Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
A New Americanism
Why a Nation Needs a National Story
IN the long run, as well as in the short, the prospects of the British Labor Party will be determined by the war. What has the effect of the war on the Party been, and what will its consequences be?
One can already see that this war's effect will be different from that of the last one, just as the rôle of the Party in this war is in some contrast to the part it played last time. The war of 1914-1918 made the political fortune of the Labor Party. In the "khaki" election of 1918, Labor scored more than a million votes -- to everybody's surprise and to the alarm of the older parties. Five years after the Armistice, with the election of 1923, it became the second largest party in the state, displaced the famous (and altogether abler) Liberal Party as the official opposition, and for the first time took office as a government.
Lloyd George in his "War Memoirs" makes the point that it would have been quite impossible to conduct the war against the will, and without the coöperation, of the labor movement; and indeed it was directly represented in his Coalition Government. All the same, the labor movement was never happy in its participation in government in the last war. It was very much a junior partner; its Ministers -- it had only a couple of them -- were on sufferance; and its leading political figures, MacDonald and Snowden, remained outside altogether and were partly opposed to the war.
What a contrast with the situation this time! The Churchill Government which was formed in 1940 -- right in the midst of the disasters brought upon the country by the inept conduct of British affairs since 1931 by the so-called National Government -- was based on the principle of equal participation in the Government between the Conservative and Labor Parties. And in the marvellous record of work and achievement to the credit of this Government -- which simply saved the country from the gravest danger that has threatened it in the whole of modern history -- the Labor Ministers have borne an equal share. There has been a rough, but very successful, division of work. On the whole, the conduct of the war and of foreign affairs has fallen to the Conservatives, above all to Churchill and Eden. The management of the home front and the organization of labor have fallen to the Labor Ministers, above all to Bevin and Morrison.
This part of the job has been one of the triumphs of this war, and again offers a great contrast with the events of the First World War. In the war of 1914-1918 there were a great many labor disputes, some dangerous strikes and much labor-time lost. In this one, the prodigious feat has been performed of mobilizing and conscripting not only the whole manpower of the country, but the great proportion of women too, directing them into the Armed Forces or into industry, and with the minimum of dislocation. There has been hardly anything important in the way of strikes or labor disputes throughout the whole war.
This achievement has been largely due to Bevin, the Transport Workers' leader, who became Minister of Labor in 1940. From the historical point of view, it is probably true to say that his contribution to the winning of the war has been second only to that of Churchill himself. He is much the biggest of the Labor leaders, a man of essentially constructive mind and with great administrative drive. In the inter-war years he built up the newest and most efficient of the trade unions, the Transport and General Workers' Union, and behind the scenes has been a dominating influence in the Labor Party. But he is not a politician as such; he is essentially a trade unionist and an organizer, with a very shrewd sense of what the working classes will and won't stand. Labor could have had no more benevolent dictator during the war -- and he has been a dictator.
The clue to Bevin's success has been that he has made every step in association with the trade unions. He has consulted them continuously and brought them in a responsible way into the work of government. He has used to the maximum their reserves of good will, common sense and experience. This was indispensable, for the conscription of labor has meant the temporary suspension of trade union conditions all round, particularly with regard to hours. On the other hand, where Bevin has been able to take advantage of wartime conditions to introduce unionism into a type of employment notoriously disorganized, haphazard and underpaid -- that of waiters and waitresses in the catering trades, for example -- he has done so. The organization of these workers is an admirable example of social progress achieved in the teeth of war.
A most significant instance of the way in which the trade unions have been brought responsibly into the work of government is the curious and striking position of Sir Walter Citrine, Secretary of the Trade Union Congress. His position might be described as an extra-constitutional one; there is no constitutional warrant for it, but it evidences the flexibility and adaptability of the English political system. The fact is that Citrine, although he is neither a member of Parliament nor of the Cabinet, has been used all through the war as an extra cabinet minister. Not only has he done a great deal of industrial negotiation, but he has performed an essentially political rôle on his various missions to the United States and Soviet Russia and on his mission to Athens in the middle of the Greek crisis.
As a result of the war the British working classes have made great social and economic advances, particularly in comparison with what has happened to the "better-off" classes. One explanation is to be found in the circumstances of the formation of the Churchill Government and the conditions laid down by the Labor Party to meet the gravity of the situation, namely that there must be a 100 percent excess profits tax and a staggering stepping-up of the level of income tax (up to 19s. 6d. in the pound in its highest ranges). The moneyed classes in the country have been very hard hit; the great proportion of well-to-do people have been living on capital for more than five years; the burden of death-duties has meant in many cases the quasi-extinction of large estates; many such people have sold their properties.
There has been a direct and marked increase in economic equality in the course of the war. But there is no less marked a trend toward increasing social equality: there has been a good deal of mixing up of social classes as the result of the evacuation of bombed towns and danger-areas. An enormous extension of educational opportunity is provided by Mr. Butler's new Educational Act, which Parliament has already passed; and the Government is pledged to a vast increase in social insurance à la Beveridge. One might use an overworked phrase to say that something like a "social revolution" is being worked out in Britain; but, in fact, it is only the speeded-up development of an old society that is yet capable of infinite flexibility and adaptation.
What is going to be the effect of all this on the Labor Party? It is bound to be something very important; and, as an historian, I think it may very well be transforming. The raison d'être of the Labor Party has largely changed. Thirty years ago it was the party of the dispossessed; the working classes were kept outside of political and economic power. That generated an immense drive for social and economic justice. The Party was a radical party, with an aggressive, aggrieved outlook, whose inner soul was in the keeping of the Independent Labor Party, with Keir Hardie as its saint and would-be martyr. Those were the idealist, propagandist days when
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven!
To have a grievance put you morally right with the universe.
Things have changed since those good (or, according to taste, bad) old days. The Party has lost much of its former crusading, propagandist fire. Some of the sillier of its old war-horses have not been able to acclimatize themselves to the change, and go on repeating from platforms the worn-out clichés that did so well with the galleries long ago. But these are dying out. A certain lunatic-fringe of pacifists and cranks, such as a party of the Left always attracts, remains; but Keir Hardie's I.L.P. has gone down the drain with Jimmy Maxton and the fatuous MacGovern. The fact is that nobody can pretend that the working class has not got substantial social justice in England today. And that means that the character of the Labor Party is changing: it must change or cease to serve any useful political function. It has ceased to be a party of radical social criticism; it has become more responsible, more governmental. There is a very considerable measure of agreement among all parties now, and what is more important, there is agreement between the civil service and public opinion in the country with regard to social services, social legislation, social progress. There is a very great deal of common ground, and what may still be in dispute certainly is not big enough for two parties to fight over. The new Education Act, for example, which is the creation of a Conservative Minister, offers as much educational progress as the country can profitably use.
In these circumstances, what becomes the function of the Labor Party? In the first place, it is its business to keep the Conservatives up to the mark in the matter of social progress. There is no doubt that if the Labor Party ceased to exist, the Conservatives would fall back, possibly into reaction. At any rate, the pressure of their more die-hard elements would become stronger, their influence greater, if Labor were not there. Possibly, indeed quite probably, they would capture the leadership of the Conservative Party. The progressive elements among the Conservatives in a sense depend for their influence on the fact that there is a Labor Party: the really intelligent ones, like the young men of the Tory Reform Group -- perhaps the most promising new feature in British party politics -- understand that quite well. If the Labor Party ceased to exist, or were seriously weakened, the Chamberlainite elements, the businessmen, would come out on top.
The Labor Party also has a wider function to perform -- to keep government up to the mark. Without an effective and powerful opposition, government itself, in a democratic political system, is apt to flag and become inefficient. One very important reason for the deplorable performance of the Baldwin and Chamberlain Governments during the inter-war periods was precisely that they had such large and safe majorities. This would indicate that the best rôle for the Labor Party in the future would be to become what the Liberal Party was in its heyday -- a progressive party, national in character (not merely working class) and comprehensive enough in its composition and appeal to form an alternative government. It cannot be said that the Labor Party has come anywhere near achieving that position yet; it cannot even be said with certainty that it is set on the course to achieve that position. Two considerations prevent it from developing into a national progressive party, the successor in our time of the once great Liberal Party: 1, the Party's domination by the trade unions; 2, its attachment to the doctrine of Socialism.
The truth is that the Labor Party is fundamentally, and by its very constitution and composition, the party of the trade unions. In fact, it is almost their possession: they provide the bulk of the membership and the money. Moreover, despite their slowness in the uptake and despite their insistence on earmarking most of the available Labor seats in Parliament for retired trade union hacks with no general education or outlook, the trade unions are still the most sensible and experienced elements in the Labor movement, if also the most deeply conservative ones. But what this means is that it is practically impossible for the Labor Party, as at present constituted, to become the sort of national progressive party, with a membership ranging from Whig aristocrats to radical working men, which the Liberals were earlier in the century. The Labor Party is, in fact, a one-class party, and it is the general drift of politics in our time for parties to become more closely limited by their class composition.
Then there is the issue of Socialism. The Labor Party declares itself to be a Socialist party. But what does this mean? And how much of it does the Party mean? In spite of all the confusion on this issue and the lack of clear-cut definition (what British party was ever any good at clear-cut definition anyway?), it is fairly clear what Labor people in general mean by Socialism. They mean a general view of the economic and industrial life of the country in terms of, and in the interest of, the community as a whole, instead of in the interest of particular sections of it, as is apt to be the case under uncontrolled private enterprise. They mean that there should be a large measure of control at the center; that those industries and activities which are by their scale and nature national in character -- for example, the coal industry, housing, transport, agriculture, insurance -- should be brought under some form of public control, creating a general framework leaving plenty of room for private enterprise where that is appropriate to the nature of the business. With regard to the nature of the controls and the character of the organization, their attitude is completely empirical; they favor models like the London Passenger Transport Board (constituted by a Labor Minister, Herbert Morrison) or like the B.B.C. In general, their conception is that of the public corporation put forward in the writings of Keynes and the Liberal Industrial Report. There are other aims and ideas implied in the conception of Socialism to which the Labor Party adheres: they may be summed up as that of progressive social legislation, with the extension of social services, looking toward an egalitarian community. But the main question at issue is that of the control of industry, of the country's economic life; and this ultimately involves the distribution of property and income, with deep consequent effects upon the structure of English society.
It may be said that there is already a large measure of control of industry in Britain, and that the question at issue is simply one of degree. True, the whole of British industry has come under government control in one form or another, direct or indirect, in the course of the war. But among employers this creates a great deal of restiveness, or rather a growing determination to be free from governmental control when the war is ended. And however much one may talk about the public corporation, there remains a dis tinction in kind between the London Passenger Transport Board and Imperial Chemicals, between the General Post Office and the British Broadcasting Company.
The Labor Party may always be presented with a big and significant issue here. If British politics, like the politics of so many other countries in the contemporary world, come to revolve around the struggle between the great monopolies -- the characteristic combines of economic power in modern society -- and the public interest, then that would be Labor's opportunity. Whether that happens depends rather on the Conservative Party. Will the Conservatives become again, as they were during the Baldwin-Chamberlain period, merely the political expression of these self-interested coagulations of economic power? During the war, these interests and the propertied classes have subordinated themselves and sacrificed themselves to a very remarkable degree for the sake of the country. It is only natural for them to expect some relaxation, some release, with the end of the war. But if the Conservative Party identifies itself purely with the private interests of business, which would be against the inclination of Mr. Churchill and the progressive Conservatives, then it would present Labor with a grand opportunity for becoming a national party.
Would Labor be capable of taking that opportunity? This depends on what we think of its form as a party, the capacity of its leaders and members, its confidence in itself and its support in the country.
Its chief asset will be half a dozen leaders who will have had a full experience of government in positions of great responsibility all through the war. That will be something new in the Labor movement, for one of its chief defects has always been the lack of leaders with any real experience of government. The key figures are Bevin, Morrison, Attlee, Alexander, Dalton, Cripps -- and something in that order. The actual leader of the party is Attlee, mainly for the reason that it has never been able to unite on either Bevin or Morrison, its two strongest and ablest men, who tend to cancel each other out. Attlee is a perfectly honest, straightforward and somewhat selfless man who is trusted by all sections of the movement; he is without much personality, but is intelligent and has good judgment. He is a man who is often underestimated; but he is a good parliamentarian, has an orderly mind and his contribution in Churchill's War Cabinet has by no means been a negligible one.
Bevin is altogether a more powerful figure, a masterful and dominating personality, a trade union "boss" rather than a politician, the most powerful personality in the Government after Churchill. Attlee appears before the public as more of a Socialist, and Bevin, like the genuine working man he is, is something of a Tory; but it is a mistake not to think that there is an idealist side to him, for he is a man of vision as well as a strong realist.
Morrison, who has had a very good administrative record in a difficult job at the Home Office, is the most significant personality in the Labor Party proper. He is not a trade unionist, and his relations with the trade unions are not good; he has come up entirely through the political side of the movement. He is a very able administrator, quick-witted and always learning. A man of courage and a strong personality, he would have made a brilliant organizer of the Party and would have made of it an efficient and aggressive political instrument. The trade unions kept him out. The hopes of the political side of the movement rest on him and on his one day becoming leader of the Party.
The fate and future of the Labor Party, so far as it depends on itself, rests with these three men, or essentially with Bevin and Morrison. Do they want power, as a separate and independent party, and in the near future? It seems clear that Morrison does. He is the man to whom the political side of the movement, all the constituency Labor Parties throughout the country, look for leadership. And he gives them leadership: he has the quality in him. No Labor leader has more the knack of inspiring younger men with confidence. It is the political side of the movement, moreover, that is forward-looking and aggressive; it wants political independence, a chance to fight the election on its own, untrammelled by association with either Conservatives or Liberals. It has been responsible for pushing the Labor Ministers, almost certainly against their will, into the demand for an election and the consequent, if temporary, break-up of the wartime coalition.
It is doubtful whether the trade unionists wanted this to happen; it is pretty certain that Bevin did not. His attitude all along has been that there is a job of work to be done. He mobilized all the manpower and womanhood of the country, he put them into the Armed Forces, and he wanted to be there to put them back to work again. Ten years older than Morrison, he is perhaps less interested in the future beyond that job of demobilization. There was matter for divergence in the attitude of the trade unions as a whole. Churchill's early statements on the election left the door open for those who wanted to stay by his side. Some of these men may have thought it their duty to stay and see the job through. But the memory of what happened to MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas after 1931 was vivid in everyone's mind, and when the moment of decision came the Labor Party and its leaders acted together and left the Government together.
What of the showing of the Party? What of its capacity for power? The divergence between the industrial and the political wings of the movement may reflect a certain divergence of view as to the ripeness of the Labor Party for independent power. It would seem that the political Labor Party has a greater confidence in itself than the trade unions have in it; that the latter are more content to go on performing their strictly trade union function within the framework of capitalist industry and working out a modus vivendi with capitalism. The Labor Party proper will not hear of that; to follow such a course would indeed be to abdicate politically. Hence, perhaps, the Party's attachment to Socialism. But what is curious is that it will probably carry the trade unions with it, though they have far more power. The explanation is probably that both are sections of the working class, and the more active and aggressive section is apt to carry the more passive and conservative along with it.
And yet, to justify its confidence in its capacity for independent power, the Labor Party ought to have made a far better showing in the two decades between the wars. We must in fairness allow that in the crisis of the war it has had a good record. But from the purely party point of view it had a lamentable record in the preceding ten years. It always took the wrong turning if ever it could, it always presented its worst face to the country, it had no imagination or sense of power, no sense of how to appeal to the country. It refused to make either one or the other of its two first-class men its accredited leader; and it refused to allow Morrison, its ablest organizer, to take the organization in hand and turn it into an efficient political instrument -- as he had done, with brilliant results, for the London Labor Party. The result is that of the small body of 160 Labor members in Parliament there are hardly any men of ability except those who were in the Government. An even worse consequence is that they are mostly elderly or old men; indeed, the average age of the Party that is supposed to stand for youth and a new social order is much higher than that of the Conservatives. The Labor people handed power to the Conservatives on a platter in the years before the war.
Does this give one much confidence that these people, who were so bad at conducting their own affairs before the war, would be better in conducting those of the country after the war? In fairness one must say that there have been some hopeful signs of late. For example, a considerable number of young men from the Forces have been adopted as candidates, and a new secretary to the Party has been appointed at Transport House, that dismal morgue of disappointed hopes. But the decade during which the Party did nothing for itself has left a grievous mark in the absence from its counsels of that generation now in young middle age. It is too late for them, and it is probably too late for the Labor Party. Everything now depends on what the young men are like and how many of them will get into Parliament. The fact remains that they will be too young (even if they get in) for the conduct of affairs in the immediate future.
Some people think that the men in the Forces are overwhelmingly radical and that Labor will soon sweep the country. It may be so. But -- at the coming election -- against the name of Churchill? I do not think so. It is desirable, and in the interest of the country, that Labor should increase its representation in Parliament, that there should be younger men and more of them than could get in as the result of Baldwin's fraudulent election in 1935, which returned the present House of Commons. It is not desirable that Labor should win an independent majority and form a party government of its own. It is neither strong enough nor able enough to impose its authority on the country; nor has it the prestige or the ability at its command to conduct the country's affairs abroad. What seems in the best interests of the country is that the Conservatives, with their greater experience and prestige in the outside world, should be returned in the majority, but that the election should be fought on sufficiently friendly terms of mutual forbearance to make possible the formation of another all-party government under Mr. Churchill. Only such a government, able to speak in the name of the whole country, can pull its full weight in the tremendous decisions which the Allied nations must make in bringing an ordered world out of chaos.