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The Recovery of the Labour Party & the Left in Britain, 1934-39: Fighting the Right & the Growth of a United Front.   1 comment

The Long & Winding Road to Recovery:

Following the November 1935 General Election, and Attlee’s subsequent election as leader, the Labour Party was firmly back onto the road to recovery. The components of that recovery were many and varied, but they could be summarised as including the following ten ‘key points’:

  • acceptance of the changing nature, or ‘re-making’ of the working classes, from those based on the older extractive and manufacturing industries to those in the newer, lighter engineering industries, including large numbers of women workers;

  • acceptance of the need to put the ‘National Interest’ ahead of sectional ones, whilst still seeking to develop primary policies to benefit the poorer sections of society, especially the unemployed;

  • giving priority to the needs of the working classes for local and national representation rather than promoting revolutionary activism among them;

  • ending narrow sectarianism and developing a willingness to develop socialist ideas in practice, and across a broad front, and in alliance with other groups, rather than on the basis of exclusive ideological principles;

  • developing co-operative and collective means of organising production, distribution and trade by building coalitions of social and economic organisations, including Co-operative Societies;

  • promoting social justice and equity as long-term aims as well as guiding principles for policy-making;

  • upholding the rights of all to the rights of freedom of association and expression, particularly in their participation in trade unions and organisations;

  • upholding the values of the British people, including ‘patriotism’ and the continuing importance of ensuring ‘thrift’ in programmes of public expenditure by ensuring long-term ‘planning’ of essential public services.

  • upholding the institutions of British Democracy, including its constitutional monarchy and the sovereignty of its people through Parliament, based on universal and equal representation.

  • advancing the cause of ‘municipal socialism’ through the development of local parties committed to encouraging a sense of civic pride and the establishment of social services, especially in health, maternity and education, accessible to all.   

These points are not listed in any order of priority but reflect recurring themes in contemporary sources, rather than the current concerns of sectional and sectarian protagonists within the Labour Party. Clearly, however, there are echoes and resonances which affect our interpretations of past principles and priorities. Of course, these interpretations themselves are not necessarily new, as the Thirties were set in mythology before they even ended. Then, in my lifetime, against the background of economic decline under the final Wilson administration in 1977, John Stevenson and Chris Cook published their ground-breaking book, The Slump – society and politics during the depression, which began the process of de-mythologising the period by attempting to separate the myths, potent as they still were in popular consciousness, from the historical realities.

Certainly, the politics of the immediate post-war era were fought on the record of the National Government in the pre-war years.  As late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with the election slogan, ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of the way in which the emotive image of the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché. The popular view of the 1930s as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war; a view which became sharpened against the background of full employment in the 1950s and 1960s.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when that era had clearly come to an end, the ghosts of the thirties stalked political platforms and the media as a symbol of economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent.

Contrasting Images of the Thirties:

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Now we have passed the point of ‘No Return to the Thirties’ and the memories of the decade are no longer first-hand fears, perhaps this process will soon be brought to its conclusion and we will no longer be stuck with the powerful and all-pervasive images of ‘the wasted years’ and the ‘low dishonest decade’, even if the Thirties will be forever associated with mass unemployment, hunger marches, appeasement and the rise of Fascism at home and on the continent. A concentration on unemployment and social distress does not represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. It would, of course, be fatuous to suggest that the Thirties were not for many thousands of people a time of great hardship and personal suffering. At the time, there was a thirst for information on which policy to ameliorate, if not cure this malaise could be based, especially in the Labour Party. However, it took the Party two years until the end of 1937 to set up a ‘Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas’, to produce its report and to agree on a course of action at a special conference in December 1937. This is somewhat surprising, considering that the National Government itself had, in the face of already overwhelming political pressure, passed the Special Areas Act in 1934 to take some measures in four distressed regions to help the long-term unemployed. Commissioners had been appointed and departments created, though Whitehall in-fighting and economic orthodoxy hampered their work.

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But alongside the images of the unemployed must be placed those of another Britain, of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living. Some sectors of the economy grew rapidly, particularly car manufacture, electrical engineering, the paper and publishing industries, and rayon production, all industries heavily concentrated in the Midlands. The output of the UK car industry increased from seventy-one thousand vehicles in 1923 to over 390,000 by 1937, by which time Britain was second only to the USA in the export of motor vehicles. The share of the ‘new industries’ in total industrial output rose from seven per cent in 1924 to twenty-one per cent by 1935. As a consequence of these ‘new industries’, the living standards of people who remained in employment actually improved by about sixteen per cent between the wars. Although the new industries were not sufficiently large to reverse the overall trend of economic decline, they were important in minimising the effect of the Depression for the employed, especially through the migration of workers from the older industries to the new. The economic recovery after 1934 which raised the country out of the trough of unemployment and hunger was limited and precarious. As 1936 progressed, it was recognised that, in part, the recovery depended on a rearmament programme which might ultimately involve Britain in another World War.

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As can be seen from the maps above, giving an Index of Relative Unemployment, South Wales was hit harder than any other region by unemployment and poverty. Average unemployment there was thirty-one per cent, compared with twenty per cent in Scotland and twelve per cent in England. Within Wales, there were also huge local variations in levels of unemployment, from eighty-two per cent in Taff Wells, seventy-two in Pontycymmer and sixty-six per cent in Merthyr and Abertillery down to those in the coastal towns and areas below the regional average, if not the national one. By the 1930s, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire had the highest proportion of people on poor relief in the UK, apart from Durham. To combat poverty, the National government had passed the Special Areas (Development) Act in 1934 and followed it with the Special Areas Reconstruction (Agreement) Act in 1936, which provided financial incentives to industry to move to the four distressed areas of the UK. Most of Glamorgan and west Monmouthshire became one of the ‘Special Areas’. The other areas were Glasgow-Linlithgow-Kilmarnock, South Shields-Hartlepool, and Workington. A few new industries were established in each of the areas, but the effects were inadequate.

South Wales –  A Region in Need of a Plan:

In South Wales, the social effect of high levels of poverty was devastating. With poverty came malnutrition and disease. The incidence of rickets and scarlet fever soared, and the death rate from tuberculosis was 130 per cent above the average for the UK. Local shops and services became unviable. Chapels found their congregations dwindling as large numbers of people found themselves having to leave their country, moving to the ‘new industries’ of the southeast and Midlands of England.  Some of the migration continued to be ‘planned’ by the Ministry of Labour, which sponsored the transfer of workers. Between 1921 and 1940, over 440,000 left Wales permanently, eighty-five per cent of them from Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. They either left with the majority under their own steam, or on the Ministry’s schemes, but by the late thirties, it was estimated that as many as one in ten of those officially transferred had taken themselves back to their valleys. Therefore, those experiencing some form of migration from Wales in the interwar years may well have been closer to half a million.

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In July 1934, Professor Marquand of Cardiff University published an article in The Times arguing for state stimulation of investment by means of a Trust for new industries. But he also admitted that it was unlikely that any government whether socialist or capitalist could do little more than tilt the balance very slightly in favour of regions like South Wales. It was therefore important that the transference policy should be stepped up as the revival of industry in England proceeded. This provoked an angry reaction from y Blaid Genedlaethol Cymru (‘The Welsh Nationalist Party’), the only party wholly opposed to transference at this time, although it advocated resettlement of ‘Welsh’ and ‘half-Welsh’ industrial workers in rural or ‘de-industrialised’ Wales, while the pre-1921 ‘English’ immigrants to the Coalfield could be returned to their counties of origin. The Party accused Marquand of looking longingly towards state aid and admitting that it would never be forthcoming and then hoping that England’s recovery would be sufficient to enable the flower of Welsh manhood to be dumped there. But these were voices heard only as crying in the wilderness of the ‘Celtic fringe’, as Wyndham Portal’s 1934 Report showed that the government continued to advocate transference on the largest possible scale. 

The Portal Report and the continuing emphasis placed on transference by the Government’s ‘Special Areas’ machinery, to the deliberate exclusion of any policy designed to attract new industries did, however, meet with a growing tide of protest and disgruntlement at a local and regional level within Wales. The Nationalist arguments that the ‘best elements’ in Welsh society were being ‘shipped off’, that migration was having an anglicising effect greater than that of the BBC and that the National Government was only concerned to ensure that there there was ‘no trouble’ in Wales, began to have a broader appeal among ‘establishment’ liberals and church leaders alike. They began to accept that transference and migration did not discriminate between the ‘alien accretions’ and ‘the old Welsh stock’, between the citizens of Welsh-speaking Rhymney and those of anglicised Abertillery. The statistical evidence bears this out, as the number of those identifying as Welsh-speakers declined from 155,000 in 1921 to just sixty thousand by 1939. These views were strengthened by the resolve with which the new Commissioner for the Special Areas, P. M. Stewart, set about his task in the New Year of 1935. In his first report, Stewart offered a stern rebuff to the growing tide of national feeling in Wales by suggesting that:

… love of home, pride of nationality and local associations, however desirable in themselves, furnish no adequate justification for leading a maimed life.

In the New Year of 1936, the Government’s policy again came under fire, from a more local perspective, when the Report of the Royal Commission on Merthyr Tydfil was published. The Commission’s recommendations were severely criticised in the increasingly influential journal Planning, as providing nothing that would help solve the bankrupt County Borough’s problems. The author of the review saw two alternative solutions. Either the borough should be subjected to a wholesale ‘evacuation’ or there should be a planned reduction in population and equipment with the bringing in of new industries in order to provide decent opportunities for those that remained. Neither was being pursued with any vigour by the Government, but there was one course of action for which no case could be made. That was:

… the course of raising huge sums of money, locally and nationally, in order to keep Merthyr on the dole … It is this last course which the Government has so far chosen to pursue.

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In May, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. Most of the prominent figures in the Social Service movement in South Wales attended the Conference, including Church leaders and MPs. The young Labour MP for Ebbw Vale (a family scene from where is pictured above), Aneurin Bevan called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacent attitude of the establishment Liberals who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

… if the problem was still viewed as complacently as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken  as there was neconomic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

This was the clearest statement to come from the Labour Left to date, but it was quickly countered by members of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite at the Conference, who suggested that the valleys of East Monmouthshire had no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had not been absorbed into local life … However, the majority view of the conference appears to have been that what had been taking place was ‘expatriation’ rather than ‘repatriation’. Later that summer, the Secretary of the SWMCSS, Elfan Rees developed this theme at another conference in Llandrindod Wells, that of the Welsh School of Social Service, taking issue with the recent comments made by Professor Marquand in his recent short book, South Wales Needs a Plan, that a population largely composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants (had) no very deep roots in the soil … a people without roots may be as ready to move away as rapidly as it moved in. Countering this, Rees argued that:

It is not only the young, it is not only the best, it is also the Welsh who are going … if transference was repatriation it might be a different story – but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going … the unwillingness to remain idle at home … are the qualities that mark our indigenous population. … if this process of… despoilation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they haven’t the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.

This division among the left-liberals advocates of ‘Planning’ and the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite helps to explain what Bevan referred to as the ‘complacency’ of ‘The Welsh Nation’ over the policy of transference during the previous eight years. The liberal establishment in the Social Service movement had hoped that it would remove, as they saw it, the ‘alien’ activists typified by A J Cook and others in the Miners’ Federation who had robbed them of the loyalty of the Welsh people. By 1936, they were clearly embarrassed by their newly-formed impression of a large number of people of Welsh origin who were leaving the valleys. Rees and others tended to exaggerate this process (the 1951 Census shows that the proportion of Welsh-speakers remained similar to that of 1931), it is clear that the growing awareness of the indiscriminate nature of migration led them to abandon complicity and complacency in the transference scheme in favour of a more patriotic opposition to it. Marquand himself was critical of this hypocritical and manipulative élite and the nationalist passions of persons who hold safe jobs themselves. The response which his overtly political South Wales Needs a Plan received in official circles and the prominence given to it in the ‘responsible’ press was seen by contemporaries as a measure of the extent of the shift which had taken place in national opinion. The journal Planning commented that, had the book been published three years earlier, it would have stood no chance of being taken seriously, and wryly suggested that Marquand was…

… still young enough to have the satisfaction of knowing that if the ideas he put forward were to go on making headway at their present rate, he would live to see most of them forced upon a reluctant Whitehall and Downing Street by pressure of public opinion.

However, the Commissioner, Malcolm Stewart responded by allocating funds to the National Industrial Development Council of South Wales and Monmouthshire for a ‘Second Industrial Survey’ to be made with Marquand as editor. His team of investigators worked rapidly, publishing the report in three volumes in 1937. As there was little prospect of the revival of the staple industries, the Report suggested that the only alternative to continued mass emigration lay in the diversification of the region’s economy by the introduction of new industries, supported by state action. The establishment of trading estates, like the one already projected for Treforest, near Pontypridd, was seen as a means of ensuring the success of these industries. Thus, by the outbreak of war, the economy of the region was slowly being transformed, a process which was aided by rearmament. However, this grudging shift in Government policy did not take place until the end of a decade of mass unemployment and migration. Neither was the Labour Party very far ahead of the government in producing its policies. Its own Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas, appointed in November 1936 under the direction of Hugh Dalton, was not published until May 1937. Despite the fact that the Commission received evidence from a large number of local parties, Labour groups, women’s sections and trade union branches, the report on South Wales amounted to little more than a précis of Marquand’s survey in the form of a thirty-page pamphlet, the cover page of which is pictured below.

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The Report echoed the ‘sentiments’ of nationalists and ‘Cymric’ liberals in its statements that ‘the strength of the Welsh communities were being sapped’ and that ‘youngsters’ were ‘being torn away from parental care’. But the overall importance of the slim document lay in its drawing together of the current ‘middle opinion’ thinking and the vogue for ‘planning’ into a coherent set of policies for South Wales as a region. It criticised the work of the Special Areas Reconstruction Association (SARA), established in June 1936, over its bureaucratic and onerous financial provisions. Despite the government’s shift in policy, 1937 was the peak year for the Transference Scheme. Welsh nationalists continued to conduct a forceful campaign, often confronting Welsh-speaking juvenile employment officers whom they accused of being ‘determined to force people out of Wales’ and of adopting ‘a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of transference’. But by the end of 1937, the new public consensus had finally succeeded in supplanting transference as the main official response to the problem of mass unemployment in the Special Areas. However, this did not mean an immediate end to the continued exodus of older workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom in the Midland factories was swallowing up more and more labour.

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Above: Pages from the Labour Party’s Report on South Wales, using Marquand’s surveys. 

The Revolutionary Left & The Radical Right:

The interwar years are frequently regarded as radical ones in political terms, characterised by popular and revolutionary left-wing support for the Labour Party, the growth of the Communist Party, and hunger marches organised and led by the Communists’ organisation for the unemployed, the NUWM. Perhaps it was the genuine fear of the street violence and disorderly protests over the means test which encouraged the vast majority of the electorate to continue to vote Conservative in national elections, most notably in November 1935. In 1935, the Communists remained a small party with about seven thousand members, but each member was, according to Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (in ‘The Long Weekend’, 1940), an extremely active centre of agitation and … adept at giving a Marxist turn to every discussable topic. The Daily Worker had doubled its size and greatly increased its circulation. In addition, between 1935 and 1937 nearly a million copies of the Communists’ pamphlets and leaflets were sold. Graves and Hodge summed up the commitment required to be a Communist:

To belong to the party meant devoting one’s time and money so whole-heartedly to the cause and having one’s political and social history so carefully investigated that very few sympathisers with the Communist position either desired to join the ‘corps d’élite’ of the party or would have been accepted had they offered.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 and was at once acknowledged as a show-down between the Left and the Right in Europe. The passionate cry from Madrid in response to the fascist revolt, it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees reverberated throughout the Labour left. While Bevin, Citrine and Dalton won the TUC in September 1936 for the Eden-Baldwin policy of non-intervention, informal discussions were being held by Cripps, Pollitt and William Mellors on the possibility of united action in support of the Spanish Republic. Earlier that summer Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski and John Strachey had launched the spectacularly successful ‘Left Book Club’, preparing the ground for a ‘Popular Front’ spanning the ‘Labour Left’ and the Communists, the latter by then having abandoned their bitterly sectarian ‘Class Against Class’ policy.

A volunteer ‘International Brigade’ arrived quite early in the conflict, including 2,762 British volunteers, 543 of whom died in Spain. Most of the British popular press was on the whole for the Republicans, but for the Conservative newspapers, they were always the ‘Reds’ or ‘the Communists’. To many people of René Cutforth’s generation, the war remained the most significant and deeply felt experience of their lives, little remembered, or read about, by today’s ‘soft’ Communists on the ‘hard Left’ of the Labour Party. Cutforth’s observation was particularly true of the mostly middle-class associates of the Thirties’ intellectuals, many of whom, like George Orwell, went to fight for the Republicans.  In Britain, communication across the class divide was almost impossible, but in Spain, some were able to achieve this. It was quite easy to dodge the non-interventionist authorities as the arrangements were mostly controlled through the CPGB, and once the volunteer presented himself at the recruiting office, he could be on his way into battle within a few hours. But, as Cutforth commented:

… the feelings which drove the Spaniards to massacre each other in droves turned out to have little or no bearing on those which had inspired the idealism of the British Left, most of which was derived from the protestant Christian conscience. … That the public school ethics of fair play and esprit de corps had played a large part in the formation of the minds which launched the Thirties movement is obvious from their works, and the British Labour movement always owed more to Methodism than to Marx.

This conscience-pricking idealism was utterly alien to the Spaniards fighting their private war. … their motives were personal, local, regional and sectarian. Communists had no hesitation in shooting Anarchists to gain control of a local situation. …

The foreign comrades were slow to realise that … the Asturias and Catalonia were not divisions like English counties, but furiously jealous little nations. … hundreds of thousands died by execution on both sides. … This … applied even to men obstensibly on the same side – ‘Trotskyite traitor’ was a common verdict. It was the sight and sound of these daily mass-executions which revolted the civilised Western participants. Was this the Revolution they had willed? Was there any real connection between this vindictive bloody mess and the social justice to which they were committed? 

But most of the British soldiers of the International Brigade were not socialist or communist intellectuals, but autodidactic workers, many of them unemployed miners from South Wales, some of whom I had the privilege of walking alongside in protest against the returning mass unemployment of the early eighties. Their convictions had been built in over generations of deprivation and years of survival underground had made them tough and fearless. Added to this, long-term unemployment had prepared them for the necessary privations of war, even if they were too young to have fought in the trenches like their fathers. To demonstrate their non-sectarian commitment to the cause, one of the two British contingents was named after the mild-mannered former soldier, Major Attlee. When most of the volunteers returned home in the spring of 1937, as the Germans and Italians moved in to support Franco’s side, they and the British Left, in general, redoubled their efforts to rally support for the Republicans in raising funds and producing propaganda. The survivors had had a short, but tough war. Twenty per cent of the entire British force were wounded, and more than three-quarters of the survivors had been wounded. By the time they disembarked from the ferry, the Civil War was already beginning to look like the ‘dress rehearsal’ for something much worse in the Great Confrontation between Good and Evil.

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While the International Brigade volunteers had been on the front line against fascism, Spain had already become the catalyst that brought a greater degree of united action within the organised labour movement in Britain, than any other political issue of the Thirties. As Michael Foot later reflected:

Spain cut the knot of emotional and intellectual contradictions in which the left had been entangled ever since Hitler came to power. Suddenly the claims of international law, class solidarity and the desire to win the Soviet Union as an ally fitted into the same strategy.

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Above: Oswald Mosley. leader of the British Union of Fascists, with his ‘blackshirts’.

It was not just the growth in extremism on the Left which alarmed many, but the emergence of radical right-wing groups during the second half of the 1930s. These consisted largely of disaffected Conservatives who demanded a renewed emphasis on imperial unity and tariffs to protect British industry, while at the same time rejecting parliamentary democracy. The financial crisis of 1931 was seen as proof of the failings of the policies of the established political parties. The most notorious of the right-wing groups was the British Union of Fascists established by Oswald Mosley on 1 October 1932. Mosley had been a junior member of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929-31 Labour Government, rising to the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, one of the four ministers charged with solving the problem of unemployment. His colleagues were J H Thomas, Minister for Employment, who had the primary responsibility, George Lansbury and Tom Johnston. Mosley had a clear and practical policy but was totally frustrated by Thomas who had little grasp of the intricacies of economics. Mosley thought him ‘a drunken clown’ and treated him with aristocratic contempt, but he had been unable to convince MacDonald to sack the incompetent minister because, as the former national officer of the NUR, he had strong trade union support and influence within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Sir Oswald Mosley, baronet, had arrived in the Party via Winchester, Sandhurst, the Harrow Conservative Association and Cliveden so that his rapid rise in the MacDonald hierarchy after 1924 was regarded with suspicion and resented by many of his colleagues. Mosley resigned from the Labour Government in May 1931 when his radical solution to the unemployment problem was rejected by both the Cabinet and the House of Commons. At that stage, both he and John Strachey were both seen as being on the radical left of the Labour Party. Mosley left it to publish his proposals as The Mosley Manifesto, signed by seventeen supporters including Aneurin Bevan and A. J. Cook, the Miners’ leader, along with Strachey and others.

‘They Shall Not Pass’ – Resisting the ‘Blackshirts’:

Mosley formed the ‘New Party’ and was joined by three other MPs, but when this fell apart, they parted ways with Mosley migrating to the authoritarian Right and founding the BUF complete with Nazi-style regalia. His storm troopers were his ‘Blackshirts’, the élite of them housed in barracks at Chelsea, complete with parade ground. Much of his funding came from Lord Nuffield, the founder of the Morris Motor Company, and other wealthy industrialists for some years to come. Lord Rothermere, the newspaper magnate, was a staunch protagonist for Mosley and on 15 January 1934, his Daily Mail appeared with the headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’.

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Above: Anti-Fascists in Limehouse, London. Wherever Fascism was strong, as it was in East London, anti-Fascists were also very strong and could be violent. While Limehouse had a significant fascist vote (see the text below), it was still the safe seat of Labour leader Clement Attlee.

Mosley held military-style rallies, miniature Nuremberg, at which he could posture as a ‘British Führer’. They were also the scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, the ‘United Front’. In 1934, at the peak of British Fascist strength, Mosley led three big rallies, at the Albert Hall, Hyde Park and Olympia. At the Olympia rally the blackshirts, anxious to demonstrate their efficiency as storm troopers shocked the nation with the violence of their attacks upon protesters within the hall. The Times reported the next day ( June) on the methods used:

The Fascist meeting at Olympia last night suffered from continuous interruptions, and the interrupters suffered heavily at the hands of the blackshirted stewards, male and female. … It proceeded easily for the first ten minutes before the Socialists made their first move. 

… It was countered with … a uniformity of treatment which suggested a prescribed technique of violence. Stewards at once made for the offenders. If they resisted ejection the incident at once became an affair of fisticuffs and, if the victim remained standing in the end of his resistance, he was seized ju-jitsu fashion and dragged out. Quite a number were borne out limp bodies after the frays. …

… The speech was suspended at every display of force. When it resumed it improved with a brief homily on the need of Fascist methods to preserve free speech and on the British people having become accustomed to ‘red violence’ over a period of years.

It was a strangely mixed audience … people of middle-age who wore neither black shirt nor badge; people with a tired expression of eye and wrinkled brows; some of the people who bore the strain of war and the cost of peace. 

Olympia set the pattern for all of Mosley’s meetings. When the hall had filled the doors were locked and the speeches began. There was a spotlight worked from the platform and if any heckler interrupted, or even if anyone rose from their seat, they would be caught in the spotlight and as they stood there blinded and helpless a squad of ‘biff boys’ would move and give them a savage beating up in view of the audience, before turning the offender out of the hall. As René Cutforth commented, the audience simply sat there as if mesmerised by the thuggery taking place in front of them:

It was an age addicted to psychological explanations, but I never heard the nature of Mosley’s audiences satisfactorily explained. Who were these people who submitted themselves night after night to this exhibition of terrorism and tyranny? They looked middle-aged on the whole and seemed to be enveloped in general and political apathy, yet they kept on coming. Mosley was never short of an audience.

In 1936, about 330,000 Jewish people lived in Britain, less than one per cent of the total population. The East End of London was home to between a half and one-third of them, mostly concentrated into a densely-populated area centred on Brick Lane, so it was a particular target for Mosley and his thugs. He was stirring up racial antagonism in this impoverished area by blaming the Jews for the high rates of unemployment, rent increases and poor wages. During the Slump, it had suffered particularly badly and was a pocket of poverty as bad as anything in the distressed areas of South Wales and the North of England, full of slums, filth and futility. Mosley’s Fascists took full advantage of the general restlessness created by the hunger marches and demonstrations against the means test. They stepped up their parades until the East End felt it was being invaded almost every night. They always marched with a heavy guard of police, who seemed to be as much part of their parade as their own ‘biff boys’. The East End, with its large Jewish community, became the chief battleground of the opposing factions and parties. But there had been ‘skirmishes’ with the BUF at a number of regional rallies. On 12 July six blackshirts at one rally were knocked unconscious by men wielding iron bars. Mosley’s car window was shattered by a bullet as he drove away. At other meetings across the country, anti-Fascists pelted the rally-goers with bricks and stones. and many were injured. At a rally outside Leeds on 27 September, attended by thirty thousand people, Mosley was showered with missiles.

Many of the Jews living in the East End were second-generation, the children of parents who had been forced to flee the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the sanctuary of Britain. Most of the older generation spoke only Yiddish and lived in an enclosed community of crowded tenements, synagogues, baths and kosher butchers. They tended to work in the clothing and furniture trades. They were an obvious target for the Jew-baiters of the BUF, who regularly smashed the windows of Jewish grocery shops, chalked anti-Semitic graffiti on walls and shouted racist insults during street meetings and as they marched through Jewish areas, such as The Yids, the Yids, We’ve got to get rid of the Yids! In the summer of 1936, the more abusive the blackshirts became, the more the police appeared to protect them from their victims. In September there was particular anger in the East End over two incidents. Fascist thugs threw a Jewish boy through a plate-glass window, blinding him. Later, a further horror occurred when a Jewish girl was caught and strapped to an advertisement hoarding in the attitude of the crucifixion. Neither incident led to a prosecution.

Young Jews did not take these attacks with the forbearance of many of their parents and the official bodies that represented them. They wanted to fight back. Even though they were British-born and British-educated, young Jews felt alienated and stigmatised by the anti-Semitism that flourished in British society. Many became Communists, seeing the party as the most vigorous opponent of Fascism. Others joined the Labour Party, although it was much less active in the fight, contrary to the current mythology of a Labour Left riddled with anti-Semitism itself. Others formed their own self-defence groups or ‘street gangs’. At this time, the anti-Semitic outbursts of the Fascists were reaching a climax, and large numbers of people came onto their streets to protest against the BUF’s overtly racist abuse, and there were scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, ‘the United Front’.

‘The Battle of Cable Street’:

When the BUF announced that it would stage a mass march through East London to celebrate its fourth anniversary on Sunday 4 October, a coalition formed to confront Mosley. The battle lines were drawn up, leading to the riots in Stepney which became known, famously, as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ (see the photos below). The prospect of Mosley’s major demonstration, with all the inevitable resistance and ensuing violence, led many to call for it to be banned. Labour MPs and the mayors of London’s boroughs pleaded with the Home Secretary to halt the march. A petition of a hundred thousand signatures was presented to him, but to no avail.

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Mosley had planned the route of the provocative military march of his uniformed racists to go right through the heart of Whitechapel. The coalition of Communists,’ leftists’ and young Jewish activists set to work organising the opposition. The older generation in the Jewish community was dead-set against them. The Jewish Board of Deputies urged people to stay away. The Jewish Chronicle told readers in the East End to remain indoors and pull down the shutters. But their advice was ignored. The leaders of the Jewish community had lost control of their people. Labour too urged its members to keep off the streets; the Labour-supporting newspaper, The Daily Herald argued with typical pusillanimity that the best way to defeat Fascism was to ignore it. Even the Communist Party at first kept quiet. No official body wanted to be seen encouraging action that would inevitably lead to violence and law-breaking. For most, taking to the streets to stop Mosley’s march was a spontaneous expression of hatred of Fascism. Moseley was not the only public figure to completely underestimate the extent of the determined and deeply-felt opposition to his creed of hate and more than two hundred thousand Londoners, Jews and Gentiles, rallied under the Spanish anti-fascist slogan, They shall not pass! Spain was the constant refrain. For Charles Goodman, an East End Jew who was not a member of the CPGB, it was the motivating factor:

… it was not a question of a punch-up between the Jews and the fascists … in my case it meant the continuation of the struggle in Spain.

Those planning to take part in the counter-demonstration were by no means all Jews or Communists. The bleak turn of events abroad was a mobilising force for thousands with a left-liberal view of the world, whatever their ethnicity or party affiliation, and halting Mosley in the East End had a wider significance, as Harold Smith, an eighteen-year-old office worker and activist at the time, later recalled:

We were young, enthusiastic, Spain was on, Hitler was on the march, it was a British contribution to stop Fascism.

Two East End Communists, Joe Jacobs and Phil Piratin planned the unofficial fightback. A week before the demonstration, the latter arranged a meeting at his house in Stepney for a group of ‘Aryan-looking’ members of the CPGB, who would be able to pass themselves off as Fascists during the march and keep an eye out for any changes to the planned route of the march. In the early afternoon of 4 October a young medical student, Hugh Faulkner, dressed as a doctor and with an empty medical bag, joined the blackshirt demonstration at the Tower of London. He was allowed through the rows of police:

I found myself in the middle of the Fascists and caught sight of a member who worked in my hospital. On the spur of the moment I said “I’ve finally made up my mind. I want to come in with you”. He was such a clot he immediately accepted this … he was absolutely delighted and almost immediately showed me a duplicate sign of the route.

Armed with this latest intelligence, Faulkner ran off to telephone the plan of the march to Piratin and his fellow organisers. Meanwhile, vast crowds had assembled, ready to do battle with the Fascists. They had already built barricades while the blackshirts were being held up by police. The Cable Street riot was not a battle between the blackshirt supporters of Oswald Mosley and his opponents; it was a battle between the police and the anti-Fascists. When Harold Smith arrived at Gardiner’s  Corner at mid-day, where Piratin had placed trams to block the entrance to Commercial Road, he found a sea of people, ‘like the Cup Final’ he said. By then an estimated 310,000 people had turned up to stop the Fascists marching through. Although Communists under Phil Piratin had been the principal organisers of the opposition, it was not a Communist counter-demonstration. In 1936, the Party had only eleven thousand members. But the Party had been able to organise far greater support across a wide cross-section of British society. The police set to work to clear a path through the counter-demonstrators so that the blackshirts could gain access to Commercial Road, down which they had planned to march. They used a combination of brute force and mounted police charges. People everywhere were bleeding from head wounds inflicted by batons and staves. After several charges and forays, it became obvious to Sir Philip Game, the Police Commissioner, that there was no way that Mosley’s men and women could pass through to Commercial Road, ‘short of mayhem and murder’, so he decided on an alternative route, via Cable Street.

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Thanks to Hugh Faulkner’s intelligence, Piratin quickly became aware of the switch and ordered his ‘flying squads’. As its name suggests, it was close to the docks and lined with ships’ chandlers, lock-ups and warehouses. They were full of carts and heavy equipment which made perfect materials for barricades. As at Gardiner’s Corner, the mounted charges were unable to make headway, and the women in the tenement buildings began throwing everything they could lay their hands on down on the police, forcing them to retreat and, after taking shelter in the lock-ups, to surrender. The demonstrators took their helmets and truncheons and told them to ‘shove off!’ More than a hundred were wounded in the riot, and eighty-three anti-Fascists were arrested. The next day, many of them were sentenced, like Charlie Goodman, to four months’ hard labour. At about six in the evening, the news came through that the march through the East End had been cancelled on the orders of the Police Commissioner, after consulting with the Home Secretary. The demonstrators were elated, while there was despair among Mosley’s followers. They had waited with their ‘Leader’ for almost six hours, ‘kettled’ by the police in Royal Mint Street. The setback was significant, not simply because the march had been stopped, but because of the violence which it triggered.

For the left, by contrast, the Battle of Cable Street was a tremendous victory. The three thousand blackshirts did not pass, as the anti-Fascist demonstrators prevented the police from ushering Mosley’s ‘stormtroopers’ through the East End, a victory which proved a decisive blow from which the British fascists never recovered. It brought together, at least for the following year, a fractured movement that had long been divided on sectarian and ideological grounds on the major issues of the day. It also united people from different ethnic and religious groups and across classes. One of the leaders of the ‘resistance’ recalled that the most amazing thing was to see a silk-coated religious Orthodox Jew standing next to an Irish docker with a grappling iron. A number of men, like Frank Lesser, took such pride in having stopped the Fascist march that they were motivated to volunteer to fight Franco:

It seemed to me that the fight against Fascism had to be fought in England, it had to be fought, and I went to fight it a year later in Spain too. 

The Downing Street Declaration & the Public Order Act:

In the aftermath of the events on Cable Street, the Cabinet met on Wednesday 14 October, with the disturbances at the top of the agenda together with the marches and protests of the unemployed which were happening at the same time. It was not only the disciplined ‘Crusade’ of the men from Jarrow which concerned the ministers. Two other marches were heading through the capital at the same time. One of these was a three-pronged demonstration led by the NUWM against the means test. The prospect of more revolutionaries fighting on the streets of London with the police after the debacle of the previous week in Stepney was more than the politicians could stomach. Some form of action was needed, but it was unclear what the government could do to stop the marches. Stanley Baldwin had recovered enough from a two-month illness to chair the meeting and called on Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, to report on the situation in general and specifically on Cable Street.

Two days earlier, eight days after the riot, the steely-cold Sir John had produced a Memorandum for the Cabinet that showed the degree of concern that he and his colleagues felt. They had faced an almost complete breakdown of law and order on the streets of the capital. The police had been unable to control the demonstration, nor had the Fascists been able to march, as was their right. More clashes were likely as Communists, buoyed up by success, took to the streets again to prevent further Mosley rallies. and demonstrations. The stopping of the march at Cable Street was a blatant denial of free speech to the BUF, as well as a victory over the legitimate authorities. As Mosley complained:

We were prevented from doing what we had done before, marching through London where we had tremendous support and would certainly have won a parliamentary seat.

Then he told his colleagues that nothing should be done to prevent orderly bands of demonstrators marching where they planned. Perhaps surprisingly, however, those who had stopped the BUF in its tracks and beaten back the police were not the object of Simon’s wrath. Instead, he singled out Mosley and his blackshirts for their provocative behaviour and drew attention to their uniform. There was something essentially un-British about a political party dressing up and strutting around in military-style. The Home Secretary spoke of the intense resentment that it caused in the country at large, with the assumption of authority by a private army. That was bad enough, but what was worse was Mosley’s aping the anti-democratic régimes of Europe, where the wearing of black or brown uniforms led to the overthrow of popular liberties … Sir Oswald makes no secret of his desire to follow the German and Italian examples. Simon told the Cabinet that the men and women who dressed as blackshirts looked much smarter than when wearing their everyday clothes. He thought this added to the appeal of the Fascists among poorer people. There was only one solution: uniforms had to be banned.

He also suggested that, on the subject of ‘hunger marches’, action be taken to minimise the risk of violence and that the newspapers should be made aware of the futility of these marches. Baldwin agreed that selected journalists should be briefed so as to counter the favourable publicity given to the marchers and that no ministers would meet any deputations of marchers. Clearly, the ‘nightmare’ on Cable Street was, in part, what led the government to take its hard-line over the presentation of the Jarrow petition. However, the Labour Party conference’s decision not to back the Crusade made it easier for the government, and the ‘Downing Street Declaration’ echoed the speeches which questioned the desirability of getting ill-fed men to march.

Banning uniforms was just one of several measures needed to deal with the disturbances, Simon said. He also threw in a restriction of liberty. He told the Cabinet that the onward thrust of modernity had made the police’s job impossible. Thousands of people could now be summoned at short notice by radio and newspaper., they could travel quickly by public transport, and they could be harangued by demagogues using microphones and loudspeakers. These developments, combined with ‘the European crisis’ and the hysterical fear that an anti-Jew agitation might gain the mastery in this country, meant that the authorities had to have the right to be able to stop demonstrations in future if they feared they might lead to disorder. The Cabinet agreed.

Despite the limitations on freedom of speech, a bill went before Parliament less than a month later. But to the Cabinet’s frustration, the legislation giving the police powers to ban demonstrations was weeks away from enactment. The government restricted BUF activities by enacting The Public Order Act banning political uniforms and allowing the police to ban marches for three-month periods. A coalition of all sides of the Commons came together to stop Mosley, united in hatred of the blackshirt as a political tool, and in loathing of his politics. It was a thoroughly partial piece of legislation in the first instance. Its practical purpose may have been to prevent the recurrence of violence on the scale of the Battle of Cable Street, but its political effect was to cripple the BUF. Denied their uniforms, prevented from marching purely at the discretion of local police, their extra-parliamentary party went into sharp decline. Mosley had few friends at Westminster and he claimed that the British Government had surrendered to red terror.

This forced the BUF back to using more conventional and constitutional political methods. Electorally, they had some local success in the East End. Although the BUF gained support in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, the East End remained its heartland.  In the London County Council elections of March 1937, the BUF won twenty-three per cent of the vote in North-East Bethnal Green, nineteen per cent in Stepney (Limehouse in Clement Attlee’s constituency) and fourteen per cent in Shoreditch. Nonetheless, the fascists failed to win more widespread support. BUF membership (as far as we can tell) rose from seventeen thousand in early 1934 to between forty and fifty thousand by July, organised in four hundred branches. After dropping from that peak to five thousand within a year, it recovered to 15,500 during 1936, reaching 22,500 by the outbreak of war. More generally, the fascists were unable to win parliamentary seats, not even in East London, despite Mosley’s certain declarations that they would. The BUF had no doctrines except jingoism, a professed love of the British flag and the Royal Family, and hatred of Jews and Communists.

In any case, the voting system worked in favour of the two dominant parties. The Conservative Party remained attractive to the middle classes and the BUF was unable to compete with Labour and the trade unions for the support of the unemployed. As the economy improved in the 1930s, the attraction of a political alternative diminished. The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but the habit never became a public menace as it had been in Berlin in the Thirties where it was extremely easy for anyone to be caught up in some skirmish between Nazis and Communists and be beaten up or, quite often, never heard of again.

Below: A press picture from ‘The Daily Worker’  of a great united anti-fascist protest in Trafalgar Square in 1937. Mosley and his followers are seen giving the Nazi salute, their demonstration ringed by a great phalanx of anti-fascists, their clenched fists raised in the salute of the ‘United Front’. Interestingly, despite the hatred, each side nurtured for each other, a single line of policemen was all that separated the opponents and the protest passed without violence, Mosley’s speech being drowned out by the mass singing of ‘The Internationale’ and ‘The Red Flag’.  The demonstrators then kept up a continual barrage of anti-fascist slogans.  

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Below: A counter-rally organised by the BUF in Bermondsey in 1938. May Day was traditionally a Socialist festival. The Fascist salute, taken very seriously by the party, was regarded as richly comic by most of the public. 

A Popular Front – Parliamentary Politics & Protest:

In January 1937, the first issue of Tribune was published, its controlling board including Bevan, Cripps, Laski, H N Brailsford and Ellen Wilkinson. Later that month the United Campaign was launched at a great meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Stafford Cripps, James Maxton and Harry Pollitt appeared on the platform, and Nye Bevan, Tom Mann, Willie Gallacher and Fenner Brockway were among the principal signatories to the manifesto. As the non-interventionist right-wing fought back, the United Front packed meeting after meeting with thousands of Labour, ILP, Socialist League, Communist and trade union supporters, organising practical aid for their Spanish comrades with devoted intensity. Eventually, the Popular Front won wide acceptance, with David Lloyd George and Harry Pollitt sharing a platform and Clement Attlee visiting the remaining International Brigade soldiers in Spain.

From its outset, the Spanish Civil War had absorbed the attention of the international community. It served as a kind of litmus test for whether democracy would survive or Fascism would triumph. In 1938, the outcome of this ideological conflict was more unsure than ever. The official line of the powers, sanctioned by the League of Nations, remained one of non-intervention, a policy willfully ignored by Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. The extreme polarisation of political forces inside Spain, together with the active intervention of Italy and Germany on behalf of the insurgents and the Soviet Union supposedly championing the cause of the Left, turned the Spanish Civil War into the ideological cause célebre of the late 1930s. Conscious that the conflict accentuated the division of Europe into Left and Right, the National Labour MP, Harold Nicolson inclined towards a more robust anti-Franco line in the belief that the government had been ‘weak and confused over the Spanish question’. At a dinner party, he told Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that he wanted ‘the Reds to win’. The destruction of Guernica, the ancient Basque capital, on 26 April 1937 by bombers of the German Kondor Legion had reinforced his feelings. He wrote to his wife Vita …

… I do so loathe this war. I really feel that barbarism is creeping over the earth again and that mankind is going backward.

At the end of February 1938, Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary, ostensibly over Chamberlain’s precipitate and inept handling of Anglo-Italian relations. As a National Labour MP, there was nothing Harold Nicolson could do about the doleful events in Germany, but Eden’s resignation affected him deeply. He had loyally upheld Eden’s handling of British foreign policy, and did not want to become ‘one of Winston’s brigade’. But he had come to the unavoidable conclusion that ‘National Labour’ had ceased to exist as a separate entity. Nicolson was determined to defend Eden, whose resignation speech, muddled and indecisive, had not gone down well. The Foreign Secretary, he revealed to the restless MPs, had resigned not over ‘a little point of procedure’, but on ‘a great question of principle’. He lashed into Italy, …

… a country which has continuously, consistently, deliberately and without apology, violated every engagement into which she has ever entered … our great principles of policy … the rule of law , the theory of the League of Nations, the belief in the sanctity of treaties … butchered to make a Roman holiday.

His speech was warmly received by other critics of Chamberlain’s government, including Lloyd George and Churchill. Supporters of the government thought it damaging to ‘the cause of peace’. But Nicolson had no doubt that Chamberlain was blindly leading the country into a political and diplomatic minefield:

 … their policy is nothing less than the scrapping of the ideas which have been built up since the war and the reversion to the old pre-war policy of power politics and bargaining. This means: (1) that we shall have to buy the friendship of Italy and Germany by making sacrifices. (2) That this frienship will not be worth tuppence once is is bought. And (3) that in doing so we shall sacrifice the confidence of France, Russia, the United States and all the smaller countries.

For many, ‘Tricky Chamberlain’ no longer inspired trust, but nor did the National Labour Party that had behaved like worms and kissed the Chamberlain boot with a resounding smack. But the die-hard Tories were jubilant at having flushed out all the nonsensical notions of the past and having got back the good old Tory doctrines. Nicolson’s pessimism intensified when, on 12 March, German forces crossed into Austria and Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss. Although he still sat on the government benches, he emerged as a leading critic of the government’s foreign policy, claiming that we are going to let Germany become so powerful that she will begin to dictate to us. The Anschluss passed off to whispers of protest, but Spain remained a burning issue. Four days after Hitler’s coup, with Franco’s troops on the offensive, Nicolson spoke out forcefully on the issue. He began by expressing his ‘deepest sympathy’ with the Spanish government and his ‘deepest hatred’ for Franco. A Franco victory, he pointed out, would gravely menace Britain’s interests and security. A free Spain, he stressed, had traditionally been of immense strategic advantage to Britain.

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Above: A snapshot from a woman Labour Party member of another anti-fascist gathering at Belle Vue, Manchester, early in 1938, showing women Labour Party members, Margaret Whalley and Mary Eckersley, waiting to attend the United Front rally.

May Day 1938 was one of the largest since 1926 and the message was ‘Spain above all’. Herbert Morrison spoke from the Labour platform, reminding his audience of the heroic Spanish people and their fight against foreign invasion. Hammersmith Labour Party carried a banner announcing that it had collected five hundred pounds to send an ambulance to Spain and West London engineers paraded a motorcycle of the type they had sent. Everywhere in the procession were the tricolour flags of the Spanish Republic, and a red banner proclaimed, Spain’s fight is our fight. Tens of thousands assembled at the eight platforms in Hyde Park to hear speakers from every section of the labour movement call for arms for Spain and the end of the Chamberlain government. As the long column of marchers entered the park, the loudest cheers came for the wounded members of the International Brigade, closely followed by a group of women of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (pictured below), dressed in nurses’ uniforms, collecting to buy milk for Spanish children.

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Parliamentary Opposition to Appeasement:

In the view of Harold Nicolson, Neville Chamberlain was an ‘ironmonger’ who had no conception… of world politics and was quite unsuited to the task of concluding a successful negotiation with Hitler at Berchtesgaden in September 1938. It soon became apparent that Chamberlain, who didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetans were in the Reich or out of it, had brought back sn agreement that, in principle, ceded to Germany the Sudeten German areas, provided the cession be achieved peacefully. Anglo-French pressure mounted on the Czechs to accept this arrangement.  At one stage, ‘Baffy’ Dugdale, a National Labourite and member of the Executive of the League of Nations Union, rang up Harold to tell him that she had been sick twice in the night over England’s shame’, and had thrown up again after having read in The Times that the terms submitted to the Czechoslovak Government could not … be expected to make a strong ‘prima facie’ appeal to them. Thereupon, she had resigned from the Party. Nicolson himself penned a note of protest to ‘Buck’ De La Warr about National Labour’s refusal to speak out on the issue: He would consider his position.

Chamberlain returned empty-handed from the second round of talks held at Bad Godesberg on 22-23 September, but he was given a ‘blank cheque’ from public opinion for his peace efforts. Nicolson told Churchill that the international situation would bring about the end of the British Empire. They discussed tactics should Chamberlain decide to ‘rat again’. They agreed to press for a Coalition Government and the immediate application of war measures since war seemed imminent.  On 28 September, the House of Commons convened to hear the PM clarify the chain of events leading to the crisis. As he entered the Chamber he was greeted by shouts of applause from his supporters, many of whom rose in their seats and waved their order papers. The opposition remained seated and silent, as did Harold Nicolson, ostensibly a government supporter. The next day he addressed a meeting of the National Labour group in Manchester, hitting out at the Government and its advisors, which rallied the Chamberlainite supporters against him. Matters worsened when he voted against a resolution of the National Labour Executive pledging to support the PM, leading to accusations of ‘dishonourable behaviour’.

The high point of Nicolson’s parliamentary career was his attack on the government’s foreign policy after the Munich agreement. His stand was uncompromising and brought him much credit from the opposition. Hitler, he stated, had three aims: to swallow the Sudeten Germans; to destroy Czechoslovakia and to dominate Europe. We have given him all those three things, he stated. He would have given him the first of these three, as the Sudetenland was not worth a war. But by Chamberlain’s capitulation on this point, a deadly chain reaction had been set off that led, inexorably, to total surrender. He went on:

The essential thing, the thing which we ought to have resisted, the thing which we still ought to resist; the thing which I am afraid it is now too late to resist is the domination of Europe by Germany … this humiliating defeat, this terrible Munich retreat (is) one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occured in our history. … The tiger is showing his teeth, the cage door is open; the keeper is gone … we have given away the whole key to Europe. … Germany will have the whole of Europe in a stranglehold. …

… I know that that those of us who believe in the traditions of our policy … that the one great function of this country is to maintain moral standards in Europe, to maintain a settled pattern of international relations, not to make friends with people whose conduct is demonstrably evil … but to set up some sort of standard by which the smaller Powers can test what is godd in international conduct and what is not – I know that those who hold such beliefs are accused of possessing the Foreign Office mind. I thank God that I possess the Foreign Office mind.

There were other powerful anti-government speeches, by Churchill and Duff Cooper (the only cabinet member to resign), but they hardly dented the government’s huge majority. By 366 votes to 144, the House declared its confidence in the government’s appeasement policy. Thirty Conservative MPs abstained and thirteen remained in their seats. Nicolson, a National Labour ‘rebel’ was among them. The dominance of the National Government and the fragmentation of the Opposition, confirmed at the General Election of 1935, meant that the case of the rebels was not strengthened by their counter-proposals – increased rearmament, grand coalitions, a revivified League, or claiming the high moral ground. Without a proper Opposition, the Commons was barren of new ideas. Those preoccupied with making British foreign policy, tormented by the memories of the horrors of the Great War, were inclined, also on moral grounds, to satisfy Germany’s ‘legitimate grievances’, above all conscious of Britain’s defensive weaknesses and the French lack of will to fight. Also using the tiger metaphor, the Chiefs of Staff presented the Cabinet with a paper on 23 September that to attempt to take offensive action against Germany … would be to place ourselves in the position of a man who attacks a tiger before he has loaded his gun.

Winter of Discontent – Sit-in at the Ritz:

The fight against unemployment in Britain continued to the end of the decade. By the winter of 1938-39, the NUWM had changed their tactics from national marches and demonstrations to a series of localised stunts aimed at focusing attention to their demands for winter relief. Their three-point programme called for additional winter unemployment payments of two shillings and sixpence per adult and one shilling per child. They also demanded a national scheme of public works at trade union rates of pay and the opportunity to put their case directly to the ministers concerned. The picture below was taken on 20 December 1938, when two hundred unemployed men made their way to Oxford Street, crowded with Christmas shoppers. They stepped off the pavements and laid down in the roadway bringing the heavy traffic to an abrupt halt. The weather was bitterly cold and snow had been falling as the men covered themselves with posters calling for bread, work and winter relief. Two days later, a hundred men strolled into the Grill Room of the Ritz Hotel, seating themselves at the tables laid for dinner. They followed this by capturing the UAB offices and holding an officer prisoner, flying of a banner from the Monument in the City of London and chaining themselves to the railings of labour exchanges.

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However, in 1939, the threat of war overshadowed domestic problems. Opposition to the ‘appeasement’ policy after the Munich agreement was a lost cause. So too was the League of Nations Union, which was ‘practically dead’ and the National Labour Party was in no better shape. Nicolson devoted his energies to helping refugees from Franco’s Spain and co-operating with Eleanor Rathbone in her work with deprived children in Britain. He also joined the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror and helped the Zionist cause.

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For the Labour movement as a whole, the war strengthened the commitment of ‘no return to the thirties’ even before the thirties were properly over. As Harold Nicolson motored home from Westminster to Sissinghurst in Kent on 3 September, 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’s all the fault of the rich! Harold commented in his diary:

The Labour Party will be hard put to it to prevent this war degenerating into class warfare.

Sources:

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, c. 1920 – 1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD Thesis.

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishing).

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

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

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

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

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The Land-of-Might-Have-Been: Britain, 1936-37; Chapter Three – 1937 – A Reunited Kingdom?   1 comment

Chapter Three: 1937 – A Reunited Kingdom?

Chronology:

Jan:

 7    Princess Julianna of the Netherlands married German Prince Bernhard

24  United Campaign for Spain launched at Manchester Free Trade Hall

April:

26  Bombing of Basque town of Guernica by German aircraft

 

 

 

 

May:

 6    Germany’s Hindenburg airship blew up in New Jersey, USA

 12    Coronation of King George VI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14    Imperial Conference in London (to 15th June)

Labour Party Distressed Areas Commission on South Wales published

28    Neville Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin as PM

June:

 1    Amelia Earhart’s last flight

 4    Duke of Windsor married Wallis Simpson near Tours, France

7    Death of Hollywood actress, Jean Harlow

 23    Germany and Italy left Non-Intervention Committee

July:

 5      Japan invades China

10   Harold Nicholson’s mission to Evreux

Aug:

 28  Japanese Bombing of Shanghai

 Oct:

 17  Rioting in Sudetenland

 Duke and Duchess’ Berchtesgarden meeting with Hitler

 Nov:

 6   Italy joined Germany and Japan in Aniti-Comintern Pact

 7   Death of Ramsay MacDonald

19  Lord Halifax visited Hitler  

 Dec:

 12      The Panay Incident, Yangtze River

More general events included the imposition of ARP (Air Raid Patrol) duties on local authorities and the passing of A P Herbert’s Divorce Bill extended the grounds for divorce. On the stage, new plays included Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears and J B Priestley’s Time and the Conways. Flanagan and Allen also had a new hit show, Me and My Girl. Films included Show Boat with Paul Robeson, Oh, Mr Porter, with Will Hay, Lost Horizon, with Ronald Coleman and Camille with Greta Garbo. Among the most popular songs of the year were ‘Leaning on a Lamppost’ and ‘I’ve got you under my skin’.

Narrative:

 A United Front?

Despite the non-interventionist position adopted by ‘official Labour’ in the previous autumn, Stafford Cripps had held behind-the-scenes discussions with the Communist leader Harry Pollitt and William Mellors on the possibility of united action in support of the Spanish Republic. In January 1937 the first issue of Tribune was published, with a controlling board that included Aneurin Bevan, Cripps and Ellen Wilkinson. On 24th January, the United Campaign was launched at a mass meeting at Manchester Free Trade Hall, the platform being shared by Stafford Cripps, veteran Clydeside ILP MP Jimmy Maxton, Harry Pollitt and William Mellors. As the right-wing of the Labour Party fought back, the United Front packed meeting after meeting with thousands of Labour, Communist, ILP, Socialist League and trade union supporters, organising practical aid for their Spanish comrades with devoted intensity. Eventually the Popular Front won wide acceptance, with David Lloyd George appearing on the same platform as Harry Pollitt and Clement Attlee visiting the International Brigade, giving the clench fist salute.

George Orwell had arrived at the front in Spain under the aegis of the Independent Labour Party in December 1936. As an officer in the anarchist POUM militia, he was able to put both his parade-ground practice in the Cadet Corps at Eaton and his training in the Burma police college to good use in drilling the raw Republican recruits. However, his eccentric dress in balaclava and long woolly scarf combined with his great height made him a target for snipers and he took a bullet in the neck outside Huesca. Orwell survived, but the damage to his vocal cords made it impossible for him to bark out orders. His faith in international socialist solidarity did not survive, however. In Barcelona he had witnessed first-hand the Republican cause being sabotaged by splits and feuds within the ‘Popular Front’. The communists, driven by instructions from Moscow, in return for the only material support, apart from volunteers, which came from outside Spain, seemed more interested in hunting down heretics like the anarchists and Trotskyists than taking on Franco’s crack Moorish troops. Returning home to heal these physical and mental wounds, his disgust with the official left’s rhapsodies about the Soviet Union only served to reopen the latter, and he decided to try to write the truth as he now saw it, that fascism and communism had more in common than most people realised and that the Soviet variety of it was ‘furthest of all to the Right’. The pillars of the Left like The New Statesman rejected his work. So too did Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, who described Orwell as ‘a little middle-class boy’ who had day-tripped through socialism but returned from his trip the imperialist reactionary he had always been.

Back on the ground in Spain, by the Spring of 1937 there were 30,000 Germans and 80,000 Italians in Spain. The Germans marched and flew aeroplanes. The Republican Government had practically no aircraft and had to pay huge sums of money to freelance pilots. The deliberate bombing of civilians was regarded as unimaginable barbarity at that time, before the experiences of the Second World War. When the Germans bombed the Basque town of Guernica for Franco, practically wiping it out, on 26th April 1937, their involvement could no longer go entirely ignored by the Chamberlain Government, although they tried to downplay the evidence of their own Consul’s own eyes, reported to them the next day. They were tempted to play along with Goebbels’ propaganda machine which went into a fury of action to try to convince everybody that the Basques had blown up their own city in order to discredit General Franco. They certainly couldn’t ignore the broader implications of the attack, that inland cities were vulnerable to aerial bombardment. Britain’s island status would no longer be enough of a defence against a potential Nazi attack, and its government would need urgently to strengthen its anti-aircraft defences, as well as the Royal Air Force, speeding up aircraft production. The movement of the population to the South-East of England would need to be halted, if not reversed.

The rest of the world was outraged and Picasso’s famous picture went on tour all over Europe, including Britain. Now everybody seemed to be taking a hand in the war, and the International Brigades had volunteers from dozens of countries, including two British contingents, one of them named after the mild-mannered military man, Clement Attlee. Harold Nicholson, who had previously muttered secretly at a dinner party to Eden that he wanted ‘the Reds to win’, had his convictions reinforced by the destruction of Guernica, telling his wife Vita ‘….I do so loathe this war. I really feel  that barbarism is creeping over the earth again and that mankind is going backward.’ In public, however, he continued to support the National Government’s policy of non-intervention, praising Eden and instructing the House that ‘Britain could no longer indulge in a ‘missionary foreign policy’ from the nineteenth century by imposing ‘our views, our judgements, our standard of life and conduct’ upon other countries. Britain must fall back on ‘the preservation of peace’  through ‘the arrangement of the balance of power’.

When the Foreign Affairs Committee met in July to discuss the Spanish situation, Nicholson, now its vice-chairman, was agitated to find ‘an enormous majority anti-Government and pro-Franco’. There seemed little alternative to continuing the non-intervention policy, although Eden agreed with Nicholson that it had failed. Britain could not risk the Civil War spreading to an all-out Europe-wide conflagration. Churchill had been feeding Nicholson with an inflated assessment of Germany’s air strength, which if augmented by the Italian air force, meant that Britain was not ready to go to war, except  with ‘very active Russian assistance’. Malcolm MacDonald, Secretary of State for the dominions, reiterated that Brritain was too weak to go to gamble on war at that time. ‘It would mean the massacre of women and children on the streets of London’, he said, adding that ‘no Government could possibly risk a war when our anti-aircraft defences are in so farcical a condition.’

Although the Spanish Civil War continued until 1939, the surviving British volunteers came home in 1937. They had had a rough war. For every five of them who had been gone to Spain the previous year, one had been killed and  another three had been wounded. As they disembarked from the ferry giving their clenched fist salutes to the awaiting press photographers, it was evident not just that the outcome of the great clash between Left and Right was a clear victory for the Right, but that this had not been the real confrontation, merely the dress rehearsal for something much worse. The Fascists had been greatly encouraged by their successful alliance and joint adventure in Spain. Hitler and Mussolini left the Non-Intervention Committee in June, cementing their ’Rome-Berlin Axis’ and beginning a gigantic build-up of forces. The Non-interventionists in Britain and elsewhere had given Hitler the green light to acquire more territory in the East, at the very least, though he knew that Germany, too, would need more time to prepare for the coming campaign of conquest.

The Spanish Civil War had an even longer-term impact on British literature and culture, through Orwell’s writings, as well as those of others for whom the experience of it had been a pivotal experience. Homage to Catalonia, written in 1937, but not published until 1938, suffered from being seen as a shot from the sidelines at the internecine wars of the Left both in Spain and at home, and it was for this reason that Orwell decided to preach the same message in the more popular form of a fable. He wrote:

On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could easily be understood by almost anyone…However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.’

In this way, the germ of Animal Farm, not published until 1945, was already in Orwell’s mind in 1937. In the meantime, however, his acerbic wit was mainly reserved for those who opposed the arm conflict with fascism, in a review of some military memoirs, in August 1937:

General Crozier is a professional soldier and by his own showing spent the years between 1899 and 1921 in almost ceaseless slaughter of his fellow-creatures; hence as a pacifist he makes an impressive figure, like the reformed burglar at a Salvation Army meeting.’  

Today We Live! The Unemployed Miners

In 1937 Donald Alexander, a Cambridge ’double-first’, arrived in South Wales to produce a film called Eastern Valley which dealt with the relief work organised by the Quakers at the top of the Monmouthshire Valleys. In this short film one unemployed miner explained that he was working now ’not for a boss but for myself and my butties’ and another said that ’a new interest in life’ had been created by the Quakers. The best known documentary was Today We Live, made in the same year by the National Council of Social Service. The Welsh scenes were directed by Ralph Bond who told a story using real miners as actors, in which the unemployed miners of Pentre in the Rhondda agree, after some debate, to co-operate with the voluntary relief agencies. Despite the obvious coaching of the miners, the difficulty in dealing with poverty and boredom, living on a shilling a day, are movingly conveyed and it is not surprising that the film was so well received in the art-houses of London and New York. The film made its impact not only because of the realistic dialogue, which the miners interpreted themselves, in their own words, but because of the stunning images of life in the depressed Valleys. Bond’s assistant on the film was Donald Alexander and his shot of the unemployed searching for waste on the slag heaps was not only the highlight of the documentary itself, but also became the most iconic image of proletarian hardship in Depression Britain. It has been used many times in subsequent films and, at the time, played a similar role to that of Dorothy Lange’s still photographs of the migrant mother with her children in California, for American audiences.

The documentary film-makers of 1937 achieved a real breakthrough, despite being constrained by sponsorship and distribution problems. Grierson, Rotha, Bond and Alexander never knew whether their films would be seen outside of London’s Weat End or New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As the Socialist cause became stronger in 1936-7, several groups attempted to challenge Hollywood and the Ealing comedies by producing independent films with independent outlets. The Communist Party was instrumental in this, showing classic Russian feature-films in halls in London, and some of these were shown in the miners’ institutes in South Wales, together with other independent and radical films. Films like Spanish Earth, also made in 1937, were shown alongside more commercially successful films, such as Night Must Fall, based on Emlyn Williams’ stage play. British film-makers had become concerned about the extent of the domination by American-made films in British cinemas, and in 1937 a Quota Act was passed to restrict this, which led to American companies, like MGM, establishing their own studios around London in order to make ’British’ films. They could also be far more radical, since the British film censors were becoming more lenient.

Paradoxically, many of the English middle-class documentary film-makers had a very idealised view of ’the Welsh miner’ which came through in their work, often in the dialogue which contained vocabulary and idioms which were alien to the coalfield. One of the few film-makers to join them from an authentic background, Jack Howells, was openly critical of this, but was unable to effect a greater sense of realism. Howells shared their conviction that the camera could be used to show the world how the miners lived, but that the Cambridge intellectuals were too earnest and lacking in the ability to use humour both to entertain and inform. Penrose Tennyson, Eaton-educated, had left Balliol College Oxford after only one term, to become a film-maker. He was twenty-six when he made the film Proud Valley with Paul Robeson playing a rather confected role as a black sailor who comes to work in a Welsh pit and is recruited to sing in the local male voice choir. The film proved too radical for the censors, and its release was delayed by the Ealing Studios until the outbreak of war in 1939, when it was given a new ending in which the pit is saved from closure, not by the action of the miners, but by the demands of war. The dialogue was written by Jack Jones, which probably saved it from the music-hall stereotypes of Welshness which its actors, including Rachel Thomas and himself were meant to play. Robeson himself was no stranger to South Wales, as he had been singing in concerts to raise money for the Spanish Republicans, and the song ’You can’t stop us singing’ became a powerful resistance theme as choral singing became the means of suggesting solidarity, not just in films, but also in real life. When Penrose Tennyson began making the film early in 1937, his motivations were very clear, as his brother later revealed:

I think Pen felt that the mining community was the only working-class community in the country which had retained their dignity, their sense of community, and their own cultural life and values. I think he had a very special feeling; I don’t know quite what personal contact it was based on until the film, but I think he had a very special feeling for the miners, particularly for the South Wales miners. I remember at the time of the abdication of Edward VIII… that he quite seriously thought that the Welsh miners were going to march on London and insist on Edward VIII being reinstated and put to rout the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mr Baldwin, and all the people who had wanted Edward VIII to give up the throne. I think Pen was perfectly ready to join the march as soon as he could, and I think he was very disappointed that nothing ever happened.

Militant Minorities and Migrants

Penrose Tennyson’s belief that the miners were on the point of insurrection in 1937 was not entirely fanciful, but the Communist Party was already beginning to focus its attention on following up its success in winning the leadership of the SWMF with gaining support in elections. At the beginning of April 1937, the people of the Garw Valley were prepared to vote for a respected local Communist in the Council election:

The declaration of the poll in Ogmore and Garw Council elections took place amid scenes of enthusiasm…culminating in the singing of the ’Red Flag’ when Communist candidate for the Pontycymmer ward, Mr. James Redmond, miner, was announced as having gained the large total of 889 votes, and topped the poll. Edward John Evans (Soc), Schoolmaster, gained the other seat with 830 votes. Mr Daniel Davies (Soc) who has served upon the Council for 18 years, loses his seat, the number of his votes being 814. Mr Redmond is the first Communist to be elected in the Garw Valley…After the declaration the crowd became most excited, and the election proved to be the most enthusiastic and keenly followed for years.

 Clearly, while the South Wales valleys may have been a long way from the verge of revolution in the Spring of 1937, they were experiencing some seismic political shifts. It was no coincidence that Redmond’s election came in the same week that a new wages agreement was reached between the SWMF’s Communist leadership and the coal-owners. Also, a decade-long struggle against company unionism in the valley had finally secured almost 100% membership of the Federation. Redmond’s success was a recognition of the organisational abilities of local Communists, rather than a wholesale shift towards the avowal of revolutionary socialism in mining communities. Those communities were simply expressing their growing self-confidence, which the Communist Party had helped them recover.

 The 1935 Hunger Marches against the introduction of the Means Test were still strong in the imaginations of both people and politicians, but the popular image, presented in contemporary newsreels and photographs of thousands continually on the march, is a myth. Demonstrative action was sporadic, localised and uneven, and, where it involved large numbers, it was motivated by immediate concerns, basic frustrations and deep resentment. Such feelings could just as easily lead to a cynical withdrawal from political action, as they did for many. Nevertheless, the determination of militant minorities, well-organised in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, helped to facilitate a partial institutional and political recovery in 1936-7. However, these minorities, with their emphasis on extra-parliamentary marches and demonstrations, were often seen as a threat by the more mainstream Labour movement, especially its parliamentary leadership. This was a time when direct action on the streets had very negative and sometimes sinister undertones for those who believed in the traditionally British  representative form of democracy. This helps to explain why the Labour Party conference held in Edinburgh in October of the previous year had refused to support the Jarrow Crusade or any other kind of ’hunger’ march, preferring instead to appoint a Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas.  This was the leadership’s idea of getting something done, but at least the words it produced were far removed from those which appeared in The Times on January 19th, which reflected closely the Government’s, when it claimed that the Distressed Areas were:

…economic cemeteries, the character of which may be made more pleasant by planting a few flowers, straightening a few tombstones and employing a sexton or two, but cannot be radically changed.

 Towards the end of that month, the Commission began its tour of investigation in South Wales.  Joining Hugh Dalton and other national figures were two local MPs, George Hall (Aberdare) and Arthur Jenkins (Pontypool). A large amount of written evidence had been received at the preliminary conference in Cardiff in December, much of which had already appeared in published form, since there had already been many quasi-official enquiries, investigations and surveys of the coalfield published throughout the thirties; some regional, some local in focus. The Minister for Labour, Ernest Brown, who had accompanied Edward VIII on his legendary tour the previous November, admitted on 9th March that no fewer than 32 out of 38 special area districts in the region had had over 30% unemployment during the previous year. Only one had had a rate of less than less than 20%, somewhere near the national, British average for the year of about 15%. In the previous July a special Ministry analysis had revealed that of nearly a hundred thousand unemployed men, one in eight had been out of work for more than five years, two in every five for over two years continuously, and more than half for over a year. Only one in five had been unemployed for less than three months. What’s more, the numbers of those who had been out of work for more than five years had doubled between the summers of 1935 and  1936.

Most of these older, long-term unemployed were located in local pockets of unemployment, or ’black-spots’ which had the highest levels of unemployment overall. These were spread throughout the coalfield from Garnant in the Amman Valley in the western anthracite area, generally less hard-hit than the dominant ’steam-coal’ section,  with 58% unemployed, to Ferndale in the Rhondda in the centre with 56%, to Brynmawr and Merthyr on the northern edge with 57% and 46% respectively. These were the four highest levels of all the labour exchange areas of the industrial region. The Report of the Commission, published in May, was essentially a summary of these already-available statistics, including details of population loss, mainly by migration, and local rates. For Merthyr Tydfil, the Commission stated the obvious, that ’Migration has been very heavy. Persistent efforts have been made to attract new industries. Excellent sites are available.’ It also gave a list of the new industries which had been suggested to replace the jobs for the three thousand steelworkers in Dowlais to whom Edward VIII had promised something would be done six months earlier. Evidently, nothing had yet been done apart from the repetition of vague proposals. Meanwhile, the rates in Merthyr continued to climb to 29s in 1936-7, the highest in the region, of which just over half was spent on public assistance. At the same time, industrial properties accounted for less than 5% of the rateable value.

The miners’ ’Fed’, the SWMF, had put forward a long list of specific proposals, including the establishment of oil-from-coal plants, afforestation, and the raising of the school-leaving age to sixteen, with maintenance grants payable. A wide range of evidence was also received from the local Labour Groups, ’showing how the social services were at least blunting the edge of the depression, and how essential it was that much greater financial aid should be given by the Exchequer.’ Without the efforts of the Labour-controlled local authorities, they concluded, ’the results of unemployment and poverty would have been even more disastrous’. They also concluded that this was not enough, that prosperity could be brought back to the region, but only by ’thoroughgoing State action’. Above all, they highlighted the mantra of contemporary economists, that ’South Wales must be considered as an economic unit and its future must be planned.’ This planning needed to be coordinated by ’a vigorous and authoritative Minister of Cabinet rank’ with responsibility for all the Special Areas and their planning, with the commissioners for each of the areas becoming ’his chief executive agents’. Substantial funds needed to be put at his disposal and discretion by Parliament, free from detailed control by the Treasury. No more red tape and ’restrictions’ which had ’throttled’ Sir Malcolm Stewart, causing him to resign six months earlier, on the eve of Edward VIII’s visit to the region.

The Report went on to propose that for proper economic planning of South Wales, the Special Area should be extended to include the whole of industrial South Wales from the River Towy in the West to the River Usk in the East, including Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. It argued that a road bridge over the Severn was vital, and that the central Government should take direct responsibility for this. Bypasses should be built around the coastal towns and a first-class route should be provided to link the heads-of-the-valleys’ towns from Garnant and Brynamman through Merthyr Tydfil to Abergavenny and the Severn Bridge road. They recommended that a number of oil-from-coal plants should be established and owned by the State, since there was no shortage of suitable coal in the region. For older miners, they proposed the immediate introduction of a pension scheme. For those of a younger working age, the Minister for the Special Areas should have the power to require all new industries to establish themselves in the Areas, unless it could be proved to his satisfaction that there was an overwhelming case for their locating elsewhere. To that date, not a single new factory or extension was recorded as being established in the South Wales area.

Whether or not there was a fear of war, South Wales should be used for defence purposes, including the storage of oil, food and other supplies, as well as for the manufacture of defence requirements. Trading estates should be established, distributed throughout South Wales, one of which should be for electro-chemical industries requiring huge supplies of cheap electric power. Public Assistance rates needed to be reduced to the average for Britain as a whole, with a special Exchequer grant making up the difference, twelve shillings in the case of Merthyr. Local authorities should be given the powers and resources to clean up the debris of dead industry and to prepare them for use as building sites or open spaces. All children at school, and all juveniles receiving education or training should receive milk and a free meal per day, all year round. The report concluded that ’only the most drastic action  by the State’ could save the people of South Wales ’from the suffering and misery and despair which for long years’ had ’engulfed them’.  Most significantly, perhaps, for the first time, the Party came out against the Transference Policy:

 The transfer of young persons to other parts of the country is very undesirable.

Neville Chamberlain did, eventually, introduce a new act of Parliament for the distressed areas, the Special Areas (Amendment Act), in 1937. For the first time he promised regional planning with some directed investment. His main motivation in doing so was not an acceptance of the Keynesian economics, so clearly articulated in the Labour Party’s ‘plan’, but the twin concerns over the need for Rearmament and the uncontrolled migration to the South-eastern area of England, visibly vulnerable to aerial attacks from the continent. Prior to the war in Spain, Chamberlain had believed that the only effective solution to the mass unemployment in the distressed areas was internal migration. Hence his support for Transference schemes as the main means of government policy and his rejection of locating new industries in the area, which would militate against migration. 1936 had been the most successful year of the Transference policy, especially because the government had come to understand the importance of family transference to the overall success of the scheme. Young men from areas where familial ties were strong were far more likely to settle more permanently in the new areas if their parents and other members of the family could join them. In fact, most of the successful migration schemes were those that had been organised, since the late twenties, along familial and institutional lines, free from government control.

In addition to political action, resistance to state intervention could be expressed in a refusal to participate in Government training and transfer schemes; it could also form part of a rejection of the ‘demoralisation’ involved in the lives of individuals and families by a host of bureaucrats and social service volunteers. Migration could be an effective expression of this spirit of resistance. It was far from being an acquiescent response to unemployment for many who decided to leave the valleys. As one of the older unemployed men from the Rhondda wrote in a written statement to the Pilgrim Trust later that year:

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

Migration was not simply a knee-jerk reaction to economic conditions; it was a conscious response for the hundreds of thousands who undertook it. The Ministry of Labour’s ‘General Review of the Industrial Transference Scheme’, circulated in 1938, found that 72% of the men known to have migrated in 1936 and 1937, had done so ‘on their own account’ without any reference to the official scheme. The overwhelming majority of workers who left South Wales either knew nothing of it, or they chose to ignore its provisions. It was frequently linked to training, which took place in work camps and centres. Resistance to these can be gauged from the fact that, of 3,000 men interviewed by the Unemployment Assistance Board in Merthyr in 1937, 2,300 refused to even consider it. The lack of flexibility in the location and organisation of the centres, the menial type of training offered and the scheme’s failure to guarantee employment that these forms of provision did not match the needs of coalfield communities already naturally resistant to government intervention. Moreover, of the 90,000 men officially transferred by the Ministry of Labour between 1930 and the middle of 1937, 49,000 returned home. The successful resettlement rate among juveniles was little better; it was estimated that between October 1934 and September 1937, approximately 40% of boys and 50% of girls transferred by the Ministry returned home to stay. It classified ‘homesickness’ as the main cause of this, but this was often intensified by the conditions under which the young people were made to live and work, and could be mitigated by careful placement and thoughtful after-care. Such planning was largely absent from the Scheme at its inception, and the reports given by returnees to the coalfield of the conditions they had been forced to endure undoubtedly fuelled resistance among other potential transferees and, more particularly, their parents, who were more and more likely to feel that ‘it was better for their children to be half-starved in Wales than hopelessly corrupted in London’.

Naturally, most of the Industrial Transference Board’s reports stressed the successes of the Scheme, and where cases of re-migration were reported these were written off as hopeless cases of homesickness, defying all the counter measures taken by local officials and employers. However, many of the placements were in domestic service, particularly in the London area. Wages were insufficient for the teenage boys to support themselves, the work was often arduous, the hours long and there was little time off for visits home. As a consequence, they simply ‘ran off’, giving the local officials no opportunity to relocate them. The solution was found by placing the boys in industrial employment. In 1937, the officers of the Birmingham Juvenile Employment Bureau visited Merthyr to interview juveniles and explain to their parents the opportunities available.  This resulted in the successful transfer of sixteen boys and seven girls. They were accommodated together at a hostel until suitable lodgings could be found close to their place of work. The managing director of one of the Birmingham firms of electrical engineers then employed a whole family from Merthyr, and they were given a bungalow from which the woman looked after a number of the firm’s transferred juveniles. Employers in Coventry also established a hostel in 1937, guaranteeing the employment of the Welsh juveniles for a year. However, most of the migration that took place, certainly among adults, was autonomous in organisation. As Captain Crawshay remarked in his survey for the Special Areas Commissioner’s 1937 Report, ‘Dai in the Midlands finds a job for Ianto at home’. Professor Marquand also noted that younger men were ‘subject to waves of feeling’ connected to the receipt of letters from friends who had already left Wales’, from which he concluded, in his 1937 Report for the South Wales Industrial Development Council, that a programme of training and transfer would only be successful if it were operated through a policy of group transfer. Social solidarity was the only means of real protection against an alien atmosphere characterised by precariousness and prejudice often encountered in the new industry areas.

The Hindenburg Blows Up

Following her triumphant first crossing of the Atlantic of the season, Germany’s huge airship Hindenburg, the biggest ever built, nosed down to the aerodrome at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the evening of 6th May. A severe thunderstorm had just ended. As the landing lines were dropped, the ground crew began pulling the ship towards the mooring mast, when flames suddenly leapt from her tail. In a matter of a few seconds, the whole airship, filled with 6,700,000 cubic feet of inflammable hydrogen, was on fire; she began to buckle in the middle and fell to the ground. Passengers and crew jumped for their lives as flames and explosions destroyed her. Within five minutes, the fire had burnt out, leaving thirty-five dead among the wreckage. The dramatic pictures of the explosion, exclusive to The Daily Express, were flown across the Atlantic by two American pilots, who then returned to the United States a week later with exclusive pictures of the Coronation.  

 

The Twelfth of May: Coronation and Kind Hearts

At midnight on 30th April, London’s quarter of a million busmen came out on strike, after negotiations for a seven and a half hour day had broken down. London had to walk to see the coronation, but they were rewarded for their efforts by fine weather. The Coronation of King George VI in Westminster Abbey, the crowning place of thirty-seven monarchs since William I, of Normandy, required twenty-five thousand police and eight thousand special constables to handle upwards of ten million people who had thronged to London to see the world’s greatest free show. It was estimated that the show cost forty million pounds, and its preparation had lasted six months, since planning had first begun for the coronation of Edward VIII. At 10.30 a.m. the royal coach left Buckingham Palace with King George and Queen Elizabeth inside. In Westminster Abbey, the assembled Lords and Ladies, who had been in their 19-inch-wide seats before nine o’ clock, tried to conceal, as best as they could, the sandwiches and drinks they had brought with them, many using their coronets as picnic boxes. Outside the Abbey, forty thousand soldiers lined the route, with the crowds packed in behind them. They cheered at the six-mile-long procession, with its royalties in glass carriages, distinguished men and women from every country in the world. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, bands and prancing horses preceded the golden coach.

The crowning moment belonged to seventy-four year-old Cosmo Lang, no doubt relieved that he no longer had to crown an adulterer.  Immediately after, the hundreds of peers and peeresses put on their coronets and cried ‘God Save the King’ with everyone else in the Abbey. Guns at the Tower Of London and all over Britain were fired to mark the moment. At four o’ clock, the King and Queen were back at the Palace, appearing on the balcony with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose. For this appearance, the King wore the State Crown, not the heavy St. Edward’s Crown placed on his head earlier at the Abbey.

The Coronation also demonstrated how much George VI felt he owed to his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. He and his wife were given pride of place in the Royal box, much to the displeasure not just of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but also to many others in the Establishment. It was clearly of great importance to King George’s confidence that Logue should be physically close at hand during the ceremony. That night he broadcast to the Empire, the first time ever that a newly crowned monarch had talked to his people directly, and live, in their own homes. Logue’s coaching helped him to overcome his stammer, so that it was this speech of thanks to his people, which was the first of many successful encounters with the ever-present microphone he had previously dreaded. Edward had had two decades as Prince of Wales to prepare for the duties of King. His brother, as Duke of York, had not had to undertake many official engagements, but now found himself thrust into the limelight, and within five months had gone from being a diffident and unwilling inheritor of the Crown, sobbing for an hour on his mother’s shoulder, to overcoming all doubts and prejudices as to whether he could cope with the excessive pressures of kingship.

Many among those in the Abbey commented on the regal manner in which he carried himself throughout the event commended the King. During the ceremony, Churchill is said to have turned to his wife, Clementine, and said, ‘you were right! The other one would never have done!’ Although he had been a close friend and supporter of Edward VIII to the point where he, and many others, felt that he had blown his chances of a return to government, Churchill now accepted that the crown would now be safer on the head of King George VI. His love of formal ceremony, like that of his father, was clearly evident, just as his brother’s hatred of it had also been evident in the summer and autumn of the previous year, when he had used the very un-British excuse of ‘rain stopped play’ to cancel major events.  George VI only had to speak six words in response to the Archbishop’s questions; ’all this I promise to do’, which he managed by pausing in the right place rather than stammering. His wife and children, beautifully dressed, added to the occasion, and all those watching in the Abbey, outside, or on the newsreels later, fell even more deeply in love with the new royal family. The effect of the event was to unify both Right and Left behind the monarchy, especially because the pomp of pageantry, containing all the symbolism of the monarchy as the defender of the freedom of the people of Britain, seemed far more benign than the Blackshirts goose-stepping in the carefully choreographed fascist rallies of Nuremberg and elsewhere on the continent. Kingsley Amis wrote of how the coronation had ’upstaged’ Goebbels and Hitler. The summer Olympics of 1936, held in the German capital, may have been a triumph for Nazi Germany, but in 1937 it was Britain which was revealing its best bright clothes to the world, and London was putting on its own kind of show, which only it could do. May was a bad month for Germany in the propaganda stakes, beginning as it had done with the Hindenburg disaster.

Exits and Entrances

At the end of May, Neville Chamberlain finally replaced Stanley Baldwin, the worn-out ‘dear vicar’, as Prime Minister. Baldwin had been planning for many months to retire from political life, but the events that precipitated the Abdication and those which followed it, had kept him in office. As soon as George VI had been crowned, Baldwin decided to hand over the Premiership to his Chancellor, and on May 28th the Chamberlains moved next door in Downing Street. The former PM went to the House of Lords as Earl Baldwin of Bewdley. As René Cutforth observed, ‘his chief influence had been anaesthetic’. Stability and the status quo had been obsessions that he shared with the great majority of voters in the first half of the decade at least and, unless forced to do otherwise, ‘he had preferred to drowse’. He had a genuinely poetic passion for the idea of ‘middle England’, but had done precious little for working-class regions of Britain as a whole. Like many in his generation, Baldwin had continued to ‘bleed inwardly for the sufferings’ of the Great War, and had promised both himself and his country that those evils would never be repeated. ‘Its memory sickens us’ he said, and Britain needed to be protected from the twin evils of extremism, fascism and communism.

Baldwin had been the epitome of sleepy village England virtues that no longer fitted with the modern age. However, just as Baldwin had not been fond of first class minds, Chamberlain’s cabinet, when announced, excluded most of the able men who might be suspected of supporting Churchill, like Duff Cooper, Harold Macmillan and Julian Amery. The old gang was given the top jobs, including Sir John Simon, Sir Samuel Hoare and Lord Halifax. When Sir Thomas Inskip was announced as Minister of Defence, the House of Commons sat there laughing for several minutes. Halifax, an aristocratic Anglo-Catholic, was intensely loyal to his native Yorkshire. He was also shrewd, having spent a lifetime in public office, and was proud of his ability to see behind the public rhetoric of Churchill. As Viceroy of India, he had done what was necessary to keep the imperial connection. Neville Chamberlain, however, represented the economic imperialism his father had campaigned for, even though his parental home, Highbury, was a way from both the screw manufacturing industry and municipal radicalism that had first brought the late Victorian dynasty to pre-eminence. His more patrician stepbrother, Austen, had seemed more destined to lead the Conservatives, especially as foreign and imperial affairs had been his speciality. Apart from being another Midlands industrialist, Neville Chamberlain had little in common with Baldwin. He was an upright provincial businessman with an old-fashioned moustache who had once been Lord Mayor of Birmingham. To some, both these were signs of his lack of imagination and vision. A political observer at the time he became Prime Minister wrote of him:

This seeming lack of breadth of mind and culture…arouses some misgivings about Mr Chamberlain. Clarity of mind – and he has it in an unusual degree – is not enough if the mind, so to say, sees the field as part of the landscape, and that kind of limited vision is not necessarily compensated by courage such as Mr Chamberlain has. The two together should be a positive danger.

Neville Chamberlain had remained true to his Birmingham roots, committed to the improvement of local government, especially education, and possessing a strong instinct for what the professional middle classes wished to see in a Conservative Prime Minister. Above all, they valued the preservation of peace. Churchill, sensing that Chamberlain was a far more principled appeaser than Baldwin, felt renewed in his opposition to the policy. Simon Schama has written of how Chamberlain and Lord Halifax represented a more pro-active Britishness that Churchill understood, while Churchill understood ‘this England, this Britain of… the village institute, the small town chapel, the brass band’. However, he continued to insist that this England, this Britain, would never survive by simply hoping that the new powers on the continent could be persuaded to leave it alone. That would be to depart, as Duff Cooper remarked, from two and a half centuries of British opposition to one-power dominance of the continent.

On November 9th, 71-year-old Ramsay MacDonald, died from a heart attack in mid-Atlantic while on his way for a vacation in South America. In his long career he had been a radical ILP MP, a founding member of the Labour Party, a pacifist during the Great War, Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister, and Prime Minister of the National Government six years earlier. George V had told him that he was his the PM he had liked most during his reign. A suggestion of a burial in Westminster Abbey was made, but he was buried in Lossiemouth in Scotland, where he had been born.

Famous Females

Amelia Earhart, America’s ‘Miss Lindy’ had become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic when she landed in South Wales on June 18th, 1928, after a 1,900-mile non-stop flight from Newfoundland in the triple-engine seaplane, Friendship. Four years later, she had appeared with Lord Astor at the Epsom Derby, after flying the Atlantic for a second time, but the first time this had ever been done solo by a woman, landing this time in a field near Londonderry, in Northern Ireland. She had hoped to reach France. On 1st June 1937, she set out in a Lockheed Electra plane, a “flying laboratory,” to make a round-the-world flight. She reached South America, Africa, India and Batavia, but after beginning the last stages to tiny Howland Island, a mid-Pacific airbase, neither she nor her aircraft were ever seen again. After intensive searches, she was presumed dead. A week later, another American female icon of the early twentieth century, film star Jean Harlow, best known for her platinum blonde bleached hair which had started a vogue among hundreds of thousands of girls, died from uremia at her home in Beverley Hills, Hollywood, on June 7th.

The Windsors’ Saga Continued

The most famous American woman of 1936 had been Wallis Simpson. After the granting of her divorce had been made absolute in the first week of May, she was free to marry Edward, now Duke of Windsor. They wed on 4th June, at the Chateau de Condé near Tours in France. No member of the royal family was among the sixteen guests, but the sixty-year-old vicar of Darlington, Rev J A Jardine, against the wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was there. Writing privately to the Duke a week before, he had been invited to officiate at the ceremony. After the wedding, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who received more than three thousand congratulatory telegrams and thirty thousand letters, left for a honeymoon in Austria, staying at the Schloss Wasserleonburg, near the Wörther See, throughout the summer. In July, Harold Nicholson performed one last service for Wallis. On her hurried flight to Cannes, during the Abdication Crisis, she had inadvertently left some notes at the Evreux hotel she had stayed in. These notes apparently ‘reflected greatly to her credit’ and upon hearing about them, Harold offered to retrieve them. Having succeeded in doing so, he then gave thanks in the city’s Cathedral for the completion of his mission. He needn’t have bothered, for some years later he discovered that the notes he had so painstakingly recovered had been carelessly lost once more by the Windsors.

The following October, they had a controversial rendezvous with Adolf Hitler at his mountain villa in Berchtesgarden, near the Austrian frontier. While the Duchess chatted with Nazi leaders, the Duke had a twenty-minute private audience with Germany’s dictator. Criticism followed this decision to make Germany the first country to visit on a tour of Europe planned by the Duke to investigate social conditions. Early in November, in his first public speech since his abdication address, he told journalists in Paris that he was mystified by the attribution of ulterior motives to his action. “Though one may be in the lion’s den,” he commented, “it is possible to eat with the lions if one is on good terms with them.”

However, Harold Nicholson was among those who thought the Windsor’s visit was ill advised, and its political connotations were clear, even if weakly discounted by the Duke himself. It left Nicholson, for one, considerably on edge. He himself had refused to travel through Germany ‘because of Nazi rule’, telling ‘Chips’ Channon that whereas ‘we stand for tolerance, truth, liberty and good humour…they stand for violence, oppression, untruthfulness and bitterness’, distinguishing traits that had obviously escaped the notice of the Windsors. It must have confirmed for Harold what many suspected: that the couple had fallen heavily for the ‘champagne-like influence of Ribbentrop. Rumour had it that the man nicknamed ‘Ambassador Brickendrop’ had ‘used’ the Duchess. Even Channon admitted that King George VI himself was ‘going the dictator way, and is pro-German, against Russia and against too much slip-shod democracy’. It has often been argued, somewhat with the benefit of the hindsight of what happened in the following three years, that Edward differed in many aspects from the government’s foreign policy, and foolishly allowed his tongue to run away with him in an unconstitutional manner. In Germany, these utterances created an impression of warm sympathy and an exaggerated idea of his power and influence. There is no evidence to suggest, however, that the former King’s views, however ‘pro-German’, influenced either the new King’s views, or government policy. After some deliberation, Nicholson concluded that Edward believed more than he should have in Herr Hitler’s integrity as well as in his own ability to continue to influence the course of events. In this, of course, he was not alone, as the events of 1938 were to reveal, though he was no longer, in any sense, in charge of those events. The man now in charge of Britain’s appeasement policy was Neville Chamberlain.

Living with the Dictators

Anthony Eden remained at the Foreign Office throughout 1937, but looked, at forty, increasingly out-of-place among the dull, grey knights of Chamberlain’s 1937 Cabinet. Worse still for him, whereas Baldwin had preferred to leave his Ministers to their own devices, Chamberlain was an interfering PM: he liked, he said, to give each member of his government a policy to pursue, and it was in foreign affairs that he chiefly meddled, because although he had little experience in that field himself, his policy of ‘Appeasement’ was not the same as Eden’s. It was believed by almost every liberal mind in Britain, including that of Churchill, that the Versailles Treaty had been unfair to Germany and needed to be revised, so that some form of ‘give and take’ policy might be needed in the highly charged atmosphere on the continent.

As winter approached,  Harold Nicholson was invited to participate in a kind of ‘brains trust’ on foreign affairs at All Souls College, Oxford. Its purpose was to set out guidelines which would neutralise the menace of the totalitarian states. It included A L Rowse, the historian and fierce critic of government policy, Arnold Toynbee, a loyal defender of it, Harold Macmillan, Basil Liddell Hart, and H A L Fisher.  With the Austrian and Sudeten Conflicts beginning to foment, the group suggested a ‘package deal’ to Germany, including allowing the Anschluss, getting the Czech government to allow cantonal status to the Sudetenland, and recognising Germany’s economic rights in eastern Europe. In return, Germany would be asked for assurances about the territorial integrity and autonomy of its eastern neighbours, to agree to limit its arms to giving it preponderance but not supremacy in central-eastern Europe, and that it would not support Italian ambitions in Africa and the Mediterranean. Nicholson put on record his outright opposition to this ‘deal’, and his belief in Germany’s ‘aggressive ambitions’ which he believed were based on the Nazi propaganda of the ‘heroic motive’ that inspired German youth and conditioned them to sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of world domination. The group, divided into ‘traditionalists’ and advocates of  ‘a new policy of trying to conciliate the strong’, between ‘moralists’ and ‘realists’, failed to reach a consensus, eventually breaking up in May 1938.

In November 1937, Chamberlain had dispatched Lord Halifax to Berlin. Halifax was very interested ‘getting together with Hitler and squaring him’, and also met Goebbels and Goering (picture left) but wasn’t able to ‘square’ the Führer on this occasion. ‘We have a different set of values,’ he confided to his diary, ‘and were speaking a different language’. However, Halifax reported to the Cabinet that, in his view, the Germans had no policy of immediate adventure. Their country was still in a state of revolution. Nevertheless, they would press their claim in s in Central-Eastern Europe, though not in a form to give the Western powers cause to interfere. The PM took the view that an atmosphere had been created in which ‘practical questions’ involved in a European settlement could be discussed. Even though Halifax did not pretend to himself that he was using the same language as Hitler, he did want to go on talking in the hope that, sooner or later, some breakthrough of understanding may occur. The ‘state of revolution’ would eventually cease, and then the appeasers would have their role to play in the adjustments of world power that seemed to be taking place. Change could not simply be resisted, but it could be made as harmless British Imperial interests as possible. This condescending attitude transferred itself to the physical sphere of Halifax’s diplomacy, as he was a very tall man, six feet five inches. By contrast, he referred to both Hitler and Goebbels in his diary as ‘little men’. Hitler was the nasty one, Goebbels the more likeable one.

Whereas Eden was contemptuous of Italy, and was pursuing a strong line on non-intervention in Spain, insisting that both the Germans and Italians should take their promises more seriously, Chamberlain set about conciliating Mussolini, accepting his conquest of Abyssinia. He decided to go ahead with an Anglo-Italian agreement, without terms, to ease the bad feeling between the two countries that had existed since Il Duce’s invasion in 1935. Eden, firmly committed to the League of Nations policy, insisted that Mussolini should first agree to withdraw Italian troops fighting under Franco’s command. Finally, in a conversation between Grandi, the Italian Ambassador, Eden and Chamberlain, the PM actually argued Grandi’s case for him against Eden. The Foreign Secretary was eventually to resign over this issue in February 1938, to be replaced by Halifax, who had no qualms about letting Chamberlain run the Foreign Office. His view had not changed since the time of his Berlin visit, and was remarkably similar to that expressed by the Duke of Windsor; ‘you have got to live with the devils whether you like them or not’, Halifax wrote, reflecting on Eden’s ‘natural revulsion’ for dictators.

Incidents and Intervals

In many ways, 1937 represented a brief interval in the British inter-war drama before the curtain rose on the last act of the thirties. There were now two ‘open’ wars in progress, as well violent persecutions and civil strife across the continent. One a civil war in Spain, which it seemed Franco was going to win, and one in the Far East, which had partly emerged out of a decade-long civil war between nationalists and communists in China. Taking advantage, expansionist Japan had marched into Peking in July, following its annexation of Manchuria in 1931. A shooting incident near this frontier had led to the invasion, but China’s resistance under Chiang-Kai-Shek, its nationalist dictator, was greater than the Japanese had bargained for. He had built up a well-disciplined, well-equipped army, aided by his American-educated wife, Mei-Ling, who had taken over the organisation of propaganda, censored the news and negotiated foreign loans, using her connections as a member of China’s influential Soong family.  At Shanghai on 28th August, sixteen Japanese planes had bombed the area around the South Station, killing two hundred civilians. An estimated 136 million people all over the world, in newspapers and newsreels, saw the picture (above right) of an abandoned baby crying amid the ruins. It was an abiding image and a warning of what might be to come in Europe as strong as those from the bombing of Guernica, four months earlier.

In December, on Sunday 12th, there was an international incident. This time the Japanese planes swooped down to bomb the US gunboat Panay, which was steaming along the Yangtze River, carrying Chinese refugees from Nanking, China’s capital at that time. The Panay seamen fired back with antiquated Lewis guns, but the planes kept in line with the sun, blinding the gunners. In two hours, the Panay sank and fifty-four survivors, who had got to the riverbank under heavy machine-gun fire from the planes, lay hidden, many badly wounded, in the rushes until the Japanese flew away. Hiroshi Saito, Japan’s ambassador to the United States offered immediate apologies when he heard the news, claiming that the bombing was ‘completely accidental’ and calling it ‘a terrible blunder’. Soon after, Tokyo made offers of full compensation and promised to punish offenders. Apologies were accepted by the ‘pacific’ Americans.

Britain, although having important commercial interests in China, was not strong enough to take on Japan alone. The French were busy building an impregnable fortified strip stretching all the way across northern France to the Belgian border, with hundreds of miles of underground workings. It never occurred to anyone that this might not turn out to be the fortification to provide the West’s main guarantor on land. Since Chamberlain’s accession, the speed of rearmament in Britain had quickened, but by no means feverishly, and the Army was being brought up to date, to make it less class-ridden, with commissions being given to intelligent NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers). Despite the need for speedy rearmament, however, there were still 1,600,000 unemployed, and the efforts of Leslie Hore-Belisha, the new thoroughly modern War Minister, were resisted by the Generals with references to his Jewishness.

There had been a large influx of Jewish refugees from Europe, so large as to be noticeable on the streets of London, the continental cut of their clothes making them conspicuous even in crowds. The Nazis were already at war with their Jews, and particularly the intellectuals among them, so the number of these among the refugees was disproportionately large. The universities benefited from this, especially in the sciences, though the newcomers to Britain had little to do with the most shattering of all the scientific discoveries of the century: the atom had already been split at Cambridge and a handful of physicists already new that it might be possible to make an atomic bomb. The application of this knowledge in the US in the 1940s was, however, very largely the work of exiles from central and eastern Europe, fleeing Nazi tyranny. But that’s a different, well-documented story. In Britain in the late thirties the ordinary refugees were unpopular, but, after Cable Street, not to the point of open violence. The attitude of plebeian Londoners at the time seemed much the same as those of the patricians, like Duff Cooper, who once announced ‘although I loathe anti-Semitism, I do dislike Jews’. A well-known bus-conductor expressed his feelings by providing a free translation for his Jewish passengers, bawling out ‘Swiss Cottage – Kleine Schweizer-Haus’.

‘So ends a historic year’, Harold Nicholson observed in the last pages of his diary for 1937. His garden home of Sissinghurst on the Weald of Kent was ‘developing splendidly,’ and his life was ‘as gay as an Alpine meadow patinated with the stars of varied flowers’. For him, as for many in Britain, it had been a happier, more useful year. The only snag was that it was ending ‘clouded by the menace on the Continent.’ Taken together, the two years of 1936-7 contained a remarkable series of events in every aspect of British life – royal, political, economic, social, and cultural – which changed the course of the twentieth century experience of every creed and class in the country and forged a new age of modern Britain.

 A Literary Interlude: The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro was published in 1989, and became an international bestseller in English. It was adapted into an award-winning film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, by Merchant Ivory Productions. Both book and film became celebrated evocations of life between the wars in a Great English House.

In the strory, the fictional ’Darlington House’ becomes a venue for the aristocratic games of diplomacy which typified the deluded times of the setting, spawning a film and television genre from Gosford Park to Downton Abbey. A ’Conference’ on Germany is held in 1923 at the time of the Reparations Crisis and Locarno Treaty, and in 1936, an ’unofficial’ meeting takes place between Lord Halifax, shortly to become Foreign Secretary upon the resignation of Anthony Eden, and the German Ambassador to London, Herr Ribbentrop, the first of a series. Halifax arrives first, exclaiming somewhat nervously to his host, ’Really, Darlington, I don’t know what you’ve put me up to here. I know I shall be sorry.’ As Lord Darlington takes him on a tour of the House to relax his nerves, Halifax continues to express his doubts about the evening ahead. At one point, however, the butler, Stevens, hears the distinguished guest comment on the quality of the silver he is shown, which puts him into ’a quite different frame of mind altogether’. The butler looks back on this some twenty years later with a sense of pride that ’the state of the silver had made a small, but significant contribution to the easing of relations between Lord Halifax and Herr Ribbentrop that evening’. The butler goes on to defend his employer’s rlationship with the German Ambassador:

It is, of course, generally accepted today that Herr Ribbentrop was a trickster: that it was Hitler’s plan throughout those years to deceive England for as long as possible concerning his true intentions, and that Herr Ribbentrop’s sole mission in our country was to orchestrate this deception… It is, however, rather irksome to have to hear people talking today as though they were never taken in by Herr Ribbentrop – as though Lord Darlington was alone in believing Herr Ribbentrop to be an honourable gentleman and developing a working relationship with him. The truth is that Herr Ribbentrop was, throughout the thirties, a well-regarded figure, even a glamourous one, in the very best houses. Particularly around 1936 and 1937, I can recall the talk in the servants’ hall from visiting staff revolving around “the German Ambassador”, and it is clear from what is said that many of the most distinguished ladies and gentlemen in the country were quite enamoured of him.

The fictional Lord Darlington, Stevens tells us, received hospitality from the Nazis on several trips made to Germany during those years, which was nothing unusual. The guest lists for the banquets held by the Nazis at the time of the Nuremberg Rally would make interesting reading if published in The Times, he suggests. The great majority of these ladies and gentlemen were returning to England with ’nothing but praise and admiration for their hosts’. He goes on to describe as ’salacious nonsense’ any suggestion that his master was anti-Semitic, or that he was closely associated with Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, despite the ’blackshirt’ leader visiting the Hall on three occasions ’in the early days of that organisation before it had betrayed its true nature’. Lord Darlington quickly disassociated himself from Mosley’s movement when its ugliness became apparent. As the butler saw it, the BUF was ’a complete irrelevance to the heart of political life in this country’. On the other hand, his employer, as he also saw it in his grand delusion was ’the sort of gentleman who cared to occupy himself only with what was at the true centre of things, and the figures he gathered together in his efforts over those years were as far away from such unpleasant fringe groups as one could imagine.’ These were figures with ’a real influence on British life’, including politicians, diplomats, military men and clergy. They included Jews, he points out, at pains to bury an earlier incident in which he was instructed by Lord Darlington to discharge two Jewish chambermaids, despite the objections of the housekeeper. Towards the end of the book, Stevens describes, in flashback, one of these evening gatherings at Darlington Hall:

At almost precisely eight thirty, there came the sound of motor cars pulling up on the courtyard. I opened the door to a chauffeur, and past his shoulder I could see some police constables dispersing to various points of the grounds. The next moment, I was showing in two very distinguished gentlemen, who were met by his lordship in the hall and ushered quickly into the drawing room. Ten minutes or so later came the sound of another car and I opened the door to Herr Ribbontrop, the German Ambassador, by now no stranger to Darlington Hall. His lordship emerged to meet him and the two gentlemen appeared to exchange complicit glances before disappearing together into the drawing room. When a few minutes I was called to provide refreshments, the four gentlemen were discussing the relative merits of different sorts of sausage, and the atmosphere seemed on the surface at least quite convivial.

Meanwhile, Lord Darlington’s godson, Reggie Cardinal, an international affairs columnist has arrived, and begins a conversation with Stevens in the library. He has received a tip-off about the events going on in the drawing room and claims to be concerned that his lordship is getting into deep waters, and is out of his depth:

Over in that room…there is the British Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the German Ambassador. His lordship has worked wonders to bring about this meeting, and he believes – faithfully believes – he’s doing something good and honourable.

He asks Stevens if he knows why the three gentlemen have been brought together. The butler does not, nor is he curious to know. It is not his place to do so. Reggie tells him that his lordship is being made a fool of, being manoeuvred like a pawn by the Nazis, through Herr Ribbentrop, just as easily as Hitler’s pawns back in Berlin. Fuelled by copious amounts of brandy, he continues:

His lordship is a gentleman. That’s what’s at the root of it. He’s a gentleman, and he fought a war with the Germans, and it’s his instinct to offer friendship to a defeated foe. It’s his instinct. Because he’s a gentleman, a true old English gentleman. And you must have seen it… the way they’ve used it, manipulated it, turned something fine and noble into something else – something they can use for their own foul ends?…Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts…Over the last few years, his lordship has probably been the single most useful pawn Herr Hitler has had in this country for his propaganda tricks. All the better because he’s sincere and honourable and doesn’t recognise the true nature of  what he’s doing. During the last three years alone, his lordship has been crucially instrumental in establishing links between Berlin and over sixty of the most influential citizens of this country. It’s worked beautifully for them. Herr Ribbentrop has been able virtually to bypass our Foreign Office altogether. And as if their wretched Rally and their Olympic Games weren’t enough,… his lordship has been trying to persuade the Prime Minister himself to accept an invitation to visit Herr Hitler. He really believes there’s a terrible misunderstanding on the Prime Minister’s part concerning the present German régime… At this very moment, unless I am very much mistaken, …his lordship is discussing the idea of His Majesty himself visiting Herr Hitler. It’s hardly a secret that our new King has always been an enthusiast for the Nazis. Well, apparently he’s now keen to accept Herr Hitler’s invitation. At this very moment, Stevens, his lordship is doing what he can to remove Foreign Office objections to this appalling idea.

Stevens replies that he trusts his lordship’s judgement, to which Cardinal responds that no one with good judgement could persist in believing anything Herr Hitler said after the Rhineland. Although this is a fictional account, it does represent the atmosphere of aristocratic delusion which accompanied the development of the appeasement policy in the years 1936-7.

Sources: 

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

Andrew J Chandler (1989), ‘The Re-making of a Working Class’ . Cardiff (Phd Thesis)

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement. Oxford: Blackwell

Tony Curtis (ed.) (1986), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press

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

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain, 3, 1776-2000: The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide

The Labour Party (1937), South Wales: Report of the Labour Party’s Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas.

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