Archive for the ‘Stafford Cripps’ Tag

Britain Seventy Years Ago, 1948-49: Race, Class and Culture.   1 comment

The Windrush Experience: Commonwealth Immigration.

During the Second World War, men from the Caribbean began to arrive in Britain, serving with the British Forces. There was a Jamaica Squadron and a Trinidad Squadron in the RAF and a West Indian Regiment in the British Army. Others came to work in factories, in the countryside and on radar stations. But once the war was over, most were sent straight home, leaving an estimated permanent non-white population of about thirty thousand. But almost unnoticed by the general public and passed in response to Canadian fears about the lack of free migration around the Empire, the 1948 British Nationality Act dramatically changed the scene. It declared that all subjects of the King had British nationality, reaffirming their right to free entry to the United Kingdom to all Commonwealth citizens and colonial subjects, without restrictions. This gave some eight hundred million people the right to enter and settle in the UK. At that time, this was uncontroversial, since it was generally assumed that the Caribbean and Asian subjects of the King would have neither the means nor the desire to travel to live in uncomfortable, crowded Britain. Travel remained expensive and slow, but, in any case, until the fifties, so few black or Asian people had settled in Britain that they were often treated as local celebrities and it was not even considered worthwhile trying to count their numbers. But as growing numbers of Caribbeans and South Asians began to take up their right to abode, most famously those who arrived aboard Empire Windrush (above & below), the British authorities became increasingly alarmed.

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Paradoxically, therefore, Commonwealth immigration became an increasingly salient issue in British domestic politics. During the 1950s, the number of West Indians entering Britain reached annual rates of thirty thousand. The census of 1951 recorded 74,000 New Commonwealth immigrants. By the end of that decade, nearly half a million had moved to Britain, 405,000 of them from the ‘West Indies’. Immigration from the New Commonwealth was driven by a combination of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. Partition of India and the construction of the Mangla Dam in Pakistan displaced large numbers, many of whom had close links with Britain through the colonial connection. In Britain, postwar reconstruction, declining birth rates and labour shortages resulted in the introduction of government schemes to encourage Commonwealth workers, particularly from the West Indians, to seek employment in Britain. Jamaicans and Trinidadians were recruited directly by agents to fill vacancies in the British transport network and the newly created National Health Service. Private companies also recruited labour in India and Pakistan for factories and foundries in Britain. As more Caribbeans and South Asians settled in Britain, patterns of chain migration developed, in which pioneer migrants aided friends and relatives to settle. Despite the influx of immigrants after the war, however, internal migration within Britain and Ireland continued to outpace immigration. The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the 1950s prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens.

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There were other immigrant communities: There had been a substantial Jewish presence in London, Leeds and Manchester, making itself felt in retailing (Marks & Spencer), the food business and banking (Rothschild’s). In the five years before the war, since the advent of the Nazis to absolute power in Germany in 1934, some sixty thousand refugees had arrived in Britain, many of them highly qualified, helping to transform the scientific, musical and intellectual life of forties Britain. As Germany’s Jews were hounded from office in the first wave of lawless anti-Semitism in 1933, the Cabinet agreed to secure for this country prominent Jews who were being expelled from Germany and who had achieved distinction in science, medicine, music and art. No fewer than twenty of them later won Nobel prizes, fifty-four were elected Fellows of the Royal Society, and ten were knighted for their academic brilliance. Despite these contributions and the recent revelations of the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism was still endemic in British society. In particular, there was a widespread assumption that ‘they’ somehow got the best of scarce or rationed goods.

Potentially more serious in this respect was the re-emergence, in February 1948, of the fascists on the streets of London. Sir Oswald Mosely, the leader of the pre-war British Union of Fascists, had re-emerged into political life, forming the new Union Movement. For some time his former henchmen had been holding open-air meetings in the East End market at Ridley Road, Dalston, where many of the stallholders were Jewish. Not surprisingly, the meetings were the scene of violent opposition as the old fascists appeared under their new name. When Mosely announced his intention to march from Ridley Road through Stamford Hill to Tottenham, thousands of ex-servicemen, Jew and Gentile, gathered in Kingsland High Road to prevent the provocation. East London mayors called upon the Home Secretary to ban the marches and on 22 March 1949, Chuter-Ede announced a ban on all political processions. An assurance was sought that trade union marches did not fall within the compass of the ban, but a week later the Home Secretary confirmed that the forthcoming London Trades Council march was included in the ban. For the first time since 1890, London trade unionists were deprived of their freedom to march on May Day, the ban being imposed by a Labour Home Secretary. The photograph below shows a section of the vast crowd that gathered in Trafalgar Square to defy him and march with banners flying.

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The Irish were also a big group in British life in the late forties, following a century of steady immigration, the vast majority of it from the south. It continued through the war, despite restrictions, as Irish people moved to Britain to cover the labour shortages left by mobilization. Ireland’s neutrality made it very unpopular with the British, and prejudice against its citizens in Britain continued for a long time after the war. Yet this did not seem to affect immigration, which continued at a rate of up to sixty thousand per year. Although The Republic of Ireland Act, of June 1949, confirmed the ending of Eire’s dominium status, the Republic was not to be regarded as a foreign country. The British government took the view that the Irish were effectively internal migrants and therefore excluded them from any discussion about immigration. There was also a large Polish presence resulting from the war since many refugees decided to settle permanently in the UK. It would be wrong to portray British society in the late forties as relaxed about race. More widely, the trade unions were bitterly hostile to ‘outsiders’ coming in to take British jobs, whatever their nationality. Even the Labour government itself spoke with self-consciousness and a legacy of inter-war eugenics about the central importance of the British race in its public information campaigns.

Country and Class:

Patriotic pride cemented the sense of being one people, one race, with one common history and destiny. But to be British in the forties was to be profoundly divided from many of your fellow subjects by class. By most estimates, a good sixty per cent of the nation was composed of the traditional working class; factory workers, agricultural labourers, navvies, riveters, miners, fishermen, servants and laundry workers. They worked by hand and muscle and were paid weekly, in cash (cheque-books were a sign of affluence). Most of them would spend all their lives in their home town or village, though some had migrated from industrial Scotland, Wales, Lancashire and the North East of England to the English Midlands, London and the Home Counties in the thirties. The sharp sense of class distinction was identified with where you came from and how you spoke. The war had softened class differences a little and produced the first rumblings of the future social revolution of the sixties.

With skill shortages and a national drive for exports, wages rose after the war. The trade unions were powerful and self-confident, particularly when the new Labour government repealed the laws that had hampered them ever since the General Strike of 1926. In 1948, they achieved their highest ever level of support. More than forty-five per cent of people who could theoretically belong to one did so, and there were some 8.8 million union members. In other European countries, trades unions were fiercely political, communist or socialist. In Britain, they were not, and the Communist Party spent much of its energy building support inside the unions, and winning elections to key posts. In general, British trades unionism remained more narrowly focused on the immediate cash-and-hours agenda of its members. Yet, a new generation of shop stewards was taking control of many workplaces, sowing the seeds of the great trade union battles of the seventies.

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It wasn’t obvious at this time that the jobs in coal, steel and heavy manufacturing would be under threat by the seventies. The shipyards of the Clyde, Belfast and the Tyne were hard at work, the coalfields were at full stretch, London was still an industrial city, and the car-making and light engineering centres of the West and South Midlands were on the edge of a time of unprecedented prosperity. In 1945, only 16,938 cars had been manufactured in Britain; by 1950, the figure had reached a record 522,515. Alec Issigonis, an immigrant from Turkey, was the design genius of post-war British car-making. His first huge success was the 1948 Morris Minor (above), which was condemned by Lord Nuffield (William Morris) as that damned poached egg designed by that damned foreigner. But it supremely popular as an affordable family car. Gone was the split windscreen (see the older version below).

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Britain was also, still, a country of brick terraces. It was not until the next two decades that many of the traditional working-class areas of British cities would be replaced by high-rise flats or sprawling new council estates. The first generation of working-class children to get to university was now at school, larger and healthier than their parents, enjoying the free dental care and spectacles provided by the young National Health Service, which was founded and began operating in the summer of 1948 (see below). For the most part, however, working-class life in the late forties was remarkably similar to how it had been a decade or more earlier, and perhaps even more settled. Politicians assumed that most people would stay put and continue to do roughly the same sort of job as they had done before the war. Rent acts and planning directives were the tools of ministers who assumed that the future of industry would be like its past, only more so.

The class which did best was the middle class, a fast-growing minority. Government bureaucracy had grown hugely and was continuing to do so. Labour’s Welfare State would require hundreds of thousands of new white-collar jobs, administering national insurance, teaching and running the health service. Studies of social mobility, such as the one carried out in 1949, suggested that while working-class sons generally followed their fathers into similar jobs, there was much more variation among middle-class children. Labour’s priority might have been to help the workers, but education reform was helping more middle-class children get a good grammar-school education. Fees for attending state schools were abolished and the school leaving age was raised to fifteen. A steadily growing number stayed at school until eighteen. Increasing numbers would make it to university too, an extra thirty thousand a year by 1950. The accents of Birmingham and Wales, the West Country and Liverpool began to challenge the earlier received pronunciation of perceived middle-class respectability. Churchill himself had told Harrow schoolboys that one effect of the war was to diminish class differences, that the advantages and privileges that had previously been enjoyed by the few would be far more widely shared by the many. Old distinctions were therefore softening, and the culture was slowly becoming more democratic.

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Yet there was still a long road ahead since the ruling class was still the ruling class. Despite the varied backgrounds of the 1945 Labour cabinet ministers, Britain in the late forties was still a society run mostly by cliques and groups of friends who had first met at public schools like Eton and Harrow, or at Oxbridge. A public school education remained the key for anyone hoping to make a career in the City, the Civil Service or the higher ranks of the Army. These schools might only educate some five per cent of the population, but they continued to provide the majority of the political leaders, including many of Labour’s post-war cabinets. Briefly, it had seemed that such schools would not even survive the war: boarding schools had been in enough of a financial crisis for some to face closure through bankruptcy. Churchill’s own Harrow was one, along with Marlborough and Lancing, but all managed to survive somehow. More generally, there was a belief that the public school system had contributed to the failure of political leadership in the thirties right up to the military defeats of the first half of 1940. But Churchill had fought off the demands from Butler and others in his war cabinet that all or most of them should be abolished. Attlee, devoted to his old school, had no appetite for abolition either. Grammar schools were seen as the way to get bright working-class or middle-class children into Oxbridge, and a few other universities, where they would compete with and thereby strengthen the ruling élites. One civil servant described the official view as being that ‘children’ could be divided into three kinds:

It was sort of Platonic. There were golden children, silver children and iron children.

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Under Clement Attlee, pictured above being driven by his wife Violet, Britain remained a country of private clubs and cliques, ancient or ancient-seeming privileges, rituals and hierarchies. In the workplace, there was something like the relationships of pre-war times, with employers’ associations assuming their old roles as ‘cartels’ though some, like Captain Black at the Standard Motor Co. in Coventry, were successful in breaking out of the wage-controls which the Engineering Employers’ Association attempted to set. Inside the newly nationalised industries, the same sort of ‘bosses’ continued to manage, and the same ‘them and us’ mentalities reasserted themselves remarkably easily. In the City, venerable, commanding merchant bankers would still be treated like little gods, younger bankers deferring utterly to their elders and ‘betters’. Lessons in speaking ‘the King’s English’ were given to aspiring actors and broadcasters; physicians in hospitals still swept into the wards, followed by trains of awed, frightened, junior doctors. At the Oxbridge colleges, formal dinners were compulsory, as was full academic dress, and the tenured professors hobbled around their quads as if little had changed since Edwardian days. All this was considered to be somehow the essence of Britain, or at least of England.

The King and Queen also ran what was in all essentials an Edwardian Court.  After the national trauma of the abdication crisis, George VI had established a reassuringly pedestrian image for the family which now called itself simply ‘the Windsors’. There had been cautious signs of royal modernisation, with Princess Elizabeth making patriotic radio broadcasts. On the other hand, the Royal Presentation of rich young debutantes to the monarch continued until 1958 when Queen Elizabeth put an end to it, prompted by Prince Philip, who with characteristically candid brevity, labelled it “bloody daft”. Initially, it was very unclear as to how the monarchy would fare in post-war Britain. The leading members of the family were popular, and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, but there were demands from many of their backbench MPs for a less expensive, slimmed-down contemporary monarchy, such as existed in Scandinavia.

Yet the Windsors had triumphed again in 1947, with the wedding of, as they were then, Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. For the ordinary British people, the wedding was a welcome but transient distraction from their daily struggle to feed and clothe their families. Because rationing affected the quantity of clothes you could have, but not their quality, it hit the poor harder. Government ‘make-do and mend’ campaigns about how to repair, reinforce or reshape old clothes, did nothing to improve the general public mood. For women, faced with an almost impossible struggle to replace laddered stockings or underwear, the wartime fashions felt unattractive – short skirts and masculine jackets, what was called ‘man-tailored’. If pregnant, they were encouraged to adapt their ordinary clothes. Yet the Hollywood films showed women immaculately dressed icons and the newspapers showed men the richest, flashiest Britons, like Anthony Eden and, of course, the King, both beautifully tailored. But they could not afford to look smart. Some men avoided drinks parties because they were ashamed of the state of their clothes and women avoided brightly lit restaurants when their stockings had gone, replaced by tea-stains and drawn-on seams. It was not until 1949 that clothes, boots and shoes were taken off ration.

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For most ordinary people, too, food rationing was the primary example of the dreary colourlessness of wartime life. It continued long after the guns had stopped. It was still biting hard at the end of the forties, meat was still rationed as late as 1954, and though the poor were better fed, most people felt hard done-by. Many doctors agreed. Shortly after the horrific winter of 1947 was over, the British Medical Press carried a detailed article by Dr Franklin Bicknell which argued that available foods were four hundred calories short of what women needed each day, and nine hundred short of what men required: In other words, everyone in England is suffering from prolonged chronic malnutrition. This was angrily disputed by Labour politicians, eager to point out the effect of all that free juice, cod liver oil and milk on Britain’s children. But the people were on the side of Dr Bicknell. The fact that the ‘good things’ were still in short supply had left the way open for the growth of a black market (complete with ‘spivs’) and therefore for the demand for a restoration of the free play of market forces and, at least, something like a free market in food.

Apart from Ellen Wilkinson’s tragic death in 1947, other ministers falling ill, and still others becoming disillusioned, the Labour leadership had also begun to fracture along ideological lines in 1948.  The economy had been doing rather better than in the dark year of 1947 and though still short of dollars, the generosity of the Marshall Plan aid in 1948 had removed the immediate sense of crisis. By 1949, it was estimated to have raised the country’s national income by ten per cent. Responding to the national mood of revolt over restrictions and shortages, Harold Wilson had announced a ‘bonfire of controls’ in 1948 and there seemed some chance that Labour ministers would follow the change in national mood and accept that the people wanted to spend, not only to queue. The restrictions on bread, potatoes and preserves were lifted first, but milk, tea, sugar, meat, bacon, butter, fats and soap remained on ration, the fresh meat allocation being a microscopic eight pennyworth a week. Sweets had been rationed since 1940 and were not taken off ration until April 1949 when the picture below was taken.

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‘Austerity’ was a word reiterated remorselessly by the anti-Labour press. If life was austere, however, it was better for the working-class majority than it had been in the years before the war and Britain’s industry was expanding. Full employment, never achieved until the Second World War, stimulated the private expectations and aspirations of large numbers of people who had been ‘deprived’ before 1939, though they themselves had not always recognised it. For those who preferred society to operate according to plan on the basis of one single aspiration, like winning the war or after the war achieving socialism, the new pluralism of motives and pressures and the growth of business agencies which could influence or canalise them were dangerous  features of the post-war world which contained as yet unfulfilled potential. One thing was clear: No one wished to return to the 1930s, and no one talked of returning ‘normalcy’ as they had done during the 1920s. That way back would have been deliberately closed even if it had proved possible to keep it open.

Culture and Society:

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Some of the most eloquent cultural moments in the life of post-war Britain had religious themes, like the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, with its tapestries by Graham Sutherland. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was written for the consecration of the new Cathedral building. This did not take place until 1962, but the story of the reconstruction began in the years after the war when a replica of the cross of nails made from the ruins (seen above in 1940) was given to Kiel in Germany as a sign of friendship and a symbol of reconciliation. A stone from the ruins of Kiel Cathedral was given to Coventry in return. This is the Kiel Stone of Forgiveness, now in the Chapel of Unity in the New Cathedral. Also in the late forties, a group of young Germans arrived in Coventry and helped to clear the rubble from one corner of the ruined cathedral. It became the Centre for International Understanding, where young people from all nationalities met through the work of the Community of the Cross of Nails. Through this work, Coventry soon became twinned with fifty-three cities and towns throughout the world. Post-war Britain’s major poet, the American-born T. S. Eliot, was an outspoken adherent of the Church of England. His last major work of poetry, The Four Quartets, is suffused with English religious atmosphere, while his verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral addressed an iconic moment in English ecclesiastical history. In 1948, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It could fairly be said that during these years there existed an Anglican sensibility, a particularly English, sometimes grave, sometimes playful, Christianity, with its own art and thought. It was, in the main, a limited and élite movement, but it did sometimes connect with wider currents in British Society.

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In the Britain of the late forties, the continuing influence of the established church was in evidence in the way that divorce still carried a strong stigma, across classes and reaching to the highest. Divorced men and women were not welcome at court. Homosexuality was still illegal and vigorously prosecuted. People clung to their traditional values since the war had shaken everyone’s sense of security, not just those who had served in it, but the bombed, evacuated and bereaved as well. The beginning of the Cold War underlined that underlying sense of the fragility of life. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that there was a profound turn towards the morality of hearth and home and a yearning for order, predictability and respectability, in the street and neighbourhood, if not in the wider world. There was certainly a demand for political reform, but the British people were still, fundamentally, socially conservative.

In the summer of 1948, the Labour Government tried to cheer up ‘Austerity Britain’ by staging the Olympic Games in London. The games were a triumph in a war-scarred, rubble-strewn city, during which the athletes were put up in old army camps, colleges and hospitals. The Union Jack was missing for the opening parade, but cost overruns were trivial and security was barely an issue. The games involved nearly five thousand competitors from fifty-nine countries. Though the medal count for the British competitors was very meagre, holding the games was a genuine sign that Britain was back. For all its fragility and frugality, this was still a country that could organise itself effectively. Football was back too. By the 1948/49 season, the third since the resumption of top-flight football after the second world war, there were more than forty million attendances at matches. There was a general assumption that British football was the finest there was, something seemingly confirmed the previous May when a Great Britain team had played against a team grandly if inaccurately described as The Rest of the World (it comprised Danes, Swedes, a Frenchman, Italian, Swiss, Czech, Belgian, Dutchman and Irishman), thrashing them 6-1. That illusion was soon to be dispelled in the early fifties, with the emergence of the ‘golden team’ of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ among others.

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But at a club level, this was a golden age of football. The stands were open and smelly, the crowds were unprotected, there were no floodlights and the greatest stars of the post-war era were still to emerge. But football was relatively uncorrupt and was still, essentially, about local teams supported by local people. On the pitch, play was ‘clean’ and honest: Stanley Matthews, the son of a barber from Stoke, already a pre-war legend who went on to play in the cup final of 1953, aged thirty-eight and whom I saw play in a charity match in the early seventies, only a couple of years after his retirement from top-flight football, was never cautioned throughout his long career. In June 1948 Stan Cullis, who in contrast to Matthews, had retired as a player in 1947 at the tender age of 31, became the manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, literally the ‘old gold’ team of the then first division, according to the colour of their shirts. Cullis was a tough, uncompromising and inspirational manager who steered ‘Wolves’ through the most successful decade in their history. In 1947/48 Wolves ended the season fifth, and a year later were sixth, also winning the FA Cup, beating Leicester City in the final at Wembley. Two of the ‘legends’ of this period are shown in the pictures above and below, the little ‘winger’, Johnny Hancocks and captain Billy Wright, who also captained England.

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Another great footballer of the late forties was Arsenal’s Denis Compton, who was still more famous for his cricket, which again became hugely popular after the interruption caused by the war. Some three million people had watched the ‘Test matches’ against South Africa in 1947 and Compton’s performance then and in the following seasons produced a rush of English pride. The cricket-writer  Neville Cardus found in Compton the image of sanity and health after the war: There was no rationing in an innings by Compton. In cricket, as in football, many of the players were the stars of pre-war days who had served as Physical Training instructors or otherwise kept their hand in during hostilities; but with the Yorkshire batsman Len Hutton also back in legendary form at the Oval Test, cricket achieved a level of national symbolism that it has never reached since. As with football, the stars of post-war cricket could not expect to become rich on the proceeds, but they could become national heroes. Hutton went on to become England’s first professional cricket captain in 1952; Compton first came int decent money as the face of Brylcreem adverts. The new rules of the Football League meant that players could earn up to twelve pounds per week.

The Welfare State Established:

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In summer of 1948, on 5th July, the National Health Service, the brainchild of Aneurin Bevan (pictured below), opened its doors for business. There was a flood of people into the surgeries, hospitals and chemists. The service was funded directly from taxation, not from the new National Insurance Scheme which also came into being that year. That too was a fantastic feat of organisation, providing for a comprehensive system of social security, family allowances, and compensation for injury at work. A new office to hold twenty-five million contribution records plus six million for married women was needed. It had to be huge and was built in Newcastle by prisoners of war; at the same time, a propeller factory was taken over to run family allowances. The work of six old government departments was brought into a new ministry. Jim Griffiths, the Labour minister pushing it all through wanted a thousand local National Insurance offices ready around the country, and after being told a hundred times that all this was quite impossible, he got them. The level of help was rather less than Beveridge himself had wanted, and married women were still treated as dependents; there was much to be argued for over the next sixty years. Nevertheless, the speed and energy with which this large-scale task was accomplished represented a revolution in welfare, sweeping away four centuries of complicated, partial and unfair rules and customs in just six years.

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The creation of the National Health Service, which Beveridge thought essential to his wider vision, was a more confrontational task. Britain had had a system of voluntary hospitals and clinics before the war, which varied wildly in size, efficiency and cleanliness. Also, a number of municipal hospitals had grown out of the original workhouses in the late twenties and thirties. Some of these, in progressive cities like Birmingham and Nottingham, as well as in London, were efficient, modern places whose beds were usually kept for the poor. Others were squalid. Money for the voluntary hospitals came from gifts, charitable events, direct payments and a hotchpotch of insurance schemes. By the time the war ended, the majority of Britain’s hospitals had been brought under a single national emergency service. The question was, what should happen next?  Should they be nationalised or allowed to return to local control? A similar question hung over family doctors. ‘GPs’ depended on private fees, though most of them also took poor patients through some form of insurance scheme. When not working from home or a surgery, they would often double up operating in municipal hospitals where, as non-specialists, they sometimes hacked away incompetently. But the voluntary insurance schemes excluded many elderly people, housewives and children, who therefore put off visiting the doctor at all unless they were in great pain or grave danger. The situation with dental care and optical services was similar; they were not available to those without the means to pay for them.

Labour was, therefore, determined to provide the first system of medical care, free at the point of need, there had been in any Western democracy. Although comprehensive systems of health care existed elsewhere, most notably in Germany, these were funded by national insurance, rather than through direct taxation. ‘Nye’ Bevan’s simple idea and his single biggest decision were to take all the hospitals, voluntary and municipal, into a single nationalised system. It would have regional boards, but would all come under the Ministry of Health in London. This was an act of heroic self-confidence on his part. For the first time, a single politician would take responsibility for every hospital in Britain, with the exception of a few private ones. Herbert Morrison, a municipal socialist, was against this centralisation of power but was brushed aside by Bevan.

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A far more significant threat to Bevan’s ‘project’ was posed by the doctors themselves. Their opposition meant that the implementation of his simple idea was a far more complicated process than ever Bevan himself could have anticipated. The doctors, led by the Conservative-leaning British Medical Association (BMA), had it in their power to stop the NHS dead in its tracks by simply refusing to work for it. They were genuinely concerned about their status in the new service; would they be mere state functionaries? They were also suspicious of Bevan, and not without good reason, as he effectively wanted to nationalise them, making them state employees, paid directly out of public funds, with no private fees allowed. This would mean a war with the very men and women trusted by millions to cure and care for them. Bevan, a principled but pragmatic socialist, was also a skilful diplomat. He began by wooing the senior consultants in the hospitals. The physicians and surgeons were promised they could keep their lucrative pay beds and private practices. Bevan later admitted that he had stuffed their mouths with gold. Next he retreated on the payment of fifty thousand GPs, promising them that they could continue to be paid on the basis of how many patients they treated, rather than getting a flat salary. This wasn’t enough, however, for when polled only ten per cent of doctors said that they were prepared to work for the new NHS. As July approached, there was a tense political stand-off. Bevan continued to offer concessions, while at the same time fiercely criticising the doctors’ leaders, labelling them a small body of politically poisoned people who were sabotaging the will of the people, as expressed through Parliament. In the end, Bevan was backed by a parliamentary majority and, after more concessions and threats, they gave way. Yet it had been a long, nasty, divisive battle between a conservative professional élite and their new socialist ‘masters’.

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Almost immediately, there were complaints about the cost and extravagance, and about the way the provision of materials not previously available produced surges in demand which had not previously existed. There was much anecdotal evidence of waste and misuse. The new bureaucracy was cumbersome. It is also possible to overstate the change since most people had had access to some kind of some kind of affordable health care before the NHS came into being. However, such provision was patchy and excluded many married working-class women in particular. The most important thing it did was to take away fear. Before it, millions at the ‘bottom of the pile’ had suffered untreated hernias, cancers, toothache, ulcers and all kinds of illness, rather than face the anxiety and humiliation of being unable to afford treatment. That’s why there are many moving accounts of the queues of unwell, impoverished people surging forward for treatment in the early days of the NHS, arriving in hospitals and doctors’ waiting rooms for the first time not as beggars but as citizens and taxpayers. As Andrew Marr has commented,

If there was one single domestic good that the British took from the sacrifices of the war, it was a health service free at the point of use. We have clung to it tenaciously ever since and no mainstream party has dared to suggest taking it away.

Nationalisation: Political Idealism and Economic Reality.

The same could not be said of some of Labour’s other nationalisation ‘projects’. The first, that of the Bank of England, sounded dramatic, but it had no real impact. Exactly the same men stayed in power, following the same monetary policies. I have dealt with the nationalisation of the coal industry and the establishment of the NCB on 1 January 1947 in a previous article. In the case of the gas and electricity, these utilities were already part-owned by local authorities, so their nationalisation caused little controversy. Labour had talked about nationalising the railway system from 1908, almost as soon as it became a political party in the wake of the Taff Vale case. The railway system had, in any case, been rationalised in the inter-war period, with the creation of four major companies – London & North-Eastern; Great Western Railway; Southern Railways; London, Midland & Scotland. Periodic grants of public money had been needed for years for years to help the struggling companies out, and the government had taken direct control of the railways at the beginning of the war. The post-war train system was more powerful than the pre-motorway road network, but it was now in dreadful condition and because of the economic crisis and shortage of steel, it would be starved of new investment. Nationalisation without investment was no solution to any of these basic problems. The only people who did well out of it were the original shareholders of the railway companies who were, to their surprise, well compensated. In other forms of transport, road haulage and airlines were also nationalised, as were cable and wireless companies.

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By the time the last big struggle to nationalise an industry was underway, the steel debates of 1948-9, the public attitude towards nationalisation was already turning. The iron and steel industry differed from the coal industry and the railways in that it was potentially highly profitable and had good labour relations. The Labour Government had worked itself up, proclaiming that the battle for steel is the supreme test of political democracy – a test which the whole world will be watching. Yet the cabinet agonised and went ahead only because of a feeling that, otherwise, they would be accused of losing their nerve. In the debates in the Commons, Labour backbenchers rebelled. The steel owners were organised and vigorous, the Tories were regaining their spirits and Labour were, therefore, having a torrid time. Cripps told the Commons: If we cannot get nationalisation of steel by legal means, we must resort to violent methods. They did get it, but the industry was little shaken. It needed new investment almost as much as the coal mines and the railways – new mills, coke ovens, new furnaces. Again, nationalisation did not deliver this.

However hard the Tories tried, they failed to make Clement Attlee look like a British Stalin. The Labour Government was, in any case, at pains to make its collectivist programme look patriotically legitimate. After all, taking twenty per cent of the economy into public ownership was called ‘nationalisation’, and the proposed new public enterprises were likewise to be given patriotic corporate identities: British Steel, the British Overseas Airways Corporation, British Railways. The effort was to recast the meaning of being British as a member of a community of shared ownership, shared obligations and shared benefits: Co-op Britain. And because the Labour Party had such huge majorities in Wales, Scotland and the most socially damaged areas of industrial England, it would, at last, be a Britain in which rich southern England did not lord it over the poor-relation regions. It would be one whole Britain, not a nation divided into two, as it had been in the thirties. George Orwell, who wrote 1984 in 1948, had vividly described the divided Britain of that decade, and he now had great hopes that if the British people…

… can keep their feet, they can give the example that millions of human beings are waiting for. … By the end of another decade it will finally be clear whether England is to survive … as a great nation or not. And if the answer is to be ‘Yes’, it is the common people who must make it so.

Taking up Orwell’s theme, Asa Briggs has suggested that the forties need to be treated as one period of The People’s War and Peace. Britain had emerged from the War changed but not destroyed and this time, in Orwell’s terms, the right family members would be in control. From the very beginning, the Labour Government was not insulated from the perennial headaches and imperatives of twentieth-century British government – monetary viability, industrial over-capacity and, especially, imperial or post-imperial global defence. The only option it had, apart from shouldering those familiar burdens and getting on with building the New Jerusalem as best they could, was to plunge into a much more far-reaching programme of collectivisation, Keynesian deficit financing, disarmament and global contraction. But that was never actually on the cards because the Labour ministers were not cold-blooded social revolutionaries committed to wiping the slate clean and starting again. The ‘slate’ was Britain; its memories, traditions, institutions, not least the monarchy. Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison were emotionally and intellectually committed to preserving it, not effacing it. They were loyal supporters of what Orwell called The Lion and the Unicorn (1941). Perhaps appropriately, Orwell died, still young, as ‘his’ decade came to an end, in January 1950, after he had warned of the danger of a dystopian Britain elevating collectivism over individual liberty.

The decision to keep an independent nuclear deterrent, and to sustain the projection of British power in Asia (through Hong Kong) and even more significantly in the Middle East, came at a huge price: $3.5 billion, to add to the estimated cost of the war, $10.5 billion. In 1948, defence spending had risen to seven per cent of GDP, and four years later to 10.5 per cent, incomparably higher than for any other European state. American help was desperately needed, so Bevin’s goal of keeping Britain independent in its foreign policy of the United States actually had the effect of deepening its long-term economic dependence. But the capital infusion, according to Cripps and others, would jump-start the economy as well as pay for investment in new infrastructure, after which surging economic growth would take care of the debt burden. The most idealistic assumption of all was that public ownership of key industries, the replacement of the private profit incentive by a cooperative enterprise, would somehow lead to greater productivity.  There were periods in 1948 when, in expert-led mini-surges, it looked as though those projections were not as unrealistic a diagnosis as they were to prove in the long-term. Britain was benefitting from the same kind of immediate post-war demand that it had experienced in 1918-19; the eventual reckoning with the realities of shrinking exports, as thirty years before, was merely postponed.

Labour was always divided between ideological socialists and more pragmatic people, but there was no real necessity for the party to have a row with itself towards the end of its first majority government, having successfully negotiated so many rapids. The problem was a familiar one. As the bill for maintaining pseudo-great power status and welfare state benevolence mounted, so did doubts and misgivings about the premises on which it had been thought the armed New Jerusalem could be funded. The government’s foreign policy initiatives had encountered serious difficulties. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin negotiated Marshall Aid for Britain from the USA in 1949, and in the same year helped organise the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But the price of such security and the maintenance of a place at the top table of international politics was high. American B-29 bombers stationed in East Anglia from 1948, were set to acquire nuclear capacity in 1950. As a result, the government had to accept inflated defence estimates, which also included increased costs for conventional tanks and planes. Should money be concentrated first on Britain’s overseas commitments, especially her large armies in the Middle East and facing the Russians across the German border; or on protecting the social advances at home?

Britain could not afford to be a great power in the old way, but neither could she afford to spend the Marshall Plan aid windfall mainly on better welfare, while other countries were using it to rebuild their industrial power. In the end, the government had to accept the need for cuts in welfare spending, leading to the resignation of Aneurin Bevan, who was determined to protect his ground-breaking achievement, the NHS, and Harold Wilson. The revised estimates helped to fuel a balance of payments crisis since the nationalisation programme had failed to provide the increased productivity the government had hoped for. Stafford Cripps, who had only a year earlier had been the most ardent ‘collectivist’ in the cabinet became, in 1949, an equally determined advocate of the mixed economy. He was forced to retire from the cabinet and the House in 1950 to replaced as Chancellor by Hugh Gaitskell. The socialist idealism of 1945-8 was put on hold, and Labour never returned to it, replacing it with ‘Gaitskillism’. With the benefit of hindsight, the post-war Labour years were a time almost cut off from what followed from 1950 onwards. So much of the country’s energy had been sapped by war; what was left focused on the struggle for survival. With Britain industrially clapped-out mortgaged to the hilt to the USA and increasingly bitter about the lack of a post-war ‘ dividend’, it was perhaps not the best time to start building The New Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed; the direction of factories to the depressed areas produced little long-term benefit; companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets. In addition, inflation, which would become a major part of the post-war story, appeared, at three per cent in 1949-50.

Conclusion: A ‘Peaceful Revolution‘?

Between 1945 and 1949 the Labour Government undertook a programme of massive reform. It has been called ‘the quiet’ or ‘the peaceful revolution’. Just how far this is an accurate description and a valid judgement is debatable. It was certainly peaceful, but far from ‘quiet’. Jim Griffiths, Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps all had to use coercive methods at times against active and organised resistance both in Parliament and outside. Whether the reforms were revolutionary or evolutionary is an issue which needs careful consideration. The debate was not about whether a Welfare State was needed, it was about the means by which it would be achieved. The issues of individualism versus collectivism, central control versus local control, competition versus cooperation, and reality and illusion can all be identified.

The degree of success which historians ascribe to these reforms depends on what he sees as ‘the Welfare State’. As Bédarida (1979) argued, there are at least three possible definitions for this enigmatic concept. The ‘official’ definition, as it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1955, was a polity so organised that every member of the community is assured of his due maintenance with the most advantageous conditions possible for all. As a historical interpretation, he refers to five points enunciated by Bruce in The Coming of the Welfare State which referred to the aims and objectives of a welfare state. He rejects this as a narrow, rather technical definition … amounting to little more than the enlargement of the social services. He argues that the phrase must be allowed to take on a wider sense, as a symbol for the structure of post-war Britain, a society with a mixed economy and full employment, …

… where individualism is tempered by State intervention, where the right to work and a basic standard of living are guaranteed, and the working-class movement, now accepted and recognised, finds its rightful place in the nation.

By its own admission Labour’s ‘revolution’ must be seen in the perspective of ‘evolution’. The key word (or phrase) is ‘social justice’. Without in the least denying the collectivist principles inscribed on Labour’s tablets, the revolution found its main inspiration in two Liberals: first Beveridge, then Keynes. These were the two masterminds whose ideas guided Labour’s actions. …

In seeking to determine the significance of the Welfare State one must bear three points in mind. Firstly, to use the word ‘revolution’  is to devalue its meaning. … In the second place, the arrival of the Welfare State was situated in the mainstream  of the history of democratic freedom, linking the pioneers of the London Corresponding Society with the militants of the Independent Labour Party, the Benthamites, with the Fabians, the Nonconformist conscience with Christian Socialism. … Finally, if the Welfare State was the grandchild of Beveridge and Keynes, it was no less the child of Fabians, since it concentrated on legislative, administrative and centralising methods to the detriment of ‘workers’ control’. But in thus stamping on any frail aspiration towards a libertarian organisation of society, Labour laid itself open to a charge that would weigh heavily on it in the future, namely, namely that of wanting to impose a bureaucratic form of socialism. …

The ‘Welfare State’ was not just a Labour ‘project’ or ‘programme’. Apart from its Liberal ‘grandfathers’, even Tory supporters were behind this desire for change and reform. It is significant that the inventor of the term was that pillar of the Establishment (and yet advocate of Christian Socialism), the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. No one would doubt that the achievements of the Labour Government of 1945-50 were considerable. They undertook the massive task of social reconstruction and social transformation with vigour and attempted to establish a new social order. Yet their success in this area must be viewed against their economic failures, not to mention their foreign policy. The creation of the Welfare State did not, really, involve a transformation of society. It was, to a considerable degree, a substitute for it.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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

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

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against the World: European Nights, 1953-1980. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1870-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Asa Briggs et. al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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

 

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

Chapter Three: 1937 – A Reunited Kingdom?

Chronology:

Jan:

 7    Princess Julianna of the Netherlands married German Prince Bernhard

24  United Campaign for Spain launched at Manchester Free Trade Hall

April:

26  Bombing of Basque town of Guernica by German aircraft

 

 

 

 

May:

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

 12    Coronation of King George VI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14    Imperial Conference in London (to 15th June)

Labour Party Distressed Areas Commission on South Wales published

28    Neville Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin as PM

June:

 1    Amelia Earhart’s last flight

 4    Duke of Windsor married Wallis Simpson near Tours, France

7    Death of Hollywood actress, Jean Harlow

 23    Germany and Italy left Non-Intervention Committee

July:

 5      Japan invades China

10   Harold Nicholson’s mission to Evreux

Aug:

 28  Japanese Bombing of Shanghai

 Oct:

 17  Rioting in Sudetenland

 Duke and Duchess’ Berchtesgarden meeting with Hitler

 Nov:

 6   Italy joined Germany and Japan in Aniti-Comintern Pact

 7   Death of Ramsay MacDonald

19  Lord Halifax visited Hitler  

 Dec:

 12      The Panay Incident, Yangtze River

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

Narrative:

 A United Front?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today We Live! The Unemployed Miners

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

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

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

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

Militant Minorities and Migrants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hindenburg Blows Up

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

 

The Twelfth of May: Coronation and Kind Hearts

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

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

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

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

Exits and Entrances

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

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

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

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

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

Famous Females

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

The Windsors’ Saga Continued

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

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

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

Living with the Dictators

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

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

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

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

Incidents and Intervals

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

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

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

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

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

 A Literary Interlude: The Remains of the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: 

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

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

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement. Oxford: Blackwell

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

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

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

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

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