Archive for the ‘Great Depression’ Tag

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

Labour Arrives; Summer 1929:


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


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

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

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

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

Labour’s Conservatives & Radicals:

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



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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bleak Scenes, Hard Times:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Crisis of 1931 & The Cuts:

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

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

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

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

Divided Opinion & Reaction – Mutiny & Gold Standard:

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

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

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

The Times, 25 August 1931   

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

New Statesman, 29 August 1931    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MacDonald – Man, Motives & Myth:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dole, ‘Dope’ & The Means Test:


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


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

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

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

Socialism, Parties & Patriotism:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Socialism’ and the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900: Part One – Chartists, Radicals & Revolutionaries.   Leave a comment


The British Labour Party, 1983-2019:

The British Labour Party published its manifesto for the forthcoming General Election in early December 2019. The Party itself claims that it represents its most radical offering to the British electorate ever. Certainly, it is the most left-wing programme to be put forward since the 1983 Election, at which the then leader, Michael Foot, was later accused by Gerald Kauffman of writing ‘the longest suicide note in history’. As a result, Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory which led to her remaining in power for a further seven years, and the Tories until 1997. There were other factors, of course, not least among them the victory over Argentina in the Falklands Islands in 1982. I campaigned for Labour in Carmarthen in 1983 and, at least in that three-way marginal, Labour defeated both the Tories and Plaid Cymru. Michael Foot delivered a fiery, left-wing speech in the constituency and inspired us, students, to knock on doors in working-class areas of the town to secure their vote for the Labour candidate, Dr Roger Thomas. Across Wales and the UK, however, the Tories destroyed the Labour Party in a manner no-one could have anticipated. In 2019, are we now headed for a similar scale of defeat? Has the Corbyn-led leftward lurch finally brought the party to the end of the road? Or is there an underestimated level of support for radical, redistributive policies in today’s Britain which could yet bring in a government which, to invert the words of a former speaker and Labour MP, George Thomas, would seem to owe more to Marxism than Methodism? To understand these issues, we need to look back to the origins of the Labour Party, founded by, among others, my own grandparents.

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

The Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, London, home to Walter Crane’s ‘Twentieth Century Press’ in the 1890s

Organising the Labourers, 1870-1879:

My great-grandparents were agricultural labourers and marched with Methodist lay-preacher Joseph Arch in the 1860s and 1870s to organise their fellow villagers into the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union and then the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union in 1872. One of my great-great-uncles became one of its first local full-time officers. By 1875, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong and organised into thirty-eight districts, despite fierce opposition from farmers, landlords, and parish priests. It was against this triple tyranny that the farm labourers struggled to build trade unionism in the countryside. Added to that was the sense of isolation, both at work and in the nature of village life. A labourer might work alone in fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays for a wage of twelve pounds a year. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of the world beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and a semblance of social life at the village pub. Nor did he share in the fruits of the earth on which he toiled; the harvester, like the one in the photograph below, who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could find himself before the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. It took a special kind of courage to stand with a few fellow-labourers and sing:

Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.


Meanwhile, the industrial advances of the middle-Victorian era eliminated the immediate risk of serious social discontent among the workers, and especially among their potential leaders, the skilled artisans and factory employees. The plight of the poor was made worse by the fact that many more of them lived in towns. In 1871, sixty-two per cent of the population of England and Wales was classed in the census as urban; by 1911 it would reach eighty per cent of a much larger total. Yet in a country like Britain, with a long-established aristocracy and a traditional class system, no very high degree of social fluidity could be attained even in the heyday of industrial capitalism. On the contrary, large-scale industry developed class solidarity among the workers which in the end facilitated effective political election in the interest of labour as a whole. By 1871 the Trades Union Congress had been established and accepted as the central parliament of labour, meeting annually, and its Parliamentary Committee was the recognised agent for applying pressure on behalf of the trades unions at the centre of government. By the Acts of 1871, the trade unions secured a legal status; in the same year, the engineers of north-east England revived the Nine Hours movement and won a strike for this object. In 1875, a Conservative government, showing itself as sensitive as the Liberals to the pressure of the unions in industrial matters, passed two acts which satisfied the unions in respect of breach of contract and picketing.

There were also a few local labour associations active in securing representation for working men on local authorities, and sometimes, as in Birmingham in the 1870s, they carried on their work without any understanding with an existing party. But on a national scale, it is not surprising that few labour leaders regarded the establishment of an entirely independent workers’ party as a practical possibility. Most of them accepted Gladstone’s leadership, for it had been he who had championed the cause of working-class suffrage in the previous decade, and on many issues of policy, the leaders of the artisans found themselves in alliance with the Liberals. The Liberal Party was not a monolithic structure: and the acceptance of the leadership of Gladstone on general questions did not necessarily mean that the labour interest need forego its special organisation. In the circumstances of the time, there was no reason why the Labour Representation League should not continue to exist among, and indeed to struggle against, the other elements of the Liberal Party. This struggle could and did continue at the constituency level. The failure of the League to maintain itself even on those terms indicates the unwillingness of the middle-class Liberals to see working men elected as their representatives. John Bright himself accused the League of disorganising the party unless what are called working-class representatives could be returned. Henry Broadbent, the Secretary of the League, in his rejoinder to this, admitted the failure of its policy:

Up to the present, the number of seats contested by labour candidates have been very few, and in some of these cases the seats sought to be won were those held by the Conservatives, and in many of those instances we singularly enough found large numbers of the middle class electors preferred voting for the Tories rather than support a working-class candidate. Surely, then, we are the aggrieved party. …

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Above & below: The Paris Commune of 1871.

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It was true that the policy of finding Liberal seats for labour candidates had few successes and many failures. At the 1874 election two miners were elected, Thomas Burt for Morpeth and Alexander McDonald for Stafford; but this was a miserable showing for an electorate, the majority of which now consisted of members of the working class. Nevertheless, there were signs of a developing sympathy among them for Socialism at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted above). These were mainly to be found among the writings of the Republican movement which sprang up in the period 1871-74 when eighty-four Republican clubs were founded in Britain. But the disagreement among their leaders over the issue of ‘social revolution’ led to division and decline. Its Socialist doctrine was limited to a vague ‘Owenism’, for although Marx was living in London at this time, pursuing his research at the reading room of the British Museum (below), his works were little known in Britain. Nevertheless, Robert Owen’s thinking was not entirely without influence, as it was at this period that many trade unions took up schemes for co-operative production, buying collieries and engineering works in which to try out these ideas. In the years 1874 to 1880, while the Liberals were out of power, it was difficult for a labourist opposition to establish itself as distinct from that of the Liberals.


By 1878, the Labour Representation League had ceased to attract any public attention and the more independent trade unions, mostly those most vulnerable to the severe trade depression of the late seventies, were killed off by the bad times. Arch’s Agricultural Labourers’ Union was especially hard hit and its membership rapidly declined. In 1881, Arch appeared in person before the Royal Commission on Agriculture, claiming that the only way to ensure higher wages for farm labourers was to reduce the numbers in ‘the market’ through emigration. His Union had aided the emigration of seven hundred thousand men, women and children over the previous nine years, together with the Canadian government. Similarly, the New Zealand government, anxious to overcome the disadvantages of the long, expensive and uncomfortable sea journeys of British emigrants, had offered, from 1873, free passages, especially to agricultural labourers and their families. With the backing of NALU, many families took up the offer, and between 1871 and 1880, the New Zealand government provided over a hundred thousand immigrants with assisted passages.


This trade union participation in what became known as ‘Liberal Imperialism’ presented a serious challenge to the growth of Socialism in Britain. In general, millworkers and miners were absorbed in their economic struggle for better wages and conditions. This laid some of them open to the argument that faced with stiffening foreign competition and tariffs, Britain could only hold on to or improve its prosperity by having more and more colonies. This ‘bread-and-butter’ argument had a rational flavour, and it would seem that when trade was good most workers were prepared to give it a good hearing. When trading conditions were bad, and especially capital and labour were more at odds than usual, it usually fell into the background, and the instinctive assumptions and loyalties of the class struggle usually took its place. But what historians now refer to as the ‘Great Depression’, far from encouraging that growth and the break-up of the Liberal Party, actually discouraged working-class militancy and destroyed the more ‘advanced’ and independent elements among the working classes in both the agricultural and industrial areas of the Midlands and South of England.

Most of the time, the working classes were simply shut in their own world and its own affairs, including trade union and co-operative activities, the club-life of the public house, the football ground and the chapel, to be either enthusiastic or antagonistic towards imperialism. It never became for them what it was for those higher up; a definite creed, philosophy of life, a mission. But if a long-sustained effort to indoctrinate them with jingoism was rewarded with acquiescence rather than with wholehearted assent, this meant equally that socialist or labour leaders who tried to transform indifference into anti-imperialism met with even smaller success. Some trade union and Socialist spokesmen were reviving an opposition to the empire that had been voiced by Ernest Jones the Chartist, the spirited attacks on it by intellectuals and radical groups fell on deaf working-class ears. Writing to Kautsky in September 1882, Engels commented on working-class attitudes to the empire in response to a question from his continental ‘comrade’:

You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.


Neither could Owenite Socialism, identified with Utopian experiments and lacking any systematic economic theory, provide a basis for a practical political programme. Writing in 1881, Engels felt bound to admit that the working class of Britain had become the tail of the great Liberal Party. The new orientation of economic thought was influenced not only by the impact of the depression but also by long-term changes in the structure of industry which earlier economists had not predicted. The family firms were being replaced by more impersonal limited companies, in which ownership was divorced from managerial skill and from direct contact with labour. As a result, the opportunities for social advancement were curtailed and the workers’ class solidarity was increased. This did not happen uniformly in all industries, and by the mid-eighties, it was common only in iron, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. But the tendency was the same everywhere, and it seemed very possible that it might lead to the substitution of monopoly for competition in the end, as Marx had forecast. But though he had been living in London since 1849, Marx was virtually unknown at this time, even by Liberal Radicals. His major works were written in German and had not been translated into English, and they were more concerned with events on the continent. Engels was better known as a critic of the industrial system in England.


Engels in a photograph taken in the 1870s

In the earlier years of the Victorian period, there had always been those intellectuals who maintained that the existing industrial system was unjust or ugly or both. The most notable of those who took this view were Carlyle and Ruskin, both of whom were popular in the later nineteenth century. Ruskin had founded a Utopian experiment, St George’s Guild, and bought a farm where a little group of Sheffield Socialists attempted without success to set up a self-sufficient community. His essays on political economy, Unto this Last (1860), and his letters to working men, known as Fors Clavigera (1871-84), did much to encourage the growing spirit of collectivism. They revived, in simple and impressive language, many of the criticisms of classical economics which had first been voiced by the ‘Ricardian Socialists’ of the 1820s. Not that Ruskin had read the works of these writers, who were completely forgotten in this period except for the occasional footnote in Marx. Ruskin was the great amateur of political economy, but influential for all that. It was not without reason that Keir Hardie and many other labour leaders regarded Carlyle and Ruskin as more important in shaping their political views than any writers more fully versed in the abstractions of economic theory.


It would be difficult to argue that any of the British labour leaders at the end of the nineteenth century, except for a very few Marxists, were able to build their political views upon a reasoned philosophical basis. The British Socialists at this time were a small and scattered minority. The London Commonwealth Club, which John Hales had represented at the Ghent Socialist Congress of 1877, seems to have died out before the end of the decade. Hales led the opposition to Marx and Engels in the British Section of the First Socialist International (pictured below) and tried to revive the Club by founding the International Labour Union in 1877-8 but this, too, was a very short-lived organisation, despite attracting the support of several leading ‘advanced radicals’. What interest there was in Socialism sprang very largely from the success of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which in 1877 had polled nearly half a million votes and had won thirteen seats in the Reichstag.


Engels speaking to the Congress of the First International in the Hague in 1872.

In 1879, an old Chartist, John Sketchley of Birmingham, published a pamphlet entitled The Principles of Social Democracy which sought to show, based on the German SPD, what the programme of a similar party in Britain might be. In Birmingham, Sketchley tried to organise a Midland Social Democratic Association, linking to the city’s working-class politics of the early 1870s. Other Socialist propagandists of the time were Henry Travis, a doctor, who published occasional pamphlets on Owenism, and a young journalist, Ernest Belfort Bax, who knew Germany well, had read Marx’s Das Kapital in the original and had written articles on Marxism in the monthly magazine, Modern Thought in 1879. Also, in 1880, the Rose Street club of German exiles expanded rapidly due to the influx of refugees from the regressive legislation in Germany and Austria, developing an English section although it continued to publish only in German. When the Russian scientist and socialist Peter Kropotkin visited England to lecture on Socialism in 1881, he found himself addressing ‘ridiculously small audiences’. Two years later, Marx’s death in London would have passed unnoticed by The Times had its Paris correspondent not sent a paragraph on his European reputation.

Liberal Hegemony & the Birth of Socialism, 1880-84:

Clearly, at the time of the General Election in 1880, Socialism in Britain was as yet a movement without indigenous strength. Until the early 1880s, there had been no organised working-class support for major democratic reform since the death of the Chartist movement in the late 1840s. The mid-Victorian period was generally one of prosperity, rising wages and full employment, at least for ‘skilled’ workers. The Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise to most of the adult male population, was a move towards democratic reform through legislation. At the same time, British socialism acquired some new ideas from refugees who had fled from persecution under autocratic continental governments in the 1870s. The hold of the Liberal Party over the working-class vote was shown to be stronger than ever. Only three working men were returned at the 1880 Election, all of them as Liberals: Henry Broadhurst, Secretary of the TUC, joined Thomas Burt and Alexander McDonald at Westminster. The election showed the strength of Joseph Chamberlain’s new Radical pressure group, the National Liberal Foundation, which dominated the constituency parties to the advantage of the middle-classes and the alarm of labour leaders. The Liberals had a clear majority of seventy-two seats in the new House of Commons. In late 1880 a new weekly paper, the Radical, was established in London ostensibly in opposition to the new Liberal government’s policy of applying coercion in Ireland. However, the leading article in the first issue deplored the small number of labour representatives in Parliament.

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The protagonists of this alliance of Radicals and Irish included Helen Taylor, the stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, T. P. O’Connor and former Chartists. There followed a proposal for a more permanent organisation of ‘advanced’ Radicals, an idea which seems to have originated with H. M. Hyndman, a Tory Radical who was defeated at Marylebone in the 1880 election, and H. A. M. Butler-Johnstone, MP for Canterbury for many years before resigning over differences with the Tory Party in 1878. He stood as an independent in the 1880 election but was defeated. The views of these two men on ‘the Eastern Question’ provided an unlikely link with Karl Marx, whose advice they sought. In response to their invitation, delegates from various London clubs and associations met at the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Rose Street in an attempt to unite, if possible, all societies willing to adopt Radical programme with a powerful Democratic party. The meeting urged…

… the necessity of the formation of a New Party, the grand object of which should be the direct representation of labour. In addition to Parliamentary reform, the new party would, of course, have to deal with the question of improvement in the social condition of the people. 

A resolution was passed without opposition in favour of an attempt to establish ‘a labour party’, and a committee of nine was appointed to draft a programme. These included liberal trades unionists, social democrats, working-class Radicals, together with Hyndman and Butler-Johnstone. The foundation conference took place in June 1881, and a long advertisement in the Radical invited delegates from advanced political organisations, trade societies and clubs throughout the country. The advertisement advocated a social and political programme which shall unite the great body of the people, quite irrespective of party. The programme was to include attention to labour interests, economy, constitutional reform, the end of coercion in Ireland, and full publicity for the discussion of imperial and foreign affairs. Hyndman’s hand can be detected in the composition of this statement and it is evident that he played an active part in the shaping of the new party. When the conference took place, it was decided that the ‘party’ should rather be called the ‘Democratic Federation’, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to copy and rival Chamberlain’s National Liberal Federation which had proved all too successful in establishing middle-class hegemony over the constituency caucuses.


Writing to Bernstein in May 1881, Engels had already decided, however, that the Federation was quite without significance because it could only arouse interest on the Irish question. Hyndman’s conversion to Marxian Socialism had taken place on a trip to America the previous year when he read a copy of the French version of Marx’s Kapital given him by Butler-Johnstone. In January 1881 he had published an article in the influential monthly, the Nineteenth Century, which he entitled The Dawn of a Revolutionary Epoch. In June, at the inaugural conference of the Democratic Federation, he distributed to all the delegates a little book he had written called England for All, in which he expounded the views of Marx without mentioning his name. This annoyed Marx and their relations became strained. Marx wrote to his friend Sorge of his irritation with Hyndman’s publication:

It pretends to be written as an exposition of the programme of the ‘Democratic Federation’ – a recently formed association of different English and Scottish radical societies, half bourgeois, half proletarian. The chapters on Labour and Capital are simply literal extracts from … ‘Das Kapital’, but the fellow mentions neither the book nor its author … As to myself, the fellow wrote stupid letters of excuse, for instance, that “the English don’t like to be taught by foreigners”, that “my name was so much detested”, etc. For all that, his little book, so far as it pilfers ‘Das Kapital’ makes good propoganda, although the man is a weak vessel, and very far from having even the patience – the first condition of learning anything – to study a matter thoroughly.


Above: The last photograph of Marx, taken in the spring of 1882 in Algeria.

In this way, Hyndman lost his brief friendship with Karl Marx and, as a result, that of Friedrich Engels as well. Marx died in 1883, but Engels lived on in London until 1895, aspiring to direct the Socialist movement from behind the scenes. His hostility to Hyndman was to have serious consequences for the movement. Marx and Engels were not, themselves, easy people to get on with, and they were sometimes poor judges of character. Hyndman nicknamed Engels the Grand Lama of the Regents Park Road, a reference to his self-imposed seclusion in his house there, and Engels spoke of Hyndman as an arch-Conservative and extremely chauvinistic but not stupid careerist, who behaved pretty shabbily to Marx, and for that reason was dropped by us personally. Hyndman was by no means a careerist, as his subsequent unrewarding toil in the Socialist movement was to show: Marx himself was perhaps closer to the truth when he described him as self-satisfied and garrulous. Bernard Shaw classified him …

… with the free-thinking English gentlemen-republicans of the last half of the nineteenth century: with Dilke, Burton Auberon Herbert, Wilfred Seawen Blunt, Laurence Oliphant: great globe-trotters, writers, ‘frondeurs’, brilliant and accomplished cosmopolitans so far as their various abilities permitted, all more interested in the world than in themselves, and in themselves than in official decorations; consequently unpurchasable, their price being too high for any modern commercial Government to pay.      

Hyndman’s Conservative origins and leanings made him suspect to many of the Radicals, who mostly preferred the Liberals if they had to choose between the parties. In his Marylebone election address, he had declared his opposition to disestablishment and Irish Home Rule and this was not forgotten by his contemporaries. Following his ‘conversion’ to Marxian thinking, and under its influence, he soon gave up these views, but he was still sufficiently conservative in his leanings to arrange a meeting with Disraeli, now the Earl of Beaconsfield, at which he poured forth his views, apparently in the hope that the Tory Party might adopt them. Disraeli listened patiently and politely but told him that private property which you hope to communise and vested interests which you openly threaten, have a great many to speak up for them still. Despite this rebuttal, Hyndman always hated the Liberals more than the Tories, a feature which was to distinguish his politics from those of many of the other British Socialists. The Democratic Federation’s intransigent opposition to the Liberal Party became unpalatable to many of its early members. Its vigorous support for a Land League candidate against the Liberal nominee at a by-election in Tyrone in the autumn of 1881, at which it issued a denunciation of ‘capitalist radicalism’ in a special manifesto, led to the defection of all the Radical clubs and its original membership contracted. As Socialism began to spread, however, Hyndman was able to convert it into an openly Socialist body at the annual conference in 1883. The Federation now adopted his declaration of principles, Socialism Made Plain, but it did not change its name until the following year when it became the Social Democratic Federation.


The new recruits to Socialism who joined Hyndman in running the Federation, several young public school men, included H. H. Champion and R. P. B. Frost, who had been contemporaries at Marlborough and held office in the newly founded Land Reform Union, which publicised the views of Henry George in Britain. A more notable convert was William Morris, already a radical writer and artist with a distinguished reputation and an honorary fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. Morris had been active in the Eastern Question Association, which had brought him into contact with Liberal labour leaders a few years before, so his attitude to this question was Gladstonian, the opposite to that of Marx and Hyndman. But he had not been active in the land agitation, and it was Ruskin rather than George who seems to have been his introduction to Socialism. Therefore, as the working-class Radicals left the Federation, the middle-class Socialists came in. Paradoxically, however, by November 1882, Morris had decided that no really far-reaching reforms would be carried out by a party under middle-class control. He wrote:

Radicalism is on the wrong line … and will never develop into anything more than Radicalism … it is made by the middle classes and will always be under the control of rich capitalists: they will have no objection to its political development if they think they can stop it there: but as to real social changes, they will not allow them if they can help it.


So it was that on 13 January 1883 he committed himself to socialism by joining the Democratic Federation. Becoming a Socialist at the age of forty-nine was not a step which he took lightly. During the winter of 1882-83, he attended a series of lectures, intended as an introduction to Socialism, organised by the Federation. Immediately after joining, he read Das Kapital in French, as it had not then been translated into English. Marx died two months after Morris joined the Federation, and Morris therefore never met him. Nevertheless, Morris regarded himself as a communist and his adoption of the socialist cause was, at first, based on an instinctive response to what he felt to be injustices of capitalism. In Marx’s account of the alienation of the worker in an industrial society, and of his liberation through the class struggle, he found a theoretical base to underpin these instincts. He summed up his position in a letter to C. E. Maurice in July 1883:

In looking into matters social and political I have but one rule, that in thinking of the condition of any body of men I should ask myself, ‘How could you bear it yourself? What would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live?’ … the answer to it has more and more made me ashamed of my own position, and more and more made me feel that if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. … this … is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor … ought not to be endured by either rich or poor. … such a system can only be destroyed, it seems to me, by the united discontent of numbers; isolated acts of a few persons in the middle and upper classes seeming to me … quite powerless against it: in other words the antagonism of classes, which the system has bred, is the natural necessary instrument of its destruction. … I am quite sure that the change which will overthrow our present system will come sooner or later: on the middle classes to a great extent it depends whether it will come peacefully or violently.

Early on, Morris had understood that there were serious ideological, strategic and tactical divisions within the Federation, not to mention clashes of personality. Morris wrote about these divisions in his letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones in August 1883:

Small as our body is, we are not without dissensions in it. Some of the more ardent members look upon Hyndman as too opportunist, and there is truth in that; he is sanguine of speedy change happening somehow and is inclined to intrigue and the making of a party. … I … think the aim of Socialists should be the founding of a religion, towards which end compromise is no use, and we only want to have those with us who will be with us to the end.

These millenarian beliefs also had an impact on Morris ‘inner’ struggles with his own conscience. The contradiction between his socialist views and his position as a wealthy, middle-class businessman was from the first pointed out by his critics. His workers do not appear to have been disturbed by this apparent inconsistency, however, because Morris treated them with respect as fellow workers and paid them more than average wages. In any case, he felt (perhaps all too conveniently for him personally) that individual tinkering with the system, in the form of profit-sharing, was useless – it must be overthrown in its entirety. He regarded revolution, whether violent or not, as a historical necessity which would certainly come in his lifetime. Nevertheless, in 1884 he calculated that every worker in his employment should receive an extra sixteen pounds a year. He also introduced a form of profit-sharing for his ‘core’ employees, though the Firm overall remained a standard limited company.


Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery; photographed c. 1895.

In 1884, the Federation became the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and seemed to have every hope of rapid progress. Though not strong in numbers, the SDF had important footholds in the Land Reform Union and the National Secular Society, and it had both weekly and monthly journals in addition to the services of some able men and women, including William Morris and Annie Besant. When, in March 1884, it organised a procession to the grave of Marx in Highgate cemetery on the first anniversary of his death, those who took part amounted, according to Morris, to over a thousand, with another two or three thousand onlookers. This was, at least, a beginning, Morris thought. Once convinced of the rightness of Socialism, Morris threw himself into the work of the Federation, not allowing himself to be deterred by his instinctive dislike and distrust of Hyndman. Morris resolved to tolerate the leader of the Federation because of his genuine belief in Socialism. Unlike Morris, he had met Marx and, like Morris, had converted to Socialism after reading Das Kapital. Morris told his business manager that as he is trying to do what I think ought to be done, I feel that everyone who has similar ideas ought to help him. 


Marx (standing with Engels) with his daughters (seated), Jenny, Eleanor & Laura, c. 1867

The Social Democratic Federation aimed to educate the working class and to organise them for the socialist revolution which members of the Federation believed to be imminent. In his book, The Historical Basis of Socialism in Britain (1883), Hyndman had implied that the time would be ripe in 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution. It was, however, the disagreement about the means of achieving Socialism that brought the clashes of personality into prominence. Hyndman had captured the Democratic Federation for Socialism, and he expected to go on dominating it and leading it along the line of policy which he favoured. But he did not find favour in all quarters: Marx and Engels never regarded him as a genuine Socialist by their standards, and although Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was a member of the SDF, both she and her partner, the scientist Edward Aveling (of whom G. B. Shaw, scarcely exaggerating said, he seduced every woman he met, and borrowed from every man) regarded Hyndman with suspicion. Indeed, he was dictatorial, devious and vain; what Morris had identified as Hyndman’s genuine belief in Socialism was now more obviously accompanied by his desire to use the Federation as a vehicle for his parliamentary ambition. He wanted it to become a conventional political party, campaigning for reforms and, as soon as possible, putting up candidates for local and parliamentary elections.

William Morris resented Hyndman’s domineering ways and eventually decided that he could no longer tolerate him. At the SDF conference in June 1884, it was decided not to put up parliamentary candidates and Hyndman was displaced as president; instead, members of the executive took turns to act as chairman. Nevertheless, as Morris recognised, Hyndman was determined to be master, and though Morris did not oppose getting members into parliament once the Federation had a strong enough base, he did not feel that it should be their aim at all costs, as Hyndman did. In particular, Morris was very much opposed to sordid electioneering and to gaining concessions by doing deals with other parties. Along with others in the SDF, he felt that their principal aim should be the preparation of the working classes for their part in the coming revolution: Education towards Revolution seems to me to express in three words what our policy should be. 


Despite Morris’ efforts to act as a mediator in the intrigue and in-fighting with the Hyndmanites, the crisis came in December 1884. The split took place on 27 December, when ten members of the Executive Council resigned, denouncing what in a signed statement they called the attempt to substitute arbitrary rule therein for fraternal co-operation. The signatories included Morris himself, Eleanor Marx and Aveling, More congenial to Morris was Belfort Bax, a journalist, musician and philosopher, who was a confidant of Engels with whom Morris later collaborated in writing Socialism, its Growth and Outcome (1893). The remaining nine members, led by Hyndman, remained in control of the remnants of the SDF. On the day of the split, and even before the critical Council meeting took place, Morris received an ex-cathedra summons to visit Engels, who gave him his advice on the way to organise a new organisation. Next day Morris acquired headquarters for it: as it had the support of the two leagues of London and Scotland, the new ‘party’ was called The Socialist League. The League began to publish a new journal, Commonweal which in Morris’ hands was a paper of real literary merit. Morris much regretted the split, realising that it had seriously weakened the socialist cause, and hoped that before long the British Socialists might be reunited in one party. Indeed, in his last years, he himself did rejoin the SDF. The two associations managed to stay on reasonably amicable terms. Nevertheless, writing in the Commonweal in 1890, Morris bitterly described the Federation as composed in the early days of …

… a few working men, less successful even in the wretched life of labour than their fellows: a sprinkling of the intellectual proletariat … one or two outsiders in the game political, a few refugees from the bureaucratic tyranny of foreign governments; and here and there an unpractical, half-cracked artist or author.


Educators, Agitators & Trades Unionists, 1885-89:

But in spite of Morris’s great activity up and down the country, the League did not displace the SDF and after six months it still had only two affiliated bodies and eight branches with 230 members. When Morris resigned from the SDF, its membership amounted to no more than five hundred. Morris became depressed about this, as he wrote to Mrs Burne-Jones in May 1885:

I am in low spirits about the prospects of our ‘party’, if I can dignify a little knot of men by such a word. … You see we are such a few, and hard as we work we don’t seem to pick up people to take over our places when we demit. … I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of ‘civilisation’, which I know now is doomed to destruction, and probably before long … and how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. … 

This letter explains very clearly the nature of Morris’s views on the character of the future Socialist revolution. Like Hyndman, he believed in a coming catastrophe and even looked forward to it with millenarian enthusiasm, though he did not, like Hyndman, regard himself as marked out for revolutionary leadership. Rather, he believed that the immediate role of the Socialist was to educate people for the great inevitable change which could bring back the simpler, sounder society of medieval times when craftsmen took pride in their work and when there was no capitalist exploitation or industrial ugliness. In this thinking, he was clearly influenced by Ruskin, shaping a criticism of contemporary that was to form the basis of Syndicalism and Guild Socialism in the early twentieth century. Morris disagreed with those who favoured efforts to get Socialists elected onto public bodies, including Parliament because he thought that this would encourage careerists and threaten the purity of the Socialist ideal with the corruption and compromise inevitably involved in politics. But even his own Socialist League divided on this issue, a division which hastened its collapse at the end of the decade. Morris was a fully convinced Socialist, and though he did not know much about Marxian economics, he was quite prepared to take them on trust. His attitude is well illustrated by his answer to a Hyndmanite questioner who asked, Does Comrade Morris accept Marx’s Theory of Value? He replied bluntly:

To speak frankly, I do not know what Marx’s Theory of Value is, and I’m damned if I want to know. Truth to say, my friends, I have tried to understand  Marx’s theory, but political economy is not my line, and much of it appears to me to be dreary rubbish. But I am, I hope, a Socialist none the less. It is enough political economy for me to know that the idle rich class is rich and the working class is poor, and that the rich are rich because they rob the poor. …

In retrospect, Morris’ fine literary and artistic gifts make him, for many, the most attractive personality among the early British Socialists. But to contemporaries, especially among the working class, his opposition to Parliamentary action was unpopular. The SDF, by contrast, seemed more practical than the Socialist League, and better organised as a party. Morris saw his role as that of a propagandist, educating the working classes in socialist theory. As he explained in an interview with the Liberal newspaper, Daily News, in January 1885,

the discontented must know what they are aiming at when they overthrow the old order of things. My belief is that the old order can only be overthrown by force, and for that reason it is all the more important than the revolution … should not be an ignorant, but an educated revolution.

By the summer of 1886, the Socialist League’s membership had risen to seven hundred. Morris’ political work took two forms, writing and public speaking. He was well aware of his deficiencies as a speaker, particularly before a working-class audience, with whom he found it a great drawback that I can’t speak roughly to them and unaffectedly. He candidly commented to Georgiana Burne-Jones that this revealed the great class gulf that lay between him and them. He regarded writing lectures as a laborious chore. He lectured 120 times between 1885 and 1886, touring East Anglia, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland, also travelling to Dublin. In addition, he played a full part in the Socialist League’s campaign of open-air speaking on Sunday mornings. Despite the failures in his delivery and his tendency to speak over the heads of his audience, his sincerity was impressive; so was the simple fact that such a famous man was prepared to devote so much time to speaking on street corners or visiting the East End to address sometimes no more than a handful of workers.

A  severe trade depression in the mid-1880s brought high unemployment and a receptive audience. Attempts by the police to suppress socialist speakers addressing crowds in public places created a good deal of unrest and further publicity for the socialist cause. It united the disparate radical and socialist groups in opposition to the police. The Socialist League offered support to the SDF after charges of obstruction were brought against its speakers in the summer of 1885. In September, Morris himself was arrested and brought before a magistrate, accused of striking a policeman and breaking the strap on his helmet during an uproar in court after a socialist speaker had been sentenced to two months’ hard labour, having been found guilty of obstruction. Morris denied the charge, and when questioned about his identity, replied, I am an artistic and literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe. He was allowed to go free. His arrest was the best possible publicity for the Socialist League, was reported as far afield as the United States and rallied supporters to the cause of free speech. But the contrast between the court’s treatment of Morris and of his working-class comrades was highlighted both on this occasion and in the following August, when Morris and two others, both working men, were arrested for obstruction. Morris was fined only a shilling because, as the judge explained, as a gentleman, he would at once see, when it was pointed out to him, that such meetings were a nuisance, and would desist in taking part in them. His two working-class accomplices, however, were both fined twenty pounds and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months. Unable to pay, they were sent to prison for two months.


There was a further division in the mid-eighties among the early Socialists, between those who were for placing economic problems in the prime place, and those who favoured subordinating them to ethical concerns. The former founded, early in 1884, a separate society which they called the Fabian Society, taking the name from the Roman general ‘Fabius’ who waited patiently for his opportunity to strike against Hannibal. Apart from the fact that they were Socialists, it is difficult to determine what the Fabians’ views actually were. Right from the start, the Society was opposed to the revolutionary views of the SDF; while Bernard Shaw, who attended his first meeting in May 1884 and was elected to membership in September, later declared that the constitutionalism which now distinguishes us as being as alien at those early meetings as it was at those of the SDF or the Socialist League. Although most of its early members were constitutionalists, some were revolutionaries and even anarchists. The Fabian Society was not committed to ‘constitutionalism’ at first, only to ‘caution’, which nevertheless was an implied criticism of the tactics of the SDF. It’s clear that, in some quarters, Fabian Socialism became something of a fashion of the middle-class ‘drawing-room’ which kept out nearly all the proletarians in favour of a very miscellaneous audience.


The first Fabian Tract, issued in April 1884, entitled Why are the Many Poor? simply stated the extent of wealth and poverty but offered no remedy. The second tract, issued in September, was drawn up by Shaw in his most scintillating style and advocated Land Nationalisation, State competition in industries, the abolition of gender inequalities and of all types of privilege. It concluded with the rather stark observation that we had rather face a Civil War than another century of suffering as the present one has been. At this time Shaw was an aspiring novelist, so far unknown. His political interests had first been aroused by Henry George, whom he heard speak in London in 1884:

He struck me dumb and shunted me from barren agnostic controversy to economics. I read his ‘Progress and Poverty’, and wet to a meeting of Hyndman’s Marxist Democratic Federation, where I rose and protested against its drawing a red herring across the trail blazed by George. I was contemptuously dismissed as a novice who had not read the great frst volume of Marx’s ‘Capital’.

I promptly read it, and returned to announce my complete conversion to it. Immediately contempt changed to awe, for Hyndman’s disciples had not read the book themselves, it being then accessible only in Deville’s French version in the British Museum reading room, my daily resort.


The reading room of the British Museum, used by both Marx and then by G. B. Shaw,

the former when writing Das Kapital, the second when reading it.

In 1884-5, Shaw was prepared, in his enthusiasm for Marx, to defend him against all comers. But even then, so far as a revolution by violence was concerned, Shaw was beginning to have doubts, and by February 1885 he was urging the middle-classes to join the Socialist movement to counteract the influence of a mob of desperate sufferers abandoned to the leadership of exasperated sentimentalists and fanatical theorists.  this precept, he brought into the Fabian Society his friend Sidney Webb, a clerk in the Foreign Office, who was a disciple of John Stuart Mill. He had, at Shaw’s suggestion, read Marx, but had not been converted to Marxian Socialism. Shortly afterwards, Annie Besant, who had a long record of Radical agitation, also joined the Fabian Society, and under these new and able recruits, it developed a distinctive constitutionalist strategy within British Socialism.


The 1884 extensions of the electorate spelt the end of the already moribund principle of government non-intervention in the economic sphere. As soon as the control of elections passed out of the hands of those who paid income tax, the age-old doctrine of laissez-faire was dead. But it was a far greater leap to Socialism in the stricter sense of either the ‘Marxists’ or of the Fabians, who were more eclectic in their reading of political economy. In 1885, the Socialists were not an electoral force at all, since it was impossible for a body like the SDF, with just a few thousand members, to fight a Parliamentary election, unless those members were al concentrated into one constituency. Despite having never fought an election, however, they were determined to do so. First of all, in October it put up four candidates for the London district school boards. All were unsuccessful, but the system of cumulative voting to some extent concealed the severity of their defeat. Then its leaders began to plan the Parliamentary campaign, but the difficulty was their lack of finance. Desperate to find a new source of funding for the Federation ahead of the General Election, they approached the Liberal Party in the guise of Joseph Chamberlain who was trying to rally the agricultural labourers, miners and the Nonconformists, without alienating the industrialists. They hoped that if they promised him their support, Chamberlain would give them a seat to contest in the Birmingham area: but though he met the Socialist leaders, he rejected their proposals.


In 1883, one of Hyndman’s young recruits, H. H. Champion had become the secretary of the Social Democratic Federation, having similar political attitudes to those of Hyndman as a ‘Tory Socialist’. Then, in 1885, Champion received an offer of funds through a former Marxist and member of the First International who was then working as a Conservative agent. The money was offered for two candidatures in London, which the contributors no doubt thought would split the Liberal vote. Accordingly, two working-men members were put up, J. E. Williams for Hampstead and John Fielding for Kennington. Neither was a working-class constituency, and the candidates got only fifty-nine votes between them. Another SDF candidate, John Burns, an unemployed engineer, stood in Nottingham, however, where he polled 598 votes. The reaction to the London candidature fiasco was immediate and furious. Outside the party, the result of the so-called ‘Tory Gold’ scandal was that there was almost universal condemnation of the SDF, and even the Fabian Society passed a resolution expressing strong disapproval. J. Hunter Watts, who, as treasurer of the SDF, had been left in the dark by Hyndman and Champion, and a member of the Executive Council denounced the two leaders for ‘irresponsibility’ and for trying to run the Federation in military-style. Another schism took place in the Federation, with a new body called the ‘Socialist Union’ being set up, one of whose ‘bright sparks’ was a young Scotsman named James Ramsay Macdonald, who had picked up Socialist ideas in Bristol before settling in London. Both the Bristol and Nottingham SDF branches came over to the Socialist Union, and new affiliates were formed at Carlisle and Manchester. But there was little demand for a fresh Socialist organisation and, lacking wealthy backers, it did not last long.

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In 1886-87, the SDF had been organising demonstrations of the poor and unemployed in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere in London and the south-east, resulting in their leaders’ arrests. In 1887, Engels was also encouraging Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in their agitation in East London. Morris continued to embarrass the authorities and the police who did not know how to deal with him at demonstrations and were reluctant to arrest him. Well aware of this, Morris tried to be present as often as possible when there was liable to be trouble with the police, who were often brutal in their treatment of working-class agitators. Even in loyal London, the Jubilee year saw, on 13 November 1887, ‘Bloody Sunday’ – as it became known – when troops were used to clear Trafalgar Square while other British troops were ‘pacifying’ Upper Burma.  A meeting which had first been called to protest against Coercion in Ireland became a huge demonstration in defence of free speech in Trafalgar Square, attracting support from all radical and socialist organisations. Processions attempting to enter the square in defiance of an official ban were broken up by police charges in which two of the demonstrators were killed and two hundred hospitalised. The following Sunday a young worker, Alfred Linnell, died after being ridden down by a mounted policeman in Northumberland Avenue, one of the streets leading into Trafalgar Square. His death became the focus for popular outrage, and the procession at his funeral on 16 December was the largest in London since the death of Wellington in 1852. Morris was one of the pallbearers and made an emotive speech at the graveside. The funeral concluded with a song specially composed by him for the occasion which was sold to benefit Linnell’s orphans as a broadsheet, with a design by Walter Crane (see part two).


Morris continued to write extensively for the cause, especially in The Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League which became a weekly in May 1886, with Morris as sole editor. He also financed the paper and was one of its principal contributors. Two of his major later works, The Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere (1890) were published in the journal in serial form. In the latter, Morris looked to the future for hope. This utopian novel is perhaps the most accessible of Morris’ writings for the modern reader. In it, the narrator falls asleep in Hammersmith and wakes up in the future. In 1952, a revolution has taken place and the narrator finds an ideal society in which people work for pleasure, mechanisation and private property have been abolished, and there is no money. There is equality of class and sex, and there are no cities; people live in smaller rural communities, working on the land and at hand-crafts in harmony with the natural world. By the time he wrote this, Morris had come to realise that the hoped-for revolution was further away than he thought.


The Socialist League lingered on, consisting not only of anarchists but also of the Marx-Engels clique who while not hostile to Parliamentary methods, did not rule out the possibility of violent revolution. Engels, a shrewd political strategist, had already put on record for British readers his view of how the Socialists could win power in Britain. In his articles for Shipton’s Labour Standard (1881), he had advised them to build up a labour party which, provided that from the start it was independent of the parties of the ruling class, he believed would gradually become more and more Socialist as time went on. He now drew fresh inspiration from the example of the American United Labour Parties, considering that there was an immediate question of forming an English Labour Party with an independent class programme. Writing to Bernstein in May 1887, Engels claimed that the Radical clubs were…

… aroused by the American example and consequently were now seriously thinking of creating an independent labour party.

This policy had begun to attract other members of the League: among these, whom Engels called ‘our people’, occur the names of young men active in the Socialist League, including J. L. Mahon who, temporarily resident in Newcastle, wrote to Engels in June advocating an amalgamation of the various little organisations in one broad definite political platform. They had been largely responsible for the establishment, early in 1887, of a North of England Socialist Federation among the Northumberland miners, another indication of a real attempt to bring Socialism to the working class. This was built up jointly by SDF and League agitators in the course of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1887. Although the nearest attempt yet made to create a mass movement, it was a transient success, for with the settlement of the strike its branches, numbering twenty-four at the peak, rapidly faded away. Yet the published aims of the North of England Federation were an indication of the way young Socialists were thinking. There were four, but it was the second point which caused most controversy within the League:

Striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Parliament, local governments, school boards, and other administrative bodies.

016 (3)Morris was sceptical of the practicability of this aim and expressed the hope that our friends will see the futility of sending (or trying to send) Socialists or anyone else to Parliament before they have learned it by long and bitter experience. But Morris could not escape the implications of this clash of opinions within the League: as early as March 1887, he noted in his diary, Whatever happens, I fear that as an organisation we shall come to nothing, though personal feeling may hold us together. The issue was raised at the annual conference that year, and, on being defeated, most of the supporters of Parliamentary action retired from active participation in the running of the League. After the annual conference of the following year, 1888, when they were again defeated, their point of view was explicitly repudiated in a statement by the Council of the League, and they took no further part in its work. The Bloomsbury branch, which included the Marx-Avelings and several German Marxists, left and transformed itself into the independent Bloomsbury Socialist Society. Meanwhile, Mahon and his friends seceded and formed a ‘Labour Union’ which aimed at providing a national platform. It published a document pointing to what the Irish Party have achieved by a similar course of action, which attracted the signature of a Scottish miner, James Keir Hardie (see part two) among other sponsors, but it, too, petered out after a few years as a working-class group in Hoxton (in Hackney). Morris, meanwhile, often despaired at the apathy of the men he was trying to convert, though he also understood and sympathised with their demoralisation:

If I were to spend ten hours a day at work I despised and hated, I should spend my leisure, I hope, in political agitation, but, I fear, in drinking …

( … to be continued…)

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What is Christian Socialism? Part Two.   1 comment


Working Class Politics in Britain Between the Wars:             

My grandmother was a ribbon-weaver, a fifth generation Baptist, who was a deacon in her village chapel. She was a founding and active life-long member of the Labour Party in Coventry from the early 1920s. My grandfather was a staunch member of the Miners’ Federation (later the NUM), from 1918, a self-taught man who died of pneumoconiosis, aged eighty-two. He had once lost his job underground for defending a fellow collier from a bullying foreman. The fight of my grandparents against injustice left a strong impression on me. In the 1980s, while reading and researching for my doctorate on the migration of south Wales miners to the Midlands of England between the wars, I also became aware of the contribution of Welsh nonconformists to the development of Christian Socialist values and the Labour Party in cities like Birmingham, Coventry and even Oxford. They took on and finally defeated the ‘establishment’ patriarchs (like the fellow nonconformist Chamberlains) in these cities. This was due largely to the influx of workers from those areas which had already become Labour strongholds, during the ‘Depression’ years. I interviewed many of these workers, ex-miners who became car-workers. They told me of the important roles played by chapels, choirs and sporting teams, as well as trade unions and social clubs, in this transformation of working class culture and politics in the ‘new industry areas’.


19 November 1940; the remains of Coventry Cathedral following the Blitz on the city

Some of these newcomers to Coventry were among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists with strong pacifist convictions which Rev Howard Ingli James’ ministry at Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the city centre produced in the late 1930s and 1940s. For them, as for Rev. James himself, their experience of the ‘two Britains’ of the inter-war period resonated in their post-war visions of a more just and equal society. James articulated this impetus to social reform in his 1950 book, Communism and the Christian Faith. In it, he acknowledged his indebtedness to his congregation, who helped to give him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe the means by which he came to his vision of Christian Socialism:

The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed… I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people.

However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no actual part in the struggles of the unemployed. At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ‘the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…

Though recognising that, empirically, both Marxism and Christian Socialism derived their inspiration from the same root he found them incompatible:

Probably the most powerful weapon ever put into the hands of the British Marxists was the prolonged period of widespread unemployment between the wars. Those who wonder why ten thousand electors voted Communist in the Rhondda Valley in 1945, should reflect on the plight of the valley during that period, when streets of empty shops testified to its bitter poverty, when every male member of many a church was unemployed, when thousands of eager youngsters were compelled to seek employment far from home. The memory of what happened to Merthyr, to Jarrow, to many a small town in Lancashire during these years is still the most powerful weapon the Marxist propagandist can use. Conversely, the most convincing argument against Marxism would be a demonstration that we can build a relatively just society in which every citizen is assured of useful employment and a decent livelihood, without infringing on the rights of the individual and without resorting to violence… we must show how it might be done.


In his writing, Ingli James was not only giving expression to a vision which he shared with many of his congregation at Queen’s Road. He was also distilling the essence of the experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars.

The migrating millions from the depressed areas, and in particular those from the coalfield valleys of South Wales showed that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns of the economic and political system which had displaced them. Instead, they made significant and diverse contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the ‘new industry towns’. They were present in churches, chapels, football matches and in the city councils, indeed in all walks of life. Their collective memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force throughout industrial Britain long before 1945, but it finally found its fullest expression in the landslide election victory of the Labour Party in that year, and in the subsequent achievements of the governments of 1945-51.

011Aneurin Bevan inspecting the National Health Service, 1948.

The Land of Might-Have-Been: Britain, 1936-37. Chapter One, part one: The Road to the Berlin Olympiad.   3 comments



Somewhere there’s another land,

Different from this world we know;

Far more mercifully planned,

Than the cruel place we know:

Innocence and Peace are there,

All is good that is desired;

Faces there are always fair,

Love grows never old nor tired.


We shall never find that lovely land of Might-have-been;

I can  never be your king, nor you can be my Queen;

Days may pass, and years may pass,

And seas may lie between;

We shall never find that lovely land of Might-have-been.


Sometimes on the rarest nights,

Comes the vision calm and clear,

Gleaming with unearthly lights,

On our path of doubt and fear:

Winds from that far land are blown,

Whispering with secret breath,

Hope that plays her tune alone,

Love that conquers pain and death.


Shall we ever find that lovely land of Might-have-been?

Will I ever be your king, or you at last my Queen?

Days may pass, and years may pass,

And seas may lie between;

Shall we ever find that lovely land of Might-have-been?

 Ivor Novello, 1924

These lyrics represent Novello’s Ruritarian dream, a dream long-since discarded, like its romantic Welsh author, in modern, rational, liberal Britain, but one which was shared by many in his glamorous inter-war world and, of course, one which was twice turned into a nightmare by autocratic emperors and leaders in Europe. When Novello’s most successful west-end musical, Glamorous Nights, hit the stage in 1936, it seemed to many that the dream, not the nightmare, was about to be turned into reality. Britain was no longer a land of Might-have-been, but a land of what might be. The problem was that, while it was a dream they may have been prepared to share, this was not yet a land, like Roosevelt’s USA, which was more mercifully planned. While Novello’s social set, wonderfully depicted in Robert Altman’s recent film Gosford Park, with Jeremy Northam playing the singer-song-writer so brilliantly by performing his songs live to camera, these were the years, 1936-37, in which the dream and the nightmare were at their most polarised in the experience of the British people. That is what makes them so fascinating to study, containing as they do a series of dramatic scenes, events which, as a recent book has shown, changed all our lives for ever. In a very real sense, these events marked the beginning of the modern Elizabethan era which we are now celebrating, 75 years on. They also represent for most in Britain, a brief respite and recovery from the Depression of 1929-33 before the descent into despair of 1938-40.As the jack-boots were goose-stepping into the Rhineland, the British were determined to have their fun and to live their dream. They ended the decade by sleep-walking into disaster on the continental stage.




Chronology: January – June 1936


 18 Rudyard Kipling died

20 King George V died; succeeded by Edward VIII

22  Accession proclaimed

28  Funeral of George V


 16  Victory for the Popular Front in the Spanish Elections


 7     Germany reoccupied the Rhineland


 1     Haile Selassie left Abyssinia

Narrative, January-June:

By the turn of the year, the worst of the Depression was over, and for those in work, life ahead seemed full of promise. As depicted in Noel Coward’s classic film about inter-war London working-class life between the wars This Happy Breed, families were able to move out of the slums of the East End to modern houses in new suburbs like Bexleyheath. Men found work as semi-skilled engineers in the new electronics and communications industries. Four years of growth under the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, had fuelled a housing boom, which in turn had led to an explosion of sales of the latest domestic equipment and consumer gadgets. Two-thirds of Britain’s homes were now powered by electricity. Credit, in the form of hire purchase, helped ordinary people to acquire fridges, cookers, vacuum cleaners and radios, while car ownership was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy, but also available to the richer business and professional classes.

For those in the upper classes that Ivor Novello and Noel Coward epitomised in their art and music, life was indeed easy. Everyone had servants, though harder to find, and women did not need to go out to work after marrying, which gave them time for entertaining and charity work. However, this made the contrast with the poverty of the distressed areas, soon to be re-named special areas even starker. Then there was the gathering gloom of the threat of future mass conflict, harnessing the new technologies, so that New Year revellers of all classes felt that they should enjoy themselves now, since they might be dead in another couple of years. They were not far wrong, and it was not only Churchill who was aware of the threat.

At Sandringham that Christmas and New Year, the King’s family celebrated the festivities as best they could under a gloomy mood presaged by the monarch’s declining health. His eldest son and heir, Edward Prince of Wales, known to the family as David, noticed how ‘thin and bent’ his father had become. However, David was preoccupied with his adoration for Wallis Simpson, a slender, dark-haired 39-year-old American who was married to a London businessman. She had been married before, in 1916, to an American Naval Officer Lieut. Earl W Spencer, but had divorced him eleven years later and married Ernest Simpson in 1928. Soon after the Simpsons had moved to London, taking a flat in Bryanston Square.

George V had rescued the monarchy from its darkest days of unpopularity due to its German descent and name at the beginning of the Great War, to celebrating his silver jubilee in 1935 as the Emperor of nearly half a billion subjects. He was clearly loved by his peoples, but not by his sons, and he barely spoke with the Prince. He had prophesied to Baldwin, his Prime Minister, that ‘Edward would pull the whole throne and the Empire down about his ears before the year was out’ following his death. The Prince, for his part, wrote to Wallis that it was ‘terrible here…so much the worst Xmas I’ve ever had to spend with the family’.  He left Sandringham as soon as he could to spend New Year’s Eve with Wallis, whose husband was, conveniently, away on business in Canada.

The Prince of Wales detested the moral codes of the Victorian/Edwardian generation, and the hypocrisy with which the upper classes sought to uphold them, while still having their fun. Everyone knew that the ‘High Society’ sisters, Diana and Unity Mitford, were having theirs with Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader, and Adolf Hitler, but to speak openly in public about these dangerous liaisons would have been considered a serious breach of etiquette at that time.

At a supper party at the Savoy Grill on 13th January, Harold Nicholson, the career diplomat who had first met the Prince in 1921, found HRH talkative and charming as before, but commented that he was not his ‘sort of pal’ since he was ‘in a mess’. Harold was so alarmed by his ‘really very right-wing’ views that he preferred to avoid all ‘social intimacy’ with him, an option he would find difficult to achieve over the coming months, due to his standing in London society and his presence at the most fashionable dinner-tables.

Neither did the King speak openly of his son’s passion for Wallis Simpson, though his anxiety about this, obsessed as he was by attention to public duty, was undoubtedly contributing to his depression and deteriorating physical condition, diagnosed as a narrowing of the arteries. His friend and exact contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, the bard of Empire, was also known to be close to death. Since the Great War, when Kipling had lost his son, for which he blamed himself, Kipling had become a reclusive reactionary at Bateman’s, his home in Sussex. His wife Carrie decided that he needed they needed to escape the English winter for the south of France. En route, in London, his stomach ulcer decided otherwise. It burst, and a week later he died in the Middlesex Hospital on the same day that the King’s illness was announced. ‘Chips’ Channon, the rich American-born socialite and Conservative MP wrote in his diary for that day: ‘The Year has, indeed, begun in gloom. The King ill – and Kipling dead.’ The passing of these two great establishment figures within two days of each other seemed to herald a new era.

On the 20th January, at 9.25 p.m., the following message was broadcast to the Empire: ‘The King’s life is drawing peacefully to its close’, and exactly two and a half hours later, just before midnight, the bulletin was posted at Sandringham announcing his death. Even this moment was carefully chosen to manipulate public reaction to the maximum effect, reflecting the birth of the modern mass media monarchy.

Stanley Baldwin, on the Sunday before the King’s death, had told ‘Tom’ Jones, his Welsh friend and former Cabinet Secretary, that he was ‘distinctively nervous’ about the Prince of Wales becoming King, not least because he had seen at first hand his drinking and womanizing on a tour of Canada nine years earlier. When the Prince had arrived that afternoon to brief the PM on his father’s condition, having first called at his lover’s flat, Baldwin was wearing a black armband out of respect for Kipling, who was his cousin. The Prince made no remark on this, so Baldwin had felt obliged to ask if he knew ‘that another great Englishman, a contemporary of your father’s, died yesterday.’ Excusing the Prince’s obvious ignorance of current affairs, and informing him of the Nobel Prize winner’s death, Baldwin remarked,  ‘But, of course, sir, you have a great deal on your mind. I should not have expected you to know.’ After their meeting, Baldwin had told Tom Jones that he had never thought, as a boy in Worcestershire reading history books, that he would have to put the knowledge gained to practice in interfering ‘between a King and his mistress.’

Nevertheless, Baldwin felt hat his previous friendship with Edward gave him a unique role in resolving the impending crisis that everyone in the court and cabinet, not yet the country, was fearing. However, Baldwin was tiring of, and in, office, and was not up to the twin challenges of a constitutional crisis and a resurgent, aggressive Germany. As the year progressed, the Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain, probably the hardest-working minister of the last century, took on much of the PM’s paper-work. Any historian who has gone through the boxes from the Ministry of Health and Local Government from the earlier Baldwin Government of 1924-8 will be aware of Chamberlain’s ability to see the devil in the detail of policy-making. Through his detailed knowledge of the country he managed both to keep it out of war until 1939, and to get it prepared for the global conflict to come. This is a fact often overlooked in the continuing arguments about his management of the international crises which followed his succession of Baldwin. The differences in policy between the two PM’s reflected their management styles. Baldwin was passive in his management of affairs and ministers, Chamberlain was far more pro-active.

The Accession: Long live the King!

Following his father’s death, Edward immediately broke with royal tradition, by having the clocks at Sandringham reset. His father and grandfather had always kept them half an hour slow, in order to allow more daylight time for shooting. King Edward seemed determined to break with these traditions from the very beginning of his reign, a determination which set him against many in the British establishment, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the morning after his father’s death, Edward flew to Hendon in his own aeroplane to attend his Accession Council and make preparations for the lying-in-state and funeral. He arrived hatless at the aerodrome, yet another departure from his father’s ‘standards’.  Popular poet John Betjeman saw this moment as marking ‘the final putting to sleep of the Victorian age’, evoking the mood of the people:

 Old men who have never cheated, never doubted,

Communicated monthly, sit and stare

At the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way

Where a young man lands hatless from the air.


Whereas King George had represented a sense of continuity with Victorian and Edwardian Britain, King Edward seemed intent to represent change and modernity. To traditionalists like ‘Chips’ Channon, he seemed ‘casual and a little common’. However, while the upper classes in London and the Home Counties were fully aware of the King’s great affair, very few outside these social and political circles knew anything of it. To the general public, Edward was very popular, perhaps even the first global celebrity, admired both for his looks and style and his concern for the unemployed and ex-servicemen. At the Accession Council, more than a hundred privy councillors were assembled to swear an oath of allegiance to the new King. He made a brief speech in which he said:

 When my father stood here twenty-six years ago he declared that one of the objects of his life would be to uphold constitutional government. In this I am determined to follow in my father’s footsteps.

He also promised ‘to work, as he did, …for the happiness and welfare of all classes of my subjects’. Both Neville and Austen Chamberlain, half-brothers and ministers, powerful members of a powerful political dynasty, watched the 41-year-old monarch carefully. Neville remarked,

His speech was not remarkable in any way, and I thought he looked as uncomfortable as ever, though Austen says he did not fidget as much as usual. I do hope he ‘pulls up his socks’ and behaves himself now he has such heavy responsibilities for unless he does he will soon pull down the throne.

The heralds proclaimed the accession to the throne of King Edward VIII. The Norroy King of Arms, Major A. H. Howard, read the Proclamation at the Temple Bar on 22nd January.  The new king was caught on newsreel camera, sat with a shadowy Mrs Simpson and her friends, in a room overlooking the courtyard below. The monarch was not usually present at this ceremony, and this latest breach of tradition was viewed by some as a bad omen for his reign. What was worse was that the group could be seen laughing while the solemn event was taking place. However, the footage was censured and never shown in the cinemas. Writing to her friends about the event, Wallis Simpson made fun of it, enjoying the situation like ‘a huge game’. However, she was soon to realise just how serious Edward was about making her his wife.

Two funerals

Back in Sandringham the same day, Tuesday 22nd, thousands filed past the coffin of the old King, which was guarded by four foresters in Sandringham Church. The following day, Wednesday 23rd,  it was taken on a gun-carriage to the station at Wolverton, where it was lifted onto the royal train for transit to King’s Cross. Behind the cortége walked Bertie, the Duke of York, who was to become George VI later that year, Edward, the Duke of Kent, the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Harewood. In London, another gun-carriage was used to take the coffin to the Abbey. The Royal Standard was draped over it and the Imperial Crown, brought from the Tower, was perched on top. During the slow but jolting march the Maltese cross, encrusted with diamonds and sapphires, fell from the top of the crown, rolling towards the gutter, where it was rescued and pocketed in one movement by a Grenadier Guard Major. Edward was heard to mutter, ‘Christ, what will happen next?!’ One MP remarked that ‘it was a fitting motto for the coming reign!’ As news of the disastrous incident spread, Harold Nicholson wrote in his diary that it was indeed seen as ‘a most terrible omen’.

Between 800,000 and one million people passed the bier during the following four days of lying-in-state at Westminster Hall, the queue sometimes stretching for more than three miles, six abreast, down the Embankment and over Vauxhall Bridge. Three-quarters of those paying their respects were working-class. So profound was the nation’s grief that the Bishop of Durham feared the growth of a ‘George-culture’ rather like the ‘Lenin-culture’ which had followed the Russian revolutionary icon’s death twelve years earlier, or, in our own lifetime, the ‘Diana-culture’ which followed the death of the Princess of Wales more than sixty years later. There were dangers, he felt, in an over-popular monarchy, at odds with unpopular politicians. Like Diana, Edward had charisma, sex-appeal, an outward charm enhanced by a sense of inner melancholy, and he looked far younger than he was.

On the Thursday, the funeral of Rudyard Kipling took place at Westminster Abbey. Kipling’s body had also had a lying-in-state, but the preferred private ceremony and cremation which Queen Mary had also wanted for George V, was of course what the poet was given. His ashes were then carried into the Abbey by eight pall-bearers, including Stanley Baldwin. The obituaries reflected a feeling that Kipling represented a world, if not yet an empire, which was lost. His reputation as a unifying national bard had suffered from his increasingly isolated conservatism in later life. Some, however, saw in him the enduring qualities and values which still make him the most popular British poet, and ‘If’ the nation’s most popular poem. Somewhat appropriately, if somewhat controversially at the time, he was placed between the graves of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Months after the funeral, Baldwin’s son alleged that Kipling had suffered from an ‘inferiority complex’, so that he forced his son to enlist, and that Jack’s death at the Battle of Loos in 1915 had robbed the author of ‘The Jungle Book’ of his love for people in general and children in particular.  Oliver Baldwin’s view of Kipling may have been affected by the way the author had once regarded him as a ‘surrogate son’ after Jack’s death, only to reject him completely when he discovered about his homosexuality, which he referred to as ’beastliness’.

Four days later, on January 28th the unprecedented crowds, a million-strong, which had begun to gather before midnight the previous night, watched in silence as the Royal Funeral cortége made its way from Westminster to Paddington. At Marble Arch the crowds were so deeply massed that the police found it difficult to keep the route clear. At Windsor, the procession to the final resting place in St George’s Chapel included five remaining kings of Europe, all descended from Queen Victoria, the President of the French Republic and representatives from every other country in the world. It was a truly global event, marking the passing of one age and the advent of another, with a global celebrity as a thoroughly modern monarch.

Gathering Gloom

By the Spring of 1936 the future of the demilitarised Rhineland was under discussion at the Foreign Office, the suggestion being that it could be used as a means of ‘appeasing’ Hitler in the year of the Berlin Olympics. Harold Nicholson,  now National Labour MP for Leicester East, who had been part of Lloyd George’s diplomatic delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, was vehemently opposed to this strategy, addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons on Anglo-German relations. He predicted that ‘trouble would come’ by 1939 or ’40. To deter Germany, it would be necessary to rearm, ‘so as to speak with authority’. Then, Germany would either have to accept ‘encirclement’ or the League of Nation’s Covenant.  ‘Chips’ Channon was moved by Nicholson’s ‘brilliant address’ to the extent that he ‘almost heard the tramp-tramp of the troops.’

However, Britain was far from being ready to challenge Germany ‘with authority’ and Hitler was, in any case, was ready to take back what he believed was about to be offered by diplomacy, by force. He moved into the Rhineland on 7th March, in a flagrant breach of both the Versailles and Locarno treaties. Two days later Harold reported the general mood in the Commons as being one of fear, ‘anything to keep out of war…on all sides one hears sympathy for Germany.’ He continued to warn against such sympathy, arguing that ‘in the German temperament of today there is a strong strain of insanity’ and that the Nazi regime was ‘a blot and scourge to humanity.’ He viewed Hitler as ‘a factor of appalling instability and of the very greatest danger’ and concluded that ‘Germany is Hitler at this moment, and Hitler is Germany’. Nevertheless, the prevailing view, voiced by Lord Arnold among others, was that Germany had only asserted ‘German sovereignty over German territory’. Nicholson could only counter that ‘Germany was right in principle, wrong in practice.’ He also admitted that public opinion in Britain would not support being ‘drawn into a conflict over Poland or Czechoslovakia, or the Eastern States’. However, he thought Germany should be subjected to diplomatic sanctions through the withdrawal of ambassadors from Berlin, and that the Olympics, due to be held there in August, should be boycotted. He also argued that Britain should make its position crystal clear to Germany, and to any other aggressor:

 We must act in such a way that the countries of Europe – Germany above all – must say, ‘This time they really mean it.’ We must say, if the frontiers of Holland, Belgium or France are crossed by any country, especially by Germany, we will within such and such a time bring so many forces, ships and aeroplanes in their defence. We must also say to France, ‘This is an absolute assurance backed by the whole public opinion of this country’.

In The Gathering Storm, his first volume of his Nobel-prize winning history of the Second World War, written twelve years later, Winston Churchill pointed to Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland as the decisive moment on the road to war. Germany, he argued, should have been stopped by Great Britain and France acting together. He blamed Baldwin and Chamberlain for their failure to stand up to the dictator and their development of the policy of appeasement. His view was widely shared in the aftermath of the war, but, in reality, Hitler could not have been stopped, and intervention was never on anyone’s agenda, including Nicholson’s. In Britain, all strands of public opinion opposed an armed reaction. Only three days before the action, Labour’s Clement Attlee had opposed the government’s plans for Rearmament as ‘too bellicose’. In response to the events, Hugh Dalton, Labour’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, said that there could be no question of any resistance to Germany’s move into what right-wing MP’s viewed as his own ‘back garden’.

On the day of the occupation, Bishop Hensley Henson wrote in his diary that ‘the clouds are gathering over Europe in gathering gloom’. Churchill, for his part, was silent, and when he did break his silence in the Commons defence debate, Neville Chamberlain described his contribution as ‘constructive and helpful’. However, both Chamberlain and Baldwin continued to keep Churchill in the ‘wilderness’, denying him a return to government at the new ministry of defence. They did not trust him to keep his anti-German rhetoric in check at a time of sensitive diplomatic negotiations based on their appeasement policy. Churchill, for his part, continued to praise Chamberlain in public, especially in a speech in the latter’s stronghold of Birmingham, clearly hoping for a return to government when the Chancellor would succeed Baldwin as PM. Meanwhile, the government continued to follow a two-pronged policy of diplomacy and deterrence. In March 1936 it announced its plans to double spending on the RAF and to massively increase the overall military budget, despite Chamberlain’s hopes of diverting funds to the pressing needs of the ‘Special Areas’ and social reform. Even in the days just before the Rhineland incident, this spending was bearing fruit, as the very first Spitfires took to the skies above Southampton.

The Constitutional Time Bomb

Towards the end of March, Edward bought his beloved Wallis a ruby and diamond bracelet from Paris for sixteen thousand pounds, worth six hundred thousand pounds at today’s prices, engraved ‘Hold tight, 27. iii. 36’.  He showered her with jewellery an also gave her cash, spending millions in today’s money. At the same time, he cut back on spending on the royal household, which his father had allowed to run out of control. This was, he said, out of step with the austerity that many of his subjects were still facing in the depressed areas of the country following the slump of the early thirties. However, it was his household staff who had to face reduced salaries, discontinued allowances and penny-pinching economies. Under these conditions, his staff became alienated and disaffected with his opulent treatment of his mistress.

In his eyes, Wallis could do no wrong. Those who urged caution were banished from court, those who flattered her were advanced.It was obvious to many that the King’s great love was purely, or impurely, sexual. There was gossip about the sexual practices she had learned while living in a brothel in Shanghai, which had made the King her slave, and that he was willing to become so because his childhood deprived of affection had made him crave female domination. She had a masculine look that made her attractive to lesbians, and her power over Edward was sometimes acted out in public displays of humiliation.

Harold Nicholson’s invitations to various social gatherings later in the Spring, gave him the opportunity to observe the unfolding drama of the King and Mrs Simpson at close quarters. It was already an open secret in these circles that the new king held the strongest hopes of marrying his beloved Wallis and making her his Queen. Her estranged second husband, Ernest Simpson, had filed for divorce, the hearing for which was to be held in Ipswich in October. This set a timetable like a ticking bomb for the late autumn. Harold was invited to meet the King at Mrs Simpson’s apartment at Bryanston Court and, over port, the bisexual diplomat again found Edward charming. However, he was also saddened by the King’s infatuation. Although ‘a perfectly harmless type of American’, he found ‘the whole setting…slightly second-rate.’  Ramsay MacDonald, although from very ‘humble’ beginnings, also enjoyed the attention of society hostesses, and told Harold that ‘the people do not mind fornication, but they loathe adultery.’ Harold became exasperated by the conduct of the King, becoming convinced that ‘this silly little man’ would ‘destroy a great monarchy by giggling into a flirtation with a third-rate American.’

It was already apparent to many in court circles that not only was this liaison dangerous for the monarchy, but that the new King had little patience for more tedious duties, was shallow in his thinking, erratic in his judgement and casual in his attitude to state papers. Traditionalists, including Nicholson, found this conduct, or lack of it, scandalous. Conversely, he developed considerable sympathy for the now ‘miserable’ Wallis, believing her when she told Lady Sibyl Colefax that neither she nor the King had ever suggested marriage to each other. Years later, she admitted lying about this.

The Peace Pledge

Canon Hugh Richard Laurie Sheppard, aka Dick, was a well-known dynamic peace campaigner in 1936, who had made a call two years earlier for young men to pledge themselves for peace: ‘We renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will we support or sanction another’. Over a hundred thousand took the pledge and, in May 1936, his ‘Peace Pledge Union’ was formally founded, representing the voice of absolute pacifism in the midst of the gathering gloom on the continent and in East Africa. In concert with this voice, there were also millions who placed their faith in the League of Nations to stop individual nations becoming aggressors. Anti-war sentiment crossed all class, gender and party lines. In the previous year, a ‘peace ballot’ organised by the League of Nations Union, attracted the participation of twelve million voters, nearly a quarter of the adult population, the overwhelming majority of whom expressed their support for the League. Of these, just over five million favoured an absolute pacifist stance. In the General Election of that year, Baldwin was forced to promise that there would be no great rearmament.

On 3rd April, The Times reported that the Red Cross had confirmed that it had treated numerous victims of gas attacks in Abyssinia. The newspaper quoted from the Emperor, Haile Selassie, who said that ‘he could not sleep at night for misery at the screaming and groaning of his fighting men and country people who have been burned inside and out by gas.’ They were victims of the indiscriminate bombing of the Italian airforce, attacking hospitals and Red Cross centres. The three types of gas used had been banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, of which Italy was a signatory. Water-holes and villages were also targeted, so that many peasants died in agony from their burns.

At the end of seven months’ fighting, with nearly half a million soldiers in Abyssinia, Italy annexed the country after troops had marched into Addis Ababa on May 5th. Abyssinians had rioted and looted the town before the Italians could march in. On 9th May Mussolini announced the fall of Addis Ababa to cheering crowds in Rome. Haile Selassie arrived in Britain, via Palestine, as a refugee less than a month later and was reluctantly granted asylum. “I do not intend to settle in England,” he said, “I still dream and hope of returning to Abyssinia. At present I have not the means.” It had cost Mussolini more than thirty-three million pounds to prepare for the war, and another 126 million to fight it. However, it was worth it, he said, since “Italy has at last her Empire – a Fascist Empire.”

The King, for his part, refused to meet ‘The Negus’ (who claimed his descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) personally, sending the Duke of Gloucester instead. When Edward was advised that meeting with the deposed Emperor would be a popular move, he countered, ‘popular with whom? Certainly not the Italians.’ Nothing should be done, he suggested, to drive Mussolini into Hitler’s arms. By contrast, Dick Sheppard appealed on the radio for aid to the Abyssinian refugees, criticising his fellow Christians for lacking a sense of mission, and questioning whether they really believed in their religion. The BBC insisted that he should not preach pacifism on the airwaves.

‘Two Britains’

In the New Year of 1936 the government’s policy towards the ‘Special Areas’ had again came under fire when the Report of the 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 Merthyr’s problems. The author of the review saw two alternative solutions, neither of which was being pursued with any vigour by the government:

It is manifestly impossible for a town in Merthyr’s plight to attract new industries on any useful scale without substantial state aid. There may be a case for declining such aid and for arranging the systematic evacuation, wholly or in part, of such a derelict area as Merthyr. There may, on the other hand, be a case for a larger scale effort to maintain the existing population and put it once more on a permanent self-supporting basis by a programme of re-equipment and of bringing in new industries, if necessary by special inducement. Or there may be a case for combining a planned reduction in population and equipment with the bringing in of new industries in order to provide decent opportunities for those who remain. There is, however, one course of which action for which no case can be made out. That is the course of raising huge sums of money, locally and nationally, in order to keep Merthyr on the dole…It is this last course of action which the Government has so far chosen to pursue.

The Journal of this ‘Middle Opinion Group’, as they called themselves, Political and Economic Planning, published statistics showing that immigration to the South East was now in excess of total emigration from Britain as a whole. Later in the year, they came to the conclusion that ‘one of the salient facts of the social and economic landscape at present, which we may regret but cannot ignore, is that there are two Britains – a prosperous Britain and a depressed Britain’.  The Ministry of Labour’s ‘Index of Relative Unemployment’ also revealed this, showing that the ‘red’ areas which were at least 50% below the national average in unemployment levels in 1931-36 were almost all in the Midlands and South of England, whereas the ‘black’ areas where unemployment was at least 50% above that average were located exclusively in the North of England, Scotland and Wales. Most, though not all, of these areas were mainly industrial areas with previously high population densities. The diversion between these two Britains had grown considerably wider since the earlier period of depression in the older industries, 1927-31.

As the economy had recovered from the general recession, the structural depression in the older industrial areas became starkly apparent. Looked at on a regional basis, the South East (including London) had entered the trade depression of 1929-33 with levels of under 6% unemployment, increasing to nearly 14% at the trough, and recovering to 6% by 1937. By contrast, Wales began the recession with levels of  more than 19% in 1929, rising to nearly twice that by 1932, and remaining above 30% throughout the first half of the decade. Even these figures mask the impact of long-term structural unemployment on particular coalfield communities like Merthyr Tydfil, where the overall unemployment level had been at, or close to an annual average of 60% for the previous four years, and still remained close to 55% throughout 1936. The overwhelming majority of these were coal-miners who had been unemployed for more than a year, whereas in Britain as a whole only one in five of the unemployed fell into this category.

By the middle of 1936, there were signs that the agitation for new industries to be brought to the Special Areas was beginning to have an effect on P. M. Stewart, their Commissioner, who had been in post for a year. In his first report, he had offered a stern rebuff to the growing feeling of regional and national patriotism in Wales and the North-East of England by suggesting in his first report that ‘love of home, pride of nationality and local associations, however desirable in themselves, furnish no adequate justification for leading a maimed life.’ He had made it clear that he would do all that he would do all that he could to increase the number of transferees among young people in the depressed areas and that relief work in those areas would be limited to social service work for the older unemployed. He had openly declared that he would not sponsor enterprises which were ‘undertaken solely with the object of giving employment.’ In his second report, published in February 1936, he accepted that efforts in this respect needed to be intensified. At the same time, however, he continued to argue that ‘no opportunity should be lost of enabling the younger person in the Areas to take advantage of the increasing prosperity of the country as a whole by accepting suitable employment in areas where the demand for labour is steadily improving.’ He continued to attack the opponents of the transference scheme whom he characterised as being ‘carried away by excess of sentiment’ having ‘shut their eyes to the hard facts of the situation’.

However, the opponents of the transference policy and supporters of alternative measures were growing in number and influence. In March 1936 the Lord Mayor of Cardiff called a Conference which comprised representatives of local authorities, churches, employers and trade unions, as well as members of the newly formed Industrial Development Council of South Wales and Monmouthshire. The Lord Mayor told the Conference that it seemed to him ‘a misguided principle to move men to other areas for work’. The Conference decided to petition the government ‘to take immediate steps to alleviate the lot of the unemployed in the area’ by amending the Special Areas Act of 1934 to provide the Commissioner with sufficient powers to encourage industrial development.

Two months later, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. The Council had played a major role in the administration of the transference scheme to this point, as well as directing government-sponsored voluntary work in the valleys. Most of the prominent members of the social service movement in South Wales attended, and on the second day, clear divisions emerged over the continuance of the scheme, with some Church leaders going so far as to suggest that Gandhi-an resistance methods should be used to counter its operation. His argument was that the ‘national conscience was being roused’ against the break-up of coalfield communities which ‘represented the history and traditions of Wales’. Unless the social service movement in Wales came out clearly against the scheme, its albeit ameliorating involvement could be seen as collaboration. Aneurin Bevan, then a young coalfield Labour MP, also called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacency of those who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

 …if this problem was still viewed 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 no economic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

The reason for this complacency was given away by the speaker who replied to Bevan’s remarks by suggesting that his constituency in East Monmouth had ‘no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had absorbed into local life’. However, the general feeling at the conference was that transference was expatriation, not repatriation. At another social service conference in August at Llandrindod Wells, Elfan Rees, the Secretary of the SWMCSS, took up Bevan’s theme in opposition to the comments of Cardiff’s Professor Marquand, author of South Wales Needs a Plan, that ‘a people largely composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants (had) no very deep roots in the soil’ and that ‘a people without roots may be ready to move away as rapidly as it moved in’. Whilst Rees agreed that much of the population of the coalfield had come ‘from countries and counties that could well spare them,’ he felt that it was not these who were leaving:

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 – the essential qualification of the transferee again, are the qualities which mark our own indigenous population. And, if this process of social despoliation 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 don’t have the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.’

 The Liberal ‘Cambrian Establishment’ in the official and quasi-official corridors of the Principality had finally woken up to the reality that they had lost their hegemony over the Welsh people and by the middle of 1936 they were clearly embarrassed by the large number of people of Welsh and Welsh-speaking origin who were leaving, at least in proportion to their presence in the population of the valleys. Whilst Rees and others began to exaggerate this for propaganda purposes, it is clear that their growing awareness of both the indiscriminating nature and the extent of  migration led them to abandon complicity and complacency in favour of a nationalistic opposition to the transference scheme. Professor Marquand was critical of these ‘nationalistic passions of those who held safe jobs themselves’.  He himself put forward seven practical policies in his book, of which Planning said that, had it been published three years earlier, it would have stood no chance of being taken seriously. Now, it suggested wryly, Marquand was still young enough to see most of these ‘forced upon a reluctant Whitehall and Downing Street by pressure of public opinion.’

The Budget Speech of the Spring of 1936 had already announced a significant change of policy in this direction – the attraction of new industries to the Special Areas was to be given priority through the setting up of the Special Areas Reconstruction Association (SARA), providing financial assistance for small businesses. Whilst the Government was partly influenced in making this decision by the divisions which were emerging in the social service movement over transference, it was also undoubtedly under more unified pressure for South Wales, aided by the personal interest of Edward VIII. He had visited the Welsh Valleys at the beginning of the Coalfield Depression in 1929. At that time, when James Evans, General Inspector to the Welsh Board of Health, had heard of the Prince of Wales’ proposed visit at the end of the previous year, he had urged caution to an already nervous H.W.S. Francis, the Assistant Secretary to Neville Chamberlain at the Ministry of Health. Sir Arthur Lowry had been despatched to South Wales to report, but a slight recovery in the Coal industry meant that conditions had been improving at the time of the Prince’s visit. Not so in the summer of 1936.

Chronology: July – August 1936:


16  The McMahon Incident

17-18    Army rebellion led by Franco began the Spanish Civil War


1    The Berlin Olympics opened by Adolf  Hitler

10  The Nahlin Cruise began

 24     Germany introduced conscription

Narrative, July-August:

The Blast that Never Came

The official six months of court mourning was coming to an end in July, and the King and Mrs Simpson began to be seen together at society parties. On 16th July, she attended the Presentation of the Colours to three regiments of the Brigade of Guards. Two viewing stands had been erected, one for the Royal family and another for the King’s friends. One of those whom Edward invited was Chips Channon, one of his most loyal supporters. On arrival, he sat with what he called ‘the new Court’, typified by Emerald Cunard, the pro-Nazi American hostess, who was sitting beside Wallis Simpson. In the next stand he could see the Royal party, including Elizabeth, Duchess of York, sitting with formidable poise, the epitome of Royal decorum. The Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were, as usual, dresses identically in hats, short coats and skirts, with sensible shoes. The Yorks were the ideal, modern, nuclear family, as Marguerite Patten remembered: ‘They were a picture book family, with the two enchanting little girls, they were the lovely sort of family that everyone would like’.  The two girls were taking a keen interest in events, under the watchful eye of their nanny, Marion Crawford, unaware of the tension among the adults around them. The Duchess had recently written a pointed letter to the court doctor, Lord Dawson, thanking him and bemoaning the change in atmosphere at court: ‘Though outwardly one’s life goes on the same, yet everything is different – especially spiritually, and mentally. I don’t know if it’s the result of being ill but I mind things that I don’t like more than before.’

As the battalions of Guards marched into the park, Channon’s eyes turned to the ceremonial, a more unifying spectacle for all. ‘It was London at its very best, London well-dressed, London in high summer, the grey sky, the green of the trees, and then the sun coming out at the right royal moment, the bayonets glistening, and the horses…the Waterloo-ness of it all.’ The royal brothers, the King and the Duke of York took the salute on horseback before dismounting to present the new Colours and make short speeches. The Duke’s speech was, as usual, an agony for all concerned. Silently, everyone prayed that he would get through it without too much stammering. Edward’s speech, written by Winston Churchill, acknowledged the horror of war. ‘Humanity cries out for peace’, he declared.

As King Edward was returning along Constitution Hill to Buckingham Palace on July 16, at the head of six battalions  of the Guards to whom he had presented new colours in Hyde Park, George McMahon, a deranged Irish journalist, broke through the police cordon and pointed a loaded revolver at the King, throwing it on the road as a special constable grabbed his arm. It fell under the King’s horse as he passed.  Edward remained outwardly calm and rode straight on with only a glance at the scene, though he later admitted to feeling a slit-second of terror when he had seen the pointed pistol; ‘for one moment I braced myself for the blast that never came’. He turned to the General on his right and said, ‘I don’t know what that thing was; but if it had gone off, it would have made a nasty mess of us’.  McMahon was set upon by the crowd and had to be rescued by police, who seized him and manhandled him above their shoulders to the park railings on the other side of the road, where he continued to struggle with them.  A police officer dismounted and picked up the revolver. The incident only served to further enhance the King’s popularity, as even his sternest critics at court had to admit that he had shown strength of character, such that they could no longer suggest that he might be a coward.

McMahon appeared in court before Justice Greaves-Lord at the Old Bailey in September and the jury, after retiring for ten minutes, returned a verdict that McMahon was guilty of a charge of  producing a revolver with intent to alarm the King. He was sentenced to twelve months’ hard labour.

Whatever good the incident had done for Edward’s standing at court was, however, undone five days later, when six hundred débutantes were due to be presented to him at two garden receptions at the Palace. The large number involved was due to the backlog created by the period of mourning for King George. This was, again, a departure from the splendid evening court balls during which these presentations normally took place. As the endless line of young women went through the seemingly endless ritual of carefully practised curtseys in front of the royal dias, Edward appeared increasingly fidgety with boredom. Half-way through the proceedings it began to rain and Edward called a halt to the ceremony, returning hastily to the shelter of the palace, leaving his guests to run for cover under the trees. The contingency plan of continuing the ceremony in the State Ball Room was also abandoned. Though it was a court tradition which Edward could clearly do without, the way in which it was cancelled, as with so many of his changes, made him more enemies just at a time when he needed as many friends as he could muster among the Established classes. Channon wrote in his diary towards the end of July:

The Simpson scandal is growing and she, poor Wallis, looks unhappy. The world is closing in around her, the flatterers, the sycophants, and the malicious. It is a curious social juxtaposition that casts me in the role of Defender of the King. But I do, and very strongly in society.

With the Berlin Olympics approaching in early August, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s diplomatic envoy, had come to London with  invitations to the Games, which he distributed among the aristocrats, newspaper magnates and that he considered would be helpful to the Nazi cause. Channon took him to a night-club and at the end of the evening, Channon was given the Führer’s personal invitation, which he accepted ‘gleefully’. Not all among the upper-class circles in which Channon moved took up these invitations, however, Harold Nicholson and Lady Colefax making their disapproval of his acceptance very clear.   

Civil War in Spain

On 17th July, a revolt by a group of army officers against the Popular Front government, which had come to power in elections six months earlier, was the starting point for a brutal Civil War that was to last three years and cost thousands of lives. Middle-class intellectuals had formed the Republican government of Spain after the flight of King Alfonso in 1931. They had believed they could change things in Spain without a revolution, but had faced serious opposition from the Church, army and landowners. Forty thousand priests and other clergy dominated Spanish life, all paid for by the state. They controlled education, though 45% of people remained illiterate. Church interests were bound up with those of the big landowners, the 1% of the population who owned 51% of the land. Church property was valued at the equivalent of a hundred million ponds. A quarter of the national budget was spent on the army, controlled by an officer class of over seven hundred generals and 21,000 lesser officers, making one officer to every six men. To curb these powers, the new government had passed many laws but did little to enforce them, and when it had been forced out of office in 1933, a coalition of right-wing parties had come to power. A wave of strikes, riots and workers’ revolts broke out and the severity with which these were suppressed is revealed in the figure of thirty thousand republican prisoners by the end of 1935.

The Republican parties had joined together to fight the General Election in February 1936, beating the Nationalist parties by a clear margin, but six months later the rightists provoked the army revolt in Madrid, and when garrisons all over the country followed the following day, as planned, the Republican president announced the mobilisation of all men under thirty. In Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga and Bilbao, the revolts were crushed, so that the planned coup d’etat  expected to be over in a day, looked to have failed. However, the Governor of the Canary Islands, General Franco, flew overnight to take the leadership of rebel Spanish Moroccan troops, rapidly moving the mainly Muslim brigades, with Italian help, across the Straits of Gibraltar to fight for the Nationalist cause in southern Spain.

The British Royal Naval officers were sympathetic to the Spanish Naval officers, many of whom were aristocratic and reactionary by background, just as in the army. So Franco’s invasion from  Morocco by the rebel troops with German air force support went unimpeded by the British Mediterranean fleet. In Britain itself, public opinion was divided, as news of atrocities on both sides were reported in the press. The Nationalists, clearly following the example and advice of the Italian Fascists, bombed civilians and murdered hostages. Madrid was first bombed on August 6th, and within a few weeks planes were regularly dropping bombs on a daily basis to wreck buildings. The loyalists, for their part, burnt down churches and shot priests. For most British people, it was seen as a war between communism and fascism, between Franco in the ‘Right’ corner, and President Azana in the Left. Left to it, the extremists on both sides might just wipe each other out. The more politically committed were divided between the right-wing Tories who supported Franco, while the broad spectrum of liberal and left-wing opinion backed the loyalists. For many young writers, artists and idealists, especially those who had joined the Communist Party, the Civil War was the titanic struggle of ideologies. Idealists of the Right and Left in Britain both hailed it as a the great Crusade of their time.

In reality it was a war about the future fate of Spain, fought out by Spaniards to a very bitter end. In spite of the clear legitimacy of the Spanish Government, the British Government fell into the pious posturing of ‘non-intervention’ as it had done earlier in the year over Abyssinia and the Rhineland. Most of the British popular press was on the Republican side, but the ‘ultra-conservative’ organs labelled them as ‘Reds’ or ‘Communists’, though they ranged from anarchists to social democrats.

At first, the failure of the army revolts in most of the mainland garrisons meant that the troops on both sides were evenly matched.  However, Hitler’s intervention in ordering the airlift of the Moorish troops of Franco’s African columns, enabled the rebels to advance north towards the capital by mid-August. The Republican Government began to call for outside help itself, and this call was met immediately by young British intellectuals and artists spurred on partly by their own Government’s strict neutrality.

The Nahlin Cruise

Climbing into his private air plane, piloted by Flight Lieut. ‘Mouse’ Fielden, not long appointed  Captain of the King’s Flight, Edward VIII left Heathrow aerodrome, Middlesex, at the beginning of August, to begin a four-week holiday. In fifty minutes the plane was across the Channel and the King then boarded a train bound for the Dalmatian coast where millionaire Lady Yule’s luxury yacht the Nahlin was waiting, with its crew of forty-eight who had boarded it in Portsmouth. King Edward had chartered the yacht to take him and fifteen guests, including Wallis Simpson, on an Adriatic cruise.

The yacht was specially fitted out for the King, with the library converted into a state-room, so that he and Wallis would have a place in which to  attend to official business and relax in private. A dance floor had been laid in the lounge, where a powerful wireless doubled as a communications hub for the King’s daily despatches and, in the evening, a means of tuning into the BBC’s dance orchestra broadcasts. On the 10th, Edward boarded the Nahlin at the small Yugoslav village of Sibenek. The yacht was escorted by two Royal Navy destroyers from the Mediterranean fleet.

Apart from the obvious security matters, the ships were responsible for collecting and delivering the red dispatch boxes containing the business to which he was meant to attend in his private state-room. They needn’t have bothered, since the King had little interest in interrupting his merry-making with friends to spend time on the affairs of state. He had more contact with the ships during his exercise hours, which he spent in rowing skiffs around them, joking with the sailors that he was ‘reviewing the fleet!’

The presence of the two ships meant that there was little prospect of ‘the Duke of Lancaster’ remaining anonymous. Whenever the royal party disembarked, crowds gathered. At Dubrovnik the mayor issued a proclamation forbidding the townsfolk to stare. It only encouraged them more, but Edward was used to crowds. However, among them were numerous American journalists and photographers, providing lurid stories of his relationship with Wallis for the US press, while the British press was keeping to its self-denying agreement, or just about. Cavalcade, in its August editions, carried numerous photographs of ‘the Duke of Lancaster’ with his friend, ‘Mrs Ernest Simpson’. On the cover of the magazine she could be seen placing a steadying hand on the King’s forearm, as he climbed out of a motor-boat. The caption read, ‘The motor-boat arrived at Paradise Island’. As the yacht moored in Corfu, the British Ambassador to Greece wondered, in his dispatch to London, ‘whether this union, however queer and generally unsuitable to he state, may not in the long run turn out to be more in harmony with the spirit of the new age than anything that wisdom could have contrived’.

The luxurious Nahlin, which would be worth eleven million pounds in today’s money, docked in Istanbul at the end of the cruise. The King and Mrs Simpson travelled back overland together, staying at the Hotel Bristol in Vienna, which had a large steam-room. Here, the King stripped down and walked around naked, with his fully clothed chauffeur and six detectives in attendance. In doing so, he was only following local customs, but even this action was the subject of further criticism back at court.

The royal love story, amazingly, had so far remained largely unnoticed by the general British public. Though, as during the next few months, pictures of the cruise were published in the American press, causing public comment, they were not published in the popular press in Britain.  However, on his return from holiday, Edward saw to it that Wallis Simpson’s name was twice printed on the Court Circular, once at a dinner party attended by the Baldwins, and the other on the her arrival with other guests at Balmoral, during the royal family’s annual retreat.

The Berlin Olympics

On Saturday 1st August, at exactly four o’ clock in the afternoon, Adolf Hitler entered the Berlin Olympic Stadium through the Marathon Gate. The crowd of 125,000 rose as one, gave the fascist salute and drowned out the Olympic fanfare with their cries of ‘Heil Hitler’. The Olympic orchestra, conducted by Richard Strauss, was accompanied by a ten thousand-strong chorus, in the performance of Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles, followed by the Nazi party anthem.  The crowd then fell silent for the rendition of the Olympic hymn and the great bell, dominating the tower at the main entrance, started to toll. The flags of fifty-one competing nations were raised and the giant airship, the Hindenburg, the largest Zeppelin ever built, hovered round in circles above the stadium.

Joachim von Ribbentrop’s British guests, including three Lords – Monsell, Rothermere, Beaverbrook – were among the Nazi leadership’s  ‘personal friends’ nearly all of whom had accepted their invitations. Ribbentrop had by now become Germany’s Ambassador to Britain, a sign of the importance Hitler placed on securing an alliance with the Government in London which would enable him to expand eastwards in Europe.

The opening ceremony continued with the parade of athletes. Each team was ordered to salute the German Chancellor according to the custom in its own country. The French followed the Greeks in giving the Olympic salute, raising the right arm to its full length at ninety degrees. The crowd, and Hitler, responded to this with the Nazi salute. The British, however, chose to make a modest ‘eyes-right’ when they passed the platform, and were greeted by only lukewarm applause. This was not an auspicious start for Ribbentrop’s prospective Anglo-German alliance. However, official relations were still cool following the Rhineland episode of the spring, and Hitler had chosen to ignore the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden’s list of questions designed to elicit a series of assurances about future intentions.

Ribbentrop had hoped to use the Games as a means of organising a summit between Baldwin and Hitler, and Baldwin’s close Welsh friend and former Cabinet Secretary became the conduit for these overtures. Jones had met the Führer at his Munich flat im May, but Baldwin, by this time very tired and depressed, was not convinced that a summit would serve any useful purpose and, though there were vague suggestions that the two leaders might meet during the summer in the Alps, it would be another two years, and another Prime Minister later, before the summit in the Eagle’s nest. Besides, Anthony Eden was becoming increasingly resentful of unofficial diplomacy and the development of the Appeasement policy had recently cost Baldwin one foreign secretary; he did not want to lose a second one within six months. In any case, Baldwin’s annual holiday in the French Alps was cancelled due to the Civil War in Spain.  On the day the Olympic Games began, Baldwin was ordered to take complete rest for three months by his doctors, and did not re-emerge onto the political stage until October.

Although Hitler had, disingenuously, compared himself to Baldwin as a reluctant leader of his country, he was not shy about his role in opening the Games as their self-professed ‘Patron’. Somewhat incongruously, three thousand doves were released and flew off after completing a circuit of the stadium. The Olympic torch had been carried the 3,075 kilometres from Olympia by the same number of bearers, where it had been lit by the rays of the sun in a specially designed helio-furnace. The torch-bearing and the lighting of the flame were new features of the ceremonial in 1936, another masterpiece of presentation by the Nazi propagandists who were determined to weld the ideas of ancient Greece to their own vision of a master-race, symbolised by the lone figure of the blonde athlete in white shorts and singlet who stood on high, ready to light the cauldron at the opposite end of the stadium, by descending to the track and then bounding up the steps to the brazier. A German weightlifter had been chosen to swear the athlete’s oath, for which he was meant to hold the Olympic flag, but he grasped the swastika instead, as all the athletes raised their right arms in affirmation.

The Games were a triumph for Nazi Germany from beginning to end. Like the recent London Olympics, it was an unrivalled spectacle, and the home nation dominated in almost every sport, except in track and field, where the USA kept its long-standing supremacy. The legend of James Cleveland, or ‘Jesse’ Owens is, of course, well-known. That he won four gold medals and broke two world records is indisputable, but Hitler did not refuse to present his medals. He was never expected to do so, because he was specifically asked by the International Olympic Committee not to greet individual winners in order to avoid causing offence when he was absent from the Games. Certainly, this request enabled him to diplomatically avoid shaking the hands of Negro and Jewish athletes in front of the cameras. Also, there is little basis for the claim that the Führer rolled on the floor in fury at the Negro runner’s success over his Nordic competitors. Certainly, there was frustration, which Joseph Goebbels recorded in his diary for 5th August, the day that Owens won his second medal in the two hundred metres sprint:

We Germans win a gold medal, the Americans get three, two of which are won by niggers. This is a scandal. White humanity should be ashamed of itself.

However, the ordinary white Germans in the stadium cheered Owens’ victories in much the same way as the victories of Usain Bolt were cheered in London recently. They chanted ‘O-vens, O-vens’ just as if they were cheering German athletes. If the latter had failed to win any medals, it might have been a different story, but sporting spectators were far more interested in the Olympic ideal of the elite individual athlete in competition rather than their country’s position in the medal table. To those with any sporting knowledge, the victories of Owens and other American athletes can hardly have come as a shock. Whatever they wrote or however they behaved in private, the Nazi leadership was careful not to show its distaste for any athletic achievement in public. The Spectator’s correspondent reported that the host nation had ‘fallen completely under the spell of the American Negro, who is already the hero of these Games’.  It was his fellow athletes, not the Nazi leaders, who were made to look ‘ridiculous, not only by the speed but by the sheer beauty of his running.’ Nevertheless, the USA’s continued dominance on the athletics track was the only factor that detracted from Germany’s total possession of the 1936 Olympics. The final German gold-medal tally was forty-six, which made them top of the medal table.

The threat of boycotts by the British and American teams following the Rhineland reoccupation had forced the Nazis to tone down their racist propaganda during the Games. Jewish competitors were included in the German team, one of whom, a fencer, gave the Hitler salute in receiving her silver medal on the podium. Official prohibition signs were taken down and anti-Jewish propaganda was removed from view.  Acts of discrimination and brutality still continued, out of sight of the guests, but the Nazis cleaned up their public face so much that the year has become known as ‘the Olympic pause’ in the history of the Third Reich. As a result, distinguished British visitors like Chips Channon were gulled into admiration for the way the Germans organised both the Games and their society with such efficient attention to detail. However, not all were ‘taken in’. Lord Vansittart, a more prominent figure in British policy-making circles, remained as sceptical at the end of the two weeks as he was at the beginning.

Channon found the Games themselves dull. Athletics in Britain had not moved on since the Paris Olympics in 1924, the subject of Hugh Hudson’s 1981 Film, Chariots of Fire. It was still dominated by the strict amateur code of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and was starved of funds. It failed to attract broad public support, resulting in poor performances in Berlin. The focus for many of the British visitors was not sports but socializing and diplomacy. For his part, Ribbentrop’s lavish hospitality was the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the British Establishment and its control over foreign policy in 1936. Quite simply, the Nazi leadership exaggerated the power of the King and the Lords over the Cabinet and the Commons. Although he was a member of Edward VIII’s inner social circle, Channon was not even a junior minister in the Government. However, he was only one of a number of fascist-sympathisers from Britain, including the Anglo-German Fellowship, a group of aristocrats, businessmen, , politicians and ex-servicemen who had come together to try to change British policy. Hitler himself entertained them in the Chancellery and had also invited the Mitford sisters, Diana and Unity, torch-bearers of British Fascism. Diana, mistress of Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, was on a secret mission to Germany to raise funds from the Nazis. The sisters were staying with Goebbels in his large villa overlooking the Wannsee lake.  They were not simply aristocratic women infatuated with powerful men in uniforms. They genuinely believed that National Socialism, if applied to Britain, could bring an end to mass unemployment and poverty. Diana later claimed that Hitler’s ideas, ‘if they had prevailed at the time, would have saved a great deal of suffering.’ Nevertheless, she was unsuccessful in acquiring further funds from Hitler for the BUF (she had already been given ten thousand pounds by him), but he did agree to help her with her planned marriage in Berlin to Mosley on 6th  October.

Elsewhere and everywhere in the packed city of Berlin, houses and streets were bedecked with double banners, the Olympic flag and the red Nazi flag with the black swastika on a white circle. For the British athletes, many of whom were enjoying their first trip to the continent, it was an exciting time, but the Games were not the focus of attention at home that they have been in more recent decades. Dorothy Tyler found that ‘people were more interested in the fact that we were visiting Germany and seeing Hitler than they were in our taking part in the Games’. She was one of the few British success stories, winning silver in the high-jump. The most famous British victory came in the 4×400 metre relay, in which the British men beat the American and German teams to claim gold. Harold Abrahams, the hundred metre champion from Paris, described Godfrey Rampling’s leg, in which he received the baton with  the US ahead and finished five yards ahead, as ‘the most glorious heaven-sent quarter-mile I have ever seen’. However, unlike the Jewish Olympian, most of the British visitors to Berlin showed only a fleeting interest in their team’s success. They showed more interest in the power, glamour and modernity of the capital city of the new German Reich, seduced by von Ribbentrop, like Lord Londonderry had been earlier in the year (see photo above).

The Olympic propaganda was made even more effective by the  documentary film-maker Lani Riefenstahl, who had already made Triumph of the Will, acclaimed internationally as a work of genius. Her two-part epic, Olympia, was a massive hit in Germany, and, though it was not shown in Britain until after the war, those who did see it realised that Germany was well in the lead in making propaganda films, as in so much else. At the end of the Games, Germany finished with eighty-nine medals, thirty-three of them gold. Britain was tenth with fourteen medals, only four of them gold. There was a debate about the reasons for failure even before the Games had finished. Some argued that Britain’s weak performance reflected a national decline in fitness, something which had been troubling the authorities since the Boer War.

However, the main reason was the lack of funding and resources. The XIth Olympiad came to an end on 16th August, with the closing ceremonies. There was no march past of the athletes, only a parade of representative flag-bearers. They marched the length of the arena, halting beneath the Olympic flame. The President of the IOC stepped forward to call on the youth of the world to assemble in four year’s time in Tokyo. The flag was lowered and the Olympic flame was slowly extinguished and Hitler rose for yet another chorus of Deutschland, Deutschland.. The great Games, as Channon wrote, ‘the great German display of power, and bid for recognition, were over.’ Whilst David Lloyd George called Hitler ‘the greatest German of the age’, very few in Britain admired Fascism at home or abroad. Lord Decius, on his return from the Games, wrote to the Times, full of foreboding:

 I left Berlin with the impression that a new race of energetic, virile young people had sprung up in Germany. They appeared to be ready to go anywhere under the orders of the Führer – a nation fully armed, equipped with the best of war material, and an air force second to none.

Sierra de Los Angeles

Towards the end of August, an amateur ‘International Brigades’ were being formed in Spain, comprising the assortment of radical intellectuals and international communists who had made their way to the conflict to support the Republican cause. It is estimated that 2,762 British volunteers fought in Spain, of whom 543 died there. Most of these soldiers were workers, many of them unemployed miners from South Wales and elsewhere, and their convictions had been built over generations of deprivation and resistance. Some were young graduates, like David Marshall, They were becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of action, passing their days in Barcelona, feeling ashamed to be idle. At the end of August, they were sent to Albacete, 150 miles south-east of Madrid, where they were given some rudimentary training as part of the newly forming International Brigades, before taking part in the defence of Madrid. David’s first taste of battle was also his last, and it was ‘a bit of a shambles’. Although he had never used a rifle before, he was ordered to advance on a Fascist-held building at the top of a hill, the Sierra de Los Angeles, with a strategic view over to Madrid in the distance. Firing at the windows, his group felt exposed, so they sheltered in a narrow furrow as the enemy returned fire. He was hit in the leg: ‘My foot leapt up and hit me in the backside.’

Without any proper training, his short experience of actual combat was a disaster, and it demoralised him. What had started as a glorious adventure had ended in violence and shock. After his wound had healed, he asked for permission to return home, which was granted. He was fortunate. Although a casualty , he survived, whereas most of those fighting with him went on to die in the bloody battles of the autumn and winter. He went back to Middlesbrough as a young man who had learnt some hard lessons about ‘the actualities of war’ in a very short time.

Franco had had a promise of support from Mussolini before the war began and ideological allies had supplied him with arms from the beginning, in spite of the League’s Non-Intervention Committee. But when Italian troops were moved in on Franco’s side, the Left redoubled its efforts to rally support for the Republicans. Writers and painters all over Europe set to work as propagandists. Michael Foot wrote that ‘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.’ 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 Left as the very real prospect of a fascist Europe loomed large. Most on the liberal-conservative Right continued to favour Non-Intervention, hating Communism at least as much as they hated Fascism, if not more so. Then there were those, increasing in number, who had considerable sympathy and admiration for Hitler’s modern Germany, even if not so keen on Franco’s reactionary Spain or Mussolini’s Italy.




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

Norman Rose, Harold Nicholson. London: Pimlico, 2005

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

Andrew  J Chandler, The Re-Making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, 1920-40. Cardiff: unpublished thesis in University of Wales College Library.

These Tremendous Years, 1919-38: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war. London: publisher unknown, 1939 (?).

John Gorman, To Build Jerusalem: A photographic remembrance of British working class life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications, 1980.


‘Just give me five minutes’ peace!’ – The Anxiety Scale.   Leave a comment


Fruit of the Spirit:  Peace:  Isaiah 43 vv 1-7: An Interactive Study

’Just give me five minutes peace and quiet!’ This is probably the most frequent, everyday use of the word peace that you’ll hear in English-speaking homes and schools! Even in the religious context, the word is usually used in a collocation, a group of words, like  ’grace, mercy and peace..’, in a way in which faith, hope and love are not. On the international ’stage’, peace is seen as the absence of war or, to be more cynical, ’the period of cheating between battles’, rarely as ’the presence of justice’. Similarly,  in our day-to-day lives, a period of ’peace’ is the antidote to stress and anxiety, which is nearly always seen as a temporary respite from ongoing conflicts at home, school, work or in the local church and community. It’s a state we are given by someone else, either by our family or, if we are religious, by God. It’s a passive state, not an active one, not one which we create for ourselves.

So, where are you on the Anxiety Scale? Where would you put your life? In general? At present?

0-2 Very peaceful

English: An anxious person

English: An anxious person (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3-4 Quite peaceful

5-6 Relatively peaceful; a little worried

6-7 Anxious

8-9 Very Anxious

10 Tearing your hair out!

What are your deepest  fears? Can you put a name to them for yourself and in a private conversation with God?

In the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55 are concerned with the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The message is a comforting one: God is about to do something new and the punishment of the past is over. They are about to experience a period of peace, or ’reconciliation’.


English: A scroll of the Book of Isaiah

English: A scroll of the Book of Isaiah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading: Isaiah 43 vv 1-7:

But now, this is what the LORD says –

He who created you, O Jacob,

He who formed you, O Israel:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

I have summoned you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the waters,

I will be with you;

And when you pass through the rivers,

They will not sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire,

You will not be burned;

The flames will not set you ablaze.

For I am the LORD, your God,

The Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;

I give Egypt for your ransom,

Cush and Seba in your stead.

Since you are precious and honoured in my sight,

And because I love you,

I will give men in exchange for you,

And people in exchange for your life.

Do not be afraid, for I am with you;

I will bring your children from the east

And gather you from the west.

I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’

And to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’

Bring my sons from afar

And my daughters from the ends of the earth –

Everyone who is called by my name,

Whom I created for my glory,

Whom I formed and made.”


Franklin D. Roosevelt after giving one of his ...

Franklin D. Roosevelt after giving one of his fireside chats. The predecessor to the Weekly Address. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When President Roosevelt came into office during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he told the American people ’we have nothing to fear but fear itself’. He went on to speak about how fear can paralyse and debilitate us, but that it could also energise us into action. In his first hundred days in office, he energised the American people through a series of reforms known collectively as ’the New Deal’. In the passage above, this is what God is offering the people of Israel and, by extension, ourselves: A New Deal, both in our private lives and our public relationships.

How do you deal with fear and anxiety? Flight or fight?

What does God promise us? If not freedom from adversity and persecution, then what?

So, what is Peace? The Hebrew ’Shalom’ in the Old Testament implies health and well-being, welfare and ’wholeness’ .  It is externally given, which is why the word was used as a traditional greeting – ’peace be with you’, or, to paraphrase, ’may the Lord grant you safety and security’. Of course, an obsession with this ’state’ is what can give rise to an extreme ’Zionism’, the belief that God has given a timeless guarantee of the right of the Jewish people to security above all other Peoples.

However, Isaiah is also looking forward to a more inclusive, universal  definition, reconciling all who are called by his name from every part of the known world. In the New Testament, the word becomes transformed and redefined as ’peace of mind, spirit and heart’, an internal condition, or ’inner peace’. This is Paul’s meaning in Galatians 5:22, where he lists it as one of the fruits of the spirit, a ’divine’ quality which becomes intrinsic in the believer through the action of the Holy Spirit.In all,  there are eight references to ’peace’ in Isaiah, all referring to the ’external’ idea;  the passage above refers to testing by fire and water and to God being with us in this testing, protecting and providing us with security. Written after Babylonian exile, it is a promise of reconciliation.

However, in  vv 3-4, there is a ’foreshadowing’ of what Jesus would do; we are as precious as Seba or Cush, the fertile areas of the Upper Nile, but Christ’s ransom will be paid once and for all. The Red Cross says they don’t pay ransoms on the basis that ’once you give in to kidnappers, they always come back for more’. ’Appeasement’ is the same. We might gently give in to our children when they ask for sweets or toys, though we know the eventual cost may be far higher. However, we rely on their ’gacefulness’ to respond by not continually demanding more. Dictators are not graceful, however, and view ’generosity’ as a sign of weakness, which is why people are rightly suspicious of supporters of ’peace

at any price’. They are never satisfied.  The Price paid by God on Calvary was so high that no more could be asked. However, Christians continued to die by all manner of fearful methods, so God doesn’t promise safety, security, freedom from persecution or suffering. In fact, tells disciples that they must be prepared to ’take up their cross’. But he does promise that his peace will be with us, through the Spirit.

So, how can we accept God’s Peace in our lives?

  • we can’t understand it, we just have to accept it – it passes all our understanding in this life;
  • we can’t equate it with any kind of worldly peace, though it is offered and will be given in/ to this world – but ’not as the world gives…’;
  • Isaiah chapters 52-56 make it clear that Justice and Peace are two sides of the same coin. Peace not the absence of conflict, but presence of justice. If we treat others justly, we are ourselves put right with God; but we cannot be ’at peace’ with God if we ’at war’ with others;
  • God will ’gather in’ all areas of Earth, none of which are excluded from God’s grace, which is universal and available to all, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, gender or sexuality (56 vv 3-8);
  • The ’whole created order,’ the entire universe, is reconciled by the cross; the Greek word here is ’oikoumene’ which gives us our words for ’economy’ and ’ecology’. The gospel is also about ecological balance, about ’Green Peace’. We are called to respect God’s purpose for his creation, since we are only tenants.

How can your relationship with God produce a spirit of peace within you?

This state is not the same as ’being cool’, or ’keeping calm’ and ’carrying on’ regardless. It’s certainly not behaving passively or with total tranquility, as if we’re on valerian.  In ’turning the other cheek’ we are called to witness non-violently to the truth. Even in the eye of the storm, we need to hold firm to our anchor and God will calm the wind and the waves.  Peace begins when we stand still and face our fears, bringing our anxieties to God in prayer and it continuing as we seek God’s transformation of our conflicts through his reconciling love.

So, what is Reconciliation?

To reconcile: to cause a relationship to be harmonious, peaceful and righteous.

  1. Used of what the disciples must do for one another (Mt 5:24; Lk 12:58);
  2. Used of what God has achieved through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus (Ro 5: 1-10; 2 Cor 5:18)
  3. Used of the duty of a sinner towards God – to accept forgiveness and be in a right relationship (2 Cor 5:20).

So how does this change our definition of peace?

Peace is the sound of children playing, and a father’s voice singing…(author unknown).

Psalms 27, 46, 49, 56 and 91 speak peace to our fears.


For Inner Peace:

Lord, I know that you have heard the prayers of my heart. I have described for you my deepest fears and concerns, and it is my desire to relinquish them to you. You have created my mind, Lord, with the amazing capacity to dream with you. In my silence I sense your powerful presence.

I picture your arms around me, assuring me that all is well. In my heart I hear you whisper. ’You are my precious child and I love you. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your saviour.’

Lord, thank you for taking my fears and concerns. You are in control – your will be done.

 (Hazel Offner)


For Peace in the World:

O God of power and love, look in mercy upon our war-torn world, which is still your world;

You have made it; in it you delight to work; you have redeemed its people.

Grant reconciliation, we ask, between man and man, nation and nation, through the power of that great peace made by Jesus your Son;

May your servants not be troubled by wars and rumours of wars, but rather look up because their redemption draws near; and when our king returns, may he find many waiting for him, and fighting with his weapons alone;

We ask it in the King’s name, Jesus Christ your son our Lord. AMEN.

(Christopher Idle)

Song: Tom Paxton, Peace Will Come:

My own life is all I can hope to control,

Let my life be lived for the good of my soul,

And may it bring peace,

Sweet peace,

Peace will come,

Let it begin with me.


St Columba’s Prayer of Benediction:

Deep peace of the running wave to you,

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you,

Deep peace of the shining stars to you,

Deep peace of the son of peace to you.


AJC, 3/5/12, updated for reading, 10/6/12



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