Archive for the ‘Brick Lane’ Tag

The Recovery of the Labour Party & the Left in Britain, 1934-39: Fighting the Right & the Growth of a United Front.   1 comment

The Long & Winding Road to Recovery:

Following the November 1935 General Election, and Attlee’s subsequent election as leader, the Labour Party was firmly back onto the road to recovery. The components of that recovery were many and varied, but they could be summarised as including the following ten ‘key points’:

  • acceptance of the changing nature, or ‘re-making’ of the working classes, from those based on the older extractive and manufacturing industries to those in the newer, lighter engineering industries, including large numbers of women workers;

  • acceptance of the need to put the ‘National Interest’ ahead of sectional ones, whilst still seeking to develop primary policies to benefit the poorer sections of society, especially the unemployed;

  • giving priority to the needs of the working classes for local and national representation rather than promoting revolutionary activism among them;

  • ending narrow sectarianism and developing a willingness to develop socialist ideas in practice, and across a broad front, and in alliance with other groups, rather than on the basis of exclusive ideological principles;

  • developing co-operative and collective means of organising production, distribution and trade by building coalitions of social and economic organisations, including Co-operative Societies;

  • promoting social justice and equity as long-term aims as well as guiding principles for policy-making;

  • upholding the rights of all to the rights of freedom of association and expression, particularly in their participation in trade unions and organisations;

  • upholding the values of the British people, including ‘patriotism’ and the continuing importance of ensuring ‘thrift’ in programmes of public expenditure by ensuring long-term ‘planning’ of essential public services.

  • upholding the institutions of British Democracy, including its constitutional monarchy and the sovereignty of its people through Parliament, based on universal and equal representation.

  • advancing the cause of ‘municipal socialism’ through the development of local parties committed to encouraging a sense of civic pride and the establishment of social services, especially in health, maternity and education, accessible to all.   

These points are not listed in any order of priority but reflect recurring themes in contemporary sources, rather than the current concerns of sectional and sectarian protagonists within the Labour Party. Clearly, however, there are echoes and resonances which affect our interpretations of past principles and priorities. Of course, these interpretations themselves are not necessarily new, as the Thirties were set in mythology before they even ended. Then, in my lifetime, against the background of economic decline under the final Wilson administration in 1977, John Stevenson and Chris Cook published their ground-breaking book, The Slump – society and politics during the depression, which began the process of de-mythologising the period by attempting to separate the myths, potent as they still were in popular consciousness, from the historical realities.

Certainly, the politics of the immediate post-war era were fought on the record of the National Government in the pre-war years.  As late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with the election slogan, ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of the way in which the emotive image of the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché. The popular view of the 1930s as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war; a view which became sharpened against the background of full employment in the 1950s and 1960s.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when that era had clearly come to an end, the ghosts of the thirties stalked political platforms and the media as a symbol of economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent.

Contrasting Images of the Thirties:

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Now we have passed the point of ‘No Return to the Thirties’ and the memories of the decade are no longer first-hand fears, perhaps this process will soon be brought to its conclusion and we will no longer be stuck with the powerful and all-pervasive images of ‘the wasted years’ and the ‘low dishonest decade’, even if the Thirties will be forever associated with mass unemployment, hunger marches, appeasement and the rise of Fascism at home and on the continent. A concentration on unemployment and social distress does not represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. It would, of course, be fatuous to suggest that the Thirties were not for many thousands of people a time of great hardship and personal suffering. At the time, there was a thirst for information on which policy to ameliorate, if not cure this malaise could be based, especially in the Labour Party. However, it took the Party two years until the end of 1937 to set up a ‘Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas’, to produce its report and to agree on a course of action at a special conference in December 1937. This is somewhat surprising, considering that the National Government itself had, in the face of already overwhelming political pressure, passed the Special Areas Act in 1934 to take some measures in four distressed regions to help the long-term unemployed. Commissioners had been appointed and departments created, though Whitehall in-fighting and economic orthodoxy hampered their work.

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But alongside the images of the unemployed must be placed those of another Britain, of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living. Some sectors of the economy grew rapidly, particularly car manufacture, electrical engineering, the paper and publishing industries, and rayon production, all industries heavily concentrated in the Midlands. The output of the UK car industry increased from seventy-one thousand vehicles in 1923 to over 390,000 by 1937, by which time Britain was second only to the USA in the export of motor vehicles. The share of the ‘new industries’ in total industrial output rose from seven per cent in 1924 to twenty-one per cent by 1935. As a consequence of these ‘new industries’, the living standards of people who remained in employment actually improved by about sixteen per cent between the wars. Although the new industries were not sufficiently large to reverse the overall trend of economic decline, they were important in minimising the effect of the Depression for the employed, especially through the migration of workers from the older industries to the new. The economic recovery after 1934 which raised the country out of the trough of unemployment and hunger was limited and precarious. As 1936 progressed, it was recognised that, in part, the recovery depended on a rearmament programme which might ultimately involve Britain in another World War.

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As can be seen from the maps above, giving an Index of Relative Unemployment, South Wales was hit harder than any other region by unemployment and poverty. Average unemployment there was thirty-one per cent, compared with twenty per cent in Scotland and twelve per cent in England. Within Wales, there were also huge local variations in levels of unemployment, from eighty-two per cent in Taff Wells, seventy-two in Pontycymmer and sixty-six per cent in Merthyr and Abertillery down to those in the coastal towns and areas below the regional average, if not the national one. By the 1930s, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire had the highest proportion of people on poor relief in the UK, apart from Durham. To combat poverty, the National government had passed the Special Areas (Development) Act in 1934 and followed it with the Special Areas Reconstruction (Agreement) Act in 1936, which provided financial incentives to industry to move to the four distressed areas of the UK. Most of Glamorgan and west Monmouthshire became one of the ‘Special Areas’. The other areas were Glasgow-Linlithgow-Kilmarnock, South Shields-Hartlepool, and Workington. A few new industries were established in each of the areas, but the effects were inadequate.

South Wales –  A Region in Need of a Plan:

In South Wales, the social effect of high levels of poverty was devastating. With poverty came malnutrition and disease. The incidence of rickets and scarlet fever soared, and the death rate from tuberculosis was 130 per cent above the average for the UK. Local shops and services became unviable. Chapels found their congregations dwindling as large numbers of people found themselves having to leave their country, moving to the ‘new industries’ of the southeast and Midlands of England.  Some of the migration continued to be ‘planned’ by the Ministry of Labour, which sponsored the transfer of workers. Between 1921 and 1940, over 440,000 left Wales permanently, eighty-five per cent of them from Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. They either left with the majority under their own steam, or on the Ministry’s schemes, but by the late thirties, it was estimated that as many as one in ten of those officially transferred had taken themselves back to their valleys. Therefore, those experiencing some form of migration from Wales in the interwar years may well have been closer to half a million.

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In July 1934, Professor Marquand of Cardiff University published an article in The Times arguing for state stimulation of investment by means of a Trust for new industries. But he also admitted that it was unlikely that any government whether socialist or capitalist could do little more than tilt the balance very slightly in favour of regions like South Wales. It was therefore important that the transference policy should be stepped up as the revival of industry in England proceeded. This provoked an angry reaction from y Blaid Genedlaethol Cymru (‘The Welsh Nationalist Party’), the only party wholly opposed to transference at this time, although it advocated resettlement of ‘Welsh’ and ‘half-Welsh’ industrial workers in rural or ‘de-industrialised’ Wales, while the pre-1921 ‘English’ immigrants to the Coalfield could be returned to their counties of origin. The Party accused Marquand of looking longingly towards state aid and admitting that it would never be forthcoming and then hoping that England’s recovery would be sufficient to enable the flower of Welsh manhood to be dumped there. But these were voices heard only as crying in the wilderness of the ‘Celtic fringe’, as Wyndham Portal’s 1934 Report showed that the government continued to advocate transference on the largest possible scale. 

The Portal Report and the continuing emphasis placed on transference by the Government’s ‘Special Areas’ machinery, to the deliberate exclusion of any policy designed to attract new industries did, however, meet with a growing tide of protest and disgruntlement at a local and regional level within Wales. The Nationalist arguments that the ‘best elements’ in Welsh society were being ‘shipped off’, that migration was having an anglicising effect greater than that of the BBC and that the National Government was only concerned to ensure that there there was ‘no trouble’ in Wales, began to have a broader appeal among ‘establishment’ liberals and church leaders alike. They began to accept that transference and migration did not discriminate between the ‘alien accretions’ and ‘the old Welsh stock’, between the citizens of Welsh-speaking Rhymney and those of anglicised Abertillery. The statistical evidence bears this out, as the number of those identifying as Welsh-speakers declined from 155,000 in 1921 to just sixty thousand by 1939. These views were strengthened by the resolve with which the new Commissioner for the Special Areas, P. M. Stewart, set about his task in the New Year of 1935. In his first report, Stewart offered a stern rebuff to the growing tide of national feeling in Wales by suggesting that:

… love of home, pride of nationality and local associations, however desirable in themselves, furnish no adequate justification for leading a maimed life.

In the New Year of 1936, the Government’s policy again came under fire, from a more local perspective, when the Report of the Royal Commission on Merthyr Tydfil was published. The Commission’s recommendations were severely criticised in the increasingly influential journal Planning, as providing nothing that would help solve the bankrupt County Borough’s problems. The author of the review saw two alternative solutions. Either the borough should be subjected to a wholesale ‘evacuation’ or there should be a planned reduction in population and equipment with the bringing in of new industries in order to provide decent opportunities for those that remained. Neither was being pursued with any vigour by the Government, but there was one course of action for which no case could be made. That was:

… the course of raising huge sums of money, locally and nationally, in order to keep Merthyr on the dole … It is this last course which the Government has so far chosen to pursue.

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In May, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. Most of the prominent figures in the Social Service movement in South Wales attended the Conference, including Church leaders and MPs. The young Labour MP for Ebbw Vale (a family scene from where is pictured above), Aneurin Bevan called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacent attitude of the establishment Liberals who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

… if the problem was still viewed as complacently as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken  as there was neconomic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

This was the clearest statement to come from the Labour Left to date, but it was quickly countered by members of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite at the Conference, who suggested that the valleys of East Monmouthshire had no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had not been absorbed into local life … However, the majority view of the conference appears to have been that what had been taking place was ‘expatriation’ rather than ‘repatriation’. Later that summer, the Secretary of the SWMCSS, Elfan Rees developed this theme at another conference in Llandrindod Wells, that of the Welsh School of Social Service, taking issue with the recent comments made by Professor Marquand in his recent short book, South Wales Needs a Plan, that a population largely composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants (had) no very deep roots in the soil … a people without roots may be as ready to move away as rapidly as it moved in. Countering this, Rees argued that:

It is not only the young, it is not only the best, it is also the Welsh who are going … if transference was repatriation it might be a different story – but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going … the unwillingness to remain idle at home … are the qualities that mark our indigenous population. … if this process of… despoilation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they haven’t the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.

This division among the left-liberals advocates of ‘Planning’ and the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite helps to explain what Bevan referred to as the ‘complacency’ of ‘The Welsh Nation’ over the policy of transference during the previous eight years. The liberal establishment in the Social Service movement had hoped that it would remove, as they saw it, the ‘alien’ activists typified by A J Cook and others in the Miners’ Federation who had robbed them of the loyalty of the Welsh people. By 1936, they were clearly embarrassed by their newly-formed impression of a large number of people of Welsh origin who were leaving the valleys. Rees and others tended to exaggerate this process (the 1951 Census shows that the proportion of Welsh-speakers remained similar to that of 1931), it is clear that the growing awareness of the indiscriminate nature of migration led them to abandon complicity and complacency in the transference scheme in favour of a more patriotic opposition to it. Marquand himself was critical of this hypocritical and manipulative élite and the nationalist passions of persons who hold safe jobs themselves. The response which his overtly political South Wales Needs a Plan received in official circles and the prominence given to it in the ‘responsible’ press was seen by contemporaries as a measure of the extent of the shift which had taken place in national opinion. The journal Planning commented that, had the book been published three years earlier, it would have stood no chance of being taken seriously, and wryly suggested that Marquand was…

… still young enough to have the satisfaction of knowing that if the ideas he put forward were to go on making headway at their present rate, he would live to see most of them forced upon a reluctant Whitehall and Downing Street by pressure of public opinion.

However, the Commissioner, Malcolm Stewart responded by allocating funds to the National Industrial Development Council of South Wales and Monmouthshire for a ‘Second Industrial Survey’ to be made with Marquand as editor. His team of investigators worked rapidly, publishing the report in three volumes in 1937. As there was little prospect of the revival of the staple industries, the Report suggested that the only alternative to continued mass emigration lay in the diversification of the region’s economy by the introduction of new industries, supported by state action. The establishment of trading estates, like the one already projected for Treforest, near Pontypridd, was seen as a means of ensuring the success of these industries. Thus, by the outbreak of war, the economy of the region was slowly being transformed, a process which was aided by rearmament. However, this grudging shift in Government policy did not take place until the end of a decade of mass unemployment and migration. Neither was the Labour Party very far ahead of the government in producing its policies. Its own Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas, appointed in November 1936 under the direction of Hugh Dalton, was not published until May 1937. Despite the fact that the Commission received evidence from a large number of local parties, Labour groups, women’s sections and trade union branches, the report on South Wales amounted to little more than a précis of Marquand’s survey in the form of a thirty-page pamphlet, the cover page of which is pictured below.

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The Report echoed the ‘sentiments’ of nationalists and ‘Cymric’ liberals in its statements that ‘the strength of the Welsh communities were being sapped’ and that ‘youngsters’ were ‘being torn away from parental care’. But the overall importance of the slim document lay in its drawing together of the current ‘middle opinion’ thinking and the vogue for ‘planning’ into a coherent set of policies for South Wales as a region. It criticised the work of the Special Areas Reconstruction Association (SARA), established in June 1936, over its bureaucratic and onerous financial provisions. Despite the government’s shift in policy, 1937 was the peak year for the Transference Scheme. Welsh nationalists continued to conduct a forceful campaign, often confronting Welsh-speaking juvenile employment officers whom they accused of being ‘determined to force people out of Wales’ and of adopting ‘a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of transference’. But by the end of 1937, the new public consensus had finally succeeded in supplanting transference as the main official response to the problem of mass unemployment in the Special Areas. However, this did not mean an immediate end to the continued exodus of older workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom in the Midland factories was swallowing up more and more labour.

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Above: Pages from the Labour Party’s Report on South Wales, using Marquand’s surveys. 

The Revolutionary Left & The Radical Right:

The interwar years are frequently regarded as radical ones in political terms, characterised by popular and revolutionary left-wing support for the Labour Party, the growth of the Communist Party, and hunger marches organised and led by the Communists’ organisation for the unemployed, the NUWM. Perhaps it was the genuine fear of the street violence and disorderly protests over the means test which encouraged the vast majority of the electorate to continue to vote Conservative in national elections, most notably in November 1935. In 1935, the Communists remained a small party with about seven thousand members, but each member was, according to Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (in ‘The Long Weekend’, 1940), an extremely active centre of agitation and … adept at giving a Marxist turn to every discussable topic. The Daily Worker had doubled its size and greatly increased its circulation. In addition, between 1935 and 1937 nearly a million copies of the Communists’ pamphlets and leaflets were sold. Graves and Hodge summed up the commitment required to be a Communist:

To belong to the party meant devoting one’s time and money so whole-heartedly to the cause and having one’s political and social history so carefully investigated that very few sympathisers with the Communist position either desired to join the ‘corps d’élite’ of the party or would have been accepted had they offered.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 and was at once acknowledged as a show-down between the Left and the Right in Europe. The passionate cry from Madrid in response to the fascist revolt, it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees reverberated throughout the Labour left. While Bevin, Citrine and Dalton won the TUC in September 1936 for the Eden-Baldwin policy of non-intervention, informal discussions were being held by Cripps, Pollitt and William Mellors on the possibility of united action in support of the Spanish Republic. Earlier that summer Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski and John Strachey had launched the spectacularly successful ‘Left Book Club’, preparing the ground for a ‘Popular Front’ spanning the ‘Labour Left’ and the Communists, the latter by then having abandoned their bitterly sectarian ‘Class Against Class’ policy.

A volunteer ‘International Brigade’ arrived quite early in the conflict, including 2,762 British volunteers, 543 of whom died in Spain. Most of the British popular press was on the whole for the Republicans, but for the Conservative newspapers, they were always the ‘Reds’ or ‘the Communists’. To many people of René Cutforth’s generation, the war remained the most significant and deeply felt experience of their lives, little remembered, or read about, by today’s ‘soft’ Communists on the ‘hard Left’ of the Labour Party. Cutforth’s observation was particularly true of the mostly middle-class associates of the Thirties’ intellectuals, many of whom, like George Orwell, went to fight for the Republicans.  In Britain, communication across the class divide was almost impossible, but in Spain, some were able to achieve this. It was quite easy to dodge the non-interventionist authorities as the arrangements were mostly controlled through the CPGB, and once the volunteer presented himself at the recruiting office, he could be on his way into battle within a few hours. But, as Cutforth commented:

… the feelings which drove the Spaniards to massacre each other in droves turned out to have little or no bearing on those which had inspired the idealism of the British Left, most of which was derived from the protestant Christian conscience. … That the public school ethics of fair play and esprit de corps had played a large part in the formation of the minds which launched the Thirties movement is obvious from their works, and the British Labour movement always owed more to Methodism than to Marx.

This conscience-pricking idealism was utterly alien to the Spaniards fighting their private war. … their motives were personal, local, regional and sectarian. Communists had no hesitation in shooting Anarchists to gain control of a local situation. …

The foreign comrades were slow to realise that … the Asturias and Catalonia were not divisions like English counties, but furiously jealous little nations. … hundreds of thousands died by execution on both sides. … This … applied even to men obstensibly on the same side – ‘Trotskyite traitor’ was a common verdict. It was the sight and sound of these daily mass-executions which revolted the civilised Western participants. Was this the Revolution they had willed? Was there any real connection between this vindictive bloody mess and the social justice to which they were committed? 

But most of the British soldiers of the International Brigade were not socialist or communist intellectuals, but autodidactic workers, many of them unemployed miners from South Wales, some of whom I had the privilege of walking alongside in protest against the returning mass unemployment of the early eighties. Their convictions had been built in over generations of deprivation and years of survival underground had made them tough and fearless. Added to this, long-term unemployment had prepared them for the necessary privations of war, even if they were too young to have fought in the trenches like their fathers. To demonstrate their non-sectarian commitment to the cause, one of the two British contingents was named after the mild-mannered former soldier, Major Attlee. When most of the volunteers returned home in the spring of 1937, as the Germans and Italians moved in to support Franco’s side, they and the British Left, in general, redoubled their efforts to rally support for the Republicans in raising funds and producing propaganda. The survivors had had a short, but tough war. Twenty per cent of the entire British force were wounded, and more than three-quarters of the survivors had been wounded. By the time they disembarked from the ferry, the Civil War was already beginning to look like the ‘dress rehearsal’ for something much worse in the Great Confrontation between Good and Evil.

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While the International Brigade volunteers had been on the front line against fascism, Spain had already become the catalyst that brought a greater degree of united action within the organised labour movement in Britain, than any other political issue of the Thirties. As Michael Foot later reflected:

Spain cut the knot of emotional and intellectual contradictions in which the left had been entangled ever since Hitler came to power. Suddenly the claims of international law, class solidarity and the desire to win the Soviet Union as an ally fitted into the same strategy.

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Above: Oswald Mosley. leader of the British Union of Fascists, with his ‘blackshirts’.

It was not just the growth in extremism on the Left which alarmed many, but the emergence of radical right-wing groups during the second half of the 1930s. These consisted largely of disaffected Conservatives who demanded a renewed emphasis on imperial unity and tariffs to protect British industry, while at the same time rejecting parliamentary democracy. The financial crisis of 1931 was seen as proof of the failings of the policies of the established political parties. The most notorious of the right-wing groups was the British Union of Fascists established by Oswald Mosley on 1 October 1932. Mosley had been a junior member of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929-31 Labour Government, rising to the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, one of the four ministers charged with solving the problem of unemployment. His colleagues were J H Thomas, Minister for Employment, who had the primary responsibility, George Lansbury and Tom Johnston. Mosley had a clear and practical policy but was totally frustrated by Thomas who had little grasp of the intricacies of economics. Mosley thought him ‘a drunken clown’ and treated him with aristocratic contempt, but he had been unable to convince MacDonald to sack the incompetent minister because, as the former national officer of the NUR, he had strong trade union support and influence within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Sir Oswald Mosley, baronet, had arrived in the Party via Winchester, Sandhurst, the Harrow Conservative Association and Cliveden so that his rapid rise in the MacDonald hierarchy after 1924 was regarded with suspicion and resented by many of his colleagues. Mosley resigned from the Labour Government in May 1931 when his radical solution to the unemployment problem was rejected by both the Cabinet and the House of Commons. At that stage, both he and John Strachey were both seen as being on the radical left of the Labour Party. Mosley left it to publish his proposals as The Mosley Manifesto, signed by seventeen supporters including Aneurin Bevan and A. J. Cook, the Miners’ leader, along with Strachey and others.

‘They Shall Not Pass’ – Resisting the ‘Blackshirts’:

Mosley formed the ‘New Party’ and was joined by three other MPs, but when this fell apart, they parted ways with Mosley migrating to the authoritarian Right and founding the BUF complete with Nazi-style regalia. His storm troopers were his ‘Blackshirts’, the élite of them housed in barracks at Chelsea, complete with parade ground. Much of his funding came from Lord Nuffield, the founder of the Morris Motor Company, and other wealthy industrialists for some years to come. Lord Rothermere, the newspaper magnate, was a staunch protagonist for Mosley and on 15 January 1934, his Daily Mail appeared with the headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’.

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Above: Anti-Fascists in Limehouse, London. Wherever Fascism was strong, as it was in East London, anti-Fascists were also very strong and could be violent. While Limehouse had a significant fascist vote (see the text below), it was still the safe seat of Labour leader Clement Attlee.

Mosley held military-style rallies, miniature Nuremberg, at which he could posture as a ‘British Führer’. They were also the scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, the ‘United Front’. In 1934, at the peak of British Fascist strength, Mosley led three big rallies, at the Albert Hall, Hyde Park and Olympia. At the Olympia rally the blackshirts, anxious to demonstrate their efficiency as storm troopers shocked the nation with the violence of their attacks upon protesters within the hall. The Times reported the next day ( June) on the methods used:

The Fascist meeting at Olympia last night suffered from continuous interruptions, and the interrupters suffered heavily at the hands of the blackshirted stewards, male and female. … It proceeded easily for the first ten minutes before the Socialists made their first move. 

… It was countered with … a uniformity of treatment which suggested a prescribed technique of violence. Stewards at once made for the offenders. If they resisted ejection the incident at once became an affair of fisticuffs and, if the victim remained standing in the end of his resistance, he was seized ju-jitsu fashion and dragged out. Quite a number were borne out limp bodies after the frays. …

… The speech was suspended at every display of force. When it resumed it improved with a brief homily on the need of Fascist methods to preserve free speech and on the British people having become accustomed to ‘red violence’ over a period of years.

It was a strangely mixed audience … people of middle-age who wore neither black shirt nor badge; people with a tired expression of eye and wrinkled brows; some of the people who bore the strain of war and the cost of peace. 

Olympia set the pattern for all of Mosley’s meetings. When the hall had filled the doors were locked and the speeches began. There was a spotlight worked from the platform and if any heckler interrupted, or even if anyone rose from their seat, they would be caught in the spotlight and as they stood there blinded and helpless a squad of ‘biff boys’ would move and give them a savage beating up in view of the audience, before turning the offender out of the hall. As René Cutforth commented, the audience simply sat there as if mesmerised by the thuggery taking place in front of them:

It was an age addicted to psychological explanations, but I never heard the nature of Mosley’s audiences satisfactorily explained. Who were these people who submitted themselves night after night to this exhibition of terrorism and tyranny? They looked middle-aged on the whole and seemed to be enveloped in general and political apathy, yet they kept on coming. Mosley was never short of an audience.

In 1936, about 330,000 Jewish people lived in Britain, less than one per cent of the total population. The East End of London was home to between a half and one-third of them, mostly concentrated into a densely-populated area centred on Brick Lane, so it was a particular target for Mosley and his thugs. He was stirring up racial antagonism in this impoverished area by blaming the Jews for the high rates of unemployment, rent increases and poor wages. During the Slump, it had suffered particularly badly and was a pocket of poverty as bad as anything in the distressed areas of South Wales and the North of England, full of slums, filth and futility. Mosley’s Fascists took full advantage of the general restlessness created by the hunger marches and demonstrations against the means test. They stepped up their parades until the East End felt it was being invaded almost every night. They always marched with a heavy guard of police, who seemed to be as much part of their parade as their own ‘biff boys’. The East End, with its large Jewish community, became the chief battleground of the opposing factions and parties. But there had been ‘skirmishes’ with the BUF at a number of regional rallies. On 12 July six blackshirts at one rally were knocked unconscious by men wielding iron bars. Mosley’s car window was shattered by a bullet as he drove away. At other meetings across the country, anti-Fascists pelted the rally-goers with bricks and stones. and many were injured. At a rally outside Leeds on 27 September, attended by thirty thousand people, Mosley was showered with missiles.

Many of the Jews living in the East End were second-generation, the children of parents who had been forced to flee the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the sanctuary of Britain. Most of the older generation spoke only Yiddish and lived in an enclosed community of crowded tenements, synagogues, baths and kosher butchers. They tended to work in the clothing and furniture trades. They were an obvious target for the Jew-baiters of the BUF, who regularly smashed the windows of Jewish grocery shops, chalked anti-Semitic graffiti on walls and shouted racist insults during street meetings and as they marched through Jewish areas, such as The Yids, the Yids, We’ve got to get rid of the Yids! In the summer of 1936, the more abusive the blackshirts became, the more the police appeared to protect them from their victims. In September there was particular anger in the East End over two incidents. Fascist thugs threw a Jewish boy through a plate-glass window, blinding him. Later, a further horror occurred when a Jewish girl was caught and strapped to an advertisement hoarding in the attitude of the crucifixion. Neither incident led to a prosecution.

Young Jews did not take these attacks with the forbearance of many of their parents and the official bodies that represented them. They wanted to fight back. Even though they were British-born and British-educated, young Jews felt alienated and stigmatised by the anti-Semitism that flourished in British society. Many became Communists, seeing the party as the most vigorous opponent of Fascism. Others joined the Labour Party, although it was much less active in the fight, contrary to the current mythology of a Labour Left riddled with anti-Semitism itself. Others formed their own self-defence groups or ‘street gangs’. At this time, the anti-Semitic outbursts of the Fascists were reaching a climax, and large numbers of people came onto their streets to protest against the BUF’s overtly racist abuse, and there were scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, ‘the United Front’.

‘The Battle of Cable Street’:

When the BUF announced that it would stage a mass march through East London to celebrate its fourth anniversary on Sunday 4 October, a coalition formed to confront Mosley. The battle lines were drawn up, leading to the riots in Stepney which became known, famously, as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ (see the photos below). The prospect of Mosley’s major demonstration, with all the inevitable resistance and ensuing violence, led many to call for it to be banned. Labour MPs and the mayors of London’s boroughs pleaded with the Home Secretary to halt the march. A petition of a hundred thousand signatures was presented to him, but to no avail.

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Mosley had planned the route of the provocative military march of his uniformed racists to go right through the heart of Whitechapel. The coalition of Communists,’ leftists’ and young Jewish activists set to work organising the opposition. The older generation in the Jewish community was dead-set against them. The Jewish Board of Deputies urged people to stay away. The Jewish Chronicle told readers in the East End to remain indoors and pull down the shutters. But their advice was ignored. The leaders of the Jewish community had lost control of their people. Labour too urged its members to keep off the streets; the Labour-supporting newspaper, The Daily Herald argued with typical pusillanimity that the best way to defeat Fascism was to ignore it. Even the Communist Party at first kept quiet. No official body wanted to be seen encouraging action that would inevitably lead to violence and law-breaking. For most, taking to the streets to stop Mosley’s march was a spontaneous expression of hatred of Fascism. Moseley was not the only public figure to completely underestimate the extent of the determined and deeply-felt opposition to his creed of hate and more than two hundred thousand Londoners, Jews and Gentiles, rallied under the Spanish anti-fascist slogan, They shall not pass! Spain was the constant refrain. For Charles Goodman, an East End Jew who was not a member of the CPGB, it was the motivating factor:

… it was not a question of a punch-up between the Jews and the fascists … in my case it meant the continuation of the struggle in Spain.

Those planning to take part in the counter-demonstration were by no means all Jews or Communists. The bleak turn of events abroad was a mobilising force for thousands with a left-liberal view of the world, whatever their ethnicity or party affiliation, and halting Mosley in the East End had a wider significance, as Harold Smith, an eighteen-year-old office worker and activist at the time, later recalled:

We were young, enthusiastic, Spain was on, Hitler was on the march, it was a British contribution to stop Fascism.

Two East End Communists, Joe Jacobs and Phil Piratin planned the unofficial fightback. A week before the demonstration, the latter arranged a meeting at his house in Stepney for a group of ‘Aryan-looking’ members of the CPGB, who would be able to pass themselves off as Fascists during the march and keep an eye out for any changes to the planned route of the march. In the early afternoon of 4 October a young medical student, Hugh Faulkner, dressed as a doctor and with an empty medical bag, joined the blackshirt demonstration at the Tower of London. He was allowed through the rows of police:

I found myself in the middle of the Fascists and caught sight of a member who worked in my hospital. On the spur of the moment I said “I’ve finally made up my mind. I want to come in with you”. He was such a clot he immediately accepted this … he was absolutely delighted and almost immediately showed me a duplicate sign of the route.

Armed with this latest intelligence, Faulkner ran off to telephone the plan of the march to Piratin and his fellow organisers. Meanwhile, vast crowds had assembled, ready to do battle with the Fascists. They had already built barricades while the blackshirts were being held up by police. The Cable Street riot was not a battle between the blackshirt supporters of Oswald Mosley and his opponents; it was a battle between the police and the anti-Fascists. When Harold Smith arrived at Gardiner’s  Corner at mid-day, where Piratin had placed trams to block the entrance to Commercial Road, he found a sea of people, ‘like the Cup Final’ he said. By then an estimated 310,000 people had turned up to stop the Fascists marching through. Although Communists under Phil Piratin had been the principal organisers of the opposition, it was not a Communist counter-demonstration. In 1936, the Party had only eleven thousand members. But the Party had been able to organise far greater support across a wide cross-section of British society. The police set to work to clear a path through the counter-demonstrators so that the blackshirts could gain access to Commercial Road, down which they had planned to march. They used a combination of brute force and mounted police charges. People everywhere were bleeding from head wounds inflicted by batons and staves. After several charges and forays, it became obvious to Sir Philip Game, the Police Commissioner, that there was no way that Mosley’s men and women could pass through to Commercial Road, ‘short of mayhem and murder’, so he decided on an alternative route, via Cable Street.

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Thanks to Hugh Faulkner’s intelligence, Piratin quickly became aware of the switch and ordered his ‘flying squads’. As its name suggests, it was close to the docks and lined with ships’ chandlers, lock-ups and warehouses. They were full of carts and heavy equipment which made perfect materials for barricades. As at Gardiner’s Corner, the mounted charges were unable to make headway, and the women in the tenement buildings began throwing everything they could lay their hands on down on the police, forcing them to retreat and, after taking shelter in the lock-ups, to surrender. The demonstrators took their helmets and truncheons and told them to ‘shove off!’ More than a hundred were wounded in the riot, and eighty-three anti-Fascists were arrested. The next day, many of them were sentenced, like Charlie Goodman, to four months’ hard labour. At about six in the evening, the news came through that the march through the East End had been cancelled on the orders of the Police Commissioner, after consulting with the Home Secretary. The demonstrators were elated, while there was despair among Mosley’s followers. They had waited with their ‘Leader’ for almost six hours, ‘kettled’ by the police in Royal Mint Street. The setback was significant, not simply because the march had been stopped, but because of the violence which it triggered.

For the left, by contrast, the Battle of Cable Street was a tremendous victory. The three thousand blackshirts did not pass, as the anti-Fascist demonstrators prevented the police from ushering Mosley’s ‘stormtroopers’ through the East End, a victory which proved a decisive blow from which the British fascists never recovered. It brought together, at least for the following year, a fractured movement that had long been divided on sectarian and ideological grounds on the major issues of the day. It also united people from different ethnic and religious groups and across classes. One of the leaders of the ‘resistance’ recalled that the most amazing thing was to see a silk-coated religious Orthodox Jew standing next to an Irish docker with a grappling iron. A number of men, like Frank Lesser, took such pride in having stopped the Fascist march that they were motivated to volunteer to fight Franco:

It seemed to me that the fight against Fascism had to be fought in England, it had to be fought, and I went to fight it a year later in Spain too. 

The Downing Street Declaration & the Public Order Act:

In the aftermath of the events on Cable Street, the Cabinet met on Wednesday 14 October, with the disturbances at the top of the agenda together with the marches and protests of the unemployed which were happening at the same time. It was not only the disciplined ‘Crusade’ of the men from Jarrow which concerned the ministers. Two other marches were heading through the capital at the same time. One of these was a three-pronged demonstration led by the NUWM against the means test. The prospect of more revolutionaries fighting on the streets of London with the police after the debacle of the previous week in Stepney was more than the politicians could stomach. Some form of action was needed, but it was unclear what the government could do to stop the marches. Stanley Baldwin had recovered enough from a two-month illness to chair the meeting and called on Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, to report on the situation in general and specifically on Cable Street.

Two days earlier, eight days after the riot, the steely-cold Sir John had produced a Memorandum for the Cabinet that showed the degree of concern that he and his colleagues felt. They had faced an almost complete breakdown of law and order on the streets of the capital. The police had been unable to control the demonstration, nor had the Fascists been able to march, as was their right. More clashes were likely as Communists, buoyed up by success, took to the streets again to prevent further Mosley rallies. and demonstrations. The stopping of the march at Cable Street was a blatant denial of free speech to the BUF, as well as a victory over the legitimate authorities. As Mosley complained:

We were prevented from doing what we had done before, marching through London where we had tremendous support and would certainly have won a parliamentary seat.

Then he told his colleagues that nothing should be done to prevent orderly bands of demonstrators marching where they planned. Perhaps surprisingly, however, those who had stopped the BUF in its tracks and beaten back the police were not the object of Simon’s wrath. Instead, he singled out Mosley and his blackshirts for their provocative behaviour and drew attention to their uniform. There was something essentially un-British about a political party dressing up and strutting around in military-style. The Home Secretary spoke of the intense resentment that it caused in the country at large, with the assumption of authority by a private army. That was bad enough, but what was worse was Mosley’s aping the anti-democratic régimes of Europe, where the wearing of black or brown uniforms led to the overthrow of popular liberties … Sir Oswald makes no secret of his desire to follow the German and Italian examples. Simon told the Cabinet that the men and women who dressed as blackshirts looked much smarter than when wearing their everyday clothes. He thought this added to the appeal of the Fascists among poorer people. There was only one solution: uniforms had to be banned.

He also suggested that, on the subject of ‘hunger marches’, action be taken to minimise the risk of violence and that the newspapers should be made aware of the futility of these marches. Baldwin agreed that selected journalists should be briefed so as to counter the favourable publicity given to the marchers and that no ministers would meet any deputations of marchers. Clearly, the ‘nightmare’ on Cable Street was, in part, what led the government to take its hard-line over the presentation of the Jarrow petition. However, the Labour Party conference’s decision not to back the Crusade made it easier for the government, and the ‘Downing Street Declaration’ echoed the speeches which questioned the desirability of getting ill-fed men to march.

Banning uniforms was just one of several measures needed to deal with the disturbances, Simon said. He also threw in a restriction of liberty. He told the Cabinet that the onward thrust of modernity had made the police’s job impossible. Thousands of people could now be summoned at short notice by radio and newspaper., they could travel quickly by public transport, and they could be harangued by demagogues using microphones and loudspeakers. These developments, combined with ‘the European crisis’ and the hysterical fear that an anti-Jew agitation might gain the mastery in this country, meant that the authorities had to have the right to be able to stop demonstrations in future if they feared they might lead to disorder. The Cabinet agreed.

Despite the limitations on freedom of speech, a bill went before Parliament less than a month later. But to the Cabinet’s frustration, the legislation giving the police powers to ban demonstrations was weeks away from enactment. The government restricted BUF activities by enacting The Public Order Act banning political uniforms and allowing the police to ban marches for three-month periods. A coalition of all sides of the Commons came together to stop Mosley, united in hatred of the blackshirt as a political tool, and in loathing of his politics. It was a thoroughly partial piece of legislation in the first instance. Its practical purpose may have been to prevent the recurrence of violence on the scale of the Battle of Cable Street, but its political effect was to cripple the BUF. Denied their uniforms, prevented from marching purely at the discretion of local police, their extra-parliamentary party went into sharp decline. Mosley had few friends at Westminster and he claimed that the British Government had surrendered to red terror.

This forced the BUF back to using more conventional and constitutional political methods. Electorally, they had some local success in the East End. Although the BUF gained support in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, the East End remained its heartland.  In the London County Council elections of March 1937, the BUF won twenty-three per cent of the vote in North-East Bethnal Green, nineteen per cent in Stepney (Limehouse in Clement Attlee’s constituency) and fourteen per cent in Shoreditch. Nonetheless, the fascists failed to win more widespread support. BUF membership (as far as we can tell) rose from seventeen thousand in early 1934 to between forty and fifty thousand by July, organised in four hundred branches. After dropping from that peak to five thousand within a year, it recovered to 15,500 during 1936, reaching 22,500 by the outbreak of war. More generally, the fascists were unable to win parliamentary seats, not even in East London, despite Mosley’s certain declarations that they would. The BUF had no doctrines except jingoism, a professed love of the British flag and the Royal Family, and hatred of Jews and Communists.

In any case, the voting system worked in favour of the two dominant parties. The Conservative Party remained attractive to the middle classes and the BUF was unable to compete with Labour and the trade unions for the support of the unemployed. As the economy improved in the 1930s, the attraction of a political alternative diminished. The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but the habit never became a public menace as it had been in Berlin in the Thirties where it was extremely easy for anyone to be caught up in some skirmish between Nazis and Communists and be beaten up or, quite often, never heard of again.

Below: A press picture from ‘The Daily Worker’  of a great united anti-fascist protest in Trafalgar Square in 1937. Mosley and his followers are seen giving the Nazi salute, their demonstration ringed by a great phalanx of anti-fascists, their clenched fists raised in the salute of the ‘United Front’. Interestingly, despite the hatred, each side nurtured for each other, a single line of policemen was all that separated the opponents and the protest passed without violence, Mosley’s speech being drowned out by the mass singing of ‘The Internationale’ and ‘The Red Flag’.  The demonstrators then kept up a continual barrage of anti-fascist slogans.  

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Below: A counter-rally organised by the BUF in Bermondsey in 1938. May Day was traditionally a Socialist festival. The Fascist salute, taken very seriously by the party, was regarded as richly comic by most of the public. 

A Popular Front – Parliamentary Politics & Protest:

In January 1937, the first issue of Tribune was published, its controlling board including Bevan, Cripps, Laski, H N Brailsford and Ellen Wilkinson. Later that month the United Campaign was launched at a great meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Stafford Cripps, James Maxton and Harry Pollitt appeared on the platform, and Nye Bevan, Tom Mann, Willie Gallacher and Fenner Brockway were among the principal signatories to the manifesto. As the non-interventionist right-wing fought back, the United Front packed meeting after meeting with thousands of Labour, ILP, Socialist League, Communist and trade union supporters, organising practical aid for their Spanish comrades with devoted intensity. Eventually, the Popular Front won wide acceptance, with David Lloyd George and Harry Pollitt sharing a platform and Clement Attlee visiting the remaining International Brigade soldiers in Spain.

From its outset, the Spanish Civil War had absorbed the attention of the international community. It served as a kind of litmus test for whether democracy would survive or Fascism would triumph. In 1938, the outcome of this ideological conflict was more unsure than ever. The official line of the powers, sanctioned by the League of Nations, remained one of non-intervention, a policy willfully ignored by Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. The extreme polarisation of political forces inside Spain, together with the active intervention of Italy and Germany on behalf of the insurgents and the Soviet Union supposedly championing the cause of the Left, turned the Spanish Civil War into the ideological cause célebre of the late 1930s. Conscious that the conflict accentuated the division of Europe into Left and Right, the National Labour MP, Harold Nicolson inclined towards a more robust anti-Franco line in the belief that the government had been ‘weak and confused over the Spanish question’. At a dinner party, he told Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that he wanted ‘the Reds to win’. The destruction of Guernica, the ancient Basque capital, on 26 April 1937 by bombers of the German Kondor Legion had reinforced his feelings. He wrote to his wife Vita …

… I do so loathe this war. I really feel that barbarism is creeping over the earth again and that mankind is going backward.

At the end of February 1938, Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary, ostensibly over Chamberlain’s precipitate and inept handling of Anglo-Italian relations. As a National Labour MP, there was nothing Harold Nicolson could do about the doleful events in Germany, but Eden’s resignation affected him deeply. He had loyally upheld Eden’s handling of British foreign policy, and did not want to become ‘one of Winston’s brigade’. But he had come to the unavoidable conclusion that ‘National Labour’ had ceased to exist as a separate entity. Nicolson was determined to defend Eden, whose resignation speech, muddled and indecisive, had not gone down well. The Foreign Secretary, he revealed to the restless MPs, had resigned not over ‘a little point of procedure’, but on ‘a great question of principle’. He lashed into Italy, …

… a country which has continuously, consistently, deliberately and without apology, violated every engagement into which she has ever entered … our great principles of policy … the rule of law , the theory of the League of Nations, the belief in the sanctity of treaties … butchered to make a Roman holiday.

His speech was warmly received by other critics of Chamberlain’s government, including Lloyd George and Churchill. Supporters of the government thought it damaging to ‘the cause of peace’. But Nicolson had no doubt that Chamberlain was blindly leading the country into a political and diplomatic minefield:

 … their policy is nothing less than the scrapping of the ideas which have been built up since the war and the reversion to the old pre-war policy of power politics and bargaining. This means: (1) that we shall have to buy the friendship of Italy and Germany by making sacrifices. (2) That this frienship will not be worth tuppence once is is bought. And (3) that in doing so we shall sacrifice the confidence of France, Russia, the United States and all the smaller countries.

For many, ‘Tricky Chamberlain’ no longer inspired trust, but nor did the National Labour Party that had behaved like worms and kissed the Chamberlain boot with a resounding smack. But the die-hard Tories were jubilant at having flushed out all the nonsensical notions of the past and having got back the good old Tory doctrines. Nicolson’s pessimism intensified when, on 12 March, German forces crossed into Austria and Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss. Although he still sat on the government benches, he emerged as a leading critic of the government’s foreign policy, claiming that we are going to let Germany become so powerful that she will begin to dictate to us. The Anschluss passed off to whispers of protest, but Spain remained a burning issue. Four days after Hitler’s coup, with Franco’s troops on the offensive, Nicolson spoke out forcefully on the issue. He began by expressing his ‘deepest sympathy’ with the Spanish government and his ‘deepest hatred’ for Franco. A Franco victory, he pointed out, would gravely menace Britain’s interests and security. A free Spain, he stressed, had traditionally been of immense strategic advantage to Britain.

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Above: A snapshot from a woman Labour Party member of another anti-fascist gathering at Belle Vue, Manchester, early in 1938, showing women Labour Party members, Margaret Whalley and Mary Eckersley, waiting to attend the United Front rally.

May Day 1938 was one of the largest since 1926 and the message was ‘Spain above all’. Herbert Morrison spoke from the Labour platform, reminding his audience of the heroic Spanish people and their fight against foreign invasion. Hammersmith Labour Party carried a banner announcing that it had collected five hundred pounds to send an ambulance to Spain and West London engineers paraded a motorcycle of the type they had sent. Everywhere in the procession were the tricolour flags of the Spanish Republic, and a red banner proclaimed, Spain’s fight is our fight. Tens of thousands assembled at the eight platforms in Hyde Park to hear speakers from every section of the labour movement call for arms for Spain and the end of the Chamberlain government. As the long column of marchers entered the park, the loudest cheers came for the wounded members of the International Brigade, closely followed by a group of women of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (pictured below), dressed in nurses’ uniforms, collecting to buy milk for Spanish children.

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Parliamentary Opposition to Appeasement:

In the view of Harold Nicolson, Neville Chamberlain was an ‘ironmonger’ who had no conception… of world politics and was quite unsuited to the task of concluding a successful negotiation with Hitler at Berchtesgaden in September 1938. It soon became apparent that Chamberlain, who didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetans were in the Reich or out of it, had brought back sn agreement that, in principle, ceded to Germany the Sudeten German areas, provided the cession be achieved peacefully. Anglo-French pressure mounted on the Czechs to accept this arrangement.  At one stage, ‘Baffy’ Dugdale, a National Labourite and member of the Executive of the League of Nations Union, rang up Harold to tell him that she had been sick twice in the night over England’s shame’, and had thrown up again after having read in The Times that the terms submitted to the Czechoslovak Government could not … be expected to make a strong ‘prima facie’ appeal to them. Thereupon, she had resigned from the Party. Nicolson himself penned a note of protest to ‘Buck’ De La Warr about National Labour’s refusal to speak out on the issue: He would consider his position.

Chamberlain returned empty-handed from the second round of talks held at Bad Godesberg on 22-23 September, but he was given a ‘blank cheque’ from public opinion for his peace efforts. Nicolson told Churchill that the international situation would bring about the end of the British Empire. They discussed tactics should Chamberlain decide to ‘rat again’. They agreed to press for a Coalition Government and the immediate application of war measures since war seemed imminent.  On 28 September, the House of Commons convened to hear the PM clarify the chain of events leading to the crisis. As he entered the Chamber he was greeted by shouts of applause from his supporters, many of whom rose in their seats and waved their order papers. The opposition remained seated and silent, as did Harold Nicolson, ostensibly a government supporter. The next day he addressed a meeting of the National Labour group in Manchester, hitting out at the Government and its advisors, which rallied the Chamberlainite supporters against him. Matters worsened when he voted against a resolution of the National Labour Executive pledging to support the PM, leading to accusations of ‘dishonourable behaviour’.

The high point of Nicolson’s parliamentary career was his attack on the government’s foreign policy after the Munich agreement. His stand was uncompromising and brought him much credit from the opposition. Hitler, he stated, had three aims: to swallow the Sudeten Germans; to destroy Czechoslovakia and to dominate Europe. We have given him all those three things, he stated. He would have given him the first of these three, as the Sudetenland was not worth a war. But by Chamberlain’s capitulation on this point, a deadly chain reaction had been set off that led, inexorably, to total surrender. He went on:

The essential thing, the thing which we ought to have resisted, the thing which we still ought to resist; the thing which I am afraid it is now too late to resist is the domination of Europe by Germany … this humiliating defeat, this terrible Munich retreat (is) one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occured in our history. … The tiger is showing his teeth, the cage door is open; the keeper is gone … we have given away the whole key to Europe. … Germany will have the whole of Europe in a stranglehold. …

… I know that that those of us who believe in the traditions of our policy … that the one great function of this country is to maintain moral standards in Europe, to maintain a settled pattern of international relations, not to make friends with people whose conduct is demonstrably evil … but to set up some sort of standard by which the smaller Powers can test what is godd in international conduct and what is not – I know that those who hold such beliefs are accused of possessing the Foreign Office mind. I thank God that I possess the Foreign Office mind.

There were other powerful anti-government speeches, by Churchill and Duff Cooper (the only cabinet member to resign), but they hardly dented the government’s huge majority. By 366 votes to 144, the House declared its confidence in the government’s appeasement policy. Thirty Conservative MPs abstained and thirteen remained in their seats. Nicolson, a National Labour ‘rebel’ was among them. The dominance of the National Government and the fragmentation of the Opposition, confirmed at the General Election of 1935, meant that the case of the rebels was not strengthened by their counter-proposals – increased rearmament, grand coalitions, a revivified League, or claiming the high moral ground. Without a proper Opposition, the Commons was barren of new ideas. Those preoccupied with making British foreign policy, tormented by the memories of the horrors of the Great War, were inclined, also on moral grounds, to satisfy Germany’s ‘legitimate grievances’, above all conscious of Britain’s defensive weaknesses and the French lack of will to fight. Also using the tiger metaphor, the Chiefs of Staff presented the Cabinet with a paper on 23 September that to attempt to take offensive action against Germany … would be to place ourselves in the position of a man who attacks a tiger before he has loaded his gun.

Winter of Discontent – Sit-in at the Ritz:

The fight against unemployment in Britain continued to the end of the decade. By the winter of 1938-39, the NUWM had changed their tactics from national marches and demonstrations to a series of localised stunts aimed at focusing attention to their demands for winter relief. Their three-point programme called for additional winter unemployment payments of two shillings and sixpence per adult and one shilling per child. They also demanded a national scheme of public works at trade union rates of pay and the opportunity to put their case directly to the ministers concerned. The picture below was taken on 20 December 1938, when two hundred unemployed men made their way to Oxford Street, crowded with Christmas shoppers. They stepped off the pavements and laid down in the roadway bringing the heavy traffic to an abrupt halt. The weather was bitterly cold and snow had been falling as the men covered themselves with posters calling for bread, work and winter relief. Two days later, a hundred men strolled into the Grill Room of the Ritz Hotel, seating themselves at the tables laid for dinner. They followed this by capturing the UAB offices and holding an officer prisoner, flying of a banner from the Monument in the City of London and chaining themselves to the railings of labour exchanges.

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However, in 1939, the threat of war overshadowed domestic problems. Opposition to the ‘appeasement’ policy after the Munich agreement was a lost cause. So too was the League of Nations Union, which was ‘practically dead’ and the National Labour Party was in no better shape. Nicolson devoted his energies to helping refugees from Franco’s Spain and co-operating with Eleanor Rathbone in her work with deprived children in Britain. He also joined the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror and helped the Zionist cause.

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For the Labour movement as a whole, the war strengthened the commitment of ‘no return to the thirties’ even before the thirties were properly over. As Harold Nicolson motored home from Westminster to Sissinghurst in Kent on 3 September, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist and shouted: it’s all the fault of the rich! Harold commented in his diary:

The Labour Party will be hard put to it to prevent this war degenerating into class warfare.

Sources:

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920 – 1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD Thesis.

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishing).

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Joanna Bourke (ed.), et.al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles (Publishers).

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The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952-2002; Chapter Three.   2 comments

Chapter Three: A Multi-cultural Society?

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By the end of the 1950s, although the populations of the nations and regions of the British Isles had become more permanently mixed than ever before, and added to by those refugees from central and eastern Europe who had now been exiled by the triumph of Soviet Communism in the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, as yet there had been very little New Commonwealth immigration to Britain. It was only in the sixties and seventies that the country began to be transformed into what came to be known as a multi-cultural society.

 

Following the wartime Emigracja – immigration to Britain, there was a further wave of Poles arriving in the UK between 1950 and 1971. According to the 1971 Census, this amounted to 13,470 persons, seventy-five per cent of whom were women. Some of these were relatives of previous refugees who had decided to stay, while others were traditional devout Catholics and anti-Communists. The Polish Educational Society Abroad was established in Britain with the main aim of giving financial support and assistance to Polish voluntary schools in order to maintain Polishness by educating the children of Polish parents and preparing them for their return to Poland. The beginning of the Polish schools in Britain goes back to the 1950s when Polish parents began to be seriously concerned about the maintenance of Polishness in their children. While the underlying motive was the return to the homeland, the need to establish schools was also driven by the concern that, with Poland under Communist rule, many families did not know when they would be able to return safely and permanently. While, at first, the schools were located in private houses, later they moved into the halls of Polish churches throughout the country. When the numbers grew and they could no longer be accommodated in the church halls, more space had to be hired in state schools. In 1977 it was estimated that there were eighty-eight Polish Saturday Schools with over seven thousand pupils. In addition, the Polish Scout and Guide Movement was formed in the 1950s, a nationalistic exile group centred in London with, by 1961, an organisational network in over twenty countries. In that year, there were one and a half thousand Polish boy scouts and a thousand guides in Britain, with a further four hundred Rovers and six hundred adult members of attached groups. The organisation reinforced the work of the Saturday Schools by offering invaluable opportunities for using and developing the Polish language in a variety of realistic communication settings.

Following the unsuccessful Hungarian Uprising and Soviet invasion of October – November 1956, people from all classes and groups who had suffered under the Communist repressions and who feared reprisals for having participated in the uprising, found their way to Britain. Many of them were en route to the USA, but of the two hundred thousand who fled Hungary, about twenty-six thousand were admitted to the UK for settlement. Three Hungarian Associations were formed in the 1950s, the British Hungarian Fellowship in London being one of them. In addition, three associations were formed between 1965 and 1971. Otherwise, the Hungarian expatriates seem not to have been so determined to maintain their separate cultural identity in their host country, becoming fully integrated in British society within a short period of settlement, though keeping up their familial ties with their home country. This may have much to do with the relative freedoms of travel and association allowed during the period of Goulash Communism, especially from the early 1970s, and partly to do with the relative difficulty of learning and using Hungarian outside the home environment, even when both parents were native-speakers. Only in London was this ever a real possibility.

 

During and immediately after the Second World War about forty thousand Ukrainians found refuge in the UK, none of them having left their home country of their own free will. The majority of those who settled permanently in the UK came from the rural areas of western Ukraine, and only about three per cent had completed secondary and tertiary schooling (to eighteen) before arriving in Britain. They were employed in low-paid jobs in agriculture, mining and textiles, in domestic service and as ancillary personnel in hospitals. After a time they moved to better-paid jobs, encouraged their children to do well at school, so that it is sometimes suggested that, as a result of strong family ties and parents’ ambitions for their children, the proportions of Ukrainian children who gained academic success at the various educational levels were greater than the national levels. The Ukrainians who settled in Britain were predominantly male, young and single. Only about ten per cent were women, so Ukrainian men had to look outside the community for marriage partners, mainly among other continental settled in Britain. Later, about two thousand displaced Ukrainian women came to Britain from refugee settlements in Poland and Yugoslavia following the decade between when Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union again, and Poland was forced to join the Warsaw Pact in 1955.

Of the first émigrés, who were predominantly male, about forty per cent didn’t marry, and a large percentage of the rest, maybe half, married non-Ukrainian women. The majority of them hoped at first that they would be able to return to the Ukraine. Most, however, learnt some English in their workplaces. Those who married Ukrainian partners use their native tongue when speaking with them and, in most cases, with their children. A minority considered that speaking Ukrainian at home would be detrimental to their children’s education, however, and so deliberately avoided using the language in the family. Second generation British Ukrainians used English in their workplaces and with friends, in places of entertainment, while using Ukrainian with parents and older members of the exile community, switching to English to talk to Ukrainians of their own generation. They were also encouraged to use Ukrainian in the Saturday schools, meetings and camps of youth organisations. During rehearsals of choirs or dance groups, popular among the second generation, they often used both languages to describe events or experiences connected with these. This was regarded within the community as a sign of language loss rather than of retention in the bilingual setting.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, due to the political situation in the USSR, and its international relations, contacts with the home country were limited and, despite the efforts made by the community to preserve the language, there were significantly fewer third generation speakers. The community life revolved around the churches, principally the Ukrainian Roman Catholic Church and the Autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church, together with a variety of organisations catering for women, young people, ex-servicemen, students and professionals. It also built a number of properties in addition to churches, including cultural centres and school premises, commercial enterprises, summer camps and retirement homes. Family and personal contacts mainly took the form of correspondence, and well-chaperoned choirs and dance groups from the Ukraine sometimes toured the UK. In the Brezhnev years there was freer intercourse with Ukrainians living in Poland and Yugoslavia, with many more exchange visits taking place. In Ukraine itself, the language came under strong Russian influence, whereas the majority of first-generation British Ukrainians spoke a rural variety of Western Ukrainian at home. In 1966, there were nearly two and a half thousand pupils attending forty-three Ukrainian Saturday Schools throughout Britain, run by over two hundred teaching staff. The curriculum consisted of Ukrainian language, literature, history, geography, religion and folklore. Pupils had two or three hours of classes a week over eleven or twelve years, starting with nursery classes. A GCE Ordinary level examination in Ukrainian became available in 1954, and the language became available as a subsidiary subject at the University of London in 1970. Coventry LEA was the first to provide material support for community Saturday schools.

In the postwar years, the Greek Cypriot community in Britain grew significantly and came from a variety of backgrounds. There had been a sizeable group in interwar and wartime Britain, but it was after the war that substantial numbers of Greek Cypriot men arrived, followed by their families as soon as they had found a permanent job and reasonable housing. The 1955-60 Independence struggle gave rise to further immigration to Britain, as did the civil struggles in 1963 and the invasion by Turkey in 1974, so that the estimated Greek Cypriot population in the UK reached two hundred thousand. This meant that one Cypriot in every six was living in Britain by the late seventies. While the largest part of this population was concentrated in London, there was also much smaller but still significant community in Birmingham. Greek Cypriots left their homes mainly for economic reasons. Most of them came to Britain to find work and improve their standard of living. The largest section came from the lower socio-economic groups. They set out with high aspirations, confident in their hard-working nature, and supported by the strong feeling of solidarity which bonded them to their compatriots. In the fifties and early sixties Greek Cypriots worked mainly in the service sector, in catering, in the clothing and shoe manufacturing industries, in hairdressing and in grocery retailing. In the villages in Cyprus, most of the women’s work was confined to the household and the fields, but in Britain a substantial number went to work in the clothing industry, either as machinists in small factories or as out-workers sewing clothes at home at piecework rates.

By the late sixties self-employment was becoming more common among Greek Cypriot men who had established a variety of small businesses – restaurants, estate agents, travel agencies, building firms, etc. – building gradually what Constandinides (1977) called an ethnic economy. These small businesses often provided goods and services primarily for other Cypriots, although by the second generation there was a tendency to move away from these traditional forms of employment. Their interests moved away from the world of kebab takeaways and Mediterranean grocery shops into the more successful and highly competitive world of property development, manufacturing industry, import-export, travel and tourism, printing and publishing. Mother tongue teaching activities were inevitably concentrated in the areas of greatest Greek settlement, the first classes, in Haringey, dating back to 1955, while classes in Coventry were established around 1963. Children spent between one and four hours per week at these community-run classes.

 004 (2)

In Coventry, the small wartime Indian community had expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954, occupying some of the more rundown housing stock to the north of the city. Like other immigrants to Coventry at this time – the Welsh, the Irish, Poles and Ukrainians, the Indians were keen to protect their own religious and cultural identity. In October 1952, Muslim members of the Indian community applied to the Planning and Redevelopment Committee for separate burial facilities and land for the building of a Mosque. Although relatively few in number, Coventry’s Indian community was already beginning to experience the racial prejudice that was already beginning to disfigure Britain nationally. It was also soon reported that local estate agents were operating a colour bar. It has already been noted how trades unions and management in the car factories agreed measures to keep them from working on the production lines, relegated to menial cleaning tasks. In October 1954 the editor of the Coventry Standard had reported that a branch of the AEU had approached Miss Burton M.P. on this subject. He commented:

The presence of so many coloured people in Coventry is becoming a menace. Hundreds of black people are pouring into the larger cities of Britain including Coventry and are lowering the standard of life. They live on public assistance and occupy common lodging houses to the detriment of suburban areas. … They frequently are the worse for liquor – many of them addicted to methylated spirits – and live in overcrowded conditions sometimes six to a room.

This article was not the juvenile outpourings of a bigoted cub reporter but the major editorial. Racism appears to have infected a wide spectrum of Coventry society by the mid-fifties as it had also begun to infect the country as a whole. Change was not comfortable for many to live with, and not always easy to understand, and it was easy to project the problems which it presented in everyday life into stereotypical images, as this extract from the transcript of a BBC archive disc shows:

It is getting too bad now. They’re too many in the country and they’re over-running it. If they come into this country, they should be made to live to the same standards as we live, and not too many in their house as they always have done, unless someone puts their foot down. They bring in diseases and all sorts of things that spread to different people, and your children have to grow up with them and it’s not right.

 017

Above: The Windrush Generation: One of the first Jamaican immigrants seeking work and lodgings in Birmingham in 1955.

They in this extract were, of course, immigrants from the West Indies and Pakistan and/ or India who, from the mid-fifties on, came in substantial numbers into the booming cities and industries. Many West Indian immigrants encountered considerable racial prejudice when seeking accommodation. A teenage motor-cycle maniac who was still living with his parents and knew that every time he went out they were on edge, could casually remark about going down Notting Hill Gate… to punch a few niggers up. The scene soon shifted onto a bigger backcloth, and from Notting Hill to Nottingham, but the story was the same, and one which was to become more and more familiar over the coming decades – one of growing intolerance, if not cultural bigotry, in British society. In August 1958, as violence against coloured immigrants became a serious problem, The Times reported on the demands for immigration controls being made by Conservative MPs:

Seeing the Nottingham fight between coloured and white people on Saturday night a red light warning of further troubles to come, some Conservative M.P.s intend to renew their demand for control to be placed on immigration from the Commonwealth and the colonies when Parliament reassembles in October… A resolution is on the agenda for the Conservative Party Conference. It has been tabled by Mr Norman Pannell, Conservative M.P. for the Kirkdale division of Liverpool, who obtained the signatures of about thirty Conservative M.P.s for a motion (never debated) during the last session of Parliament. This expressed the growing disquiet over ’the continuing influx of indigent immigrants from the Commonwealth and colonies, thousands of whom have immediately sought National Assistance’. Mr Pannell said yesterday, ’… The Nottingham fighting is a manifestation of the evil results of the present policy and I feel that unless some restriction is imposed we shall create the colour-bar we all wish to avoid… The object of my representation is to get some control, not to bar all colonial and Commonwealth immigration, but to see that the immigrants shall not be a charge on public funds, and that they are deported when they are guilty of serious crimes.

 008

Paradoxically, then, just as Britain was retreating from its formal imperial commitments, Commonwealth immigration into Britain, principally from the West Indies and South Asia, was becoming an increasingly important issue in domestic politics. During the 1950s, the number of West Indians entering Britain reached annual rates of thirty thousand. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent began to escalate from the 1960s onwards. The census of 1951 recorded seventy-four thousand New Commonwealth immigrants; ten years later the figure had increased to 336,000, climbing to 2.2 million in 1981. Immigration from the New Commonwealth was driven by a combination of push and pull factors. Partition of the Indian subcontinent and the construction of the Mangla Dam in Pakistan had displaced large numbers of people, many of whom had close links with Britain through the colonial connection.

In Britain, postwar reconstruction, declining birth rates and labour shortages resulted in the introduction of government schemes to encourage Commonwealth workers, especially from the West Indies, to seek employment in Britain. Jamaicans and Trinidadians were recruited directly by agents to fill vacancies in the British transport network and the newly created National Health Service. Private companies also recruited labour in India and Pakistan for factories and foundries in Britain. As more and more Caribbean and South Asian people settled in Britain, patterns of chain migration developed, in which pioneer migrants aided friends and relatives to settle. Despite the influx of immigrants after the war, however, internal migration within the British Isles continued to outpace overseas immigration.

 013Above: West Indians in London in 1956. About 125,000 people from the Caribbean came to live in Britain

between 1948 and 1958, hoping to escape the poverty in their home islands.

The importance attached to the Commonwealth in the 1950s prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe and events such as the Notting Hill and Nottingham race riots in 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away at the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British naturalisation. Although the 1962 Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect: fearful of losing the right of free entry, as many immigrants came to Britain in the eighteen months before restrictions were introduced as had arrived over the previous five years.  

 

The census of 1961 showed the 1954 estimate of Asians living in Coventry to be an exaggeration. In fact, immigration from the new Commonwealth over the previous ten years had been a trickle rather than a stream, accounting for only 1.5 per cent of the population compared with 6.1 per cent from Ireland, including the North. The total number of immigrants from India and Pakistan was less than three thousand five hundred, and there were about another one thousand two hundred immigrants from the Caribbean as a whole. Between the census of 1961 and the mini-census of 1966, however, some major shifts in the pattern of migration into Coventry did take place. A substantial increase in immigration from Commonwealth countries, colonies and protectorates had taken place during the previous five years. The total number of those born in these territories stood at 11,340. The expansion needs to be kept in perspective, however. Nearly two-thirds of the local population were born in the West Midlands, and there were still nearly twice as many migrants from Ireland as from the Commonwealth and Colonies. Indeed, in 1966 only 3.5 per cent of Coventry’s population had been born outside Britain, compared with the national figure of five per cent. The Welsh stream had slowed down, increasing by only eight per cent in the previous fifteen years, and similar small increases were registered among migrants from Northern England. There were significant increases from Scotland, London and the South East, but only a very small increase from continental Europe.

The rate of migration into Coventry was undoubtedly slowing down by the mid-sixties. Between 1961 and 1971 the population rose by nearly six per cent compared with a rise of nineteen per cent between 1951 and 1961. The failure of Coventry’s manufacturing industry to maintain immediate post-war growth rates was providing fewer opportunities for migrant manual workers, while the completion of the city centre redevelopment programme and the large housing schemes reduced the number of itinerant building workers. Between 1951 and 1966 the local population increased by approximately four thousand every year, but in the following five years the net annual increase fell to about a thousand per annum. Moreover, the proportion of this increase attributable to migration had dramatically declined. Between 1951 and 1961, a Department of the Environment survey estimated that migration accounted for about forty-five per cent of population growth in the Coventry belt, whereas in the following five years it made up only eighteen per cent. In the following three years to 1969 the survey noted that the same belt had begun, marginally, to lose population through out-migration.

 018

The 1968 Immigration Act was specifically targeted at restricting Kenyan Asians with British passports. The same year, Conservative MP for Wolverhampton and government minister, Enoch Powell made a speech in Birmingham, that contained a classical illusion that most people took to be a prophecy of violent racial war if black immigration continued:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ’the river Tiber foaming with much blood’.

 

The speech became known as The Rivers of Blood Speech, and formed the backdrop of the legislation. Although Powell was sacked from the Cabinet by the Tory Prime Minister, Edward Heath, more legislative action followed with the 1971 Immigration Act, which effectively restricted citizenship on racial grounds by enacting the Grandfather Clause, by which a Commonwealth citizen who could prove that one of his or her grandparents was born in the UK was entitled to immediate entry clearance. This operated to the disadvantage of Black and Asian applicants, while favouring citizens of the old Commonwealth, descendants of white settlers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Thus immigration control had moved away from primary immigration to restricting the entry of dependents, or secondary immigration.

 004

The employment available to new immigrants in 1971 continued to be restricted to poorly paid, unskilled labour. In addition, since the mid-fifties, many West Indians faced prejudice in finding private rented accommodation and all new Commonwealth immigrants faced official discrimination in the residency requirements for council housing.

019

To overcome this prejudice, immigrants to Birmingham tended to congregate in poorer inner city areas or in the western suburbs along the boundary with Smethwick, Warley, West Bromwich (now Sandwell), and Dudley, where many of them also settled. As in Coventry, there was a small South Asian presence of about a hundred, in Birmingham before the war, and this had risen to about a thousand by the end of the war. These were mainly workers recruited by the Ministry of Labour to work in the munitions factories. Birmingham’s booming postwar economy attracted West Indian settlers from Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts in the 1950s, followed by South Asians from Gujarat and the Punjab in India, and Bangladesh from the 1960s onwards.

 012

By 1971, the South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards and in north-west Birmingham, especially in Handsworth, Sandwell and Sparkbrook. Labour shortages had developed in Birmingham as a result of an overall movement towards more skilled and white-collar employment among the native population, which created vacancies in the poorly paid, less attractive, poorly paid , unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing, particularly in metal foundries and factories, and in the transport and health care sectors of the public services. These jobs were filled by newcomers from the new Commonwealth. In the 1970s, poor pay and working conditions forced some of these workers to resort to strike action. Hostility to Commonwealth immigrants was pronounced in some sections of the local white population. One manifestation of this was the establishment of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, founded in the early 1960s by a group of Tory MPs.

In Coventry, despite these emerging signs of a stall in population growth by the end of the sixties, the authorities continued to view the city and its surrounds as a major area of demographic expansion. In October 1970 a Ministry of Housing representative predicted that the city’s population would rise by a third over the next twenty years. The economic boom under the Conservative Heath government and Anthony Barber’s Chancellorship, which greatly benefited the local motor industry, temporarily reversed the stall in population growth. By 1974, it was estimated that the local population was rising by two thousand per year, twice the rate of the late 1960s. By 1976, however, the youthfulness of the city’s population was being lost as the proportion of over sixty-five year-olds rose above the national average. By the mid-seventies Coventry was faced with a new challenge posed by changes in the age-structure of its population. The city was having to care for its increasing numbers of elderly citizens, a cost which soon became difficult to bear, given its declining economy. Coventry, with its large migrant element, began to lose population rapidly during this decline, from 335,238 to 310,216 between 1971 and 1981, a fall of 7.5 per cent. Nearly sixty thousand jobs were lost during the recession, and given the shallowness of the family structure of many Coventrians, this resulted in a sizeable proportion of its citizens being all too willing to seek their fortune elsewhere. For many others, given the widespread nature in the decline in manufacturing in the rest of the UK, there was simply nowhere to go.

 007

As New Commonwealth immigrants began to become established in postwar Birmingham, community infrastructures, including places of worship, ethnic groceries, halal butchers and, most significantly, restaurants, began to develop. Birmingham in general became synonymous with the phenomenal rise of the ubiquitous curry house, and Sparkbrook in particular developed unrivalled Balti restaurants. These materially changed patterns of social life in the city among the native population. In addition to these obvious cultural contributions, the multilingual setting in which English exists today became more diverse in the sixties and seventies, especially due to immigration from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. The largest of the community languages is Punjabi, with over half a million speakers, but there are also substantial communities of Gujarati speakers, as many as a third of a million, and up to a hundred thousand Bengali speakers.

 006

Within the British West Indian community, Jamaican English, or the patois – as it is known – has had a special place as a token of identity. While there were complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican English in Jamaica, with parents complaining when their children talk local too much, in England it became almost obligatory to do so in London. One Jamaican schoolgirl who made the final passage to the Empire’s capital city with her parents in the seventies put it like this:

It’s rather weird ’cos when I was in Jamaica I wasn’t really allowed to speak it (Jamaican creole) in front of my parents. I found it difficult in Britain at first. When I went to school I wanted to be like the others in order not to stand out. So I tried speaking the patois as well… You get sort of a mixed reception. Some people say, ’You sound really nice, quite different.’ Other people say, ’You’re a foreigner, speak English. Don’t try to be like us, ’cos you’re not like us.’

 011

Despite the mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it after a year I lost my British accent, and was accepted. However, for many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was a stylised form that was not, as they saw it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians came from all parts of the Caribbean. Another West Indian schoolgirl, born in London and visiting Jamaica for the fist time, was teased for her patois. She was told that she didn’t sound right and that. The experience convinced her that…

in London the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ’Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into patois as well.


Researchers found that there were already white children in predominantly black schools who had begun using the British West Indian patois in order to be accepted by the majority of their friends, who were black:

I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly Black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast… But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.

 

The unconscious racism of such comments pointed to the predicament of the Black Britons. Not fully accepted, for all their rhetoric, by the established native population, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British. This was the poignant outcome of what the British Black writer Caryl Phillips called The Final Passage. Phillips, who came to Britain as a baby in the late 1950s, was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:

The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic schizophrenia – you have an identity crisis that mirrors the larger cultural confusion.

 

In his novel, The Final Passage, the narrative is in Standard English. But the speech of the characters is a rendering of nation language:

I don’t care what anyone tell you, going to England be good for it going to raise your mind. For a West Indian boy you just being there is an education, for you going see what England do for sheself… It’s a college for the West Indian.

 

The lesson of this college is, as Phillips puts it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well. In the British Black community, and in the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean, English – creole or standard – was the only available language.

 020

The story of 1970s Britain, whether viewed from an economic, social or cultural perspective can be summed up by one word, albeit a long one – deindustrialisation. By 1977, if not before, its role as the world’s first and leading industrial nation was finally over, just as its time as an imperial power had effectively ended fifteen years earlier, as Dean Acheson had commented. It was another question as to whether the British people and politicians were prepared to accept these salient facts and move on. Employment in manufacturing reached a peak of nine million in 1966. It thereafter fell rapidly, reaching four million by 1994. Much of this loss was sustained in the older industries of Northwest England, but the bulk of it was spread across the newer industrial areas of the Midlands and Southeast (see map). As with the processes of industrialisation two centuries before, Britain led the way in what was to become a common experience of all the mature industrial nations. The so-called maturity thesis suggested that, as industry developed and became more technologically sophisticated, it required less labour. At the same time, rising living standards meant that more wealth was available, beyond what would normally be spent on basic necessities and consumer goods, giving rise to a growing demand for services such as travel, tourism and entertainment. By 1976, services had become the largest area of employment in all the regions of Britain.

Another problem faced by the manufacturing sector was the long-standing British taste for imported goods. Many observers noted that not only was the country failing to compete internationally, but British industry was also losing its cutting edge when competing with foreign imports in the domestic market. The problem of deindustrialisation therefore became entwined with the debate over Britain’s long decline as a trading nation, going back over a century. It was seen not only as an economic decline, but as a national failure, ownership of which in speeches and election propaganda, even in education, struck deep within the collective British cultural psyche.

There were three periods of severe recession, but here we are only concerned with the first of these, from 1973-75. British industry’s share of world trade fell dramatically during these years, and by 1975 it was only half what it had been in the 1950s, to just ten per cent. Nor could it maintain its hold on the domestic market. A particularly extreme example of this was the car industry: in 1965, with Austin minis selling like hot-cakes, only one car in twenty was imported, but by 1978 nearly half were. In addition, many of the staple industries of the nineteenth century, such as coal and shipbuilding, continued to decline as employers, surviving only, if at all, through nationalisation. In addition, many of the new industries of the 1930s, including the car industry, were seemingly in terminal decline by the 1970s, as we have seen in the case of Coventry. Therefore, deindustrialisation was no longer simply a problem of old Britain, it was also one for new England. It was also a problem for East Anglia, because although it was not so dependent on manufacturing, and services were growing, agriculture had also declined considerably (see map).

A great variety of explanations for the decline in British industrial competitiveness were put forward, and have continued to be debated since. None of these explanations has proved wholly satisfactory, however. One explanation suggests that there is a cultural obstacle, that the British have been conditioned to despise industry. This might be a relevant argument to apply for new England, with an industrial heritage going back only two or three generations, and to old England, the traditional rural areas, although even in these areas it would be something of a stereotype, but it would be difficult to apply to old Britain, with its generations of coal miners, shipbuilders, foundry and factory workers. During the depression years of the 1930s many of these workers, finding themselves unemployed, had, like the father of Norman Tebbitt (Margaret Thatcher’s Party Chairman in the late seventies) got on their bikes, or walked long distances, in their hundreds of thousands to find work in the new manufacturing areas. With no jobs to find anywhere in the seventies, these were pretty pointless words of advice. Pointless or not, Tebbitt’s speech was picked up by the popular Tory press and appeared in the banner On Your Bike headlines which have since become so emblematic of the Thatcher era. Unfortunately, the same press used them to put forward a related argument that the British were not sufficiently materialistic to work hard for the rewards associated with improved productivity. Complacency from generations of national success has also been blamed, as has the Welfare State’s cosseting of both the workforce and those out of work.

Alternatively, the government’s failure adequately to support research and development has been blamed, together with the exclusive cultural and educational backgrounds of Westminster politicians, government ministers and civil servants. This exclusivity, it is argued, left them ignorant of, and indifferent to, the needs of industry. Obstructionist trade unions were a favourite target of many, particularly after the coal dispute of 1971-72, which led to a series of power cuts throughout the country and a three-day working week. Management incompetence or short-termism, leading to an abdication of responsibility and the failure to restructure factories and industries, was seen as another cause and this, as seen in the case of Coventry, was an argument which had some local evidence to support it, although unions were sometimes equally short-sighted in some instances.

 024

Britain’s falling competitiveness was making it difficult, throughout most of the seventies, for governments to maintain high employment by intervening in the economy. Since 1945 successive governments had followed the tenets of the economist J M Keynes, borrowing in order to create jobs if unemployment approached a figure deemed as unacceptable (in the 1970s this was about six hundred thousand). During the decade, this became increasingly difficult to do as Edward Heath’s government (1970-74) struggled to follow such policies in the face of a global recession associated with the tripling of oil prices in 1973, by OPEC (the international cartel of oil producers). This caused immediate recession and fuelled international inflation. Attacks on trade union power were becoming more popular owing to a growing perception that they had become too powerful and disruptive, holding the country to ransom. The Second Wilson Labour administration that followed faced a huge balance-of-payments crisis and the tumbling value of the pound and they soon found themselves under the control of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), which insisted on severe spending cuts. The contraction of manufacturing began to accelerate and inflation was also increasing alarmingly, reaching twenty-four per cent by 1975. It came to be seen as a more urgent problem than unemployment and there was a national and international move to the right and against high-taxing and high-spending governments. Demands were made that they should stop propping up lame duck industries with public money or by taking them, however temporarily, into public ownership.

 001

Keynes’ argument had been that keeping workers in employment multiplied the effect through the economy as they spent part of their incomes on goods and services was shown to operate in the opposite direction through the effects of rising unemployment. However, the majority of people of working and voting age had no adult memory of their own of the 1930s, and radical politicians were able to exploit these demographics to their advantage to argue the case for monetarism with tight controls on public spending. In these circumstances, voters felt that spending public money on ailing industries was wasteful and inappropriate, especially as it raised their tax burden.

Printed Sources:

Barry Cunliffe, Asa Briggs, et.al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

McCrum, Cran & MacNeil, (eds.) (1986), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Michael Clark & Peter Tweed (eds.) (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

Safder Alladina & Viv Edwards (eds.) (1991), Multilingualism in the British Isles I: The Older Mother Tongues and Europe. Harlow: Longman.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (n.d.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press (University of Warwick).

Theo Baker (ed.) (1978) The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Derek Wilson (1997), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

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