1940s >> 1943 >> no-465-may-1943

Editorial: On Keeping Things Dark

Lowell, in his “Government of England” remarked that the right of M.P.s to probe into the doings of Cabinet Ministers and their departments has been valuable in helping to prevent the growth of that bureaucratic arrogance that he considered was unknown in this country though prevalent elsewhere.

If he had been writing in wartime he would not have been so sure, but he was at any rate correct in regarding arrogant bureaucracy as an evil, and it is a fact that the working-class movement has been aided by the extent to which information has been made available through Parliamentary questions and the publication of official reports on the evils of the capitalist system.

Marx was one who appreciated this, for he was much indebted to the courage and independence of men like Leonard Horner, inspector of factories in the middle of the 19th century, whose disclosures prevented factory owners from keeping the abominable working conditions from the public gaze.

Marx observed that Horner rendered invaluable service to the English working-class by carrying on a lifelong struggle not only against the factory owners but also against Ministers of State, to whom the number of votes of factory owners in the House of Commons was of more importance than the number of hours worked by factory hands.

The inherent love of darkness and secrecy of the bureaucratic mind was shown up recently by a statement in the House of Commons made by Richard Law, M.P., Parliamentary Under Secretary of the Foreign Office. He had been asked about the wretched conditions of political prisoners in North Africa and replied:—

  The government attached importance to the release of all political prisoners in North Africa, but we should ask ourselves whether we were likely to further the objects we had in view by lecturing the authorities in French North Africa in a lofty and perhaps high-handed manner. As for the suggestion that a party of members of Parliament should inspect the camps, he wondered whether we would welcome three or four French members of Parliament going round our prisons here.— (Manchester Guardian, March 25.)

The answer to Mr. Law is that any person who wants to make the world worth living in for everybody would not have any objection at all to opening up all the dark spots to inspection. The bureaucratic mind abhors the light of day as also do all those who have something to hide because it will not bear inspection.

By an odd coincidence the next column of the Guardian gave an illustration of this. Some years ago the punishment of “pack drill” was officially abolished in the army and in army detention barracks, yet several cases have just been brought to light showing that it is still sometimes imposed.

The working class have everything to gain by the abolition of secrecy.

Why should the workers, here or in any ether country, allow stupid national prejudice to stand in the way of exposure? It would do no harm—except to bureaucrats and others who have something to hide—and might do a considerable amount of good if M.P.s or anybody else, from France or from any other place, could have access to information now shrouded in secrecy.

Some enlightened Americans or Russians might have quite a lot to say about English prisons, English slums, English working-class housing conditions and English factories, etc.

Some visitors from countries where capital punishment has been abolished might have caustic remarks to make about hanging in English prisons and about the use of the Official Secrets Act to prevent Mrs. Van Der Elst from having access to prison medical reports.

If, as was alleged, “they are most ghastly reading” (Evening Standard report of her trial, March 26) why should Government officials and ministers alone be allowed to read them?

Some American visitors to Russia might do good work if allowed to tell us more about Russian concentration camps if we may judge by Quentin Reynolds’ statement in “Only the Stars are Neutral” (Cassell & Co., 1942, page 174). He relates that he and another American journalist when in Kuibyshef in 1941 “passed one of the big concentration camps reserved for political prisoners. Beyond that we saw a long line of them working on a new road. There were about 800 of them. They were swinging pickaxes and wielding shovels, and on their faces there was no sign of hope. A few soldiers with rifles guarded them carelessly, for there was no place for them to run. Steele and I looked at each other and winced. Of course it wasn’t as bad as the convict labour I’d seen in our own South, because these prisoners weren’t shackled and they didn’t wear stripes. We winced, I think, because these 800 prisoners were all women.”

Then some enlightened Russians might return the compliment by studying and reporting on the American chain-gangs that Reynolds refers to; and on the way the American Constitution is evaded to prevent many negroes from voting in elections. And what about some independent-minded foreign snoopers looking into the way natives are treated in South Africa and elsewhere in the British Empire?

The stock answer of the bureaucrat will doubtless be to point to Germany and say that there you have the blackest spot of all; but that is no good reason for turning a blind eye on the rest of the world.

The working class gain from free and open discussion. Censorship and secrecy are traditional weapons of the ruling class.