Labour’s Bad Memory

But this is terrible. They have elected a Labour government and the country will never stand for that. (Woman dining at Claridge’s, 26 July 1945.)

Thirty years ago—on October 5 1951 to be exact—the British people voted to set themselves free, to expunge austerity from their lives, to replace snoek and dried eggs with good red meat. At least that was what Tory politicians (like Churchill, Eden, Butler, Woolton—how evocative the very names are now) had told them would happen if they got rid of the Labour government.

The government—Labour’s first ever with its own majority—was elected, in the final stages of the 1939/45 war, on the promise to build a fair, abundant, secure Britain. What happened, between 1945 and 1951. to swing the voters the other way?

The Labour Party was all but wiped out by the 1929 crash and the MacDonald defection. When the war started in 1939 they were inching their way back to a position where they could challenge the Conservatives’ apparently eternal majority. There is little doubt that the war condensed and hastened the changes Labour need to carry that challenge to victory.

The popular mood in 1945 was very different from that after the First World War, when recovery meant getting back to the Good Old Days when the British monarchy, the Empire, the  pound sterling and the Royal Navy were to last for ever and ever amen. In 1945 the rampant desire was for progress; pre-war Britain was remembered as a place where incompetent and complacent politicians turned a blond eye to chronic unemployment and the rise of the European dictators, only worried that nothing should upset important events like Royal Ascot and the Eton and Harrow match at Lord’s.

The post-war urge for social change had, ironically, been stimulated by the official war propaganda, which was based on the theory that the workers would more readily sacrifice themselves in their masters’ interests if they could be persuaded that this would result in a better Britain than before the war. Churchill, in a speech to the boys at Harrow School (what more appropriate place?) declared:

    “When this war is won . . . it must be one of our aims to establish a state of society where the advantages and privileges which have hitherto been enjoyed only by the few shall be far more widely shared by the many . . .”

This type of assurance was given by the Beveridge Report, published in 1942, with its proposals for a comprehensive welfare state and which millions of workers were silly enough to believe was a plan for a society free from poverty.

That this restlessness benefited the Labour Party rather than the Conservatives was partly due to another profound working class misconception. The success of the Russian forces against the German invaders was regarded as evidence of the efficiency and desirability of a system of state control. As a result Labour, as the party of nationalisation, picked up a lot of votes. Tory candidate Aubrey Jones (later a minister) said that during his 1945 election campaign he was persistently told by people in his audiences: “Look what nationalisation has done for Russia, and how great and strong she has become.” There was also the idea—quickly dispersed by experience—that a Labour government would be able to deal more amicably with the Russians—”that left could talk to left.”

So the Labour Party could enter their election campaign in 1945 in rollicking style. “The Labour Party,” proclaimed their manifesto Let Us Face the Future “Is a Socialist Party and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain . . . ” They proposed to nationalise key industries and to set up the National Health Service. It was to be the dawn of a new era of equality and plenty: “Homes for the people must come before mansions, necessities for all before luxuries for the few” their programme said.

This heady stuff helped Labour to a crushing victory, laying low five Tory Cabinet ministers in the process. Clement Attlee, spurning a chauffeur driven limousine, climbed into the family Austin Ten for his wife to drive him to Buckingham Palace where the king, seemingly unafraid in the presence of so dangerous a revolutionary, asked him to form a government to keep capitalism running. Attlee went off to do as the king asked; seven ex-miners were in his first Cabinet but the king didn’t seem to mind. Excited Labour MPs sang the Red Flag in the House; at least it was probably the Red Flag but quite a few of them were such shakily recent converts that they knew neither the words nor the tune of the Socialist Commonwealth’s funereal anthem. There was excitement of a sort outside Parliament too; “Those who are well off are trembling with fear” confided Marie Belloc Lowndes to her diary.

Well of course they need not have worried. At the election, Attlee had made quite clear what he thought of all that nonsense about socialism: ” . . . it is time that the Labour Party ceased to mouth Marxist shibboleths about the proletariat having nothing to lose but their chains. It is just not true.” On this cue his government, ex-miners and all, quickly got down to an attack on the living standards of the working class. The country (by which they meant the British capitalist class) was in trouble; therefore everyone (by which they meant the British working class) must work harder and pull in their belts. Food rations were sometimes cut below those endured in wartime and some—for example bread and potatoes—were rationed for the first time. Up and down the country posters were slapped on hoardings bellowing “We’re Up Against It! We Work Or Want.” In February 1948 the government published a White Paper on Wages and Personal Incomes, which was the first of numerous post-war attempts at a wages “policy”, more accurately called wage restraint. The White Paper touched off a long war between the government and trade unions in which the government could claim some success; over the next 2½ years prices increased by 8 per cent while wages went up by only 5 per cent.

On the whole the unions were sympathetic to the government, which caused their frustrated members to stage “unofficial” strikes—strikes without union backing—in which they sometimes had to fight their union almost as hard as their employer. The “unofficial striker” became as black a folk devil as the “flying picket” was to Callaghan’s government in the seventies. The government reacted sharply, sending in servicemen to break strikes and in 1949 considering in Cabinet a plan to deport trade unionists who were organising strikes in the docks and in 1950 actually prosecuting some gas workers who went on strike outside the agreed procedure.

This attack on the working class was largely the work of Stafford Cripps, once a turbulent rebel who was expelled from the Labour Party but had become an austere devotee to the economic progress of the British capitalist class. Through a long painful illness Cripps stoically urged the working class, in the name of honour, duty and honesty, to work harder and longer for less. One of his notable methods of cutting wages was the massive devaluation of sterling in 1949 from an exchange rate of $4.03 to $2.80. Cripps did this after emphatically denying that he had any such intention, which did not seem to disturb his sense of honour or honesty.

A similar zeal was evident in the Attlee government’s participation in the military conflicts of world capitalism. One of its earliest decisions was to develop an independent British nuclear arsenal—an historic fact which has never lessened the fervour of those thousands of Labour supporters who have subsequently demonstrated against those weapons. When the Americans—calling themselves the United Nations—went to war against North Korea in 1950 the Labour government gave immediate and unqualified support. British workers were sent off to fight there—nearby 700 of them were killed—and the period of national service (Labour had already made history by keeping conscription going for the first time ever in “Peace”) was increased from 1½ to 2 years. They spent what were then record peacetime amounts on armaments; Gaitskell’s first proposals, when took over as Chancellor from Cripps, were for an annual expenditure on something he called “defence” of £1,500 million. At the same time he imposed charges for prescriptions, dental treatment and spectacles—a bitter blow for those who had struggled for so long to realise the article of faith of a “free” National Health Service.

Perhaps they were consoled by the fact that, apart from some last minute havering over steel, the Attlee government kept their pledge to nationalise basic industries. In the case of coal it was common for the oldest ex-miner in the district capable of tugging on a rope to be taken to the pithead to run up the National Coal Board flag and declare that the people had at last taken over the mines.

Well as we all know, people who are under emotional stress tend to overlook important but inconvenient facts. The truth was that nationalisation was very far from ownership by the people; why else did Tories like Churchill and Quintin Hogg (now Lord Hailsham) say that in most cases they had no objection to the state takeover? In his book The Road to 1945 Paul Addison says:

    “In each case the argument for state control was as much accepted by businessmen as by Labour politicians . . .”

When the Bank of England was nationalised there was not even an outward sign of change; the Governor, his Deputy and the Court were left in office, to carry on as before. Nobody suggested bringing some ancient retired clerk, grown dim-eyed from years of poring over ledgers, to raise the Red Flag over Threadneedle Street.

Many members of that government paid a high personal cost in their efforts to hold British capitalism together in crisis. Two of them—Cripps and Bevin—died. And when, thirty years ago, they lost the election, they were written down—inaccurately—as a party of rigid political theory, of experiment, the party which bungled its way into crises, shortages and finally into its own defeat.

They were a long time recovering. But among the Labour ranks as they went down that October day was one whose canny grasp of political reality looked forward to the day when the workers would be dissatisfied with the Tories too. Harold Wilson’s great contribution to the politics of capitalism was to win recognition for Labour as a “pragmatic” party. He practised deceit in a new dimension. Theory and experiment, a desire for a different social order however misinformed, were for those who watched white haired, wheezing ex-miners raise flags. Wilson might stand watching too but at the same time he knew that it was his role to bring the Labour Party to its destiny as the alternative administration for British capitalism.


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