The Bevan Business
Mr. Bevan’s quarrel with Mr. Attlee in the House of Commons on 2 March, when he and some 60 other Labour M.P.s abstained from voting for an amendment that had been agreed beforehand at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, was serious because of the number who followed Mr. Bevan’s lead. The violence of the dispute certainly cannot be attributed to any wide gulf between the Bevan and Attlee standpoints on the H-bomb. Only a month earlier one of Mr. Bevan’s principal supporters, Mr. R. Crossman, M.P., had not only supported the Attlee line in favour of making the H-bomb but had declared that this, along with the Attlee attack on American policy, had “reasserted his command of Labour in Parliament” and was “nicely balanced for the purpose of achieving Socialist unity.” (Sunday Pictorial 6-2-55). Mr. Bevan’s revolt was as much a repudiation of Mr. Crossman as it was of Mr. Attlee. Mr. Bevan’s reason for his action was that Mr. Attlee would not give a satisfactory answer to a question about the precise circumstances in which the Hydrogen bomb should be used. Mr. Bevan’s question to Mr. Attlee was:—
“If the Russians invaded Europe with conventional weapons, would the Party officially support a government that counter-attacked with hydrogen bombs? ” (Daily Mail, 3/3/55.)
But it must not be thought from this that Mr. Bevan is a pacifist or that he refuses to support war. His quarrels with Mr. Attlee have not been in that field. A correspondent writing in the Manchester Guardian (8-3-55) recalls that during World War II., when Attlee was in the National Government under Churchill. Bevan did indeed campaign against the government but it was for the early opening of the second front.
He was in the 1945-1951 Labour Government that built the Atom Bomb and that imposed peacetime conscription, for the first time in a 100 years. He supported the Korean war and the re-armament drive. He was Minister of Labour in March 1951 when the Ministry published a booklet “Wage Incentive Schemes,” the Foreword of which urged the adoption of piece-work and other incentive schemes in order to reduce costs and increase output, the need for which “has become, even more urgent in face of the unavoidable diversion of a substantial portion of the labour force to the carrying out of the Government’s defence programme.”
He said himself in June, 1951, “He did not believe in having no armies . . . (Manchester Guardian, 18/6/51.) And in an article in the News Chronicle (9/3/55) he admitted that in view of his past record he had no logical case against the hydrogen bomb:—
“Those of us who concurred in the making of the atom bomb and tolerated the saturation bombing of the last war have no moral or logical case against the hydrogen bomb. All three are methods and weapons of imprecision, that is, it is known they will destroy the civilian population and all the civil installations of the enemy.”
What he asked therefore was that “we should pause before carrying the logic of our past behaviour to its furthermost extremities” (News Chronicle, 9/3/55). He wanted negotiations immediately with the Russians.
He also wanted, or so we may gather from his question to Mr. Attlee on 2 March, acceptance of the view that the hydrogen bomb will never be used by the British Government against an attack which itself does not include use of the hydrogen bomb.
As this is in effect an attempt to ensure that the next war will not be much more unpleasant than the last we are not grateful to Mr. Bevan and we don’t think that his plea that he is being “practical” has been made out.
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Top Level Talks
One of the issues on which the Government, the Opposition, and the Bevanites are in principle agreed though heatedly differing as to timing, is that of top-level talks between U.S.A., Russia and Britain, with the possible addition of China and France. They are all agreed that there should be such talks and that these should not be conducted by the professional diplomats, the Ambassadors, or even by Foreign Secretaries, but by heads of States, Eisenhower, Churchill and Bulganin. The idea behind the plan is that something for the good of humanity can be achieved at informal talks between heads of States that cannot be achieved at the United Nations, which was specially set up for “friendly talks,” and that cannot be achieved by diplomats taking their orders from heads of States. None of the leaders who favour top level talks have so far explained what is the supposed magic in them. And it isn’t as if they have not been tried before. A century and a half ago Czar Alexander had “top level” talks with Napoleon and with the heads of the Prussian and Austrian States, and cooked up the notorious Concert of Europe, through which the ruling class in the different countries hoped to stifle revolutionary movements. It set the pattern for all subsequent international gatherings in that the protestations of mutual love and harmony were only the cover for projected double-crossing by the top-level participants. Do top-level talks stop war? In this generation we have had the example of the top-level talks between Chamberlain and Hider at Munich which were the prelude to the 1939 war.
And the Press in mid-March was convulsed by the disclosure of what went on at some other top-level talks, those at Yalta in 1945. At those talks the three great Powers (except when two of them met to double-cross the absent one) were concerned in disposing of the world in much the same way as the Concert of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon and with as little foresight, wisdom and humanity. The Daily Mail’s comment is typical of many in the British Press:—
“What we have read of the American version of the Yalta Conference leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. But why there should be any shock or astonishment at the disclosures of President Roosevelt’s attitude we do not know. It is not news that he tried to ‘gang up’ with Stalin against Churchill . . . His naive belief that Stalin was a democratic idealist and Churchill a ‘wicked imperialist’ helped to bedevil the post-war world. We should have been safer today, and Communism less of a menace, but for that” (Daily Mail, 18/3/55.)
The attitude of Attlee, and even more that of Bevan, to the present proposal is particularly illogical. Their professed belief is that if Churchill meets the other two face to face the war threat may be dispersed, and that this is impossible or, at least much more difficult if they don’t meet face to face. Do Attlee and Bevan believe that Churchill’s charm may smooth away the friction between the Russian and American ruling groups and that Churchill, Eisenhower and Bulganin have qualities of wisdom denied to their deputies? If so this admiration for the three leaders has been conspicuously absent from Attlee’s and Bevan’s speeches and writings. From these we had gathered that the continuance of Churchill as Prime Minister is a menace to the well-being of the population.
The belief in the likely fruitfulness of top-level talks plainly rests not on a substantial basis of logic or on happy results of past experience, but on the despairing feeling that we must clutch at this straw because there is no other hope left for humanity.
Bevan not a Socialist
Debating whether Bevan will succeed in winning over majority support in the Labour Party, the Daily Mail (16/3/55) concedes to him that he is “ a dynamic figure, a powerful speaker, and the exponent of the pure doctrine of Socialism.” The last claim is nonsense and we suspect that the Daily Mail leader writer knows it as well as we do. Mr. Bevan’s alleged Socialism did not deter him, any more than it deterred the rest of the Labour leaders, from running British capitalism for six years after the war, with all that entailed from the use of troops in strikes to the preservation intact of the capitalist social structure. Only the muddle-headed think that the change over of certain industries from private to state capitalism has something to do with Socialism or affects in any way the structure or stability of capitalism or the wealth of the capitalist class. The Manchester Guardian (17/3/55) is nearer the mark is its assessment when it says that the attraction of the Bevanite movement
“lies in its beautiful sentimental vagueness. The Communist, the pacifist, the believer in the innate virtue of the Soviet State, the hater of American ’capitalism,’ the general ‘do-gooder,’ all see something of themselves reflected in the glowing rhetoric of Mr. Bevan. Yet, as Mr. Attlee has pointed out, Mr. Bevan himself does not differ doctrinally from the official policy he condemns. But he appears to differ and that is enough.”
He may be, as is claimed, a great orator in the Churchill class but if so it may still be true of him as he said of Churchill
“The mediocrity of his thinking is concealed by the majesty of his language.” (Daily Herald, 3/3/55.)