Archive for the ‘Thomas Jones’ Tag

The Labour Party and the Left, 1934-39: Case Study I – How Red Were the Valleys anyway?; The Politics of Unemployment, Militancy & Migration.   1 comment

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‘Red Walls’, ‘Heartlands’ & ‘Little Moscows’:

We may well ask, in borrowing and adapting the title of Richard Llewellyn’s famous 1939 novel, whether Britain’s industrial valleys and towns were really quite so ‘red’ as some made them out to be at the time and over the decades since the Thirties. The myth of Maerdy in the Rhondda as a ‘little Moscow’ has remained a potent one, and has been used to justify the political hegemony of Labour in its ‘heartlands’ and, most recently, to explain the victory of the Conservatives beyond the ‘Red Wall’ of the ‘Northern’ constituencies in the 2019 General Election. In Wales, the metaphor of bridges seems more appropriate, since the Bridgend constituency, in the geographical heart of the region and on the edge of the Coalfield below the Llynfi, Garw and Ogmore valleys, was taken by the Tories (the town and the three valleys make up the County Borough of Bridgend). Maerdy became a myth because it was the base of Arthur Horner, Communist and future leader of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. As such, the intransigence of its miners’ lodge, which it shared with other pit villages, was deliberately channelled by the militants in the ‘Fed’ and the NUWM, giving it a longer life as a ‘little Moscow’. Its styles were present wherever there were some everywhere in the valleys. In the face-to-face conflict with the Labour Party nationally enjoined by the Comintern’s Class Against Class policy between 1929 and 1934, the CPGB took over the Rhondda Labour Party, stood Horner as a parliamentary candidate in 1933 and got within three thousand votes of getting him elected. Horner then renewed working with other left-wing organisations ahead of the ‘Popular Front’ policy adopted by the Communist International the following year.

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In the Thirties, as the expansion of the Social Service movement sought to ‘irrigate’ the South Wales Coalfield, it was accused by the ‘Left’ in general and Communists in particular, of becoming a form of ‘dope’ for the unemployed, contributing to the process of ‘demoralisation’ in coalfield communities, rather than alleviating it. Allen Hutt took this view, making no differentiation between the efforts of the churches, the Quakers, the ‘social service ladies and gentlemen and other charity mongers’. Wal Hannington, Communist leader of the NUWM, also argued that those who, by word or deed, divert the unemployed from the struggle against the Government were, whether they knew it or not, leading them into demoralisation rather than rescuing them from it, and in so doing, were acting as instruments of government policy. He pointed out that the word ‘demoralisation’ did not only refer to behaviour involving corrupt practices and indulging in mean and contemptible acts but could also be applied to a person being deprived of courage and self-reliance. Both the government and the movement itself remained extremely sensitive to this accusation which was echoed by Labour MPs and therefore could not be dismissed as the babbling of a militant minority. The 1934 Pilgrim Trust Report had suggested that the ‘generous impulse’ of the Nation had gone far to soften the bitterness of spirit that would brook no palliatives and Wyndham Portal stated that, whilst there was…

… no doubt that men were averse … to associating themselves with a club which was subsidised by Government monies, opposition was ‘gradually dying down’. 

However, while the hostility may have gone, the apathy had not, as his own report revealed that though there were a hundred and fifty unemployed clubs throughout the region, they involved only about twelve per cent of the total unemployed. Portal suggested that there should be a settlement with a warden and his wife carefully vetted to ensure that the ‘right type’ of people were appointed who would operate the occupational centres ‘on appropriate lines’. Firstly, they were to encourage transference by fostering a wider sense of ‘citizenship’, breaking down loyalties to class and locality. Secondly, they were to seek out and develop the right sort of leadership for the communities in which they settled. However, those who knew the valleys better could see the contradictions involved in this strategy. Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, the Honorary Secretary of SWMCSS expressed this concern in the Second Annual Report of the Council:

… Leaders in Churches and Sunday Schools, Trade Union Lodges and Workmen’s Institutes, Unemployed Men’s Clubs and Boys’ Clubs change with every month, while ‘Transference’ skims the cream from our community and leaves it with the same burdens of maintenance and ever-deepening problems of social leadership. … The flower of our young manhood, with all its potentialities for leadership is leaving us in a steady flow. 

Several less ‘official’ surveys confirmed that many of the younger unemployed ‘kept away’ from the centres for a variety of reasons. Apart from the obvious association of them with activities preferred by older men such as boot-repairing and upholstery, it soon became apparent that these institutions were not, as they claimed, run in the best traditions of democratic organisation which were the norm in coalfield society. In his survey conducted for the Carnegie Trust in the Pontypridd area, A. J. Lush found that, out of the ten occupational clubs in the area, only two allowed members ‘a fair measure of responsibility for control and management’ and that many of the organisers were ‘stalwart conservative zealots’, chiefly concerned to provide ‘strong moral leadership’ and often ‘terribly ignorant on the most vital subjects inherent in the work… .’ Their lack of understanding of the needs of the unemployed would lead them to organise programmes of lectures which had little or no relevance to their audience. One unemployed miner remarked to James Hanley that ‘these places’ were run like ‘a kind of honest British Working Men’s Club’. Communists were often excluded because it was feared that they might spread dissent and division:

… the Social Centre is not very keen on having you if you’re a Communist. They’re very worried about us, … and they’ll have to worry a lot more soon, for the whole valley is turning that way as time goes on…

Certainly, what one American sociologist, Eli Ginzberg described as ‘mendacious propaganda’ did contribute to the failure of settlement houses and clubs, which were constantly under attack from the ‘Left’. Percy Watkins, of the NCSS, encountered considerable opposition when he visited Rhydyfelin to suggest the setting up of an occupational club in Taff Vale. Communists regularly referred to settlement houses as ‘dope houses’ where injections were administered to the unemployed so that they might more willingly bear their lot. Referring to the Brynmawr Settlement, Ginzberg noted widespread resentment at the statement that Mr Peter Scott, who had first arrived there with the support and under the direction of the Society of Friends’ Coalfield Distress Committee, had taken this little town under his wing. This had led to a deep distrust, not just of the National Government, but also of the Society of Friends and the Council of Social Service, both of which were perceived as being under government control, so that when the populace learned that the Government was actually giving financial support to the Council, its distrust turned into hostility. Another American Sociologist visiting the coalfield, G. H. Armbruster, found a similar antagonism in the Eastern Valley of Monmouthshire:

Passionately class conscious, the population resents the charitable features of the institutions and their origin from the benevolence or deception of a class that tradition has taught them to hate.  ‘They are here to keep us quiet’ is a common oobservation … Individuals  who had long taken advantage of the facilities offered remarked that they initially had to face the derision of and open antagonism of their fellows. ‘Aye, you’d a thought we were blacklegs’ one man saidwho had largely been responsible for the start of construction of an unemployed men’s clubin his community told me. … The trades unions and the Labour Party also initially fed this opposition.

This antagonism was amplified by the way that the new institutions were seen to be in open competition with the miners’ institutes, despite the latter’s acceptance of financial support from the NCSS. Many older unemployed miners would have nothing to do with new Centres because they saw them as weapons in an ‘underground war’ to destroy the institutes. Some Hanley’s witnesses went into flights of rhetorical language on this issue:

Now a lot of miners don’t like the look of things at present, the way these centres and camps are spreading about. And I ask you – why will they bring these damned centres right on top of our own institutes? Many men think they’re out to break the Miners’ Institutes.

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Even those who attended the clubs shared this scepticism and explained their participation by suggesting that they had every right to whatever ‘crumbs’ they could snatch. Philip Massey, in his survey of Blaina and Nantyglo, concluded that the acceptance of these small benefits did not make people content with their conditions. Indeed, several of the activities started through social service grants were being run by men with firm left-wing views. They had decided that, by the mid-thirties, it was too late to start boycotting the centres and that, though the Social Service movement was ‘a farce’ and ‘a sop’, they should take advantage of the resources available and use them for their own ends. Others, however, continued to feel that the centres were a continual and humiliating reminder of their dependence on this damned charity and that damned charity and that they conditioned the unemployed to accept their worklessness:

… All the Centres have done so far as I can see is to create a lot of jobs for people who don’t really need them. They travel about in cars and ask us how we’re getting on, and we go on mending boots and making tables, and not a thought about work in the air at all.

It is evident from these responses that the majority of the unemployed, both young and old, saw the settlement movement as a further intervention by the State. It was not easy for communities already at the mercy of the means test and transference measures to interpret the actions of these alien social workers in any other way than those of a quasi-official group of officials who had been sent to bring further demoralising pressure to that which they already felt. Referring to the Tonypandy ‘riots’ of 1910, one miner suggested to Hanley that the intention of the government was the same as it had been back then – to break the miners’ spirit. It was this belief that conditioned many of the responses of these communities, families and individuals to unemployment and impoverishment. That is why it is important that one of the major responses ‘from below’, that of voluntary migration, should not be confused with the dominant official response to unemployment, that of ‘Transference’. The migration response has been too readily characterised as one of acquiescence and defeatism rather than one of resistance to, and escape from, the web of state intervention in the coalfield.

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Equally, it has been too easily assumed that the extent of resistance to state intervention from within the coalfield itself can best be measured by reference to the number and nature of demonstrations and the level of political action within its institutions and organisations. However, it is important to see both migration and militancy as complex responses in the context of the wider political and cultural traditions of coalfield communities, rather than simply assuming that the processes of immiseration led automatically either to widespread and uniform demonstrative action or to abject surrender. Given the diverse conditions of unemployment which existed in different communities, it is understandable that the ‘militant’ response should have been more detectable in some communities compared with others. The older coalfield communities which endured higher levels of long-term unemployment throughout the decade from 1929 to 1939 were those with the greatest propensity to direct political action. Although these ‘eruptions’ were the products of latent frustrations and resentment, they were sporadic events which occurred in response to specific grievances in the local operation of government policy and, although dramatic both in their nature and effects, they were rarely part of a broader political strategy. Therefore, the crude causal analysis of contemporary propagandists such as Donovan Brown when they wrote about the 1935 demonstrations against the new UAB scales, need to be treated with considerable scepticism:

There has always been in South Wales a tradition of militant struggle and extreme radicalism. English bourgeois standards have never penetrated deeply into the villages of the Welsh mining valleys. Steadily worsening conditions have replaced the spontaneous native culture of of the days when miners taught their apprentices the perfection of the Welsh metre, with a vigorous political consciousness. The village forms a perfect unit for unit for militant organisation around the pit; there class consciousness has arisen quite naturally, while the coal owners live many miles away in beautiful manors – we are reminded of the Chartist days when the Welsh mining villages constituted enemy territory  … poverty, and the traditional militancy of the Welsh workers, naturally produced a vigorous opposition … Ceaseless activity has also continued among the unemployed … Marches and demonstrations all over the area had previously been taking place … South Wales is ablaze with indignation.

Whilst the broad brushstrokes of this assessment provide a colourful backdrop to a portrait of coalfield society, historians must painstakingly pick out the details for themselves. Otherwise, they will leave us with stereotypical and distorted images of the communities that composed it. Whilst it is clear that the Communists had been active organisers among the unemployed for some years before the 1935 demonstrations, they did not seem to benefit from this in terms of membership and support for their ‘Class Against Class’ policy. Even when they discarded this policy in 1934, and despite Wal Hannington’s well-known efforts with the NUWM, he still failed to attract any substantial support from the voters of Merthyr Tydfil in the by-election of that year.

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However, this evidence of a lack of support for revolutionary socialism should not lead us to the conclusion that ‘the unemployed’ of Merthyr were acquiescent about their condition. In fact, they were far from apathetic, but whilst espousing socialist views, had practical priorities and commitments, like ‘GSW’ (the need to demonstrate to labour exchange officials that they were genuinely seeking work) which would simply not allow time for a marked degree of participation in demonstrations and other forms of political action. Though many had to wait at home for hours waiting for a call to work for three days at their collieries, they were also far from physically or mentally idle, dividing their time between the Miners’ Institutes and their allotments, the latter providing a vital supplementary food supply for their families. J. J. Williams, the local correspondent of the Glamorgan Gazette, commented on the juggling of priorities in the Garw valley:

The new Pantygog Allotments have already become known as ‘the little Moscow’, perhaps as a direct challenge to the old Sunday Market. One member who in debates often talks of ‘taking the gloves off to get down to concrete facts’ never touches the spade unless his hands are gloved.

There were many short-lived ‘little Moscows’, wherever the demands of struggle became so intense that a counter-community became necessary. At the height of the battle against non-unionism, described below, Bedlinog, which Gwyn Williams famously characterised as one of those villages where you need magnets in your boots to stand upright, at one time elected a Communist Chamber of Commerce.

Green or Red? Re-painting the Valleys in the Thirties:

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Graph showing the relationship between average annual unemployment and net out-migration (in black) in given years (July-June).

For Dai Smith pointed out in his book Wales! Wales? (1984), the thirties were ‘laundered’ in the post-war liberal mind to such an extent that their image of ‘passivity and pity’ has obscured the ‘sustaining humour and collective struggle’ that can be found, for example in the autobiographical stories of Gwyn Thomas or in the local newspaper columns of J. J. Williams. For many on the ‘liberal-left’, South Wales became a ‘case-study’. The American sociologist Eli Ginzberg spent some years in the 1930s investigating the social deprivation and institutional response in South Wales for his book, Grass on the Slag Heaps, published in 1942, his title perhaps picking up on the ‘green’ theme from Llewellyn’s novel, published three years earlier. Ginzberg concluded his book with the observation:

It is difficult to help people who will not help themselves, and many of the tragedies that befell the Welsh during the the postwar decades can be traced to their own shortcomings and the shortcomings of their allies, the trade union movement and the Labour party … As early as 1934 Lord Portal called attention to the fact that the leaders of South Wales were noticeably inept, a result of the fact that the most virile and able people had migrated. This kindly interpretation of the ineptitude of Welsh leaders cannot, however, explain … such stupid practices in sending trade union leaders to Parliament as a reward for faithful services to the Federation.

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The preface to Ginzberg’s book was written by Thomas Jones (1870-1955),  the arch-druid of the ‘Cymric’ liberals, who in the 1930s, with increasing success, began to fill the gap left by the collapse of independent working-class education and the decline of the Miners’ Institutes. The ‘Marxist’ Central Labour College and its offshoot of ‘Plebs League’ classes in the coalfield could no longer be sustained by the Miners’ Federation, much reduced in wealth and self-confidence. As Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust, Jones acted as dispenser-in-chief of aid to the stricken South Wales valleys and Percy Watkins became head of the Welsh section of the NCSS. Between them, they controlled the intersection between social service, educational provision and public guidance. In his memoirs, Watkins wrote of his puzzlement and irritation at the reception given to their attempts to restore ‘standards’ and ‘authority’ in the valleys:

It is a strange thing that these honest efforts of ours to bring cultural opportunities within the reach of the unemployed in the days of their helplessness and hopelessness did not receive the encouragement and support that might have been especially expected from the political side of the Labour movement and from the trade unions. The former preferred to regard the motives of our movement as nothing more than an attempt to provide ‘dope’.

Marching in Step Against the Means Test:

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The ‘dope’ was not intended to smother working-class militancy, which was patchy in any case, or their institutions, despite the rumours to the contrary. Where these were challenged directly, it was by victimisation, company unions, mass unemployment and mass policing. All of these ultimately failed to control the coalfield communities. The reorganisation and recovery of the  SWMF, the continued agitation of the NUWM, and the fact that more national political and public attention was focused on the contrast between the increasingly prosperous areas and the depressed areas within Britain, all meant that by 1934 protest could be better organised and could produce results. Massive demonstrations against the 1934 Unemployment Act took place when the previously abstract idea of ‘popular front’ politics became a living reality in South Wales in January and February of 1935, as hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated within their valleys. The protest marches were directed against new government regulations that would have reduced unemployment assistance in addition to operating the humiliation of the means test.

On Sunday, 3 February, knots of people gathered around banners: local committees of action, churches, chapels, co-operatives, women’s groups, the Salvation Army and the British Legion, Sunday schools, shopkeepers, shop-assistants, teachers, printers, ministers, the miners, the unemployed, women and children, all brought out onto the streets in a collective cry of anger against the continuing injustice of the unemployment allowance rates and the means test. The defiance was that of a whole community. In and about them moved their organisers, Labour and Communist and ILP, the NUWM, political opponents who had denounced each other endlessly in the previous six years. Bands formed up. Lewis Jones, the Communist spokesman for the NUWM, captured the moment in his ‘documentary’ novel, We Live, based on ‘Cwmardy’, based on the Rhondda:

At the bottom of the hill, before turning into the square which led to the rubbish dump, where the other contingents of the Combine were waiting. Len looked back. His eyes glowed with what he saw. The street behind him looked like a flowing river of human beings on which floated innumerable scarlet banners and flags … Although directly in front of the band, he heard running beneath its thrumming wails the deep monotone of countless boots  tramping rhythmically on the hard road … When the front of the demonstration was two miles advanced  and on the summit of the hill to the east of Cwmardy, people were still pouring into the assembling field. Len lifted his head shaply into the air when he fancied he heard the distant strain of music in the direction left of the demonstration. He turned to Mary and the workman next to her. ‘Can you hear anything?’ he asked. They both looked simultaneously past Len and he, seeing their amazement, turned his head to look in the same direction. He drew his breath sharply and his perspiring face went a shade whiter. The mountain which separated Cwmardy from the other valleys looked like a gigantic  ant-hill covered with a mass of black, waving bodies. ‘Good God,’ the man next to Mary whispered, ‘the whole world is on the move …’ 

On that Sunday, the whole population of South Wales seemed to have turned out on to the streets. There were sixty to seventy thousand in the Rhondda marching to Tonypandy; Aneurin Bevan spoke to thousands at Blackwood; Pontypool saw the biggest meeting it had ever had, twenty thousand listening to Ernest Bevin. There were marches and meetings in Neath, Briton Ferry, Merthyr, even in Barry. Down the Aberdare Valley, fifty thousand people marched to Mountain Ash in a procession two and a half miles long through wind and rain. Men and women wore their Sunday best as if at a ‘Gymanfa Ganu’ (Community Song Festival) George Dugger MPor a Sunday School rally, a cry from humanity for humanity, as a local journalist reported, adding the government cannot refuse to listen. Something of the order of 300,000 people marched that day. One person out of seven of the entire population of Wales was out in those valleys. It was the greatest demonstration Wales has ever known, before or since.

The marches were at their strongest and sometimes most violent at the heads of the valleys, especially in Merthyr and the Ebbw Fach Valley, which by this time had learnt to live with long-term unemployment and had come to regard benefit and relief as due by right, rather than as charity. Nowhere was the latent resentment of the effects of state intervention more visibly expressed than in Merthyr, where the UAB offices were ransacked, despite the imprecations of the previously well-respected Quaker, John Dennithorne. They shouted at him, Come down, Old Bug Whiskers! They would listen only to Ceridwen Brown from Aberdare and a local hero everyone knew as Jack Williams, the Communist from Dowlais. The smashing of the UAB offices horrified even the fiery radical, S O Davies, the Labour MP for the borough. His opinions were such that the Communist Party stood little chance of unseating him. On this occasion, however, he denounced the demonstrators as a rabble and was shouted down by Communists and ILP-ers.

Over in Blaina, the demonstrations also blew up into violence. The children of Nantyglo refused to go to school and the shopkeepers shut up shop. Take all necessary measures, their Labour MP George Dugger told them. In the Ebbw Fach Valley, there were seventy in the Communist Social Club and fifty in the Communist Women’s Club; the valley had Communist district and county councillors. The people unleashed a guerilla war against a tough police force and marched on Abertillery singing We’ll make Queen Mary do the washing for the boys! and Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? at Superintendent Baker. A big demonstration was planned for the offices at Blaina when the after the authorities had refused to listen to the Communist councillor Phil Abrahams. The Brynmawr and Nantyglo contingents met up with the Blaina and Abertillery squads near the Blaina Inn. The police came out of it flailing batons, and there were guerilla battles all over the heads of the valleys. At the ensuing trial, six of the rioters got six months in jail, three Communists in the NUWM got nine months and Phil Abrahams was stripped of his civic rights for ten years. In South Wales as a whole, three hundred thousand were estimated to have come out for demonstrations on three successive weekends. In Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham and in the other old centres of Britain’s industrial revolution, the same emotion filled the streets.

The National Government was forced to listen. In the Commons, Oliver Stanley announced a stand-still order on their regulations. They did not come into effect for eighteen months, and then in modified forms. It was in the heads-of-the-valleys communities that the unemployed stood to lose the most through the new regulations. This was the only known occasion in the thirties when popular protest, aligned with parliamentary opposition, led most memorably by Aneurin Bevan, actually stopped the National Government in its tracks. South Wales had been at the forefront, and from that moment, despite the continuing horrors, there was a sudden lift in morale in the coalfield communities. Bevan later commented: Silent pain evokes no response.

Staying Down, Striking Back & Reaching Out:

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Aneurin Bevan had been elected as MP for Ebbw Vale in 1929, finding himself in a Parliament in which thirteen of the fifteen Welsh Labour MPs had had, like him, an official connection with the SWMF, the miners’ ‘Fed’. During 1933-34, Bevan proposed the formation of worker self-defence militias against the small, scattered pockets of fascists who took root in south Wales. An eccentric Communist in Merthyr had a strong following among the most isolated and depressed communities and became something of a local hero to them and there were regular clashes around the town. There was some drilling of the militias around Bevan’s home town of Tredegar, and the Communists also organised their own vigilantes, but all such initiatives were smothered by the Labour Party.

Towards the end of 1935, a series of stay-down strikes erupted in pits where non-unionists and company-unionists were ensconced. These ‘stay-downs’ fired the imagination; they were a weapon of repossession. Hundreds of men remained underground in their pits across all the valleys of South Wales in an act of collective defiance that ultimately ensured the demise of company unionism. It was a desperate, tough fight to unhinge the ‘non-political’ union, regain members, and establish credibility among the unemployed in an industry being driven by utterly intransigent coal-owners. Gwyn Williams (1985) wrote of this:

It is a story of infinite patience, persistence, care, resolution, and where necessary ruthlessness in what had the makings of a civil war. It is a story of remarkable leadership … with the genius of Horner in the van. The ritual was endlessly repeated, the strikes and arguments, the brass bands, marching crowds, women in the lead everywhere, the police charges, the court cases, the pilgrimage of political prisoners, the banners … The process climaxed in those dramatic stay-downs which caught the imagination of a generation, the long, wretched hours underground, the drama at the pit-head, the upcoming to a triumph.

From 1934 onwards the Fed was reorganised with a rank and file executive, unemployed lodges and a more effective structure. It successfully harnessed the community to its purpose and, in its somewhat shrunken industry, it won. This was one essential core around which the popular mobilisation of 1935 formed. But that mobilisation also demonstrated the limits of the Communist initiative. The CP, with its new Daily Worker offering powerful support for a Popular Front, and a dedicated membership approaching three thousand, moved forward, in the words of Gwyn Williams, with its intelligent, learned, hardened, crusading yet earthily practical men and women with all its dependent organisations, only to run into a brick wall of Labour hostility. The reaction of the Labour party nationally put a brake on the shift towards the popular front in Wales. There was a major rally of the social democratic faithful with the chapels, in particular, setting themselves against the threat of atheistic Communism in the valleys. Following the early months of unity against the UAB and the National Government, throughout the rest of 1935, there was a marked hardening of the Labour position in south Wales. At the General Election of 1935, the Communist candidate in the Rhondda fell well back in the poll.

From the summer of 1936, the Communists in the valleys went on to develop their support for the popular front in the context of the outbreak of civil war in Spain between the populist left-wing Republican government and the Fascist supporters and militias of Franco. In all, 174 volunteers from Wales fought with the International Brigade; thirty-three of them died. The majority of them were South Wales miners, 122 of them, with a further thirty-four of them hailing from the coal ports. Nearly all of them were members or supporters of the CP, for whom serving in Spain was as much a badge of honour as having gone to jail for ‘the cause’. Lodges in the ‘Fed’ raised money and goods for the Republicans and took Basque children into sanctuary. Lewis Jones, the writer of We Live, spent his energies on the cause, dropping dead from exhaustion after addressing over thirty street meetings in support of it in the week that Barcelona fell.

A Royal Command or an Indicative Promise?:

In October 1936, the nervousness created by the mass demonstrations and strikes prompted Captain Ellis at the NCSS to warn against the Royal Visit to South Wales, due to take place in November, at the same time as the revised code of regulations for men on transitional benefits was to take effect. Although the two-day visit to the Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and the Monmouthshire Valleys had been planned for some time, on 12 October, Ellis wrote anxiously to Godfrey Thomas at Buckingham Palace:

I feel bound to say first that I think the day is ill-chosen. The new UAB regulations come into force on October 16th. On the whole they tend to affect South Wales more than most places, and it is extremely likely that between the 16th and 19th, which is the first day, there will be a great deal of demonstration against them. It seems to me that if that time is chosen for a visit of the King, the agitators will say that his visit is intended to distract attention from the regulations, and to mark by royal approval what is being done by the Ministry of Labour and other bodies. His visit will then be given a political significance … When Tom Jones saw the announcement of the date in the paper, he asked me to tell you that he felt very strongly that the King should not be taken to South Wales during that week.

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There was some basis in evidence for these apprehensions. In August, the Merthyr Unemployed Lodge of the SWMF had demanded that there should be a one-day strike, a march on London and a ‘monster petition’ of the whole of South Wales in the campaign against the new regulations. Later that month, the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge had decided to support the boycott of the Coronation, due to take place in the New Year. However, refusing to heed even the warnings of Tom Jones, Edward VIII chose to go ahead with the visit, albeit a month later than planned, on 18-19 November and, ironically, it was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks (that once employed nine thousand), that he made his (oft-misquoted) remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this. … to find them work. This may well have been an attempt to head off the kind of criticism which Ellis had suggested might accompany the King’s visit, rather than an attempt to embarrass the Cabinet, as some interpreted it. Whatever the case, his visit did indeed acquire a political significance and certainly did not earn him any friends in a government which was already beginning to call for his abdication. Desperately hungry men and women grasped at the words of the monarch but, on the Welsh Labour ‘left’, as the MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, was furious. It was an outrage, he said, …

… to organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go to the Congo.

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He said that the King was being used to mask persecution and that Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour who accompanied him,  was the instrument of that persecution. Brown was an unpopular politician, especially in an area that had seen rioting against the Means Test the year before. To counterbalance him and the Minister of Health, Sir Kingsley Wood, the King commanded that Malcolm Stewart, the Commissioner for the Special Areas, dine with him on his train that evening. Stewart had just resigned in frustration at the government’s failure to back him over the introduction of new industries into the special areas. Chamberlain, in particular, was opposed to these measures. Shortly before his resignation, Stewart had published a damning report on the feebleness of existing measures to tackle unemployment. Even before he stepped off the train, therefore, Edward was ‘walking’ into an area of acute political sensitivity. This was made more acute when, visiting a farming co-operative at Boverton in the Vale of Glamorgan, he remarked to an ex-miner working on the farm who said he would prefer to return to the valleys if there were work available, Yes, it is a great pity that something more can’t be done about it. As the tour continued past disused collieries, through maternity and child welfare clinics, into local housing estates, Edward was asked by everyone he met: tell Whitehall to do something for the valleys. The significance of his visit lay in the feeling that someone of importance actually cared.

From Merthyr Tydfil, the King’s party made its ill-fated detour to the Bessemer Steelworks in Dowlais, shut down six years earlier. Just as the closure of Palmer’s shipyards at Jarrow had blighted that town, its plight just highlighted by its well-publicised ‘Crusade’ to London, so the ending of steelworking in Dowlais had ruined that community. Coal mines could be kept running on ‘short’ time work, with miners working three shifts a week, but once a steelworks closed it very quickly became derelict with all its workers permanently laid off. As a result, in 1936, three-quarters of the town’s population was permanently unemployed. Two thousand came out and streamed along the pavements to greet the King on this unscheduled and highly improvised sojourn, and though many of them were radicals supporting the NUWM, they were intrigued to see him and raised their caps, even if they also raised clenched fists. He stood by the defunct blast furnace surveying the scene of desolation, his face drawn and grave, his bowler hat removed as a sign of respect. As he looked on, some of the men, quite spontaneously, started to sing the solemn but beautiful Welsh hymn, Crygybar. The King visibly moved, turned to those next to him and is reported to have said …

These steelworks brought the men hope. Something will be done to see that they stay here – working.

But it was the four words, ‘something must be done’ echoed around the country. Of course, in grammatical terms, there is an important difference between the use of ‘will’ and ‘must’ in his sentence, or phrase, regardless of the context, but perhaps the most important point is that it is expressed in the ‘passive voice’ so that no ‘person’ is specified as the agent of the promised action. Added to this, ‘will’ is expressed in an ‘indicative mood’ as a ‘promise’ and is not an imperative, or a command. It is not the same as ‘shall’ which, when used in the third person or in the passive is emphatic and fulfils the function of an ‘auxiliary verb’. ‘Must’ is a ‘modal’ verb which expresses an ‘imperative’ mood to refer to an obligation, and an internalised one. However, it could only be expressed as a ‘command’ by using ‘have’, as in ‘has to be done’ or, even stronger, ‘will have to be done’. In any case, ‘something must be done’ was a misinterpretation, deliberate or otherwise, of what the King actually said, resulting in an important, if subtle, change in the message he was trying to send out.

These four words, as they appeared in newspaper headlines, became a refrain taken up by those of all political parties who felt that the government had done too little to alleviate the suffering of the poor and unemployed. In fact, in his earlier visit to Boverton, Edward had been careful to avoid appearing to criticise the action already taken by the government and the social movement which, as the patron of the NCSS, he was already well aware of. The King’s words, like the Jarrow March, just ended, gained a significance that transcended the immediacy of the plight to which they referred. His intervention simply reflected the growing consensus that something had to be done to create a more just and fair society by bringing jobs to the ‘Special Areas’. As the King, he was expressing the national mood, and although he had told Baldwin the day before that he was prepared to abdicate rather than give up Mrs Simpson, he was now, buoyed up by the success of his visit, beginning to think that it was part of his destiny to put up a fight both for the people and the woman he loved.

Aneurin Bevan declined an intervention to meet the King at Rhymney the next day, saying that he could not associate himself with a visit which appeared to support the notion that private charity has made, or can ever make a contribution of any value to the solution of the problem of South Wales. But the whole event was turned into another mass demonstration by the coalfield communities visited. The visit to South Wales had demonstrated his immense popularity and ability to empathise with the sufferings of his people. When combined with the politics of long-term unemployment, it made for a heady brew. The King’s opponents became concerned. These escapades should be limited, Ramsay MacDonald commented sternly in his diary, they are an invasion into the field of politics and should be watched constitutionally. Geoffrey Dawson, writing in The Times, called the reported four-word comment of the King, monstrous. He penned a letter in which he dismissed it as a constitutionally dangerous proceeding that would threaten, if continued, to entangle the Throne in politics. The Daily Mail, under the title ‘The King Edward Touch’, praised his visit:

Never has the magic of personal leadership been better shown than by the King’s visit to south Wales. … As few Ministers have done, the Sovereign examined their plight and drew from (the unemployed) the tale of their trouble.

Edward later reflected that his words to the people of Dowlais were the minimum humanitarian response that he could have made to the suffering he had seen. The episode made him all too aware that the modern world had made it almost impossible for a monarch to continue to play the role of the Good King, free to move unhindered among his subjects and speak what is in his mind. His subjects in South Wales certainly did not object to the political tone of his comment. The Royal Archives at Windsor are the repository of thousands of letters addressed to the King during this crucial period, the vast majority of which are positive.  The following sentiments were shared and expressed by many:

You could profess concern and interest and yet stay stay away … but that you do not do, and may God bless you for it.

We like you for the concern you have for the welfare of the poorest and most unfortunate of your subjects. No other King has gone among them as you have done, or shown signs of appreciating their distress in the way you do.

With hindsight, there can be little doubt that the publicity given to the King’s visit and his spontaneous remarks had an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment. But it took a world war to bring work to South Wales and by then Edward VIII had become the Duke of Windsor and was leading the life of a useless aristocrat in France.

Today We Live: Re-making the Images of the Coalfield.

Rumours that the South Wales Miners were planning a march on London to restore Edward to the throne in 1937 turned out to be just that. These had been heard by David Alexander, who had first gone to South Wales as a Cambridge undergraduate to shoot a miners’ strike, and returned that year to produce a film called Eastern Valley, dealing with the relief work organised by the Quakers at the top of the Monmouthshire Valleys. In this short film, one unemployed miner explains that he was working now not for a boss but for myself and my butties, whilst an ‘old timer’  admits that although mistakes had been made, a new interest in life had been generated by the Quakers.

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The best known Welsh documentary was Today We Live, made in the same year for the NCSS. The Welsh scenes in this film were directed by Ralph Bond and they told a story in which the unemployed miners of Pentre in the Rhondda debate whether or not to co-operate with the voluntary relief agencies. It is obvious that these unemployed miners had been coached: they were told of the gist of what they had to say but put it into their own words. But although, therefore, a dramatised documentary, the difficulty of living on a shilling a day is movingly conveyed and it is not surprising that the film was so well received in the art-houses of London and New York. It was rare to hear the unemployed speak so authentically, but besides the dialogue, the film was also commended for its stunning images of life in the depressed valleys.

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Donald Alexander was Bond’s assistant on the film and his shot of the unemployed searching for waste coal on the slag heaps, no doubt prompted by his earlier experiences in the Coalfield, was destined to become the most famous image of the Depression years in Britain. The sequence was ‘cannibalised’ in many later documentaries. Alexander’s slag-heap shots became an iconic image of proletarian hardship and played some part for British intellectuals as Dorothea Lange’s monochrome still-photographs of the ‘Oakie’ migrants to California. As the Socialist cause strengthened towards the end of the decade, several groups attempted to challenge the commercial cinema by producing independent films and by arranging their release through independent outlets. In particular, the Communist Party attempted to make its own newsreels to accompany screenings of Soviet classic features. However, these were rarely shown in Welsh halls or even outside London and had little impact on the working classes. Also, they were mostly composed of badly-shot silent sequences of marches and demonstrations.

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Pursuing a Millenarianism of the Oppressed:

At the same time as all this was going on, the ‘Left unity’ of the early months of 1935 was wearing thin by the middle of 1936. At the Merthyr Conference against the Means Test held in July, the claim for direct representation by the NUWM was defeated and in the Autumn the Trades Council reject the request from the Communist Party for affiliation. Relations between the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge and the CPGB were not good either, even where the issue of Spanish Aid was concerned. In the Garw Valley, however, the Communist Party seems to have garnered much of its support through the role the party played in rebuilding the SWMF in the second half of the decade. It is significant that the peak to that support came in the year in which those communities began to recover, fairly rapidly, from the Depression. Linked with this, it is apparent that whilst the Party had failed to attract any significant support for J R Campbell, a well-known figure who stood as a candidate for them in the 1931 parliamentary election, the Glamorgan Gazette reported how, in the 1937 Council election, the people of Pontycymmer were prepared to vote for a respected local Communist and miner:

The declaration of the poll in Ogmore and Garw Council elections took place amid scenes of enthusiasm on Monday night, 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 899 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 eighteen years loses his seat, the number of votes in his favour 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. 

Redmond’s election came in the same week that a new wages agreement between the SWMF and the coalowners was signed, giving increases in wages of between 2s.2d. and 10s. per week, and at a time when it looked as if the decade-long struggle against company unionism and non-unionism in the valley had finally secured almost a hundred per cent membership of the Federation. It is probable that these ‘victories’ and Redmond’s association with them, played a major part in his success. As in other parts of the coalfield, the growth in the electoral strength of the Party was not primarily a response to conditions of poverty and did not reflect widespread avowal of revolutionary socialism, but was a recognition of the organisational ability of its local leaders in helping the community to regain much of its self-confidence. However, in institutional terms, it was still excluded, as in Merthyr, from the official organisation of the unemployed. In November 1937, a series of protest meetings against the Means Test was organised by the Garw Valley Unemployed Lodge and the Pontycymmer Labour Party, with the CP excluded from these events.

Despite these activities, evidence of the existence of widespread apathy on political matters, particularly among the young unemployed, is found in the social surveys of other valley communities. For example, A. J. Lush’s Carnegie Trust Survey was based on interviews with five hundred young unemployed men in Cardiff, Newport and Pontypridd. Of these, only three per cent had any affiliation to a political party or organisation and in Pontypridd, apart from one Communist who was inexorably certain of the facts of the class war, there was evidence of vagueness about the election which was taking place at that time. Lush found no evidence of a swing either to the Right or the Left. The achievements of the Communists among the unemployed in South Wales have tended to be exaggerated by their own contemporary literature, the content of which exists in sharp contrast to that of the Social Service Trusts. Thus, although the NUWM existed in Pontypridd, a ‘coalfield town’, it showed no great success in organising the unemployed and was, in fact, quite reluctant to recruit the long-term unemployed to their ‘ranks’. As other organisers had ‘discovered’, the  physical and mental conditions of these men, old and young alike, would often prove a handicap to organisations based on active protest, including long-distance marches:

It has perhaps been assumed too readily by some that because people are unemployed, their natural discontent will express itself in some revolutionary attitude. It cannot be reiterated too often that unemployment is not an ‘active’ state; its keynote is boredom – a continuous sense of boredom. Consequently, unless a sense of subjective urgency can be expressed by objective political activity, politics can mean little … These young men, products of continuous uemployment, are not likely to believe that an active participation by themselves in affairs will permanently affect an order of things that has already, in the most impressionable years of their lives, shown itself to be so powerful and so devastating.

It is clear that, from Lush’s interviews and other interviews with ‘coalfield people’, including those conducted by this researcher, that there was no sustained militant response to the conditions of unemployment and impoverishment which involved significant numbers of people in any of the valley communities during the Thirties. The popular image, transmitted by contemporary propaganda newsreels and photographs of coalfield society continually on the march, is a myth. Demonstrative action was sporadic, localised and uneven and, where it involved large numbers, was motivated by immediate concerns and basic frustrations and resentments. These feelings could just as easily, and regularly did, produce a somewhat cynical withdrawal from political action. The unemployed did not adopt a revolutionary or militant outlook as a means of confronting their condition. Nevertheless, the determination of the SWMF leadership in the battle against its rival, the South Wales Miners’ Industrial Union and against non-unionism; of minority organisations such as the NUWM in its continual agitation, and of the general leadership of the institutional life of the coalfield communities, enabled a partial recovery of working-class life from the mid-thirties onwards. The ‘United Front’ which emerged from this, though precarious and transitory in many communities, enabled the people of the coalfield quite literally to find both their feet and their voices in a massive demonstration of their collective resistance to state intervention in their lives from the early months of 1935 onwards.

When Bevan and his colleagues in the ‘Socialist League’ were expelled from the Labour Party in 1938 for their advocacy of the ‘United Front’, the ‘Fed’ came to his defence. Bevan told a meeting in the Rhondda that the Welsh miners were the most class-conscious, the most advanced, the most democratic section of the working class. By then, the power and limits of the Communist Party had already passed its peak in the years of the Popular Front. Its base was the ‘Fed’ which by 1939 represented some 135,000 miners, sponsoring thirteen MPs and maintaining a presence in most local authorities. Its executive council was more powerful than that of the local Labour Party. Communists were entrenched within it; Arthur Horner became its President in 1936, proving highly effective. They had their own miners’ journal. In a wider social context, they also had a presence through their classes, their subordinate organisations, like the NUWM and their activism. They charged the atmosphere around the Labour movement in south Wales with their internationalism and within their own society, they had become a distinctive subculture, hated by many, admired by many others, tolerated as a dynamic force by most. The great majority in the Coalfield remained loyal to the Labour Party, but despite the isolation of the Communists during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939-41, the surge of pro-Soviet feeling during and after the siege of Stalingrad nearly carried Harry Pollitt to parliamentary victory in 1945. Bill Paynter, its post-war President, later explained the link between Union, politics and society:

The Miners’ Federation Lodges were pillars of the communities because the Miners’ Institutes and Welfare Halls provided places for the social and cultural activity, and their domination of the local Labour Parties decisively influenced local politics. It is not surprising, therefore, that this kind of background produces a loyalty to the Union so strong that the Union is regarded as a substitute for a political organisation.

… It has often been said of me that I was a miner and trade unionist first and a Communist second. … I have to admit that it has a great deal of truth in it. … It was true, too, of Arthur Horner and most leaders who have lived and worked in the mining valleys of South Wales.

Even though many self-styled revolutionaries were directing this ‘fight-back’ and even though the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments were clearly fearful of the potential for serious and widespread disorder, the successes of this leadership were rewards for their dedication as members of mining communities rather than the products of a ‘millenarianism of the oppressed’. In the longer-term, the acceptance of political reality was made palatable by the installation of ‘Labourism’ as an administrative necessity for an unreconstructed economy and society. The objection to the ‘dope’ perceived in the offerings of the ‘charity-mongers’ was partly a residual mistrust of those who elevated ‘citizenship’ above ‘class’. The assumption of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite was that they could translate the mutuality of these one-class communities into institutional forms ‘better’ served by administering politicians and public servants rather than visionary class warriors. Liberalism shaded into Labourism and the latter became bound by a social and cultural consensus that was addicted to the development of a meritocratic society through education. Neither revolutionary socialism and left-wing social democracy on the one hand nor reactionary nationalism on the other was able to contend politically because they did not see the Depression years as a fall from grace. Those who did were more in tune with popular conceptions and they demonstrated that despite the communal collapse, something could be done. As Dai Smith has put it:

The meaning of the rise and fall of the coalfield society as a collective society was thus undermined from within by a policy of piecemeal accommodation and overlaid by a mythology whose potency derived from its universality as a parable.

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Regaining Consciousness… To migrate or remain?

Research into contemporary qualitative sources reveals that a complex of economic, social, industrial, political and cultural factors determined the extent, nature and direction of the migration ‘streams’. Not least among these factors was the effect of state intervention. Besides political action, resistance to this intervention was expressed by a refusal to participate in government training and transference schemes and a wider rejection of the demoralisation involved in the invasion of the lives of individuals and families by a host of bureaucrats and social workers. Migration was an effective expression of resistance to this form of demoralisation. Thus, while similar factors influenced both transference and voluntary migration, and although contemporary propagandists frequently confused the two, the latter was far from being an acquiescent response to unemployment for many individuals and families. Their choice was partly determined by these factors and partly by the nature of voluntary migration contrasted with the provisions of the Transference Scheme. The sense of the retention of autonomy through migration was well expressed by one of the older unemployed of the Rhondda in a written statement to the Pilgrim Trust:

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. …

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Migration thus deserves to be treated as far more than a simple knee-jerk response to economic conditions; it was a class-conscious response for the hundreds of thousands who undertook it. The fact that tens of thousands of Welsh migrants were to be found in Coventry and Oxford in the late 1930s, by which time they formed a significant proportion of the populations of these cities, was not simply due to a series of ‘push’ factors operating upon or from within coalfield society. It is still accepted, of course, that the primary causes of migration between the wars were connected with social and economic conditions. Historians of Wales and British historians on the left have continued to follow what might be called the ‘propagandist’ view of migration, i.e. that people were driven out of the depressed areas by unemployment. For instance, John Stevenson argued that miners left the pit villages in Durham and South Wales for no other reason than that they were desperate to find work. However, the sources show that unemployment was not the sole cause of migration, even if we regard it as the major factor.

Certainly, it is unimaginable that migration would have taken place on the scale which it did, had it not been for the onset of mass unemployment in the coalfield. However, other factors were at work in the period which played a significant part in providing the motivation to relocate. These factors were the general increase in geographical and social mobility; the expansion of new forms transport and communications, including wireless radio; increasing expectations among working-class people in terms of wages, working and living standards, especially better housing; the break-up of the ‘coal complex’, i.e. the acceptance of coal mining as the major means of employment. In addition to these factors, there were many secondary social and cultural factors which played significant roles in the nature, extent and direction of migration, including the decline in health standards in the depressed areas, the role of government and voluntary agencies, the growth of a ‘national’ British culture and the dissolution of the ‘Celtic complex’ concerning Welsh language culture, and the impact of fashion. Thirdly, there were several catalysts, including the decisions of friends and relatives, the attainment of insurable age, victimisation and marital status.

Indeed, given the strength of the practical obstacles to migration which also existed in coalfield society, there needed to be strong compensatory factors at work from within the recipient areas. These obstacles included family loyalties, local patriotism – the sense of belonging to a particular community, region and/ or nationality, house ownership (especially in the older coalfield communities), the sense of loss of skill and trade union traditions as a collier, the loss of the sub-economy of the coalfield. Besides these, there were also obstacles in the recipient communities to overcome; the problems of seasonal unemployment in the ‘new’ industries, homesickness, the shortage and cost of suitable accommodation. Besides, psychological resistance to intervention by state and voluntary agencies and the consequent process of demoralisation was also an obstacle to the success of the official transference scheme. These obstacles were overcome by the careful, autonomous organisation of migration networks which were able to supply information and practical support at every stage of the process.

A National Tragedy?

The cultural gap between the ‘old’ coalfield communities and the ‘new’ industrial centres was not, in any case, as wide as was often portrayed, but it was also bridged by the collective retention of the distinctive traditions and institutions of the coalfield in the recipient areas. These institutional networks were themselves important factors in the genesis of migration as well as in the success of the exodus itself. Yet Welsh historians have tended to follow the ‘nationalist’ perspective in representing the mass migration as a national tragedy. For example, Kenneth O Morgan, writing in 1981 book Rebirth of a Nation: Wales, 1880-1980, wrote of:

A steady drift … of young people … leaving their native land every year, leaving their closely-knit village communities to work in more impersonal … English factories, and to live in anonymous suburban housing estates instead of back-to-back valley terraces with their neighbourliness. Almost as a acutely as for the migrant who crossed the Atlantic to the United States in the previous century, it was a violent uprooting and cultural shock. But it was invariably and necessarily a permanent one, since, as Thomas Jones observed in a famous lecture, “the exiled natives (‘yr alltudion’ of Welsh folklore) never returned”.

Here the elements of alienation, culture shock and permanent displacement are overstated by Morgan, just as they were by many ‘Cymric-liberals’ at the time. He also overstated the importance of the transference policy in the migration to many English towns and cities, as we shall see in the second case study. In this, he is joined by several historians on the left, for whom it suits their purpose to treat ‘Transference’ and ‘Migration’ as synonymous.

(to be continued…)

Sources:

Please see the second part for a full list. Additionally,

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Posted January 22, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Agriculture, American History & Politics, anti-Communist, Austerity, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civilization, clannishness, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Communism, Compromise, Conservative Party, Coventry, democracy, Economics, Edward VIII, Egalitarianism, Ethnicity, Family, First World War, George V, Great War, History, Journalism, Labour Party, Leisure, liberalism, Linguistics, Methodism, Migration, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nonconformist Chapels, Paris, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Russia, Second World War, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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

Labour Arrives; Summer 1929:

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

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

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

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

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

Labour’s Conservatives & Radicals:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bleak Scenes, Hard Times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crisis of 1931 & The Cuts:

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

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

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

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

Divided Opinion & Reaction – Mutiny & Gold Standard:

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

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

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

The Times, 25 August 1931   

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

New Statesman, 29 August 1931    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MacDonald – Man, Motives & Myth:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dole, ‘Dope’ & The Means Test:

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

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

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

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

Socialism, Parties & Patriotism:

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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