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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).

Posted January 12, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, asylum seekers, Austria, BBC, Berlin, Britain, British history, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Church, Churchill, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Conservative Party, David Lloyd George, democracy, Economics, emigration, Empire, Ethnicity, Europe, Factories, First World War, France, George VI, Germany, Great War, History, Italy, Jews, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Paris, Poverty, Refugees, Remembrance, Revolution, Second World War, Security, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Technology, terror, Unemployment, William Morris, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, Zionism

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

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

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

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

Képtalálat a következőre: „R. Palme Dutt”

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

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

The Drive to Municipal Socialism in Coventry:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Planning for the People:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pomp & Pageantry – A Monarch for the Masses:

001George V photographed circa 1935.

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

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

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

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

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

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Why did so many workers vote Tory in December 1935?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attlee Arrives, two Kings Depart. …

Képtalálat a következőre: „Clement Attlee, 1935”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Radical Writers on the Left:

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

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

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

Drug nor isolation will cure this cancer.

It is now or never the hour of the knife,

The break with the past, the major operation. 

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

Financier, leaving your little room

Where the money is made but not spent, …

The game is up for you and the others,

Who, thinking, pace in slippers on the lawns

Of College Quad or Cathedral Close, …

Seekers after happiness, all who follow

The convulsions of your simple wish,

It is later than you think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North of Manchester:

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

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

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

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

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

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

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

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

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

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

Fighting back; Marching on …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From the Threat of Revolution to the Promise of Reform:

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; Part Two, 1921-29.   Leave a comment

The Decline of the Liberals & Break-up of the Coalition:

002By the end of 1922, the Liberal Party had been relegated to the position of a minor party. Despite the promises of David Lloyd George (right) to provide ‘homes fit for heroes to live in’, it had been slow to develop the effective policies needed for dealing with the economic and social problems created by the First World War; promises based on moralistic liberal ideals were not enough. But there were many among their Coalition partners, the Conservatives, who were more concerned to keep the threat from Labour at bay than to jettison Lloyd George as their popular and charismatic Prime Minister.

The policies of the Coalition government, the alleged sale of honours by Lloyd George, the Irish treaties of 1920 and 1921, the failures of the international conferences at Cannes and Genoa, and the Chanak incident of 1922 exacerbated the withdrawal of backbench Conservative support for the Coalition Government. That dissatisfaction came to a head for the Tories in October 1922 when Austen Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin argued the cases for and against continuing the Coalition. Baldwin’s victory and the fall of the Coalition government led to Lloyd George and his Liberals being without positive programmes. The disastrous 1922 election was followed by a further fusion between the two wings of the Liberal Party and they revived in the 1923 General Election. But this was a short-lived triumph and in the 1924 election, the Liberals slumped to forty MPs, with less than eighteen per cent of the total vote. After this, the Liberals were a spent force in British politics.

At the famous meeting of ‘back-bench’ Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922, Chamberlain debated with Stanley Baldwin the future direction of their party in the following terms:

The real issue is not between Liberals and Conservatives. It is not between the old Liberal policy and the old Conservative policy. It is between those who stand for individual freedom and those who are for the socialisation of the State; those who stand for free industry and those who stand for nationalisation, with all its controls and inefficiencies. 

Stanley Baldwin, acknowledging that Lloyd George was a dynamic force, a remarkable personality, but one which had already smashed the PM’s own party to pieces, and would go on to do the same to the Tory Party if they let it. Baldwin’s victory over Chamberlain and the fall of the Coalition left Lloyd George and his Liberals without partners and without positive programmes of their own. Lloyd George had become an electoral liability both the Conservatives and, as it soon turned out, even the Liberals could do without.

In the British political and electoral system, there was no place for two parties of the Right or two parties of the Left. This was the Liberal dilemma. By 1924, the Liberal-Conservative see-saw had been replaced by a fast-spinning roundabout of alternate governments of the Labour and Conservative parties on which there was little opportunity for the Liberals to jump on board. To change the metaphor completely, they now found themselves caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. Where, then, did the Liberal support go? Liberal ideals were no longer as relevant to the twentieth century as they had been in Victorian and Edwardian times. In fact, both the Labour and Conservative parties benefited from the Liberal decline. Given that Conservative-led governments dominated Britain for all but three years of the 1918-39 period, the Liberal decline perhaps helped the Right rather than the Left. Besides which, the logic of the ‘adversarial’ British political system favoured a dominant two-party system rather than a multi-party governmental structure. Yet even the emergence of a working-class party with an overtly Socialist platform could not alter the fundamentals of a parliamentary politics based on the twin pillars of finding consensus and supporting capitalism. Despite his party’s commitment to Socialism, Ramsay MacDonald accepted the logic of this situation.

History has not been kind to the memories of either Stanley Baldwin or Ramsay MacDonald who dominated politics between 1922 and 1937. The first is still seen as the Prime Minister who thwarted both the General Strike and the rule of Edward VIII. The latter is seen, especially in his own party, as the great betrayer who chose to form a National Government in 1931, resulting in the split in that party. Here, I am concerned with the causes of that split and the motives for MacDonald’s actions. A further article will concern itself with the consequences of those actions and the split resulting in Labour’s biggest electoral disaster to date in 1935. In his book, published in 1968, The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914-1935, T. Wilson has pointed out the need for historians to take a long view of Liberal decline, going back to the 1880s and as far forward as 1945. In particular, he points to the fact that, in the three decades following 1914, the Conservatives held office almost continuously, with only two minor interruptions by Labour minority governments. In part, he suggested, this was the consequence in the overall decline of ‘the left’ in general, by which he seems to have meant the ‘left-liberals’ rather than simply the Socialists:

The left parties suffered from the loss of buoyancy and self-confidence which followed from Britain’s decline as a world power and the experiences of the First World War, as well as from the twin phenomena of economic growth and economic crisis which ran parallel after 1914. The resultant urge to play safe proved largely to the advantage of the Conservatives. So did the decline in ‘idealism’. … Before 1914 the Liberal and Labour parties so managed their electoral affairs that between them they derived the maximum advantage from votes cast against the Conservatives. After 1914 this became impossible. During the First World War Labour became convinced – and the decrepit state of Liberalism even by 1918 deemed to justify this conviction – that the Liberal Party would soon be extinguished altogether and that Labour would appropriate its entire following. … By concentrating on destroying the Liberals, Labour was ensuring its own victory “in the long run”, even though in the short run the Conservatives benefited. … 

Certainly, from 1918 to 1939 British politics was dominated by the Conservative Party. Either as a dominant member of a Coalition or National government or as a majority government, the Conservative Party retained hegemony over the system.

Structural Decline – The State of the ‘Staple’ Industries:

The problems which British politicians faced in the inter-war period were primarily of an economic nature. British industry was structurally weak and uncompetitive. It was therefore not surprising that two areas were of particular concern to politicians: first, the state of the staple industry, especially coal with its immense workforce; and secondly, the question of unemployment benefits and allowances.

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Above: A boy working underground with his pity pony. In 1921, the school-leaving age was fourteen, though many left in the spring before their fourteenth birthday and boys were legally allowed to work underground in mines at this age, entering the most dangerous industrial occupation in the country.

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Pictures can create an impression of mining life but they cannot convey the horrific danger of the work, and even the statistics elude the experience. Every five hours a miner was killed and every ten minutes five more were maimed. Every working day, 850 suffered some kind of serious injury. In the three years, 1922-24, nearly six hundred thousand were injured badly enough to be off work for seven days or more. No records were kept of those of work for fewer than seven days. Combined with work that was physically destructive over a longer period, producing diseases such as pneumoconiosis and silicosis were working conditions that are virtually indescribable and company-owned housing that was some of the worst in Britain. The reward for the daily risk to health and life varied from eight to ten shillings and ninepence a day according to the ‘district’ from eight shillings and fivepence a day in South Staffordshire to ten shillings and ninepence in South Wales. That was the wage the owners insisted on cutting and the toil they insisted on lengthening. The mine-owners were joined together in a powerful employers’ organisation known as the Mining Association. They represented owners like Lord Londonderry, the Duke of Northumberland and Lord Gainford, men whose interests extended to banking and press proprietorship. They also spoke for big landowners like the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Bate who drew royalties on every shovelful of coal hacked from beneath their lands, amounting to more than a hundred thousand pounds a year.

In 1915, the MFGB had formed a ‘Triple Industrial Alliance’ with the National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport Workers’ Federation. Its joint executive could order combined action to defend any of the three unions involved in a dispute. However, the Alliance ended on 15 April 1921 which became known as ‘Black Friday’. The NUR, the Transport Workers’ Federation, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman called off their strike, leaving the Miners to fight on. All along the Miners had said they were prepared to make a temporary arrangement about wages, provided that the principle of a National Wages Board was conceded. On the eve of ‘Black Friday’, the Miners’ leader, Frank Hodges suggested that they would be prepared to accept a temporary wage arrangement, provided it did not prejudice the ultimate decision about the NWB, thus postponing the question of the Board until after the negotiations. It was this adjustment that stopped the strike and ended the Alliance. The Daily Herald, very much the ‘mouthpiece’ for Labour, reported the following morning:

Yesterday was the heaviest defeat that has befallen the Labour Movement within the memory of man.

It is no use trying to minimise it. It is no use trying to pretend it is other than it is.We on this paper have said throughout that if the organised workers would stand together they would win. They have not stood together, and they have been broken. It is no use for anyone to criticise anyone else or to pretend that he himself would have done better than those have done who have borne the heaviest responsibility. …

The owners and the Government have delivered a smashing frontal attack upon the workers’ standard of life. They have resolved that the workers shall starve, and the workers have not been sufficiently united to stand up to that attack.

The Triple Alliance, the Trades Union Congress, the General Staff, have all failed to function. We must start afresh  and get a machine that will function.

… We may be beaten temporarily; it will be our own fault if we are not very soon victorious. Sectionalism is the waekness of the movement. It must be given up. Everybody must come back to fight undiscouraged, unhumiliated, more determined than ever for self-sacrifice, for hard-work, and for solidarity. … We must concentrate on the Cause.

The thing we are fighting for is much too big to be beaten by Mr Lloyd George or by anything except betrayal in our own ranks and in our own hearts. 

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Already by 1922, forty-three per cent of Jarrow’s employable persons were out of work, whilst forty-seven per cent in Brynmawr and sixty per cent in Hartlepool were in the same condition. By contrast with the unforgiving bitterness of class war across mainland Europe, however, social divisions in Britain were mitigated by four main ‘cultural’ factors; a common ‘heritage’; reverence for the monarchy; a common religion, albeit divided between Anglican, Nonconformist and Catholic denominations; an instinctive enjoyment of sport and a shared sense of humour. All four of these factors were evident in the class-based conflicts of 1919-26. In March 1922, the Daily News reported that an ex-soldier of the Royal Field Artillery was living with his wife and four children in London under a patchwork shack of tarpaulins, old army groundsheets and bits of tin and canvas. He told the reporter:

If they’d told in France that I should come back to this I wouldn’t have believed it. Sometimes I wished to God the Germans had knocked me out.

In the House of Commons in June 1923, the ILP MP James (‘Jimmy’) Maxwell used his ‘privileges’ to accuse the Baldwin government and industrialists of ‘murder’:

In the interests of economy they condemned hundreds of children to death, and I call it murder … It is a fearful thing for any man to have on his soul – a cold, callous, deliberate crime in order to save money. We are prepared to destroy children in the great interest of dividends. We put children out in the front of the firing line.

Baldwin & MacDonald arrive ‘centre-stage’:

In attempting to remedy the existing state of affairs, Baldwin set himself a dual-task. In the first place, he had to lead the Conservatives to some imaginative understanding of the situation which had called a Labour Party into being and to convince them that their survival depended on finding a better practical solution to the problems than Labour’s. Secondly, he sought to convince potential Labour voters that not all Conservatives were blood-sucking capitalists, that humanity and idealism were not the exclusive prerogatives of left-wing thinkers. For the cartoonists and the and the public at large, there was Baldwin’s carefully cultivated image of the bowler hat and the pipe, Sunday walks in the Worcestershire countryside which ended in the contemplation of his pigs; ‘Squire Baldwin’ appeared, according to William McElwee, to be simple, straightforward, homely and above all trustworthy. MacDonald had the same task in reverse. He had to convince the nation that Labour was a responsible party, perfectly competent to take over the reins of government, and resolved to achieve in its programme of reforms within the framework of the constitution. He had also to persuade Labour itself that it was in and through Parliament that social progress could best be achieved; that the existing constitutional structure was not designed to shore up capitalism and preserve personal privilege, but was available for any party to take hold of and will the means according to its declared ends, provided it could ensure a democratically elected majority.

Both Baldwin and MacDonald were enigmatic figures to contemporaries and still are today. On Baldwin, one contemporary commented in 1926 that …

If on the memorable afternoon of August 3, 1914, anyone, looking down on the crowded benches of the House of Commons, had sought to pick out the man who would be at the helm when the storm that was about to engulf Europe was over he would not have given a thought to the member for Bewdley. … He passed for a typical backbencher, who voted as he was expected to vote and went home to dinner. A plain, undemonstrative Englishman, prosperous and unambitious, with a pleasant, humorous face, bright and rather bubolic colouring, walking with a quick, long stride that suggested one accustomed to tramping much over ploughed fields with a gun under his arm, and smoking a pipe with unremitting enjoyment. …

McElwee considers their personality traits in his book, Britain’s Locust Years, in which he tries to indicate the immensity of the problem facing these problems, characterising it as years of plenty followed by years of shortage. He raises the important question of judgement and argues that the historian must reach a ‘truer perspective’ in appreciating that the problems facing the country in 1925 were very different from those which had to be confronted in 1935 and 1945. Yet the picture still emerges in the national mind of…

Baldwin personified by his pipe and pigs and MacDonald by his vanity, ambition and betrayal.

This popular picture, he suggests, fails to take into account the contribution each made to his own party. Both men could claim that during their periods in office they were compelled to act in ‘the national interest’. The events of 1926, in the case of Baldwin, and 1931, in the case of MacDonald, and their actions in them, could both be justified on these grounds alongside the judgements they made. Historians’ interpretations of these judgements must depend first on the available evidence and secondly on their analysis and treatment of this evidence-based on non-partisan criteria. Only then can they adduce true motives. As for the Liberals, the disastrous 1922 election was followed by a re-fusion between the two wings of the Liberal Party and they revived their fortunes somewhat in the 1923 General Election. But this was a short-lived recovery and in the 1924 election, they slumped to forty MPs, with only 17.6 per cent of the total vote. Their decline after 1924 can be seen in the electoral statistics below:

Table I: General Election Results, 1918-1929.

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Table II: Liberals and the General Elections, 1918-1929.

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Writing in Certain People of Importance in 1926, A. G. Gardiner suggested that the emergence of Mr Baldwin would furnish the historian with an attractive theme. … The ‘Diehards’, following the fateful Carlton Club Meeting, at which he effectively broke up the Coalition, felt that at last, they had found a hero. But in November 1923 Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government fell. In 1923, in the middle of the election campaign, a Cabinet colleague was asked to explain the true inwardness of his leader’s sudden and inexplicable plunge into Protection, he replied: Baldwin turned the tap on and then found that he could not turn it off. Gardiner commented by extending this metaphor:

He is always turning taps on and then found that he does not know how to stop them. And when the bath overflows outside, lights his pipe, and rejoices that he has such a fine head of water on his premises. …

The Tory’s revival of ‘Protectionism’ was an attempt to stem the tide of support for Labour by protecting the new engineering jobs which were growing rapidly in the new industrial areas of the Midlands, which were meeting the demand for new electrical goods in the home market. My own grandparents, a miner and silk-weaver campaigning for Labour from the front room of their new semi-detached house in Coventry, which served as the Party’s constituency office, used to sing the following campaign song decades later, to the tune of ‘Men of Harlech’:

Voters all of Aberavon!

Wisdom show in this election,

Don’t be misled by Protection,

Ramsay is yer man.

Ramsay, Ramsay! Shout it!

Don’t be shy about it!

On then comrades, on to glory!

It shall be told in song and story,

How we beat both Lib and Tory!

Ramsay is yer man!

In the following month’s general election (the full results of which are shown in the statistics in Table I above), the Labour Party won 191 seats to the Conservatives’ 258 and the Liberals’ 158; Margaret Bondfield was elected in Northampton with a majority of 4,306 over her Conservative opponent. She had been elected to the TUC Council in 1918 and became its chairman in 1923, shortly before she was first elected to parliament.  In an outburst of local celebration her supporters, whom she described as “nearly crazy with joy”, paraded her around the town in a charabanc. She was one of the first three women—Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson (pictured in the group photo below) were the others—to be elected as Labour MPs. With no party in possession of a parliamentary majority, the make-up of the next government was in doubt for some weeks until Parliament returned after the Christmas ‘recess’.

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In the short-lived minority Labour government of 1924, Margaret Bondfield, seen above as Chairman of the TUC, served as parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Labour. 

The First Labour Government:

The Liberal Party’s decision not to enter a coalition with the Conservatives, and Baldwin’s unwillingness to govern without a majority, led to Ramsay MacDonald’s first minority Labour government which took office in January 1924.

The Women MPs elected to Parliament in 1923 (three were Labour)

Working-class expectations of the First Labour government were soaring high, despite its ‘absolute’ minority status and the lack of experience of its cabinet ministers. Beatrice Webb wrote in her diaries (1924-32) for 8th January:

I had hoped to have the time and the brains to give some account of the birth of the Labour Cabinet. There was a pre-natal scene – the Embryo Cabinet – in JRM’s room on Monday afternoon immediately after the defeat of the Government when the whole of the prospective Ministers were summoned to meet the future PM (who) … did not arrive until half an hour after the time – so they all chatted and introduced themselves to each other. … On Tuesday (in the first week of January), JRM submitted to the King the twenty members of the Cabinet and there was a formal meeting at 10 Downing Street that afternoon of the Ministers designate. Haldane gave useful advice about procedure: Wheatley and Tom Shaw orated somewhat, but for the most part the members were silent, and what remarks were made were businesslike. The consultation concerned the PM’s statement to Parliament. …

On Wednesday the twenty Ministers designate, in their best suits … went to Buckingham Palace to be sworn in; having been previously drilled by Hankey. Four of them came back to our weekly MP’s lunch to to meet the Swedish Minister – a great pal of ours. Uncle Arthur (Henderson) was bursting with childish joy over his H. O. seals in the red leather box which he handed round the company; Sidney was chuckling over a hitch in the solemn ceremony in which he had been right and Hankey wrong; they were all laughing over Wheatley – the revolutionary – going down on both knees and actually kissing the King’s hand; and C. P. Trevelyan was remarking that the King seemed quite incapable of saying two words to his new ministers: ‘he went through the ceremony like an automation!’

J. R. Clynes, the ex-mill-hand, Minister in the Labour Government, recalled their sense of being ‘out of place’ at the Palace:

As we stood waiting for His Majesty, amid the gold and crimson of the Palace, I could not help marvelling at the strange turn of Fortune’s wheel, which had brought MacDonald, the starveling clerk, Thomas the engine-driver, Henderson the foundry labourer and Clynes, the mill-hand to the pinnacle.

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The pictures and captions above and elsewhere in this article are taken from ‘These Tremendous Years, 1918-38’, published c.1939, a ‘picture-post’ -style publication. What is interesting about this report is its references to the King’s attitude, which contrasts with that reported by Beatrice Webb, and to the Labour Ministers as ‘the Socialists’.

According to Lansbury’s biographer, Margaret Bondfield turned down the offer of a cabinet post; instead, she became parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour, Tom Shaw. This appointment meant that she had to give up the TUC Council chair; her decision to do so, immediately after becoming the first woman to achieve this honour, generated some criticism from other trade unionists. She later described her first months in government as “a strange adventure”. The difficulties of the economic situation would have created problems for the most experienced of governments, and the fledgeling Labour administration was quickly in difficulties. Bondfield spent much of her time abroad; in the autumn she travelled to Canada as the head of a delegation examining the problems of British immigrants, especially as related to the welfare of young children. When she returned to Britain in early October 1924, she found her government already in its final throes. On 8 October MacDonald resigned after losing a confidence vote in the House of Commons. Labour’s chances of victory in the ensuing general election were fatally compromised by the controversy surrounding the so-called Zinoviev letter, a missive purportedly sent by Grigory Zinoviev, president of the Communist International, which called on Britain’s Socialists to prepare for violent revolution:

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE, THIRD COMMUNIST

INTERNATIONAL PRESIDIUM.

MOSCOW

September 15th 1924

To the Central Committee, British Communist Party.

DEAR COMRADES,

The time is approaching for the Parliament of England to consider the Treaty concluded between the Governments of Great Britain and the SSSR for the purpose of ratification. The fierce campaign raised by the British bourgeoisie around the question shows that the majority of the same … (is) against the Treaty. 

It is indispensible to stir up the masses of the British proletariat, to bring into movement the army of unemployed proletarians. … It is imperative that the Labour Party sympathising with the Treaty should bring increased pressure to bear upon the Government and Parliament any circles in favour of ratification …

… A settlement of relations between the two countries will assist in the revolutionising of the international and British Proletariat not less than a successful rising in any of the working districts of England, as the establishment of close contact between the British and Russian proletariat, … will make it possible for us to extend and develop the propaganda and ideals of Leninism in England and the Colonies. …

From your last report it is evident that agitation propaganda in the Army is weak, in the Navy a very little better … it would be desirable to have cells in all the units of troops, particularly among those those quartered in the large centres of the Country, and also among factories working on munitions and at military store depots. …

With Communist greetings,

ZINOVIEV

President of the Presidium of the I.K.K.I.

McMANUS

Member of the Presidium

KUUSINEN

Secretary

Pictured right: The Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, depicted in a hostile Punch cartoon. The luggage label, marked “Petrograd”, links him to Russia and communism.

The letter, published four days before polling day, generated a “Red Scare” that led to a significant swing of voters to the right, ensuring a massive Tory victory (Table I).

Margaret Bondfield lost her seat in Northampton by 971 votes. The scare demonstrated the vulnerability of the Labour Party to accusations of Communist influence and infiltration.

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The Conservatives & the Coal Crisis – Class War?

Baldwin (pictured on the left above) and his Tories were duly returned to power, including Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was Churchill’s decision in 1925 to return Britain to the Gold Standard, abandoned in 1914, together with his hard-line anti-unionism displayed during the General Strike, for which his second period in office is best remembered. The decision was a monetary disaster that hit the lowest paid hardest since it devalued wages dramatically. Despite being flatly warned by the Cambridge economist Hubert Henderson that a return to gold… cannot be achieved without terrible risk of renewed trade depression and serious aggravation and of unemployment, it was actually Baldwin who told Churchill that it was the Government’s decision to do so. Churchill decided to go along with Baldwin and the Bank of England, which restored its authority over the treasury by the change. The effect of the return to the Gold Standard in 1926, as predicted by Keynes and other economists, was to make the goods and services of the most labour-intensive industries even less competitive in export markets. Prices and the numbers out of work shot up, and wages fell. In the worst-affected industries, like coal-mining and shipbuilding, unemployment was already approaching thirty per cent. In some places in the North, it reached nearly half the insured workforce. In the picture on the right above, miners are anxiously reading the news about the ‘Coal Crisis’.

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Beatrice Webb first met the ‘Billy Sunday’ of the Labour Movement, as Cook was nicknamed, with George Lansbury. He was the son of a soldier, born and brought up in the barracks, then a farm-boy in Somerset when he migrated, like many others, to the booming South Wales coalfield before the First World War, a fact which was continually referred to by the Welsh-speaking Liberal élite in the Social Service movement. He had, however, passed through a fervent religious stage at the time of the great Welsh Revival, which he came out of by coming under the influence of the ‘Marxist’ Central Labour College and Noah Ablett, whom he helped to write The Miners’ Next Step, a Syndicalist programme for workers’ control of the coal industry, published in 1912. Graduating into Trade Union politics as a conscientious objector and avowed admirer of Lenin’s, he retained the look of the West country agricultural labour, with china-blue eyes and lanky yellow hair, rather than that of the ‘old Welsh collier’ so admired by the Liberals. For Webb, however, Cook was altogether a man you watch with a certain curiosity, though to her husband, Sidney, who was on the Labour Party Executive, he was rude and unpleasing in manner. However, Beatrice also judged that…

It is clear that he has no intellect and not much intelligence … an inspired idiot, drunk with his own words, dominated by his own slogans. I doubt whether he knows what he is going to say or what he has just said. It is tragic to think that this inspired idiot, coupled with poor old Herbert Smith, with his senile obstinacy, are the dominating figures in so great and powerful an organisation as the Miners’ Federation.

Walter Citrine, the TUC General Secretary in 1926, had a similarly mixed view of Cook’s speaking abilities:

In speaking, whether in private or public, he never seemed to finish his sentences. His brain raced ahead of his words. He would start out to demonstrate something or other in a logical way … but almost immediately some thought came into his mind and he completely forgot all about (his main theme) and never returned to it. He was extremely emotional and even in private conversation I have seen tears in his eyes.

The mine owners’ response to the crisis, made worse by the fact that the German minefields were back in production, was to demand wage cuts and extensions to working hours. Worried about the real possibility of a general strike, based on the Triple Alliance between the miners, dockers and railwaymen, Baldwin bribed the owners with government subsidies to postpone action until a royal commission could report on the overall problems of the industry. However, when the Samuel Commission reported in March 1926, its first of seven recommendations was a cut in wages. The response of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, voiced by their militant national secretary, A. J. Cook, was to set out the miner’s case in emotive terms:

Our case is simple. We ask for safety and economic security. Today up and down the coalfields the miner and his family are faced with sheer starvation. He is desperate. He will not, he cannot stand present conditions much longer. He would be a traitor to his wife and children if he did. Until he is given safety in mines, adequate compensation, hours of labour that do not make him a mere coal-getting medium, and decent living conditions, there can be no peace in the British coalfields.

Lord Birkenhead said that he thought the miners’ leaders the stupidest men he had ever met until he met the mine owners. They proved him right by locking the miners out of the pits at midnight on 30 April. The Mining Association, strongly supported by Baldwin and Churchill, stated that the mines would be closed to all those who did not accept the new conditions from 2 May 1926. The message from the owners was clear; they refused to meet with the miners’ representatives and declared that they would never again submit to national agreements but would insist on district agreements to break the power and unity of the MFGB and force down the living standards of the miners to an even lower level. The smallest reduction would be imposed on mine labourers in Scotland, eightpence farthing a day, the largest on hewers in Durham, three shillings and eightpence a day. Cook responded by declaring:

We are going to be slaves no longer and our men will starve before they accept a reduction in wages.

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Above: Women and children queue outside the soup kitchen in Rotherham, Yorkshire, during the miners’ lock-out in 1926.

The Nine Days of the General Strike:

The following day, Saturday 1 May, the TUC special Conference of Executive Committees met in London and voted to call a General Strike in support of the miners by 3,653,527 votes to just under fifty thousand. As early as 26 February, the TUC had reiterated support for the miners, declaring there was to be no reduction in wages, no increase in working hours, and no interference with the principle of national agreements. In the face of the impending lockout, the special Conference had begun meeting at Farringdon Street on 29 April and continued in session until 1 May. At this conference, in a committed and passionate speech, Bevin said of the decision to strike in support of the miners …

… if every penny goes, if every asset goes, history will ultimately write up that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do it rather than see the miners driven down like slaves. 

The TUC Memorandum called for the following trades to cease work as an when required by the General Council:

Transport, … Printing Trades including the Press, … Productive Industries, Iron and Steel, Metal, and Heavy Chemical, … Building Trade, … Electricity and Gas,  … Sanitary Services, … but … With regard to hospitals, clinics, convalescent homes, sanatoria, infant welfare centres, maternity homes, nursing homes, schools … affiliated Unions (were) to take every opportunity to ensure that food, milk, medical and surgical supplies shall be efficiently provided. Also, there was to be no interference in regard to … the distribution of milk and food to the whole of the population.

Telegrams were sent out on 3 May and on the 4th more than three million workers came out on strike. The General Council issued a further statement that evening, again placing the responsibility for the ‘national crisis’ on the shoulders of the Government. It went on to try to reassure the general population of its good intentions in calling the strike:

With the people the trade unions have no quarrel. On the contrary, the unions are fighting to maintain the standard of life of the great mass of people. 

The trade unions have not entered upon this struggle without counting the cost. They are assured that the trade unionists of the country, realising the justice of the cause they are called upon to support, will stand loyally by their elected leaders until the victory and an honourable peace has been won.

The need now is for loyalty, steadfastness and unity.

The General Council of the Trade Union Congress appeals to the workers to follow the instructions that have been issued by their union leaders.

Let none be disturbed by rumours or driven by panic to betray the cause.

Violence and disorder must be everywhere avoided no matter what the cause.

Stand firm and we shall win.

On the 4th, The Daily Herald published the following editorial backing the Strike:

The miners are locked out to enforce reductions of wages and an increase in hours. The Government stands behind the mineowners. It has rebuffed the Trade Union Movement’s every effort to pave the way to an honourable peace.

The renewed conversations begun on Saturday were ended abruptly in the early hours of yesterday morning, with an ultimatum from the Cabinet. Despite this, the whole Labour Movement, including the miners’ leaders, continued its efforts yesterday.

But unless a last minute change of front by the Government takes place during the night the country will today be forced, owing to the action of the Government, into an industrial struggle bigger than this country has yet seen.

In the Commons Mr Baldwin showed no sign of any receding from his attitude that negotiations could not be entered into if the General Strike order stood and unless reductions were accepted before negotiations opened.

In reply Mr J. H. Thomas declared that the responsibility for the deadlock lay with the Government and the owners, and that the Labour Movement was bound in honour to support the miners in the attacks on their standard of life.

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In the following eight days, it was left to local trades unionists to form Councils of Action to control the movement of goods, disseminate information to counter government propaganda, to arrange strike payments and to organise demonstrations and activities in support of the strike. The scene in the photo above gives a strong impression of the life of a northern mining community during the strike, in which a local agitator harangues his audience, men and children in clogs, with flat caps and pigeon baskets. Most of the photographs of 1926 taken by trades unionists and Labour activists do not show the strike itself but reveal aspects of the long lone fight of the miners to survive the lock-out. We know from the written and oral sources that the nine days in May were sunny and warm across much of the country, perfect for outside communal activities. The Cardiff Strike Committee issued the following advice:

Keep smiling! Refuse to be provoked. Get into your garden. Look after the wife and kiddies. If you have not got a garden, get into the country, the parks and the playgrounds.

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At Methil, in Scotland, the trades unionists reacted to the call in a highly organised manner, the Trades and Labour Council forming itself into a Council of Action with sub-committees for food and transport, information and propaganda and mobilising three cars, one hundred motorcycles and countless bicycles for its courier service. Speakers were sent out in threes, a miner, a railwayman and a docker to emphasise the spirit of unity with the miners. Later in the strike, the Council of Action added an entertainments committee and, more seriously, a Workers’ Defence Corps after some savage baton charges by the police upon the pickets. The snapshots are from Methil, one showing miners and their families waiting to hear speeches from local leaders, one man holding a bugle used to summon people from their homes. The lower photo shows three pickets arrested during disturbances at Muiredge. Deploying a sense of humour reminiscent of that of the class-conscious ‘Tommies’ in the trenches, the Kensington strike bulletin greeted Sir John Simon’s pronouncement on the legality of the Strike with the following sardonic comment:

Sir John Simon says the General Strike is illegal under an Act passed by William the Conqueror  in 1066. All strikers are liable to be interned in Wormwood Scrubs. The three million strikers are advised to keep in hiding, preferably in the park behind Bangor Street, where they will not be discovered.

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Throughout the country, those called upon by the TUC to stop work did so with enthusiasm and solidarity. The photograph of trades unionists marching through ‘well-heeled’ Leamington Spa (above) is typical of thousands of similar popular demonstrations of solidarity that took place throughout Britain. Though the establishment in general and Winston Churchill, in particular, feared revolution, the march of building workers and railwaymen has the air of a nineteenth-century trade union procession, like those led by Joseph Arch in the surrounding Warwickshire countryside, the carpenters and joiners parading examples of their work, window sashes and door frames, through the streets on the back of a horse-drawn wagon. The figure in the foreground, marked with an x, is E Horley, a member of the Bricklayers’ Union. It was a scene repeated in a thousand towns as meetings were held, trade union news sheets were printed daily, and Councils of Action controlled the movement of supplies, organised pickets (Bolton organised 2,280 pickets in two days) and provided entertainment and speakers.

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Government plans to cope with the strike of the ‘Triple Alliance’ or for a general strike had originated in 1919. The TUC seemed unaware of the government plans to distribute supplies by road though Lloyd George claimed that Ramsay MacDonald was aware of it and even prepared to make use of it during 1924. The organisation had evolved steadily during a period of continued industrial arrest and was accelerated after ‘Red Friday’ in 1925 so that the government was not only ready to take on the miners but was looking forward to dealing the unions a massive blow. Private support for a strikebreaking force came from a body calling itself the ‘Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies’ (OMS) under ‘top brass’ military leadership. The professional classes hastened to enrol, especially those with military commissions and experience, alongside industrialists.

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Whilst the popular image of the Strike is one of the ‘Oxbridge’ undergraduates driving buses, the reality was that most of the strike-breakers were as working-class as the strikers. Churchill, however, mobilised resources as if he were fighting a war. Troops delivered food supplies; he set up the British Gazette and ran it as a government propaganda sheet (above), with more soldiers guarding the printing presses.

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The armed forces were strategically stationed, armoured cars and tanks brought out for guard and escort duties. The Riot Act was read to the troops and even the artillerymen were given bayonet drill. Both food deliveries and Gazette deliveries were sometimes accompanied by tanks. Attempts to press Lord Reith’s BBC, which had begun broadcasting in 1922, to put out government bulletins, were defiantly resisted, a turning point in the fight for the corporation’s political independence.

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The photograph above shows troops carrying an ammunition box into their temporary quarters at the Tower of London, where the contents of London’s gunshops were also stored during the strike.

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Since 1925, the number of special constables had been increased from 98,000 to 226,000 and a special reserve was also created. This numbered fifty thousand during the strike by ‘reliable’ volunteers from the universities, the professions and by retired army officers who happily donned the blue and white armband over cricket sweaters and drew their helmets from the government stores. The photo above shows a group of swaggering polo-playing ex-officers wielding yard-long clubs and flourishing whips replete with jodhpurs. They cantered around Hyde Park in military formation. The class divisions were clearly drawn and while for the most part, the volunteers saw it as answering a patriotic call, some talked of ‘teaching the blighters a lesson’.

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In a strike remarkable for a lack of violence, given all the ingredients for near civil war, it was the specials who were involved in some of the most brutal incidents during the nine days. The most dramatic incident was the semi-accidental derailment of The Flying Scotsman by a group of miners from Cramlington Lodge, but their four-hundred-yard warning enabled the engine to slow to twenty m.p.h. before it toppled off the section where they had removed a rail. Consequently, no-one was hurt, but a police investigation led to one of the miners turning King’s Evidence and his nine ‘comrades’ were arrested and given sentences of four, six and eight year’s penal servitude. On the other side, mounted specials supported the Black and Tans in an unprovoked attack on a mixed crowd in Lewes Road, Brighton, while at Bridgeton attacks by the specials on unoffending citizens led to an official protest by the Glasgow Town Council Labour Group. It was also the specials who took part in raids on trade union offices and arrested workers for selling strike bulletins; for the miners, it was a fight for survival, for the university students and their middle-aged fathers in search of glory, it was all ‘jolly good fun’.

At the height of the strike, with messages of support pouring into the TUC, the number of strikers growing and spirits high, the strike was suddenly brought to an end on 12 May. At first, trade union officials announced it as a victory, for example at a mass meeting at Gravesend. With the strike solid and growing daily and trades unions in control of many areas, its ending was similarly interpreted in hundreds of cities, towns and villages throughout the country. As the truth slowly became known, the news was received with shock and disbelief. The strike had lasted just nine days before it was called off unconditionally by the TUC General Council. The coalowners and the Conservatives had no doubt at all that it was an unconditional surrender. Certainly, J. H. Thomas’ announcement of the end of the strike seemed to one group of railwaymen listening to the ‘wireless’ to confirm this:

We heard Jimmy Thomas almost crying as he announced the terms of what we thought were surrender, and we went back with our tails between our legs to see what the bosses were going to do with us.

The next day The Daily Mail headline was ‘surrender of the revolutionaries’ and Churchill’s British Gazette led with ‘Surrender received by Premier’. The TUC had agreed to the compromise put forward by the Samuel Commission, but the embittered MFGB leadership did not and the lock-out continued for seven months (see the photo below, titled End of the Strike). The miners refused to accept the cut in wages and increase in hours demanded by the owners and the government.

The reasoning behind this decision has been argued over ever since, but, following the backlash over the ‘Zinoviev Letter’, the General Strike of 1926 demonstrated the unwillingness of even radical trade unionists to push the system too far and be seen to be acting coercively and unconstitutionally. Additionally, when the showdown came in 1926 it was not really, as The Times had dramatised it in September 1919, a fight to the finish, because industrial union power was already shifting to other sections of the economy.

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From Retribution & Recrimination to ‘Recovery’ & Reconciliation, 1926-29:

After the Strike was called off, the bitter polarisation of the classes remained. There are few photographs which record the misery of victimisation that followed the ending of the strike. Courageous men in lonely country districts who had struck in twos and threes were easy victims for retribution. The railway companies were the first to act we, turning away railwaymen when they reported for work. Men with decades of loyal service were demoted, moved to posts far from home, or simply not re-engaged. The railwayman quoted above was one of these victims:

I was told within a couple of days that I had been dismissed the service – a very unusual thing, and I think that very few station masters  in the Kingdom can say that they had had the sack, but that was the case with me, and I know at least two more who had the same experience. 

Of those who formed the TUC deputation to Baldwin, only Ernest Bevin sought an assurance against retribution. None was given, so speaking at the end of the strike, he prophesied that thousands would be victimised as a result of this day’s work. The NUR was forced to sign a humiliating document that included the words the trade unions admit that in calling the strike they committed a wrongful act. The coalowners’ final reckoning came with the slow return to work at the end of the year. They prepared blacklists, excluding ‘militants’ from their pits, and gave them to the police at the pitheads. Some men never returned to work until 1939, following Britain’s declaration of war. Vengeful employers felt justified in these actions by the blessings they had received from the pulpits of Christian leaders, including Cardinal Bourne, the Roman Catholic Primate and Archbishop of Westminster, preaching in Westminster Cathedral on 9th May:

There is no moral justification  for a General Strike of this character. It is therefore a sin against the obedience which we owe to God. … All are bound to uphold and assist the Government, which is the lawfully-constituted authority of the country and represents therefore, in its own appointed sphere, the authority of God himself.

In a period when these issues of morality, legitimacy, and constitutionalism carried great weight, and church-going was still significant among all classes, it is not wholly surprising that the TUC leaders were wary of over-reaching their power in mid-twenties’ Britain. We also need to recall that the Labour Party had a very strong tradition of pacifism, and although outbreaks of violence against people or property were rare events during the coal stoppage and the General Strike, at the time the strike was called off there would have been natural concerns among the Labour leaders about their ability to control the more militant socialists and communists active among the rank and file trades unionists. George Lansbury (pictured below) addressed some of these concerns in the context of his Christian Socialism:

One Whose life I revere and Who, I believe, is the greatest Figure in history, has put it on record: “Those who take the sword shall perish by the sword” … If mine was the only voice in this Conference, I would say in the name of the faith I hold, the belief I have that God intended us to live peaceably and quietly with one another, if some people do not allow us to do so, I am ready to stand as the early Christians did, and say, “This is our faith, this is where we stand and, if necessary, this is where we will die.”

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On the other hand, the Fabian Socialist, Beatrice Webb was scathing in her assessment of what she believed the General Strike had revealed about the lack of support for revolutionary socialism among British workers:

The government has gained immense prestige in the world and the British Labour movement has made itself ridiculous. A strike which opens with a football match  between police and strikers and ends nine days later with densely-packed reconciliation services at all the chapels and churches of Great Britain attended by the strikers and their families, will make the continental Socialists blaspheme. Without a shot fired or a life lost … the General Strike of 1926 has by its absurdity made the Black Friday of 1921 seem to be a red letter day of common sense. Let me add that the failure of the General Strike shows what a ‘sane’ people the British are. If only our revolutionaries would realise the hopelessness of their attempt to turn the British workman into a Red Russian …The British are hopelessly good-natured and common-sensical – to which the British workman adds pigheadedness, jealousy and stupidity. … We are all of us just good-natured stupid folk.

The Conservative government revelled in the defeat of the strike and turned to the slow crushing of the miners. They sent an official note of protest to the Soviet government, determined to stop the collection of relief money by Russian trade unionists. Neville Chamberlain instructed the authorities to tighten up on relief payments which were already at a starvation figure of five shillings for a wife and two shillings for each child. The men were precluded from Poor Relief by a law originating in 1898 in which the coalowners had brought a court action against the Guardians of Merthyr Tydfil for giving miners outdoor relief during the miners’ strike of that year. The government was now quick to insist that work was available, albeit for longer hours and less pay than that those set out in the previous agreements between the mine-owners and the mineworkers, and then insisted that the law concerning relief should be vigorously applied, even to the pit boys, aged fourteen to sixteen, who were not allowed to join a trade union. When, after months of hunger and deprivation, the miners organised a fund-raising mission to the United States, Baldwin wrote a vindictive letter to the US authorities stating that there was no dire need in the coalfields. This was at a time when Will John, MP for Rhondda West, was telling the Board of Guardians that women were now carrying their children to the communal kitchens because the children had no shoes. As the plight of the miners grew worse, the govern In July, his government announced that a bill would be passed lengthening the working day in the mines.

Four million British subjects were thus put on the rack of hunger by a Cabinet of wealthy men. They even introduced a special new law, the Board of Guardians (Default) Bill, in an attempt to rule by hunger. Despite all these measures, the miners were able to exist for nearly seven months before being driven to accept the terms of the owners. This was a story of community struggle in the face of siege conditions. Aid for the miners came from the organised Labour and trade union movement, which raised tens of thousands of pounds. Russian trade unionists collected over a million pounds. Co-ops extended credit in the form of food vouchers, gave away free bread and made long-term loans. The funds of the Miners’ Federations and the MFGB proved hopelessly inadequate in supporting the ‘striking’ men.

Meanwhile, whilst the participants in round-table talks between the unions and management, convened by the chemical industrialist Sir Alfred Mond, were meant to reintroduce a spirit of goodwill into industrial relations, the Conservative government introduced a bill to prevent any future General Strike and attempted to sever the financial link between the unions and the Labour Party. This eventually became the 1927 Trade Disputes Act made it illegal for any strike to intend to coerce the government. It also became illegal for a worker in ‘essential employment’ to commit a breach of contract; in effect, this was a return to the old law of ‘master and servant’ which had been swept away by the Employers’ and Workmen’s Act of 1875.

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Unemployed miners getting coal from the Tredegar ‘patches’ in the late twenties.

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The memory of 1926 became seared into the culture and folklore of mining communities as epitomised in Idris Davies’ poem, Do you remember 1926? Certainly, it marked a fracture line in Labour history, as following the lock-out, many miners abandoned the industry and looked for work in the newer industries in the Midlands and South East of England. Hundreds of thousands joined the migrant stream out of the working-class communities of Wales, the North of England and central Scotland, often taking with them their cultural traditions and institutions (see the photo montage below).

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But whether they went into ‘exile’ or stayed at ‘home’, the miners were determined to use the memory of their defeat to fight back. W. P. Richardson of the Durham miners expressed their feelings:

The miners are on the bottom and have been compelled to accept dictated and unjust terms. The miners will rise again and will remember because they cannot forget. The victors of today will live to regret their unjust treatment of the miners.

Nevertheless, following its defeat at the hands of the people of Poplar, and in the spirit of class conciliation which followed the General Strike of 1926, both Conservative and Labour governments were naturally cautious in their interventions in the administration of unemployment benefit and poor relief. Although such interventions were subtle, and at times even reluctant, following on from the miners’ dispute, an alliance of the Baldwin Government, leading Civil Servants, together with advocates and adherents of the Social Service movement, had set into motion a cultural counter-revolution which was designed to re-establish their hegemony over industrial areas with large working-class populations. The wartime experience of directing labour resources, and production had given the Coalition ministers a sense of responsibility towards ex-servicemen and it had established several training centres for disabled veterans. The national Government also exercised a limited responsibility, through the Unemployment Grants Committee, together with local authorities, for public works through which the unemployed could be temporarily absorbed. Also, the wartime creation of the Ministry of Labour and a network of employment exchanges provided the means whereby a more adventurous policy could be pursued.

By the end of 1926, the training centres were turning their attention to the wider problem of unemployment, enabling the victims of industrial depression to acquire skills that would facilitate their re-entry into the labour market. Though this often meant resettlement in another area that was not the foremost purpose of the programme. In any case, the regional pattern of unemployment was only just beginning to emerge by the mid-twenties. The Director of the Birmingham Training Centre who went to Wales in 1926 to recruit members for his course was able to offer his audience very little, except lodgings at 18a week and one free meal a day. The weekly allowance of a trainee was just 23s, and training lasted six months. The real shift in Government policy came in 1927, with Neville Chamberlain invoking his powers as Minister for Health and Local Government to curb Poplarism, under the Bill he had introduced following the General Strike. Commissioners appointed by the Government replaced those local Boards of Guardians that were considered profligate in the administration of the Poor Law.

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The Lord Mayor’s fund for distressed miners report, published in ‘The Sphere’, 1929.

The Baldwin government’s second interventionist act was effected through the setting up of the Mansion House Fund in 1928, stemming from the joint appeal of the Lord Mayors of London, Newcastle and Cardiff for help in the relief of the distressed areas. This voluntary approach had, in fact, been initiated by Neville Chamberlain himself, who had written to the Lord Mayor of London in very direct terms:

Surely we cannot be satisfied to leave these unhappy people to go through the winter with only the barest necessities of life.

However, the Government itself acted in support of the voluntary effort rather than taking direct responsibility for it, and it is clear that the main objective of the action was to encourage transference away from the older industrial areas, especially through the provision of boots, clothing and train fare expenses. It was against this background that the Government then established the Industrial Transference Board the following January under the wing of the Ministry of Labour. Much of the initial funding for its work came from the Mansion House Fund. The operation of the Unemployment Grants Committee was carefully directed to conform to this strategy, under advice from the Industrial Transference Board:

As an essential condition for the growth of the will to move, nothing should be done which might tend to anchor men to their home district by holding out an illusory prospect of employment. We therefore reject as unsound policy, relief works in the depressed areas. Such schemes are temporary; at the end the situation is much as before, and the financial resources either at the Exchequer or of the Local Authorities have been drained to no permanent purpose. Grants of assistance such as those made by the Unemployment Grants Committee, which help to finance works carried out by the Local Authority in depressed areas, for the temporary employment of men in those areas, are a negation of the policy which ought in our opinion to be pursued.

As a result, the Government deliberately cut its grants for public works to the depressed areas and instead offered funds at a low rate of interest to prosperous areas on the condition that at least half the men employed on work projects would be drawn from the depressed areas. In August 1928, Baldwin himself made an appeal in the form of a circular, which was distributed throughout the prosperous areas. Every employer who could find work for DA men was asked to contact the nearest Labour Exchange, which would then send a representative to discuss the matter. However, Chamberlain expressed his disappointment over the results of this appeal later that year, and his officials became concerned that the cut-backs made in grants to local authorities for relief work in the depressed areas might lead to a serious level of disorder which would prove minatory to recent poor law policy. The following year, Winston Churchill took responsibility for drafting major sections of the Local Government Act, which reformed the Poor Law and brought about de-rating and a system of block grants. In a speech on the Bill in the Commons, he argued that it was…

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

However, not for the last time, Churchill’s rhetorical turn of phrase was not appreciated by Chamberlain, who clearly saw in the Bill the means for the more careful management of local authorities, rather than as a means of equalising the effects of the low rateable values of these areas. Of course, Churchill was soon out of office, having held it for four years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, during which time he lowered pensionable age to sixty-five, introduced pensions for widows, and decreased the income-tax rate by ten per cent for the lowest earners among tax-payers.

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The Prince of Wales became the Patron of the National Council of Social Services in 1928, a body established to co-ordinate the charitable work of the various charitable organisations which had grown up throughout the decade to ‘dabble’ with the problems of unemployment. That year he made an extensive tour of the depressed areas in South Wales, Tyneside, Scotland and Lancashire, where (above) he is pictured shaking hands with a worker in Middleton. He met men who had already been unemployed for years and, visibly and sincerely shaken, is reported to have said:

Some of the things I see in these gloomy, poverty stricken areas made me almost ashamed to be an Englishman. … isn’t it awful that I can do nothing for them but make them smile.

As the parliamentary year ended, the Labour Party, and in particular its women MPs, could be forgiven for believing that they had much to look forward in the final year of the Twenties. Perhaps one of the changes the ‘flappers’ might have wished to see was a less patronising attitude from the press and their male colleagues than is displayed in the following report…

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(to be continued…)

 

 

Posted December 24, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Austerity, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Economics, First World War, History, Integration, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, Marxism, Migration, Militancy, Narrative, nationalisation, Nonconformist Chapels, Reconciliation, Respectability, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, Transference, tyranny, Unemployment, Wales, Welsh language, Women's History, World War One

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

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Britain was at War:

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

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

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

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

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

Appendices:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Documents:

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

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

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

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

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

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

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

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

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

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Century Ago: Britain & the World in 1919 – ‘The Year of Victory’: Part One.   Leave a comment

Part One – January-June: A Tale of Five Cities.

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The Winding Road to World Peace:

The New Year’s Eve of 1918 that hiccupped a welcome to the first year of peace began a long procession of almost hysterically happy crowds which took possession of London on every possible excuse. Life was not yet back to normal (it never got back to whatever ‘normal’ was): food was only beginning to be de-restricted – meat, sugar and butter coupons were no abolished until August; five million men were taking time to demobilize and were not finding jobs easily, and money was short. Any spare money was needed by the country, as the photograph of Trafalgar Square at the top of this article shows. The Victory, or “Peace and Joy” loan brought in forty million pounds in three days, and the smallest amount that could be invested was five pounds. The total collected was seven hundred million. By November 1919 there would be just 900,000 still in ‘khaki’ uniforms. The wounded, like those photographed above, later in the year, were given blue uniforms. More than two million were wounded, and in January one man died as a result of a bullet wound received in 1918.

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At the beginning of 1919, “Hang the Kaiser!” was the cry in Britain. The newspapers discussed who would be his judges when he was brought from Holland to the Tower of London, and what they would do with him. Those who suggested that his life should be spared were considered unpatriotic, unless they also argued that, like Napoleon, he should be sent to St. Helena for the rest of his life. Despite an application for his surrender, he remained in the Netherlands. A Daily Express reporter who had first seen him at close quarters before the war said that over the previous four years, his hair had turned completely white.

At 11 a.m. on 3 January, Harold Nicolson (pictured below), a thirty-two-year-old diplomat at the Foreign Office, left Charing Cross station for Paris. He arrived at the Gare du Nord twelve hours later and drove without delay to the Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber, where the British delegation to the Peace Conference was due to be housed.

Alwyn Parker, a Middle East specialist who had been made responsible for the well-being of the British delegates, had instituted a security-conscious, home-cooking environment consistent with sound British standards. Staffed by British domestic servants and reinforced by nameless security agents, the catering standards were, apparently, tasteless in the extreme.

 

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Overworked and underpaid, Nicolson served as a technical adviser on the committees that were drawing up the new maps of central Europe and the Balkans. Sketching in fresh boundaries for Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Greece and Turkey consumed his working hours. Although he found the work ‘passionately interesting’, it was not all plain sailing. His letters reveal how at times he was conscience-stricken by the burdens imposed on him:

How fallible one feels here! A map – a pencil – tracing paper. Yet my courage fails at the thought of people whom our errant lines enclose or exclude, the happiness of several thousands of people. … Nobody who has not had experience of Committee work in actual practice can conceive of the difficulty of inducing a Frenchman, an Italian, an American and an Englishman to agree on anything.

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Harold Nicolson & Vita Sackville-West at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919.

These committees were not concerned with constructing the framework of the newborn League of Nations, President Wilson’s obsessive brainchild. Still, they stood at the heart of the conference’s deliberations, dealing with the fate of national minorities, reconciling the all-too-often conflicting and exaggerated claims of the great and the small powers. It was approvingly noted that the French Premier, M. Clemenceau, always audible, was equally rude to both. And as the plenary sessions of the conference, the politicians had neither the time nor the knowledge to challenge the recommendations of the ‘experts’, they became, in effect, the arbiters of these disputes, the final court of appeal. It was a responsibility that Harold Nicolson could have done without. Interminable committee meetings, drafting endless position papers, irregular hours, hurried meals, late nights and competing with closed-minded politicians, all put Harold under an intolerable strain. Exhausted, he had reached the point when he found himself reading sentences twice over. He sought advice from Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, whom he usually found languid in his habits, usually draped over a chair, ‘always affable and benign’, at his apartment in the rue Nitot. Balfour told him to…

… return at once to the Majestic – arrived there, you will go to bed. For luncheon you will drink a bottle of Nuits St George and eat all you can possibly swallow. You will then sleep until four. You will then read some books which I shall lend you. For dinner you will have champagne and foie grás – a light dinner. You repeat this treatment until Sunday at three, when you drive alone to Versailles and back. In the evening of Sunday you dine – again alone, that is essential – at Larue and go to a play. By Monday you will be cured.

He did as he was told and on Monday he noted in his diary that he felt again a young and vigorous man. Refreshed, he returned to his duties which, of course, included faithfully serving Balfour’s needs. Harold worked in close tandem with Allen Leeper, an Australian graduate of Balliol College, Oxford with a working knowledge of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Flemish, Russian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian and Ladino. In keeping with the Zeitgeist, he was in favour of creating compact nation-states, to unite the Poles, Yugoslavs, Romanians, the Arabs and the Greeks, a process which would pave the way for the demise of the old, discredited system ruled by the Great Powers and lead to a new era regulated by the League of Nations and Wilsonianism. To Nicolson, at the time, these ideas were admirable, but later, writing in 1935, he thought they might appear utopian, but added even then that to many of us it still remains the most valid of all our visions.

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Thirty nations met at Paris to discuss the post-war world. Bolshevik Russia and the defeated Central Powers were excluded. On the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Each of the other four which were signed subsequently was also named after an area or landmark of Paris. The Conference opened officially on 18 January 1919 at the Quai d’Orsay. Raymond Poincaré, the French President, greeted the delegates, but his Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau soon took command in his typical high-handed, machine-gunning fashion:

Y a-t-il d’objections? Non? … Adopté!”

Edvard Beneš.

Harold Nicolson continued to be absorbed by the minutiae of the territorial commission’s deliberations, niggling questions that at a distance seem esoteric to an extreme, but which at the time took on grave importance. He explained to Balfour why the Italians should not be awarded Fiume, a judgement that was upheld by Wilson and Lloyd George. He was also considered something of a Czech expert and was impressed by Benes, the Czech Foreign Minister (pictured right), whom he described as altogether an intelligent, young, plausible little man with broad views. Benes based his case not so much on securing national rights as on sustaining the stability of central Europe. Nicolson agreed with this view and confidently told the Supreme Council that the historical border of Bohemia and Moravia needed to be respected, in spite of the fact that many Germans would be included. Teschen, Silesia, Oderburg were to be included in the new Czechoslovakia, along with Hungarian Ruthenia.

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All the Allies were invited to the Peace Conference which met at Paris in January 1919, but the important decisions were made by the ‘Big Four’, pictured below. The German government had accepted the terms of the Armistice of 11 November 1918 because the Allies made a solemn promise that the principles which US President Woodrow Wilson had set out in the ‘Fourteen Points’ of his War Aims (see the map above) which he, and they, thought would form the basis of the peace settlement.

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The ‘Four Big Men’ were (left to right), the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George; the Italian Prime Minister, Signor Orlando; France’s Premier, M.Clemenceau; and Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA. They were the big figures at the Paris Peace Conference.

Wilson’s ideas were, therefore, the hope of victors and vanquished alike, and he was sincerely anxious to carry out his promises. But he lost influence because he had few practical plans to offer upon which his ideas of a just settlement could be built. By the time John Buchan published his account of these events in 1935, many histories of the Peace Conference had already been written in detail in many volumes. Its work had been bitterly criticised, and on it had been blamed most of the later misfortunes of Europe. But, as he observed, …

… it is probable that our successors will take a friendlier view, and will recognise more fully the difficulties under which it achieved. Its position was very different from that of the Congress of Vienna in 1814. Then the victors held most of Europe and had armies ready and willing to carry out their commands: now they were so weary that the further use of force was almost unthinkable. Then a little group of grandees, akin in temper, met in dignified seclusion. Now a multitude of plenipotentiaries sat almost in public, surrounded by hordes of secretaries and journalists, and under the arc-lamp of suspicious popular opinion. 

The difference in the complexity and scale of the two conferences is shown by the resulting treaties. The hundred and twenty articles of the Treaty of Vienna were signed by seventeen delegates; the Treaty of Versailles contained 441 articles and seventy signatures. The business was so vast that the mechanism was constantly changing. At first, the main work was in the hands of a Council of Ten, representing the five great Powers; then it fell to the US President and the European Prime Ministers; at the end, the ‘dictators’ were Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George. Had the three ‘architects of destiny’ been fully in agreement, or had they been men with broader personalities and more open minds, both the peace process and its products might have been better. To be fair to them, however, all three had to take different circumstances into consideration besides the merits of each case.

Wilson, who had been detached from the actual conflict, might have been expected to bring a cool and dispassionate mind to the deliberations, as well as a unique authority. But he found himself, quite literally, on unfamiliar territory, and his political mistakes in his own country had made it doubtful that Americans would ratify his conclusions. In diplomatic skill, he was not the equal of the other statesmen. Because he believed that the establishment of the League of Nations was the only hope of permanent world peace, he soon had to compromise on matters where the views of the practical statesmen conflicted with the ideals of his fourteen points in order to secure their acceptance of the Covenant. Moreover, he had the support of only a small minority of his fellow Americans; those who upheld the traditional policy of non-intervention in European affairs were hostile to him. This hostility back home also weakened his prestige at the Conference. Eventually, the Senate of the USA refused to ratify his work in establishing the League of Nations so that the country did not join the organisation, and at the election following the treaties, he failed to be re-elected. It soon appeared to John Buchan, that Wilson’s was …

… the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and not the creed of a great people. His self-confidence led him to cast himself in too high a part, and he failed to play it … The framers of the Treaty of Vienna a century before were fortunate in that they were simpler men, whose assurance was better based, and who were happily detached from popular passions: “There are times when the finest intelligence in the world is less serviceable than the sound common sense of a ‘grand seigneur’.” (F.S. Oliver, The Endless Adventure: III, 109.)

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Georges Clemenceau (left), French Premier & Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA.

As Chairman of the Peace Conference, Georges Clemenceau was a realist and had no faith in Wilson’s ideals. He was also an intense nationalist, whose policy was to give absolute priority to the security of France, and he translated every problem into the terms of an immediate and narrowly conceived national interest. He worked for the interests of France and France alone. He knew exactly what he wanted, which was to crush Germany while he had the chance. He regarded Franco-German hostility as natural and inevitable and wanted revenge not just for the Great War but also for the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 in which Paris was occupied and Alsace-Lorraine was surrendered. Had Germany won, he believed, France would not have been spared destruction. Now that Germany had been utterly defeated, he had the opportunity he had desired, to destroy its power to threaten the security of France. He dominated the conference and his uncompromising attitude earned him the epithet, ‘Tiger’.

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David Lloyd George (above) was subtler and more far-sighted, taking broader views, but his power was weakened in his colleagues’ eyes by the election he had just fought and won on intransigent terms. Nevertheless, he recognised the need for a peace settlement that would help restore German prosperity as an important trading partner. He, therefore, favoured more moderate terms, but gave only limited support to Wilson’s ideals because Britain was bound by treaties concluded during the war for the satisfaction of her Allies at the expense of the defeated powers, and he was bound by his election pledge by which he had promised to ‘Make Germany Pay’, demanding penalties from the enemy. At least 700,000 British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another 150,000 were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some 300,000 children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out. By 1919, the euphoria of victory was tempered with the reality as ex-servicemen returned to the fields and factories to seek their old jobs. If anything, As Simon Schama has put it, …

… this had to be the moment, perhaps the last, when the conditions that had produced the general massacre were removed. Away with the preposterous empires and monarchs and the tribal fantasies of churches and territories. Instead there would be created a League of Free Nations … This virtual international government, informed by science and motivated by disinterested guardianship of the fate of common humanity, must inaugurate a new history – otherwise the sacrifice the sacrifice of millions would have been perfectly futile, the bad joke of the grinning skull. 

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Above: The Menin Road (detail), by Paul Nash, 1919

Fit for Heroes? – Boom-time Britain & the ‘Bolshevists’:

Britain was experiencing a post-war boom in trade, evidenced by the fact that the number of trade unionists rose to an unprecedented figure of almost eight million. As the unions flexed their muscles, thirty-five million days were lost by strikes and lock-outs, the highest figure since 1912. Trade unionists in Belfast and Glasgow fought bravely to reduce the working week to help absorb the demobbed servicemen. In Scotland, their demonstrations, which included (for the first time) serious demands for Home Rule, were viewed as ‘riots’ by the authorities. The demands were fuelled in part by the astonishingly disproportionate numbers of Scots casualties in the War: over a quarter of the 557,000 Scottish servicemen had been killed, compared with a rate of one in eight among the rest of the British army. Ironically, it was the long tradition of being the backbone of the imperial army, from the American Revolution to the Indian Mutiny, that had resulted in them being put in front line positions during the Great War, often in the ‘vanguard’ of some suicidal lurch ‘over the top’.

Despite this contribution, in Glasgow, an eighth of the population was still living in single-room accommodation and the Clydeside economy was especially vulnerable to retrenchment in the shipyards. As men were demobilized, unemployment rose and the unions responded with demands for a shorter working week, to spread the work and wages available as broadly as possible. The campaign for a 40-hour week, with improved conditions for the workers, took hold of organised labour. They also demanded the retention of wage and rent controls. When they were met with stark refusal, a forty-hour general strike was called, culminating on 31 January in a massive rally, organised by the trade unions, which took place on George Square in the city centre of Glasgow. Upwards of ninety thousand took part. A red flag and calls were made, for the first time, for the setting up of a separate Scottish workers’ republic. The police read the ‘Riot Act’ and their lines charged the demonstrators and, mindful of having been caught by surprise in Dublin by the Easter Rising of 1916, the government claimed that the demonstration was a ‘Bolshevist’ uprising, sending twelve thousand troops and six tanks (pictured above) to occupy what became known as ‘Red Clydeside’.

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Many of these ‘Red Clydesiders’ soon found themselves ‘victimized’, out of work and on the road to England and its ‘new’ engineering and manufacturing centres. By 1919, for example, Coventry’s population had continued to grow from 130,000 in 1918 to 136,000, partly due to the delayed expansion of the British motor industry, inhibited during the War as manufacturing industry turned its attention to meeting wartime demand. As soon as hostilities were over the production of motor vehicles was again embraced with enthusiasm as both old and new contenders entered the market amongst the heavy competition. In 1919 and 1920 at least forty new car producing firms emerged. Many of these firms later failed and their names disappeared or were taken over by companies like Singer in Coventry, but in 1920 the President of the City’s Chamber of Commerce reflected on its recent growth:

Few towns and cities can point to a growth as quick and extensive as that which has been the lot of Coventry in the last two decades … The way Coventry has moved forward is more characteristic of a new American city fed by immigrants, than of one of the oldest cities in Great Britain.

Growth and immigration were beginning to have an effect on local politics. In 1919, as the city enjoyed its boom, so the fortunes of the Labour movement also prospered, with Labour capturing a third of the seats on the City Council. The short but strong national economic boom funded some, at least, of  Lloyd George’s promise to make ‘a country fit for heroes to live in’. Christopher Addison, the minister of reconstruction, oversaw the building of 200,000 homes, effectively marking the beginning of council house construction in Britain. Again, in 1920, the Coventry Chamber of Commerce was keen to advertise the fact that the Corporation had already, since the war, built a thousand houses for its workers at rates varying from six to ten shillings per week which were regarded as ‘comparatively low’.

Lloyd George’s only obvious rival was Winston Churchill. Having banged away in the 1918 election campaign about making Germany pay through the nose, Churchill then made appeals for greater flexibility and leniency, opposing the continuation of the naval blockade. But his calls to strangle the Russian Revolution at birth seemed to spring from a deep well of sentimental class solidarity with the Russian aristocracy and the Tsars which marked him out, in the view of many, as an aristocratic reactionary himself. Churchill was reckless as well as tireless in calling for a commitment of men and money to try to reverse the communist revolution in Russia by supporting the pro-Tsarist White Army, which was certainly no force for democracy. But if he was deliberately goading British socialists by harping on about the Bolsheviks as dictatorial conspirators, it turned out that his diagnosis of what had actually in Russia in October 1917 was exactly right. There was ample reason to feel gloomy about the fate of liberty in the new Soviet Russia. By 1919, anyone could see that what had been destroyed was not just the Constituent Assembly but any semblance of multi-party democracy in Russia. After the war, British, as well as American troops, occupied parts of Russia. There was disagreement within the Cabinet as well as in the country as to what the British attitude toward Russia ought to be. Lloyd George felt that the perpetuation of the civil war by foreign intervention would give the revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, the perfect pretext to institutionalize his police state and find reinforcements for the Red Army, and he wrote to Churchill pointing this out to him in February 1919:

 Am very alarmed at your… planning war against the Bolsheviks. The Cabinet have never authorised such a proposal. They have never contemplated anything beyond supplying armies in anti-Bolshevik areas in Russia with necessary equipment to enable them to hold their own, and that only in the event of every effort of peaceable solution failing. A military enquiry as to the best method of giving material assistance to these Russian armies is all to the good, but do not forget that it is an essential part of the inquiry to ascertain the cost; and I also want you to bear in mind that the War Office reported to the Cabinet that according to their information intervention was driving the anti-Bolshevik parties in Russia into the ranks of the Bolshevists. 

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The Empire – Nationalists Strike Back:

With the evaporation of the authority of the US President in Paris, and the limited tenure of the French wartime prime minister, his fellow peacemakers, it was Lloyd George who grew in stature as the future arbiter of the European settlement and world statesman. While France sought military security, Britain sought naval and commercial superiority through the destruction of the German Empire. The British Empire, as Curzon had boasted the previous year, had never been so omnipotent. But despite Curzon’s complacency, all was not well in the far-flung imperial posts. First of all, however, and closer to home, trouble was brewing again in Ireland. Following the 1918 general election, in which the old Nationalist party disappeared and Sinn Féin won most of the Irish seats. The members of Sinn Féin who had been elected to the Westminster parliament decided to set up their own Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin, which first met in January 1919. It declared the Irish Republic in defiance of the British Crown for a second time. Eamon de Valera, who had escaped from an English jail, became its President and the King’s writ ceased to run in Ireland. At the same time, the Irish Volunteers, who now called themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA) became increasingly violent.

In themselves, the pledges Britain made on imperial matters during the war did not determine anything that happened afterwards. Britain gave no one self-government simply because it had promised it to them. If it kept its promise, it was because the promise had raised expectations that could not be denied, making the plaintiffs stronger and even more resolute claimants. But if it had not had this effect, and if Britain could prevaricate or break a promise with impunity, it would. The colonial settlement when it came after the war, and as it was subsequently modified, was determined much more by the conditions of that time; the interests, strengths and weaknesses of different parties then, than by pledges and declarations made, cynically or irresponsibly, in the past. The conditions of 1919 determined that, initially, Britain would get a great deal out of the war for itself. In the first place, the fact that there were outright winners and losers meant that there were, suddenly, a large number of colonies ‘going begging’ in the world, with only Britain, France, Italy, the United States and Japan in a position to ‘snaffle them up’. Japan was satisfied with controlling the north Pacific, America didn’t want colonies and Italy, whose contribution to the Allied victory was seen as negligible, was not thought to deserve any. That left the German colonies in Africa and the Turkish territories in the Middle East as ‘gift horses’ for the British and the French if they wanted them, which they did.

Any British government of that era, of any colour, would probably have wanted its share, but the fact that the coalition government in 1919 was basically the same as the one that had fought the war and was full of imperialists made it even more probable. Balfour, Curzon and Milner (as Colonial Secretary) were not the kinds of men to look gift horses in the mouth and exercise colonial self-restraint, and neither were the Dominions which had fought, represented by Smuts in the Cabinet. Lloyd George himself was not much bothered about the empire either way and put up little resistance to his imperialists’ accepting extra colonies. If he had any qualms, Leopold Amery quieted them by writing to him at the end of the war, that whereas they had fought it over Europe, they would also…

… find ourselves compelled to complete the liberation of the Arabs, to make secure the independence of Persia, and if we can of Armenia, to protect tropical Africa from German economic and military exploitation. All these objects are justifiable in themselves and don’t become less so because they increase the general sphere of British influence. … And if, when all is over, … the British Commonwealth emerges greater in area and resources … who has the right to complain?

In 1919, the British empire seemed secure enough from external threats, but it was more vulnerable than ever to attacks from within. It might be able to deal with one at a time, but what if it were challenged by nationalists on three or four fronts simultaneously? The first of these opened up in North Africa in March, when Egyptian nationalists, inflamed by Britain’s refusal to allow them to put their case for independence to the Paris peace conference and by the arrest and exile of their leaders, began a series of demonstrations, riots, acts of sabotage, and assassinations of British army officers.

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M. K. Gandhi

Meanwhile, in India, there was a series of boycotts, walk-outs and massacres led by the lawyer and hero of the campaign against the ‘pass laws’ in South Africa, M. K. Gandhi, who had recently arrived ‘home’. Nearly a million Indian troops had been in service, both in the ‘barracks in the east’ in Asia itself, on the Western Front, and, earlier in the war, in the disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia. Before the war, there had been violence and terrorism, but mainstream colonial nationalism had been represented by Gokhale’s Congress; moderate in its aims, not embracing absolute national independence, and in its aims, which were constitutional. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi’s movement, however, worked unconstitutionally, outside the system. His distinctive contribution to the nationalist struggle was ‘non-cooperation’. This spelt danger for the empire: danger which even in peace-time it might not be able to contain. In April there was a rash of rebellions in Punjab serious enough to convince General Dyer that the Indian Mutiny was about to be repeated: which persuaded him to open fire on a crowd of unarmed Indians in a public square outside the Sikh ‘Golden Temple’ in Amritsar, and to continue to firing into their backs until his ammunition ran out, killing at least 380 and wounding 1,200. Also in April, the first serious Arab-Jewish clash occurred in Palestine. In May, Britain was at war with Afghanistan, and about to go to war again, it seemed, with Turkey.

Towards the Treaties – The Big Three & The Council of Ten:

As the Paris conference moved forward, Harold Nicolson became increasingly depressed by the self-centred, ill-informed, arrogant behaviour of the world’s leaders who had gathered in Paris.

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Ion Bratianu, the Romanian Prime Minister was a bearded woman, a forceful humbug, a Bucharest intellectual, a most unpleasing man who aspired to the status of a Great Power; the Baron Sidney Sonnino, the Italian Foreign Minister, emerged as the evil genius of the piece, obstructing everything with a breathtaking obstinacy and malevolence, while Signor Vittorio Orlando (pictured right), the Italian Prime Minister, was never able to rise to the level of his own intelligence. When the Italians decided to leave Paris in protest at their allies’ refusal to meet them half-way on their demands, Nicolson waved them off with a hearty “good riddance”, but they returned a fortnight later.

During the rest of the conference, Orlando remained interested only in securing an expansion of Italy’s territory and in discussions which concerned the satisfaction of these ambitions. Nicholson soon concluded that the conference was proceeding in a rather irresponsible and intermittent way. For this sorry state of affairs, ‘the Big Three’ were culpable, as far as he was concerned, especially Wilson. Hampered by his spiritual arrogance and the hard but narrow texture of his mind, he appeared conceited, obstinate, nonconformist … obsessed, in fact no better than a presbyterian dominie (schoolmaster/ pedagogue). Nicolson was not alone in this opinion: Wilson’s traits were soon picked up on by the Parisian press. Bitter at these public assaults on his character, Wilson contemplated moving the conference to Geneva, where he hoped to benefit from the more Calvinistic, sober and sympathetic Swiss. Paris was an unfortunate choice for a peace conference, as passions among the people were inflamed by close contact with the War and its miseries. Statesmen could not free themselves from the tense atmosphere that prevailed.

Wilson, Nicolson believed, was also responsible for what he and others regarded as a totally impracticable agenda and timetable. The three main subjects were territorial adjustments, reparations, and the provision of machinery to ensure peace. Under the first, the map of Europe was to be redrawn, and some parts of the map of the world. The Conference did not, of course, with a clean slate; the Austrian Empire had collapsed and fallen into pieces, and Poland and Czechoslovakia had already come into being. A number of treaties, not just that of Versailles, would be needed to lay down the new boundaries – St Germain, Trianon, Neuilly and Sévres. Mandates dealing with territories taken from enemy states were to be settled later by Allied Ministers sitting in the Supreme Council. But instead of giving top priority to the main purpose of the conference, the peace settlement with Germany, Wilson kept his colleagues busy playing word games in drafting the Covenant of the League of Nations, his pet cause, and by fiddling with the maps of central and eastern Europe and Asia Minor.  In this way, the German treaty was effectively put on hold until the end of March, nine weeks after the conference had opened.

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David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister in 1919, at the height of his power, the man who won the war. As the head of the Conservative-Liberal-Labour wartime coalition, his government was returned at the General Election in December 1918, with an overwhelming majority of more than three hundred in the House of Commons. The majority in the total of votes was strangely less marked – five million for the government and 4.6 million against.

Neither did Lloyd George escape Nicolson’s criticism. Dressed in a bedint grey suit, the British PM hadn’t the faintest idea of what he is talking about, Nicolson complained. He tried to prime Balfour to protest against his Premier’s ‘madcap schemes’, but Balfour proved ‘infinitely tiresome’ and fobbed him off: Yes, that’s all very well, but what you say is pure aesthetics! But before long, Nicolson came to appreciate Lloyd George’s uphill struggle at the conference against those who were more extreme: Quick as a kingfisher, in Harold’s view, as he saw Lloyd George fending off excessive Italian or French demands, not always with complete success. He fought like a Welsh terrier, he told his father, as Lloyd George strove to modify the ‘punitive’ terms of the German treaty. Invited to attend meetings of ‘the Big Three’ in his capacity as an expert, Nicolson witnessed their capricious handling of affairs, which he recorded in his letters to his wife Vita:

Darling, it is appalling, those three ignorant and irresponsible men cutting Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake, and with no one there except Hadji … Isn’t it terrible – the happiness of millions being decided in that way?

When he politely protested, Nicolson was condescendingly put down by Clemenceau: “Mais, voyez-vous, jeune homme … il faut aboutir.” But there were opportunities to advise and influence, or educate the three men, usually over a huge map on the carpet of a nearby study. Already dispirited at the way the conference was, or rather was not, proceeding, by mid-February Nicolson was beginning to despair, as he wrote to his father:

The Council of Ten are atrophied by the mass of material which pours in upon them … We are losing the peace rapidly and all the hard work is being wasted. The ten haven’t really finished off anything, except the League of Nations, and what does that mean to starving people at Kishinev, Hermannstadt and Prague? It is despairing.

In a similar vein to Oliver’s statement above, Nicolson added that What we want is a dictator for Europe and we haven’t got one: And never will have! As the conference ‘progressed’, both Europe and the Middle East continued in a state of confusion. The old empires had fallen; new nations had already set up governments. Starvation and disease aggravated the horrors resulting from war. The statesmen were forced to act quickly. They had to consider not only what they believed ought to be done, but also what their electorate demanded. On April Fool’s Day, Harold Nicolson and Leeper left Paris on a special mission headed by General Jan Smuts, the South African member of Britain’s War Cabinet. They were bound for Budapest where Nicolson had spent part of his childhood during his father’s diplomatic posting there and where, on 21 March, a communist revolution led by Béla Kun had taken place; their assignment was to investigate its ramifications. For the world’s leaders gathered in Paris, the spectre of Bolshevism was truly haunting Europe: it threatened widespread starvation, social chaos economic ruin, anarchy and a violent, shocking end to the old order. Harold wrote to his wife, Vita, about how the Germans made use of this threat:

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

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This was one of the main themes of Lloyd George’s cogently argued but largely ignored Fontainebleau memorandum. Small wonder, then, that Béla Kun’s strike for communism in Hungary registered many anxious moments for the Supreme Council. I have written more about Smuts’ mission to Budapest elsewhere on this site. During Nicolson’s absence from Paris, the prospects for a settlement based on Wilson’s new world order had receded. The French put forward extreme ideas that would extend French sovereignty or influence into the Rhineland. Lloyd George and Wilson hotly opposed these demands, seeing in them the seeds of another war. Eventually, a compromise was worked out that called for an allied occupation of the Rhineland with staged withdrawals, backed by an Anglo-American guarantee of the French frontiers. But Nicolson and many others harboured a ‘ghastly suspicion’ that the United States would not honour the signature of its delegates: it became the ghost at all our feasts, he wrote. From mid-May to mid-June the German treaty hung on a razor’s edge. Word reached Paris that the German government was prepared to sign it but that public opinion would not allow it without allied concessions. Nicolson agreed with the German public:

The more I read (the treaty), the sicker it makes me … If I were the Germans I shouldn’t sign for a moment. … The great crime is the reparations clauses, which were drawn up solely to please the House of Commons.

The peace treaties which resulted reflected the spirit of the conference, in which were represented opposing forces demanding, on the one hand, the rewards of victory, and on the other, the magnanimous settlement of conflicting claims designed to secure permanent peace. The result was a decisive triumph for the victors, but the influence of the need for a permanent peace was not entirely lost. On the one hand, there was no open discussion, and the main points of the settlement were secretly decided and imposed by the ‘Big Three’. The defeated Powers were disarmed, but the victors maintained their military strength.  On the other hand, it may be claimed that the map of Europe was redrawn to correspond with national divisions, to some extent at least and that the ‘Covenant of the League of Nations’ seemed to be a definite step towards the preservation of international peace. It formed the first part of each treaty, followed by territorial changes and disarmament clauses, such as the following from section one of the Treaty of Versailles:

By a date which must not be later than 31 March 1920, the German Army must not comprise more than seven divisions of infantry and three divisions of cavalry. 

By this article, the German Army was limited to a hundred thousand men and committed to the maintenance of order within the territory and to the control of frontiers. The long list of other restrictions included the prohibition of German use of submarines, tanks and poison gas. The disarmament of Germany was to be strictly enforced, but it was combined with a solemn pledge by the other nations themselves to disarm, which promised trouble in the future. In spite of Wilson’s principles, penal clauses were added to the treaties. The penal proposals, which had played so great a part in the ‘khaki’ election in Britain, were reduced more or less to the matter of reparations. Reparations were to be exacted from Germany alone; she had to undertake to pay the cost of the War, as her Allies were bankrupt. John Buchan commented on the futility of this exercise:

No victor has ever succeeded in reimbursing himself for his losses, and a strange blindness seemed on this point to have overtaken the public mind. 

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While rich in capital wealth, this could not be ‘extracted’ for its creditors, and its exportable surplus had never been great and was now likely to be very small. It could only pay large sums by borrowing from one or other of the Allies. At Paris, there was no agreement on the total sum of reparations to be paid, but there was much talk about what items should be included in the reparations bill. Smuts, whom Harold Nicolson considered a splendid, wide-horizoned man, now showed that his character, though ‘simple’, was also exceptionally ‘intricate’. Concerned that the bulk of the reparations would go to France, he concocted a creative formula to include separation allowances for soldiers’ families, as well as pensions for widows and orphans. His prescription effectively doubled the potential bill, however, and would not have been to Nicolson’s liking. Yet a special committee of solemn ‘pundits’ in Britain had fixed its capacity to pay at the preposterous figure 24,000 million pounds sterling. The Conference reduced this sum to less than half, and in 1921 a special allied commission whittled it down to 6,600 million, then to two thousand, and in 1932 further payments were dropped. But more unfortunate still was the clause which extorted from Germany a confession of her sole responsibility for the War. This was article 231 of the Treaty, the notorious ‘war guilt’ clause, that compelled Germany and her allies to accept full responsibility for…

… causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed on them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.  

It was not, Buchan suggested in 1935, …

… the business of any conference to anticipate the judgment of history, and to force a proud nation to confess that her sacrifice had been a crime was a breach of the human decencies. 

The Final Week – Scuttling Ships & Salvaging the Settlement:

Could anyone salvage something from this mess? Surprisingly, perhaps, Nicolson looked to Lloyd George for this. Hitherto, he had been quite critical of Lloyd George’s policies, especially in Asia Minor, which eventually to lead to his downfall. As he sought to scale down the reparations bill, which he saw as ‘immoral and senseless’; to revise the territorial settlement in Silesia to Germany’s advantage; and to grant Germany membership of the League of Nations, Nicolson’s admiration grew, particularly as he fought alone. The French were, quite naturally, furious at him for what they considered to be a betrayal of their interests. By contrast, Wilson’s passivity infuriated Harold, who couldn’t understand why the US President would not take the opportunity to improve the draft treaty. He wrote again to his father, voicing the view of the younger generation of British diplomats:

There is not a single person among the younger people here who is not unhappy and disappointed at the terms. The only people who approve are the old fire-eaters.

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After much hesitation, and under the threat of renewed force, the German government accepted the treaty. Despite his disappointment with its terms, Harold Nicolson breathed a huge sigh of relief that there would be no return to hostilities. Exactly a week before the treaty was due to be signed, however, there was a dramatic turn of events when Admiral von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the German fleet blockaded at Scapa Flow off Orkney, eight months after its surrender. This is shown in the pictures above and below. Of the seventy-four warships interned, forty-eight sank within an hour when the German sailors opened the sea-cocks on the Admiral’s order. He said that he was obeying the Kaiser’s orders, given to him before the war, that no German battleship should be allowed to fall into enemy hands, and denied that he was in breach of the Armistice terms, since he had had no notice of its extension beyond 21 June, the day of expiry. The German sailors risked their lives in carrying out von Reuter’s orders. At noon on the 21st, the German ensign was run up, the battleships began to settle, and their crews crowded into boats or swam for it. Some of the British guardships, uncertain of what was happening, opened fire, and there were over a hundred casualties.

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The treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 in the Galerie des Glaces (‘Hall of Mirrors’) at the palace of Versailles, where half a century before the German Empire had been founded on the degradation of France. Harold Nicolson witnessed the occasion and recorded it in careful detail. The ‘Galerie’ was crowded, with seats for over a thousand. Clemenceau, small and yellow, orchestrated the proceedings. “Faites entrer les Allemands,” he called out. Dr Hermann Müller and Dr Johannes Bell, heads held high, eyes studying the ceiling, one looking like “the second fiddle” in a string ensemble, the other resembling “a privat-dozent“, were led to the table to sign the treaty. No-one spoke or moved. Having committed Germany to the treaty, they were escorted from the hall “like prisoners from the dock”. Over the “breathless silence”, Clemenceau rasped: “Messieurs, la séance est levée.”  Outside, salvoes were fired, while a squadron of aeroplanes flew overhead. Crowds cheered and yelled, “Vive Clemenceau … Vive l’Angleterre.” After the ceremony Clemenceau, with tears in his eyes, was heard to say: “Oui, c’est une belle journée.” Exhausted at the end of an extraordinary day, Nicolson lamented that it has all been horrible … To bed, sick of life.

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General Smuts signed the Versailles Treaty only on the grounds that something of the kind, however imperfect, was needed before the real work of peace-making could begin. But, according to John Buchan, the Treaty proved to be a grave hindrance in that task. For John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, the ‘peace’ was a ‘Carthaginian’ imposition. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, first published in 1919, he wrote a damning indictment of both the process and product of the Treaty:

Moved by insane delusion and reckless self-regard, the German people overturned the foundations on which we all lived and built. But the spokesmen of the French and British peoples have run the risk of completing the ruin. … Paris was a nightmare. … A sense of impending catastrophe overhung the frivolous scene. … Seated indeed amid the theatrical trappings of the French Saloons of State, one could wonder if the extraordinary visages of Wilson and Clemenceau, with their fixed hue and unchanging characterisation, were really faces at all and not the tragi-comic masks of some strange drama or puppet-show. …

010For John Buchan, the hopeful element in what had been signed lay in its prefix – the Covenant of a new League of Nations, the one remnant left of Wilson’s dreams; the hope was that the reaction against the horrors of war might result in an abiding determination for peace. Machinery was provided to give a system to fulfil this desire. Membership of the League was open to any self-governing state which accepted its principles; it required its members to refrain from war until the quarrel had been submitted to its judgement and to take corporate action against any breaker of the peace. It was not a super-state with a military force as its sanction, but a league of states whose effectiveness in a crisis would depend upon how far its members would be prepared to act collectively. There was no abandonment of sovereign rights, except to a very minor extent. It began as a league of the victorious and neutral Powers, but the defeated Powers were given the right of delayed entry.

 

Above (Right): a facsimile of some of the signatures on the Treaty.

Concluding Versailles – A Toothless Treaty? The Covenant & Council of the League of Nations:

From the start, the League was handicapped by the facts that it was widely regarded as the caretaker of the Peace treaties and therefore suspect to those who found them difficult to come to terms with, and by the fact that the USA refused to join, thereby weakening any chance of collective action. But it was the best that could be done at that juncture by way of international cooperation, and even its flawed and modest beginnings were soon seen as an advance in peacemaking and peacekeeping in the world. It was often said in the 1920s and ’30s that a fundamental weakness of the League of Nations that it ‘lacked teeth’, that it was not prepared to threaten potential and actual aggressors with military force. However, the original clauses in the Covenant contradict this contention. They state that in the case of aggression or threat of aggression, the Council of the League should advise upon how this threat should be met: military action was not excluded. Moreover, if any member of the League did resort to war, the Council would recommend to the governments concerned what effective military, naval and air force the members of the League should contribute. Members of the League were expected to permit the passage through their territories of the armed forces of other members of the League. These articles, therefore, totally envisage the possibility of military action by the League in order to deter aggression. Although the requirement of unanimity on the part of the Council could effectively negate these provisions in certain circumstances, the ‘teeth’ were there, if only the principal Powers were willing to put them to work. In his course notes for the Open University, prepared in 1973, Arthur Marwick pointed to the scope of the problems facing the peacemakers in 1919:

A war on such an unprecedented scale obviously left problems of an unprecedented nature. Insulated as we have been in these islands, we can easily forget the immense problems involved in the collapse of old political frontiers, from the mixing of races in particular areas, from the reallocation of territorial boundaries, and from the transfer of populations…

The Treaty of Versailles altogether consists of 440 articles and it takes up 230 pages of Volume LIII of the ‘Parliamentary Papers’ for 1919. From the document itself, we can see the very real complexities and difficulties which faced the peacemakers. From the detail in some parts of the Treaty, we can see what peacemaking is really like, as distinct from the brief text-book accounts which merely summarise the broad principles; we can see what is involved in putting those principles into practice. The Treaty of Versailles expressed certain intentions about settling the map of Europe. But, as with all historical documents, we do learn things from it about the fundamental assumptions of the men who drafted it. And throughout the entire Treaty, there is a good deal of ‘unwitting testimony’ about the political events, social conditions and cultural attitudes in Europe in 1918-19. A rapid glance at the map below will show that a serious attempt was made in 1919 to arrange the frontiers of the states so that the main boundaries coincided with the national divisions of the European peoples. As a result of the treaties, only a small minority, about three per cent, was still under the subjection of other nationalities. In many cases, the peoples themselves had taken the initiative and proclaimed their independence and the peacemakers simply had to accept what had already been accomplished. Their task was ‘simply’ to fix the new boundaries of these ethnic groups. But in doing so, they were responsible for some gross injustices, as the map also shows.

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(to be continued).

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Years of Transition – Britain, Europe & the World: 1992-1997.   Leave a comment

Epilogue to the Eighties & Prologue to the Nineties:

I can recall the real sense of optimism which resulted from the end of the Cold War, formally ending with President Gorbachev’s announcement of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991. Although never an all-out global war, it had resulted in the deaths of up to forty million people throughout the world, involving more than a hundred and fifty smaller ‘proxy’ conflicts. Moreover, we had lived under a continual sense of doom, that it was only a matter of time until our brief, young lives would be snuffed out by a nuclear apocalypse. Now, politicians and journalists in the West talked of a coming ‘peace dividend’ and the end of the surveillance, spy and secret state in both east and west. The only continuing threat to British security came from the Provisional IRA. They hit Downing Street with a triple mortar attack in February 1991, coming close to killing the new Prime Minister, John Major, and his team of ministers and officials directing the Gulf War.

Margaret ThatcherBy the time Margaret Thatcher left office in tears on 28 November 1990, ‘Thatcherism’ was also a spent force, though its influence lingered on until at least the end of the century, and not just among Conservatives. Only a minority even among the ‘party faithful’ had been true believers and the Tory MPs would have voted her out had her cabinet ministers not beaten them to it. As Andrew Marr has written, History is harshest to a leader just as they fall. She had been such a strident presence for so long that many who had first welcomed her as a ‘gust’ of fresh air now felt the need for gentler breezes. Those who wanted a quieter, less confrontational leader found one in John Major.

Yet most people, in the end, had done well under her premiership, not just the ‘yuppies’ but also her lower-middle-class critics who developed their own entrepreneurial sub-cultures rather than depending on traditional sponsorship from arts councils and local authorities. By the early nineties, Britons were on average much wealthier than they had been in the late seventies and enjoyed a wider range of holidays, better food, and a greater variety of television channels and other forms of home entertainment. Nor was everything the Thatcher governments did out of tune with social reality. The sale of council houses which corresponded to the long passion of the British to be kings and queens of their own little castles. Sales of state utilities, on the other hand, presupposed a hunger for stakeholdership that was much less deeply rooted in British habits, and the subsequently mixed fortunes of those stocks did nothing to help change those habits. Most misguided of all was the decision to implement the ‘poll tax’ as a regressive tax. In the end, Thatcher’s 1987-90 government became just the latest in a succession of post-war British governments that had seen their assumptions rebound on them disastrously. This ‘trend’ was to continue under John Major. The upper middle-class ‘Victorian Values’ of the grocer’s daughter from Grantham were replaced by the ‘family values’ of the lower middle-class garden gnome salesman from Brixton, only for him to be overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals.

The single most important event of the early nineties in Britain, possibly globally too, had nothing to do with politics and diplomacy or warfare and terrorism, at least not in the nineties. Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist, invented the World Wide Web, or the Internet. His idea was for a worldwide ‘hypertext’, the computer-aided reading of electronic documents to allow people to work together remotely., sharing their knowledge in a ‘web’ of documents. His creation of it would give the internet’s hardware its global voice. He was an Oxford graduate who had made his first computer with a soldering iron, before moving to CERN, the European Physics laboratory, in Switzerland in 1980, the world’s largest scientific research centre. Here he wrote his first programme in 1989 and a year later he proposed his hypertext revolution which arrived in CERN in December 1990. The ‘internet’ was born the following summer. He chose not to patent his creation so that it would be free to everyone.

The Election of 1992 – A Curious Confidence Trick?:

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John Major called an election for April 1992. Under a pugnacious Chris Patten, now Party chairman, the Tories targeted Labour’s enthusiasm for high taxes. During the campaign itself, Major found himself returning to his roots in Brixton and mounting a ‘soap-box’, from which he addressed raucous crowds through a megaphone. John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, was given the task of covering Major’s own campaign, and on 15 March he travelled to Sawley, in the PM’s constituency of Huntingdon, where Major was due to Meet the People. I have written elsewhere about the details of this, and his soap-box campaign, as reported by Simpson. Although Simpson described it as ‘a wooden construction of some kind’, Andrew Marr claims it was ‘a plastic container’. Either way, it has gone down in political history, together with the megaphone, as the prop that won him the election. The stark visual contrast achieved with the carefully stage-managed Labour campaign struck a chord with the media and he kept up an act that his father would have been proud of, playing the underdog to Neil Kinnock’s government in waiting. Right at the end, at an eve of poll rally in Sheffield, Kinnock’s self-control finally gave way and he began punching the air and crying “y’awl’ right!” as if he were an American presidential candidate. It was totally ‘cringe-worthy’ TV viewing, alienating if not repulsing swathes of the very middle England voters he needed to attract.

On 9 April 1992 Major’s Conservatives won fourteen million votes, more than any party in British political history. It was a great personal victory for the ‘new’ Prime Minister, but one which was also based on people’s fears of higher taxes under a Labour government. It was also one of the biggest victories in percentage terms since 1945, though the vagaries of the electoral system gave the Tories a majority of just twenty-one seats in parliament. Neil Kinnock was even more devastated than he had been in 1987 when he had not been expected to defeat Thatcher. The only organ of the entire British press which had called the election correctly was the Spectator. Its editor, Dominic Lawson, headlined the article which John Simpson wrote for him The Curious Confidence of Mr Major so that the magazine seemed to suggest that the Conservatives might pull off a surprise win. Simpson himself admitted to not having the slightest idea who would win, though it seemed more likely to him that Labour would. Yet he felt that John Major’s own apparent certainty was worth mentioning. When the results started to become clear on that Friday morning, 10 April, the Spectator stood out favourably from the shelves of newsagents, surrounded by even the late, or early editions of newspapers and magazines which had all been predicting a Labour victory.

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The only politician possibly more disappointed than Neil Kinnock, who immediately left front-line politics, was Chris Patten, who had been the real magician behind Major’s remarkable victory. He lost his seat to the Liberals in marginal Bath and went off to become the final governor of Hong Kong ahead of the long-agreed handover of Britain’s last colony in 1997. Kinnock, a former long-term opponent of Britain’s membership of the EEC/ EC went off to Brussels to become a European Commissioner. Despite his triumph in the popular vote, never has such a famous victory produced so rotten an outcome for the victors. The smallness of Major’s majority meant that his authority could easily be eaten away in the Commons. As a consequence, he would not go down as a great leader in parliamentary posterity, though he remained popular in the country as a whole for some time, if not with the Thatcherites and Eurosceptic “bastards” in his own party.  Even Margaret Thatcher could not have carried through her revolutionary reforms after the 1979 and 1983 elections with the kind of parliamentary arithmetic which was dealt her successor. In Rugby terms, although the opposition’s three-quarters had been foiled by this artful dodger of a full-back, he had been dealt a ‘hospital pass’ by his own side. For the moment, he had control of the slippery ball, but he was soon to be forced back into series of crushing rucks and mauls among his own twenty-stone forwards.

 John Smith – Labour’s lost leader and his legacy:

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After Neil Kinnock gave up the Labour leadership following his second electoral defeat in 1992, he was replaced by John Smith (pictured above), a placid, secure, self-confident Scottish lawyer. As Shadow Chancellor, he had been an effective cross-examiner of Nigel Lawson, John Major and Norman Lamont and had he not died of a heart attack in 1994, three years ahead of the next election, most political pundits agreed that, following the tarnishing of the Major administration in the mid-nineties, he would have become Prime Minister at that election. Had he done so, Britain would have had a traditional social democratic government, much like those of continental Europe. He came from a family of herring fishermen on the West Coast of Scotland, the son of a headmaster. Labour-supporting from early youth, bright and self-assured, he got his real political education at Glasgow University, part of a generation of brilliant student debaters from all parties who would go on to dominate Scottish and UK politics including, in due succession, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander. Back in the early sixties, Glasgow University Labour Club was a hotbed not of radicals, but of Gaitskell-supporting moderates. This was a position that Smith never wavered from, as he rose as one of the brightest stars of the Scottish party, and then through government under Wilson and Callaghan as a junior minister dealing with the oil industry and devolution before entering cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, its youngest member at just forty. In opposition, John Smith managed to steer clear of the worst in-fighting, eventually becoming Kinnock’s shadow chancellor. In Thatcher’s England, however, he was spotted as a tax-raising corporatist of the old school. One xenophobic letter he received brusquely informed him:

You’ll not get my BT shares yet, you bald, owl-looking Scottish bastard. Go back to Scotland and let that other twit Kinnock go back to Wales.

Smith came from an old-fashioned Christian egalitarian background which put him naturally out of sympathy with the hedonistic culture of southern England.  Just before he became Labour leader he told a newspaper he believed above all in education, because…

 … it opens the doors of the imagination, breaks down class barriers and frees people. In our family … money was looked down on and education was revered. I am still slightly contemptuous of money.

Smith was never personally close to Kinnock but was scrupulously loyal to him as his leader, he nevertheless succeeded him by a huge margin in 1992. By then he had already survived a serious cardiac arrest and had taken up hill-walking. Though Smith swiftly advanced the careers of his bright young lieutenants, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they soon became disappointed by his view that the Labour party needed simply to be improved, not radically transformed. In particular, he was reluctant to take on the party hierarchy and unions over issues of internal democracy, such as the introduction of a one-member, one-vote system for future leadership elections. He was sure that Labour could regain power with a revival of its traditional spirit. At one point, Tony Blair was so dispirited by Smith’s leadership style that he considered leaving politics altogether and going back to practising law. Smith died of a second heart attack on 12 May 1994. After the initial shock and grief subsided, Labour moved rapidly away from his policy of ‘gradualism’ towards ‘Blairite’ transformation. One part of his legacy still remains, however, shaping modern Britain today. As the minister who had struggled to achieve devolution for Scotland in 1978-9, he remained a passionate supporter of the ‘unfinished business’ of re-establishing the Holyrood Parliament and setting up a Welsh Assembly. With his friend Donal Dewar he had committed Labour so utterly to the idea in Opposition, despite Kinnock’s original strong anti-nationalist stance, that Blair, no great fan of devolution himself, found that he had to implement Smith’s unwelcome bequest to him.

Black Wednesday and the Maastricht Treaty:

The crisis that soon engulfed the Major government back in the early autumn of 1992 was a complicated economic one. From August 1992 to July 1996 I was mainly resident in Hungary, and so, although an economic historian, never really understood the immediate series of events that led to it or the effects that followed. This was still in pre-internet days, so I had little access to English language sources, except via my short-wave radio and intermittent newspapers bought during brief visits to Budapest. I had also spent most of 1990 and half of 1991 in Hungary, so there were also longer-term gaps in my understanding of these matters. I have written about them in earlier articles in this series, dealing with the end of the Thatcher years. Hungary itself was still using an unconvertible currency throughout the nineties, which only became seriously devalued in 1994-96, and when my income from my UK employers also fell in value, as a family we decided to move back to Britain to seek full-time sterling salaries. The first thing that happened was that they lost their fiscal policy in a single day when the pound fell out of the ERM (European Exchange Rate Mechanism). In his memoirs, John Major described the effect of this event in stark terms:

Black Wednesday – 16 September 1992, the day the pound toppled out of the ERM – was a political and economic calamity. It unleashed havoc in the Conservative Party and it changed the political landscape of Britain.

For Major and his government, the point was that as the German central bank had a deserved reputation for anti-inflationary rigour, having to follow or ‘shadow’ the mark meant that Britain had purchased a respected off-the-shelf policy. Sticking to the mighty mark was a useful signal to the rest of the world that this government, following all the inflationary booms of the seventies and eighties, was serious about controlling inflation. On the continent, however, the point of the ERM was entirely different, intended to lead to a strong new single currency that the countries of central Europe would want to join as members of an enlarged EC/EU. So a policy which Margaret Thatcher had earlier agreed to, in order to bring down British inflation, was now a policy she and her followers abhorred since it drew Britain ever closer towards a European superstate in the ‘Delors Plan’. This was a confused and conflicted state of affairs for most of the Tories, never mind British subjects at home and abroad.

The catalyst for sterling’s fall was the fall in the value of the dollar, pulling the pound down with it. Worse still, the money flowed into the Deutschmarks, which duly rose; so the British government raised interest rates to an eye-watering ten per cent, in order to lift the pound. When this failed to work, the next obvious step would have been for the German central bank to cut their interest rates, lowering the value of the mark and keeping the ERM formation intact. This would have helped the Italian lira and other weak currencies as well as the pound. But since Germany had just reunited after the ‘fall of the wall’, the whole cost of bringing the poorer East Germans into line with their richer compatriots in the West led to a real fear of renewed inflation as well as to memories of the Berlin Crisis of 1948-49 and the hyperinflation of the Weimar period. So the Germans, regardless of the pain being experienced by Britain, Italy and the rest, wanted to keep their high-value mark and their high interest rates. Major put considerable and concerted pressure on Chancellor Kohl, warning of the danger of the Maastricht treaty failing completely since the Danes had just rejected it in a referendum and the French were also having a plebiscite. None of this had any effect on Kohl who, like a previous German Chancellor, would not move.

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In public, the British government stuck to the line that the pound would stay in the ERM at all costs. It was not simply a European ‘joint-venture’ mechanism but had been part of the anti-inflation policy of both the Lawson and Major chancellorships. Then, the now PM had told the unemployed workers and the repossessed homeowners in Britain that if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working, so his credibility had been tied to the success of the ERM ever since. It had also been, as Foreign Secretary and now as Prime Minister, his foreign policy of placing Britain ‘at the heart of Europe’. It was his big idea for both economic and diplomatic survival in an increasingly ‘globalised’ environment. Norman Lamont, who as Chancellor was as committed as Major, told ‘the markets’ that Britain would neither leave the mechanism nor deviate from it by devaluing the pound. ERM membership was at the centre of our policy and there should not be one scintilla of doubt that it would continue. Major went even further, telling a Scottish audience that with inflation down to 3.7 per cent and falling, it would be madness to leave the ERM. He added that:

“The soft option, the devaluer’s option, the inflationary option, would be a betrayal of our future.”

However, then the crisis deepened with the lira crashing out of the ERM formation. International money traders, such as the Hungarian-born György Soros, began to turn their attention to the weak pound and carried on selling. They were betting that Major and Lamont would not keep interest rates so high that the pound could remain up there with the mark – an easy, one-way bet. In the real world, British interest rates were already painfully high. On the morning of ‘Black Wednesday’, at 11 a.m., the Bank of England raised them by another two points. This was to be agonising for home-owners and businesses alike, but Lamont said he would take whatever measures were necessary to keep the pound in the mechanism. Panic mounted and the selling continued: a shaken Lamont rushed round to tell Major that the interest rate hike had not worked, but Major and his key ministers decided to stay in the ERM. The Bank of England announced that interest would go up by a further three points, to fifteen per cent. Had it been sustained, this would have caused multiple bankruptcies across the country, but the third rise made no difference either. Eventually, at 4 p.m., Major phoned the Queen to tell her that he was recalling Parliament. At 7.30 p.m., Lamont left the Treasury to announce to the press and media in Whitehall that he was suspending sterling’s membership of the ERM and was reversing the day’s rise in interest rates.

Major considered resigning. It was the most humiliating moment in British politics since the IMF crisis of 1976, sixteen years earlier. But if he had done so Lamont would have had to go as well, leaving the country without its two most senior ministers in the midst of a terrible crisis. Major decided to stay on, though he was forever diminished by what had happened. Lamont also stayed at his post and was delighted as the economy began to respond to lower interest rates, and a slow recovery began. While others suffered further unemployment, repossession and bankruptcy, he was forever spotting the ‘green shoots’ of recovery. In the following months, Lamont created a new unified budget system and took tough decisions to repair the public finances. But as the country wearied of recession, he became an increasingly easy ‘butt’ of media derision. To Lamont’s complete surprise, Major sacked him as Chancellor a little over six months after Black Wednesday. Lamont retaliated in a Commons statement in which he said: We give the impression of being in office, but not in power. Major appointed Kenneth Clarke, one of the great characters of modern Conservatism, to replace him.

In the Commons, the struggle to ratify the Maastricht Treaty hailed as a great success for Major before the election, became a long and bloody one. Major’s small majority was more than wiped out by the number of ‘Maastricht rebels’, egged on by Lady Thatcher and Lord Tebbit. Black Wednesday had emboldened those who saw the ERM and every aspect of European federalism as disastrous for Britain. Major himself wrote in his memoirs that it turned …

… a quarter of a century of unease into a flat rejection of any wider involvement in Europe … emotional rivers burst their banks.

Most of the newspapers which had welcomed Maastricht were now just as vehemently against it. The most powerful Conservative voices in the media were hostile both to the treaty and to Major. His often leaded use of English and lack of ‘panache’ led many of England’s snobbish ‘High Tories’ to brand him shockingly ill-educated and third-rate as a national leader. A constantly shifting group of between forty to sixty Tory MPs regularly worked with the Labour opposition to defeat key parts of the Maastricht bill, so that Major’s day-to-day survival was always in doubt. Whenever, however, he called a vote of confidence and threatened his rebellious MPs with an election, he won. Whenever John Smith’s Labour Party and the Tory rebels could find some common cause, however thin, he was in danger of losing. In the end, Major got his legislation and Britain signed the Maastricht Treaty, but it came at an appalling personal and political cost. Talking in the general direction of an eavesdropping microphone, he spoke of three anti-European ‘bastards’ in his own cabinet, an obvious reference to Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley and John Redwood. The country watched a divided party tearing itself apart and was not impressed.

By the autumn of 1993, Norman Lamont was speaking openly about the possibility that Britain might have to leave the European Union altogether, and there were moves to force a national referendum. The next row was over the voting system to be used when the EU expanded. Forced to choose between a deal which weakened Britain’s hand and stopping the enlargement from happening at all by vetoing it, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd went for a compromise. All hell broke loose, as Tory MPs began talking of a leadership challenge to Major. This subsided, but battle broke out again over the European budget and fisheries policy. Eight MPs had their formal membership of the Tory Party withdrawn. By this point, John Smith’s sudden death had brought Tony Blair to the fore as leader of the Opposition. When Major readmitted the Tory rebels, Blair jibed: I lead my party, you follow yours. Unlike Lamont’s remark in the Commons, Blair’s comment struck a chord with the country.

The concluding chapter of the Thatcher Revolution:

While the central story of British politics in the seven years between the fall of Thatcher and the arrival to power of Blair was taken up by Europe, on the ‘home front’ the government tried to maintain the momentum of the Thatcher revolution. After many years of dithering, British Rail was divided up and privatised, as was the remaining coal industry. After the 1992 election, it was decided that over half the remaining coal mining jobs must go, in a closure programme of thirty-one pits to prepare the industry for privatization. This angered many Tory MPs who felt that the strike-breaking effect of the Nottinghamshire-based Union of Democratic Mineworkers in the previous decade deserved a better reward, and it aroused public protest as far afield as Cheltenham. Nevertheless, with power companies moving towards gas and oil, and the industrial muscle of the miners long-since broken, the closures and sales went ahead within the next two years, 1992-4. The economic effect on local communities was devastating, as the 1996 film Brassed Off shows vividly, with its memorable depiction of the social impact on the Yorkshire village of Grimethorpe and its famous Brass Band of the 1992 closure programme. Effectively, the only coalfields left working after this were those of North Warwickshire and South Derbyshire.

Interfering in the railway system became and remained a favourite ‘boys with toys’ hobby but a dangerous obsession of governments of different colours. Margaret Thatcher, not being a boy, knew that the railways were much too much part of the working life of millions to be lightly broken up or sold off. When Nicholas Ridley, as Transport Secretary, had suggested this, Thatcher is said to have replied:

“Railway privatisation will be the Waterloo of this government. Please never mention the railways to me again.”

It was taken up again enthusiastically by John Major. British Rail had become a national joke, loss-making, accident-prone, with elderly tracks and rolling stock, and serving curled-up sandwiches. But the challenge of selling off a system on which millions of people depended was obvious. Making it profitable would result in significant and unpopular fare rises and cuts in services. Moreover, different train companies could hardly compete with each other directly, racing up and down the same rails. There was, therefore, a binary choice between cutting up ‘BR’ geographically, selling off both trains and track for each region, so that the system would look much the way it was in the thirties, or the railway could be split ‘vertically’ so that the State would continue to own the track, while the stations and the trains would be owned by private companies. This latter solution was the one chosen by the government and a vast, complicated new system of subsidies, contracts, bids, pricing, cross-ticketing and regulation was created, but rather than keeping the track under public control, it too was to be sold off to a single private monopoly to be called Railtrack. Getting across the country would become a complicated proposition and transaction, involving two or three separate rail companies. A Franchise Director was to be given powers over the profits, timetables and ticket-pricing of the new companies, and a Rail Regulator would oversee the track. Both would report directly to the Secretary of State so that any public dissatisfaction, commercial problem or safety issue would ultimately be the responsibility of the government. This was a strange and pointless form of privatization which ended up costing the taxpayer far more than British Rail. The journalist Simon Jenkins concluded:

The Treasury’s treatment of the railway in the 1990s was probably the worst instance of Whitehall industrial management since the Second World War.

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One success story in the rail network was the completion of the Channel Tunnel link to France in 1994 (the Folkestone terminal is pictured above), providing a good example of the inter-relationship between transport links and general economic development. The Kent town of Ashford had a relationship with the railways going back to 1842, and the closure of the town’s railway works between 1981 and 1993 did not, however, undermine the local economy. Instead, Ashford benefited from the Channel Tunnel rail link, which made use of railway lines running through the town, and its population actually grew by ten per cent in the 1990s. The completion of the ‘Chunnel’ gave the town an international catchment area of eighty-five million within a single day’s journey. The opening of the Ashford International railway station, the main terminal for the rail link to Europe, attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies. In addition to the fourteen business parks that were opened in and around the town itself, four greenfield sites were opened on the outskirts, including a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. As the map above shows, Ashford is now closer to Paris and Brussels in travelling time than it is to Manchester and Liverpool. By the end of the century, the town, with its position at the hub of a huge motorway network as well as its international rail link, was ready to become part of a truly international economy.

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Many of the improvements in transport infrastructure on both islands of Britain and Ireland were the result of EU funding, especially in Northern Ireland, and it was also having an impact on transport planning in Britain, with projects in the Highlands and Islands. In 1993 the EU decided to create a European-wide transport network. Of the fourteen priority associated with this aim, three are based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Northern Ireland and the ferry route to Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast rail route in Britain.

As a Brixton man, Major had experienced unemployment and was well prepared to take on the arrogant and inefficient quality of much so-called public service. But under the iron grip of the Treasury, there was little prospect for a revival of local democracy to take charge of local services again. This left a highly bureaucratic centralism as the only option left, one which gained momentum in the Thatcher years. Under Major, the centralised Funding Agency for Schools was formed and schools in England and Wales were ranked by crude league tables, depending on how well their pupils did in exams. The university system was vastly expanded by simply allowing colleges and polytechnics to rename themselves as universities. The hospital system was further centralised and given a host of new targets. The police, faced with a review of their pay and demands by the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke for their forces to be amalgamated, were given their own performance league tables. The Tories had spent seventy-four per cent more, in real terms, on law and order since 1979, yet crime was at an all-time high. Clarke’s contempt for many of the forces as ‘vested interests’ was not calculated to win them round to reform. Across England and Wales elected councillors were turfed off police boards and replaced by businessmen. In 1993 Clarke, the old Tory dog who had clearly learned new tricks during his time at the Department of Health where he was said to have castrated the regional health authority chairmen, defended his new police league tables in the ‘newspeak’ of governments yet to come:

The new accountability that we seek from our public services will not be achieved simply because men of good will and reasonableness wish that it be so. The new accountability is the new radicalism.

Across Britain, from the auditing of local government to the running of courts and the working hours of nurses, an army of civil servants, accountants, auditors and inspectors marched into workplaces. From time to time, ministers would weakly blame Brussels for the imposition of the cult of central control and measurement. But this was mostly a home-grown ‘superstate’. Major called this centralising policy the ‘Citizen’s Charter’, ignoring the fact that Britons are ‘subjects’ rather than citizens. He himself did not like the ‘headline’ very much because of its unconscious echoes of Revolutionary France. Every part of the government dealing with public service was ordered to come up with proposals for improvement at ‘grass-roots level’, to be pursued from the centre by questionnaires, league tables and a system of awards, called ‘Charter Marks’ for organizations that achieved the required standards. He spoke of ’empowering’, ‘helping the customer’ and ‘devolving’ and thought that regulation from the centre would not last long, rather like a Marxist-Leninist anticipating the ‘withering away’ of the state. In his case, though, this would come about as the effects of growing competition are felt. In practice, of course, the regulators grew more powerful, not less so. Despite the rhetoric, public servants were not being given real freedom to manage. Elected office-holders were being sacked. Major’s ‘withering away’ of the state was no more successful than Lenin’s.

Britain and Ireland – first steps on the road to peace:

009Above: US President Bill Clinton addressing a peace rally in Belfast during his visit in 1995. Clinton played a significant role as a ‘peace broker’ in negotiations leading up to ‘the Good Friday Agreement’.

In December 1993, John Major stood outside the steel-armoured door of Number Ten Downing Street with the ‘Taoiseach’ of the Irish Republic, Albert Reynolds. He declared a new principle which offended many traditional Conservatives and Unionists. If both parts of Ireland voted to be reunited, Britain would not stand in the way. She had, said Major, no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. He also stated that if the Provisional IRA, which had lately bombed the very building Major was standing in front of and murdered two young boys in Cheshire, renounced violence, Sinn Fein could be recognised as a legitimate political party. In the run-up to this Downing Street Declaration, which some saw as a betrayal of the Tory Party’s long-held dedication to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the government had been conducting ‘back channel’ negotiations with the terrorist organisation. In August 1994 the IRA finally declared a complete cessation of military operations which, though it stopped a long way short of renouncing the use of violence altogether, was widely welcomed and was followed a month later by a Loyalist ceasefire. A complicated choreography of three-strand talks, framework documents and discussions about the decommissioning of weapons followed, while on the streets, extortion, knee-capping and occasional ‘executions’ continued. But whereas the number of those killed in sectarian violence and bombings in 1993 had been eighty-four, the toll fell to sixty-one the following year, and in 1995 it was in single figures, at just nine deaths.

Long negotiations between London and Dublin led to cross-border arrangements. These negotiations had also involved the United States, where an influential pro-Irish lobby had helped to sustain the IRA campaign into the nineties through finance provided through ‘Noraid’. In the mid-nineties, President Clinton acted as a peace-broker, visiting Belfast in 1995 and helping to maintain the fragile cease-fire in the North. The contradictory demands of Irish Republicanism and Ulster Unionism meant that Major failed to get a final agreement, which was left to Tony Blair, with the ongoing help of the American ex-senator George Mitchell. The fact that in 1991 both countries had signed the Maastricht Treaty for closer political and economic unity in Europe, set a broader context for a bilateral agreement. However, while Irish political leaders eagerly embraced the idea of European integration, their British counterparts, as we have seen, remained deeply divided over it.

Economic decline/ growth & political resuscitation:

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The closure of the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne in May 1993 is an illuminating example of the impact of de-industrialisation. Swan Hunter was the last working shipyard in the region but had failed to secure a warship contract. An old, established firm, it was suffering some of the same long-term decline that decimated shipbuilding employment nationally to 26,000 by the end of a century. This devastated the local economy, especially as a bitter legal wrangle over redundancy payments left many former workers with no compensation whatever for the loss of what they had believed was employment for life. But the effects of de-industrialisation could spread much further than local communities. The closure of the shipyard, as shown in the map above, but the failure of the firm also had a ‘knock-on’ effect as suppliers as far afield as London and Glasgow lost valuable orders and, as a result, jobs.

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By 1994, employment in manufacturing in Britain had fallen to four million from the nine million it had reached at its peak in 1966. The resulting mass unemployment hurt the older industries of the Northwest worst, but the losses were proportionately as high in the Southeast, reflecting the decline in newer manufacturing industry. Across most of Britain and Ireland, there was also a decline in the number of manufacturing jobs continuing into and throughout the 1990s. The service sector, however, expanded, and general levels of unemployment, especially in Britain, fell dramatically in the nineties. Financial services showed strong growth, particularly in such places as London’s Docklands, with its new ‘light railway’, and Edinburgh. By the late nineties, the financial industry was the largest employer in northern manufacturing towns and cities like Leeds, which grew rapidly throughout the decade, aided by its ability to offer a range of cultural facilities that helped to attract an array of UK company headquarters. Manchester, similarly, enjoyed a renaissance, particularly in the spheres of music, the media and sport.

In July 1995, tormented by yet more rumours of right-wing conspiracies against him, Major riposted with a theatrical gesture of his own, resigning as leader of the Conservative Party and inviting all-comers to take him on. He told journalists gathered in the Number Ten garden that it was “put up or shut up time”. If he lost he would resign as Prime Minister. If he won, he would expect the party to rally around him. This was a gamble, since other potential leaders were available, not least Michael Heseltine, who had become Deputy Prime Minister, and Michael Portillo, then the pin-up boy of the Thatcherites, whose supporters prepared a campaign headquarters for him, only for him to then decide against standing. In the event, the challenger was John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales and a highly intelligent anti-EU right-winger. Major won his fight, though 109 Tory MPs refused to back him.

Fighting the return of Fascism in Europe:

Major was also having to deal with the inter-ethnic wars breaking out in the former Yugoslavia, following the recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia as independent states in the early nineties. The worst violence occurred during the Serbian assault on Bosnia (I have written about the bloody 1992-94 Siege of Sarajevo, its capital, in an article elsewhere on this site based on John Simpson’s reporting). The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was used for the first time as woeful columns of refugees fled in different directions. A nightmare which Europeans thought was over in 1945 was returning, only a couple of days’ drive away from London and half a day’s drive from where I was living on the southern borders of Hungary with Serbia and Croatia.

Six years after the siege, during a school visit to the Hague, I sat in the courtroom of the International War Crimes Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia and listened, in horror, to the testimonies of those who had been imprisoned and tortured in concentration camps during the Bosnian War. I couldn’t believe that what I was hearing had happened in the final decade of the twentieth century in Europe. Those on trial at that time were the prison camp guards who had carried out the atrocities, claiming what had become known as the Nuremberg Defence. Later on, those giving the orders, both Mladko Radic and Radovan Karadzic (pictured below with John Simpson in 1993), the military and political leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, went on trial in the same courtroom, were convicted of war crimes and duly locked away, together with the former Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic. Major had asked how many troops it would take to keep the warring three sides apart and was told the number was four hundred thousand, three times the total size of the British Army at that time. He sent 1,800 men to protect the humanitarian convoys that were rumbling south from the UN bases in Hungary.

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Although many British people sent food parcels, warm clothes, medicine and blankets, loaded onto trucks and driven across the Croatian border and into Bosnia, many in the government were reluctant for Britain to become further involved. But the evening news bulletins showed pictures of starving refugees, the uncovered mass graves of civilians shot dead by death squads, and children with appalling injuries. There was a frenzied campaign for Western intervention, but President Clinton was determined not to risk the lives of American soldiers on the ground. Instead, he considered less costly alternatives, such as air strikes. This would have put others who were on the ground, including the British and other nationalities involved in the UN operation, directly into the line of retaliatory fire of the Serbian troops. When the NATO air-strikes began, the Serbs took the UN troops hostage, including British soldiers, who were then used as human shields. When the Serbs captured the town of Srebrenica and carried out a mass slaughter of its Muslim citizens, there were renewed calls for ‘boots on the ground’, but they never came.

Following three years of fighting, sanctions on Serbia and the success of the Croat Army in fighting back, a peace agreement was finally made in Dayton, Ohio. The UN convoys and troops left Hungary. Major became the first British Prime Minister of the post-War World to grapple with the question of what the proper role of the West should be to ‘regional’ conflicts such as the Balkan wars. They showed quite clearly both the dangers and the limitations of intervention. When a civil conflict is relayed in all its horror to tens of millions of voters every night by television, the pressure to ‘do something’ is intense.  But mostly this requires not air strikes but a full-scale ground force, which will then be drawn into the war itself. Then it must be followed by years of neo-colonial aid and rebuilding. Major and his colleagues were accused of moral cowardice and cynicism in allowing the revival of fascist behaviour in one corner of Europe. Yet, especially given the benefit of hindsight of what happened subsequently in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps Western leaders were right to be wary of full-scale intervention.

Back to basics?

For many British voters, the Major years were associated with the sad, petty and lurid personal scandals that attended so many of his ministers, after he made an unwise speech calling for the return as old-style morality. In fact, back to basics referred to almost everything except personal sexual morality; he spoke of public service, industry, sound money, free trade, traditional teaching, respect for the family and the law and the defeat of crime. It gave the press, however, a fail-safe headline charge of hypocrisy whenever ministers were caught out. A series of infidelities were exposed; children born out-of-wedlock, a death from a sex stunt which went wrong, rumours about Major’s own affairs (which later turned out to be truer than realised at the time). More seriously, there was also an inquiry as to whether Parliament had been misled over the sale of arms to Iraq, but these were all knitted together into a single pattern of misbehaviour, referred to as ‘sleaze’.

In 1996, a three-year inquiry into whether the government had allowed a trial to go ahead against directors of an arms company, Matrix Churchill, knowing that they were, in fact, acting inside privately accepted guidelines, resulted in two ministers being publicly criticised. It showed that the government had allowed a more relaxed régime of military-related exports to Saddam Hussein even after the horrific gassing of five thousand Kurds at Falluja, also revealing a culture of secrecy and double standards in the process. Neil Hamilton MP was accused of accepting cash from Mohammed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, for asking questions in the Commons. One of the most dramatic episodes in the 1997 election was the overwhelming defeat he suffered in his Tatton constituency by the former BBC war reporter, Martin Bell, who had been badly injured in Sarajevo who became Britain’s first independent MP for nearly fifty years. Jonathan Aitken, a Treasury minister was accused of accepting improper hospitality from an Arab business contact. He resigned to fight the Guardian over the claims, with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play. He was found guilty of perjury, spending eighteen months in prison.

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By the end of Major’s government, it seemed that the Tories might have learned the lesson that disagreements over the EU were capable of splitting their party. However, there was a general mood of contempt for politicians and the press, in particular, had lost any sense of deference. The reforms of the health service, police and schools had produced few significant improvements. The post-Cold War world was turning out to be nastier and less predictable than the early nineties days of the ‘peace dividend’ had promised. The Labour Opposition would, in due course, consider how the country might be better governed and reformed, as well as what would be the right British approach to peace-keeping and intervention now that the United States was the last superpower left standing. But in the early months of 1997,  Tony Blair and his fresh young ‘New Labour’ team, including Alistair Campbell (pictured above), were oiling their effective election-winning machine and moving in to roll over a tired-looking John Major and his tarnished old Tories.

Sources:

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

Simon Schama (2018), A History of Britain, 1776-2000; The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.

John Simpson (1999), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Pan-Macmillan.

Peter Caterall, Roger Middleton, John Swift (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Posted October 17, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Apocalypse, Arabs, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Coalfields, Cold War, devolution, Egalitarianism, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, Family, France, Genocide, German Reunification, Germany, Gorbachev, Humanism, Hungary, Immigration, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Italy, Journalism, Labour Party, manufacturing, Margaret Thatcher, Marxism, morality, National Health Service (NHS), Refugees, Revolution, Scotland, Security, terrorism, Thatcherism, Unemployment, Wales

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