimdofer’s Family Memoirs, unpublished (including photos).

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