Greasy Pole: Labour wins in 1945
It was the war what done it
In late September 1938 Neville Chamberlain came back from visiting Hitler in Munich and waved a piece of paper which, he assured us, showed that he had cleverly arranged for peace in our time. A year later we found it was in fact war in our time, with serious questions about the Chamberlain government – about its complacency, ineptitude and collusion with Nazi Germany.
It was quickly apparent that there was to be no repeat of official propaganda to justify the war, by the crude “Your Country Needs You” style so typical of 1914/18. More suitable to the times, there had to be a campaign which implicitly accepted criticism of the past while relying on publicity about the horrors of Nazi Germany and of the occupied countries to persuade the British people that their first priority should be the war effort. Out of all the fear and loss and grief of war there would be a happier world, with human welfare as its dominant motivation.
The day after France had surrendered to Germany the Director General of the Ministry of Information set up a debate on “whether opportunity should be taken of an all-party government to make some promise as to social reforms after the war”. A month or so later Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, who looked and spoke like everyone’s version of a typical Tory, wrote to another Cabinet Minister about a meeting with trade union leader Ernie Bevin which had discussed:
“the contrast between the readiness of the Nation, and
particularly of the Treasury, to spend £9 million a day in war
to protect a certain way of life and the unwillingness of the
administrative authorities in peace to put up, shall we say,
£10 million to assist in the reconditioning of Durham unless
they could see the project earning a reasonable percentage+”
The official propaganda strategy was to urge the working class to endure the miseries of war in the confident expectation that their reward would come with victory. In March 1943 Churchill broadcast the message, beginning by encouraging his listeners “to concentrate even more zealously upon the war effort” while assuring them that his government were “strong partisans of compulsory national insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave” – the kind of scheme designed by Beveridge, which was attracting popular support. There would, he said, be no unemployment after victory because the state would work with private industry to “enable the Government to exercise a balancing influence upon development which can be turned on or off as circumstances require+There is a broadening field for State ownership and enterprise, especially in relation to monopolies of all kinds”.
Under the kind of benevolent stewardship Churchill was hinting at there would be expansion in education, housing and the health services. This kind of prospectus, false though it was, was highly appealing to the people whose opinions were reported by the Home Intelligence Unit of the Ministry of Information: “Three years ago, the term social security was almost unknown to the public as a whole. It now appears to be generally accepted as an urgent post-war need. It is commonly defined as ‘a decent minimum standard of living for all’”.
So with the end of the war, as Germany and much of the rest of Europe lay in ruins, as the full effects of the atomic bombing of the Japanese cities was being assessed, it was time for what was hoped would be a new beginning. The Conservatives were widely blamed for the cynical mess of the hapless years between one world war and another. The wartime experience of the state taking direct control of so many aspects of society encouraged the idea that this should be extended into key industries like the coal mines, the railways and the health service. In other words, the Labour Party’s big day had arrived.
If there was one lesson I had absorbed during the war, as I grew into my teens, it was that society must look to a political solution for its problems. Taking everything into account, the Labour Party seemed to me to be worth supporting, and anyway the Tory candidate in my constituency was everything I reviled. He was one of the MPs who had supported the Nazis, attending one of their big rallies and proudly shaking Hitler by the hand. An hereditary baronet, he oozed money along with his ineptitude and his ignorance of the lives of the people whose vote he assumed he could harvest by simply informing them that he supported Churchill for Prime Minister. I threw myself into working for the Labour candidate, who was in much better intellectual shape and was a dynamic campaigner. Excitedly, I stuffed envelopes and canvassed relentlessly, although I was once put out of my stride when a woman at her front door responded to my Labour Party rant by asking “ What about Ramsay MacDonald, then?” I am still embarrassed to remember that I had never even heard of the man, although learning about him did nothing to lessen my devotion to Labour; MacDonald was, I argued, all in the past, we are a new party now and we will rebuild Britain as it should be. When the results were declared in July 1945 I was able to swallow my rage and disappointment at that Tory being elected again because we had a Labour government, the first one with a working majority, so now there could be no obstacles – and no excuses either.
Some of the new Labour MPs were surprised to find themselves in the Commons. As a symptom of their emotional fragility they outraged tradition by singing The Red Flag in the Chamber. Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton thought it was as if they were “walking with destiny” – except that the destiny which soon became obvious to the most star-struck MP was very different from all those exciting promises. British capitalism had emerged from the war in a severely damaged condition, having lost some two thirds of its export trade, with a consequent imbalance in its trade with America. The ambition – indeed, the priority – of the Labour government was to return British capitalism to its old pre-eminent position.
An important part of this was to intensify working class exploitation. A White Paper published in January 1947 laid it down that “What is necessary is increased production per annum. In attaining this everyone has a part to play”. Of course the government did not really mean “everyone” – the people who had to increase their production were those whose livelihood depended on working for wages. In other words, the working class had to postpone any idea about a better, more secure life and accept what was effectively a reduction in their living standards by working harder for less. “We Work Or We Want” was how the government campaign put it, in posters and press adverts all over the country. view image ->
The Labour government quickly made it clear that they would have no truck with any nonsense about socialism (or rather what they called socialism) or workers’ control; they would run this segment of capitalism as it had to be run – in the interests of the owning, ruling class. They resolutely opposed any efforts by workers to improve, or even defend, their conditions; on two occasions when dockers came out on strike they took emergency powers to order soldiers in to run the docks. They began the programme to make an atomic bomb and then a hydrogen bomb, at a cost of ú100 million, without any proper discussion in Cabinet. They sent British troops to fight a colonial war in Malaysia and they joined America in the Korean war. To do this they increased the period of service under military conscription (which they had introduced, for the first time in peacetime, in March 1946) from 18 months to two years, while all those members of the government who had been conscientious objectors in the First World War kept their silence. At home, they abandoned the allegedly sacred alleged principle of the National Health Service by introducing charges for prescriptions (although this was not implemented until 1962, under a Tory government) and then for spectacles and dentures. The list of broken promises and abandoned principles grew longer almost by the day.
Nationally there was a lot of dismay and resentment among Labour Party members at the massive betrayal of their dream of a more equal, more caring society which they had worked so hard for. For example a motion at their 1946 Conference complained about the “apparent continuance of a traditionally Conservative Party policy of power politics abroad”. But such doubts had absolutely no effect on the government.
By 1947 it was clear to me that I was wasting my time in the Labour Party. The war had politicised me, as it had so many other people (although too many of them used it for different ends, staying with Labour Party through thick and thin) and I wanted a classless society based on human interests and not on production for profit or on discredited notions about patriotism and international power and influence. That left the question of what I should do. For a while I swirled around on the political surface, bobbing up against one party after another but never feeling good about any of them. Until one Saturday evening in summer when on our local green, a kind of mini Speakers’ Corner, I heard this man speaking from an unfamiliar platform, putting an unfamiliar case about a moneyless world without leaders, with free access to wealth.