Archive for the ‘A J P Taylor’ Tag

The British Labour Party & the Left, 1931-1936: The Roads from Coventry to Wigan & Jarrow to London.   1 comment

How comparable is Labour’s defeat of 2019 to that of 1935?

The electoral facts have shown that, at the end of 2019, the Labour Party in Britain suffered its worst defeat since 1935, yet those who led the Party to this are still refusing to accept responsibility for the debacle. They tell us that, had it not been for ‘Brexit’, they would have persuaded the British electorate to back Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘marvellous manifesto’ stuffed full of uncosted radical policies which would have transformed Britain, including widespread nationalisation without compensation, massive tax increases for private companies and entrepreneurs, and trillions of additional expenditure. Watching the daily parade of uncosted spending pledges, I was reminded of the tactics of the Militant-controlled Liverpool Council in the 1980s which followed the Leninist tactic of making impossible ‘transitional demands’ in order to take over the public agenda and sow the seeds of continual chaos. However, as a historian of the inter-war period, I’ve been re-discovering the parallels between Labour’s current crisis and the one it had to claw its way out of from 1931-36 and the ‘devils’ are ‘legion’.

Francis Beckett, a fellow historian of the Labour movement, has just published an article in the ‘New European’ pointing to a curious figure from the left’s past who seems to have inspired the party’s calamitous current state. He argues that the cause of the calamity was not Brexit, nor even the incompetence of Corbyn, McDonnell and the ‘Shadow Cabinet’, but the sectarianism of those who advised Corbyn, principally Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray, who are the modern equivalents of one of the strangest figures in Labour movement history, Rajani Palme Dutt. Beckett continues:

Képtalálat a következőre: „R. Palme Dutt”

Dutt was the leading theoretician (that was the word they used) of Britain’s Communist Party, from the 1920s until he died in 1974. In the 1930s Dutt … pioneered a Moscow-inspired policy called ‘Class against Class’ which required communists to reserve their first and most deadly fire for their rivals on the left, who would divert the working class from the true path of socialism. … In the 1980s Murray and Milne ran Straight Left, the monthly journal associated with the ‘Stalinist’, pro-Soviet, anti-Eurocommunist faction of the Communist Party. This group was ruthlessly and bitterly sectarian, in the spirit of Class against Class. After the miners’ strike of 1984-5, they reserved their bitterest abuse for anyone on the left who criticised Arthur Scargill (disclosure: I was the target of some of this).

This author had a similar, albeit local, experience to this when, after teaching in a Lancashire comprehensive, I tried to re-join the Labour Party in Coventry in 1986. By then, the ‘Militant Tendency’ and the ‘hard Left’ had taken control of the constituency party my grandparents had helped to found. Even the testimony of the local councillor my grandmother had worked alongside for half a century wasn’t enough to guarantee me entry. Apparently, I was in the wrong teachers’ union, although I discovered later there was no such rule about belonging to a TUC-affiliated union. They had obviously spotted that I might be a threat to their hegemony and weren’t interested in Labour heritage. The following year, two of the Militant/ hard-Left group, David Nellist and John Hughes were elected as two of the three Coventry MPs, but they only survived one term before they were expelled from the party. Though they were replaced by ‘mainstream’ parliamentary candidates, Labour lost its fourth general election in succession in 1992, largely because it still seemed to be rent with divisions, at least until John Smith took charge. I went into self-imposed exile in Hungary, then undergoing its transition to democracy. There I learnt what ‘revolutionary socialism’ had really been about; Hungarians told me that they had really experienced Orwell’s dystopia in real life at exactly the time he had been writing about it in his Hebridean hermitage. Five years later, I returned to Britain just in time to witness a ‘Social-Democratic’ Labour Party finally win power in 1997, holding onto it until 2010 and achieving much in the first twelve of those thirteen years.

The Drive to Municipal Socialism in Coventry:

In order to understand the relationship between Socialism and the recovery of the Labour Party in Britain between the wars, we need to understand the growth of the local parties in municipalities like Coventry and their rise to power in the Thirties. What happened to the constituency parties in Coventry in the 1980s was largely a reaction of the ‘revolutionary socialists’ to the dominance of municipal socialism as the Party’s main creed since the mid-1930s. In some ways, it appears strange that it took Labour until 1937 to gain power in so working-class a city, and this may be the result of the party’s concentration on gaining and sustaining representation in parliament through what was, after all, a coalition of national and regional political groups, unions and societies. At the local level, the ‘shopocracy’ was left to preside over Coventry’s industrial and social revolution long after its social base had ceased to be dominant. The ‘shopocracy’ was an uneasy coalition of different forces, seldom able to achieve united and disciplined action. Yet it succeeded in holding up the Labour advance for decades. Finally, in 1937, Labour gained power almost by default.

In its drive for municipal power, Labour was in a fight not with the big companies that controlled the economic life of the city and its workers, but with a political anachronism that remained in power until it was virtually exhausted. The political expression of the ‘shopocracy’ were the Liberal and Conservative parties. In the late 1920s, they had come together to form a coalition. Of all its councillors and aldermen whose occupations can be identified in the inter-war period, one third were dealers or retailers, mostly shopkeepers. Only just over a fifth were manufacturers, mostly associated with the older-established trades such as watchmaking, silk-weaving and clothing manufacture. A further fifth was from the professions, including lawyers and doctors, alongside builders, publicans and commercial agents. Only a very small number were associated with big engineering companies, including a few senior managers, who did not stay politically active for very long.

Throughout the inter-war years, almost all the figures on comparative expenditure by county boroughs show Coventry lagging behind the majority, in particular on libraries, houses, schools and poor relief. Consequently, Coventry was low on in the list of rates levied per head. This may have encouraged more industrial concerns to move into the city, but the extension of the city and lower than average rates of unemployment allowed a policy of inactivity to survive. With a gradual improvement in the Labour vote in the 1930s, it was clear to the Coalition that its days were numbered unless drastic action was taken. It decided on a new initiative, therefore, and launched the ‘Progressive Party’. There were two reasons for this change; one was to improve organisation, and the other was to draw in support from Coventry industrialists. For years, the Coalition had won elections because of the weakness of the Labour Party rather than because of its own strength. An editorial in the Midland Daily Telegraph complained of the fact that the Labour Party had a central organisation, did political work throughout the year, had developed a policy for the city, whereas the Coalition had done none of this.

In 1935, when the City Council agreed to promote a Parliamentary Bill to extend its powers, Labour saw this as a victory for socialism. The Bill was necessary in order to deal with the new lands that the City had taken over in view of its expansion. It sought to acquire powers to drill water wells, acquire land for roads, set out an airport and parks, and close private slaughterhouses.  It was not controversial and George Hodgkinson, Labour leader on the Council declared at the meeting which agreed to it, We are all socialists now. He made it clear that Labour was supporting the Bill because it was a socialist measure. There were opponents, still wedded to a policy of non-intervention, who were uneasy about the growth in the authority of city departments. Coalition parsimony tended to encourage Labour to overemphasise the collectivist aspect of extending local government services. Certainly, these services had to be planned, and this was the worst charge that Labour could throw at the Coalition, that it had failed to plan municipal enterprises.

006 (2)

The early failures of the trade unions in the industrial struggle pushed the Coventry Labour Party into seeking its salvation in the municipal strategy. Labour projected itself as the party of ‘planning’ in which municipal enterprise would combine with co-operative ideals to create socialism. Many of Labour’s local leaders were also active in the co-operative movement which embraced the whole city, including the new working-class suburbs. Their vision of socialism – large, generous and undefined, included public ownership which, if properly handled, could provide the key to realising that vision. This was a very different vision of socialist values than that held by many in the trade union movement, expressed through the Trades and Labour Council which had been established a full decade before the Labour Party in the City. It had been founded before the First World War and besides co-ordinating support for major strikes at the local level, it also took up local issues on behalf of the trades unions.

What is of interest in Coventry is that for a number of years the number of people voting Labour greatly outnumbered the number of people joining trade unions. Increasingly, the unions were concerned with money, while Labour was concerned with social justice for all. The irony, of course, was that the decision by Labour to concentrate on municipal politics made it more likely that workplace politics, in turn, would become narrower in focus. From about 1934 onwards, trade union membership began to improve, very slowly at first but speeding-up from 1937.  The vehicle and aircraft industries did well for most of the Thirties, with higher pay for pieceworkers, and this stimulated many craft workers to re-join their unions to try to overtake the pieceworkers. As elsewhere in the country, the trade union revival offered scope for radical politics and the hardening of the divide between workplace politics and municipal politics, which once again made it possible for the Communist Party (CPGB) to spread its influence. It had survived the ‘lean’ years by going through a period of decline and sectarianism, which characterised its role and activities for the remainder of the decade.

But the inter-war period as a whole had seen a shift from socialism based on workshop power in Coventry to socialism as a municipal enterprise. A key factor in this shift was the existence of two distinct ruling groups within the City, the manufacturers and the ‘shopocracy’. The Coalition, with its hands growing increasingly shaky on the economic and social levers of power, and with its narrow-minded neglect of municipal duties, was an obvious target for the Labour Party. This concentration on attacking the Coalition meant that it had comparatively weak links with the trade union movement, and perhaps an over-emphasis on the road to socialism through municipal planning. But the emphasis on ‘planning’ was clearly needed to overcome the financial problems which could follow from the increase in municipal enterprises. Some traditional working-class members of the early Labour Party had a horror of borrowing instilled in them; T. J. Harris, the first Labour Mayor of Coventry could seldom be restrained from preaching against its evils, though his views were not altogether shared by some of his younger party colleagues. Nevertheless, he remained a major influence on the party throughout the inter-war period, as did the values of ‘thrift’. Fear of getting into serious debt remained a great handicap to a Council that needed to spend money. Labour hoped that the modern language of ‘planning’ and ‘intervention’ could get round the problem.

Of course, the danger of a local study, however brief, is that it might lead to an overemphasis on special local conditions and the playing down of national politics. Throughout most of the inter-war years, despite some notable ‘hiccups’, Labour succeeded in establishing itself as a major Parliamentary force, and for a few years, as a party of government. The habit of voting Labour gradually spread among working people and no doubt national developments affected voting patterns in Coventry in a similar way as they did in other parts of the country. Even before Labour came to power in Coventry, George Hodgkinson was urging the Council to look forward to the day when … property would be required by the Corporation for laying out the centre of the city on the lines followed by continental cities. Such planning was not just for a better city in the near future; it was a long-term investment that would yield funds for social spending beyond current horizons.

007

Planning for the People:

Coventry had quickly become a city whose economic life was dominated by large factories, and factory life was also important to shaping social and cultural activities in the city. Labour policies had little impact on factory experiences; its appeal was based on the improvement of living conditions, and the standard and the general quality of life rather than on people’s working lives. Working people were beginning to measure this, especially in Coventry, by the extent of their access to leisure activities and facilities. The local Labour approach was to take the political passivity of the working class as a given. Labour developed a socialist programme that meant acting on behalf of working people rather than bringing them into power. Its retreat from the workshops, necessary in order to clearly establish its own identity, left a gulf in working-class politics that the Communist Party sought, in vain, to fill. The Labour Party both nationally and locally was still fully committed to the replacement of capitalism with Socialism. But in 1935 it lacked a strategy for working-class power at a national level. It saw its programme of municipal socialism in Coventry and other corporations as a means of securing a broader victory.

In retrospect, A. J. P. Taylor (1970) saw the Thirties as a period of paradox with politicians attempting to strengthen the weakened and declining remnants of industrial greatness, while the more prosperous part of the population was buying the ‘new’ industrial products. This, he argued, was a good example of a ‘disconnect’ between politicians and the people. Taylor wrote that September 1931 marked ‘the watershed’ of English history between the wars. He defined this by reference to a number of events and longer-term developments. The end of the gold standard on 21 September was the most obvious and immediate of these. Until that point, governments were hoping to restore the unregulated capitalist economy which had existed (or was thought to have existed) before 1914. After that day, they had to face their responsibility to provide conscious direction at least as far as the banks and money markets were concerned. Taylor went on to highlight the key themes of the Thirties compared with the preceding decade:

Planning was the key word of thirties; planned economy, plan for peace, planned families, plan for holidays. The standard was Utopia. …

Politicians strove to revive the depressed areas; the inhabitants left them. Public policy concentrated on the staple industries and on exports. Capital and labour developed new industries which provided goods for the home market. … The individual spent his money on domestic comforts – indeed with the growth of hire-purchase, spent other people’s money also. … the English people were ‘more planned against than planning’. …

The nineteen-thirties have been called the black years, the devil’s decade. It popular image can be expressed in two phrases; mass unemployment and ‘appeasement’. No set of political leaders have been judged so contemptuously since the days of Lord North. … The members of the National Government … would hesitate at nothing to save the country, to save the pound. The result of their courage was that the children of the unemployed had less margarine on their bread. After this resolute decision, ministers dispersed to their warm, comfortable homes and ate substantial meals. Such was ‘equality of sacrifice’. 

Yet, at the same time, as Taylor himself also pointed out, most English people were enjoying a richer lifestyle than any they had previously known: longer holidays, shorter hours and higher real wages. They also had motor cars, radio sets and other electrical appliances (many of them made at the GEC in Coventry). This other aspect of the Thirties, less dramatic than the narrative of the ‘depressed areas’ and the hunger marches, has no place in song and story. But standards of living were actually rising in that black decade. In the Thirties, if you had a job, and particularly one in the new light industries, you were not badly off, and your parents’ way of life could seem dismally restricted and archaic. Except for the trough of the economic crisis which, unfortunately for Labour, coincided with their time in government, from October 1929 to September 1931, it was only the old-fashioned heavy basic industries, the ones which had made Britain’s fortune, which were now derelict: in the new industries based on electricity or petrol instead of steam, and consumer goods rather than iron and steel, there was a genuine and rising prosperity.

It was the mass unemployment of ‘the Slump’, more than anything else, which gave the Thirties their distorted image as a ‘long weekend’. Britain’s exports were almost halved between 1929 and 1931 and not only did the depressed industries of the Twenties now have to face, according to Cook and Stevenson (1977) an economic blizzard of unprecedented severity, but the slump also affected every branch of industry and business. Unemployment continued to rise through the winter of 1931-32, reaching a peak in the third quarter of 1932 when there were almost three million people out of work in Great Britain. The National Government’s response was to implement further economy measures, including cuts in unemployment benefit. Financial orthodoxy and economic conservatism remained the dominant features of its strategy to cope with the slump.

Pomp & Pageantry – A Monarch for the Masses:

001George V photographed circa 1935.

The mass of the people, middle class and working class, who had fought in the war and still hoped for a ‘Merrie England’, lined up solidly behind the Pageant of History’s living representatives, the Royal family. George V commanded massive popularity. He was gruff, solid and sensible. He made sensible remarks, and his Christmas radio broadcasts in which, after a round-up of voices from all over the Empire, he spoke with great simplicity to his people, made him a father figure. His image was greatly enhanced by the fact that his Hanoverian origins had given him a classless accent. Of a member of MacDonald’s Government with whom he became friendly, he said If I’d had that man’s childhood I should feel exactly as he does. The King’s relations with MacDonald and the other Labour ministers formed an important chapter in his Kingship. According to Churchill, he was determined from the outset to show absolute impartiality to all parties in the Constitution and the workings of Parliamentary Government, irrespective of their creed or doctrine, who could obtain a majority in the House of Commons. Indeed, if the balance were to be swayed at all, it must be on the side of newcomers to power, who needed help and favour by the Crown. Never, Churchill wrote, did he need fear the British Democracy:

He reconciled the new forces of Labour and Socialism to the Constitution and the Monarchy. This enormous process of assimilating and rallying the spokesmen of left-out millions will be intently studied by historians of the future. … the spectacle was seen of the King and Emperor working in the utmost ease and unaffected cordiality with politicians whose theories at any rate seemed to menace all existing institutions, …

003

In 1935, George V had been on the throne for twenty-five years and the nation decided to give him a party. The Jubilee celebrations were marked by a genuine warmth of feeling, which came as a surprise to the King himself. When they toured the poorer parts of the capital, the King and Queen received an overwhelmingly affectionate and enthusiastic welcome. He is supposed to have said, I am beginning to think they must like me for myself. In the photo above, vast crowds cheer the procession as it returns to the Palace. The King wrote later that this was the greatest number of people in the streets that I have ever seen in my life. 

004

Below: A Jubilee street party in May 1935. All over Britain, workers decorated their houses and streets, and made the most of the occasion with a spirit that must have dismayed ‘true socialists’. In his speech, the King made reference to the unemployed, saying ‘I grieve to think of the numbers of my people who are without work’.  The Stockport Chamber of Trade recommended a public holiday to mark the Jubilee but left it to the employers to decide whether or not to pay their workers.  As a result, only one mill gave the day off with pay, so that thousands of workers celebrated the Jubilee with a reduced pay packet.

009

Below: Earlier in the Jubilee year, Alderman F. Bowler, the leader of the local Labour Party, had led a protest march to the Town Hall (on 6 March) to fight inside the Council against the rate reduction of threepence in the pound, and for more jobs. The Labour group put down a motion urging the Council to ‘respond to the Prince Of Wales’ appeal to employers to engage an extra one per cent of men on permanent employment’. The photograph shows protesting men forming a cordon around the Town Hall. 

008

Why did so many workers vote Tory in December 1935?

Besides producing a different kind of factory worker, the new industries greatly augmented the middle class at its lower-paid end; it was these people, together with the old middle class of independent shopkeepers and small tradesmen and small businessmen, with the professional upper-middle class, the new financial and managerial upper class and the remnants of the land-owning aristocracy, who could have been expected to vote solidly for the National Government and stability. In the event, they were joined by at least half the old working classes who were in such dire straits, and this was a straight vote for tradition: ‘in the crisis’ they thought, as was often the case with British workers, that we shall be saved, if at all, by those who are used to ruling and governing according to well-tried formulae which in the past have put us on top. That was the reason for the huge parliamentary majorities for MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain. René Cutforth summed up the British attitude as follows:

Put lucidly the proposition before the British nation in the 1930s would run something like this:

“In the last war nearly a million British men, in the younger half of the population, laid down their lives for King and Country/ Civilisation/ Freedom. Take your pick. Since we are not at this moment, as we sometimes feared we would be, a bankrupt German province, it can be said that their sacrifice saved us. We are now in the position of having to be saved again. It seems that the sacrifice required this time is that a further one and a half million, the permanently unemployed, lay down their lives, not abruptly and in violence like the soldiers: they will not even have to stop breathing, but ‘lives’ in the sense in which we want to preserve them in these islands, they cannot have. If this is what has to be, amen.”

Put like that, I don’t believe the proposition would have won a single vote, but in fact that is the way we voted and that is what happened. 

002

At the beginning of October 1935, Harold Nicolson, career diplomat and diarist, was offered a ‘safe’ seat in the National Labour interest at Leicester West in the November General Election. He jumped at the offer since he had been regarded as ‘damaged goods’ since his ill-starred flirtations with Beaverbrook and Mosley earlier in the decade. He was certainly not a socialist in any meaningful sense of the word, admitting himself that such socialism as he owned was ‘purely cerebral’ and that he did ‘not like the masses in the flesh’. So of course, Real Labour was out of the question, and Nicolson really saw himself as an Asquithian Liberal, but they were now extinct as a parliamentary organism. He had, therefore, wandered aimlessly along the political spectrum, from the New Party to National Labour, stopping off along the way to check out the Conservatives or the Liberals, without ever ideologically coming to rest at any one particular point. In his attempt to identify this point in public, he wrote a pamphlet for National Labour which took the form of an imaginary conversation between himself and a fellow passenger on a train journey between London and Leicester, published as Politics in the Train. He told his sceptical companion that how much he disliked sectional parties and bureaucrats, those that place their own interests or theories above the interests of the country as a whole. 

Although he favoured the concept of an organic state, he did not believe in rendering Britain a totalitarian State; in fact, he abhorred all forms of ‘isms’ and ‘dictatorships’. National Labour, he argued, represented ‘the future point of view’: it would base its policy on ‘Internal Reorganisation’ and ‘External Peace’. He believed in National Labour because he believed ‘in reality’ and Labour because he believed ‘in idealism’. He sympathised completely with the plight of the poor and thought of himself as belonging to a ‘progressive left-wing’. Although he considered Eton ‘the most perfect education system in all the world’, he deplored the class system in education and the division between public and council schools. Favouring equal education for all, he wanted people of any class to enjoy the privileges of the capitalist class, aiming at bringing Eton to the masses. These views were perhaps not so far removed from those emerging from George Orwell’s pen. But when Nicolson was writing in his diaries, he stated that while he had ‘always been on the side of the underdog’, he had also always believed in the hereditary principle. Once he sensed that his aristocratic values were under threat, he revealed his true colours.

002

But, knowing little of domestic politics and having nothing in common with the middle-class and working-class voters he sought to win over, he flinched from the cut and thrust of electioneering. The hustings held no appeal for him, especially when having to face working men and women lowing in disgust and hatred. He wrote in his diary after a campaign meeting in the constituency that he loathed every moment of the Election. His mood was not improved by the Liberals deciding at the last moment to enter a candidate, making it a much closer-run race.  When voting took place on 14 November, the contest could not have been more tightly fought.  After a recount, Nicolson sneaked in with a majority of just eighty-seven, much to the delight of his supporters. As he told his wife Vita later, I put all my philosophy of life into that Election. Yet it was a philosophy expressed by an Asquithian Liberal disguised as a National Labourite, propping up a National  Government controlled by the Conservatives led by Baldwin with the rump of National Labour trailing behind, led by an ailing Ramsay MacDonald, its eight members swallowed up in another huge Tory majority. MacDonald offered him a job as his Parliamentary Private Secretary, but he refused, explaining to Vita that:

… I fear that Ramsay is a vain and slightly vindictive old man … somewhat like King Charles I addressing the Cavaliers from the Whitehall scaffold. ‘You eight people … are at the seed-bed of seminal ideas. The young Tories are on your side. Work hard; think hard; and you will create a classless England.’ 

MacDonald also championed the idea of a ‘Tory Socialism’ which  Harold Nicolson must have considered to be almost as absurd as the notion of ‘a classless England’. It was fortunate for him that foreign affairs came to dominate the new Parliament as well as public opinion. On these matters, he was able to speak with authority and from experience not given to many MPs. His first opportunity to do so came sooner than he planned. On 19 December 1935, he rose from the backbenches to deliver his maiden speech at a dramatic moment, just after the Foreign Secretary, Samuel Hoare, had resigned over his role in the Hoare-Laval Pact which was designed to end the Ethiopian war which had been raging since October. The war in Abyssinia had already cost the Labour opposition its leader.

002

001

Despite the overwhelming victory of the ‘National Government’ at the General Election of November 1935, though now essentially a Conservative one, the recovery of the Labour Party under Clement Attlee’s leadership was evident in it gaining 154 seats, making it the major party of opposition to the Tories. George Lansbury, a committed pacifist, had resigned as the Leader of the Labour Party at the 1935 Party Conference on 8 October, after delegates voted in favour of sanctions against Italy for its aggression against Abyssinia. Lansbury had strongly opposed the policy and felt unable to continue leading the party. Taking advantage of the disarray in the Labour Party, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who had replaced MacDonald as PM in June of that year, announced on 19 October that a general election would be held on 14 November. With no time for a leadership contest, the party agreed that Attlee, as Deputy, should serve as interim leader, on the understanding that a leadership election would be held after the general election. Attlee, therefore, led Labour through the 1935 election, which saw the party stage a partial comeback from its disastrous 1931 performance, winning 38 per cent of the vote, the highest share Labour had won up to that point. Although numerically the result can be compared with the result of the 2019 Election, that is where the similarity ends. In historical terms, Labour was back on the road to its 1945 victory. Contemporaries also saw the result as a harbinger of things to come for Labour, as the letter written by the Liberal Marquess of Lothian to Lloyd George shortly after the election shows:

The Labour Party … is the party of the future; it proclaims that Socialism is the central issue of the century as democracy was of the last, and individual rights of earlier times, and has a vague, and largely unpractical programme of reform; it has behind it the interests of the Trade Unions and the co-operative movement reinforced by a steadily growing body of young intellectual Socialists. … The practical choice is between letting the Liberal Party die and encouraging liberally-minded people to join the other two parties in order to liberalise them and compel them both to be faithful to essential liberal tradition.

The Liberals won only twenty-one seats, losing eleven seats to Labour and four to the Tories. In fact, though, both the (by then) main parties benefited from the Liberal decline and, given the Conservative dominance after 1931, it was perhaps the Right rather than the Left which gained most in the long-term. More importantly, perhaps, the 1935 Election set the pattern for the post-war political system as a two-party rather than a multi-party democracy, especially in terms of governments.

Attlee Arrives, two Kings Depart. …

Képtalálat a következőre: „Clement Attlee, 1935”

Attlee (pictured above in 1935) stood in the subsequent leadership election, held soon after, in which he was opposed by Herbert Morrison, who had just re-entered parliament in the recent election, and Arthur Greenwood: Morrison was seen as the favourite, but was distrusted by many sections of the party, especially the left-wing. Arthur Greenwood meanwhile was a popular figure in the party. Attlee was able to come across as a competent and unifying figure, particularly having already led the party through a general election. He went on to come first in both the first and second ballots, formally being elected Leader of the Labour Party on 3 December 1935. Writing in 1954, S. Haffner was clear about the significance of his two victories in Attlee’s career:

... As a statesman, Attlee’s formative period undoubtedly began in 1935. His party had been crushed at the 1931 election after the MacDonald ‘betrayal’; and Lansbury had proved quite ineffective as a parliamentary leader. So Attlee – one of the few Labour candidates to have survived the landslide – was told to act as leader until after the next election.

The Labour Party was in an almost hopeless mess – utterly defeated, and divided into quarrelling factions. Attlee, loyal, modest, impartial, clear-headed, capable of decision, and with the courage of his personal detachment, had precisely the qualities needed. In reuniting his broken party he added to those qualities a volume of experience in political management – so that he has quietly led the party ever since. It was at this time that the loyal Attlee learned to stomach disloyal colleagues. …

In his Memoirs (1964), the Earl of Kilmuir wrote that no-one could underestimate the strength of Attlee’s leadership. His contemporaries had tended to write him down as an amiable little man, but the Conservative peer regarded him as a shrewd, reasonable, and practical man … closer to the aspirations and difficulties of ordinary people than contemporary political leaders.

At five minutes to midnight on 20 January 1936, King George died at Sandringham in Norfolk. The public had been well prepared for the death of the King and a few hours earlier the BBC’s chief announcer had told the country; The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close. He was sincerely mourned as the representative of tradition, stability and ‘the good old days’. At the end of January, vast crowds once more stood on the streets of London, some having waited all night to watch the King’s funeral procession.

012

The new King, Edward VIII had a very different image from his father’s and already, as Prince of Wales, he had become something of a hero among the unemployed in his role as patron of the National Council of Social Service. Having already toured the depressed areas in 1928, he had already irritated Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister and other members of his cabinet, who at the beginning of 1936 were now in charge of the National Government. Later in the year, on touring the South Wales Coalfield once more, now as monarch, he had been heard to utter Dreadful! Something will be done about this! which was misreported as Something must be done! The first phrase might have been regarded as a promise of a re-doubling of efforts by charitable agencies, but the Government took umbrage at a time when Baldwin and the King were already protagonists in the abdication crisis. With that one misreported utterance, his reputation among ministers as ‘irresponsible’ was sealed together with his fate as King. Little wonder then that there were rumours of a march to London of South Wales miners to restore him as King, following his forced abdication.

013 (3)

The Radical Writers on the Left:

Another growing class in the Thirties was ‘a strange and disorderly mob’ according to René Cutforth. The Left referred to it as the ‘intelligentsia’, made up of intellectuals and artists and included a fair number of the rich and fashionable and their ‘hangers-on’. Cutforth commented that in the Thirties this layer of the population went violently Red almost overnight. This new mood was born at Oxford University and led by its young poets, Wyston Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis and, a little later, Louis MacNeice. They were called the ‘Auden Group’ but all they had in common was a frame of mind – outrage at the plight of the poor and the ‘smugness’ of the rest. They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the most characteristic intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. What they were after was a Bolshevik-style revolution. It was to arrive with ‘the death of the Old Gang, the death of us’. Auden always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, the audience was so small that it often seemed that these poets were writing for each other.

030

It was just possible in the early Thirties to believe that social justice was flowering in the Soviet Union and that mankind was on its way to the millennium via Moscow, but even then only to addicts of Communist belief who were the Thirties’ most characteristic academic product. For these, the Soviet Union was the sacred cow, and any word of criticism of it was no mere disagreement or even heresy, but rank blasphemy. Most of the intellectuals on the Left were far too ‘committed’ to bother to get the facts right, and later plenty of them dismissed Stalin’s terror brightly as ‘necessary for the creation of the new order’. The Thirties was the great age of illusion in which intellectuals could believe anything they wanted, regardless of the available evidence to the contrary, and frequently did.

028

The Marxists expected the Revolution ‘any week now’. Capitalism was supposed to be on its last legs, to have at most a few tottering years to run. One good push would topple it over, and then the road to socialism would be found out of the ensuing chaos and catastrophe. C. Day Lewis wrote:

Drug nor isolation will cure this cancer.

It is now or never the hour of the knife,

The break with the past, the major operation. 

In many ways, he was speaking for his time. The idea of the ‘necessary chaos’ was the notion underlying all the art of the Thirties. The revolution was seen by Auden as making the artist’s private sensibility an irrelevance; the revolutionary poet should remain absolutely detached, like a surgeon or a scientist. He believed, therefore, that poetry should reflect this by being classical and austere:

Financier, leaving your little room

Where the money is made but not spent, …

The game is up for you and the others,

Who, thinking, pace in slippers on the lawns

Of College Quad or Cathedral Close, …

Seekers after happiness, all who follow

The convulsions of your simple wish,

It is later than you think.

002

The last line of Auden’s poem might well have been an apt motto of his whole ‘group’. Throughout the decade, however, George Orwell maintained a critical view of the group in particular and the orthodox Soviet-worshippers in general, whom he regarded as divorced from humanity: they had never met anyone outside their own social class, he said, annoying them greatly because they knew he was right. Even if they were intellectually exciting and were genuine poets, they were most genuine when least political, and their political achievements were very limited. Far more effective politically was Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, established in May 1936 with forty thousand readers who each received a book a month, chosen by Gollancz and two other Marxist intellectuals, John Strachey and Stafford Cripps, to revitalise and educate the ‘British Left’. It was not necessary to be either a Marxist or even a Socialist to be on ‘the Left’ in the Thirties. There was also a large, somewhat vague area of opinion which called itself ‘anti-fascist’, and it was to those of this opinion that the Left Book Club addressed itself. The use of the word ‘Left’ was known from the nineteenth century due to the adversarial nature of parliamentary seating according to the Speaker’s position in the Commons, but it was not ‘common’ as a general description before the 1920s. The Left Book Club helped to make it a synonym for ‘Socialist’ since it became a key left-wing institution of the late 1930s and the 1940s, with over sixty thousand readers. According to Cutforth, the Left Book Club exerted a strong influence on the mind of the decade.

001

‘The Autobiography of a Miner Working in South Wales’, London: Gollancz, 1939.

Perhaps this is best exemplified by its best-known book, written in 1936 and published the following year, written by the most influential author of the Thirties and Forties, if not the century. Three days after the King’s funeral at the end of January 1936, George Orwell left London by train on the beginning of a journey of journalism, investigation and self-discovery. Victor Gollancz had commissioned him to write a book on Britain’s ravaged industrial north, and for this purpose, Orwell wanted to see the effects of unemployment and experience the British working class ‘at close quarters’. At that time, he was a contributor to the left-wing literary journal, The Adelphi. George Orwell was the first writer to travel to the north to report on the horrors of poverty and deprivation to be found there. J. B. Priestley had already journeyed around Britain in the Autumn of 1933, and his best-seller, English Journey, had drawn attention to the awful conditions to towns in the Midlands and the North. Priestley, the bestselling novelist and playwright, used his journalistic skills to write a travelogue about his ‘sojourns’ in various towns and cities in the previous year. It seems to describe England in accurate, realistic terms, contrasted with Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier of a year later, which was written with the main aim of filling the English middle classes with guilt and so exaggerated some of the evidence gathered to gain that effect. The spectre of Bolshevism which he also used to great effect, later became one of the facets of the mythology of the Thirties, and Priestley provided a useful corrective to a view which, as Orwell later admitted, emphasised the worst rather than the improving features of British society. Orwell’s view was as bleakly pessimistic as it could be; Priestley was ever the optimist.

013There was also a growing sense, felt especially keenly on the left, that while much was known about the British Empire, the experience of the working classes at home had been hidden for too long. To put this right a number of groundbreaking novels were published on the subject, one or two of them written by working-class authors. The most successful of these was Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, a moving account of an unemployed family in Salford, where the author grew up. It was a best-seller, later made into a play (in which this author played a leading role in the early eighties) and a film. Left-wing film-makers, led by the pioneering producer John Grierson, were using the new medium of the documentary film in the hope of creating a new perspective on a Britain, in which at least two nations existed in parallel realities.

At the beginning of 1936, Britain was still a class-bound and divided nation, split between a rapidly modernising and growing ‘south’ and the impoverished peripheral regions of south Wales, northern England and central Scotland.  For Priestley, the ‘two nations’ view of the Thirties was greatly oversimplified. There was certainly depression and appalling human suffering but it was localised rather than general as the Thirties progressed. Equally, in parts of the Midlands, there were ‘blackspots’ of high unemployment among the generally prosperous  ‘new industry towns’ as Orwell had also noted in his diary on his journey, partly on foot, through the Midlands from Coventry to Birmingham to Cheshire before taking the train to Manchester. Priestley wrote of how he had seen England:

I had seen a lot of Englands. How many? At once, three disengaged themselves from the shifting mass. There was first, Old England, the country of cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire, guidebook and quaint highways and byways England … But we all know this England, which at best cannot be improved upon in the world. …

Then, I decided, there is the nineteenth-century England, the industrial England of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways, of thousands of rows of little houses all alike, sham Gothic churches, square-faced chapels, Town Halls, Mechanics’ Institutes, mills, foundries, warehouses, refined watering-places, Pier Pavilions, Family and Commercial Hotels, … This England makes up the larger part of the Midlands and the North and exists everywhere; but it is not being added to and has no new life poured into it. To the more fortunate people it was not a bad England at all, very solid and comfortable. …

The third England, I concluded, was the new post-war England, belonging far more to the age itself than to this island. … This is theEngland of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibiting buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafés,  … You could almost accept Woolworth’s as its symbol. … In this England, for the first time in history, Jack and Jill are nearly as good as their master and mistress. … Most of the work  … is rapidly becoming standardised in this new England, and its leisure is being handed over to standardisation too. …

Here then were the three Englands I had seen, the Old, the Nineteenth-Century and the New; and as I looked back on my journey I saw how these three were variously and most fascinatingly mingled in every part of the country I had visited. …. 

North of Manchester:

George Orwell was just one of a host of journalists, economists, sociologists, medical experts and nutritionists who produced reports in 1936 that were to be seminal in the envisioning and formation of the welfare state in the next decade. But Orwell was different. He scorned journalist such as Priestley for their ‘middle-class writing’. He didn’t wish to study the poor and then go off to a comfortable hotel to rest and recuperate. He wanted to plunge into people’s lives, albeit briefly, and experience working-class life at first hand. In his desire to immerse himself in poverty and discomfort an urge for self-punishment and a degree of voyeurism, a tradition in English literature of slum-visiting that went back to Mayhew and Dickens. Orwell had first become familiar with the world of poverty (of a different kind) by becoming a tramp in order to describe this world in Down and Out in Paris and London. Denys Blakeway has recently written of the impact on him of his journey north:

Orwell, the former Imperial policeman who had served in Burma, had never been to the North of England before; he had never seen the smoking chimneys and satanic mills of the industrial areas that had given rise to to Britain’s wealth and that were home to its worst oppression. Like a latter-day Engels, he experienced an epiphany, as what he saw changed him from a sceptical liberal into an unorthodox but nevertheless committed socialist, ready later in the year to fight for the cause in Spain.   

Arriving in Manchester, Orwell was put in touch with Jerry Kennan, an activist and unemployed coal miner in Wigan who took him to the town’s market square, where every weekend a series of political meetings took place. These were attempts, mostly unsuccessful, to engage workers in radical action, much of which took place outside of the sterile world of the coalition government in Westminster. According to Kennan, that Saturday afternoon there were several meetings going on in the square, held by the ILP, the Communist Party, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, and various religious bodies. The NUWM was much mistrusted by the authorities as a Communist front, but by the jobless, it was widely regarded as the most effective organisation working on their behalf. It had been responsible for many hunger marches and protests against the Means Test that had helped to raise awareness of the suffering of unemployment through the years of depression. Kennan and his guest headed for the NUWM shelter, a dreadful, ramshackle place, he wrote, although he acknowledged that it was warm and welcoming. When the men there learned about his mission, they immediately offered help with finding information and, more importantly, lodgings. To his discomfort, however, his southern origins and background could not be hidden, and the men insisted on calling him ‘Sir’. In 1936, his class could not be easily disguised, and Orwell’s public school accent would have been unmistakable, however scruffy he may have appeared after days and nights spent on the road to Wigan.

On the first evening in Wigan, Orwell went as a guest of the NUWM to Wigan’s Co-operative Hall to hear Wal Hannington, a veteran activist, one of Gollancz’s authors, and the leader of the Movement. He was also one of the founding members of the CPGB, which made him an object of state suspicion and police surveillance. Stanley Baldwin saw activists such as Hannington as real dangers to the security of the realm. The CPGB and the NUWM had been behind numerous strikes, sit-ins and hunger marches during the previous five years, and within the establishment, there was genuine fear of revolution. Orwell dismissed Hannington as a ‘poor speaker’ who used all ‘the padding and clichés of the socialist orator’, but was impressed by the audience’s response and ‘surprised by the amount of Communist feeling’. At the time, the CPGB had only 11,500 members in Britain compared with the 400,000 members of the Labour Party, but its popularity and influence extended far beyond its membership. When Hannington told his audience that, in a war between Britain and the USSR, the latter would win, he was greeted with ‘loud cheers’. The Soviet Union under Stalin was revered by many, from founding members of the Labour Party, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the authors of Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation; like H. G. Wells and G. B. Shaw; like the young Oxbridge intellectuals mentioned above and like the ‘working-class radicals’. such as B L Coombes (see his book cover above).

George Bernard Shaw, the other ‘ancient’, was still writing, though he had nothing much to contribute in the Thirties. He enjoyed showing off in the newspapers and, together with Wells, both of them committed socialists, made a trip to Moscow and came back with a rose-tinted view of Soviet life. Bertrand Russell meanwhile, committed to the pursuit of the truth, also went to the Soviet capital and reported that Stalin was indeed a cruel man and that life in Russia was indeed Red but far from rosy. But most intellectuals were still more influenced by ‘Victorian’ liberal writers, like W. B. Yeats, one of whose verses from ‘The Second Coming’ seemed to fit the times and was always being quoted:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

As 1936 progressed, the call for action for Priestley’s nineteenth-century Britain to have new life poured into it, for something to be done, became stronger. As L. J. Williams (1971), the economic historian, pointed out, although the size and nature of the unemployment problem changed comparatively little over the two decades of the inter-war period, there was, with the flood of writing, research and social heart-searching on the topic, a much greater awareness of the basically localised and structural nature of the unemployment problem. With the publication of Keynes’ General Theory, 1936 became the key year for advancing (but not implementing) modern economic solutions to the problem of unemployment. By this time, it was clear that the British economy had recovered from its low point at the beginning of 1932, and was growing rapidly compared with its European rivals, and even compared with the USA. At the same time, to the government’s great embarrassment, a number of studies of unemployment and poverty were revealing the causal link with poor health. Orwell’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, commissioned one of these studies from the Medical Officer of Health for Stockton-on-Tees, whose research showed that an appalling ninety-four per cent of children in County Durham schools had signs of rickets as a result of poor diet. In March, the future PM and Conservative MP for Stockton,  Harold Macmillan, published Sir John Boyd Orr’s massive study, Food, Health and Income. This was an act of rebellion by a Conservative MP representing a northern industrial constituency. The government had done its best to suppress the study, which revealed the devastating fact that:

… one third of the population of this country, including all the unemployed, were unable, after paying rent, to purchase sufficient of the more expensive foods to give them an adequate diet.

Moreover, Boyd Orr calculated that that half the population did not eat ‘up to the modern health standard’. Rural poverty was also shown to be rising rapidly. Ted Willis, a young socialist in 1936, recalled how his mother used to go out and buy four pennyworths of scrag end of lamb and with that, she would make a big stew which would last us two or three days. On one occasion, he came home to find his mother putting a lid on the stew and taking it out of the house.  When he protested at her taking it to a neighbour’s house, his mother slapped his face, saying You’re hungry, but they’re starving!  In 1934 a National Assistance Board had been created, which set a uniform rate for ‘unemployment assistance throughout the country.’ In general, benefits to the unemployed were cut by about ten per cent in the 1930s. In South Wales, Central Scotland and the North of England, unemployed people were much more reliant on means-tested and discretionary benefits than insurance. This was because periods of unemployment in these areas were longer, forcing unemployed workers onto ‘the dole’ when their insurance benefits ran out. This fuelled the sense of shame and anger among the unemployed and their families. René Cutforth commented on the continuing plight of the unemployed throughout the decade:

To the end of the decade about a million and a half workers were relegated to limbo and their lives laid waste. But not without a struggle. 

Fighting back; Marching on …

001

The unemployed ‘struggled’ against their condition by marching, organising rallies and engaging in rent strikes. Led by Wal Hannington of the CPGB, the NUWM had around twenty thousand members by 1932, with the active support of at least twice that number. Their most famous actions were the ‘Hunger Marches’ of 1932, 1934 and 1936. There were also protest marches against the introduction and operation of the means test, particularly from Scotland and South Wales. The photographs below show Wal Hannington and Harry McShane leading the Scottish marchers and contingents from Teeside and Sunderland crossing the Tyne Bridge in 1932.

002

003

The pictures of the 1934 March on the left below are two of those taken of the women’s column which marched to London from Derby. They capture the feeling of comradeship and purpose that existed between the marchers on their wintry trek to London. The shots of the first aid treatment of blistered feet demonstrate the determination of the women, either unemployed themselves or having out-of-work husbands. The marchers all depended on the goodwill of local labour organisations to provide nightly accommodation during the journey. The picture on the right shows heads turning in the crowd that gathered in Trafalgar Square on 3rd March, as they watched the approach of the marchers

The March Council had requested a meeting with the PM, Ramsay MacDonald in a letter supported by a number of Labour MPs, but they did not succeed in putting their case to the House of Commons, though they had the support of a large number of MPs including Sir Herbert Samuel, leader of the Liberal opposition. Clement Attlee also spoke up for the marchers, saying that they were …

… fair representatives of the unemployed. The injustice from which these men and women suffer is very widely known in all parts of the House and the feeling in the country is now tremendous … there is no reason why these men should be refused a hearing by the cabinet.

The marchers sent a delegation to Downing Street, led by two ILP MPs, Maxton and McGovern, and the two Communist leaders of the NUWM, Hannington and McShane. He was ‘not at home’, but, in an outburst in the Commons, asked, …

… Has anybody who cares to come to London, either on foot or in first-class carriages, the constitutional right to demand to see me, to take up my time whether I like it or not? I say he has nothing of the kind! 

However, the most successful march was not organised by the NUWM and in fact, eschewed any involvement from it and other sectarian organisations. In fact, ‘The Jarrow Crusade’ of October 1936 owed that success to the determinedly non-political and cross-party organisation of its leaders, most notably that of the town’s Labour (and ILP) MP, Ellen Wilkinson with the official support of Jarrow’s Mayor, Bill Thompson, who was a Labour man, but insisted that it should have the backing of all parties. It was an entirely bipartisan, peaceful march for jobs, approved by the whole Council, which also enjoyed the support of many local and regional Church leaders, including the Bishop of Sheffield, though (infamously) not the Bishop of Durham. It involved two hundred carefully-chosen, relatively fit unemployed men. Jarrow was one of the worst-hit areas in England, largely because of the closure of its shipyard, with eighty per cent of its workers on the dole. The ‘crusaders’ carried over eighty thousand signatures to Parliament, asking the House of Commons to realise the urgent need that work should be provided without delay. They achieved little in the short-term by way of economic relief but did draw widespread public attention to the plight of the unemployed ‘left behind’ in the older industrial areas as the economy as a whole recovered in 1936, due to the expansion of newer industries and the beginnings of rearmament.

The Labour Party, together with the TUC, was fearful of the taint of Communism that went with hunger marches and instructed local branches to reject requests for help from the crusaders as they passed. Some delegates at the Party conference in Edinburgh that October attacked Ellen Wilkinson directly. One of them, Lucy Middleton, criticised her for sending hungry and ill-clad men on a march to London, advocating the making of propaganda films about the distressed areas instead. This ‘stab in the back’ from her own party was one which would rankle for years to come. Though hailing from one of the poorer areas of Coming from metropolitan Manchester herself, Wilkinson soon discovered that, in a tight-knit community such as Jarrow, where almost all were workless, the highly-skilled man, the ambitious young foreman, the keenest trade-unionists provided the leadership for the unemployed. One such man was David Riley, the Council leader, a hefty Irishman with an iron will. He volunteered to lead them on the road to London and it was he who insisted that this would be a ‘crusade’, not another hunger march. An appeal for signatures for the petition and funds was made under the Mayor’s name and Thompson used his civic position to gain the support of the many Conservative town councils along the route south. Paradoxically, it was the Conservative councils who most often held out the hand of friendship to the crusaders. Following Thompson’s request, and joint letters from the Conservative and Labour agents, they offered food and lodging at every Tory-controlled town and village through which the men passed, including Harrogate, Leeds and Sheffield.

016

Ellen Wilkinson (pictured above, leading the Crusade) had described herself, on more than one occasion, as a ‘revolutionary socialist’, and had needed a great deal of persuasion not to raise the issues of party politics during the Crusade. She was the moving spirit in Jarrow, a small, slight, red-haired ball of fire, the year before, during the General Election campaign, she had led a march to ‘beard’ Ramsay MacDonald in his constituency of Seaham, fifteen miles away. In the event, all that march achieved was a bleating admonition from the cornered statesman:

Ellen, why don’t you go out and preach Socialism, which is the only remedy for all this?

001

On 5 October, the two hundred men set out under a banner, ‘Jarrow Crusade’ to march to London, three hundred miles away, as an official delegation to Parliament. Everybody turned out to watch them go. The Mayor and Mayoress led them for the first twelve miles and, after that, Ellen Wilkinson. David Riley insisted on the removal of any socialist banners that appeared with sympathisers along the route. One marcher was sent home for expressing ‘communistic beliefs’ and another was threatened with expulsion. It was an effective policy since other marches were ignored, whereas the Crusade received widespread friendly attention from the press, and the march became a long-running national story. The government became alarmed by its popularity, as the Manchester Guardian reported that there could be no doubt that the march was an abounding success – the organisation seems well-nigh perfect. The Cabinet issued a statement in a parliamentary democracy, processions to London cannot claim to have any constitutional influence on policy.  No deputations would be received by ministers.

015

This response might have been expected, but the crusaders’ reception by the Labour town council in Chesterfield was surprising, considering the welcome they had just received from the Sheffield Tories. The pleas for assistance were turned down, forcing the marchers to rely on the charity of local businessmen, mainly Tories, for food and blankets. Ellen Wilkinson recalled how they weighed in with hot meals and a place to sleep. A clear pattern was emerging, with the Conservatives welcoming and Labour shunning, a pattern which continued to the end of the trek, to the enduring bitterness of all the crusaders. In Leicester, however, the Co-op worked all night mending their boots. Bedford, in the suspect south, rallied to their support. They arrived in London in a cloudburst with their mouth-organ band playing ‘The Minstrel Boy’. On their final evening in London, they had hoped to be addressed by the London Labour leader, Herbert Morrison, together with an audience of influential Londoners. In the event, he did not show up, probably on the orders of the national leadership, and had to be replaced by Canon Dick Sheppard as the keynote speaker (pictured below).

014

013 (2)

The next morning the crusaders went to the House of Commons, dressed in smart suits specially bought for the occasion with funds raised during the march. They were expecting to deliver the petition, but Stanley Baldwin, with the support of Neville Chamberlain (pictured above) refused to allow the men to come to the bar of the House to deliver the petition in person. To avoid any ugly scenes, Ellen Wilkinson gave them a guided tour of Westminster and then packed the majority of the men onto a River Thames pleasure-boat for a sightseeing cruise. It was a deception cooked up with Sir John Jarvis, a Surrey MP with longstanding charitable connections to Jarrow. Only a few of the men were allowed to watch from the Strangers’ Gallery while Wilkinson went through the solemn procedure of presenting the petition to the Speaker. She spoke tearfully of their plight, but Runciman, who had said earlier that Jarrow must work out its own salvation, refused to answer a question because it was not on the order paper, although he did say that his information was that the situation in Jarrow was improving. Baldwin refused to say anything, and that was it. When they arrived back in Jarrow by train, the speakers at the Town Hall put a brave face on the obvious failure of the crusade. The goal of the march was to get the National Government to overturn the decision to close down the shipyard, not to put up a new steelworks, as Jarvis had proposed at the last minute, looking like a ‘fairy-godfather’, but in reality, simply trying to help save the Conservative Party from an electoral wipe-out in a region devastated by economic malaise.

Nevertheless, the crusaders had aroused a sympathy throughout the country which compels the Government to act, as David Riley told them. By rejecting class-based politics and appealing to broader social sympathies, the Jarrow Crusade had touched the hearts of many for whom talk of the distressed areas had meant nothing until they saw it in person or on the newsreels. With its military discipline, and containing in its ranks many veterans of the First World War, it harked back to that conflict, evoking in the onlooker feelings of compassion and guilt. The Crusade was also one of the foundations of a new consensus that was emerging and would solidify after the Second World War. The country came to agree almost unanimously that such extremes of poverty should never be allowed to return. A new, very British idea of social justice was emerging and a collective opinion-forming that would eventually give rise to the welfare state. Jarrow was the classic march, but even while it was going on, other marches were in progress. Four hundred Scotsmen from Glasgow, for instance, were marching south to join up with other contingents from South Wales and elsewhere to protest against the means test, as seen in the photos below. Marching became an epidemic in the Thirties in Britain.

010

The NUWM had no difficulty in raising a Welsh contingent of eight hundred men and contingents of women for the biggest and most united of the hunger marches against the means test in November 1936. The two postcard-size photographs below came from South Wales. When the eight hundred marchers, carrying their Keir Hardie banner from Aberdare, reached Slough, they were greeted by eleven thousand compatriots, because by that time Slough had become known as ‘little Wales’ peopled by migrants from the valleys. 

011 (2)

The photograph below shows some of the Welsh marchers lining up outside Cater Street School, Camberwell, where they were to spend the night, prior to the march to the Hyde Park rally. Among the speakers were Aneurin Bevan MP and Clement Attlee. The former said that ‘The hunger marchers have achieved one thing. They have for the first time in the history of the labour movement achieved a united platform. Communists, ILPers, Socialists, members of the Labour Party and Co-operators for the first time have joined hands together and we are not going to unclasp them.’ The latter moved the resolution that ‘the scales (of unemployment benefit) are insufficient to meet the bare physical needs of the unemployed. …’

011

From the Threat of Revolution to the Promise of Reform:

Politicians of all the parliamentary parties began to fear a revolution by the end of 1936, not least because there were Fascists as well as Communists marching. The Church became involved with William Temple, the Christian Socialist Archbishop of York commissioning a scientific inquiry into long-term unemployment, Men Without Work, based on the experiences of the jobless for twelve months up to November 1936 as its evidence. Researchers were sent out across Britain as a whole to immerse themselves in the areas of greatest poverty, staying in the households of the workless. Besides being a national survey, those sent by Archbishop Temple were experts, unlike Orwell. They were economists, psychologists and social scientists, funded by the Pilgrim Trust and supervised by the Director of the London School of Economics, Sir William Beveridge, who advised them to study in detail the lives of a thousand long-term unemployed men, and their families; their health, living conditions and physical environment. Beveridge was able, from 1942, to use their findings to provide the evidential basis for the creation of the post-war Welfare State.

One of these researchers was a young Jewish refugee, Hans Singer. A brilliant economist, he had moved to Britain to study under his hero, John Maynard Keynes. Having escaped from Nazi Germany, Singer found him himself the victim of anti-Semitic abuse as a professor at Istanbul and moved to Cambridge. After two years, Keynes recommended him to Temple because of his interest in unemployment. His detailed research papers, archived at the LSE, are essential sources for social historians of the period. Many of these, along with the Pilgrim Trust Report in full, were not published until 1937, by which time the argument for ‘Planning’ had already been won. But the devil still remained in the detail of the implementation, in which the Labour Party had little if any official responsibility, except on a local basis. However, together with a more united and progressive Left, they did have increasing influence over public opinion nationally and regionally.

Sources:

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

Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (ed.) (n.d.), Life & Labour in a Twentieth-Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry (University of Warwick): The Cryfield Press.

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

Denys Blakeway (2011), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishers).

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

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

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

 

Posted January 8, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Affluence, Anglicanism, anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Birmingham, Brexit, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Conservative Party, Coventry, David Lloyd George, democracy, Economics, Education, Edward VIII, Family, George V, Great War, History, Humanities, Jews, Journalism, Labour Party, Leisure, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Mythology, Narrative, New Labour, Patriotism, populism, Poverty, Refugees, Respectability, Revolution, Scotland, Second World War, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, Transference, tyranny, Unemployment, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Welfare State, West Midlands, Women's History, World War One, World War Two

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Labour Arrives; Summer 1929:

015

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

002

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

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

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

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

Labour’s Conservatives & Radicals:

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

 

003

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

009

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

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

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

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

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

003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bleak Scenes, Hard Times:

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

002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

008

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

The Crisis of 1931 & The Cuts:

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

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

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

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

Divided Opinion & Reaction – Mutiny & Gold Standard:

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

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

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

The Times, 25 August 1931   

012 (2)

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

New Statesman, 29 August 1931    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MacDonald – Man, Motives & Myth:

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

016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dole, ‘Dope’ & The Means Test:

001

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

010

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

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

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

Socialism, Parties & Patriotism:

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

005

Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

007

On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

002

There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

001 (3)

above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

001 (2)

Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

001

above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

006

above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

003

above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

003

After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

004

Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

003

On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

001

Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

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

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

Posted September 8, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Axis Powers, Baltic States, BBC, Berlin, Britain, British history, Canada, Churchill, Communism, Compromise, Conquest, decolonisation, democracy, Economics, Education, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Ethnicity, Eugenics, Europe, Family, Genocide, George VI, Germany, Great War, History, Holocaust, Imperialism, Italy, Jews, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Paris, Poland, Population, Poverty, Russia, Seasons, Second World War, Security, Spanish Civil War, Statehood, terror, tyranny, Versailles, War Crimes, Warfare, World War One, World War Two

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: