Archive for the ‘Hugh Dalton’ Tag

Seventy-Five Years Ago – World War II in Europe, East & West; January – February 1945: The Berlin Bunker, Yalta Conference & Dresden Bombing.   Leave a comment

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Above: NAZI GERMANY & ITS ALLIED/ OCCUPIED TERRITORIES IN 1945

The Aftermath of the Ardennes Offensive:

The German army’s losses in 1944 were immense, adding up to the equivalent of more than a hundred divisions. Nevertheless, during this period Hitler managed to scrape up a reserve of twenty-five divisions which he committed in December to a re-run of his 1940 triumph in France, an offensive in the Ardennes, the so-called Battle of the Bulge. For a few days, as the panzers raced towards the Meuse, the world wondered if Hitler had managed to bring it off. But the Allies had superior numbers and the tide of battle soon turned against the Germans, who were repulsed within three weeks, laying Germany open for the final assault from the West. For this, the Allies had eighty-five divisions, twenty-three of which were armoured, against a defending force of twenty-six divisions. Rundstedt declared after the war:

I strongly object to the fact that this stupid operation in the Ardennes is sometimes called the “Rundstedt Offensive”. This is a complete misnomer. I had nothing to do with it. It came to me as an order complete to the last detail. Hitler had even written “Not to be Altered”.

In the Allied camp, Montgomery told a press conference at his Zonhoven headquarters on 7 January that he saluted the brave fighting men of America:

 … I never want to fight alongside better soldiers.  … I have tried to feel I am almost an American soldier myself so that I might take no unsuitable action to offend them in any way.

However, his sin of omission in not referring to any of his fellow generals did offend them and further inflamed tensions among the Anglo-American High Command. Patton and Montgomery loathed each other anyway, the former calling the latter that cocky little limey fart, while ‘Monty’ thought the American general a foul-mouthed lover of war. As the US overhauled Britain in almost every aspect of the war effort, Montgomery found himself unable to face being eclipsed and became progressively more anti-American as the stars of the States continued to rise. So when censorship restrictions were lifted on 7 January, Montgomery gave his extensive press briefing to a select group of war correspondents. His ineptitude shocked even his own private staff, and some believed he was being deliberately offensive, especially when he boasted:

General Eisenhower placed me in command of the whole northern front. … I employed the whole available power of the British group of armies. You have this picture of British troops fighting on both sides of American forces who had suffered a hard blow. This is a fine Allied picture.

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Although he spoke of the average GIs as being ‘jolly brave’ in what he called ‘an interesting little battle’, he claimed he had entered the engagement ‘with a bang’, and left the impression that he had effectively rescued the American generals from defeat. Bradley then described Montgomery to Eisenhower as being all out, right-down-to-the-toes-mad, telling ‘Ike’ that he could not serve with him, preferring to be sent home to the US. Patton immediately made the same declaration. Then Bradley started holding court to the press himself and, together with Patton, leaked damaging information about Montgomery to American journalists. Montgomery certainly ought to have paid full tribute to Patton’s achievement in staving off the southern flank of the Ardennes offensive, but the US general was not an attractive man to have as a colleague. He was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite, and his belief in the Bolshevik-Zionist conspiracy remained unaffected by the liberation of the concentration camps which was soon to follow. Whatever the reasons for Montgomery’s dislike of Patton, as Andrew Roberts has pointed out:

The British and American generals in the west from 1943 to 1945 did indeed have a special relationship: it was especially dreadful.

Despite their quarrelling, by 16 January, the Allies had resumed their advance as the British, Americans and French gradually forced their way towards the Rhine. The German order to retreat was finally given on 22nd, and by 28th there was no longer a bulge in the Allied line, but instead, a large one developing in that of the Germans.

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The Oder-Vistula Offensive & Hitler’s ‘Bunker’ Mentality:

Meanwhile, the Red Army had burst across the Vistula and then began clearing Pomerania and Silesia. The 12th January had seen the beginning of a major Soviet offensive along the entire front from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Carpathian mountains in the south, against what was left of the new German Central front, made up of the seventy divisions of Army Group Centre and Army Group A. The Red Army first attacked from the Baranov bridgehead, demolishing the German Front of the Centre sector. Planned by Stalin and the ‘Stavka’, but expertly implemented by Zhukov, this giant offensive primarily comprised, from the south to the north, as shown on the map above: Konyev’s 1st Ukrainian, Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian, Chernyakovsky’s 3rd Belorussian, Bagryan’s 1st Baltic and Yeremenko’s 2nd Baltic Fronts, so no fewer than two hundred divisions in all.

Faced with this onslaught, wildly outnumbered and outgunned, the Germans conducted an impressive fighting retreat of almost three hundred miles, losing Warsaw on 17 January and leaving isolated garrisons at Thorn, Poznan and Breslau that had no real hope of relief. The Polish territories which remained under occupation were lost, as was Upper Silesia with its undamaged industrial area and Lower Silesia east of the Oder. Almost one million German citizens were sheltering in or around the city of Breslau in Lower Silesia, which was not a fortress in the conventional sense despite attempts following August 1944 to build a defensive ring at a ten-mile radius from the city centre. On 20 and 21 January, Women and children were told through loudspeakers to leave the city on foot and proceed in the direction of Opperau and Kanth. This effectively expelled them into three-foot snowdrifts and temperatures of -20 Celsius. The babies were usually the first to die, the historian of Breslau’s subsequent seventy-seven-day siege recorded. Ammunition and supplies were parachuted in by the Luftwaffe, but these often fell into the Oder or behind the Russian lines. The city did not surrender until 6 May and its siege cost the lives of 28,600 of its 130,000 soldiers and civilians.

During the first two months of 1945, Hitler was living in a world of self-delusion, while continuing to direct operations from his bomb-proof bunker deep beneath the Chancellory in Berlin. His orders were always the same: stand fast, hold on, shoot any waverers and sell your own lives as dearly as possible. It’s impossible to tell, even from the verbatim reports of Hitler’s briefings of the Reich’s most senior figures, when exactly he realised that he was bound to lose the war, and with it his own life. It possibly came at the end of the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ at the close of 1944, or in the first week of 1945, for on 10 January he had the following conversation with Göring over the problems with the production of secret weaponry:

HITLER: It is said that if Hannibal, instead of the seven or thirteen elephants he had left as he crossed the Alps … had had fifty or 250, it would have been more than enough to conquer Italy.

GÖRING: But we did finally bring out the jets; we brought them out. And they most come in masses, so we keep the advantage.

HITLER: The V-1 can’t decide the war, unfortunately.

GÖRING: … Just as an initially unpromising project can finally succeed, the bomber will come too, if it is also –

HITLER: But that’s still just a fantasy!

GÖRING: No!

HITLER: Göring, the gun is there, the other is still a fantasy!

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Although there were often up to twenty-five people in the room during these Führer-conferences, Hitler usually had only two or three interlocutors. It was after one such conference in February that Albert Speer tried to explain to Admiral Dönitz how the war was certainly lost, with the maps there showing a catastrophic picture of innumerable breakthroughs and encirclements, but Dönitz merely replied with an unwonted curtness that he was only there to represent the Navy and that the rest was none of his business. The Führer must know what he is doing, he added. Speer believed that if Dönitz, Göring, Keitel, Jodl, Guderian and himself had presented the Führer with an ultimatum, and demanded to know his plans for ending the war, then Hitler would have had to have declared himself. Yet that was never going to happen, because they suspected, not without justification as it turned out, that by then there was soon only to be a rope at the end of it. When Speer approached Göring at Karinhall soon after he had spoken to Dönitz, the Reichsmarschall readily admitted that the Reich was doomed, but said that he had:

… much closer ties with Hitler; many years of common experiences and struggles had bound them together – and he could no longer break loose.

By the end of January, the military situation both in the west and the east was already quite beyond Hitler’s control: the Rhine front collapsed as soon as the Allies challenged it, and leaving the last German army in west locked up in the Ruhr, the British and Americans swept forward to the Elbe. Hitler’s dispositions continued to make Germany’s strategic situation worse. Guderian recalled after the war that the Führer had refused his advice to bring the bulk of the ‘Wehrmacht’ stationed in Poland back from the front line to more defensible positions twelve miles further back, out of range of Russian artillery. Disastrously, Hitler’s orders meant that the new defensive line, only two miles behind the front, were badly hit by the Soviet guns, wrecking any hopes for a classic German counter-attack. A historian of the campaign has remarked that this was an absolute contradiction of German military doctrine. Hitler’s insistence on personally authorising everything done by his Staff was explained to Guderian with hubristic words:

There’s no need for you to try and teach me. I’ve been commanding the Wehrmacht in the field for five years and during that time I’ve had more practical experience than any gentlemen of the General Staff could ever hope to have. I’ve studied Clausewitz and Moltke and read all the Schlieffen papers. I’m more in the picture than you are!

A few days into the great Soviet offensive in the east, Guderian challenged Hitler aggressively over his refusal to evacuate the German army in Kurland, which had been completely cut off against the Baltic. When Hitler refused the evacuation across the Baltic, as he always did when asked to authorise a retreat, according to Speer, Guderian lost his temper and addressed his Führer with an openness unprecedented in this circle. He stood facing Hitler across the table in the Führer’s massive office in the Reich Chancellery, with flashing eyes and the hairs of his moustache literally standing on end saying, in a challenging voice: “It’s simply our duty to save these people, and we still have time to remove them!”Hitler stood up to answer back: “You are going to fight on there. We cannot give up those areas!” Guderian continued, But it’s useless to sacrifice men in this senseless way. It’s high time! We must evacuate these soldiers at once!” According to Speer, although he got his way, …

… Hitler appeared visibly intimidated by this assault … The novelty was almost palpable. New worlds had opened out.

As the momentum of the Red Army’s Oder-Vistula offensive led to the fall of Warsaw later that month, three senior members of Guderian’s planning staff were arrested by the Gestapo and questioned about their apparent questioning of orders from the OKW. Only after Guderian spent hours intervening on their behalf were two of them released, though the third was sent to a concentration camp. The basis of the problem not only lay in the vengeful Führer but in the system of unquestioning obedience to orders which had been created around him, which was in fundamental conflict with the General Staff’s system of mutual trust and exchange of ideas. Of course, the failed putsch had greatly contributed to Hitler’s genuine distrust of the General Staff, as well as to his long-felt ‘class hatred’ of the army’s aristocratic command. On 27 January, during a two-and-a-half-hour Führer conference, starting at 4.20 p.m., Hitler explained his thinking concerning the Balkans, and in particular, the oilfields of the Lake Balaton region in Hungary. With Göring, Keitel, Jodl, Guderian and five other generals in attendance, together with fourteen other officials, he ranged over every front of the war, with the major parts of the agenda including the weather conditions, Army Group South in Hungary, Army Group Centre in Silesia, Army Group Centre in Silesia, Army Group Vistula in Pomerania, Army Group Kurland, the Eastern Front in general, the west and the war at sea. Guderian told Hitler that our main problem is the fuel issue at the moment, to which Hitler replied, who replied: That’s why I’m concerned, Guderian. Pointing to the Balaton region, he added:

… if something happens down there, it’s over. That’s the most dangerous point. We can improvise everywhere else, but not there. I can’t improvise with the fuel. 

The Sixth Panzer Army, reconstituted after its exertions in the Ardennes offensive was ordered to Hungary, from where it could not be extracted. ‘Defending’ Hungary, or rather its oilfields, accounted for seven out of the eighteen Oder-Neisseanzer divisions still available to Hitler on the Eastern Front, a massive but necessary commitment. In January, Hitler had only 4,800 tanks and 1,500 combat aircraft in the east, to fight Stalin’s fourteen thousand tanks and fifteen thousand aircraft. Soon after the conference, Zhukov reached the Oder river on 31 January and Konyev reached the Oder-Neisse Line a fortnight later, on the lower reaches of the River Oder, a mere forty-four miles from the suburbs of Berlin. It had been an epic advance but had temporarily exhausted the USSR,  halting its offensive due to the long lines of supply and communications. On 26 February, the Soviets also broke through from Bromberg to the Baltic. As a consequence, East Prussia was cut off from the Reich. Then they didn’t move from their positions until mid-April.

Below: The Liberation of Europe, East & West, January 1944 – March 1945

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About twenty million of the war dead were Russians by this stage, together with another seven million from the rest of the USSR, rather more of them civilians than Red Army soldiers. The vast majority of them had died far from any battlefield. Starvation, slave-labour conditions, terror and counter-terror had all played their part, with Stalin probably responsible for nearly as many of the deaths of his own people as Hitler was. However, the Nazis were guilty of the maltreatment of prisoners-of-war, with only one million of the six million Russian soldiers captured surviving the war, as well as millions of Russian Jews. Yet despite their exhaustion, the proximity of Stalin’s troops to the German capital gave their Marshal and leader a greatly increased voice at the Yalta Conference in the Crimea, called to discuss the ‘endgame’ in Europe, and to try to persuade the Soviets to undertake a major involvement in the war against Japan.

The ‘Big Three’ at the Yalta Conference, 4-11 February:

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Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin met only twice, at the Tehran Conference in November 1943 and the Yalta Conference in February 1945, although they maintained a very regular correspondence. Roosevelt’s last letter to the Soviet leader was sent on 11 April, the day before he died. By the time of Yalta, it was Roosevelt who was making all the running, attempting to keep the alliance together. With the Red Army firmly in occupation of Poland, and Soviet troops threatening Berlin itself when the conference opened, there was effectively nothing that either FDR or Churchill could have done to safeguard political freedom in eastern Europe, and both knew it. Roosevelt tried everything, including straightforward flattery, to try to bring Stalin round to a reasonable stance on any number of important post-war issues, such as the creation of a meaningful United Nations, but he overestimated what his undoubted aristocratic charm could achieve with the genocidal son of a drunken Georgian cobbler. A far more realistic approach to dealing with Stalin had been adopted by Churchill in Moscow in October 1944, when he took along what he called a naughty document which listed the proportional interest in five central and south-east European countries. Crucially, both Hungary and Yugoslavia would be under ’50-50′ division of influence between the Soviets and the British. Stalin signed the document with a big blue tick, telling Churchill to keep it, and generally stuck to the agreements, the exception being Hungary.

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In preparation for the conference, Stalin tried to drum up as much support as he could for his puppet government in Poland. It was a subject, for example, that had dominated the visit of General de Gaulle to Moscow in December 1944. It was against the diplomatic background of this meeting with De Gaulle and in the knowledge that the war was progressing towards its end, that Stalin boarded a train from Moscow for the Crimea in February 1945. He had just learnt that Marshal Zhukov’s Belorussian Front had crossed into Germany and were now encamped on the eastern bank of the Oder. In the West, he knew that the Allies had successfully repulsed Hitler’s counter-attack in the Ardennes, and in the Far East that General Douglas MacArthur was poised to recapture Manila in the Philippines, the British had forced the Japanese back in Burma, and the US bombers were pounding the home islands of Japan. Victory now seemed certain, though it was still uncertain as to how soon and at what cost that victory would come.

The conference at Yalta has come to symbolise the sense that somehow ‘dirty deals’ were done as the war came to an end, dirty deals that brought dishonour on the otherwise noble enterprise of fighting the Nazis. But it wasn’t quite the case. In the first place, of course, it was the Tehran Conference in November 1943 that the fundamental issues about the course of the rest of the war and the challenges of the post-war world and the challenges of the post-war world were initially discussed and resolved in principle. Little of new substance was raised at Yalta. Nonetheless, Yalta is important, not least because it marks the final high point of Churchill and Roosevelt’s optimistic dealings with Stalin. On 3 February, the planes of the two western leaders flew in tandem from Malta to Saki, on the flat plains of the Crimea, north of the mountain range that protects the coastal resort of Yalta. They, and their huge group of advisers and assistants, around seven hundred people in all, then made the torturous drive down through the high mountain passes to the sea.

The main venue for the conference was the tsarist Livadia Palace, where  FDR stayed and where the plenary sessions took place. The British delegation stayed at the Vorontsov Villa Palace overlooking the Black Sea at Alupka, twelve miles from the Livadia Palace. The Chiefs of Staff meetings were held at Stalin’s headquarters, the Yusupov Villa at Koreiz, six miles from the Livadia Palace. Churchill, who had cherished the hope that the United Kingdom would be chosen as the site of the conference, was not enthusiastic about the Crimea. He later described the place as ‘the Riviera of Hades’ and said that…

 … if we had spent ten years on research, we could not have found a worse place in the world.

But, as in so much else, the will of Stalin had prevailed, and none of the Western Allies seemed aware of of the bleak irony that his chosen setting was the very location where eight months previously Stalin his own peculiar way of dealing with dissent, real or imagined, in deporting the entire Tatar nation. Yet it was here in the Crimea that the leaders were about to discuss the futures of many nationalities and millions of people. One of these leaders, President Roosevelt, had, according to Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, gone to bits physically. He doubted whether the President was fit for the job he had to do at Yalta. Hugh Lunghi, who went to the military mission in Moscow, remembers seeing the two leaders arrive by plane, and he too was surprised by the President’s appearance:

Churchill got out of his aircraft and came over to Roosevelt’s. And Roosevelt was being decanted, as it were – it’s the only word I can use – because of course he was disabled. And Churchill looked at him very solicitously. They’d met in Malta of course, so Churchill, I suppose, had no surprise, as I had – and anyone else had who hadn’t seen Roosevelt previously – to see this gaunt, very thin figure with his black cape over his shoulder, and tied at his neck with a knot, and his trilby hat turned up at the front. His face was waxen to a sort of yellow … and very drawn, very thin, and a lot of the time he was sort of … sitting there with his mouth open sort of staring ahead. So that was quite a shock.

Roosevelt was a dying man at Yalta, but whether his undoubted weakness affected his judgement is less easy to establish, with contemporary testimony supporting both sides of the argument. What is certain, though, is that Roosevelt’s eventual accomplishments at Yalta were coherent and consistent with his previous policies as expressed at Tehran and elsewhere. His principal aims remained those of ensuring that the Soviet Union came into the war against Japan, promptly, once the war in Europe was over and gaining Soviet agreement about the United Nations. The intricacies of the borders of eastern Europe mattered much less to him. Addressing Congress in March 1945, Roosevelt reported that Yalta represented:

… the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balance of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries, and have always failed.

This was an idealistic, perhaps naive, way to have interpreted the Yalta conference, but it is quite possible that Roosevelt believed what he was saying when he said it, regardless of disability and illness. Whilst Roosevelt’s physical decline was obvious for all present to see, just as obvious was Stalin’s robust strength and power. As the translator at the Conference, Hugh Lunghi saw him:

Stalin was full of beans … He was smiling, he was genial to everyone, and I mean everybody, even to junior ranks like myself. He joked at the banquets more than he he had before.

In his military uniform, Stalin cut an imposing figure, and, in the head of the British Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan’s words, he was quiet and restrained, with a very good sense of humour and a rather quick temper. But, more than that, the Allied leaders felt that Stalin at Yalta was someone they could relate to on a personal level and could trust more than they had been able to do previously. Certainly, Churchill and Roosevelt remained anxious to believe in Stalin the man. They clung to the hope that Stalin’s previous statements of friendship meant that he was planning on long-term co-operation with the West. By the time of Yalta, Churchill could point to the fact that the Soviets had agreed to allow the British a free hand in Greece. In any case, the future peace of the world still depended on sustaining a productive relationship with Stalin. The two Western leaders remained predisposed to gather what evidence they could in support of their jointly agreed ‘thesis’ that Stalin was a man they could ‘handle’. At the first meeting of all three leaders, in the Livadia Palace, the former holiday home of the imperial family, Roosevelt remarked:

… we understand each other much better now than we had in the past and that month by month that understanding was growing.

It was Poland which was to be the test case for this assertion, and no subject was discussed more at Yalta. Despite the protests of the Polish government in exile, both Roosevelt and Churchill had already agreed that Stalin could keep eastern Poland. What mattered to both leaders was that the new Poland, within its new borders, should be ‘independent and free’. They knew only too well, of course, that only days after Hitler’s ‘brutal attack’ from the West, the Soviet Union had made their own ‘brutal attack’ from the East. It was the results of this ‘land grab’ that Churchill now agreed, formally, to accept. But he also explained that Britain had gone to war over Poland so that it could be “free and sovereign” and that this was a matter of “honour” for Britain. Stalin pointed out that twice in the last thirty years, the USSR had been attacked through the “Polish corridor”, and he remarked:

The Prime Minister has said that for Great Britain the question of Poland is a question of honour. For Russia it is not only a question of honour but also of security … it is necessary that Poland be free, independent and powerful. … there are agents of the London government connected with the so-called underground. They are called resistance forces. We have heard nothing good from them but much evil.

Stalin, therefore, kept to his position that the ‘Lublin Poles’, who were now in the Polish capital as ‘the Polish government’ had as great a democratic base in Poland as de Gaulle has in France and that elements of the ‘Home Army’ were ‘bandits’ and that the ex-Lublin Poles should be recognised as the legitimate, if temporary, government of Poland. Unlike at Tehran, where he had remained silent in the face of Stalin’s accusations about the Polish resistance, Churchill now made a gentle protest:

 I must put on record that the British and Soviet governments have different sources of information in Poland and get different facts. Perhaps we are mistaken but I do not feel that the Lublin government represents even one third of the Polish people. This is my honest opininion and I may be wrong. Still, I have felt that the underground might have collisions with the Lublin government. I have feared bloodshed, arrests, deportation and I fear the effect on the whole  Polish question. Anyone who attacks the Red Army should be punished but I cannot feel the Lublin government has any right to represent the Polish nation.

As Churchill and Roosevelt saw it, the challenge was to do what they could to ensure that the government of the newly reconstituted country was as representative as possible. So Roosevelt sent Stalin a letter after the session that he was concerned that people at home look with a critical eye on what they consider a disagreement between us at this vital stage of the war. He also stated categorically that we cannot register the Lublin government as now composed. Roosevelt also proposed that representatives of the ‘Lublin Poles’ and the ‘London Poles’ be immediately called to Yalta s that ‘the Big Three’ could assist them in jointly agreeing on a provisional government in Poland. At the end of the letter, Roosevelt wrote that:

… any interim government which could be formed as a result of our conference with the Poles here would be pledged to the holding of free elections in Poland at the earliest possible date. I know this is completely consistent with your desire to see a new free and democratic Poland emerge from the welter of this war.

This put Stalin in something of an awkward spot because it was not in his interests to have the composition of any interim government of Poland worked out jointly with the other Allied leaders. He would have to compromise his role, as he saw it, as the sole driver of events if matters were left until after the meeting disbanded. So he first practised the classic politicians’ ploy of delay. The day after receiving Roosevelt’s letter, 7 February, he claimed that he had only received the communication ‘an hour and a half ago’. He then said that he had been unable to reach the Lublin Poles because they were away in Kraków. However, he said, Molotov had worked out some ideas based on Roosevelt’s proposals, but these ideas had not yet been typed out. He also suggested that, in the meantime, they turn their attention to the voting procedure for the new United Nations organisation. This was a subject dear to Roosevelt’s heart, but one which had proved highly problematic at previous meetings. The Soviets had been proposing that each of the sixteen republics should have their own vote in the General Assembly, while the USA would have only one. They had argued that since the British Commonwealth effectively controlled a large number of votes, the Soviet Union deserved the same treatment. In a clear concession, Molotov said that they would be satisfied with the admission of … at least two of the Soviet Republics as original members. Roosevelt declared himself ‘very happy’ to hear these proposals and felt that this was a great step forward which would be welcomed by all the peoples of the World. Churchill also welcomed the proposal.

Then Molotov presented the Soviet response on Poland, which agreed that it would be desirable to add to the Provisional Polish Government some democratic leaders from the Polish émigré circles. He added, however, that they had been unable to reach the Lublin Poles, so that time would not permit their summoning to Yalta. This was obviously a crude ruse not to have a deal brokered between the two Polish ‘governments’ at Yalta in the presence of the Western leaders. Yet Churchill responded to Molotov’s proposal only with a comment on the exact borders of the new Poland, since the Soviet Foreign Minister had finally revealed the details of the boundaries of the new Poland, as envisaged by the Soviets, with the western border along the rivers Oder and Neisse south of Stettin. This would take a huge portion of Germany into the new Poland, and Churchill remarked that it would be a pity to stuff the Polish goose so full of  German food that it got indigestion. This showed that the British were concerned that so much territory would be taken from the Germans that in the post-war world they would be permanently hostile to the new Poland, thus repeating the mistakes made at Versailles in 1919 and forcing the Poles closer to the Soviets.

At this conference, Churchill couched this concern as anxiety about the reaction of a considerable body of British public opinion to the Soviet plan to move large numbers of Germans. Stalin responded by suggesting that most Germans in these regions had already run away from the Red Army. By these means, Stalin successfully dodged Roosevelt’s request to get a deal agreed between the Lublin and London Poles. After dealing with the issue of Soviet participation in the Pacific War, the leaders returned once more to the question of Poland. Churchill saw this as the crucial point in this great conference and, in a lengthy speech, laid out the immensity of the problem faced by the Western Allies:

We have an army of 150,000 Poles who are fighting bravely. That army would not be reconciled to Lublin. It would regard our action in transferring recognition as a betrayal. 

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Above: Stalin & Churchill at Yalta 

Churchill acknowledged that, if elections were held with a fully secret ballot and free candidacies, this would remove British doubts. But until that happened, and with the current composition of the Lublin government, the British couldn’t transfer its allegiance from the London-based Polish government-in-exile. Stalin, in what was a speech laced with irony, retorted:

The Poles for many years have not liked Russia because Russia took part in three partitions of Poland. But the advance of the Soviet Army and the liberation of Poland from Hitler has completely changed that. The old resentment has completely disappeared … my impression is that the Polish people consider this a great historic holiday.

The idea that the members of the Home Army, for example, were currently being treated to a ‘historic holiday’ can only have been meant as ‘black’ humour. But Churchill made no attempt to correct Stalin’s calumny. In the end, the Western Allies largely gave in to Stalin’s insistence and agreed that the Soviet-Polish border and, in compensation to Poland, that the Polish-German border should also shift westward. Stalin did, however, say that he agreed with the view that the Polish government must be democratically elected, adding that it is much better to have a government based on free elections. But the final compromise the three leaders came to on Poland was so biased in favour of the Soviets that it made this outcome extremely unlikely. Although Stalin formally agreed to free and fair elections in Poland, the only check the Western Allies secured on this was that ‘the ambassadors of the three powers in Warsaw’ would be charged with the oversight of the carrying out of the pledge in regard to free and unfettered elections. On the composition of the interim government, the Soviets also got their own way. The Western Allies only ‘requested’ that the Lublin government be reorganised to include ‘democratic’ leaders from abroad and within Poland. But the Soviets would be the conveners of meetings in Moscow to coordinate this. It’s difficult to believe that Roosevelt and Churchill could have believed that this ‘compromise’ would work in producing a free and democratic Poland, their stated aim. Hugh Lunghi later reflected on the generally shared astonishment:

Those of us who worked and lived in Moscow were astounded that a stronger declaration shouldn’t have been made, because we knew that there was not a chance in hell that Stalin would allow free elections in those countries when he didn’t allow them in the Soviet Union.

This judgement was shared at the time by Lord Moran, who believed that the Americans at Yalta were ‘profoundly ignorant’ of ‘the Polish problem’ and couldn’t fathom why Roosevelt thought he could ‘live at peace’ with the Soviets. Moran felt that it had been all too obvious in Moscow the previous October that Stalin meant to make Poland ‘a Cossack outpost of Russia’. He saw no evidence at Yalta that Stalin had ‘altered his intention’ since then. But on his first observation, he was wrong in respect to Roosevelt, at least. The President no longer cared as much about Poland as he had done when needing the votes of Polish Americans to secure his third term. He now gave greater priority to other key issues, while paying lip-service to the view that the elections in Poland had to be free and open. He told Stalin, …

… I want this election to be the first one beyond question … It should be like Caesar’s wife. I didn’t know her but they say she was pure.

Privately, the President acknowledged that the deal reached on Poland was far from perfect. When Admiral Leahy told him that it was so elastic that the Russians can stretch it all the way from Yalta to Washington without ever technically breaking it, Roosevelt replied: I know, Bill, but it is the best I can do for Poland at this time. The ‘deal’ was the best he could do because of the low priority he gave to the issue at that particular time. What was most important for Roosevelt overall was that a workable accommodation was reached with Stalin on the key issues which would form the basis for the general post-war future of the world. He did not share the growing consensus among the Americans living in Russia that Stalin was as bad as Hitler. Just before Yalta, he had remarked to a senior British diplomat that there were many varieties of Communism, and not all of them were necessarily harmful. As Moran put it, I don’t think he has ever grasped that Russia is a Police State. For the equally hard-headed Leahy, the consequences of Yalta were clear the day the conference ended, 11 February. The decisions taken there would result in Russia becoming …

… the dominant power in Europe, which in itself carries a certainty of future international disagreements and the prospects of another war.

But by the end of the conference, the leaders of the Western Allies and many of their key advisers were clearly putting their faith ever more firmly in the individual character of Stalin. Cadogan wrote in his journal on 11th that he had …

… never known the Russians so easy and accommodating … In particular, Joe has been extremely good. He is a great man, and shows up very impressively against the background of the other two ageing statesmen.

Churchill remarked that what had impressed him most was that Stalin listened carefully to counter-arguments and was then prepared to change his mind. And there was other evidence of a practical nature that could be used to demonstrate Stalin’s desire to reach an accommodation with the West – his obvious intention not to interfere in British action in Greece, for example. But above all, it was the impact of his personality and behaviour during the conference that was crucial in the optimism that prevailed straight after Yalta. This was evident in the signing of the ‘somewhat fuzzy’ Declaration on Liberated Europe, which pledged support for reconstruction and affirmed the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live. There was, at least in public, a sense that the ideological gap between the West and the Soviet Union was closing, with renewed mutual respect. Drained by long argument, the West, for now at least, took Stalin at his word. At the last banquet of the conference, Stalin toasted Churchill as the bravest governmental figure in the world. He went on:

Due in large measure to to Mr Churchill’s courage and staunchness, England, when she stood alone, had divided the might of Hitlerite Germany at a time when the rest of Europe was falling flat on its face before Hitler. … he knew of few examples in history where the courage of one man had been so important to the future history of the world. He drank a toast to Mr Churchill, his fighting friend and a brave man.

Verdicts on Yalta & Reactions in Britain and the USA:

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In his ‘ground-breaking’ TV series on ‘the Cold War’, Jeremy Isaacs considered that:

The Yalta Conference represented the high-water mark of Allied wartime collaboration … But Yalta was also the beginning of the post-war world; the divisions between East and West became apparent. …

Stalin was apprehensive that the new United Nations might be controlled by the United States and Britain, and that the Soviet Union would be outnumbered there. It was agreed that two or three Soviet republics would be admitted as members and that each of the great powers should have a veto over resolutions of the Security Council.

However, the Western powers might have bargained differently and more effectively at Yalta. The Americans never used their considerable economic power to try to pressurise the Soviets to be more accommodating. The Soviets wanted a $6 billion line of credit to buy American equipment after the war, as well as an agreement on the amount of reparation they could take from Germany to pay for the conflict. They saw this partly as compensation for the vast destruction caused by the Nazis, partly as a means of punishing the German people for following them and partly as a symbol of victor’s rights. Britain and the United States were opposed to reparations; they had caused havoc after the First World War and could now hinder Germany from recovering following the Second. Eventually, after Yalta, they did agree to them, and Roosevelt compromised on a figure of $20 billion, to be paid in goods and equipment over a reasonable period of time. Neither of these issues was properly discussed at Yalta, however, not least because most people involved thought that there would be a formal peace conference at the end of the war to resolve all the key issues once and for all. But such a conference would never take place. According to Jeremy Isaacs, …

Yalta revealed cracks in the Grand Alliance. Only the common objective of defeating Hitler had kept it together; that and the personal trust, such as it was, among the three leaders.

After Yalta, the relationship between Roosevelt and Stalin would be the key to co-operation. With victory in sight, on 12 April, having defused another dispute with Stalin, the president drafted a cable to Churchill: I would minimise the general Soviet problem. Later the same day, and a little over two months after Yalta, Roosevelt collapsed, and a few hours later he was dead.

For the most part, the three statesmen were pleased with what had been accomplished at the Yalta Conference. As well as the agreements on Poland, albeit without the consent of the Polish people themselves or the Polish government-in-exile, the demarcation zones for occupied Germany had been fixed, with the French being granted an area of occupation alongside the British, Americans and Soviets. Yet, notwithstanding the discussions of the subject at the conferences held at both Tehran and Yalta, there was no unified conception of the occupying forces regarding the future treatment of Germany before its surrender. What was ‘tidied up’ on the conference fringe were the military plans for the final onslaught on Nazi Germany. It was also agreed that German industry was to be shorn of its military potential, and a reparations committee was set up. Also, major war criminals were to be tried, but there was no discussion of the programme of ‘denazification’ which was to follow. Neither did Stalin disguise his intention to extend Poland’s frontier with Germany up to the Oder-Neisse line, despite the warnings given by Churchill at the conference about the effects this would have on public opinion in the West.

However, the initial reactions in Britain were concerned with Poland’s eastern borders. Immediately after the conference, twenty-two Conservative MPs put down an amendment in the House of Commons remembering that Britain had taken up arms in defence of Poland and regretting the transfer of the territory of an ally, Poland, to ‘another power’, the Soviet Union; noting also the failure of the to ensure that these countries liberated by the Soviet Union from German oppression would have the full rights to choose their own form of government free from pressure by another power, namely the Soviet Union. Harold Nicolson, National Labour MP and former Foreign Office expert, voted against the amendment: I who had felt that Poland was a lost cause, feel gratified that we had at least saved something. Praising the settlement as the most important political agreement we have gained in this war, he considered the alternatives. To stand aside, to do nothing, would be ‘unworthy of a great country’.   Yet to oppose the Russians by force would be insane. The only viable alternative was ‘to save something by negotiation’. The Curzon Line, delineated after ‘a solid, scientific examination of the question’  at the Paris Peace Conference was, he claimed, ‘entirely in favour of the Poles’. Should Poland advance beyond that line, ‘she would be doing something very foolish indeed’. Churchill and Eden came in for the highest praise:

When I read the Yalta communiqué, I thought “How could they have brought that off? This is really splendid!”

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Turning the dissident Conservatives’ amendment on its head, Harold Nicolson revealed Yalta’s most lasting achievement. Russia, dazzled by its military successes, revengeful and rapacious, might well have aimed to restore its ‘old Tsarist frontiers’. It had not done so and instead had agreed to modify them permanently. Harold Nicolson spoke with conviction in the Commons, but then to salute Stalin’s perceived altruism in the Polish matter rendered his reasoning contrived and decidedly off-key. The truth, as Churchill would tell him on his return from Yalta, was much more prosaic. Stalin had dealt himself an unbeatable hand, or, as two Soviet historians in exile put it: The presence of 6.5 million Soviet soldiers buttressed Soviet claims. But then, Churchill’s own rhetoric was not all it seemed to be. Although in public he could talk about the moral imperative behind the war, in private he revealed that he was a good deal less pure in his motives. On 13 February, on his way home from Yalta, he argued with Field Marshal Alexander, who was ‘pleading’ with him that the British should provide more help with post-war reconstruction in Italy. Alexander said that this was more or less what we are fighting this war for – to secure liberty and a decent existence for the peoples of Europe. Churchill replied, Not a bit of it! We are fighting to secure the proper respect for the British people!

Nicolson’s warm support of the Yalta agreement rested on the rather woolly ‘Declaration on Liberated Europe’ promising national self-determination, of which he said:

No written words could better express the obligation to see that the independence, freedom and integrity of Poland of the future are preserved.

He also thought that Stalin could be trusted to carry out his obligations since he had demonstrated that he is about the most reliable man in Europe. These sentiments, to a generation born into the Cold War, and especially those brought up in the ‘satellite’ states of eastern-central Europe, must sound alarmingly naive, but at that time he was in good company. On returning from Yalta, Churchill reported to his Cabinet. He felt convinced that Stalin ‘meant well in the world and to Poland’ and he had confidence in the Soviet leader to keep his word. Hugh Dalton, who attended the Cabinet meeting, reported Churchill as saying:

Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.

Opposition to Yalta was muted, confined mainly to discredited ‘Munichites’ who now sprang to the defence of Poland. In the Commons on 27 February Churchill continued to put the best gloss he could on the conference, and said he believed that:

Marshal Stalin and the Soviet leaders wish to live in honourable friendship and equality with the Western democracies. I feel also that their word is their bond.

When the Commons voted 396 to 25 in favour of Churchill’s policy, the PM was ‘overjoyed’, praising Nicolson’s speech as having swung many votes. Churchill’s faith in Stalin, shared by Nicolson, proved right in one important respect. The ‘percentages agreement’ he had made with Stalin in Moscow by presenting him with his ‘naughty document’, which had been signed off at Yalta, was, at first, ‘strictly and faithfully’ adhered to by Stalin, particularly in respect of Greece.

Roosevelt’s administration went further. In Washington, the President was preceded home by James Byrnes, then head of the war mobilization board and later Truman’s Secretary of State, who announced not only that agreement had been reached with at Yalta about the United Nations, but that as a result of the conference, ‘spheres of influence’ had been eliminated in Europe, and the three great powers are going to preserve order (in Poland) until the provisional government is established and elections held. This second announcement was, of course, very far from the truth which was that degrees or percentages of influence had been confirmed at Yalta. Roosevelt had wanted the American public to focus on what he believed was the big achievement of Yalta – the agreement over the foundation and organisation of the United Nations. The President, well aware that he was a sick man, wanted the UN to be central to his legacy. He would show the world that he had taken the democratic, internationalist ideals of Woodrow Wilson which had failed in the League of Nations of the inter-war years, and made them work in the shape of the UN.

The ‘gloss’ applied to the Yalta agreement by both Roosevelt and Byrnes was bound to antagonise Stalin. The Soviet leader was the least ‘Wilsonian’ figure imaginable. He was not an ‘ideas’ man but believed in hard, practical reality.  What mattered to him was where the Soviet Union’s borders were and the extent to which neighbouring countries were amenable to Soviet influence. The response of Pravda to Byrnes’ spin was an article on 17 February that emphasised that the word ‘democracy’ meant different things to different people and that each country should now exercise ‘choice’ over which version it preferred. This, of course, was a long way from Roosevelt’s vision, let alone that of Wilson. In fact, the Soviets were speaking the language of ‘spheres of influence’, the very concept which Byrnes had just said was now defunct. Stalin had consistently favoured this concept for the major powers in Europe and this was why he was so receptive towards Churchill’s percentages game in October 1944.

But it would be a mistake to assume that Stalin, all along, intended that all the eastern European states occupied by the Red Army in 1944-45 should automatically transition into Soviet republics. What he wanted all along were ‘friendly’ countries along the USSR’s border with Europe within an agreed Soviet ‘sphere of influence’. Of course, he defined ‘friendly’ in a way that precluded what the Western Allies would have called ‘democracy’. He wanted those states to guarantee that they would be close allies of the USSR so that they would not be ‘free’ in the way Churchill and Roosevelt envisaged. But they need not, in the immediate post-war years, become Communist states. However, it was Churchill, rather than the other two of the ‘Big Three’ statesmen, who had the most difficulty in ‘selling’ Yalta. That problem took physical form in the shape of General Anders, who confronted Churchill face to face on 20 February. The Polish commander had been outraged by the Yalta agreement, which he saw as making a ‘mockery of the Atlantic Charter’. Churchill said that he assumed that Anders was not satisfied with the Yalta agreement. This must have been heard as a deliberate understatement, as Anders replied that it was not enough to say that he was dissatisfied. He said: I consider a great calamity has occurred. He then went on to make it clear to Churchill that his distress at the Yalta agreement was not merely idealistic, but had a deeply practical dimension as well. He protested:

Our soldiers fought for Poland. Fought for the freedom of their country. What can we, their commanders, tell them now? Soviet Russia, until 1941 in close alliance with Germany, now takes half our territory, and in the rest of it she wants to establish her power.

Churchill became annoyed at this, blaming Anders for the situation because the Poles could have settled the eastern border question earlier. He then added a remarkably hurtful remark, given the sacrifice made by the Poles in the British armed forces:

We have enough troops today. We do not need your help. You can take your divisions. We shall do without them.

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It is possible to see in this brief exchange not only Churchill’s continuing frustration with the Poles but also the extent to which he felt politically vulnerable because of Yalta. His reputation now rested partly on the way Stalin chose to operate in Poland and the other eastern European countries. To preserve intact his own wartime record, he had to hope Stalin would keep to his ‘promises’. Unfortunately for the British Prime Minister, this hope would shortly be destroyed by Soviet action in the territory they now occupied. Anders (pictured on the right after the Battle of Monte Casino) talked to Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. In his diary entry for 22 February, the latter recorded what Anders told him, explaining why the Polish leader takes this matter so terribly hard:

After having been a prisoner, and seeing how Russians could treat Poles, he considered that he was in a better position to judge what Russians were like than the President or PM. … When in a Russian prison he was in the depth of gloom but he did then always have hope. Now he could see no hope anywhere. Personally his wife and children were in Poland and he could never see them again, that was bad enough. But what was infinitely worse was the fact that all the men under his orders relied on him to find a solution to this insoluble problem! … and he, Anders, saw no solution and this kept him awake at night. 

It soon became clear that Anders’ judgement of Soviet intentions was an accurate one, as Stalin’s concept of ‘free and fair elections’ was made apparent within a month. But even before that, in February, while the ‘Big Three’ were determining their future of without them and Churchill was traducing their role of in the war, the arrests of Poles by the Soviets continued, with trainloads of those considered ‘recalcitrants’ sent east, including more than 240 truckloads of people from Bialystok alone.

The Combined Bombing Offensive & the Case of Dresden:

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Meanwhile, from the beginning of February, German west-to-east troop movements were being disrupted at the Russians’ urgent request for the Western Allies to bomb the nodal points of Germany’s transportations system, including Berlin, Chemnitz, Leipzig and Dresden. But it was to be the raid on Dresden in the middle of the month that was to cause the most furious controversy of the whole Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO), a controversy which has continued to today. During the Yalta Conference of 4 to 11 February, Alan Brooke chaired the Chiefs of Staff meetings at the Yusupov Villa the day after the opening session when the Russian Deputy Chief of Staff Alexei Antonov and the Soviet air marshal Sergei Khudyakov pressed the subject of bombing German lines of communication and entrainment, specifically via Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden. In the view of one of those present, Hugh Lunghi, who translated for the British Chiefs of Staff during these meetings with the Soviets, it was this urgent request to stop Hitler transferring divisions from the west to reinforce his troops in Silesia, blocking the Russian advance on Berlin that led directly to the bombing of Dresden only two days after the conference ended.

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The massive attack on Dresden took place just after ten o’clock on the night of Tuesday, 13 February 1945 by 259 Lancaster bombers from RAF Swinderby in Lincolnshire, as well as from other nearby airfields, flying most of the way in total cloud, and then by 529 more Lancasters a few hours later in combination with 529 Liberators and Flying Fortresses of the USAAF the next morning. It has long been assumed that a disproportionately large number of people died in a vengeance attack for the November 1940 ‘blanket bombing’ of Coventry and that the attack had little to do with any strategic or military purpose. Yet though the attack on the beautiful, largely medieval city centre, ‘the Florence of the Elbe’, was undeniably devastating, there were, just as in Coventry, many industries centred in this architectural jewel of southern Germany.

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The 2,680 tons of bombs dropped laid waste to over thirteen square miles of the city, and many of those killed were women, children, the elderly and some of the several hundred thousand refugees fleeing from the Red Army, which was only sixty miles to the east. The military historian Allan Mallinson has written of how those killed were suffocated, burnt, baked or boiled. Piles of corpses had to be pulled out of a giant fire-service water-tank into which people had jumped to escape the flames but were instead boiled alive. David Irving’s 1964 book The Destruction of Dresden claimed that 130,000 people died in the bombing, but this has long been disproven. The true figure was around twenty thousand, as a special commission of thirteen prominent German historians concluded, although some more recent historians have continued to put the total at upwards of fifty thousand. Propaganda claims by the Nazis at the time, repeated by neo-Nazis more recently, that human bodies were completely ‘vaporised’ in the high temperatures were also shown to be false by the commission.

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Certainly, by February 1945, the Allies had discovered the means to create firestorms, even in cold weather very different from that of Hamburg in July and August of 1943. Huge ‘air mines’ known as ‘blockbusters’ were dropped, designed to blow out windows and doors so that the oxygen would flow through easily to feed the flames caused by the incendiary bombs. High-explosive bombs both destroyed buildings and just as importantly kept the fire-fighters down in their shelters. One writer records:

People died not necessarily because they were burnt to death, but also because the firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the atmosphere.

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In Dresden, because the sirens were not in proper working order, many of the fire-fighters who had come out after the first wave of bombers were caught out in the open by the second. Besides this, the Nazi authorities in Dresden, and in particular its Gauleiter Martin Mutschmann, had failed to provide proper air-raid protection. There were inadequate shelters, sirens failed to work and next to no aircraft guns were stationed there. When Mutschmann fell into Allied hands at the end of the war he quickly confessed that a shelter-building programme for the entire city was not carried out because he hoped that nothing would happen to Dresden. Nonetheless, he had two deep reinforced built for himself, his family and senior officials, just in case he had been mistaken. Even though the previous October 270 people had been killed there by thirty USAAF bombers, the Germans thought Dresden was too far east to be reached, since the Russians left the bombing of Germany almost entirely to the British and Americans. Quite why Mutschmann thought that almost alone of the big cities, Dresden should have been immune to Allied bombing is a mystery, for the Germans had themselves designated it as a ‘military defensive area’.

So the available evidence does not support the contemporary view of Labour’s Richard Stokes MP and Bishop George Bell as a ‘war crime’, as many have since assumed that it was. As the foremost historian of the operation, Frederick Taylor has pointed out, Dresden was by the standards of the time a legitimate military target. As a nodal point for communications, with its railway marshalling yards and conglomeration of war industries, including an extensive network of armaments workshops, the city was always going to be in danger once long-range penetration by bombers with good fighter escort was possible. One historian has asked: Why is it legitimate to kill someone using a weapon, and a crime to kill those who make the weapons? However, Churchill could see that the ‘CBO’ would provide a future line of attack against his prosecution of the war, and at the end of March, he wrote to the Chiefs of Staff to put it on record that:

… the question of bombing German cities simply for the the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. We shall not, for instance, be able to get housing materials out of Germany for our own needs because some temporary provisions would have to be made for the Germans themselves. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing … I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives … rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.

This ‘minute’ has been described as sending a thunderbolt down the corridors of Whitehall. ‘Bomber’ Harris, who himself had considerable misgivings about the operation because of the long distances involved, was nonetheless characteristically blunt in defending the destruction of a city that once produced Meissen porcelain:

The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden could be easily explained by a psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually Dresden was a mass of munition works, an intact government centre and a key transportation centre. It is now none of those things.

One argument made since the war, that the raid was unnecessary because peace was only ten weeks off, is especially ahistorical. With talk of secret weaponry, a Bavarian Redoubt, fanatical Hitler Youth ‘werewolf’ squads and German propaganda about fighting for every inch of the Fatherland,  there was no possible way of the Allies knowing how fanatical German resistance would be, and thus predict when the war might end. The direct and indirect effects of the bombing campaign on war production throughout Germany reduced the potential output of weapons for the battlefields by fifty per cent. The social consequences of bombing also reduced economic performance. Workers in cities spent long hours huddled in air-raid shelters; they arrived for work tired and nervous. The effects of bombing in the cities also reduced the prospects of increasing female labour as women worked to salvage wrecked homes, or took charge of evacuated children, or simply left for the countryside where conditions were safer. In the villages, the flood of refugees from bombing strained the rationing system, while hospitals had to cope with three-quarters of a million casualties. Under these circumstances, demoralisation was widespread, though the ‘terror state’ and the sheer struggle to survive prevented any prospect of serious domestic unrest.

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The Reich fragmented into several self-contained economic areas as the bombing destroyed rail and water transport. Factories lived off accumulated stocks. By the end of February, the economy was on the verge of collapse, as the appended statistics reveal. Meanwhile, German forces retreated to positions around Berlin, preparing to make a last-ditch stand in defence of the German capital.

 

Statistical Appendix: The Social & Economic Consequences of the Bombing Campaign in Germany:

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Sources:

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Published in 2008, by BBC Books, an imprint of Ebury Books, London.

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Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.  London: Penguin Books.

Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Herman Kinder & Werner Hilgemann (1978), The Penguin Atlas of World History, volume two. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War: For Forty-five Years the World Held Its Breath. London: Transworld Publishers.

Posted February 3, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, anti-Communist, Asia, asylum seekers, Austria, Axis Powers, Balkan Crises, Baltic States, BBC, Berlin, Britain, British history, Churchill, Coalfields, Cold War, Communism, Compromise, Conquest, Conservative Party, Coventry, democracy, Deportation, Economics, Empire, Europe, Factories, Family, France, Genocide, Germany, History, Humanitarianism, Hungary, Italy, Japan, manufacturing, Migration, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Navy, Poland, Refugees, Russia, Second World War, Security, Stalin, Technology, terror, United Kingdom, United Nations, USA, USSR, Versailles, War Crimes, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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The Labour Party & The Left, 1934-39: Case Study II – Immigration & Working-Class Politics in the ‘new industry’ centres of Oxford & Coventry.   Leave a comment

For ‘Migration’ read ‘Transference’? Processes of Resistance & Retention:

The terms ‘Migration’ and ‘Transference’ were continually conflated in contemporary usage. Certainly, ‘migration’ was (and still is) used as an inclusive term covering voluntary and assisted forms of population movement. In simple geographical terms, it refers to that part of the ‘population equation’ which cannot be accounted for by natural increases or decreases brought about by an excess of births over deaths and vice versa. However, in previous chapters on the ups and downs of the Labour Party, the trade union movement and the Left, I have already established that there were important differences in the causes and catalysts involved in the processes of migration, retention and resettlement. The term is not, however, synonymous with importation or deportation, as a form of enforced movement of population. It was in the interests of many contemporary politicians of diverse ideological persuasions to blur these definitions and distinctions to suit their own purposes. In addition, the National Government and its officials in the Ministries of Labour and Health were naturally concerned to demonstrate that the large volume of unassisted migration, which they estimated as being over seventy per cent of the men known to have migrated in 1936-37, was closely related to their efforts to promote transference as the main policy of dealing with mass unemployment. Social Service agencies and social ‘surveyors’ were concerned to demonstrate the need for their intervention in the migration processes and therefore tended to exaggerate and generalise from the worst consequences of ’emigration’ rather making only passing references to the role of autonomous organisation.

Welsh ‘nationalists’, both of the old ‘Cymric-liberal’ and the ‘new’ narrowly partisan variety, were concerned, by 1936, to represent it as expatriation rather than repatriation, as an imposed deportation or ‘diaspora’ rather than as an exodus. These fringe ‘extremists’ developed their viewpoint into a complete inversion of the truth, claiming that:

… sporadic investigations into and reviews of the living conditions of the transferees … are strictly materialist in scope and ignore for the most part the evil consequences of transference – the loss of corporate life, … of religious life, in many cases the enforced change of language, in fact all that goes to putting off one culture and putting on another … the majority of those who leave Wales for work in England do so under compulsion.

The Welsh Nationalist, October 1937.

Propagandists on the ‘Marxist’ Left also tended, quite deliberately, to conflate state-sponsored and voluntary migration, principally because they saw the ‘free movement’ of workers as a capitalist device aimed at the creation of a ‘standing army’, the dilution of labour and the undermining of trade union organisation in the ‘new industry’ centres. Their propagation of a negative image of the immigrant did not allow for an analysis of differences in the organisation of migration. The negative image was again produced by a narrow focus on the worst experiences of the younger transferees. Thus, the interests of both nationalist and communist propagandists combined to ensure that much of the contemporary literature related to migration was ‘pessimistic’ in nature, dominated by the view that it was something which was done to the unemployed against their will. It is therefore understandable that more recent studies, particularly those done in the 1980s, have tended to maintain that narrow focus. These tended to characterise migration from the Coalfield as an act of defeatism, demoralisation and desperation. But although transference was the only significant aspect of Government policy in respect of unemployment in the period to 1936, the actual level of state involvement was quite limited. Even when the scheme was revived and revised, and despite the publicity given to it by a growing body of opposition, the majority of workers who left the ‘Special’ areas chose to ignore its provisions.

The Strange Case of the Cowley ‘Garwites’:

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The researchers for Barnett House in Oxford which published its local Survey in 1936 found a distinct ‘lumpiness’ in the migration streams to the city over the previous decade, providing clear evidence of familial and fraternal networking. This, they noted, militated against the Ministry of Labour’s plans for a more rational and even distribution of manpower in accordance with with the shifts in the demand for labour and the assimilation of the new elements by the old. Of the 1,195 Welsh workers in Oxford at this time, 215 had employment books which originated in the Maesteg District (covering the Llynfi, Ogmore and Garw valleys). By comparison, the numbers from all the Rhondda and Pontypridd districts combined amounted to 224 and those from Merthyr and Dowlais to fifty-five. An even more striking statistic was that a hundred and fifty, or one in six of all the Welsh ‘foreigners’ in the city were from the Pontycymmer Exchange area (i.e. the Garw Valley).

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This prompted the Barnett House enquirers to consult their fellow ‘surveyors’ in South Wales, who advised them that the flow from the Garw to Oxford started in 1926 when a few men made the journey, found employment for themselves and subsequently for friends and relatives. From that point onwards, Oxford attracted a large percentage of those leaving the valley. In the period 1930-36, out of the 1,841 people whose unemployment books were transferred from the Pontycymmer Exchange, 270 (15%) went to Oxford and ‘local observers’ stated that the percentage in the late 1920s was probably in the region of a quarter. The Oxford University sociologist, Goronwy Daniel, lent further support to the view that considerable networking had taken place, as forty-six of the sixty immigrants interviewed by him said that they had chosen Oxford because they had relatives living there.

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From the summer of 1934, the Welsh migrants who found themselves in Cowley, Oxford, began to make major contributions to the Labour and trade union movement in the city. Part of the impetus for the early and extensive migration from the Garw to Oxford was the deliberate act of collective victimisation on the part of one of the colliery companies in the wake of the lock-out. Some of the earliest migrants, like Tom Richards of Pantygog, did not wait until the end of the six-month lock-out in 1926 to leave, setting out on foot for London. Having walked to Oxford along the A40, they had found jobs at the giant US-owned Pressed Steel Works, newly-opened, which supplied Morris Motors and other car manufacturers with ready-pressed bodies for their products. A major strike at the factory for better conditions and union recognition was successful, partly as a result of its being led from ex-miners from South Wales. By that time, a number of older men from the Garw and other valleys, with considerable experience of trade union organisation in the SWMF, had arrived at the works. Whilst the Communist Party in Cowley played a significant supporting role in shaping the course and outcome of the strike, the agitation for it from within the works came from the ‘DA’ (depressed areas) men, among the largely immigrant workforce.

There is a significant body of both documentary and oral evidence to support the assertion that the retention of the trade union ‘complex’ by these workers was a critical factor in the formation and development of the TGWU 5/60 Branch from 1934 to 1939, which contrasted sharply with the failure of the movement to make headway at the Morris Works. That failure can only in part be explained by Willam Morris’ determined anti-union stance since the management at the US-owned Pressed Steel factory was equally hard-line in its attitude to trade union organisation, both before and after the 1934 strike, and organisers continued to be victimised for related activities throughout the latter part of the decade. Also, wages at the Morris Works remained lower by comparison throughout these years. Most observers from the time shared the perception that this was due to the difference in the cultural background among the two workforces.

Haydn Evans, originally from Merthyr Tydfil who took an active part in the strike and who later became a shop steward and foreman at the Pressed Steel, felt that the Oxfordians and Oxonians, mainly farm workers at Morris’, didn’t know what a union was about, weren’t interested and didn’t want a trade union, their fathers having been used to living off the crumbs from the rich men’s tables in the colleges. On the other hand, the Welsh workers had been brought up in the trade union movement, … had lived on ‘strike, strike, strike’ and had been taught “fight back, fight back!” In fighting back, they were just as much at risk from victimisation as the Morris workers but were more willing to run this risk. Haydn Evans again explained:

We had to win … We’d come from a distressed area. We were battling for our livelihood. It was a matter of life and death. If we had lost, many of us would have been blacklisted by other car firms.

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A ‘neutral’ observer from the Barnett House Survey, writing in 1937, also remarked that the distinction between the two forces was widely acknowledged by contemporaries:

It is said … that workers in the Cowley plant are mostly natives of Oxford and lack therefore any trade union tradition; in Pressed Steel on the contrary the men are largely from other parts of the country …

Thus, there is a strong case to be made for the primacy of social and cultural factors in the growth of trade unionism in Oxford; the sense of heritage and solidarity, or ‘clannishness’ among immigrant workers providing a powerful motivation to getting organised by infusing a quiescent trade union movement with militancy.

This is not to say that the Welsh were ‘nearly all Reds’, as they were popularly labelled by Oxonians. The number who joined the Communist Party was probably as small as those who wittingly undercut wages on building sites. But those who were thrust into the leadership of the trade union movement in the city soon also found themselves in leading positions in left-wing politics either as members of the Labour Party or the Communist Party and sometimes, from 1935 in the period of the ‘United Front’ as members of both parties.

One of them, Tom Harris, was a crane operator in the crane shop. He was born in Monmouthshire in the early 1890s, and emigrated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, in his early twenties. There he worked as a miner and helped John L Lewis in building up the United Mineworkers (UMWA). He then returned to South Wales in the mid-1920s, possibly to Maesteg, becoming active in the SWMF. It was with this transatlantic experience of migration and union organisation that he arrived in Cowley shortly before the 1934 Strike. Dai Huish, probably from the Garw, was also an experienced member of the ‘Fed’ before arriving in Oxford. Huish was one of those elected to serve on the deputation which, once outside the factory gates, met to discuss the strike situation. Although Huish had been planning the strike action over the previous weekend, it was the idea of his wife, who joined the lengthy meeting, that the deputation should send representatives to the Local of the Communist Party. She suggested this because the Communist Party had provided invaluable help and assistance in organising the miners’ struggles in Wales. In this way, they soon became involved in the city’s trade union and political life more broadly, thus reflecting a growing sense of permanence and a growing mood of regenerated confidence among the immigrants to Cowley.

Images of the Immigrants – Coventry, Slough & London.

In Coventry, it was not until 1934 that the engineering employers faced difficulty in recruiting semi-skilled workers, who were previously available locally through the City’s traditional apprenticeship schemes. It was then that they were forced to look to the Government training centres and transference schemes for a fresh supply of labour. Even then, however, the employers were insistent on such youths, aged between eighteen and twenty-five, having ‘factory sense’ and felt it necessary to ‘earmark’ funds in order that the men could be given a period of training in the works, in the hope that they might be absorbed. Not all engineering employers were as progressive as this, and many trainees faced the ignominy of failing to make the grade and being forced to return home disillusioned and discouraged from making any further attempt at resettlement. Even in those cases where the ‘improver’ from the depressed areas was capable of acquiring enough skill to survive, he was not always made particularly welcome by workmates who generally regarded him as a pawn in a ploy by the employers and the government to reduce wage rates.

Even Wal Hannington, although severely critical of the training centres, was also concerned by the attitude of the conservative-minded craft unionist who refused to allow the recruitment of trainees on the grounds that to do so would represent an acceptance of dilution. Hannington argued that to admit them to membership would enable the unions to control their wages and conditions. His admission that this argument was ‘unorthodox’ is a measure of the extent to which the engineering unions deliberately ostracised men who themselves were firmly rooted in trade unionism. A perusal of the minutes of the Coventry District of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) for this period provides strong supportive evidence that little or nothing was done to integrate trainees and that this inaction stemmed from a policy of principled opposition to the importation of labour in this manner, a policy that was consistently applied throughout the period. Craft-unionists in the engineering industries scapegoated the immigrants for the revolutionary structural changes that were taken place in them, rather than re-organising their unions on an industrial basis, a form of organisation which the immigrants themselves were familiar with and did much to recreate in their new work environments. They were, however, too often seen as perpetrators of dilution rather than as participants in the process. Accusations of under-cutting became generalised to the point where Labour leaders, like Aneurin Bevan, in opposing transference, reinforced the negative stereotype themselves:

… resistance should be made, for considerable resentment and hostility was shown in the South East of England, and Welshmen had acquired a bad reputation for offering their services at wages below the standard Trade Union rates. …

In making this remark, Bevan was probably echoing comments made to A. J. ‘Archie’ Lush in Slough (Lush was a close friend of Aneurin Bevan and acted as his political agent for most of his parliamentary life – see below). It is therefore of paramount importance that, in studying the contemporary sources, historians should distinguish between prejudicial statements and accurate observations based on the actual reality of the impact of immigration upon the new industrial centres. A detailed study of newspaper and oral sources reveals that the Welsh working-class immigrants to these centres were able to counter the negative propaganda and prejudice which confronted them by making a significant contribution to the growth of trade unionism, municipal socialism and working-class culture in these cities. The problem of distinguishing between image and reality was highlighted in contemporary debates concerning the role of Welsh immigrants in trade unionism in the new industries. In 1937, A. D. K. Owen wrote an article for the Sociological Review in which he assessed the Social Consequences of Industrial Transference. Despite his generally negative attitude towards immigration, he concluded that it did have some redeeming features:

It appears that some transferees from South Wales are already enlivening the fellowship of some London political associations and that the tradition of Trade Unionism respected by transferees from Wales and the North is now being appealed to with some prospect effective results as a starting point for organising the workers in many of the new industries in which Trade Unionism has so far obtained no footing.

The following year, Michael Daly published a reply to Owen’s article in which he claimed that, after several months of research into the difficulty of organising the workers in the South East and the Midlands, he was convinced that… the most difficult people to organise are the Welsh transferees. He asserted that the fact that the Welsh came from an area with a low standard of living made them more willing to accept low wage rates and that they were universally hated because of their alleged tendency both to undercut wages and to ‘rat’ on their fellow workers. From this flawed analysis, based largely on the experiences of Welsh transferees in Slough, Daly went on to produce a caricature which undermines his validity as a dependable source. He concluded that the staunch trade unionists among the Welsh had remained in Wales:

For the most part, they are the older type of craftsmen  whose belief in trade unionism is emotional rather than reasoned, and who tend to appreciate unduly the beer-drinking aspect of branch activities … even if they had transferred to the newer areas, it is doubtful if they would be given a hearing.

Unsurprisingly, Daly’s remarks met with stinging criticism in Owen’s rejoinder:

I have personal knowledge of far too many Welshmen who are pulling all their weight in trade union branches in the London area to accept Mr Daly’s broad generalisations on this subject. Moreover, his remarks about the social characteristics of the ‘staunch trade unionists among the Welsh’ are … completely wide of the mark … The ‘older type of craftsmen’ are far from being characteristic of the active membership of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. A ‘reasoned attitude’ to trade unionism is probably commoner in South Wales than in most other parts of the country with a long tradition of working-class organisation. …

‘Archie’ Lush, who was conducting his researches in Slough and elsewhere in the South East, also found considerable anti-Welsh feeling which was usually attributed to a tendency of Welsh workers to work for less than Trade Union rates. Both he and Owen accepted that this allegation was true only in a small number of cases, and in particular where a long period of unemployment had preceded transference, but what is most significant in Lush’s report is the remark that he found no evidence of trade union activity anywhere on the estate. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that Slough was less typical of the experience of Welsh exiles than was made out by Daly, and it is also important not to confuse the role played by individual Welshmen, either positive or negative, with a collective assertion of trade union values among the Welsh in London. Unfortunately, some contemporary politicians, like Nye Bevan, some in the social service movement and some historians, writing in the 1980s, adopted and restated Daly’s unfounded assertions, and those of Lush, uncritically, the latter in the context of assessing the role of the Welsh in trade unionism elsewhere in the South and Midlands of England. Eli Ginzberg recorded that:

… it was repeatedly said of the Welsh that they would work for wages that no Englishman would dream of accepting. 

006Owen also heard many of these criticisms of the transferees who were often subjected to very hostile criticism of their fellow-workers who resented their presence on the grounds that they depress wages. Although much of this criticism was completely unfounded, he found that it sometimes had a basis in fact. The NCSS’s 1939 report on Migration to London from South Wales was equally equivocal in dealing with the issue:

… there have been, and still are, criticisms made of Welshmen  that they are ready to work for low wages, accepting as little as 8d or 10d an hour. Such stories, some mythical and some authentic, are at the root of a certain prejudice against Welshmen on the part of Londoners. … It is, however, not difficult to understand the temptation to a man who has managed to scrape up enough money for a trip to London to take work at any wage rather than go home defeated, or to face unemployment in a strange and impersonal city with no friends behind him.

The Immigrants in Industry – Propaganda & Prejudice:

Of course, this image of the immigrant as one brow-beaten into submission by long-term unemployment which had broken his courage was one which suited the purposes of the ‘social surveyors’. But the reality was that the vast majority of those who migrated had been unemployed for comparatively short periods, if at all. That reality was often conveniently ignored by those who needed to paint the destitution and demoralisation of the ‘depressed area’ men as bleakly as possible. Although more frequently heard in Slough and London, the accusation also carried some potency in Oxford, where it seems to have derived from the immigrants who secured jobs in the building trade and in particular in relation to the Merthyr-based firm of Moss and Sons. This firm was said to have brought many workers with it from South Wales and to have employed them at rates which were below the standards which existed in the Midlands. It did not take long for this to lead to a widespread prejudice against Welsh immigrants in general, wherever they worked. One of Goronwy Daniel’s interviewees remarked about how she had been offended by hearing a woman commenting on a bus that the Welsh were stealing jobs by working for low wages. Marxist propagandists also asserted that the ‘DA’ immigrants depressed wages in order to show that they were in need of the leadership which only the Communist Party could provide. Abe Lazarus, the Party’s leader in Oxford, regurgitated this myth in his article for the Communist Review in 1934:

They came from Wales, from the North-East Coast, glad enough many of them to accept low standards after years of unemployment.

But Lazarus also acknowledged that the major factors involved in wage depression were automation, rationalisation and the dilution, or de-skilling of engineering jobs which the new processes of production entailed. He also accepted that it was the Oxonian agricultural workers who were far more likely, given their non-industrial background, to accept low rates of pay in the car industry, rather than the Welsh miners. In fact, the evidence shows that although at first, the American managers at Pressed Steel tried to use DA men to depress wages, they were unsuccessful in doing so and that, by the time of the 1934 strike, this was not an issue among a largely immigrant semi-skilled workforce whose wage rates were better than those paid to skilled engineers at Morris Motors, where there were far fewer DA men employed. Nevertheless, popular prejudices prevailed. One of Daniel’s interviewees who had migrated to Oxford in 1933 recalled how he had found:

… a strong dislike of Welsh people on the part of Oxford men, who thought the Welsh were taking their work and were all ‘reds’. 

The juxtaposition of these two remarks provides a graphic illustration of the irrational nature of much of the invective which was directed against the Welsh immigrants; they could be branded as ‘diluters’ and militants literally in the same breath. There were others among Daniel’s witnesses who found these labels freely applied to them and their fellow countrymen. One man who moved to Oxford in the late twenties said that the native Oxfordians regarded the Welsh as rowdy and nearly all communists. In turn, the same man’s attitude towards the natives had not changed in the decade he had been in the city. He saw them as insular and prejudiced and politically dead … A much younger man, with little direct trade union experience before leaving Wales also found Oxford natives to be:

… very reserved and independent, and found it hard to understand their Conservative politics and apathetic attitude towards trade unions. 

As late as the 1950s, industrial trade unionism was still seen by many Oxfordians as being alien to the City’s traditions and as a means for the immigrants to exploit a high-wage economy. Unions such as the TGWU were seen as primarily the province of ‘the Scotch and the Welsh’ and whilst it was acknowledged that trade unions are necessary in some jobs like mining, in Oxford they caused nothing but trouble with the chief trouble-makers being the Welsh who were out for all they can get. 

The minute books of the Coventry District AEU demonstrate a continual concern about the impact of immigrant labour upon wages and, in particular, about the tendency of some DA men to go to the factory gates and offer themselves ‘at any price’. However, the frequency with which complaints like this appear in the minutes is perhaps more indicative of a Union which was struggling to overcome its own conservatism and to come to terms with the transformation of work patterns in the engineering industry, than of a tendency among immigrants to accept lower wages. If some of the younger transferees and migrants were involved in undercutting, propagandists such as Wal Hannington had no doubt where the responsibility for this should be laid. However, rather than taking up the challenge of developing new solutions to the problem of dilution, the craft unions simply gave justification to their members’ prejudices. This sometimes gave rise to abusive behaviour on the part of, and even to disciplinary action against some AEU members. When a Welsh shop steward gave evidence to a sub-committee of the District AEU set up to investigate complaints against Bro. Underhill, a particularly uncooperative and belligerent member at the Humber works, Underhill stated that:

… they were not likely to have harmony in the shop when the other members were Welshmen but were only paying into the trade union for their own advantage.

Well into the 1930s, the possibility that Welsh migrant workers might transfer their trade union traditions to their new environments was a major concern of the industrialists participating in the Industrial Transference Scheme. Their image of the Welsh miner, ever since the 1926 lock-out, had remained one of a potential disease-carrier: the disease was ‘Militancy’. The same applied in the new industries more generally; personnel departments were ordered not to hire Welshmen; employment exchanges were asked not to send Welshmen for interviews; the immigrants were blamed for strikes regardless of the origin of the dispute. As Eli Ginzberg, this evidence suggests that the Welsh were no favourites with English foremen and managers. He also suggested that, while in general terms the Welsh were not the major instigators of the drive for organisation, they frequently lent their support to that drive and were seldom as uninterested as they appeared to be in Slough. At the same time, he thought it not unreasonable to expect that out of half a million immigrants there would be some who cut wages and many who would obtain work locally before the local unemployed had been absorbed. When she conducted a survey among the young immigrants in London in 1939, Hilda Jennings was difficult to understand why previously loyal SWMF members were so slow to join trade unions in the capital. One of the reasons given was that membership of the Federation was seen as a tradition to which they had subscribed without exercising much thought:

It was felt generally that Welshmen are not unduly backward at joining the Trade Union movement compared with Londoners and workers from other parts of the country. Indeed, several key positions are held by men who have recently come from the mining valleys. But, considering the traditions of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, it was urged by the Trade Unionists who had contributed to the enquiry that there were too many Welshmen  in London outside the movement, and too much tendency to apathy among them. 

From this evidence, it is clear that it would be wrong to assume that strong, collective trade union traditions could simply and easily be transferred from the coalfield context of homogeneous, close-knit communities to the diasporic and atomised existence which many migrants found themselves living in a large and heterogeneous metropolis. Conditions within the recipient areas needed to be favourable in order for retention to take place successfully. By contrast, although some of the trade unions in Coventry were concerned about dilution to the point of being slow to organise among the unskilled and semi-skilled immigrants, there is little doubt that by the end of the decade these immigrants had settled well into the pattern of militant trade unionism which had already been well established in the city’s factories before they arrived. Also, from about 1934, trade union membership began to grow again in Coventry, as elsewhere, though it wasn’t until 1937 that this became more rapid. Richard Crossman, the Labour parliamentary candidate at this time and subsequently MP, wrote of the DA men in 1970 that:

Once they had uprooted themselves they looked back with horror on the distressed areas they had left, and accepted both the management’s insistence on ever increased intensity of labour in return for the swelling wage packet, and the collective solidarity and discipline on which the shop-stewards from the first insisted, as the price of admission to the mass production line.

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The St. John Ambulance Brigade leads a parade along Cross Cheaping in Coventry in 1933 (photo by Sidney Stringer).

The ‘Influx’ to the Cities & its Impact on Local Politics:

Organisationally, the local Labour Party in Coventry was successful in drawing together a team of spokesmen and women who could handle municipal politics. More time and effort was required to prepare for municipal power, and Labour slowly came to attract candidates who were not active in their union or working in factories. Of the thirty-one Labour councillors and aldermen whose occupations can be identified in 1936-38, only seven were, or had close links with engineering workers. There were a number of middle-class activists, including clergymen, a number of women recorded as housewives, and about one-third were Co-op employees. A number of Labour activists got jobs with Coventry Co-op because jobs in engineering would not give them enough time off to attend Council meetings and carry out Council business.  The Co-op was the only source of patronage, and thus a useful refuge for Labour activists. However, it’s clear that Labour in the 1930s was also able to attract some non-working-class support, while its leadership was only able to remain in office because they had severed many of their links with the trade unions.

Over a period of fifteen years, Labour leaders had succeeded in taking the Party from a situation where it had ill-defined policies and no clear electoral strategy to one where it concentrated all its energies into the drive for municipal power. The result of its victory over ageing if not senile opposition meant that Labour, far from having stormed a citadel of capitalism, had to preside over the renewal of the city, making up for several decades of neglect. Though many of Labour’s policies were aimed at improving the conditions among working people, such measures were bound to improve the services to employers as well.

006 (3)

By 1937, the car industry in Coventry was enjoying unbridled expansion and the editor of the Telegraph acknowledged that Coventry’s problem was not one of a shortage of employment, but rather one of a shortage of the right type of labour. Such unemployment as existed, he suggested, was due to an increase in the number of people who had come to the city to try to find work for which they were unsuited. Thus, the continuation of unemployment at five per cent could largely be accounted for by these ‘industrial misfits’. In an interview with the enigmatic Captain Black of the Standard Motor Company, the Telegraph discovered that over five hundred additional workers had been taken on by the Company in the previous twelve months. New factories were being built or planned and existing workshops reorganised to cope with the demand for increased supplies. The output of one large manufacturing works was fifty per cent up on ‘the normal’ for September. Thousands of cars were leaving the city every day. The following month it was reported that two firms of body-builders were setting up new factories on the outskirts of the city, giving employment to a further seven thousand workers. The expansion was so overwhelming that some elected representatives began to ‘call halt’ and to reflect the growing national concern about the concentration of industry. In October 1937, the Midland Daily Telegraph was reporting almost daily on the debate among councillors which was becoming non-partisan:

Councillor J. C. Lee-Gordon … questioned whether Coventry required these new factories, and raised the issue of the new schools and houses that would have to be provided to meet the needs of the labour which, he assumed, would have to be imported … Similar opinions have been heard in Labour circles … The viewpoint has been expressed that towns situated in the prosperous areas should not encourage the construction of new factories, but that industrialists in search of these sites should be quietly shepherded into the distressed areas. …

By this time the Labour Party in the distressed areas and nationally had begun calling unequivocally for the end of the Transference policy and its replacement with the planned relocation of new industries. Its report on the ‘Distressed Areas’ had been published earlier in the year, produced under the chairmanship of Hugh Dalton MP. Its recommendations included these two points. Brinley Thomas’ 1938 article on The Influx of Labour into the Midlands examined the origin of ‘foreign’ employment books exchanged in the Midlands Division of the Ministry of Labour in July 1937. As in Oxford, the presence of these ‘foreign’ books in the Coventry Labour Exchange indicated that at some point between 1920 and the middle of 1937 the owners of the books had moved into the area. The Coventry and North Warwickshire area, including Rugby and Nuneaton, had 18,822 foreign books exchanged within it, of which 4,044 (21.5%) were originally issued in Wales, 2,364 in Scotland (12.6%), 2,010 (10.7%) from the North East and 3,271 (17.4%) from the North West.

In Oxford, the Communists had remained weak until the founding of the October Club at the University in December 1931. This doubled their membership and led to the reorganisation of the party branch in 1932. However, it was the Pressed Steel strike of 1934 which transformed the branch into an effective force in local politics with a significant working-class base. The ‘twelve days that shook Oxford’ provided the spring-board for the growth in tandem of trade unionism and working-class politics within the city. Soon after the strike, the party had about seventy members, though less than five per cent of these were openly members. The majority were public members of the Labour Party. Local leaders were already moving away from the ‘Class Against Class’ policy, doing their best to play down the ideological divisions between the two parties. For their part, local trade unionists and councillors had little time for the TUC circular which called for Communists to be debarred from office. The leaders of the Pressed Steel TGWU 5/60 Branch decided to appoint what delegates the branch so wished. The ‘United Front’ line won support in the Trades Council, which adopted the following resolution in April 1935:

(The Council’s) strength and activity is due in no small measure to the presence on the Council of members of the Communist Party … In our daily experience CP members have … thrown themselves into the work of strengthening the Trade Union movement … In the past twelve months, the local Trade Union membership has increased by well over three thousand and we cannot understand why the TUC should want to disrupt this splendid work …

In July 1935, the Cowley and Iffley Labour Party and the local CP agreed to a ‘United Front’ slate for the forthcoming local elections. Their decision was endorsed by the City Labour Party with only one vote against. This ‘United Front’ was led by workers from the ‘DAs’ who were beginning to gain prominence in local politics. In September, four of them were endorsed as Labour Party candidates, though they were also secretly CP members, with one nominated as an openly CP candidate on the same ‘slate’. One of the five, Tom Harris, told the Oxford Mail that he was a strong supporter of the municipalisation of all the public services… However, by the end of the local party was clearly under some pressure to adopt a more moderate slate and the CP candidate was persuaded to withdraw his nomination in order to relieve the situation and maintain the unity of the Party (presumably, the Labour Party).

At this point, a young man who had cut his political teeth helping to organise the housing campaign in south Oxford earlier in the year, Richard Crossman, was announced as a candidate for the Headington Ward. Later in life, after becoming a Labour MP in Coventry and a Cabinet minister in the Attlee Government, Crossman acknowledged the debt he owed to the working-class politicians he had worked alongside in Oxford. Another post-war national political figure, Patrick Gordon-Walker, was adopted as Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Oxford for the General Election of November 1935, in which he was unsuccessful. Throughout 1936 and 1937, the Oxford Labour Party continued to defy the line taken by the national party, supporting affiliation by the CP. The Labour Party NEC’s rejection of this was deplored by the local party. By the Spring of 1936, the strength of the party in both the colleges and ‘the town’ was such that Oswald Mosley was forced to leave the City ‘by the back gate’.

Concern about the frequency of ‘wildcat’ strikes at the Pressed Steel, where the 5/60 Branch had come under increasing control by the CP, led to Ernest Bevin and the National Executive of the TGWU to appoint a full-time organiser for the area. Tom Harris was one of the candidates for the new post, but he was passed over in favour of Jack Thomas, who hailed from the Aberdare Valley. Thomas had become Chairman of the Lodge at Aberavon pit at the age of eighteen and then moved to Swansea to work as a labourer for the Corporation, becoming a rank and file delegate at the first TGWU Conference at Scarborough in 1925. As the Secretary of the Union’s Corporation Branch in Swansea for twelve years, he also became Chairman of the Swansea Labour Association in 1935. He began work in Oxford in January 1937. The Communists at Pressed Steel had their suspicions about his appointment which were confirmed by a speech he made to the Trades Council soon after his arrival, and they issued a stern warning to him in their factory broadsheet, The Spark:

Let him remember that the Pressed Steel Branch of the TGWU was built up by the UNITED forces of the workers long before Mr Thomas had heard of Pressed Steel. The workers in Oxford active in the Trade Union and Labour Movement believe in Unity. Mr Bevin’s anti-unity ideas don’t cut any ice here. Mr Thomas’ job is not to make anti-unity speeches … but to get our works organised.

As the Communists’ strength grew, their argument in favour of the ‘United Front’ grew louder, and a resolution was carried which led to the establishment of the Oxford Unity Committee. The Labour Party almost doubled its membership between 1936 and 1938, to over six hundred, including many Communists. The real roots of this growth were laid, not in the October Club or the University Labour Club, but in the building up of a strong party organisation in Cowley and Iffley, dominated by car workers and especially by former South Wales miners. In January 1937, in addition to the Chairman, treasurer and her husband, Frank Pakenham, all the other six ward officials were Welsh. In 1938, Patrick Gordon-Walker was selected to stand again in the Oxford by-election. The Liberal Party had selected Ivor Davies, who offered to stand down from the by-election if Labour did the same and backed a Popular Front candidate against the Conservatives. Eventually, Gordon Walker reluctantly stood down and both parties supported Andrew Lindsay, the Master of Balliol, as an Independent Progressive. Quintin Hogg, the Conservative candidate, defeated Lindsay in the by-election, but the latter was in no doubt about how the political complexion of the City had been changed by what had happened in Cowley:

We have heard a lot about Oxford ceasing to be a sleepy University town in an agricultural county. There lies the fundamental reason for Labour’s growth.

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Red ‘Influx’ – Rule by the Sweepings of Great Britain:

The phenomenal growth of working-class politics in Oxford in the five years before the outbreak of war to a point where a left-wing victory, previously unimaginable, had become possible, was a key indicator of what might have happened in other ‘new industry’ centres had a general election taken place in 1940. However, the process of political recovery on the Left had to wait a further six years to come to fruition, though the seeds were widely sown before the war. Historians have argued about the role of the war itself in bringing about the Labour ‘landslide’ victory of 1945. What is clear is that immigrant workers from the Depressed Areas played a key role in this political recovery. Their success lay in the way they were able to reflect, articulate and organise a general mood of resistance and recovery among the new working class in Cowley and East Oxford, which was forged from old traditions of trade union organisation and militancy originating in the older industrial areas. The fact that Abe Lazarus, District Organiser for the CPGB, missed election as a Cowley Councillor by only twenty votes in 1937 gives a clear indication of the extent to which the newcomers had succeeded in shifting Oxford politics to the left. The assertion of a leading Welsh immigrant – we changed their outlook – reflects the reality of the immigrant contribution to the transformation of the political life of ‘the City of Dreaming Spires’ in the 1930s.

In 1935, the Communist Party developed a campaign about the housing conditions on the new Florence Park Estate which began with a deputation of the estates’ tenants to the Sanitary Committee of the Town Council in May. It had been built on marshland which had regularly flooded and when the estate was finished there were a series of related problems, both major and minor, which resulted partly from the speed with which the houses were erected. These problems have been described by one of the first tenants on the estate, a Welsh immigrant, and are well documented in the civic archives. The Tenants’ Committee published a pamphlet entitled The Oxford Rent and Housing Scandal – Who is Responsible? But from the other sources, and in particular, from the report of the independent surveyor, it is apparent that, although the problems provided a focus for a broad-based tenants’ campaign, serious cases were isolated and that the majority of the housing on the estate provided attractive, if expensive homes, to immigrants who had generally experienced far worse housing conditions in South Wales. The Allport family from the Garw Valley described the contrast:

When we arrived we were impressed. … we were coming from Wales and the house had the old fires in the best rooms. This was a modern house with the small grates – it was heaven! I can remember how I ran around the rooms. There was a bathroom, which we had never had before – we had had baths in front of the fire. … just imagine the difference – we were delighted – like walking on air…

By the late 1930s, the militancy of the immigrants had spread to the housing estates in East Oxford. The Welsh workers interviewed by Goronwy Daniel were paying between twenty and twenty-five shillings for five-roomed houses. The average net weekly pay packet of the fifty-five men interviewed was fifty-eight shillings and their usual payment for board and lodging was twenty-five shillings, almost identical to the rent they had paid in Wales. The married Oxford Welshman, however, had rented colliery houses for his family for only 10s. 6d. in south Wales, but paid 17s. 9d. in Oxford. Moreover, the loss of the ‘sub-economy’ made available through allotments, coal ‘patches’ and slag-heaps affected the migrant family more than it did the individual migrant. Thus, the relatively high wages which could be earned in periods of full-time working in the car factories were offset to a considerable extent by high rents and other financial factors which closed the gap between income and expenditure.

The rent strike which took place on the Great Headley Estate in July 1939 demonstrated the apparent intractability of these problems. The majority of the husbands on the estate were employed at Morris’ or Pressed Steel and were continually faced with the risk of being laid off, often for extended periods. The lowest rent on the estate was nineteen shillings and the highest twenty-four. The Gazette, the Labour Party’s local periodical paper, claimed that the risk of the landlords in building the estate was negligible compared with that taken by many of the tenants who have been compelled to emigrate from the Distressed Areas. Faced with the impossibility of getting a cheap house, they had no alternative but to take houses at exorbitant rents. The paper went on to report the case of one man who had been out of work for five years before arriving in Oxford and securing a job at the Morris Radiator factory. He then sent for his wife and family, who had only been in Oxford for a fortnight when he was thrown out of work. He received thirty-three shillings unemployment benefit for himself, his wife and two children, out of which he was expected to pay nineteen shillings per week in rent. He was being threatened with eviction. With the migration streams to Oxford drying up in 1938-39, as workers were being attracted to Coventry and elsewhere, the local Labour Party campaigned for greater security for migrant workers and their families in terms of their housing needs as well as in employment.

By 1936 in Coventry, the pressure for accommodation and the increased cost of living in the new housing estates was such that sub-letting was a common practice, especially among immigrants. Despite the Corporation’s belated attempts to catch up with the demand for cheap housing, there were regular complaints in the local press throughout the summer and autumn of 1937 that the costs were ‘greater than in most places’ and were ‘ridiculous’ with many immigrants finding themselves ‘at the mercy of landlords’. In September 1938, a local report on Coventry by the NCSS found that many migrant families had no choice but to rent housing at high rents. Nevertheless, oral evidence shows that, by 1939, migrant families were able to rent houses at fourteen shillings per week. The Labour administrations after 1937 had, by this time, led to the Corporation’s house-building programmes so that immigrants to Coventry were able to maintain a significant gap between earnings and rental payments. Neither did Coventry’s builders have similar problems to those faced in Oxford. The Nuffield Survey’s war-time report on Coventry and East Warwickshire found that in 1941, despite the effects of the November 1940 Blitz, the City’s sixty thousand houses and shops were a goodly number for the population as it had stood at the outbreak of war and that, although larger family houses were few, the great majority of houses provided accommodation superior to the average for the whole country. Mary Jones described her reaction, similar to that of the Allports in Cowley, to the change in accommodation involved in her migration from the Rhondda to Coventry:

Comparing the house I was living in with the house I came from I thought I was in heaven! I thought of the old house and black-leading the grates. …

In Coventry in 1929, Philip Noel-Baker had captured nearly half of all the votes cast at the general election and whilst the fortunes of the Party in the 1931 election followed the national trend, in 1935 the role of former Welsh miners in municipal affairs in England attracted the attention of leading politicians. In November, Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of London County Council, spoke at a meeting in Coventry in support of Noel-Baker. In his speech, he contrasted the practical failures of Government ministers with the successes of a new breed of working-class politicians:

Mr Oliver Stanley, the Minister of Labour, with all his university education, had made a mess of his job. The Chairman of the London Public Assistance Committee was a common workman, formerly a South Wales miner, yet in the speaker’s opinion was better than all the Oliver Stanleys in the Tory Party.

In the local elections in Coventry, the Labour Party made steady headway against the Lib-Con coalition until it finally won control of the City Council in 1937, becoming one of the first local parties in the country to take control of a municipal authority. The taking of municipal powers by the Party had no impact on class relations within the city, nor on industrial relations in the workplace, but it remained dedicated to advancing the cause of municipal socialism. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the gulf between workplace and municipal politics was such that the growing power of Labour in the Council was not challenged by the growing power of the Communist Party in the unions. It seems from this that ‘activism’ in the trade union movement, especially among engineering workers, did not generally lead to candidacy for the city council. There appears to have been a clear division between the two representative roles.

The tendency of Welsh migrants to Coventry towards left-wing politics reinforced a pre-existing tradition, in marked contrast to the situation in Oxford. This tradition was primarily ‘syndicalist’ in nature since it focused its attention upon industrial struggles within the factories. Immigrant trade unionists such as Jock Gibson were already spreading the influence of the Communist Party in the 1930s to the point where it had a ‘significant presence’ at forty factories throughout the city. However, its growing industrial strength was not reflected in the general party politics, since those engaged in ‘the struggle’ in the economic field did not show any great interest in the social field, unlike in Oxford, mirroring the position adopted by many of the leading employers who, despite many appeals, refused to involve themselves in local politics. Hence the dominant political élite in the life of the city remained a group of small businessmen and professionals who formed themselves into a Lib-Con coalition which by the Thirties had remodelled itself as ‘the Progressive Party’. Their loss of supremacy, from 1937 onwards, was attributed by their supporters, not to an overspilling of militancy from the factories into the social sphere but, according to the Midland Daily Telegraph to:

… the rapid drift of population from the depressed areas … a steady stream of potential left-wing supporters. 

The truth was that, with no common principles other than the opposition to socialism, no policies other than curbs on public spending, no electoral machinery and a declining social base, it was clear by the mid-thirties in Coventry that the Con-Lib Coalition had been clinging to power by default. It had been able to protect itself as the social leadership of the city and use its powers to look after its social base but had lacked the will and ability to develop policies that could have encouraged industry to support it, or to attract working-class voters to it. Its inability to plan to meet the needs of the city and develop a modern infrastructure meant that its removal ended an obstacle to progress, not just for working people, but to a wide range of commercial and industrial interests. It had outlived its usefulness, and Labour’s victory in November 1937, besides making possible the application of genuinely progressive policies, also provided an opportunity to make the city more responsive to the needs of modern mass manufacturers. The ‘influx’ in itself provided a further factor in Labour’s progress to power in Coventry, but it was not a primary one. Nevertheless, in the 1938 municipal by-election, the ‘Progressive’ (Lib-Con) candidate in St. Mary’s Ward, near the city centre, had played upon the prejudices of electors who were predominantly ‘old Coventrian’ in winning his seat. This ploy was attacked in a Labour eve-of-poll leaflet, which in turn brought a strong retort from the Progressives’ leader:

They had picked out from Mr Friswell’s speech at his adoption a sentence referring to rule by the sweepings of Great Britain, and had divorced it from its context … What Mr Friswell had indicated was that the coming of so many of the Labour Party’s supporters to Coventry had had a serious effect on Council elections. He was sure that the old Coventry people did not want Socialists in control of their affairs.

Midland Daily Telegraph, 20 July 1938.

The ‘context’ referred to was Friswell’s claim that when he had spoken of ‘the sweepings of Great Britain’ he was quoting what a small shopkeeper had said to him about his district. However, in the full civic elections the Labour Party, surprisingly, did not advance on its 1937 position. This was due to the fact, as George Hodgkinson noted, that many of the newcomers had not yet been registered to vote despite the rapid growth of artisan dwellings reported by the Telegraph. Evidently, the immigrants to Coventry from the South Wales valleys were not as settled in the city by the late thirties as were their compatriots in Cowley, although larger in numbers. Thus, the argument advanced by Conservative agencies within the City that it was the large influx of labour from socialist areas over the year preceding November 1937 that was the major factor in the Labour victory reflected their belief in ‘the myth of the old Coventrian’ as much as it did the reality of the processes of migration and settlement.

The 1937 victory was greatly facilitated by the creation of a large individual party membership which enabled many managerial, professional and clerical workers to play an increasingly important role alongside shop stewards, conveners and trade union officials. It was an ‘alliance’ which was carefully nurtured by strong leaders like George Hodgkinson and Sidney Stringer who shaped the Party into an organisation which was capable of winning elections and running the City successfully. In addition, the radical liberalism of many chapel-goers in the City was transformed into support for Labour’s progressive provision and planning of social services at the municipal level. In particular, the advocacy of Christian Socialism by Rev. Richard Lee, the Unitarian minister; George Binns, Methodist lay-preacher; John Fennel, Ivor Reece (Congregationalist) and Howard Ingli James (Baptist), led to growing support among their congregations fuelled by the influx of workers from areas of the country, like South Wales, where Nonconformity was still comparatively strong. All of these pastors spoke on Labour platforms within the city.

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The Immigrant Road to 1947:

Many of the Welsh immigrant workers, like ‘Jehu’ Shepherd, were attracted to Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the city centre, where Ingli James had his ministry in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Shepherd became the organist and choirmaster and for many years ran a Male Voice ‘Glee Society’ in the city for the young Welsh immigrants. Besides supporting the initiatives which the immigrants had taken to establish an image of respectability in their new environment, such as the Glee Singers, Ingli James also affirmed to a wide audience, the society and culture from which they had come. He continually referred to the miners in his sermons, and his unashamed championing of working-class causes and politics brought him into conflict with the established professional Coventrians among on the diaconate in the church and more broadly in the city. May Shepherd recalled one of his sermons:

Ingli James was a great preacher, very down to earth, and a pacifist. He was a strong Labour man and he upset quite a few people because he just said what he felt – he was true to himself, he would not say one thing and mean another, or say something to please people. Ingli was not bombastic and what he said was true. I always remember once when he talked about the miners, he said:

“I had a load of coal the other day, and paid for it. Did I say I paid for it? No, never, when I think what those men had to go through to get that coal for me to enjoy, and then I say I paid for it. No money would pay for what they did!”

I can see him now in that pulpit!  

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James’ sermons also dealt constantly with unemployment. In 1942, he preached a sermon entitled How Green Was My Valley, coinciding with the distribution of the Holywood film in Britain. The politics of the young immigrant men and women in his congregation, like the Shepherds, had a major effect on the development and direction of James’ ministry, as his 1936 article for the Midland Daily Telegraph reveals:

Coventry is today faced with the difficult task of welding a host of newcomers into a community, in fact of making a city, which is not the same thing as a mere collection of streets, or conglomeration of people… Almost every week strangers appear in our congregation, often in such numbers that one has difficulty  in getting in touch with them. Many are young, and trying their wings for the first time. It is an important part of our work to meet their needs both spiritual and social, to provide them with a place where they may find friends and feel at home.

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‘Before the Blitz’: Broadgate, Coventry City Centre in 1939.

Some of these newcomers were among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists with strong pacifist convictions. James shared their impetus to social reform, which he articulated in his book, Communism and the Christian Faith, published in 1950, in which he acknowledged his indebtedness to the Queen’s Road congregation for the way they had given him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe how he came to his vision of Christian Socialism during his ministry in Swansea before arriving in Coventry:

The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed … I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people. However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no active part in the struggle of the unemployed.  At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ‘the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…  

Of course, many of those he ministered to in Coventry had experienced ‘the struggle’ first hand but came to their visions via a variety of routes. But in his writing, as in his sermons, he was also distilling the essence of the shared experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars, the migrating millions from the Depressed Areas. Compared with Cowley, some of the most prominent Welsh figures in the local party in Coventry did not arrive in Coventry until the later 1930s and made their impact after the Second World War. These included Ernie Roberts, AEU District Chairman, William Parfitt from Tylorstown and Harry Richards from Tonypandy, both of whom became Lord Mayor, and Cllr. Elsie Jones, who, in 1958, made the following poetic contribution to a Party publication celebrating twenty-one years of Labour rule in the City:

Born and reared in a mining area I realised the need for reforms very early in life –

Because I loved loved light and sunshine I knew men and young boys who, during winter, seldom saw either –

Because I loved peace and a tranquil home, and I saw peaceful men become violent at the spectacle of their semi-starved families –

Because I loved music and culture, and the arts, and I knew boys and girls with wonderful natural gifts who would never get a chance to express them –

Because I loved freedom and independence, and I saw proud men grovelling for the ‘privilege’ of working for a week road-mending.

How green and beautiful was my valley. How black the despair in the heats of its people.

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More broadly, it is apparent that together with Elsie Jones, the political attitudes of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were largely conditioned by their memories of the ‘depression years’ elsewhere in Britain. When the Labour Government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to defend it in Coventry and issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and, according to the Coventry Tribune (Labour’s own local paper) was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. If we are to take this statement literally,  there certainly was quite a large ‘lump’ of exiles from the Monmouthshire Valleys in Coventry at the end of the thirties, so it is quite possible that a number of them would have known him personally as their former MP. The growth of municipal socialism in Coventry, from 1937 onwards was, like Bevan’s own role as Minister for Health and Housing, a practical expression of the principles of progress and planning which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to attain to better living conditions than those which they had been forced to endure between the wars. Reflecting on his experience of the ‘two Britains’ he witnessed in the Thirties, Ingli James recognised that although Marxism was ultimately incompatible with his Christian Faith, it provided an empirical means for Christian Socialists to explain the injustices and inequalities of the capitalist system:

Probably the most powerful weapon ever put into the hands of the British Marxists was the prolonged period of widespread unemployment between the wars. Those who wonder why ten thousand electors voted Communist in the Rhondda Valley in 1945, should reflect on the plight of the valley during that period, when streets of empty shops testified to its bitter poverty, when every male member of many a church was unemployed, when thousands of eager youngsters were compelled to seek employment far from home.  The memory of what happened to Merthyr, to Jarrow, to many a small town in Lancashire during these years is still the most powerful weapon the Marxist propagandist can use. Conversely, the most convincing argument against Marxism would be a demonstration that we can build a relatively just society in which every citizen is assured of useful employment and a decent livelihood, without infringing the rights of the individual and without resorting to violence. … we must show how it might be done.

Labour’s coming to municipal power in 1937 proved to be a harbinger of their post-war supremacy in local and parliamentary politics; the election of Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman as the City’s two MPs in 1945 confirmed the Party’s status as the leading political party in Coventry. By that time, the migrants from the Depressed Areas, and in particular those from the coalfield valleys of South Wales had shown, by their various contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the new industry towns, that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns in an economic and political system which had displaced them. Nor were they prepared to be acquiescent in the face of stereotyping, which was often grotesque and prejudices which were always difficult to overcome. In the retention and transposition of their traditional values and institutions, they made an ‘ark of the covenant’ for themselves and thereby found a powerful means of confronting and overpowering those stereotypes and prejudices, and of fostering a positive self-image in their new environment. In doing so, they enabled and enhanced the recovery of working-class politics and culture in the 1930s. When the Lord Mayor of Oxford visited the Garw Valley in 1960, he told those assembled that those who had left the valley thirty or so years before had…

… entered into the life of the community of Oxford to the fullest, … in churches, chapels, football matches and in the Council; in all walks of life … they were highly respected citizens of Oxford.

The memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force throughout industrial Britain, old and new, long before 1945. Those who had lost everything had also lost their fear; they had everything to regain and were determined to be in control of their own remaking. The trade union movement and the Labour Party were the major and long-term beneficiaries of this resistance and recovery.

Sources (for both ‘case studies’):

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.

Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales? London: George Allen & Unwin (Publishers).

Tony Curtis (ed.) (1986), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press. (Especially Peter Stead’s chapter on ‘Wales in the Movies’).

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

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

 

 

 

 

Posted January 26, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Assimilation, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Charity, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, clannishness, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Coventry, democracy, Deportation, Economics, Education, Egalitarianism, emigration, Ethnicity, Factories, First World War, Genesis, George VI, History, Immigration, Integration, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, multiculturalism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Oxford, Poverty, Proletariat, Remembrance, Respectability, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Security, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, United Kingdom, Wales, Warfare, Welfare State, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, xenophobia

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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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Britain Sixty Years Ago (VI): Immigration and the Myths of Integration   1 comment

Recent debates about migration to Britain from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and elsewhere are somewhat reminiscent of those which began to be heard in the late fifties in British politics. From 1948 to 1962, there was a virtually open door for immigrants coming into Britain from the remaining colonies and the Commonwealth. The British debate over immigration up to about 1957, the year I was added to the natural increase statistics of Nottinghamshire, had been characterised by contradiction and paradox. On the one hand, overt ‘racialism’ had been discredited by the Nazi persecutions, and Britain’s identity was tied up in its identity as the vanquishing angel of a political culture founded on racial theories and their practices. This meant that the few remaining unapologetic racialists, the anti-Semitic fringe and the pro-apartheid colonialists were considered outcasts from civilised discourse. Official documents from the period describe the handful of handful of MPs who were outspokenly racialist as ‘nutters’. Oswald Mosley, who would have been a likely puppet prime minister had Hitler’s plans for invading Britain succeeded, was let out of prison after the war and allowed to yell at his small band of unrepentant fascist supporters, such was the lack of threat he posed to the King’s peace. The public propaganda of Empire and Commonwealth instead made much of the concept of a family of races cooperating together under the Union flag.

In Whitehall, the Colonial Office strongly supported the right of black Caribbean people to migrate to the Mother Country, fending off the worries of the Ministry of Labour about the effects of unemployment during economic downturns. When some five hundred immigrants had arrived from the West Indies on the converted German troopship, SS Windrush, in 1948, the Home Secretary had declared that though some people feel it would be a bad thing to give the coloured races of the Empire the idea that… they are the equals of the people of this country… we recognise the right of the colonial peoples to be treated as men and brothers of the people of this country. Successive governments, Labour and Tory, saw Britain as the polar opposite of Nazi Germany, a benign and unprejudiced island which was connected to the modern world. The Jewish migration of the late thirties and forties had brought one of the greatest top-ups of skill and energy that any modern European state had ever seen. In addition, the country already had a population of about seventy-five thousand black and Asian people at the end of the war, and Labour shortages suggested that it needed many more. The segregation of the American Deep South and the development of apartheid policies in South Africa were regarded with high-minded contempt.

However, while pre-war British society had never been as brutal about race as France or Spain, never mind Germany, it was still riddled with racialism from top to bottom. In places like Coventry, there had been a good deal of prejudice against the Welsh, Irish and Indian migrants who had arrived in large numbers from the mid-thirties onwards. This continued after the war, with coloured workers, in particular, being kept in low-paid factory jobs by foremen and union shop-stewards alike. Although the small wartime community in the city had expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954, this was still a relatively small number compared with white migrants from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, especially Ireland, as can be seen in the tables below:

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The sub-continental ethnic minority communities were described by many contemporary Coventrians as quiet and peace-loving, ‘colonising’ some of the more rundown housing stock along the Foleshill Road to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry at the time, the Indian minorities were anxious to protect their own culture and identity. As early as 1952, the City Council had granted Pakistani Muslims land for separate burial facilities and for the building of a Mosque. Despite being relatively few in number, Coventry’s Indian and Pakistani communities were, however, not immune from the sort of racial prejudice which was beginning to disfigure Britain nationally, especially the barbs directed at the Caribbean communities. Estate agents in Coventry began to operate a colour bar in October 1954, following the following editorial in the Coventry Standard, the weekly local newspaper:

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. 

These were not the outpourings of a bigoted correspondent, but the major editorial, the like of which had appeared in local newspapers before the War, questioning the arrival in the city of the sweepings of the nation, in reference to the destitute miners whom my grandfather helped to find accommodation and work in the Walsgrave and Binley areas on the outskirts of the city. But these new stereotypes, though just as inaccurate, were far more virulent, and could not be so easily counteracted and contradicted by people who appeared so different from, and therefore to, the native Coventrians. The reality, of course, was at variance from this obvious conflation of the Caribbean and Asian minorities.  The former was an even smaller minority in Coventry than the latter, amounting to only 1,200 even by 1961, and the idea of alcoholic or methylated Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus staggering along the Foleshill Road stemmed from a complete ignorance of other religious and ethnic cultures, even when compared with other prejudicial statements of the time.

Although the Standard‘s editor may have been conscious of the housing pressures in neighbouring Birmingham, the vision of black people pouring into cities throughout Britain was, again, a clear exaggeration, especially for the early fifties. This can only be explained by the observation that ‘racialism’ seems to have infected a wide spectrum of Coventry society at this time, including the engineering trade unions. The Census of 1961 below showed that 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. The local population was increasing by approximately four thousand per year between 1951 and 1966,  but the proportion of this attributable to general migration declined dramatically over these fifteen years. Between 1951 and 1961 a Department of the Environment survey estimated that migration accounted for 44.5 per cent of population growth in what it referred to as the Coventry belt (presumably, this included the nearby urbanised towns and villages of north and east Warwickshire).

In many areas of the country in the early fifties, white working-class people hardly ever came across anyone of another colour after the black GIs returned home. Neither were Polish and Eastern European migrants free from discrimination, although their white skins were more welcome. As with the Welsh and Irish migrants before them, the prejudice against the wartime Polish immigrants ensured a high level of community participation, strengthening the need for ethnic identification and compensatory status, reinforcing minority group solidarity and building the Polish community into a social entity. These conditions defined the ethnic vitality of the community, giving shape to its social, religious, economic and political life, in addition to enabling it to meet every need of Polish immigrants in Britain. By the end of the next decade, it could be observed that:

The Pole can buy Polish food from Polish shops, eat in Polish restaurants, sleep in Polish hotels or digs, with a Polish landlady, entertain friends in Polish clubs, attend a Polish doctor (over 500 are practising in Britain or dentist (80 Polish dental services), have a Polish priest and be buried by a Polish undertaker.

Anti-Semitism also remained common in the popular literature of the 1950s, and the actual practices of the British upper middle classes towards ordinary Jewish communities remained, as they had done before the war, close to the colour bar practised by Americans. Before the war, Jewish working people had been barely tolerated as servants and shopkeepers. The centres of Yiddish-speaking in London until the early 1950s were the East End districts of Whitechapel, Aldgate, Spitalfields and Stepney (the latter subsequently formed part of the larger borough of Tower Hamlets, which was widely populated by the Bangladeshi community from the 1980s). The influential major Jewish school in the East End, the Jews’ Free School, which had up to five thousand pupils in the early 1900s, saw itself as a citadel of anglicisation through to the 1950s, since Yiddish was regarded, not as a language in its own right, but as a corrupt form of German, itself still labelled as the language of the corrupt and oppressive Nazi regime. Even before the Second World War, irrespective of their attitudes towards religion, many Zionist groups throughout Europe had promoted Hebrew and stressed their rejection of Yiddish as the product of the Diaspora. Popular Jewish youth clubs in Britain, in common cause with the schools, had also promoted anglicisation and had also been highly successful in producing a generation oriented towards sports, dancing and mainstream British leisure pursuits.

Nevertheless, there also remained substantial Yiddish-speaking immigrant communities in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. The fundamentalist, or Orthodox communities, had already established themselves in the Stamford and Stoke Newington areas of Greater London before the Second World War, but it was not until after the war that these communities grew to significant sizes. For many of them, continuing to speak Yiddish, rather than using the modern Hebrew of Israel after 1948, was an act of defiance towards Zionism. It was therefore not surprising that, as early as the 1950s, it was a very common response of both first and second generation British Jews from the mainstream communities to deny all knowledge of Yiddish. Of those who did, only a tiny minority would be heard using it in public, even as late as the early 1980s, though that decade also, later, saw an enormous increase in Yiddish.

In the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, the numbers of Ashkenazi Jews were swollen by a significant proportion of the relatively few Holocaust survivors who were allowed to settle in Britain and still further boosted by some hundreds of Hungarian Jews who left Hungary after the 1956 Uprising, after which they suffered further persecution from the Kádár regime. I have written extensively, elsewhere on this site, about the Hungarian refugees who arrived in Britain in the winter and spring of 1956-57, and we know that of the 200,000 who fled Hungary during those months, some 56,000 were officially admitted to the UK. Of course, in addition to the Jews who had already settled in London and Manchester, these latest arrivals were from all religions and classes in Hungary, not just the élite army officers, landowners and capitalists who had fled the Fascism of the Horthy and Szalási regimes, but all those fearing repression and reprisals, or seizing the opportunity to seek a higher standard of living in western Europe.  Among them were many of Jewish origin who had converted to Protestantism or Catholicism, along with the original adherents of those religions. The fifty-six exiles comprised a wide range of landless peasants, unskilled workers, craftsmen, professionals and entrepreneurs.

Marika Sherwood emigrated first to Australia as a ten-year-old in 1948 with her parents and grandparents. She quickly learnt English and easily assimilated into school life. She was briefly married to an Australian, but her amorphous yearning for Europe led to her re-migration to London, where she formed a circle of native British friends since she knew almost no Hungarians. Although returning to Hungary for regular visits to relatives, her Hungarian was English-accented and of the ‘kitchen’ variety. While her son maintained an interest in Hungary, he spoke only a few words of Hungarian, and his wife and friends were all English. Marika’s roundabout route to Britain was far from typical of the Hungarian exiles there who left their native land in the late forties and fifties, but her rapid assimilation into English life certainly was so. Unlike the Poles, the Hungarians did not establish separate support networks or religious and cultural institutions, though at the height of the exodus the Hungarian Embassy sponsored nine British-Hungarian associations. The oldest one, in London, was founded in 1951 and conducted its meetings in English. In the following twenty years, its membership dropped by half, from 150 to 75. In one area the membership included only ‘fifty-sixers’, as earlier immigrants either died or moved away, but in two others there were remnants of earlier migrations. Marika Sherwood’s concluding remarks are perhaps the most significant in her account, in that they draw attention, not so much to discrimination faced by immigrants among their hosts, but to the lack of attention paid by ‘the British’ to questions of migration, assimilation and integration:

The British myopia regarding immigration has prevented researchers recognising that some more general questions regarding the absorption and assimilation of immigrants have to be answered before we can begin to understand reactions to Black immigrants or the responses of Black peoples to such host reactions. We need to know the ramifications of meaning behind the lack of hyphenated Britons. We need to know if there are pressures to lose one’s ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and which indicators the natives find least tolerable – and why. When we know more we might be able to deal more successfully with some aspects of the racism  which greeted and continues to greet Black immigrants. 

The fact remains that almost as soon as the first post-war migrants had arrived from Jamaica and the other West Indian islands, popular papers were reporting worries about their cleanliness, sexual habits and criminality: ‘No dogs, No blacks, No Irish’ was not a myth, but a perfectly common sign on boarding houses. The hostility and coldness of native British, particularly in the English towns and cities, was quickly reported back by the early migrants. Even Hugh Dalton, a member of the Labour cabinet in 1945-51, talked of the polluting poverty-stricken, diseased nigger communities of the African colonies. Perhaps, therefore, we should not act quite so surprised that such attitudes still continue to fall as readily from the lips of Labour as well as Tory politicians in the twenty-first century as they did sixty years ago.

Even then, in the mid-fifties, questions of race were obscure and academic for most people, as the country as a whole remained predominantly white. Until at least a decade later, there were only small pockets of ‘coloured’ people in the poorer inner-city areas. There were debates in the Tory cabinets of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, but most of them never got anywhere near changing immigration policy. Any legislation to limit migration within the Commonwealth would have also applied to the white people of the old dominions too, or it would have been clearly and unacceptably based on racial discrimination. In the fifties, conservatives and socialists alike regarded themselves as civilized and liberal on race, but still showed a tendency to pick and choose from different parts of the Empire and Commonwealth. For instance, the Colonial Office specifically championed the skilled character and proven industry of the West Indians over the unskilled and largely lazy Indians. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent had begun almost immediately after its independence and partition, as a result of the displacement of both Hindus and Muslims, but it had been small in scale.

Sikhs, mainly from the Punjab, had also arrived in Britain, looking for work in the west London borough of Southall, which quickly became a hub of the subcontinent. Indian migrants created their own networks for buying and supplying the corner shops which required punishingly long hours, and the restaurants which had almost instantly become part of the ‘British’ way of life. By 1970 there were more than two thousand Indian (especially Punjabi) restaurants, and curry became the single most popular dish in the UK within the following generation. Other migrants went into textile production and the rag trade, growing relatively rich compared with most of their British ‘neighbours’, who were (perhaps naturally enough) somewhat jealous of the people they viewed as ‘newcomers’.

So immigration continued through the fifties without any great debate. Much of it was not black but European, mostly migrant workers from Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Italy, France and other countries who were positively welcomed during the years of skill and manpower shortages. There was a particularly hefty Italian migration producing a first-generation Italian-speaking community of around a hundred thousand by 1971, adding to earlier immigration going back to the 1870s, and even as far back as the 1400s. Migrants who moved to the UK before the Second World War settled in different parts of Britain, including the south Wales valleys, where they set up bracchi shops selling coffee, ice cream and soda among other goods. Their links within the catering trade and subsequent competition encouraged dispersion. Chain migration led to the settlement of groups coming from the same area in particular locations, similar to the patterns experienced by Welsh migrants to England in the inter-war period.

After 1945, the destination for the mass-recruited Italian migrants, coming almost exclusively from the rural areas in southern Italy, were towns where industrial settlements required unskilled labour, like the brick-making industries of Bedford and Peterborough, or rural areas needing labour for agriculture. In later decades, as Italian migration to Britain declined, the proportion of migrants from the centre and north of Italy increased at the expense of that from the impoverished south. Areas associated with the mass recruitment of the 1950s witnessed the formation of close-knit communities of people whose personal histories were similar, who came from the same region or neighbouring regions, often from the same village. The home dialects were often mutually intelligible and therefore played a great role in community interaction. It was often a crystallised form of dialect, that, outside its natural environment, did not follow the same evolution as the dialect back home. Instead, these dialects were heavily loaded with English borrowings. Even something as simple as a ‘cup of tea’ was usually offered in English, as it represented a habit acquired in the new environment.

Throughout the 1950s, there was constant and heavy migration from Ireland, mainly into the construction industry, three-quarters of a million in the early fifties and two million by the early seventies, producing little political response except in the immediate aftermath of IRA bombings. There was substantial Maltese immigration which caught the public attention for a time due to the violent gang wars in London between rival Maltese families in the extortion and prostitution business (many of them were originally Sicilian). In addition, there were many ‘refugees’ from both sides of the Greek-Turkish Cypriot conflict, including one of my best friends in Birmingham, a second-generation Greek Cypriot whose family owned a restaurant in their adopted city and continued to attend Orthodox services. Again, apart from the enthusiastic adoption of plate-smashing and moussaka-throwing in such restaurants, there was little discernible public concern.

The first sizeable Greek Cypriot group arrived in the inter-war years and was composed of young men in search of education and work. On the outbreak of the Second World War, most of them were conscripted as ‘overseas nationals’ and served as British soldiers in various parts of the world. After the war, more significant numbers of Greek Cypriot men arrived, followed by their families as soon as they had found a permanent job and suitable housing. The 1955-60 Independence struggle gave rise to further immigration to Britain, as did the subsequent struggles and invasions. By the 1980s, the Greek Cypriot population in Britain had reached two hundred thousand. Although there were small Greek communities in Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester, by far the largest proportion of the Greek speech community was concentrated in London. In the national context, the numbers of Greeks was relatively small. Within the capital, however, Greeks formed a significant minority, and the number of recorded Greek-speakers there only began to decrease in the 1980s, though still constituting one of the largest bilingual groups in Inner London schools.

Greek Cypriots, although leaving behind a sometimes bloody conflict, left their island homes mainly as economic migrants. The majority of them came from lower socio-economic groups, setting out with high aspirations, confident about their hard-working nature and grounded in the strong sense of solidarity binding them to their compatriots. Once in Britain, they worked mainly in the service sector, in catering, hairdressing and grocery-retailing, as well as in the clothing and shoe manufacturing industries. In the villages of Cyprus, most women’s work had been confined to the household and the fields. In Britain, though still undervalued and underpaid, a substantial number of women went to work in the clothing industry, either as machinists in small family run factories or as out-workers sewing clothes at home at piece-work rates.

Mother-tongue teaching was provided by the Greek Orthodox Church in the early 1950s. Increasingly, however, this role was taken over by various parents’ groups. The longest-standing of these is the Greek Parents’ Association in Haringey, which dates back to 1955. Other parts of London and the country slowly took their lead from this, and classes were established in Coventry in 1963, and much later, in 1979, in Bradford. Children spent between one and four hours per week in these community-run classes, with the average attendance in the region of three hours. A pressing issue in these classes has been the place of the Cypriot dialect. While parents wanted their children to learn standard modern Greek (SMG), many British-trained teachers felt that the Cypriot dialect should also have a place as a medium of instruction.

Migration from Turkey and Cyprus followed very different patterns. Cypriot settlement preceded emigration from Turkey, dating back to the 1950s when the British government was actively seeking labour. In the 1960s, the birth of the Republic of Cyprus and the subsequent fighting between Greek and Turkish communities further encouraged migration to Britain, often in a bid to gain entry before the enactment of increasingly stringent immigration legislation. With the occupation of the northern part of the island by Turkey in 1974, a further nine thousand Greek and Turkish Cypriot refugees fled to Britain. It is impossible to tell how many of these came from each ethnic group since only place of birth information was recorded on settlement in the UK, not ethnic identity. Migration from Turkey itself only began in the 1970s. Cypriot Turkish has traditionally been accorded low status, often dismissed as ‘incorrect’ or as ‘pidgin Turkish’, although Turkish Cypriots have defended the legitimacy of their own variety and, since 1974, have resisted linguistic assimilation from mainland Turkey. 

Chinese migration, mainly from the impoverished agricultural hinterland of Hong Kong, can be measured by the vast rise in Chinese fish-and-chip shops, takeaways and restaurants since the mid-fifties, when there were a few hundred, to more than four thousand by the beginning of the seventies. Their owners were speakers of the Cantonese dialect.

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A Jamaican immigrant seeking lodgings in Birmingham in 1955

Thus, if there were clear rules about how to migrate quietly to Britain, they would have stated first, ‘be white’, and second, ‘if you can’t be white, be small in number’, and third, ‘if all else fails, feed the brutes’. The West Indian migration, at least until the mid-eighties, failed each rule. It was mainly male, young and coming not to open restaurants but to work for wages which could, in part, be sent back home. Some official organisations, including the National Health Service and London Transport, went on specific recruiting drives for drivers, conductors, nurses and cleaners, with advertisements in Jamaica. Most of the population shift, however, was driven by the migrants themselves, desperate for a better life, particularly once the popular alternative migration to the USA was closed down in 1952. The Caribbean islands, dependent on sugar or tobacco for most employment, were going through hard times. As word was passed back about job opportunities, albeit in difficult surroundings, immigration grew fast to about 36,000 people a year by the late fifties. The scale of the change was equivalent to the total non-white population of 1951 arriving in Britain every two years. The black and Asian population rose to 117,000 by 1961. Although these were still comparatively small numbers, from the first they were concentrated in particular localities, rather than being dispersed. Different West Indian island groups clustered in different parts of London and the English provincial cities – Jamaicans in the south London areas of Brixton and Clapham,  Trinidadians in west London’s Notting Hill, islanders from Nevis in Leicester, people from St Vincent in High Wycombe, and so on.

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405,000 people from the Caribbean migrated to Britain between 1948 and 1958, mostly single men.

The means and manners by which these people migrated to Britain had a huge impact on the later condition of post-war society and deserves special, detailed analysis. The fact that so many of the first migrants were young men who found themselves living without wives, mothers and children inevitably created a wilder atmosphere than they were accustomed to in their island homes. They were short of entertainment as well as short of the social control of ordinary family living. The chain of generational influence was broken at the same time as the male strut was liberated. Drinking dens and gambling, the use of marijuana, ska and blues clubs were the inevitable results. Early black communities in Britain tended to cluster where the first arrivals had settled, which meant in the blighted inner cities. There, street prostitution was more open and rampant in the fifties than it was later so that it is hardly surprising that young men away from home for the first time often formed relationships with prostitutes, and that some became pimps themselves. This was what fed the popular press hunger for stories to confirm their prejudices about black men stealing ‘our women’. The upbeat, unfamiliar music, illegal drinking and drugs and the sexual appetites of the young immigrants all combined to paint a lurid picture of a new underclass.

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In the 1960s, women and children joined their men: 328,000 more West Indians settled in Britain.

More important in the longer-term, a rebelliousness was sown in black families which would be partly tamed only when children and spouses began to arrive in large numbers in the sixties, and the Pentecostal churches reclaimed at least some of their own, sending out their gospel groups to entertain as well as evangelise among the previously lily-white but Welsh-immigrant-led nonconformist chapels in the early seventies. Housing was another crucial part of the story. For the immigrants of the fifties, accommodation was necessarily privately rented, since access to council homes was based on a long list of existing residents. So the early black immigrants, like the earlier immigrant groups before them, were cooped up in crowded, often condemned Victorian terrace properties in west London, Handsworth in west Birmingham, or the grimy back-streets of Liverpool and Leeds.

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Landlords and landladies were often reluctant to rent to blacks. Once a few houses had immigrants in them, a domino effect would clear streets as white residents sold up and shipped out. The 1957 Rent Act, initiated by Enoch Powell, in his free-market crusade, perversely made the situation worse by allowing rents to rise sharply, but only when tenants of unfurnished rooms were removed to allow for furnished lettings. Powell had intended to instigate a period during which rent rises could be cushioned, but its unintended consequence was that unscrupulous landlords such as the notorious Peter Rachman, himself an immigrant, bought up low-value properties for letting, ejecting the existing tenants and replacing them with new tenants, packed in at far higher rents. Thuggery and threats generally got rid of the old, often elderly, white tenants, to be replaced by the new black tenants who were desperate for somewhere to live and therefore prepared to pay the higher rents they were charged. The result was the creation of instant ghettos in which three generations of black British would soon be crowded together. It was the effects of Powell’s housing policies of the fifties which led directly to the Brixton, Tottenham, Toxteth and Handsworth riots of the eighties.

 

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Yet these were not, of course, the only direct causes of the racial tensions and explosions which were to follow. The others lay in the reactions of the white British, or rather the white English. One Caribbean writer claimed, with not a touch of irony, that he had never met a single English person with colour prejudice. Once he had walked the entire length of a street, and everyone told me that he or she ‘ad no prejudice against coloured people. It was the neighbour who was stupid. If only we could find the “neighbour” we could solve the whole problem. But to find ‘im is the trouble. Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country. Numerous testimonies by immigrants and in surveys of the time show how hostile people were to the idea of having black or Asian neighbours. The trades unions bristled against blacks coming in to take jobs, possibly at lower rates of pay, just as they had complained about Irish or Welsh migrants a generation earlier. Union leaders regarded as impeccably left-wing lobbied governments to keep out black workers. For a while, it seemed that they would be successful enough by creating employment ghettos as well as housing ones, until black workers gained a toe-hold in the car-making and other manufacturing industries where the previous generations of immigrants had already fought battles for acceptance against the old craft unionists and won.

Only a handful of MPs campaigned openly against immigration. Even Enoch Powell would, at this stage, only raise the issue in private meetings, though he had been keen enough, as health minister, to make use of migrant labour. The anti-immigrant feeling was regarded as not respectable, not something that a decent politician was prepared to talk about. For the Westminster élite talked in well-meaning generalities of the immigrants as being fellow subjects of the Crown. Most of the hostility was at the level of the street and popular culture, usually in the form of disguised discrimination of shunning, through to the humiliation of door-slamming and on to more overtly violent street attacks.

White gangs of ‘Teddy boys’, like the one depicted below, went ‘nigger-hunting’ or ‘black-burying’, chalking Keep Britain White on walls. Their main motivation stemmed, not from any ideological influence, but from a sense of young male competition and territory-marking. They were often the poor white children of the remaining poor white tenants in the same areas being ‘taken over’ by the migrants.  As the black British sociologist, Stuart Hall, has written, in the ‘society of affluence’,  which threw up paradoxical signals, it was easy to project the problems which life presented into simple and stereotyped remedies, as was demonstrated by the following respondent to a BBC radio enquiry of the late fifties:

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.               

‘They’ were, of course, West Indian or Asian sub-continental immigrants. A motor-cycle lad who said, of his parents, they just stay awake until I get in at night, and once I’m in they’re happy,… but every time I go out I know they’re on edge, talked casually about going down to Notting Hill Gate… to punch a few niggers up. All this came to a head at Notting Hill the next year, 1958, with the now infamous riots which took place there, though the anti-immigrant violence actually started in St Ann’s, a poor district of distant Nottingham, near my birthplace, and spread to the capital the following day.

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In my next post, I want to deal with these events in more detail. For now, I will pause with the paradox of the year in which I was born, 1957, just forty days before Harold Macmillan told the good burghers of Bedford, no doubt some of them Italian immigrants, that most of our people have never had it so good. Today, it feels as if the British, myself included, have spent the last sixty years trapped inside that paradox, that illusionary ‘bubble’. To paraphrase Stuart Hall’s commentary, combining it with the well-known ‘East End’ song, we have been blowing bubbles, but they always seem to burst, just like our dreams. When the mists and myths clear, we are still the same country we were born into sixty years ago. The Sixties’ ‘Social Revolution’ never really happened. The poor are not only still with us, but they are there in greater numbers. The ‘economic miracle’ has dissipated, and the one percent of the adult population who owned four-fifths of all the wealth still do. The ‘Macmillenium’ is long since over, as this millennial generation is the first since the Industrial Revolution not to have as good as its predecessors, let alone better.

 

Main sources:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a year that was: Britain and the World in 1947: Part II.   Leave a comment

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The Winter of 1947 has gone down in history and personal memory as a time of almost unbearable bleakness. For three months, Britain endured not only the shortages of almost everything in the shops, and a virtual medieval peasant diet, heavily based on potatoes and bread, nor only the huge state bureaucracy bearing down on so much of daily life, with its 25,000 regulations and orders never heard of in peace time before. Neither was it just the smashed and broken homes, and the irreplaceable war dead. The crisis of 1947 was also the product of that most common of British complaints, the unpredictable weather.

Towards the end of January, a great freeze had swept across from Siberia and covered the country in thick snow, a bitter cold which brought the exhausted British people very nearly to their knees. The country still ran on coal,  newly nationalised under the National Coal Board, but the piles at the pits froze solid and could not be moved. The collieries’ winding gear ceased to function and drifting snow blocked roads and rail lines. At the power stations, the remaining stock piles ran down swiftly until, one by one, the stations were forced to close. Lights went off, men dug through snow drifts, tamping for miles to find food to carry back to their families and neighbours. Cars were marooned on exposed roads. Factories across the Midlands and South of England had to stop work and within a week two million people were idle. Electric fires were banned for three hours each morning and two in the afternoon. As people ran out of coal, they had only blankets to keep them warm. Around London, commuters were unable to reach the capital. Scotland was cut off from England.

Government ministers were not immune to the health problems which resulted. Herbert Morrison was nearly killed by thrombosis when new drugs given to him caused his kidneys to pour with blood. While he was still in hospital, Ellen Wilkinson, the education minister who adored him and may have been his mistress, died from an overdose of barbiturates. Wilkinson, a small flame-haired woman who had led the pre-war Jarrow Crusade for most of its length to London, was much-loved in the party, but became increasingly depressed by the slow pace of change, particularly in education. On 25 January, in the middle of the blizzard, she insisted on opening a theatre school in a blitzed, open-to-the-sky building in south London. Ellen became ill and seems to have muddled up her medicines, though others believed she killed herself, out of a mixture of frustrated love and political disappointment. In some ways, her death was symptomatic of the strain Attlee’s government was under.

Then things deteriorated further as the coldest February for three hundred years began. Another half million people had to stop work. The sun was so little seen that when it came out, a man rushed to photograph the reassuring sight for the newspapers. The greengrocers ran out of green vegetables. After a short thaw, March brought terrible storms and snow-drifts thirty feet high. There were ice-floes off the East Anglian coast. Three hundred main roads were impassable. These conditions were then followed by the worst floods in living memory, cutting off towns and drowning crops in huge areas of low-lying England. Sheep were dying on the hills, unable to be brought down to lower-lying pastures. Their carcasses had to be burnt in huge pyres, causing foul-smelling smoke to hang over the hillsides of rural Wales.

As people were digging out frozen vegetables from fields and despairing of the empty shops, the run on the pound resulting from Keynes’ Washington ‘deal’ and the balance of payments crisis meant that the Treasury was running out of dollars to buy help from overseas. This was the moment when the optimism of 1945 died for many voters. But the summer did come, and it was a good one, the sun blazing away with the cricketers at Lords as the nation sweltered. However, the pound continued to fall dramatically against the dollar, and with the Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, unable to buy food from the USA, secret preparations were made for a ‘famine food programme’ which included a provision to take children out of school to help with the harvest. It was never instigated, but the rationing of bread, which had not been necessary during the war, was put in place, as wheat supplies could no longer be bought from the United States. At the same time, British ministers had to ensure that there was no famine in other parts of the world for which they were responsible, including India, Germany and Palestine. Bread rationing at home was hugely unpopular and long remembered.

As Aneurin Bevan’s visit to Coventry had demonstrated, housing was the most critical single social issue of the post-war era, remaining at the top of the political agenda throughout the early fifties. Half a million homes had been destroyed or were made uninhabitable by German air-raids and a further three million were badly damaged. Overall, a quarter of Britain’s 12.5 million homes were damaged in some way. London was a capital with a background of ruins and wrecked streets. Southampton had lost so many buildings that during the war officials reported that the population felt the city was finished and ‘broken in spirit’. Coventry had lost a third of her housing in a single night in the November Blitz of 1940. Birmingham had lost 12,000 houses, with another 25,000 badly damaged. Together with the impact of demobilization of young men eager to marry and start families, the government estimated that 750,000 new houses were needed urgently. In addition, there was a need for further slum clearances in London and the older industrial cities, the grimy terraces lacking proper sanitation, gas and electricity supplies.

The demand was for more than bricks and mortar, since the war had separated husbands and wives, deprived children of their parents and, in general, shaken the familial fabric of the country.  Some 38 million civilians had changed addresses a total of sixty million times. Despite the break-up of many marriages under the strain of war, most people wanted a return to the security of family life. There were more than 400,000 weddings in 1947 and 881,000 babies were born, the beginning of the ‘boom’ that would reshape British life in the decades ahead. In all, a million extra children were added to the population in the five years after the war. Since there were not nearly enough individual homes to go round, hundreds of thousands of young people found themselves living with their parents or in-laws, deprived of privacy and trapped in inter-generational conflict.

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It was, in positive terms, a time when people were prepared to live more communally than would be the case later. Wartime queuing had revived a kind of street culture which lingered among women, as they spent hours standing together. Cinemas and dance halls continued to be crammed with people trying to escape the cold of their homes which as yet had no television (only 0.2 per cent of the population owned a television in 1947) or central heating, and not much by way of lighting. People really were in real austerity together, managing without much privacy and with the ongoing effects of wartime requisitioning, evacuation and the direction of labour, lodging in unfamiliar rooms. The sharing of toilets and kitchens in the late forties was therefore just a continuation of conditions they were already used to, like the meagre food and dreary clothing.

The most dramatic government response was the factory-made instant housing, the ‘prefabs’. Although designed only for a few years’ use, many of them were still lived in forty or more years later. Between 1945 and 1949, under the Temporary Housing Programme, a total of 156,623 prefabs went up, a welcome start in the provision of mass housing. They were more than huts, but a prototype bungalow, with a cooker, sink, fridge, bath, boiler and fitted cupboards. It cost fractionally more than a traditional brick-built terraced house, it weighed a fraction of the latter and was prefabricated in former aircraft factories using a fraction of the resources, then unloaded and screwed together on a concrete plinth, ready for families to move into within days. They were all weatherproof, warm and well-lit. The future Labour leader Neil Kinnock lived in one, an Arcon V, from 1947 to 1961, and remembered the fitted fridge and bathroom causing much jealousy among those still living in unmodernised colliers’ terraces in the south Wales valleys: Friends and family came to view the wonders. It seemed like living in a spaceship. They came to be regarded as better than bog standard council housing. Communities developed on prefab estates which survived cheerfully well into the seventies; I remember visiting these, homes to many of my teenage friends at that time.

The British Housewives’ League, formed in 1945 by a clergyman’s wife to campaign against rude shopkeepers and the amount of time spent queuing, helped remove the hapless food minister Ben Smith over the withdrawal of powdered egg. Other foods brought into the country and foisted on consumers were regarded as disgusting. Horses were butchered and sold, sometimes merely as ‘steak’. Whalemeat was brought from South Africa, both in huge slabs and in tins, described as rich and tasty, just like beefsteak. It was relatively popular for a short while, but not long, because it had a strong after-taste of cod-liver oil. Then there was snoek, a ferocious tropical fish supposed to be able to hiss like a snake and bark like a dog. The young Barbara Castle was then working for the fish division of the Ministry of Food. She was quartered at the Carlton Hotel, which had generously sized baths which she filled with the fish, which she observed for experimental purposes. Her report on its behaviour must have been favourable because in October 1947 the government began to buy millions of tins of snoek from South Africa. So ministers tried to persuade the British people that, in salads, pasties, sandwiches or even as ‘snoek piquant’, the bland-tasting fish was really quite tasty. The people begged to differ and mocked it mercilessly, buying very little. Eventually it was withdrawn from grocers and sold off for almost nothing as cat-food.

The Labour government’s attempts to import alternative sources of protein became a great joke in newspapers and in Parliament. The Conservatives put out pamphlets showing pictures of a horse, a whale and a reindeer to show the wide choice of food you have under the Socialists. Labour tried hard to keep the country decently fed during the forties when most of the world was at least as hungry. But between the black market organised by ‘spivs’, the British Housewives’ League, whose rhetoric influenced a young student called Margaret Thatcher, and the spontaneous uprising against the snoek, the public was becoming fed up to the back teeth with rationing. From 1948, Labour ministers began to remove the restrictions and restore something like a free market in food.

It also took a long time for British clothes to brighten up. Well into my childhood in the sixties, children were still wearing baggy grey trousers and home-knitted jumpers throughout the week and all year-long. Our fathers were still dressing in heavy grey suits, with macs and hats, and older women still wore housecoats and hairnets. However, younger women did try to dress more fashionably. One of the women who attended the unveiling of Christian Dior’s New Look in London in 1947 said that she heard for the first time in her life, the sound of a petticoat, realising  at once that, at long last, the war was really over. However, the British Guild of Creative Designers complained that they did not have the materials to compete or keep up with French frippery. Yet from the young princesses downwards, women were ignoring matronly MPs like Bessie Braddock and doing everything they could to alter, buy or borrow to achieve the Dior look. Clothing became a powerful symbol of a return to the prosperity of the 1930s for many women, if not men.

001A Honeymoon Couple at Billy Butlin’s Hotel near Brighton, 1957

The Holidays with Pay Act, passed shortly before the outbreak of war, was another postponed pleasure, but few workers could afford to travel abroad for these in 1947. For one thing, total time on holiday was limited to a fortnight in total. For another, the amount of money a person could take out of the country was severely restricted. Just over three per cent of people holidayed abroad, the vast majority being wealthy. Few of these went further than Northern France or the Riviera. They didn’t drive around the British countryside, as they had done in the thirties. Nonetheless, in 1947 slightly over half the British did take some kind of holiday. Many took the train to one of the traditional Victorian-era seaside resorts, soon bursting with customers. Others went on cycling or camping expeditions, since the roads were almost entirely empty of traffic. Yet more began to take the ‘charabanc’ or train to one of the new holiday camps, run by such entrepreneurs of leisure as Billy Butlin. He opened his first at Skegness in Lincolnshire in 1936, and by 1947 he had become a millionaire. To begin with, he was targeting the middle classes as much as the better-off workers. Opera singers, Shakespearean actors, radio stars, sporting heroes, politicians, archbishops and royalty were all invited to his camps, and came. Although Butlin had his fingers burnt with an attempt to open a Caribbean camp in 1948, for millions of British people the camps remained a synonym for a summer holiday well into the age of cheap overseas tourism in the 1970s.

On reflection, and with the benefit of seventy years of hindsight, 1945-1947 was not the best time to set about building a new socialist Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed. The direction of factories to the depressed areas brought few long-term benefits to those areas. Companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets ahead. Inflation, a major part of Britain’s post-war narrative, appeared as an economic factor for the first time by the end of the forties.

Again and again, Britain’s deep dependency on the United States was simply underestimated by the politicians. Harold Wilson, for example, slapped import duty on Hollywood films in 1947, when the sterling crisis made saving dollars a priority. The Americans responded by simply boycotting Britain, a devastating measure for a population so reliant on film as its only real means of mass entertainment. Some wonderful British films were made to fill the gap, but already glamour was something that came from the Pacific coast. Could Labour’s 1945 dream of a socialist commonwealth, high-minded and patriotic, standing aside from American consumerism, still be built on Britain’s grey and muddy land? The reality was not only that she was dependent on her transatlantic cousins, but also upon an Empire which, paradoxically, she was having to let go, at least in piecemeal fashion.

MOOC pic

India and Pakistan had become independent on 15 August 1947, ten months ahead of Attlee’s original schedule. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, had arrived in Delhi on 22 March. He appealed to everyone to do their best to avoid any word or action which might lead to further communal bitterness or add to the toll of innocent victims. He soon decided that the June 1948 transfer date was too late, as the communal rioting had reached a state of which he had no conception when he left England. In making this decision, he was also indulging his lifelong fondness for acceleration. It seemed to him that a decision had to be taken at the earliest possible moment unless there was to be risk of a general conflagration throughout the whole sub-continent. He had a remarkably careful yet quick and businesslike method of working. As soon as he finished an interview with a leader, and before proceeding to the next, he would dictate a résumé of the talk, a copy of which would be circulated to each member of his staff. He held staff conferences every day, sometimes twice and even thrice a day, to study and discuss how events were shaping.

Consultation with the Governors certainly gave him a good idea of the colossal administrative difficulties involved in a transfer of power based on partition. Within six weeks of his arrival Mountbatten had produced a plan which marked the first stage towards the transfer. In all his discussions with party leaders and others, despite their divergent views, which he was forced to adjust and reconcile, there was nowhere any evidence of an attempt to question either his own impartiality or the bona fides of His Majesty’s Government. The greater the insistence by Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, on his province-wide Pakistan, the stronger was the Congress demand that he should not be allowed to carry unwilling minorities with him.

In reality, Mountbatten came down on the side of the Hindu-dominated Congress by bringing forward the transfer of power. Perhaps one factor in this was Lady Mountbatten’s rumoured affair with Jawaharlal Nehru. In particular, Mountbatten put pressure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe  – cruelly mocked by W H Auden – to make critical adjustments in India’s favour when drawing the frontier through the Punjab.  Nevertheless, the last Viceroy’s achievement was only surpassed by those of Gandhi and Nehru, to whom he paid tribute in his address to the India Constituent Assembly in New Delhi on what the India Independence Act referred to as ‘the appointed day’:

The tasks before you are heavy. The war ended two years ago. In fact it was on this very day two years ago that I was with that great friend of India, Mr Attlee in the Cabinet Room when the news came through that Japan had surrendered. That was a moment for thankfulness and rejoicing, for it marked the end of six bitter years of destruction and slaughter. But in India we have achieved something greater – what has been well described as ‘A Treaty of Peace without a War.’ India, which played such a valiant part… has also had to pay her price in the dislocation of her economy and the casualties to her gallant fighting men… Preoccupations with the political problem retarded recovery. It is for you to ensure the happiness and ever-increasing prosperity of the people, to provide against future scarcities of food, cloth and essential commodities and to build up a balanced economy…

At this historic moment, let us not forget all that India owes to Mahatma Gandhi – the architect of her freedom through non-violence…

In your first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, you have a world-renowned leader of courage and vision. His trust and friendship have helped me beyond measure in my task. Under his able guidance, assisted by the colleagues whom he has selected… India will now attain a position of strength and influence and take her rightful place in the comity of nations.

It would have been an ideal arrangement if Mountbatten had been able to continue as Governor-General of both Dominions. But even as General-Governor of India, he could still be of immense service. It was his personality that had helped to bring about some measure of common action and had prevented a bad situation from getting worse. His presence would be of great help in solving the problem of the Indian States. It would also have a reassuring effect on serving British officers, particularly in the Armed Forces, where their retention for at least some time was indispensable.

The communal rioting and the two-way exodus of refugees provided the Government of India with a task which was so stupendous as any nation ever had to face. If in its initial stages the situation had not been controlled with determination and vigour, the consequences would have brought down the Government itself. It is to the eternal credit of Lord Mountbatten that he agreed to take over the helm of responsibility at that critical stage, and it redounds to the statesmanship of Nehru that he unhesitatingly and confidently offered it to him.

According to V P Menon, the Constitutional Adviser to the Governor-General from 1942 to 1947, reflected in 1957 that the main factor in the early transfer of power was the return of the Labour Party to government in 1945. The Attlee Government’s decision  to quit India not only touched the hearts and stirred the emotions of Indians, he argued, it also produced an immediate reassuring effect on the whole of South-East Asia and earned Britain universal respect and goodwill in the region. India and Pakistan both chose to remain in the Commonwealth and this was taken by a demoralised Britain as a tacit but welcome vote of thanks. Burma followed on India’s heels into the ranks of newly independent nations in January 1948, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in February. Both of them had far too much independence already for the full version to be denied to them. Ceylon remained in the Commonwealth, but Burma did not. The first stage of Britain’s decolonisation came to an end there, with the letting go of what, after the war in the East, just could not be held.

In some ways, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the break-up of the British Empire happened with astonishing speed compared with the two centuries it had taken to build it. Once the British had made up their minds to get out, they aimed to catch the first boat home, regardless of the consequences in their former colonies. In the words of the Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton:

When you are in a place where you are not wanted, and where you have not got the force to squash those who don’t want you, the only thing to do is to come out.

This had its disadvantages. In their haste to get shot of India, they left behind a chaos that almost undid two centuries of orderly government.

For those colonies in other parts of Britain’s global empire who wished to pursue India to independence, it was not simply a matter of following along a path beaten flat by her. The hurdles she had knocked down Britain erected again for the others. To become free, they would need to fight. What was chiefly standing in their way was their value to an all but bankrupt Britain. That value was not quite what it had been, but Britain had plummeted quite disastrously in the world’s league table of great economic powers. She no longer had a significant surplus to send abroad. In 1900, she was responsible for a third of the world’s exports in manufactured goods. Sixty years later this share had declined to 18 per cent. Just before the war the empire had accounted for 40% of her imports and 49% of her exports. After the war the imperial proportion of what trade she had left was even greater. Between 1946 and 1949 it accounted for 48 per cent of imports and 58 per cent of exports.

It followed  that Britain’s political interests in the world were not so very different either, though her capacity to safeguard them may have been. Britain still had stakes in certain parts of the world, like Africa and south-east Asia, where security or stability seemed to depend upon her maintaining a political presence there, or nearby. In addition, these stakes and all Britain’s others in more reliable parts of the world, like North America and Oceania, together made up a network of interests which was thought to require continued political presences elsewhere to safeguard it; forts and garrisons at strategic points to protect the traffic between Britain and the world. For a colonial people ambitious to be free, either of these interests, or both, would continue to present a considerable obstacle to their independence.

In the years after the war African nationalism sprang very suddenly and very rapidly into full growth. Out of the plethora of welfare associations, tribal associations, community leagues, friendly societies, youth movements, trade unions and all the other vehicles for African discontent which had proliferated before the war, there arose in the 1940s most of the main colony-wide movements for national liberation which took the battle to Britain in the 1950s, and most of their leaders. They took encouragement from India, and from the general tide of world opinion at the time which seemed to be swimming with them. Very early after the war they showed their teeth. There was a six-week general strike in Nigeria in 1945, and another one in the Sudan in 1947.

The British could not afford to ignore these events, claiming that the nationalists were trying to push things too fast, to achieve in one jump what the government claimed to be preparing them for in easy stages, and far in advance of the bulk of the people they professed to represent. Some in Britain resisted the nationalists because they resisted the whole idea of colonial independence. But for many of those who did not, who had reconciled themselves to losing Africa, it was still to be some years before they would accept the ‘extreme’ nationalists, the ‘power-seekers’, as their ‘proper successors’.

In the  immediate post-war period, there had been various grand designs for a ‘new’ Empire. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was convinced that the road to domestic recovery began in Africa. As A H Poynton of the Colonial Office told the United Nations in 1947:

The fundamental objectives in Africa are to foster the emergence of large-scale societies, integrated for self-government by effective and democratic political and economic institutions both natural and local, inspired by a common faith in progress and Western values and equipped with efficient techniques of production and betterment.

There was a new Colonial Development Corporation and an Overseas Food Corporation, and marvellous-sounding schemes for growing groundnuts in Tanganyika and producing eggs in the Gambia. The Crown Agents travelled the world, selling old British trains and boats to any colonial government that could pay and some that could not. There were ambitious plans for the federation of West Indian colonies; of East Africa; of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland; of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Borneo. There was even talk of a new building for the Colonial Office. The old Empire meanwhile continued to attract a steady stream of migrants: from 1946 until 1963 four out of every five emigrants leaving Britain by sea were headed for Commonwealth countries.

The imperial renaissance might have led further if the United States and Britain had made common cause. Imperial recovery was dependent on American support and Clement Attlee certainly saw the need for it, although he was more realistic than Churchill about the future of the Empire as a whole. He recognised that the new military technologies of long-range power meant that…

 … the British Commonwealth and Empire is not a that can be defended by itself… The conditions which made it possible to defend a string of possessions scattered over five continents by means of a fleet based on island fortresses have gone. 

In their place, he had argued in 1946 that it was now necessary to consider the British Isles as an easterly extension of a strategic arc the centre of which was in the American continent, rather than as a power looking through the Mediterranean and the East. The North Atlantic ‘Alliance’ was, of course, mainly a product of the Americans’ growing awareness that the Soviet Union posed a far more serious threat to American interests than the British Empire. With the beginnings of the Cold War, the White House and the US Chiefs of Staff both agreed that there was something to be said for British imperial and maritime power after all, especially its network of military bases which could complement their own. All this made Bevin bullish:

Western Europe, including its dependent overseas territories, is now patently dependent on American aid… The United States recognises that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth… are essential to her defence and security. Already it is… a case of partial inter-dependence rather than of complete dependence. As time goes by (in the next ten to twenty years) the elements of dependence ought to diminish and those of inter-dependence to increase.

Of course, within that next decade, the Suez crisis was to reveal that the fundamental American hostility towards the Empire lingered on and the facade of neo-imperial power collapsed. 

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Sources:

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

Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan-Pan.

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