Archive for the ‘Marx’ Tag

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

The Long & Winding Road to Recovery:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contrasting Images of the Thirties:

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

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

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

South Wales –  A Region in Need of a Plan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revolutionary Left & The Radical Right:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Battle of Cable Street’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Downing Street Declaration & the Public Order Act:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Popular Front – Parliamentary Politics & Protest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parliamentary Opposition to Appeasement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter of Discontent – Sit-in at the Ritz:

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

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

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For the Labour movement as a whole, the war strengthened the commitment of ‘no return to the thirties’ even before the thirties were properly over. As Harold Nicolson motored home from Westminster to Sissinghurst in Kent on 3 September, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist and shouted: it’s all the fault of the rich! Harold commented in his diary:

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Képtalálat a következőre: „R. Palme Dutt”

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

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

The Drive to Municipal Socialism in Coventry:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Planning for the People:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pomp & Pageantry – A Monarch for the Masses:

001George V photographed circa 1935.

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

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

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

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

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

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Why did so many workers vote Tory in December 1935?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attlee Arrives, two Kings Depart. …

Képtalálat a következőre: „Clement Attlee, 1935”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Radical Writers on the Left:

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

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

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

Drug nor isolation will cure this cancer.

It is now or never the hour of the knife,

The break with the past, the major operation. 

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

Financier, leaving your little room

Where the money is made but not spent, …

The game is up for you and the others,

Who, thinking, pace in slippers on the lawns

Of College Quad or Cathedral Close, …

Seekers after happiness, all who follow

The convulsions of your simple wish,

It is later than you think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North of Manchester:

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

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

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

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

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

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

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

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

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

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

Fighting back; Marching on …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From the Threat of Revolution to the Promise of Reform:

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Britain and the World, 1984-89: From local difficulties to global conflicts.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Iron Lady’ at the peak of her powers, with tank and flag, in 1986.

The Brighton Bombing:

During the 1984 Conservative Conference, an IRA bomb partly demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, almost killing the Prime Minister and a number of her cabinet. The action was intended as a response to Mrs Thatcher’s hard-line at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The plot had been to assassinate her and the whole of the cabinet in order to plunge the country into political chaos, resulting in withdrawal from Northern Ireland. When the bomb went off at 2.50 a.m., Margaret Thatcher was working on official papers, having just finished her conference speech. The blast scattered broken glass on her bedroom carpet and filled her mouth with dust. She soon learned that the bomb had killed the wife of cabinet minister John Wakeham, he himself narrowly escaping; killed the Tory MP Anthony Berry and had badly injured Norman Tebbit, paralysing his wife. After less than an hour’s fitful sleep, she rewrote her speech and told the stunned conference that they had witnessed an attempt to cripple the government, commenting that…

… the fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.

The final death toll from Brighton was five dead and several more seriously injured, but its consequences for British politics, which could have been momentous, turned out to be minimal. If the IRA could not shake her, could anything else?

The Gorbachevs in London:

In November 1984, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived at the VIP terminal at Heathrow airport, together with his wife, Raisa. The British had spotted him first, in the summer of that year, if not earlier. He was a lawyer by training, which he had done at the end of the Stalin period. So, while he accepted there were rules to be obeyed, he also knew that they were only really there to be bent. He and Raisa did a great deal in their few days in London, but they did not perform the obligatory ceremony of laying a wreath on Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery. Instead, they paid impromptu visits to Westminster Abbey and Number Ten Downing Street. The Foreign Office arranged a formal lunch for the Gorbachev at Hampton Court Palace, to which they invited a couple of hundred worthies, including BBC journalist John Simpson. He was seated next to a man from Moscow who was to become Gorbachev’s most senior advisors. Simpson asked him whether Gorbachev would really be able to make a difference to the Soviet Union. The Russian replied:

“He will have to,” he said. I noticed he didn’t trouble to question my assumption that Gorbachev would get the top job.

“Why?”

“Because a great deal has to be done. Much, much, more, I think, than you in the West realize.”

The Thatcher Revolution at Home – “Don’t tell Sid!”:

If Labour had been accused of creating a giant state sector whose employees depended on high public spending and could, therefore, be expected to become loyal Labour voting-fodder, then the Tories were intent on creating a property-owning democracy. The despair of Labour politicians as they watched it working was obvious. By the end of the 1980s, there was a large and immovable private sector in Britain of share-owners and home-owners, probably working in private companies, SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and increasingly un-unionised. The proportion of adults holding shares rose from seven per cent to twenty-five per cent during Thatcher’s years in power. Thanks to the ‘right to buy’ policy for council tenants, more than a million families purchased the hoses they lived in, repainting and refurbishing them and then watching their value shoot up, particularly as they had been sold them at a discount of between a third and a half of market value. The proportion of owner-occupied homes rose from fifty-five per cent in 1979 to sixty-seven per cent in 1989. In real terms, total personal wealth rose by eighty per cent in the eighties.

Looking below the surface, however, the story becomes more complex. Of the huge rise in wealth, relatively little was accounted for by shares. The increase in earnings and the house-price boom were much more important. The boom in shareholdings was fuelled by the British love of a bargain than by any deeper change in the culture. There was always a potential conflict between the government’s need to raise revenue and it hopes of spreading share ownership. In the early eighties, ministers erred on the side of the latter. The breakthrough privatization was that of fifty-two per cent of British Telecom in November 1984, which raised an unprecedented 3.9 billion. It was the first to be accompanied by a ‘ballyhoo’ of television and press advertising and was easily oversubscribed. In the event, two million people, or five per cent of the adult population bought ‘BT’ shares, almost doubling the total number of shareholders in a single day. After this came British Gas, as natural gas fields had been supplying Britain from the North Sea since the late sixties, pumping ashore at Yarmouth and Hull, replacing the coal-produced system. With its national pipe network and showrooms, natural gas had become the country’s favourite source of domestic energy and was, therefore, a straightforward monopoly. The government prepared for the sale with another TV campaign featuring a fictitious neighbour who had to be kept in the ‘dark’ about the bargain sale – “Don’t tell Sid!” This raised 5.4 billion, the biggest single privatization.

With the equally bargain-price shares offered to members of building societies when they de-mutualised and turned into banks, Britain developed a class of one-off shareholders, ‘kitchen capitalists’. They soon sold off their shares at a profit, few of them developing into long-term stock market investors, as had been hoped. Those who kept their shares did not go on to buy more, and rarely traded the ones they had acquired as a result of the privatizations, demutualisations and former employment options. The long-term failure to nurture a deeply rooted shareholding democracy has added to the contemporary criticism that public assets were being sold off too cheaply. The then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson later admitted that wider share ownership was an important policy objective and we were prepared to pay a price for it. The failure, ultimately, to achieve that objective showed that there were limits to the Thatcher Revolution. The most successful privatizations were the ones where the company was pushed into full competition, as with British Airways, Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. The utilities – gas, electricity, water – were always different, because they were natural monopolies. Yet without competition, where would the efficiency gains come from? This question was left as a rhetorical one, unanswered until decades later. The water and electricity companies were split up in order to create regional monopolies, with power generation split into two mega-companies, National Power and Powergen. In reality, few people outside the ‘Westminster village’ cared who owned the companies they depended on, so long as the service was acceptable. Britain was becoming a far less ideological country and a more aggressively consumerist one.

Heseltine and the Helicopters:

In the winter of 1984-85, the great Westland Helicopter crisis that broke over the Thatcher government was a battle between ministers about whether a European consortium of aerospace manufacturers or and American defence company, working with an Italian firm should take over a struggling West Country helicopter maker. While this was a government that claimed to refuse to micro-manage industry, yet the fight about the future of the Yeovil manufacturer cost two cabinet ministers’ jobs and pitted Thatcher against the only other member of her cabinet with real charisma, Nigel Heseltine. The small storm of Westland gave early notice of the weaknesses that would eventually destroy the Thatcher government, though not for another five years.

One weakness was the divide throughout the Tory Party over Britain’s place in the world. By the 1980s, helicopters were no longer a marginal defence issue. They would become crucial to Britain’s capabilities, the new army mule for hauling artillery over mountains and across stretches of water. United Technologies, the US company whose Sikorsky subsidiary built the Black Hawk helicopter, wanted to gain control over part of Britain’s defence industry. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State who had been so helpful to Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands Campaign was now back at his old company and ‘called in his markers’ for the American bid. Adopting a position of outward neutrality would probably have favoured it anyway as a further strengthening of the Special Relationship between the UK and the US. But on the other side, supporting the European consortium, were those who felt that the EC had to be able to stand alone in defence technology. Michael Heseltine and his business allies thought this was vital to protect jobs in the cutting-edge science-based industries. The US must not be allowed to dictate prices and terms to Europe. So the conflict was concerned with whether Britain stood first with the US or with the EC. It was a question which would continue to grow in importance throughout the eighties until, in the nineties, it tore the Conservatives apart.

The second weakness exposed by the Westland Affair was the Thatcher style of government, which was more presidential and more disdainful of the role of cabinet ministers than any previous government. The Prime Minister was conducting more and more business in small committees or bilaterally, with one minister at a time, ensuring her near absolute predominance. She gathered a small clique of trusted advisors around her. Just before her fall, Nigel Lawson concluded that she was taking her personal economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, more seriously than she was taking him, her next door neighbour in No 11, her Chancellor of the Exchequer. She used her beloved press officer, Bernard Ingham to cut down to size any ministers she had fallen out with, briefing against them and using the anonymous lobby system for Westminster journalists to spread the message.  In his memoirs, Ingham angrily defends himself against accusations of the improper briefing of the press, yet there are too many witnesses who found the Thatcher style more like that of the court of Elizabeth Tudor than that of a traditional cabinet, a place which demanded absolute loyalty and was infested with sycophantic favourites. In the mid-eighties, this was a new way of doing the business of government and to ministers on the receiving end, it was freshly humiliating.

But if there was one minister unlikely to take such treatment for long, it was Michael Heseltine (pictured below at a Conservative Party Conference). He was the only serious rival to Thatcher as the ‘darling of the party’ and media star, handsome, glamorous, rich and an excellent public speaker. He was said by his friend, fellow Tory MP and biographer, Julian Critchley, to have mapped out his future career on the back of an envelope, while still a student at Oxford, decade by decade, running through making his fortune, marrying well, entering Parliament and then, 1990s, Prime Minister. Though Heseltine commented that he could not remember doing this, it was in character. As a young man, he had flung himself into the characteristic sixties businesses of property investment and magazine publishing. A passionate anti-socialist, he had won a reputation for hot-headedness since once picking up the Mace, the symbol of Parliamentary authority, during a Commons debate about steel nationalization, and waving it at the Labour benches in such a violent manner as to earn himself the nickname ‘Tarzan’. His speeches to Tory Party conferences were full of blond hair-tossing, hilarious invective and dramatic gestures. In her memoirs, Thatcher portrayed Heseltine as a vain, ambitious man who flouted cabinet responsibility. The Westland crisis was, in her view, simply about his psychological flaws. However, they agreed about much, but was a more committed anti-racialist than she was and more deeply in favour of the EC, and she always regarded him as a serious and dangerous rival.

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The two bigger beasts of the Tory Party in the eighties went to war on behalf of the two rival bidders for Westland. She was livid that he was using his position as Defence Secretary to warn the company’s shareholders about the dangers of going with the Americans, potentially shutting out European business. She thought he was tipping the scales against Sikorsky, despite Westland’s preference for them. Certainly, Heseltine repeatedly made it clear that the Ministry of Defence would not be buying their Black Hawk helicopter and did much to rally the European consortium. Thatcher, meanwhile, was deploying the public line that she was only interested in what was best for the shareholders while trying to make sure the Americans were kept in the race, ahead of the Europeans. Eventually, she sought advice from the government law officers about whether Heseltine had been behaving properly. A private reply was leaked in order to weaken his case. Furious about this wholly inappropriate act which he suspected was the responsibility of Thatcher and Ingham, Heseltine demanded a full inquiry. During a meeting of the cabinet, she counter-attacked, trying to rein him in by ordering that all future statements on Westland must be cleared first by Number Ten. Hearing this attempt to gag him, Heseltine calmly got up from the cabinet table, announced that he must leave the government, walked into the street and told a solitary reporter that he had just resigned.

The question of exactly who had leaked the Attorney General’s legal advice in a misleadingly selective way to scupper the European bid then became critical. The leaking of private advice broke the rules of Whitehall confidentiality, fairness and collective government. The instrument of the leak was a comparatively junior civil servant to the Trade Secretary, Leon Brittan. But it was unclear as to who had told Colette Brown to do this, though many assumed it was her boss, Bernard Ingham. He denied it, and Mrs Thatcher also denied any knowledge of the leak. After dramatic Commons exchanges during which she was accused of lying to the House, she pulled through, while Leon Brittan was made a scapegoat. Some of Thatcher’s greatest business supporters such as Rupert Murdoch then weighed in on the side of the American bid. Eventually, amid accusations of arm-twisting and dirty tricks, the company went to Sikorsky and the storm subsided. But it had revealed the costs of the Thatcher style of government. Getting the better of foreign dictators and militant trade union leaders was one thing, but behaving the same way with senior members of the cabinet and the Tory Party was quite another. Heseltine wrote later:

I saw many good people broken by the Downing Street machine. I had observed the techniques of character assassination; the drip, drip, drip, of carefully planted, unattributable stories that were fed into the public domain, as colleagues became marked as somehow “semi-detached” or “not one of us”.

‘Shadowing’ the Deutschmark & ‘Diva’ Diplomacy:

There were also debates and rows about economic policy in relation to the EC. The Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, wanted to replace the old, rather wobbly system of controlling the money supply targets, the Medium Term Financial Strategy, with a new stratagem – tying the pound to the German mark in the European Exchange Rate System (ERM). This was an admission of failure; the older system of measuring money was useless and in the world of global fast money. Linking the pound to the Deutschmark was an alternative, with Britain subcontracting her anti-inflation policy to the more successful and harder-faced disciplinarians of the West German Central Bank. Lawson was keen on this alternative ‘shadowing’ method; in effect, he was looking for somewhere firm to plant down policy in the context of the new global financial free-for-all. Thatcher disagreed, arguing that currencies should be allowed to float freely, but at the time little of this debate was known beyond the specialist financial world.

Other ‘Europe’- related debates were conducted more openly in general political life. The mid-eighties were years of Thatcherite drift over Europe. Jacques Delors, later her great enemy as President of the European Commission, had begun his grand plan for the next stages of ‘the union’. Thatcher knew that the ERM was intended one day to lead to a single European currency, part of Delors’ plan for a freshly buttressed European state. Lawson ignored her objections and shadowed the Deutschmark anyway. But when the cost of her Chancellor’s policy became excessive, she ordered him to stop which, under protest, he did. However, the Single European Act, which smashed down thousands of national laws preventing free trade inside the EC, promised free movement of goods, capital, services and people, and presaging the single currency, was passed with her enthusiastic support. She rejected the sceptics’ view that when the continental leadership talked of an economic and political union, they really meant it.

Back in the mid-eighties, personal relationships mattered as much in modern diplomacy as they had in Renaissance courts, and the Thatcher-Gorbachev courtship engaged her imagination and human interest. She was becoming the closest ally of Ronald Reagan, in another international relationship which was of huge emotional and political significance to her. In these years she became an ‘international diva’ of conservative politics, feted by crowds from Russia and China to New York. Her wardrobe, coded depending on where an outfit had been first worn, told its own story: Paris Opera, Washington Pink, Reagan Navy, Toronto Turquoise, Tokyo Blue, Kremlin Silver, Peking Black. Meanwhile, she was negotiating the hard detail of Hong Kong’s transitional status before it was handed over to Communist China in 1997. She got a torrid time at Commonwealth conferences for her opposition to sanctions against the apartheid régime in South Africa. At home, the problem of persistently high unemployment was nagging away, though it started to fall from the summer of 1986 seemed to fall.

The Bombing of Libya and ‘BBC Bias’:

Then there was the highly unpopular use of British airbases for President Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. This provoked a controversy, not for the first time, between the BBC and the Thatcher government. The PM’s supporters on the right of the Tory Party had long been urging her to privatize the BBC and she herself appeared to believe that it was biased against her government; by which she meant that it was too independent. She still remembered the irritation she felt at some of the phrases its leading broadcasters had used back in the Falklands War: if we are to believe the British version, etc.  Her view was that as the British Broadcasting Corporation, a public service broadcaster supported by the television license fee, it should give the British government’s view without questioning it. Yet it was perfectly obvious that the reason the BBC was so respected both in Britain and abroad was that it was genuinely independent of the British government. The BBC was legally obliged by its Charter to remain independent of party political control. Lord Reith, its first Director-General, had successfully resisted Churchill’s attempt to take over its radio service for government propaganda during the General Strike of 1926. It was one of the few great organs of state which Margaret Thatcher was not able to dominate in some way, a constitutional reality which made her visibly restless on occasions.

Because the American aircraft which bombed Libya took off from bases in Britain, that made it a British issue. The pretext for the attack was a terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub used by American servicemen, but far from being the work of Libyan agents, it proved to have been carried out by a group linked to the Syrian government. There was a good deal of public disquiet about it, especially since it was strongly suspected that the Reagan administration was primarily bombing Libya to teach bigger and more formidable countries, chiefly Iran, a lesson. Libya was a feeble, though intermittently nasty little dictatorship which could never organise significant acts of state terrorism. The real battle was a propaganda one. Colonel Gaddafi (pictured below in 1979) claimed that his daughter had been killed in the raid, and showed her body to the journalists in Tripoli at the time. It wasn’t until some time later that it became clear that he had adopted the little girl as she lay dying from her injuries. But whoever’s daughter she was, she was certainly killed by the American bombing.

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The British government was rather rattled by the hostility which sections of the public were starting to show over the bombing; and since, at the times of crisis, people tend to turn to the BBC for their information, some senior ministers felt that this public opposition was the fault of the BBC and wanted it to be taught a lesson. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit, announced that he would be investigating the BBC’s coverage of the raid. The BBC allowed itself to seem rattled by the threats he and his party made, which made him feel justified in his approach. John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor recalled sitting with a few journalists in the canteen at the Television Centre when the tannoy went:

‘PBX. Calling Mr John Simpson.’

I hurried over to the phone. The deputy editor of television news was on the other end.

“We’ve just had Tebbit’s report,” he said. “It’s serious. The editor would be grateful if you could get up here.”

I finished my fish and went up. A small group of worried-looking people were sitting round in the editor’s office. The editor handed me a copy of the document Tebbit and his researchers at Conservative Central Office had compiled. I looked through it rather nervously, anxious to see what it had to say about my own reporting of the attack. It made a few neutral comments, then one which was rather complimentary; that was all.

“That’s all OK,” I blurted out, voicing my own relief. Nothing much there.” 

The editor turned to me. I could see a faint ray of hope was glimmering for the first time.

“You think so?”

I realised that I had been speaking purely for myself. But it seemed unkind and unreasonable to destroy his only cause for optimism. He must have felt that his career was on the line.

“Oh sure, it’s full of loopholes. Just go through it carefully and you’ll find them all,” I said.

I hadn’t read it carefully enough to know if that were true, but I have never yet read a long document that you couldn’t pick holes in.

Chris Cramer, a tough character who was the news editor at the time… agreed. Cramer and I were both affronted by the idea that in a free society the government should presume to dictate to the broadcasters and try to make them report only what the government wanted. Maybe we were both chancers too.

“John’s right,” he said. “We should go through this with a fine-tooth comb. We’ll find lots of things wrong with it.”

Which is what happened. We divided the Conservative Central Office document up between us, and spent the next couple of days going through it point by point. The document compared the BBC’s coverage of the raid unfavourably with ITN’s, and tried to make the case that the BBC had been deliberately biased. Some of the individual points it made were reasonable enough: the news presenter on the night of the bombing had added various inaccuracies to the sub-editors’ scripts. (Soon afterwards she left the BBC.)

But it was silly to try to pretend that there was some underlying bias. I have never yet found a senior Conservative who really believed that…  

It hadn’t occurred to Norman Tebbit that the BBC would stand its ground since in the past it had fallen over itself with nervousness at the mere suggestion that the government of the day was upset with it. When it issued its response there was a big wave of public support for the BBC, partly because Kate Adie had established herself in the public eye as a brave, serious reporter, staying in Tripoli when the bombs were falling. Previously, women reporters had tended to be given social affairs to report on. Here was a woman who had become a war correspondent; something unprecedented on British television at that time, though there have been many equally brave successors since. But there was also public support for the BBC because, for all its failings, the BBC was considered to be as British an institution as any other in the country, and ninety per cent of the population had some contact with it each week in the pre-internet era. Norman Tebbit had failed to realise the British people did not like party political attacks on ‘Auntie’. An opinion poll taken shortly afterwards indicated that Conservative voters supported ‘the Beeb’ on almost the same scale as voters for other parties. Thatcher, aware that she would have to call a general election within the next year or so, quickly distanced herself from her erstwhile lieutenant’s campaign, leading to the first rift between the two of them. On the night she won the 1987 election, Simpson tried to interview her by the railings of St John’s, Smith Square, next to Conservative Central Office, amid rabid Young Conservatives chanting calls for the privatisation of the BBC:

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister, 18.6.87:

Speakers: Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher, PC MP (non-staff), John Simpson (contract)…

JS: The crowd here seem to want you to privatise the BBC. Are you planning to do that?

MT: Well, I think… Well, you know, I must really go and speak to them.

Of course, she never again considered doing so, even if she had been temporarily persuaded by Tebbit’s arguments. She knew what people would stand for, and what they wouldn’t; it was when this instinct finally deserted her that her decline and fall began.

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The ‘Poll Tax’ and the Peasants:

After the election, a wider dilemma emerged right across domestic policy, from the inner cities to hospitals, schools to police forces. Thatcher believed that government should set the rules, deliver sound money and then stand back and let other people get on with providing services. In practice, she often behaved differently, always more pragmatic and interventionist than her image suggested. At least, however, the principle was clear. But when it came to the public services there was no similar principle. She did not have the same respect for independent ‘movers and shakers’ in the hospitals, schools and town halls as she had for entrepreneurs and risk takers she admired in business. Before the Thatcher revolution, the Conservatives had been seen, on balance, defenders of local democracy. They had been strongly represented on councils across the country and had been on the receiving end of some of the more thuggish threats from Labour governments intent, for instance, on abolishing grammar schools. The town and county hall Conservatives had seen local representatives on hospital boards and local education authorities as bulwarks against socialist Whitehall. Margaret Thatcher herself had begun her political apprenticeship doing voluntary public work for her father, Alderman Roberts, sitting on various unpaid committees.

Yet in power, Thatcher and her ministers could not trust local government, or any elected and therefore independent bodies at all. Between 1979 and 1994, an astonishing 150 Acts of Parliament were passed removing powers from local authorities and switched to unelected quangos. The first two Thatcher governments transferred power and discretion away from people who had stood openly for election, and towards the subservient agents of Whitehall, often paid-up Tory party members. Despite his apparent love for Liverpool before the Militant takeover, Michael Heseltine attacked the whole of local government with new auditing with new auditing arrangements, curbs on how much tax they could raise, and spending caps as well. In the health service, early attempts to decentralize were rapidly reversed and a vast top-down system of targets and measurements was put in place, driven by a new planning organisation. It cost more and the service, undoubtedly, got worse. Similar centralist power-grabs took place in urban regeneration, where unelected Urban Development Corporations, rather than local councils, were given money to pour into rundown cities. The biggest city councils, most notably the Greater London Council, were simply abolished. Its powers were distributed between local borough councils and an unelected central organisation controlled by Whitehall. By 1990 there were some twelve thousand appointed officials running London compared with just 1,900 elected borough councillors. Housing Corporations took ninety per cent of the funds used by housing associations to build new cheap homes. In the Thatcher years, their staff grew sevenfold and their budgets twenty-fold.

Margaret Thatcher would say the poll tax, the name associated with the tax per head which was the catalyst for the bloody Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was actually an attempt to save local government. Like schools, hospitals and housing, local councils had been subjected to a barrage of ministers trying to stop them spending money, or raising it, except as Whitehall wished. Since 1945, local government had been spending more, but the amount of money it raised independently still came from a relatively narrow base of people, some fourteen million property-owners. Thatcher had been prodded by Edward Heath into promising to replace this tax, ‘the rates’, as early as 1974, but nobody had come up with a plausible and popular-sounding alternative. She had always disliked the rates system intensely, regarding them as an attack on self-improvement and other Tory values, and in government, the problem nagged away at her. Once, local elections were not national news; they were about who was best suited to run towns and counties, but in the late sixties and seventies they became national news, a regular referendum on the central government. Under Thatcher, the Conservatives lost swathes of local councils, resulting in more Labour-controlled councils which were even more distrusted by the central government, resulting in more powers away from them. The elections became even less relevant, fuelling more protest voting, and it soon became clear to government ministers that more councils were aping Liverpool by pursuing expensive hard-left policies partly because so few of those who voted for them were actually ratepayers themselves, therefore feeling no personal ‘pinch’.

One way of correcting this anomaly would be to make all those who voted for local councils pay towards their cost. This was the origin of the poll tax or community charge as it was officially called, a single flat tax for everybody. It would mean lower bills for many homeowners and make local councils more responsive to their voters. On the other hand, it would introduce a new, regressive tax for twenty million people, with the poorest paying as much as the richest. This broke a principle which stretched back much further back than the post-war ‘consensus’ to at least the 1920s and the replacement of the Poor Law. But Public Assistance or social security as it was now known, was no longer charged or administered locally so that there was some logic in the change to a flat, universal charge. This proposal was sold to the Prime Minister by Kenneth Baker at a seminar at Chequers in 1985, along with the nationalisation of business rates. Nigel Lawson tried to talk the Prime Minister out of it, telling her it would be completely unworkable and politically catastrophic. The tax was discussed at the same cabinet meeting that Michael Heseltine walked out of over the Westland affair. It might have worked if it had been brought in gradually over a whole decade, as was first mooted, or at least four, as was planned at that meeting.

But at the 1987 Tory Conference, intoxicated by the euphoria of the recent third election victory, party members urged Thatcher to bring it in at once. She agreed since there was some urgency resulting from the dramatic increase in property prices in the eighties. Rates, like the subsequent council tax, were based on the relative value of houses across Britain, changing with fashion and home improvement. This meant that, periodically, there had to be a complete revaluation in order to keep the tax working. Yet each revaluation meant higher rates bills for millions of households and businesses, and governments naturally tried to procrastinate over them. In Scotland, however, a different law made this impossible and a rates revaluation had already happened, causing political mayhem. As a result, Scottish ministers begged Thatcher to be allowed the poll tax first, and she also agreed to this. Exemptions were made for the unemployed and low paid, but an attempt, by nervous Tory MPs, to divide the tax into three bands so that it bore some relation to people’s ability to pay was brushed aside despite a huge parliamentary rebellion. When the tax was duly introduced in Scotland, it was met by widespread protest. In England, the estimates of the likely price of the average poll tax kept rising. Panicking ministers produced expensive schemes to cap it, and to create more generous exemptions, undermining the whole point of the new tax. Capping the tax would remove local accountability; the more exemptions there were, the lesser the pressure would be on the councils from their voters. Yet even the PM grew alarmed as she was told that over eighty per cent of voters would be paying more. Yet she pushed ahead with the introduction of the tax, due to take effect in England and Wales on 1st April 1990.

Bruges Bluntness & Madrid Madness:

The poll tax was one of the causes of her downfall in that following year, the other being Europe. This factor began to be potent in 1988, when turned against Jacques Delors’ plans and went to Bruges in Belgium to make what became her definitive speech against the federalist tide which was now openly advancing towards her. The Foreign Office had tried to soften her message, but she had promptly pulled out her pen and written the barbs and thorns back in again. She informed her audience that she had not…

… successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new level of dominance from Brussels.

There was much else besides. Her bluntness much offended continental politicians as well as her own Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Next, she reappointed her monetarist economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, who was outspokenly contemptuous of Lawson’s exchange rate policy. So, she was taking on two big cabinet beasts with great Offices of State at the same time, creating a serious split at the top of government. Then, Jacques Delors, the determined French socialist re-entered the story, with a fleshed-out plan for an economic and monetary union, which would end with the single currency, the euro. To get there, all EU members would need to put their national currencies into the ERM, which would draw them increasingly tightly together, which was just what Lawson and Howe wanted and just what Thatcher did not. Howe and Lawson ganged up, telling her that she must announce that Britain would soon join the ERM, even if she left the question of the single currency to one side for the time being. On the eve of a summit in Madrid where Britain was due to announce its view the two of them visited Thatcher together in private, had a blazing row with her and threatened to resign together if she did not give way. She did, and, for the time being, the crisis abated.

Piper Alpha – The Price of Oil and Who Profited?

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In June 1988, 185 men were burned or blown to death in the North Sea when an oil platform, Piper Alpha, blew up, yet there has been little commemoration of the tragic event over the past thirty years, in popular memorials (as contrasted with earlier coal-mining disasters of a similar scale), political memoirs or the general media. In the case of oil, the great adventure was lived out at the margins of British experience, halfway to Scandinavia, with its wild scenes played out in the bars of Aberdeen and Shetland, far removed from the media in Glasgow, never mind London. Exploration, equipment and production were also largely controlled by American companies. The number of British refineries actually fell in the eighties, the peak decade for oil production, from twenty-one to thirteen, and forty per cent of those were also owned by US-based companies. According to Nigel Lawson, the revenues from oil taxes gave ‘a healthy kick-start’ to the process of cutting the government deficit, though he always argued that the overall impact of North Sea oil was exaggerated, especially by the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). Ireland also benefited greatly from new investment from the United States in the search for new sources of oil and gas in Irish waters from the 1970s, and their exploitation in the eighties. In addition, as a poorer member state of the EU, the Republic gained a disproportionately larger share of the EU budget than the UK as a whole, so that by the end of the decade the Irish economy was expanding rapidly and the long-term pattern of Irish emigration was being reversed. Both British and Irish trade with the EU increased, and Ireland’s economy became less dependent on Britain’s.

Birt, the BBC & Beijing:

Following its own battles with Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit following the bombing of Libya, by the end of the eighties the BBC went on to become the biggest newsgathering organisation in the world and its reputation for accurate, impartial reporting continued to grow around the globe. In 1988, John Birt joined the Corporation as head of news and current affairs, reforming and revitalising that area before going on to become director-general. Under his leadership, there was a five-fold expansion. The foreign affairs unit grew to eleven people, and Simpson was made the head of it. The expansion came just in time considering how much the world was to change in the following year, in a series of seismic upheavals which affected almost every country on earth. In May 1989, Simpson and Adie teamed up in Beijing, covering the infamous massacre in Tiananmen Square:

In the BBC’s offices I found the redoubtable Kate Adie. She had been out in the streets all night with her camera team, and was in bad shape. A man had been killed right beside her, and her arm had been badly grazed in the incident. Together we assembled our reports. There was no time to edit words to pictures, nor even of seeing the pictures. All we could do was write our scripts, record them, and send them off to Hong Kong with the cassettes.

I sat at the computer, numbed by everything I had seen and determined not to get too emotional about it. I’d made real friends among the students in Tiananmen Square. The thought that they might now be dead or injured, that one of their best and most decent manifestations of recent times had been snuffed out in front of me was too disturbing and too painful for me to deal with. And so I took refuge in the old BBC concepts of balance and objectivity; there wasn’t an ounce of emotion in my script.

Kate’s report was very different. It was full of emotion. Six months later, when I finally watched the two reports side by side, I thought that while mine was perfectly accurate it had nothing to do with the real feeling of what had taken place. Hers did. I suppose the two were complimentary, and they were certainly used side by side on the news in Britain. 

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Above. The Morning of 20 May in Tiananmen Square.

A Tale of Two Cities – a Hell of a Dickens:

On 14th July 1989, Simpson was in Paris, reporting on the meeting of the ‘G7′, the leaders of the West’s seven leading capitalist powers, hosted by Francois Mitterrand, the French President. With hindsight, the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution was perhaps the single moment which best reflected the triumph of liberal democracy over all rival systems of government. The wealth, the grandeur, the personal liberty, the prestige and power which were on display were greater than the world had seen before. Soon, however, the decline in the power of the United States became more obvious. Margaret Thatcher still seemed unassailable as Britain’s prime minister, but would be politically vulnerable within a few months. While President Bush handed over the key to the Bastille which Lafayette had taken with him to America shortly after the Revolution, her gift to Mitterand was a first edition copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: inexpensive, and not very good as history. It was a grudging, insular gesture, typical of British attitudes towards France in the 1980s, which had chosen to follow an economic policy which was the exact opposite of Thatcherism. She disapproved not just of France, but of the occasion and the whole business of celebrating revolution. Her view was that evolution was greatly preferable to revolution, which was of little use to those, in 1789 or 1989, who lived under an autocracy which refuses to evolve. Although Mrs Thatcher may have helped to persuade Ronald Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was ‘a man to do business with’, according to John Simpson…

It wasn’t Mrs Thatcher’s economic principles which caused the changes in the Soviet bloc, but the simple, verifiable fact that Western capitalist society was effective, rich and reasonably free, while the countries of the communist bloc were manifestly not.

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In the same month, four weeks after her climb-down at the Madrid summit, Thatcher hit back at her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. Back in London, she unleashed a major cabinet reshuffle, compared at the time to Macmillan’s ‘night of the long knives’ in 1962. Howe was demoted to being Leader of the Commons, though she reluctantly agreed to him having the face-saving title of Deputy Prime Minister, a concession rather diminished when her press officer, Bernard Ingham, instantly told journalists that it was a bit of a non-job. Howe was replaced by the relatively unknown John Major, the former chief secretary. Lawson survived only because the economy was weakening and she thought it too dangerous to lose him just at that point. He was having a bad time on all sides, including from the able shadow chancellor John Smith. When Walters had another pop at his ERM policy, he decided that enough was enough and resigned on 26 October, telling the PM she should treat her ministers better. He was replaced by the still relatively unknown John Major.

Budapest, Berlin & Bucharest: Falling Dominoes of 1989:

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Meanwhile, all around them, the world was changing. On 23rd October I was in Hungary on a third, personal visit, when the country changed its name and constitution. It had dropped the word ‘People’s’ from its title and was henceforth to be known simply as the Republic of Hungary. My first visit, an ‘official’ one, as a member of a British Quaker delegation, had been exactly a year earlier, when the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been announced, along with the decision of the then communist government that the 1956 Revolution, which had begun on the same day, would no longer be referred to by them as a ‘counter-revolution’. A few days later in 1989, East Germany announced the opening of its borders to the West and joyous Berliners began hacking at the Berlin Wall.

Then the communists in Czechoslovakia fell, and at Christmas the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu was dragged from power and shot, along with his wife. According to John Simpson, who also witnessed all these events, including those in Bucharest at close quarters (as pictured above), found among the dictators’ possessions was a Mont Blanc pen given to him by the British Labour Party, presumably during the couple’s visit to London in 1978. This was instigated by the then Foreign Secretary, Dr David Owen who, along with James Callaghan, persuaded the Queen against her will that the Ceaucescus should be invited. The pictures below show them riding in State along the Mall. But I have written about all these events elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, just here, that, since the early seventies, politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlook Ceaucescu’s increasing megalomania and the unpleasantness of the government he controlled because he represented an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact, refusing to send Romanian forces to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. As early as 1972, a left-wing Labour MP had written:

As a result of unconditional acceptances of the past abuses of the legal system, Ceaucescu has declared that steps must be taken to ensure that such injustices can never occur in the future. The importance of democracy is therefore being increasingly stressed and… there is no question of rigging trials as occurred in the past. … Interference by anyone, no matter how important, is unacceptable in Ceaucescu’s view. 

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The not-so-beautiful relationship which came to an end with the shooting of the ‘Tsar and Tsarina’ who built their own palace (below) in Bucharest after visiting Buckingham Palace.  It was due to be completed just weeks after their overthrow.

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After meeting Ceaucescu on his state visit in 1978, Margaret Thatcher, then the leader of the opposition, commented:

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceaucescu … Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding.  

The ‘domino’ events of the Autumn and Winter of 1989 in the eastern part of the continent, in which Margaret Thatcher had played a ‘bit part’ alongside Reagan and Gorbachev, would have a ripple effect on her own fall from power the following year. That was not something many of us involved in East-West relations anticipated even at the end of that year.

Sources:

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

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

 

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The Language of History: Part One – Defining the Discourse   Leave a comment

The Language of History: Defining the Discourse

A ‘Preamble’ into Early Modern English:

While searching for reading material on historical discourse, I found a tract from Exeter Cathedral library, written by the antiquarian Howel in 1657, with an enchanting title; Londonopolis; an historical discourse or perlustration of the city of London… Interestingly, the verb to perlustrate means to traverse, survey… to go through and examine thoroughly (Webster’s Dictionary, 1981). The title thus reveals that the identification of the nature of historical discourse as that of surveying the past is by no means recent development. In addition, the use of ‘perlustration’ as a synonym for discourse suggests a close connection in the discipline between the need to investigate and narrate past events. These are regarded the two essential tools, or modes of discourse, to be used in the historical craft.

A British teacher researching into Dual Language Education in Budapest (Ryan: 1991) showed how a choice between these two modes resulted in what he defined as the lecture approach and the concept approach. In the first, the lesson is characterised by what Rod Ellis (1986: 176) called lockstep teaching, in which the teacher controls classroom communication through a series of elicitations of a closed kind or through lengthy informing moves and dominates quantitatively by assigning a large proportion of the talk to himself. Ryan adds that most Hungarian students expect this approach, treating history as a story told by teacher to students. In Hungary, teachers who pioneered the concept approach argued that the only way to ensure that students learnt the language of history in both Hungarian and English was to get them to talk about history. Ryan believed that it was not only possible but necessary to insert descriptive or explanatory concepts into any linear overview of a country’s history. This was precisely what happened in dual-language history teaching in Hungary in the early 1990s, resulting from a real and personalised philosophy among history teachers about their subject. Back in Exeter Cathedral library, I was interested to note how resonantly this view, one which I had also encountered in schools in Wales and more recently in France, seemed to echo that of Elizabethan writers, such as Thomas Blundervill (1574):

I can not tell whyther I may deryde, or rather pittie the great follie of those which having consumed all theyr lyfe tyme in hystories, doe knowe nothing in the ende, but the discents, genealoges, and petygrees of noble men, and when such a King or Emperour raigned, and such lyke stuffe, which knowledge though it be necessarie and meete to be observed, yet is not to be compared to the knowledge, that is, gotten by such observacions as we require, & be of greater importaunce: to the obtayning whereof, I wish all readers of Hystories, to employe theyr chiefest studie, care and diligence.

Blundervill’s second kind of knowledge, that which we might refer to today as the enquiry mode was, he considered, the essential means of enabling the reader of Hystories to gather judgement… as you may be the more able, as well to direct your private actions as to give Counsell lyke a most prudent Counsellor in publyke causes, be it matters of warre, or peace. Readers and observers of history need first to become masters and apprentices in the craft of perlustration, or investigation, to use a more familiar modern English word. By enquiring into past events, historical investigators also equip themselves to learn from such events, not simply about them.

Inter-cultural definitions: a comparative etymology

Interestingly, the Hungarian term ‘visszapillantás’, meaning an ‘historical survey or review’ (Országh, 1985), does not have the metaphorical idea of a study in depth, of a detailed survey or ‘perlustration’ going right down to the foundations of a building (Webster, 1981). It has the sense of a brief, summative overview of past events, with the prefix ‘vissza’ (back) definitely making the view a retrospective one. It does not suggest, necessarily, any connection between past, present and future.

Certainly, in its earliest uses, both in English and Hungarian, history, or ‘történelem’ (from ‘történet’, meaning ‘story’ or ‘tale’), was seen as a simple account of past events. However, the Greek root-word ‘istoria’ also had the early sense of an Inquiry (British English dated form, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, 1995). The sense of history has therefore always ranged from a ‘factual’ chronicle of past events to a narrative explanation of past events prompted by a more detailed inquiry.

Just as in Hungarian word ‘történet’ can be applied broadly to ‘fiction, fable and yarn’ (Országh, 1985), so too the English words story and history were used interchangeably to identify accounts of either imaginary events or of events supposed to be true, a usage which persists in literature and popular culture. However, from Blundervill’s time onwards, the uses of the two words diverged, with history being used to describe accounts of past real events, set down in writing, hence the use of ‘an historical discourse’ to introduce so many early modern tracts. The more generalised sense of history that Raymond Williams (1983: 146) referred to as ‘organised knowledge of the past’, was an extension of this. ‘Historian’, ‘historic’ and ‘historical’ follow mainly this generic sense, as they do in Hungarian.

This established sense of history is undoubtedly the predominant shared meaning both in English and Hungarian. However, in terms of both the discipline, or craft, and discourse, or language, of the subject, it is important to distinguish the sense of history that goes beyond a body of organised knowledge, ‘történelemtudomány’ in Hungarian (Országh, 1985) into the realms of interpretation and explanation of that shared body of knowledge. In simple terms, histories need to do more than simply chronicle or describe past events; they also need to explain them.

This sense is one that emerged with the Enlightenment and treats history as the explanation of human self-development, through a continuous process connecting past events with present and future outcomes. The various choices of interpretation within this process combine to make history a more abstract discipline than others within the Humanities. History, in this ‘modern’ sense, contains at least three competing interpretations of human development; the classic liberal interpretation of Civilisation; the philosophical (Hegelian) interpretation of a world-historical Spirit or Élan, and a more political interpretation of historic forces, originating in the French Revolution and developing with socialist, specifically Marxist political economy. Taking the last of these views first, recent rejections of all forms of historicism have also been at risk of jettisoning the more neutral method of studying the past by tracing precedents of current events. Marx himself, before the emergence of Marxism, stressed this as being part of his approach to history:

Events strikingly similar, but occurring in a different historical milieu, lead to completely dissimilar results. By studying each of these evolutions separately and then comparing them, it is easy to find the key to the understanding of the phenomenon; but it is never possible to arrive at this understanding by using the passe-partout of some historical-philosophical theory whose great virtue is to stand above history.

(Quoted in Carr, 1987: 65).

By rejecting all attempts to produce over-arching philosophies of history, much recent historiography has tended to lead to rather cynical views of past events as chapters of accidents, and tales with little significance for understanding the present. As the somewhat out-of-fashion Hungarian writer Lukács (1962, quoted in Carr, 1987: 66) pointed out, there is a danger, even in a lighter vein, of retrospectively reducing the study of history itself to ‘a collection of exotic anecdotes’. Although such anecdotes certainly have their place, often berated or underrated, in historical narrative, they do not justify its status as a major academic discipline.

A further linguistic dichotomy can be seen by looking briefly at adjectival forms connected with history as a discourse. In English, while ‘historical’ belongs mainly to language about the past, e.g. ‘historical characters’, ‘historic’ is more often used to describe present events and processes, which whilst having their origins in the past, relate more to the future within an overall sense of destiny, e.g. ‘historic forces’, ‘historic moment’ (for which we could substitute the common adjective momentous). As Raymond Williams (1976: 148) pointed out, the generic noun ‘itself retains its whole range, and still, in different hands, teaches or shows us most kinds of knowable past and almost every kind of imaginable future’.

The main point to extract from these definitions, for the purpose of doing history, is that the language of history will be more or less abstract, depending on which philosophy is applied to the subject. Whilst there are five ‘keywords’, based on the Greek root, used to define the study of the past in English – history, historiography, historic, historical, historicism – Hungarian uses at least ten key words or phrases which, through suffixation, convey more precisely the shades of meaning in the continuum from story to inquiry, and from chronicle to narrative.

However, the essential stem is still story, ‘történet’, and it is this sense of history which persists and predominates in Hungarian consciousness, the sense of an inherited shared story, often strongly linked to a notion of national heritage. This story is capable of interpretation and reinterpretation, according to current predominant political philosophy, but this, of itself, does not make it a legitimate historical inquiry or scientific survey. Making or re-making history, mythologizing or re-mythologizing it in order to make it conform to a sense of national destiny does not equate to doing history, any more than following crude historicist models enables us to do justice to the collective memory of the Hungarian people, or any other people for that matter.

The re-mythologizing of Hungary’s past is most evident to guests in the plethora of memorials that have sprung up in recent years both in its capital, and in its provincial towns such as Kecskemét, where eighty per cent of the current population lives. In the town centre, next to the Town Hall, is a memorial to the crown territories lost by Hungary as a result of the Treaty of Trianon in 1921, as a part of the Paris Peace Settlement following the First World War. It takes the form of a huge stone map, with the current geographical form of the Hungary laid over the Big Hungary, or Greater Hungary, three times the size of the present-day country. It is a map of Hungary as it never was, or as it was ‘in a way’, or as some Hungarians would like it to be. The shape of ‘Nagy Magyarország’ is for them one which they stick to the back bumper of their car. It refers to the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Hungary was part of the Dual Monarchy from 1867-1918. This Hungary therefore never really existed in reality, because it never had these borders as an independent country, but only as part of an Austria-Hungary in which the Austrians were the top dogs, with the Hapsburgs as rulers.

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Above: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (scale 1: 4,500,000) in c.1930

This fictional or mythological map of Hungary is based on the borders of Austria-Hungary as shown in Atlas maps, like those above, from before the First World War and after. Books published in Hungarian from the time of the Trianon onwards, refer to the Treaty as an act of betrayal, or treason. They provide examples of the language of interpretation. The maps showing the boundaries as they were before 1914 and then after Trianon show us the facts of the matter, but these facts are then subject to interpretation. Whilst it is true that Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and a third of its pre-war Magyar population, but whether it ever had a right to those areas of modern-day Croatia and other parts of the former Austrian Empire is debatable. Yet today, there are many Hungarians who still believe in a nationalist narrative that would like to see Hungarians living outside the current borders of the country returned to their native nationality and state. This brings it into continual conflict with the surrounding Slavic states about the treatment of the minority Magyars in their countries. All this is part of a modern-day nationalist narrative, based mostly on interpretations of Trianon and not always on the basic factual material, or chronicle, of the events pre-dating and surrounding the Trianon Story.

The problem arising from this approach to interpreting the events of the past is that it is the shifting sands of these interpretations, rather than the bedrock of solid evidence, which end up being set, not simply in text, but in symbolic tablets of dead stone monuments. A real historical narrative, the diamond in the rough, can only be exposed through the hard labour of chipping away at the stone which helped to form it through the pressure of real causes and catalysts, the relevance and purpose of which are not always apparent, often falling discarded in order to reveal the essential core of the gem, the narrative.

Humanistic principles and perspectives therefore apply especially to studying History, which does not have its own technical language, but does require the development of abilities to enquire into, to discuss, to debate and to narrate past events. Whilst rules of evidence and scientific objectivity have their place in guarding against the dangers of over-interpretation and mythologization of the past, an approach which becomes overly dependent on them is no more helpful than to understanding the past than the one which concentrated on facts, facts, facts, in Victorian times.

More recent philosophies of history, formed in relation to linguistics, reaffirm the usefulness of narrative tools in crafting histories, asserting as they do that stories about the past are created by historians through interpretation, rather than having a life of their own. This understanding of history as a narrative discourse with the people of the past people is of primary importance to the task of interpreting their stories, and therefore deserves further investigation.

Definitions of Discourse and The Historian’s Craft

In general modern English usage the word discourse refers to formal communication in speech or writing (Cambridge International Dictionary, 1995). In linguistic terms, it refers to ‘larger units of language such as paragraphs, conversations, and interviews’ (Richards, Platt and Platt, 1992: 111). The word can be translated by at least three words in Hungarian the noun ‘értekezés’ usually refers to a formal piece of writing on a particular, serious subject, whereas ‘eszmecsere’ refers to the semi-formal talk/ interchange of ideas, a dialogue perhaps. The noun ‘társalgás’ is used to refer to informal conversation or ‘chats’ on particular topics.

Historical discourse is characterised fundamentally by its dependence on written forms in both primary and secondary sources. In this sense, the important distinction for the historian is not to be drawn so much between spoken and written forms of discourse, but between formal ‘acts’ of narration and interpretation, whether these are conveyed in writing, in a dissertation or essay, or in speaking, through a lecture, seminar or presentation, involving dialogue and discussion. Such events clearly need distinguishing from less formal conversation and talks. In other words, we need to examine the distinctive register and style of language used in historical communication, whether spoken or written. It is in this sense that I use the term ‘historical discourse’ to indicate the use of language involved in any serious study of the past, though not necessarily only those undertaken by professional historians. Indeed, the fact that the vocabulary used is indistinct from that used in Standard English make it a craft that engages many educated individuals with the motivation to investigate the past, provided they have the right tools and know how to use them.

Dialogues between Present and Past: Historiographical debate 

Although E.H.Carr’s (1987) widely-read and therefore influential work, ‘What is History?’, was originally ‘delivered’ as a series of lectures in 1961, Carr’s work is still worth reading as a starting point for any discussion on the discourse of history, because it contains many interesting and useful insights into the relationship between history and language. His answer to his own question helps us to move towards a view of history as a distinctive discourse:

The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence…the very words he uses – words like democracy, empire, war, revolution – have current connotations from which he cannot divorce them. Ancient historians have taken to using words like ‘polis’ and ‘plebs’…this does not help them. They, too, live in the present …the historian is obliged to choose…the use of language forbids him to be neutral… History, then, in both senses of the word – meaning both the inquiry conducted by the historian and the facts of the past into which he inquires – is a social process in which individuals are engaged as social beings. The reciprocal process of interaction between the historian and his facts…the dialogue between present and past, is a dialogue not between abstract and isolated individuals, but between the society of today and the society of yesterday.

(Carr, 1987: 24-25, 30, 55).

The idea of historical discourse as a dialogue between the historian as a contemporary social being and the society of yesterday is one which is worth pursuing, particularly in the light of Carr’s suggestion that past peoples are not simply passive objects for historians but are somehow actively engaged in metaphorical conversations with them.

More recent writers on the nature of historical discourse (White, 1978, 1987; Jenkins, 1995) have taken up this theme; at the same time criticising Carr for his advocacy of history as a social science. There are major differences in the types of language that the historian uses to approach the past from those used by a physical scientist. Lecturing on objectivity in history, Carr himself pointed to the complexity of the discourse and called for a new model of historical understanding. In the post-modern era, something approaching this new model has been worked out, based on a linguistic approach, making particular use of discourse analysis.

Towards a new model of historical discourse: The Metahistorical.

The basis for this new model can be found, originally, in the work of Hayden White (1978, 1987). A more recent survey and summary of his complex and extensive work has been made by Keith Jenkins (1995). White himself built on the work of Richard Rorty, who was concerned to bring about the collapse of boundaries between discourses and to enable them to engage in the construction of meaning and the problems of representation (Jenkins, 1995: 4). What certainly has collapsed is what Jenkins refers to as ‘history in the upper case’, the classical liberal view that we have already touched on. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Whig’ view of history, of which Jenkins remarks that nobody really believes that particular fantasy any more.

The new model philosophers of history point out that no discourse simply grows organically, spontaneously, without nurture or cultivation. In this case, historians cultivate their field and construct accounts of the past that can be circumscribed by the term historiography. For White, therefore, the historical work is a verbal artefact, a narrative prose discourse, the content of which is as much invented – or as much imagined – as found (Jenkins, 1995: 18-19). Consequently, all historical accounts are ultimately metaphorical and therefore metahistorical. People in the past did not deliberately live their lives as stories, so to see them in story form is to give an imaginary series of narrative structures and coherence to the past that, in reality, it never had. Therefore, we must be careful not to mistake the historian’s narrative of the past as the past’s own form; the story emerges from the historian’s interpretation of past events as recorded in texts and other traces surviving from the past.

At their most explicit, these texts and traces were consciously recorded in chronicle form e.g. in diaries. It is mainly the historian’s consciousness that transforms them into a meaningful, public narrative. In this sense, Jenkins defines the writing of history, historiography, as an act of translation, a carrying over of meanings from one discursive community to another (Ibid.: 24).

In a language-based conception of this process, the extreme textualist view would be that there is no historical reality outside that created by the historian. This view would lead to the dissolution of history as a subject since if texts are seen as reflecting other texts and not reality, historical study cannot be distinguished from literary study, and the past dissolves into literature. However, White does not go this far, arguing that:

Historical events…are events which really happened or are believed really to have happened, but which are no longer directly accessible to perception. As such, in order to be constituted as objects of reflection, they must be described…in some kind of natural or technical language…The description is a product of processes of linguistic condensation, displacement, symbolisation and secondary revision of the kind that inform the production of texts. On this basis alone, one is justified in speaking of history as a text…

 (White: 1989, quoted in Jenkins, 1995: 32).

This statement does not necessarily contradict other statements already examined about the nature of history; what it does is to provide a definition that serves rather than dominates the methodological purposes of the study of the past. Jenkins’ sets out the four key principles b of the textualist position as follows:

  • All accounts of the past (and the present) come to us textually through some kind of natural or technical language – we might equate ‘text’ in this sense with the historian’s use of ‘source’, whether in spoken or written discourse, or in the form of an artifact or other ‘trace’ of the past;

  • The past cannot express itself – it always needs to be spoken for and constructed. The historian distinguishes between what is historical and what is not and between what is significant, or historic, and what is not;

  • Whether history is considered simply as the past, the documentary record of this past, or the body of reliable information about the past, there is no such thing as a distinctively historical method by which to study it;

  • Historians, whether professional or otherwise, cannot define history as resting on foundations that go beyond textual reality and discourse.

(Jenkins, 1995: 34)

The historian’s sense of a dialogue with the past means that they are able to develop their historiography more in terms of its rhetorical and conversationalist style of discourse, rather than approaching their craft as a narrow academic code or discipline. This should help them to demystify the subject for their apprentices. Brenda Marshall has recently (1992) expressed this transformation in the following terms:

History in the post-modern moment becomes histories and questions. It asks: Whose history gets told? In whose name? For what purpose? … Histories forgotten, hidden, invisible, considered unimportant, changed, eradicated. It’s about the refusal to see history as linear, as leading straight up to today in some recognisable pattern – all set for us to make sense of. It’s about chance. It’s about power. It’s about information…

With this approach, teachers and learners can feel liberated to construct their own texts free from the constraints of orthodoxy and ideology, and in their own terms. Similarly, White has no time for those who define history in neat, constricting terms. He is more concerned with freeing up history to be whatever we want it to be, linked not just with views of the past, but also with visions of the future. However, when pushed, he answers Carr’s question with the answer that it is a narrative discourse, but one which can never quite grasp the past in this form. Reinstating language in the centre of the subject, as opposed to the application of rules of evidence to the historical record, he argues for a re-emphasis on the rhetorical.

(Jenkins, 1995: 140-1).

History as explanation

White’s theory of historical narrative is one which helps both the professional and apprentice historian to process the past, beginning with the relatively unprocessed historical record (archives, relics, records) in order to provide data on which a chronicle can be based and, through further interpretation, a story formed, which may finally be contextualised into a narrative. Historians work from their own narrative, prefiguring and surveying the historical field to discover the primitive elements of the historical record, which they then fashion into historical accounts. To produce an account from the primitive elements, traces or sources of the past, historians use three types of explanation:

  • Explanation by argument; making a choice between an integrative argument, seeking to integrate different aspects, through identified principles, into a macro-theoretical process, and a dispersive argument, depicting the variety and uniqueness of events;

  • Explanation by emplotment; the fashioning of a sequence of events into a narrative of a particular kind, chosen from the literary forms of romance, tragedy, comedy and satire providing the main modes which convey the myths endowing human processes with meaning;

  • Explanation by ideology; the commitment to a form of knowledge leading to generalisations about the past, chosen from conservative, liberal, radical and anarchist perspectives.

Forms of historical language

In addition, and perhaps most importantly in terms of developing a new model of historical discourse, White borrows from modern linguists and literary theorists to argue that this discourse contains four turns of phrase, or figures of speech:

  • Metaphor;

  • Metonymy; i.e. using the name of one thing to stand for that of something else with which it is associated, e.g. ‘lands belonging to the crown’ or ‘demanded action of the City Hall’.

  • Synecdoche; i.e. making the part stand for the whole (‘fifty sails’ for ‘fifty ships’), or the whole stand for the parts (creature for person).

  • Irony.

We can make use of these in our investigation into historical language by referring to them generically as figurative forms in order to distinguish them from the three forms of metalanguage, which we might summarise as follows:

  • Key historical concepts, which are widely-shared, applied broadly and sometimes controversially as a means of referring to past events, e.g. Revolution;

  • Archaisms, which are usages of language in past texts that are not usually encountered in present Standard English texts;

  • Historical terms, which are generally recognised expressions referring to events, movements etc. They were used contemporaneously and have remained in usage, e.g. Luddite (Cook: 1998).

Thus, historical discourse employs specific literary metalanguage, together with the use of key concepts, terms, and the interpretation of archaic language.

Chronicles and Narratives: Metalanguage and meaning

Exploring historical metalanguage also helps to distinguish stories and narratives from chronicles. Whilst chronicles are chronological arrangements of events and people, which may or may not follow a particular theme, in stories these events are organised into a process of happening with a beginning, middle and end. In a story, events are given a hierarchy of significance, so that the sequence of events is related to social and cultural processes, with some elements in the story receiving more emphasis than others, as in the following chart (capitals indicate significance):

Fig.   Hierarchy of significance

  1. A b c d e ……   A is the ‘explanatory factor’

  2. a B c d e ……   B ……………………………………..

  3. a b C d e ……   C ……………………………………..

  4. a b c D e ……   D ……………………………………..

  5. a b c d E ……   All facts can be seen as leading up to E                                                                                                                                                      

Present meanings and Past tenses

Thus, if historians simply recorded the facts as they found them in the traces of the past, they would merely be chroniclers. In simple linguistic terms, they would need (in English) only the past simple tense to describe a sequence of random, unrelated events, rather like in the keeping of a Journal or Diary. However, there is a distinction to be drawn between the grammar of past tenses and the semantics of the past. Historians find the simple chronicle of the past, but they provide it with the semantics; its meaning, its significance. Historians of the Dark Ages in Britain will not simply follow the order of events set out in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, nor will they accept unquestioningly the significance given to some events compared with others given by the contemporary chronicler. In changing such priorities between past chronicler and present narrator, they frequently (unconsciously or subliminally) also need to change the tense structures relating past events. For instance, in line 1 above ‘A’ may be represented by the past simple as the main explanatory factor. However, in line 2, where it is not the main explanatory factor, but is an event that occurred in previous chronological order, it might well be related to the main event through the use of the past perfect.

Figurative language and discourse

Since history has no generally accepted technical language, the historians have to use the techniques of figurative language and discourse, in which the four turns of phrase are set.   They recognise that there is a fictitious element in all-historical narrative. They are able to find in the theory of language and narrative itself the basis for a more subtle presentation of what historiography consists of than one which simply tells the apprentice historian to go away and find the facts and then write them up in such a way as to tell what really happened (White, 1978: 99).

Figuring out the chronicle into a story raises questions such as what happened next? and how did it all come about in the end? Questions such as what does it all add up to? or what’s the point of it all? have to do with the structure of the entire sequence of events considered as a completed story and call for a synopsis with other stories that might be found in the chronicle. White therefore uses a linguistic theory, the theory of tropes, to underpin his argument that history is a craft, not a science, having specific techniques but no technical terminology. Indeed, a quick survey of a dictionary of historical terms (Cook, 1998) reveals that there is no discrete lexis, syntax or grammar, as is the contrasting case with, say, Physics and Chemistry.

The historian makes the past familiar through abstract language, closely related to ordinary educated language, in which tropes are the figures of speech used to figure things out (White, 1978: 94). As in ordinary speech, for example, rhetorical questions are what the historian often starts an inquiry with, and they then dominate the ultimate narrative. In this sense, they prefigure the narrative. After all, past events cannot figure themselves out, so historians identify and describe subjects in the past, thus making them objects by their use of language. The figuring out is then done through various modes of explanation by argument, emplotment and ideology, referred to above, so that, in both senses of the word, figurative language works to relate past events to each other and to the present.

Configuring the past: some examples

Some brief contextual exemplification of these figures of speech is necessary here. The phrase ‘the saviours of humanity – the working class’ may convey the idea that the working class represents qualities of human dignity. However, the essence of humanity is not taken to be identical to the working class (synecdoche), nor is there any implicit negation of the explicit (irony). Therefore, it is a metaphorical, or representational statement. An example of metonymy would be the reduction of individual acts of resistance to colonialism as giving meaning to third world nationalism. Synecdoche is figuring out in the opposite direction, from whole to parts, e.g. ‘all history is the history of class struggle’ (Marx and Engels, 1848). In this case, each and every act of class struggle is treated as particular expressions of the general and a whole-part relationship will always be found and imposed. In irony, the statement about the working class above could be delivered or written in a certain way in order to convey the opposite of its apparent representational meaning.

Through metaphorical language, therefore, historians intervene in the past and invent history, introducing their own fictional interpretation to the arrangement of the facts. Historical problems are ones which historians both create and solve. In identifying problems, they configure the past, constituting the concepts which are used to identify and explain the evidence, itself produced from the traces of the past. A commitment to a particular mode of discourse in this process is what accounts for different interpretations of the past. The process can therefore be summarised for students in the following ten-fold sequence, modified and simplified from White (1978):

  1. The field of inquiry is located with reference to the traces of the actual past (archives, sites) and choice of period;

  2. The evidence is extracted according to an ideological interpretation which defines a question or problem in relation to it;

  3. This interpretation interacts with figurative forms of discourse, e.g. metaphor;

  4. The plot is chosen, from literary styles e.g. comedy, tragedy (emplotment);

  5. The main theme, or argument, is developed from and through the plot (explanation);

  6. The traces are worked up into a chronicle, a ‘time-line’ of events;

  7. A story form emerges which is interpretative, answering the questions set at the beginning of the inquiry;

  8. The story is transformed into a narrative, based on the evidence but related, through imaginative configuration, to both current and historic cultural forms and myths (e.g. ‘Albion – the Island Nation’, ‘Hungary – under the heel’);

  9. The narrative becomes an intelligible, consumable artifact, a secondary source;

  10. The product is itself processed, the consumers being its readers.

This approach is useful to historians and their apprentices in two ways; it assists them to think critically about accounts of past events, and it shows them how the discourse works. The emphasis on figurative language as the core of the subject helps to identify key discourse markers for further research. Moreover, the assertion that written historical texts are closely related to ‘ordinary educated speech’ lends justification to an examination of oral discourse as well as written text. However, rather than prescribing forms of historical discourse for identification, there is much to be said for the investigator following an ethnographic approach, describing past peoples and societies as much as possible in, and on, their own terms.

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