Archive for the ‘James Maxton’ Tag

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

The Long & Winding Road to Recovery:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contrasting Images of the Thirties:

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

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

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

South Wales –  A Region in Need of a Plan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revolutionary Left & The Radical Right:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Battle of Cable Street’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Downing Street Declaration & the Public Order Act:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Popular Front – Parliamentary Politics & Protest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parliamentary Opposition to Appeasement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter of Discontent – Sit-in at the Ritz:

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; part three – Labour’s Slump: 1929-31.   2 comments

Labour Arrives; Summer 1929:

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In response to John Gorman’s request for photographs for his 1980 book (see the list of sources below), Helen Hathaway of the Reading North Labour Party contributed the picture of women supporters of The Daily Herald at the start of the circulation campaign for the election of the 1929 Labour government. Under the editorship of George Lansbury, before the First World War, the newspaper had become uncompromisingly socialist and was a paper for rebels, supporting strikes, opposing wars and providing a platform for suffragettes and syndicalists. But during the war, Lansbury’s pacifist stance meant that it could not compete with the war stories of the right-wing popular newspapers which were avidly sought by the public. From September 1914, the paper appeared only as a weekly. In 1919, there was a resurgence of the paper, financed by the trade unions and Co-operative societies, but it continued to struggle until 1922 when Ernest Bevin led the TUC and Labour Party into joint ownership. ‘Labour has arrived’, proclaimed the poster proudly held by the working-class women lined up for the photograph, ‘heralding’ the advent of the second Labour government, as shown below:

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Elected in 1929 for the first time as the largest party in Parliament, the second Labour Government had succeeded the Conservatives relatively smoothly, largely as a result of the usual ‘wax and wane’ of party popularity with the electorate. The Labour Party was now the second greatest of the political camps in Britain, having clearly displaced the Liberal Party as the main rivals of the Tories to power. Though its professed ‘creed’ was socialism, it had little in common with the socialist parties on the Continent. Its backbone was the trade unions, which were, according to the writer and politician John Buchan, the most English thing in England. They were more radical than socialist and in a sense more conservative than radical. Their object was not to pull things up by the roots but to put down even deeper roots of their own. Their faults lay in occasional blindness of eye and confusion of head, not in any unsoundness of temper or heart. As a Scottish Unionist MP, Buchan recalled that the hundreds of new Labour MPs …

… brought to the House of Commons a refreshing realism, for they spoke as experts on many practical things, and their stalwart vernacular was a joy amid the clipped conventions of parliamentary speech. But larger questions they were apt to judge on too low a plane and with imperfect knowledge. The corrective was to be looked for in the socialist intellectuals, of whom they were inclined to be suspicious, but who applied to policy a wider education and broader sympathies. … as a group they were serious students of public affairs, with a genuine scientific apparatus behind them. It was well for Labour, and well for the country, to have thislaboratory of experiment and thought. 

It had been five years since Labour had carried the ‘Bolshie’ tag and Ramsay MacDonald introduced his Cabinet as chosen for very hard work and because I believe the nation fully believes they are perfectly competent to perform it. In the event, they proved as incompetent as any of the previous governments to stem the rising tide of unemployment.  But although Labour was the largest party in Parliament, the Labour government of 1929 was still a minority government. Besides, any government, whatever its election programme, has to face the same problems as its predecessor. On taking office, the Labour government floundered in a quagmire of conservative remedies for the worldwide slump. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, the newly-appointed ‘Minister for Unemployment’, J. H. Thomas, had boasted I have the cure as he ‘hob-nobbed’ with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar. He demonstrated a complete lack of imagination and ineptitude but was not aided by the resistance of the Civil Service, the innate conservatism of Snowden at the Exchequer and the world-wide financial and economic crises which beset this administration. In her diary for 21 December 1929, Beatrice Webb recorded her conversation with ‘Jimmy’ Thomas, in which she tried to console the unfortunate minister, who naturally thought he was being scapegoated for the Government’s failure to keep its election promise:

We sat down for a chat together. The poor man was almost hysterical in his outbursts of self-pity; everyone had been against him and the ‘damns’ flowed on indiscriminately. Margaret Bondfield and her d_ insurance bill, the d_ floods, the d_ conspiracy between restless Lloyd George and weathercock W. Churchill to turn out the Labour Government, and the d_ windbags of the Clyde responsible for his not fulfilling the d_ pledge which he had never made, to stop this d_ unemployment. There is honesty and shrewdness of his deprecations of doles and relief work for the unemployed. But he took no counsel, not even with Mosley and Lansbury who had been appointed to help, either about the appointment of his staff or about remedial measures. Then he lost his nerve and with it his strength. Poor Jimmy is egregiously vain and therefore subject to panic when flattery ceases and abuse begins. For years he has looked upon himself as the Future Prime Minister; today the question is whether he will be fit for any position at all in a future Labour Cabinet. …

Labour’s Conservatives & Radicals:

Neither is there any evidence that the Labour Government of 1929-31 sought to abandon transference as the main means of dealing with unemployment, though Margaret Bondfield (pictured standing on the left below), now Minister of Labour (and first woman minister of any government), did not consider that the continuance of the policy should exclude attempts to attract industries to the depressed areas or to develop public works schemes. Oswald Mosley also tried hard to get Thomas, whom he considered a ‘useless minister’, to ‘do something’ about the unemployed. He had a ‘sensible plan’ for increased allowances and organised public works, but the ‘old men’ of the party didn’t want to know about it. So he walked out on it early in 1931 to form the ‘New Party’, taking some of the more dynamic men of the Left like John Strachey. But they soon left him when he took off down the right-hand road to Fascism. However, the scale and widespread nature of unemployment in these years, making it more than a structural problem in the ‘staple’ industries, tended to preclude either the possibility of a radical response to the problem, while at the same time preventing the effective operation of the transference scheme. There were few areas that were not experiencing a significant level of unemployment during these years which actually showed the greatest convergence between regional and national figures in terms of absolute volumes of workless.

 

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Ramsay MacDonald was, by all accounts, including that of René Cutforth, a young journalist at the time, a noble-looking creature, in the manner of some great Highland chieftain. Originally the Labour Government of 1924 had had some qualms about wearing even evening dress when attending Buckingham Palace or in Parliament, remembering the lone cloth cap in the House of Commons of their first independent Labour member, Keir Hardie. MacDonald never subscribed to such qualms, as the picture below shows, and the higher he rose in social circles, the more he was in his element. In fact, he became something of a ‘snob’; at one time he so frequently attended the soirees of Lady Londonderry, wife of the coalowner so hated in MacDonald’s own constituency in South Wales that, and an upper-crust socialite and political hostess, that James Maxton, the ILP MP asked him in the House of Commons whether the Labour anthem was still the ‘Red Flag’ or whether it had been exchanged for ‘The Londonderry Air’. Churchill said of MacDonald that he liked the Tory atmosphere and tradition; the glamour of old England appealed to him. Of course, MacDonald was to die with the curses of those in whose service he had spent his life ringing in his ears for the ‘great betrayal’ of 1931.

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The truth is that, even before taking office and despite its pledges to solve the problem of unemployment within three months, the Labour leadership had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. The proposal of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden (on the right of the steps below) to effect economies by cutting maintenance for the unemployed was to precipitate not just the political crisis which led to the formation of a National Government, but the biggest and most controversial demonstrations witnessed in Britain since the days of the Chartists, the hunger marches of the 1930s. Snowden, according to Churchill, …

 … viewed the Socialist creed with the blistering intellectual contempt of the old Gladstonian radical. To him Toryism was a physical annoyance, and militant socialism a disease brought on by bad conditions or contagion, like rickets or mange. …

Snowden’s rigidity of doctrine was otherwise inpenetrable. Free imports, nomatter what the foreigner may do to us; the Gold Standard, no matter how short we run of gold; austere repayment of of debt, no matter how we have to borrow the money; high progressive direct taxation, even if it brings creative enegies to a standstill; the ‘Free breakfast-table’, even if it is entirely supplied from outside the British jurisdiction! …

We must imagine with what joy Mr Snowden was welcomed at the Treasury by the permanent officials … here was the High Priest entering the sanctuary. The Treasury mind and the Snowden mind embraced each other with the fervour of too-long-separated kindred lizards, and the reign of joy began. …

... He was a man capable of maintaining the structure of Society while at the same time championing the interests of the masses. …

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Above: Forming the National Government, August 1931 (see full picture below).

Most of the published memoirs, with the possible exception of Churchill’s, still reek of contemporary prejudice, ignorance, and partisan blindness to facts. The historian’s interpretation of the contemporary judgements both of MacDonald and his ministers by others and by MacDonald himself should depend first on the evidence available, and secondly on analysis of this evidence on the basis of fair-minded, non-partisan criteria. The historian, seeking some ‘truer’ perspective, must recall how different the problems of 1925-31 were compared to those of 1945-51, though at both times Labour faced almost insurmountable obstacles. So, before we fast-forward to the failure and fall of the Labour government in 1931, we need to understand why and how it had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. John Buchan, writing in 1935, provides an alternative contemporary perspective to that of the Labour diarists. He took a longer-term perspective of the economic orthodoxy of the Twenties:

The main concern for Britain, as for other nations, was economic – how to keep body and soul together. In its preoccupation with material needs all the world had gone Marxist. The problem was how to pass from the unbridled extravagance of the war to a normal life. We had been living on stimulants, and we must somehow transfer ourselves from dope to diet. There was a brief gleam of prosperity just after peace, when the replacement of stocks required still further expenditure, and then the nation settled itself to a long, thankless toil in the shadows…

The first duty was to cease spending more than we could afford; no easy thing, for our obligatory expenses were almost beyond our earnings. We had to face some  eight thousand millions of war debt, and this meant a scale of taxation which crippled industry and bore crushingly on all but profiteers. … But while our costs had risen our business was declining. We had lost our industrial pre-eminence in the world’s markets … Our exports, visible and invisible, looked like soon ceasing to pay for our necessary imports. The whole nineteenth century fabric of British trade was breaking down. 

With shrinking markets, and the cost of Government, local and central, nearly three times what it had been in 1913, Britain’s economy was failing to pay its way. The fact was that industrial workers were already receiving a higher remuneration than could be justified according to the value of their products. The situation was met by a vigorous effort on the part of industry both to enlarge its range of products and to set in order its older ones. Agriculture had slipped back into a trough, but a second industrial revolution by which a variety of new businesses arose, chiefly making luxury products and based mostly in Southern and Midland England. There were also notable technical advances in production, which while improving industrial efficiency, also led to increasing unemployment. There was also a growing economic nationalism throughout much of the industrialised world, though not yet in Britain, so that the British industrialist, already heavily taxed, and facing rising costs, had to compete in export markets hedged around by tariffs, and in domestic markets against cheap foreign imports, often subsidised.

Added to all of this, at the heart of national economic policy was a banker’s policy. Deflation was the watchword of this, and the international stability of the currency was considered the key to a revival in trade. In April 1925, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill had taken the fateful step of returning to the gold standard at the level of pre-war parity. As a result, the amount of money was curtailed, leading to a drop in internal prices while interest charges and wages remained relatively high. In turn, this added to the costs of production at home, while the price of exported goods automatically increased. This return to orthodox fiscal measures re-established Britain’s role and reputation as the world’s financial centre, but at the cost of its export trade, leading to wage troubles in the exporting industries, especially coal.  Seven difficult years followed this decision as unemployment grew and it became clear that some of Britain’s heavier industries had sunk to a permanently low level of output. Under the futile system of war debts and reparations, the debtor countries could not pay their debts since their creditors had erected colossal tariff walls, and the consequence was that their exports were diverted to Britain, the one free-trade area that remained. But the payments received for these were not used to buy British goods in return, but to buy gold with which to pay off their creditors.

The disaster was already imminent by the time Labour took charge in the summer of 1929 as the whole mechanism of the world’s commerce was out of gear, and the climax began in the autumn of that year with the downfall of America’s swollen prosperity. Historians have since argued about the extent to which the Crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression which followed were caused by the First World War, as well as to the extent which it led, in turn, to the Second World War. However, from the perspective of the time, certain facts seemed undeniable. The money system of the world was no longer adequate to deal with the complexities of international trade, made even more complicated by political troubles and economic nationalism as well as by the unbalanced position of gold, and by a lack of trust of politicians and bankers among the general populations.

Bleak Scenes, Hard Times:

The bleak scene shown below from April 1930 at Ferryhill in the north-east coalfield features the lone figure of George Cole, local miner’s leader and militant trade unionist. The small contingent with banners and rucksacks are the north-east section of the unemployed march to London, on their way to join another thousand from Scotland, Plymouth, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands and Kent. The first march of the unemployed in the thirties, it was a small demonstration compared with those to follow over the rest of the decade, but what gave it special significance was that it was the first of its kind to be directed against a Labour government. The march was organised by the Communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), founded in 1921 as part of the British Communist Party’s ‘Class against Class’ policy. The marches, therefore, divided the loyalties of Labour members and supporters. Northampton Labour Party said that it could not support a movement in opposition to the government.

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The marchers arrived in London on May Day, to be greeted by twenty thousand at the entrance to Hyde Park, with another thirty thousand at the meeting inside. That night the weary marchers presented themselves at the Fulham Workhouse, refused to be treated as ‘casuals’, won the right to beds and food and, to the fury of the Workhouse Master, hoisted the red flag over their quarters. Ten months after taking office, the MacDonald government had failed to halt the steadily increasing number of jobless and in fact, unemployment had increased from 1,169,000 when Labour came to power to 1,770,000 by May 1930. After eighteen months in office, the numbers of workless under Labour had risen to two and a half million. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the NUWM, sarcastically remarked that as Minister of the Unemployed, J. H. Thomas is a howling success.

The conditions of working-class life had on the whole been greatly improved since the Great War. Higher wages did not lead to waste, but to higher standards of living. The average household had better food, better clothing, more margin for amusements and wider horizons of opportunities. Small wonder then that they struggled to maintain what they had won. That was for those in employment, of course. For the unemployed, who now (by the end of 1930) reached two million in number, there was a bare subsistence and tragic idleness, a steady loss of technical skill, and a slow souring and dulling of mind. In the heavy industry towns of Northern England and valleys of the South Wales Coalfield, unemployment became a permanent way of life, sometimes for whole communities. A problem of such magnitude required for its solution not only the energies of the State but the thought and good-will of every private citizen and public body. Owing partly to the work of the Prince of Wales and the National Council of Social Service, of which he was patron, these were forthcoming. People began to develop a  sense of personal and civic duty for the unemployed, especially the miners in the ‘distressed areas’.

By early 1930, the ‘social service movement’ had obtained a substantial footing throughout a wide area of the South Wales Coalfield in particular. At Brynmawr, one of the ‘blackspots’ on the northern edge of the Coalfield, over a hundred people took part in a Survey which was begun in 1929, but these were mainly professional and business people since the trade unions, the Labour Party and the Urban District Council refused to co-operate. As a former member of the ‘settlement’ reflected in the 1980s, …

… they felt that they had been slighted: they resented interference and they felt their dignity and authority undermined … the local people were suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town … the Quakers became known as the BQs (Bloody Quakers)!

Another settlement at Maes-yr-Haf in the Rhondda spawned over fifty unemployed clubs throughout the valleys from 1929 and provided an advice centre for the settlements which were established elsewhere, the first of which was at Merthyr Tydfil in 1930. Percy Watkins, Head of the Welsh Section of the National Council of Social Service, saw the settlements as representing the idea that those who had been privileged to enjoy university education should live and ‘settle’ among the workers. This was, in itself, not a new idea. Clement Attlee, the future Labour leader, had done this in the East End of London before the Great War. But what was new was the way in which these ‘settlers’ were to help open up ‘lines of communication’ between the coalfield communities and the outside world, to act as a means of cultural ‘irrigation’, in order to establish ‘an educated democracy’. Watkins and Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet before becoming Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust in the 1930s, combined to offer charitable help for Maes-yr-Haf for it to spread the settlement idea throughout the coalfield. At the beginning of 1930, it had become affiliated to the Educational Settlement Association and it soon became seen as a model of ‘intervention’ in working-class communities.

Some historians have suggested that the movement was not well enough funded to imply that the government saw it as a major barrier to revolution, but it was not the level of funding which the government itself provided which was significant, but the way in which civil servants were able to facilitate and direct charitable funds from the Mayors of various cities, the Society of Friends and those poured in by the Carnegie Trust and Pilgrim Trust. The last of these was established by the New York businessman, Edward S. Harkness, who provided a gift of over two million pounds. The trustees included Stanley Baldwin, Lord Macmillan, Sir Josiah Stamp and John Buchan. Although a Labour Government was in power committed to ending unemployment, these men continued to exert considerable influence over the affairs of the depressed areas both in South Wales and the North of England and over the Government’s policy towards the unemployed. It was the duty of the trustees, …

… to apply their resources at key points of the present distress,  … to prevent many places where moral and intellectual leadership is absent, from sinking into despair.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1931, 2,500 unemployed marched on London and were met by a baton charge of police in Hyde Park. The march was broken up on what, for a time and for some at least, became a very rough occasion (see the photo below, taken later in Hyde Park). They had deposited an enormous petition which they hoped to present to Parliament in the left luggage office at a London terminus. When they went back to pick it up, it had ‘unaccountably’ disappeared and so was never presented.

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However, the numbers involved in such demonstrations were often limited, of necessity perhaps, to a small segment of the unemployed. As the depression worsened, the political energies of an increasing number of the unemployed were drained away by decreasing resources. Successful political agitation depended upon the addressing of the immediate issues facing the unemployed, such as the actions of the ‘Courts of Referees’, and matters such as these took up nearly all of the time of the Trades Councils in the late 1920s as well as bringing about the growth of the NUWM under the leadership of Wal Hannington. But the available evidence does not suggest any accompanying widespread shift towards the ideological position held by Hannington.

The Crisis of 1931 & The Cuts:

In early 1931, as the Labour government continued to pursue the traditional conservative remedy for a recession by cutting expenditure and wages, the whole European credit system sustained a near-fatal jolt when the Austrian bank, Kredit Anstalt, failed and had to be shored up with a loan from the Bank of England, among others. There had been a steady drain of gold from the Bank of England ever since the US loans had ceased to flow into Central Europe, and now the Bank of England asked the New York banks for a loan. They refused this until Britain had taken steps to balance its budget. The Cabinet turned to the advice of Sir George May, former Secretary of the Prudential Insurance Company and Sir Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. At this point, few in the government were able to read the signs of the impending crisis. The warnings of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden, had little effect upon some of his colleagues, whose financial creed was a blend of mysticism and emotion. During the summer, a creeping sickness was spreading over Europe, and the symptoms were becoming acute, first in Austria, then in Germany and last in Britain.

The crisis came to a head in Britain in the late summer of 1931, beginning with a conference of European Ministers in London in July provided no remedy. At the end of that month, the May Report was published, showing that the Government was overspending by a hundred and twenty million a year. It proposed cutting expenditure by ninety-six million pounds, two-thirds of which was to be made by reducing maintenance for the unemployed by twenty per cent. There followed immediately a heavy withdrawal of foreign balances, but the Bank of England failed in its approach to the United States. Without the US loan, the Government faced the prospect of having to default on its repayments which would result in Britain having to go off the gold standard. The effect of that, the Government believed, would be a drastic reduction in the pound sterling, since the gold standard was viewed as a ‘holy cow’ in international financial circles at that time.

A programme of drastic cuts in Government expenditure was the only answer, and MacDonald and Snowden made a plan to reduce the pay of the armed services, civil servants and school teachers, and to cut unemployment pay by ten per cent. The TUC Economic Committee had warned in March 1931, that the application of such a policy can only intensify the slump by reducing the purchasing power of the community thereby leading to further unemployment. Now Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a trade union delegation to a Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield and a Secretary of State in the Cabinet, told his wife Beatrice, the General Council are pigs, they won’t agree to any cut of unemployment insurance benefits, or salaries, or wages. But although the Opposition said the cuts were too small, half of the Cabinet refused to accept the cut in unemployment pay. There was much to be said for their point of view as they were, after all, a Labour government which had been committed to ending unemployment within three months of taking office. Unemployment had stood at one million then, but now it had reached 2.75 million: all they had been able to do for the unemployed had been to go on paying them ‘the dole’.

So the Labour Cabinet dug its heels in and MacDonald resigned on 24 August, together with the rest of the government. The stricken statesman went to the Palace to tender his resignation to the King, who had arrived in Balmoral three days earlier, on the 21st, for his annual Scottish holiday only to have to return to London the next day. It was not for him to have any public opinion on economic policy or any preference among the parties. But as the ‘trustee’ of the nation,  the King felt that a national emergency should be faced by a united front. According to many popular Socialist narratives, ‘what happened next’, almost inevitably, was that MacDonald conspired with a ‘traitorous caucus’ which included Snowden and Thomas, in forming a National Government with the Liberals and Conservatives. In fact, the common procedure was would have been for MacDonald to resign, and he was prepared to follow this constitutional precedent, giving way to the Conservatives, but the King’s view was supported by the senior  Ministers, and MacDonald accepted his invitation to form a National Government composed of Conservatives and Liberals as well as some of his own senior colleagues. The next day MacDonald returned to Downing Street to proclaim the appointment to a mixed reception from his former Cabinet members, few of whom were willing to follow him.

Divided Opinion & Reaction – Mutiny & Gold Standard:

Contemporary reaction to the Cabinet split and creation of the National Government in August of that year can be seen from two points of view in the following extracts from The Times and The New Statesman:

The country awakens this morning to find Mr MacDonald still Prime Minister, with the prospect of a small Cabinet representative of all three parties. The former Cabinet resigned yesterday afternoon, and a statement issued last night announced that considerable progress had been made towards settling the composition of its successor, which would be a Government of co-operation formed with the specific purposes only of carrying through a very large reduction in expenditure and raising ‘on an equitable basis’ the further funds required to balance the Budget.

All concerned are to be warmly congratulated on this result, so fully in accord with the patriotic spirit which has inspired a week’s most anxious negotiations. The Prime Minister and the colleagues of his own party who have followed him deserve in particular unqualified credit, both for the manner in which they took their political lives in their hands by by facing and forcing the break-up of the late Cabinet, and for their new decisionto translate courage in the Cabinet into courage in the country. The readiness to share the responsibility – honour is perhaps the better word – of carrying through to the end the policy of retrenchment adds enormously to the prospect of its success.

The Times, 25 August 1931   

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In many respects the situation which confronted the Cabinet was like that of August 1914. … In 1914, Mr MacDonald refused to join a War Cabinet: Mr Henderson accepted. Mr MacDonald was denounced as a traitor: Mr Henderson applauded. In leading arguments in ‘The Times’, for instance, Mr MacDonald’s patriotism is extolled, while Mr Henderson is denounced as a man who put party before country. Meanwhile, in Labour circles all over the country Mr MacDonald is being denounced … for betraying his party. … Mr MacDonald’s decision to form a Cabinet in conjunction with the Liberals and the Tories seems to us a mistake, just as it would have been a mistake for him as a pacifist to join a War Cabinet in 1914. For he must inevitably find himself at war with the the whole of organised labour, and …with all those, in all classes, who believe that the policy of reducing  the purchasing power of the consumer to meet a situation of over-production is silly economics. … An effort is being made to represent the whole issue as merely one of a ten per cent reduction in the dole and the refusal to cut it could only be based on cowardly subservience to the electorate. … We oppose it … because it is only the first step, the crucial beginning of a policy of reductions, disatrous, we believe for England and the rest of the world. …

New Statesman, 29 August 1931    

On 11 September, a supplementary budget was passed by the House of Commons, which by heavy economies and increased taxes provided a small surplus for that and the forthcoming year. The cuts were duly brought into force by Philip Snowden, who remained as Chancellor. He added sixpence to income tax, ten per cent to the surtax, a penny on a pint of beer, and reduced teachers’ pay by fifteen per cent and Police, Army, Navy and Air Force pay by varying drastic amounts. The dole was reduced from seventeen shillings to fifteen and threepence.

There was an immediate reaction to the wage cuts, as on 14 September a naval mutiny broke out in Invergordon when the ratings of three ships refused to obey orders to put to sea. According to René Cutforth, it was the ‘politest mutiny ever staged’ since no-one was hurt or even intimidated and respect for officers was fully maintained. The few ratings who started to sing ‘The Red Flag’ were considered to be out of order by the other ratings, who preferred to sing, ‘the more we are together the merrier we shall be’, a popular drinking song. They sent a written representation of their case to the Admiralty, stating that while they refused to serve under the new rates of pay, they were willing to consider ‘a cut which they ‘consider within reason’. Although the incident was barely mentioned in the British press, garbled versions of it appeared in the foreign press, which made it look like a revolutionary rising. If the British Navy was disaffected, it was suggested, then Britain itself must be on the road to ruin.

As a result, there was another spectacular run on the Bank of England’s gold. The government dealt quickly with the situation, reducing the cuts and restoring the status quo almost at once. Twenty-four ratings were eventually suspended. But the run on the Bank was so exhausting that the Government which had been formed just a few weeks earlier to safeguard the gold standard was now forced to give it up anyway. Instead of crashing through the floor, however, the pound only fell to about seventy-five per cent of its former value which, if anything, improved Britain’s balance of trade. John Buchan commented:

The gold standard proved to have been largely a bogy; it had seemed the only palladium when we were on it, but we found that we did very well without it. The sterling group soon became a force in the world. There was no fall in the purchasing value of the pound at home, and its depreciation in terms of certain foreign currencies was in effect a bonus to our export trade. We had redressed the inequalities of our 1925 ambitions.

Nevertheless, the psychological impact of this event on those now in government could not have been more dramatic, as Paul Adelman pointed out, with a little help from A. J. P. Taylor, in his 1972 book on The Rise of the Labour Party 1880-1945:

On 21 September 1931 … Britain abandoned the gold standard. Bank rate was then raised to six per cent, and for the moment this brought to an end the long-drawn-out financial crisis. As Taylor comments (in ‘English History, 1914-45):

“A few days before, a managed economy had seemed as wicked as family planning. Now, like contraception, it became a commonplace. This was the end of an age”.

MacDonald – Man, Motives & Myth:

In October, the Prime Minister went to the country as the leader of a National Government, and they were returned to power with an immense majority. The General Election of 1931 was a straight fight between the Labour Party and other parties in office led by MacDonald. In an atmosphere of monetary panic, Labour representation in the house had already been cut from 289 to 46. The National Government was returned with 554 seats, while the Labour opposition was reduced to a mere rump of 52, with the Liberals winning just sixteen seats. The country was convinced that the Socialists had brought the pound to the verge of disaster, and it had only been snatched from the brink by the noble MacDonald. The photo below shows the Transport and General Workers’ Union secretary, Ernest Bevin (on the left), at Gateshead in 1931, with a band of loyal Labour Party supporters. Abolish poverty, abolish slums, wipe out destitution reads the poster on the election van. It was Bevin that was to be wiped out, temporarily, from the parliamentary scene, losing a safe Labour seat to the National Liberal candidate by 12,938 votes.

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In the Labour Party, and in the Labour movement generally, there had never been such an uproar as the one which broke out at the end of the election, and the wound would still rankle just below the surface right into the 1970s. No name was too vile for MacDonald and his ‘apostate crew’. Accused of ‘betraying his class’ and ostracised by his own party, he became a tragic, isolated figure for the rest of his political life. Since he was at heart a warm man who needed sympathy and valued loyalty, this rough handling deeply upset him and was directly responsible for his decline and deterioration as a public figure. René Cutforth praised MacDonald’s patriotism, which he identified as the main motivation for his political decisions:

MacDonald was a Victorian. His loyalty to ‘the Nation’ was quite unequivocal. When it was seen by him to conflict with his socialism, it was the socialism that lost out. Though for the rest of his life he was quite sure that he had done his duty by the nation and was unjustly put upon, something in him gave way. … 

According to Winston Churchill, Philip Snowden was similarly motivated by his deep love of Britain and his studiously concealed, but intense pride in British greatness. So, these two key questions still remain for historians to answer:

  • Was MacDonald’s decision to form the National Government one of patriotism or pragmatism?

  • How far did it demonstrate the importance of the consensual nature of British politics, even in times of national crisis?

From the 1960s, historians have been able to look at MacDonald’s decision in a slightly longer-term perspective than just the crisis of July-September 1931 and the subsequent October election. Robert Skidelsky’s analysis of the second Labour government, with his emphasis on the distinction between economic radicals and economic conservatives, began this discussion in 1970, although Ralph Miliband had published his Marxist critique of Parliamentary Socialism in 1961. Perhaps Skidelsky had this study in mind when he wrote that previous studies of MacDonald’s second government had tended to reinforce the tendency to view interwar politics in terms of a struggle between socialism and capitalism, between the Labour Party and the ‘Rest’. The real division, between radicals and conservatives, cut right across party lines, with the latter defeating the former. This economic debate was centred on unemployment, ten per cent of which Skidelsky claims was ‘endemic’ in the 1920s. It was often argued that before Keynes’ General Theory (1936) governments were bound to pursue conservative, orthodox, economic policies. Yet, as Skidelsky pointed out …

… most economists and most businessmen at the time rejected the ‘treasury view’, and dissent from orthodoxy increased progressively as traditional policies failed to restore prosperity. By 1929 there existed a substantial body of economic and political support for a radical unemployment policy embracing an expansionist monetary policy and a big programme of government investment. … 

Why then, he asked, did the Labour Party fail to make use of this dissent for the ends of a radical unemployment policy? He argued that the consequences of that failure determined the politics of the following decade and that it was a failure that could have been avoided. Usually, criticism of MacDonald and his colleagues started with their handling of the financial crisis which began in early 1931, rather than with their omissions over the previous two years. But whereas between 1929 and 1931 there were plenty of effective choices open to the Government, in 1931 itself there was virtual unanimity on the need to defend the gold standard. But MacDonald broke with half his Cabinet, not over economic policy, but over primary loyalty:

As Prime Minister he considered his first duty was to the ‘national interest’ as it was almost universally conceived; the Labour Party saw its first duty to its own people. … The real criticism of MacDonald is not that he formed the National Government, but that under his leadership, the Labour Government had drifted into a position which left it so little choice. … the Government rejected Conservative protection, the Liberal national development loan, the Keynesian and Mosleyite amalgams of both, preferring instead the advice of the least progressive sections of the ‘economic establishment’.    

Skidelsky’s ‘neo-Keynesian’ approach was challenged by Ross McKibben in his 1975 Past and Present article, who criticises the narrowness of an interpretation which was chiefly interesting as an explanation of the Labour Party’s apparent economic conservatism, but didn’t properly identify the alternative strategies available to MacDonald. McKibben provided some useful comparative material to support those who argued for a deflationary policy. He argued that the government fell essentially because it failed to agree on a programme of budgetary economies that would satisfy both the Conservatives and the Liberals, the latter party providing the majority which Labour, by itself, was short of in the Commons.  McKibben emphasised that …

The ‘desertion’ of MacDonald caused great bitterness and generated a partisan history usually designed to justify the behaviour of one side or the other in the debacle. … a newer school has sought only to explain why the Labour government did not adopt economic policies which might appear to have been obviously the right ones. Why did it not, for example, attempt to reverse economic contraction by a programme of public works financed by budget deficits, or by tax-cuts, or a policy less untypical of a socialist party – by a redistribution of income that might have raised demand? Why was the government apparently so inflexibly attached to existing monetary policies?

The 1929 Labour government assumed, first, that the problems of the British economy were partly structural, and secondly, that Britain’s place in the international economy almost uniquely influenced its monetary policies. These assumptions were related: structural weakness in the older export-based industries led to falling exports and payment difficulties. On the other hand, the requirements of ‘the City’ led to monetary policies that made internal economic reconstruction difficult. Both these problems weres were powerful disincentives to economic unorthodoxy when it had become obvious that British industry had failed in the Twenties because it was still focused on the old staples, producing goods that people no longer wanted or needed. McKibben further argues that there were practical alternatives available to the Labour government, but these were not ‘drift or reflation’ but rather ‘drift or deflation’. This strategy would not have been such a ‘leap in the dark’, as there was already plenty of evidence from around the world of its efficacy as a remedy:

Until the crisis of July-August 1931, Britain alone of the major countries seriously affected by the depression refused to follow deflationary policies. Her relatively generous social services were not only maintained but somewhat increased in scope; despite the shrinkage of the tax-base, government expenditure continued to rise; no serious attempt was made to balance the budget.

Consequently, when the pressure to abandon drift and adopt deflation became too strong, the government collapsed. Two pressures came together, in fact: the pressure to solve Britain’s internal budgetary problems by deflation which reached a peak when the May Report was published on 31 July, and, almost simultaneously, the pressure created by the European liquidity crisis reaching London, which immediately called into question the exchange rate of the pound. The budgetary crisis and the exchange crisis had been distinct phenomena before this point, but throughout August 1931 they played off each other like thunder and lightning in a perfect storm.

Adelman provided some useful criticisms of Skidelsky’s assertion that the economic failures of the Labour Government before the crisis of 1931 were a necessary consequence of the ‘Utopian ethic’ to which the party was committed. On this, Skidelsky had written:

The Labour Party’s commitment to a nebulous Socialism made it regard the work of the ‘economic radicals’ such as Keynes as mere ‘tinkering’, when in fact it was they who were providing the real choice. It was the failure of the Labour Party to recognise that this was the choice that doomed it to failure and sterility in this crucial period.

In a subsequent article, published in the Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin in 1970, Skidelsky went further, arguing that the Labour Party’s failure was a failure, not so much of socialism itself, but of Victorian liberalism, the parent ideology from which British socialism sprang and which, in its economic aspect at least, had persisted virtually unchallenged well into the twentieth century. Adelman argued that both Skidelsky’s original thesis, and this later refinement, seemed to exaggerate the influence of ideas, or their absence, as an explanation of economic and political events. Motivation is one of the primary interests of the historian, who cannot explain events without understanding the reasoning behind the people actually involved or connected with them. To deny its importance seems to imply that human action is somehow controlled by impersonal factors like economics or political philosophies, and this would lead on to a deterministic view, and a de-personification of history. Adelman argued the case for the analysis of motives behind MacDonald’s actions, suggesting that the second Labour Government’s failures had rather deeper roots in human psychology:

How are we to explain MacDonald’s conduct? It is probably true that, as his critics aver, he was a vain, ambitious and increasingly out of touch with rank-and-file sentiment  within the party, and this explains his inability to appreciate the depth of feeling over the ten per cent cut. But there is no real evidence … that MacDonald was either in sympathy with or had been planning to become leader of a ‘National Government’ before the events of August 1931 thrust the role upon him. For a generation after this crisis Ramsay MacDonald was branded as a traitor to the Labour movement, but most impartial historians now agree with the spirit of Bassett’s remark that ‘he was moved primarily by his sense of duty’, even though we need not accept his further implication that what was good for MacDonald was also  good for the Labour Party. What gave weight to MacDonald’s actions too was his belief that his leadership of the National Government would be temporary: as he stressed to his colleagues at that last fateful Cabinet meeting, it was to deal with an extraordinary crisis only, and, as had happened in 1918, he would return to the fold later on to lead a reunited party. 

For his Labour colleagues, as MacDonald himself seems to have accepted, the position was different: for them the primary issue was one of party loyalty and not the question of the unemployment cuts (over which the gap between the two groups was very narrow), or a vague ‘national interest’ over whose meaning no one could agree. After all, a majority of the Cabinet had supported all of the cuts, and even the minority must have accepted that they would in any case be imposed by the next Conservative/ Liberal government. For most Labour ministers the major question was, therefore, … how to avoid a major split within the party, and on this issue a majority preferred to resign together rather than follow the Prime Minister into the National Government and accept a major breach in the Cabinet and the party. 

The Dole, ‘Dope’ & The Means Test:

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The newly-returned National Government not only cut the dole by ten per cent but also introduced the means test. The photograph above shows a protest meeting developing spontaneously among the crowd of disappointed unemployed outside the St Pancras Labour Exchange in London. Of all the blows which fell upon the poor and unfortunate in the Thirties, whether by accident, intelligence or design, this measure was the best calculated to divide the nation and the most bitterly resented. The dole had grown out of the old poor law system and the old unemployment benefit system when, back in 1921, it had proved inadequate to cope with the new scale of mass unemployment. The unemployment fund had had to thirty million pounds from the Treasury in order to finance ‘the dole’, with a new bureaucracy growing up to administer it, which after 1931 enlarged itself to administer the means test. The unemployed man who had come to the end of his insurance stamps was now at the mercy of the Public Assistance Committee, empowered to enquire into every halfpenny that found its way into his household, camping out in his front room and then adjusting his dole accordingly.

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There was not much The Labour Party could do to help the unemployed and defend them against the cruelties imposed by the means test since it had put itself out in the cold in 1931 and remained there for the rest of the decade. Outside Parliament, protests and demonstrations were mostly led by the Communist Party and the NUWM. Labour politicians polished up their propaganda and tried to formulate a clear alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’. For a time its leader was yet another Victorian figure who had been in MacDonald’s cabinet before the split. George Lansbury was a Christian Socialist of real integrity and piety. His line was that all would be well when we had complete Socialism and power as well as office. In the meantime, he encouraged his comrades to sing the ‘Red Flag’. John Strachey wrote Marxist books and articles and gave speeches in which he seemed to hover between Fascism and Communism. On the Left, the Independent Labour Party, a few revolutionary Socialists, retained their seats. The most notable and charismatic of these was James Maxton, with his fringe of black hair falling across his burning eyes and reaching his shoulders, looking as if he was ready at any moment to ‘Man the Barricades’. Another ILP MP, John McGovern, recalled his intervention in the King’s Speech following the 1931 Election:

I happened to be standing beside Lady Astor M.P. , and she said “McGovern, this is a wonderful scene. This is what makes Old England such a great nation.” I replied, “But there are two Englands …” (As the King finished his speech) I called out, “What about the restoration of the cuts in unemployment allowances and the end of the Means Test?!” … 

The return of the National Government led to the Social Service movement becoming a clearly recognised substitute for direct State intervention. The Cabinet took the decision that neither local authorities nor the Central Government should assume direct responsibility for welfare work for the unemployed (but that such work could) more appropriately and effectively be undertaken by private agencies with limited financial help in appropriate cases from National funds. The role of the National Council for Social Service as the main agent in this was soon established by its patron, the Prince of Wales. In political, social and economic terms, the year 1931 marked the end of the Victorian régime which had given Britain prosperity. Changed conditions forced it to accept some degree of economic nationalism, and free trade of the nineteenth-century form had departed for good. The corporate effort of total war had led, eventually, to a greater acceptance of the need to seek collectivist solutions to modern problems, like the onset of mass unemployment. Capital came more under state control and direction because it had to seek the support of the State more often. In addition, there was a collectivist stimulus to clearer thinking and Planning. This was to bear greater fruit later in the decade. It was no longer simply a matter of ameliorating the effects and defects of industrialisation, but of transforming industrialism itself.

Socialism, Parties & Patriotism:

Yet the phrase, ‘the new socialism’ remained a misnomer. Collectivist methods were used, not because they were deduced from a particular creed, but because they happened to meet a particular need. In accordance with its long-held secular practice, Britain and its people remained largely uninterested in political theory, accepting change when there was a compelling case for it, supported by clear evidence. Above all, the English working-class remained deeply patriotic, as did the Scots and the Welsh. In 1937, a Nottinghamshire coal miner recalled his interaction with a Socialist speaker earlier in the decade and how his admiration had turned to annoyance when the speaker had turned to this subject:

“What is this England you are supposed to love? It is only a tiny portion of the earth’s surface.  Why should you be expected to love it, or be prepared to die for it, any more than you would for Russia, China or Greenland?”

I was thunderstruck. “Because it’s England!” I yelled out in a fury.

Didn’t he know that most of the happiness that ever I had came from this love of England that he spoke so contemptuously about? Didn’t they know that in the early winter mornings when the frost glittered on the half frozen fields and the air was so clear and so sharp that it hurt one’s nostrils, or in the hot summer afternoons when the forest of Sherwood was quiet under the heavy heat except for the popping of the bursting broom-pods – that England spoke to you? How she told you the wonderful stories of famous men who fought and ruled and died because of their love for her. Of the simple men who toiled, ploughed, reaped, loved every handful of her brown soil and died still loving her.   

In political terms, then, what was this England, and this Britain? In the Twenties, it was more of a changing landscape than it had ever been. Urgent facts had played havoc with party creeds. At no time previously or since, at least until recently, had the party interest sunk so low. That was due to the fact that British democracy had become essentially plebiscitary since that advent of the universal franchise in 1928. The 1929 ‘flapper election’ was the first to become a real scramble for votes and gamble for votes in the first-past-the-post system, compared with the well-planned binary contests which had previously taken place, leading to the turn-taking between the Conservatives and Liberals. The ‘arrival’ of Labour was one of the disruptive factors in this, but perhaps the major factor was the fact that in a crisis like war or national bankruptcy the ordinary party business meant little. The King’s view that a national emergency should be faced by a united front, which was supported by his ministers and confirmed by the people in the 1931 Election, had proved to be correct. As George Orwell was later to observe, patriotism was a far more potent popular force than socialism could ever become in Britain. The Labour Party has always done best when it has demonstrated its understanding of what appeared to be a ‘natural’ force, and worst when the party’s leadership show contempt for it.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935.  London: Hodder and Stoughton.

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

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

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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

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

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 of England, 1920-1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD thesis.

Posted December 31, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Austerity, Austria, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Conservative Party, David Lloyd George, democracy, Domesticity, Economics, Education, Edward VIII, Family, George V, Germany, History, Humanism, Jews, Labour Party, manufacturing, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Patriotism, Population, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Unionists, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ and Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38; IV.   Leave a comment

Chapter Four: Poverty, Resistance and Reconstruction.

In May 1936, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. Up to this time, the Council had played a major role in the government’s strategy, with a number of its members being involved in both the social administration of the transference scheme for juveniles and young men and the government-sponsored voluntary work in the valleys for older men and women. Most of the prominent figures in the social administration of South Wales attended the Conference. On its second day, clear divisions emerged over the continuance of the scheme, with Rev. T. Alban Davies going so far as to call for civil disobedience to counter its operation. His argument was that the national conscience was being roused against the break-up of communities which represented the history and traditions of Wales. Aneurin Bevan, MP, also called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacent attitude of those who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

… if this 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 no economic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

The reason for this complacency was made apparent by one speaker who replied to Bevan by suggesting that East Monmouth 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… Elfan Rees, Secretary to the SWMCSS, agreed that much of the population of South Wales had come from English counties, but pointed out that it was not the ‘rootless undesirables’ who were leaving:

It is not only the young, it is not only the best, it is also the Welsh who are going … if transference were 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 – the essential qualification of the transferee again, are the qualities that mark or own indigenous population. And if this process of social 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.

Rees’ ‘analysis’ of the problem helps to explain why, in 1928, the ‘liberal-Cymricists’ had chosen not to oppose the Baldwin Government’s Transference policy. They had hoped that it would remove, as they saw them, the aliens who had robbed them of the loyalty of the people of the valleys. By 1936, it had become clear that become clear that the transference scheme in particular and voluntary migration, in general, had failed to discriminate in the way they had hoped it would.

Migration also had a tendency to delay marriage and to restrict parenthood. Those couples who did manage to move before starting a family often delayed doing so due to the continuing sense of insecurity they felt in their new homes. This meant that migration not only altered significantly the age structure of South Wales and the North, but also did little or nothing to counter the declining birth rates in the recipient areas, and therefore nationally, at least until the late 1940s. The decline of the nonconformist chapels also had its impact on the ability of couples to get married in their hometowns and villages. In many ways, the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales in 1919 represented a high water mark for Welsh Nonconformity. A decade later its pre-eminence had been destroyed. In early 1930 a correspondent in The Times stated that in Cwmavon all nine nonconformist chapels were without ministers and that all marriages except one from the town had taken place in the registry office at Neath, ten miles away. This was not an isolated case. A survey into the position of the Free Churches in the Special Area was completed in 1938, showing their total debt to be in excess of forty thousand pounds. This debt swallowed al their income. While there were 1,100 chapels still active throughout the Special Area, less than half of them were able to support ordained ministers.

There was a detectable change in the Special Areas’ Commissioner’s third report of November 1936, which included an acknowledgement of the negative effects of transference upon the Special Areas and promised inducements to attract new industries. However, the Commissioner stressed the need for continuation of the Transference Policy. Malcolm Stewart warned that the establishment of industries in the Areas on an effective scale would take time. In the meantime, failure to help the youths and the younger generation of the unemployed to transfer to districts offering better opportunities would be to neglect their best interests. They must not wait about until absorbed locally. By the following November, in confirmation that the Government had accepted the priority of new industrial development and felt able at last to align itself with the new consensus, the fourth report which the new Special Areas Commissioner, George Gillett, presented to parliament, referred to the Transference Scheme in the past tense. It included a statement by Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, who had been appointed District Commissioner for the South Wales Special Area, which was a significant apology for the operation of the scheme over the previous decade:

In common with many others, one cannot but deplore a policy which has the effect of robbing Wales of her most enterprising sons and daughters as well as creating other vital problems of the future. There is consolation in the thought that those who have left are not necessarily permanently lost to Wales as I am convinced that, given an opportunity of work at home, thousands of exiles would return. This is an argument which I have used with effect in negotiating new industries.

However, the effective end of the official transference policy did not put a stop to the continued exodus of workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom was swallowing up more and more labour, especially in the English Midlands. However, the construction of a new economic base was well underway in South Wales by the end of 1938, and Crawshay’s prophecy about the return of the natives was beginning, in part, to be fulfilled. Nevertheless, much of the damage to the reputation of government had already been done. Although few protestors went as far as the Welsh Nationalists in comparing its actions to those of Hitler in the Sudetenland, as just another Fascist way of murdering a small defenceless nation without going to war about it, the Transference Scheme had been an act of unprecedented government intervention which, though relieving those it removed, caused further economic depression in the communities from which they were taken. By the end of the decade of the Scheme’s operation, the government had become involved in subsidising wages, turning the Ministry of Labour into a Social Service agency which directly interfered in the personal lives of citizens, using every measure short of force to remove young people from South Wales.

The Treforest Trading Estate Co. was formed in September 1938 seventy-two firms were assisted to settle in different parts of the Special Area, including fifty-one at Treforest. Shortly before the outbreak of war, this estate was providing employment for 2,500 workers at twenty factories. At first, doubts were expressed about the suitability of Welsh labour in the new industries, with some industrialists arguing that the workers were accustomed only to heavy work and would find it too difficult to adapt themselves to the intricacies of the more delicate work demanded in the call for high precision. This problem was countered in two ways: Firstly, one skilled immigrant worker, refugees from Austria or Czechoslovakia, was employed for every twenty-five local workers, and, secondly, the majority of the local workers employed were women. By June 1939, there were only 914 men out of a workforce of 2,196 at Treforest. As in the Bridgend valleys, the new industries were beginning fundamentally to alter the gender balance of the Welsh workforce.

The people of the coalfield were not simply subjected to varying forms of economic and political intervention during the late twenties and thirties, but they were also besieged by a host of social workers who formed part of a cultural intervention which operated in tandem with the transference policy. If these communities were to be denuded of the younger element of their population, then it was also realised that something would also have to be done for the increasingly elderly elements which were left behind. Even when new industries were brought into the coalfield there were still a large number of men over forty-five who were no longer employable. Moreover, it was felt that these communities needed help to develop the ‘right sort’ of social leadership which could rescue them from ‘the slough of despond’. These were the motivations behind the social service schemes which extended their tentacles along the valleys.

The return of the National Government in 1936  led to the social service movement becoming a clearly recognised substitute for direct state intervention.The Cabinet took the decision that neither local authorities nor the central government should assume direct responsibility for welfare work for the unemployed, but that such work could be more appropriately and effectively be undertaken by private agencies with limited financial help in appropriate cases from National Funds.The Government recognised the NCSS as the appropriate body for coordinating and stimulating schemes and McDonald broadcast an appeal laying stress upon what he considered the successes already achieved at Brynmawr, as a model of what could be achieved elsewhere. This brought a strong reaction from the Urban District Council, whose clerk wrote to the PM to correct the impression he had conveyed to the nation of the nature and scale of what was taking place in their town. Sensitive to the accusation that the social service schemes were simply providing ‘dope’ for the unemployed and that they were leading them further into ‘demoralization’ by depriving them of courage and self-reliance, Peter Scott acknowledged that his group at Brynmawr had failed to achieve their ideal of reconstruction from within:

To many of us, the thought that this work was being used merely as a palliative, bread and circuses on a large-scale, would indeed be a bitter one.

But although Percy Watkins, the Secretary of the Welsh Section of the NCSS and one of the key liberal-Cymricists of the period, remained fearful of the consequences for the future of coalfield society of the absence of a new generation of leaders, he was also hopeful about the resilience of mining families:

… The effect of these two factors, migration of young people and permanent unemployment for so large a section of the community, means that the quality of social leadership in the area, and the maintenance of its social institutions in future years are gravely jeopardised, unless special efforts are made to preserve them… The fact that many thousands of men and women bend their minds to these enterprises (the occupational clubs), as well as to various forms of craft and physical training, in spite of their ever-present anxieties, is an eloquent testament to the quality of the South Wales miner…  

Many of the miners themselves, however, continued to believe that the Government was using the unemployed clubs to break their spirit, and with it their own autonomous organisations such as the miners’ institutes. It was this belief that conditioned many of the responses of the coalfield communities, its families and individuals, to unemployment and impoverishment. It is therefore important that one of the major responses ‘from below’, that of voluntary migration, should not be confused with the ‘top-down’ organisation of the official Transference Scheme. The decision of the workless families themselves to organise their own ‘exodus’ rather than be broken up by officialdom, was not a response of acquiescence and defeat, but rather one of resistance to, and escape from, the web of state intervention in the coalfield. Equally, it has been too often assumed that organised resistance to intervention from within the coalfield can best be measured by the extent of demonstrations and political action. It is important to treat with extreme caution ;< the kind of stereotypical imagery and crude causal analysis of ‘propagandists’ such as Donovan Brown, writing about the 1935 demonstration against the new UAB scales:

There has always been in South Wales a tradition of militant struggle and extreme radicalism. English bourgeois standards have never penetrated deeply into the villages of the Welsh mining valleys… The village forms a perfect unit for militant organisation around the pit; there class-consciousness has arisen quite naturally… we are reminded of the Chartist days when the Welsh mining villages constituted enemy territory… poverty,  and the traditional militancy of the Welsh workers, naturally produced a vigorous opposition… Ceaseless activity has also continued among the unemployed… Marches and demonstrations all over the area had previously been taking place… South Wales is ablaze with indignation.                                       

In fact, the demonstrations against unemployment often arose out of specific local grievances, such as the operation of Government policy over the local poor-law officials on the Board of Guardians. In May 1927 there was a ‘demonstration of unemployed’ from Brynmawr against the Urban District Council’s decision to limit the age of applicants for the post of Rate collector to forty, excluding the older unemployed men from applying. They interrupted the Council meeting and forced the Councillors to reconsider the terms of the appointment. There were two further demonstrations later that summer in relation to local issues affecting the unemployed. These preceded the first of the massed marches of the unemployed to London, organised by the miners’ ‘Fed’ (SWMF). The main motivation for it arose out of the stranglehold exercised by the Ministries of Health and Labour upon the Boards of Guardians. It began from Pontypridd, where an Unemployed Organisation had been formed in September 1927, and it was well supported by the Pontypridd Trades Council.

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As the depression progressed, the political energies of an increasing number of the unemployed were drained away by decreasing resources. Successful political agitation depended on the addressing of the immediate issues facing the unemployed, such as the actions of the Courts of Referees, and it was these issues which took up nearly all the time of the Trades Councils in the late 1920s as well as bringing about the growth of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, led by the Communist, Wal Hannington. However, there was no widespread shift towards the ideological position held by Hannington. At the General Election in October, the well-known Communist J R Campbell came fourth in the Ogmore and Garw Constituency with only eight percent of the poll, losing his deposit. Yet the October election came only a fortnight after the following report appeared in the Glamorgan Gazette:

Unemployed people, becoming more and more restive, continue to worry public bodies with their importunities. On Monday afternoon, a deputation organised by the Maesteg and Ogmore and Garw Council of Action, waited upon the Bridgend Guardians Committee… in reference to the reductions in unemployment benefit, and submitted that the difference between the old and the new rates of… benefit should be made up by the Guardians; that all unemployed workers and their families should be provided with boots, clothing and bed-clothes; that an allowance of coal be made to all unemployed workers; and that equal consideration be given to single men.

Clearly, the small but influential group of communists in the Bridgend valleys were unable to turn their role in the leadership of the unemployed into votes and immediate success in national or local elections. Yet even among supporters of the NUWM, the attitude towards transference schemes was confused. Government reports claimed that little opposition was encountered by officials, even in “Little Moscow”, Maerdy in the Rhondda, where they found that the Communists were quite happy to transfer!

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In the Hunger Marches of 1932 and 1934, women had marched to London in contingents beside the men. Pictures and text from the first two marches can be seen above and below; the pictures of the 1934 march were taken of the women’s column which marched from Derby. The pictures are taken from the collection of Maud Brown, Women’s organiser of the NUWM, who herself took part in the marches and was an indefatigable champion of the jobless and the poor. On one occasion, during a tenants’ protest at a council meeting in Aberdeen, she hurled a live rat, taken from a slum dwelling, at the assembled councillors.

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The photographs capture the sense of humour and comradeship which existed among the women, and in their interactions with the men. The shots of hay-box heated food being served beside the road and the first aid treatment to blistered feet demonstrate the determination of the women not to starve in silence. All the marchers were unemployed themselves, or had unemployed husbands, and depended on the good-will of local labour organisations to provide nightly accommodation during the journey. Hospitality from a Co-operative Society in providing a meal with unaccustomed waiter service is evident in a scene which pokes fun at the inversion of the roles of men and women.

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Mindful of the disturbances of 1932 in the capital, the Home Secretary, Lord Gilmour, made the first attack on the hunger marchers, stating that the government will have to ask Parliament to grant such powers as experience might show to be necessary to deal with such demonstrations. Two days later, the Attorney-General, Sir Thomas Inskip, speaking at a meeting, warned of bloodshed and said the government would be bound to take steps to stop it. Petty police harassment followed the contingents all the way. At Birmingham, where the contingents spent the night in the workhouse, the police stayed with them in the sleeping quarters claiming they were there in case of fire! After they had been persuaded to withdraw at midnight, a large number of them were found hiding in a room upstairs and the superintendent pretended not to know they were there!

As the marchers drew close to London, the clamour for their suppression and restriction increased. The Duchess of Athol asked the Home Secretary if he would take suitable steps to prevent the marchers from holding meetings in Trafalgar Square. The Tyneside contingent was visited by police and five marchers were arrested for ‘wife desertion’. This action was instigated by the public assistance authorities because their wives were claiming poor relief. The men were later able to prove that their wives supported them in marching and that the authorities were merely creating difficulties. It was the attempt of the government to brand and condemn the hunger marchers before they reached London that led to a number of prominent men and women forming a committee to maintain a vigilant observation on proceedings. These included the future Labour PM, Clement Attlee, H. G. Wells, the novelist, Kingsley Martin and Ellen Wilkinson. By 23 February, the contingents were drawn up around London in readiness for their entry and reception at a great rally in Hyde Park on Sunday 25th.  The Home Secretary called up ten thousand special constables and provincial police forces were drafted in to support the metropolitan force.

A delegation representing the Welsh and Scots marchers met a hundred MPs at a special meeting in the House of Commons. The March Council also requested a meeting with the premier, Ramsay MacDonald, in a letter which was also signed by the MPs Aneurin Bevan, James Maxton and Ellen Wilkinson. In the drizzle and intermittent heavy rain, the hunger marchers finally made a footsore entry to Hyde Park where an estimated hundred thousand people gathered around eight platforms to hear the speakers and pay tribute to the courage of the emissaries from the valleys, old industrial towns and docklands of Britain. The marchers didn’t succeed in putting their case to the House, despite the support of a large number of MPs and the support of Sir Herbert Samuel, leader of the Liberal opposition. Clement Attlee addressed the Commons on their behalf, however, saying:

The marchers are fair representatives of the unemployed. The injustice from which these men and women suffer is very widely known in all parts of the House and the feeling in the country is now tremendous… there is no reason why these men should be refused a hearing by the cabinet.

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The marchers sent a deputation to Downing Street, led by Maxton, but MacDonald was not at home. Later on, in the Commons, the Prime Minister stated, in an angry outburst,

… has anybody who cares to come to London, either on foot or in first class carriages, the constitutional right to demand to see me, to take up my time whether I like it or not? I say he has nothing of the kind!

A great rally was held on Sunday, 3rd March in Trafalgar Square. Crowds gathered along the route from Hyde Park to the Square as the hunger marchers had a last meal from the soup kitchens and marched into the square singing “The Red Flag” (see the picture below, showing the crowd’s heads turning to greet the marchers). Dora Cox and Ceridwen Brown were among other women left Tonypandy on the 1934 March.

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In 1935-36, public opinion against the principle of means testing families was at its peak. The iniquitous and petty economies of the government that brought acrimony and family division to the tables of the poor were hated by all but the Tories. Women especially bore the brunt of the bureaucratic inquisition. A family with a newborn child, claiming the appropriate allowance, would be asked is the child being breastfed? If the answer was yes, the benefit was refused. A fourteen-year-old boy might get a job as cheap labour while his father remained unemployed, the boy’s earnings were counted and the family benefit cut, for the boy was expected to maintain his father. In Merthyr Tydfil, where unemployment reached nearly sixty percent of the insured population, nine thousand people, more than seventy percent of the unemployed, were on the means test, for mass unemployment had lasted for years. Mothers went without food to feed their children while the children went without boots. In the winter months, coal was brought four pennyworth at a time as families struggled to exist on means-tested allowances. Another teenager from a means-tested family told James Hanley;

We’re on the Means Test now.  Yesterday I was sitting in the kitchen when the when the man came in. It made me feel mad the way he questioned my mother. She got all fluttery and worried. , I thought she was going to run into the street. She’s not used to it… Mother is very good in spite of the conditions. It’s wives and mothers who are the real heroines. Don’t you think so?                                         

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The massive demonstrations against the 1934 Unemployment Act, which took place between January and February of 1935, were an expression of the recovery of organised Labour, especially the Miners’ Federation, and of a new and unprecedented unity within the coalfield as a whole. They were at their strongest and, at times, most violent, at the heads of the valleys, in Merthyr and the Ebbw Fach Valley, which by this time had learnt to live with long-term unemployment and had come to regard benefit and assistance payments as due by right, rather than by charity. It was in these communities that unwaged families stood to lose most through the new regulations. Nowhere was the latent resentment of state intervention more visibly expressed than in Merthyr.  The women around Merthyr organised a march on the offices of the  Unemployed Assistance Board (UAB) in response to a new UAB Act: they smashed the offices, despite the imprecations of the Quaker, John Dennithorne. The next day the government backed down on the introduction of the Act, signalling a major victory for the female protestors.

The nervousness which these shock waves created in government circles prompted Captain Ellis of the NCSS to warn against the Royal Visit to South Wales, planned for November 1936, the same month that as the revised code of regulations for men on transitional benefits was due to take effect. On 12 October 1936, Ellis penned the following letter to Godfrey Thomas at Buckingham Palace:

I feel bound to say first that I think the date is ill-chosen. The new UAB regulations come into force on 16th October. On the whole they tend to affect South Wales more than most places, and it is extremely likely that between 16th and 19th, which is the first day, there will be a great of demonstration against them. It seems to me that if that time is chosen for a visit of the King, the agitators will say that his visit is intended to distract attention from the regulations, and to mark by royal approval what is being done by the Ministry of Labour and other bodies. His visit will then be given something of a political significance. .. When Tom Jones saw the announcement of the date he asked me to tell you that he felt the very strongly that the King should not bed not be taken  to South Wales during that week.

There was some basis in evidence for these apprehensions looking forward, as well as back to the previous year’s violent demonstrations. In August the Merthyr Unemployed Lodge had demanded that there should be a one-day strike, a march on London and a ‘monster petition’ of the whole of South Wales in the campaign against the new regulations. Later that month, the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge had decided to support the boycott of the Coronation. However, refusing to heed even the warnings of Tom Jones, Edward VIII chose to go ahead with the visit and, ironically, it was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks, that he made his misquoted remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this. This may well have been an attempt to head off the kind of criticism which Captain Ellis had predicted, rather than an attempt to embarrass the Cabinet. But this was exactly the effect it had on a government which was already questioning his position. Nevertheless, the publicity given to the King’s casual remarks did have an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment.                                    

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Meanwhile, The Jarrow Crusade which had set out from the town as its official delegation to Parliament on 5 October 1936, had more of the ethos of a religious pilgrimage about it. It was the march of the ‘breadwinners’ who had been deprived of their families’ daily bread. It was to eschew the violence of the earlier Hunger Marches, led by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. If it was seen as a march,  it had to be the march to end all marches according to René Cutforth. He wrote that of all the black, noxious, stinking industrial hell-holes left behind by the nineteenth-century enterprise, the town of Jarrow was just about the nethermost pit. Jarrow’s population had risen to thirty-five thousand in the 1920s, but in the early thirties, a firm called ‘National Shipbuilding Security Ltd, whose speciality was buying up enterprises hit by the slump moved into Jarrow and dismantled Palmers’ Shipyard, which had been there since 1852. Deprived of its main industry, the shipyard, Jarrow demonstrated vividly the conditions prevailing in many parts of Northumberland and Durham. Jarrow depended entirely on shipbuilding for its living, therefore. With its shipyard shut, the sky cleared and the river ran through clear again. But a blight had descended on the town as to make its previous squalor seem a memory of paradise. Jarrow was dead. When the President of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, told its delegations that Jarrow must work out its own salvation, the townspeople knew they were indeed on their own.

So they decided on a great crusade of two hundred hand-picked men, the story of which is well-known. The Mayor and Mayoress led them for the first twelve miles. The image of the Jarrow Marchers reaching London with their petition is iconic of the period. Although the march was exclusively male in composition, it was accompanied by its well-known female MP, Ellen Wilkinson, who had written the book The Town that was Murdered two years earlier. The journalist René Cutforth described her as a small, slight, red-haired ball of fire. In 1935 she had led a march to Ramsay MacDonald in his constituency of Seaham, fifteen miles away. The cornered statesman told her, with some irony and perhaps more than a touch of sarcasm, to go out and preach Socialism, which is the only remedy for all this.

The National Government, now led by Baldwin, had nothing to say to them, so they went home by train only to be told by their wives on arrival that their dole had been cut because they had not been ‘available for work’. Ellen Wilkinson was rebuked at a Labour Party Conference for her ‘irresponsibility’ and the whole episode was closed, despite the way that so many had rallied to support them on their route to London.

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The Crusade represented an attempt at self-help publicity of a group of unemployed men representing their whole community. In that sense, it was meant to be fundamentally different from the Communist-organised Hunger Marches which preceded it. Though it became the classic and legendary march, it achieved nothing, and even while it was going on, four hundred Scotsmen and women from Glasgow were marching south to join up with other contingents, from ten other cities, on the last of the national hunger marches.  The largest of the great protests, this time it was a united demonstration embracing all sections of the Labour movement and focused on the changes to the Means Test and transitional benefits proposed in the National Government’s Unemployment (UAB) Bill. The organisation of the march was strengthened by the participation of the Trades Councils and the Constituency Labour Parties. This was despite the claim for direct representation of the NUWM being rejected by the Merthyr Conference against the Means Test in July 1936. In the autumn, the Trades Council also rejected a demand for Communist Party affiliation.

 

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Nevertheless, the NUWM claimed it had no difficulty in raising a Welsh contingent of eight hundred men and women for the biggest and most united of the hunger marches against the means test in November. The public response to the marchers was magnificent. When the eight hundred marchers from South Wales reached Slough, they were greeted by a crowd of eleven thousand, for Slough had become a ‘little Wales’, peopled by those who had left the valleys over the previous decade, to find work. The Lancashire contingent was given a twelve-mile bus ride paid for by Oxford students. Hailed and fed by Trades Councils and Co-ops along the way, the hunger marchers were in good spirits for their triumphal march into the capital where a quarter of a million turned out. Thousands lined the streets with clenched fist salutes and packed around the six platforms set up in the park to hear the speeches of miners’ leaders and MPs, including Aneurin Bevan and Clement Attlee. Bevan claimed, with some justification, that,

The hunger marchers have achieved one thing. They have for the first time in the history of the Labour movement achieved a united platform. Communists, ILP’ers, Socialists, members of the Labour Party and Co-operators for the first time have joined hands together and we are not going to unclasp them.

With the autumn leaves drifting across the banners, Attlee moved the resolution:

… the scales (of unemployment benefit) are insufficient to meet the bare physical needs of the unemployed…

In his visit to South Wales in June 1929, an official at the Ministry of Labour found that parents were increasingly in favour of their boys migrating rather than working underground, despite the fact that the employment situation had improved to the point where there was a fresh demand for juvenile labour in the collieries.  Another report that year revealed that boys had refused the offer of underground employment in the hope of securing employment in England. In January 1934, the Juvenile Employment Officer for Merthyr reported that of the boys due to leave school at Easter, less than seventeen percent, or one in six expressed a preference for colliery work. A quarter of the boys stated that they had no particular preference but invariably added that they did not want to work underground. By comparison, twenty-six percent wanted to enter the distributive trades and ten percent stated a preference for engineering.

A 1934 Investigation into the Problems of Juvenile Unemployment in Specific Areas by the Ministry of Labour found that there were 148 boys unemployed in areas where there were unfilled local vacancies for boys in coal mining. Although only twenty-nine of these boys had stated that they were unwilling to accept mining employment, the Report concluded that this antipathy was widespread. The shortage of boys wishing to enter coal mining was most marked in the Ferndale employment exchange area of the Rhondda, although managers of all the South Wales exchanges covered by the enquiry reported this changed attitude towards pit work. This change of attitude was shared by the boys’ parents, especially their mothers. In Abertillery, it was reported that most of the boys leaving school in 1932 were anxious to obtain employment other than mining and that their mothers were ’emphatic’ that they should not face the same hardships and unemployment as their fathers. Clearly, it was the nature of the work involved as well as its insecurity which promoted this preference which amounted to determined resistance among women. This evidence from government sources is well supported by the purely anecdotal evidence of the social ‘surveyors’. In his survey of Nantyglo and Blaina, Philip Massey reported that migration was itself playing in the broadening of the minds of the population. He detected the erosion of what he called the “coal complex”.

The American writer Eli Ginzberg found that many of those who left Wales looked forward in a spirit of adventure in settling in communities where coal mining was not the sole occupation. He traced the break-up of ‘the coal complex’ to the summer of 1926, and the freedom from the mines which the long stoppage provided. This had prompted many, he argued, to question the advantages of coal mining, a questioning which was intensified by the worsening conditions and reduced pay which followed the return to work. Women became even more prejudiced against coal mining, he noted, as a result of their suffering as household managers, and when employment became uncertain and wages fell, they sought other occupations for their sons, even if it meant them leaving not just their homes but also the valleys altogether. Many of these young men, encouraged by their mothers, were among the first significant streams of migration to the new industry towns of England, especially Cowley near Oxford, where the Pressed Steel Works was opening up at the same time. The author’s own recordings of such migrant men and women confirm this.

Migration was not simply a response to unemployment in that industry; it was, in many senses, a deliberate rejection of the industry itself. Thus, although several thousand South Wales miners succeeded in obtaining employment in the Kent coalfield and several hundred transferred to the East Midlands coalfields, in total they accounted for only two percent of the total migrants from the region. Some individuals who moved did so because they had ‘had enough’ of the mines, whether or not they were unemployed at the time. Some families, despite having members working, decided to move in order to keep younger members from working underground. Young women and even girls were allowed to leave home because their mothers didn’t want them to marry miners and many miners, despite strong pressures to return to the collieries, would not do so even when jobs were available for them there. Many of these jobs, of course, were of a temporary and insecure nature, three days and three shifts a week. Clearly, it is evident that this break-up of the ‘coal complex’ was a major push factor in the migration equation.

This was a changing attitude which found support in the school system, which had long been charged with at one time fostering a sense of local patriotism at the same time encouraging a spirit of individual enterprise, the ideal secondary pupil being one who aimed at leaving the valleys on leaving school. At the Garw Secondary School’s Annual Speech Day in 1927, Dr Olive Wheeler told her audience that she hoped the boys and girls were not going to be content to remain in the Garw Valley all their lives. ‘The Royal Commission on Merthyr Tydfil’ reported in 1935 that ‘good secondary education’ was assisting young people to find work outside the area, so helping to solve the general problem which confronted the Corporation.

Any society which, by the mid-1920s had produced the wealth of institutional life which existed in communities like Merthyr, could hardly be described as rootless, but it was a society whose institutions were already well-adapted to continual ebbs and flows in inter-regional and international migration. In addition to these patterns of immigration, there were also strong traditions of young people, especially girls, going into service in both Welsh and English cities and seaside towns. The post-war shortage in ‘domestics’ led to the advertisement pages of the Welsh press being filled with ‘propaganda’ about the prospects awaiting young girls in England. Many of the realities failed to match up to these claims, but there is little evidence to suggest that reports of poor conditions or even deaths from tuberculosis while in service restricted the flow of girls from the coalfield. Indeed, in the late twenties and early thirties, female migration was exceeding male migration.

A sample enquiry made for the New Survey of London Life and Labour reveals that about eight percent of domestic servants resident in the County of London in 1929 were born in Wales and Monmouthshire. Therefore, of the 185,000 female domestic servants in the County in 1931, there were probably more than ten thousand from South Wales. Of the 491 girls from the Rhondda who were placed in employment in other districts between 1927 and 1933, 98% went into domestic service. By comparison, only ninety-one girls were placed locally. In 1934, sixty-seven percent of girls about to leave Merthyr’s schools expressed a preference for domestic service.

Many girls would treat their employment away from home as a short-term experience, after which they would return home to play a new role in the family or to get married. This tendency was strengthened by the re-employment of the male members of the family or by the erosion of the mother’s health. The Ministry of Labour’s General Review of the Industrial Transference Scheme conducted in 1938-39 found that a significant proportion of migrants had moved simply because they wanted a change and not with any intention of settling. Young men were made aware by their sisters and girlfriends of the openings in personal service, club and hotel work which they could fill in London and elsewhere. Some were encouraged to take up industrial employment in Oxford because of fiancées, sweethearts and sisters were already working there in the colleges and hotels. Like their ‘women folk’, many of these male migrants saw their migration as a temporary, short-term experience, and left the valleys out of a sense of boredom or frustration, often with vague plans.

The desire to wriggle away from stifling official paternalism was more likely to express itself in second-stage voluntary migration than to prompt young men and women to fall back on the Transference Scheme, a factor that James Hanley commented on:

… it is even worse for the young, for they are continually at the beck and call, the whims and caprices, of every Tom, Dick and Harry who likes to call himself a social worker or a Government official. There is no independence for them at all… the ideas of the Government on the question of Labour Camps and the like should, once and for all, prove to them that to go one step further in obeisance is to yield all they value as individuals to a power which regretfully appears to waver rather favourably towards the social type now being created in the dictator countries.

Indeed, despite all the financial inducements for young people to transfer under bureaucratic supervision, the numbers doing so were very small compared with those who moved under their own devices and, most importantly, on their own terms, in keeping with traditions of migration common within their communities. To have accepted dependence on the state would, for many, have been an acceptance of their own ‘demoralization’. The purpose of migration was, after all, to escape from what Hanley described as this mass of degradation, and the stink of charity in one’s nostrils everywhere.

In any case, in the case of juvenile transference, many of the placements were in ‘blind alley’ jobs, from which employers would discharge workers as soon as they reached sixteen years of age, which was when insurability commenced. This threw juveniles back into the labour market at the time when formative employment was most desirable from a psychological point of view so that the employer could avoid paying their insurance costs. In 1937, Merthyr’s Juvenile Employment Committee reported that it had had difficulty in recruiting errand boys, and that although some of the vacancies were ‘progressive’ and not of the “blind alley” type, boys were reluctant to apply, knowing that many of their friends had been discharged on their sixteenth or eighteenth birthdays. Under the UAB regulations, these boys were under the same weekly sum they had worked for. Of course, these conditions applied to all placements, whether local or far away. Thus, “blind alley” employment also acted as a catalyst to migration in anticipation of being made redundant, as the following personal story shows. Haydn Roberts’ decision, which he kept secret from his mother, to bid ‘farewell’ to the Rhondda in 1932, just before his sixteenth birthday,  was one which was repeated many times over:

My money would have been the only money coming into the house, apart from my father’s dole. I carried on working at the butchers until I was sixteen, a couple of years… a chap I knew, Emrys Davies, had gone to London the year before and he was coming back with plenty of money, or he said he had, and he said he could get me a job. It was the custom down home then to employ children until they were sixteen and when they had to start paying stamps for them they would get somebody else you see, so that was looming for me when I was sixteen. Seeing all the other people out of work, and there was nothing in the Rhondda for us, there was no chance of a trade, I decided to go. I didn’t tell my mother, I just saved up the fare. The red and white was starting a daily night service to London. The fare was fourteen shillings single to Uxbridge then. I saved that money and before Morgan Jones had the chance to sack me I told my mother that I was off that night to London.

At the same time, there were many obstacles to migration which stemmed from the nature of family life in the coalfield. Married men with dependents and those who owned their own houses, were far less likely to transfer. In addition, men and women lacking either youth or the necessary self-confidence to settle among strangers and Welsh-speakers who would find themselves in an even more ‘alien’ environment in England would be reluctant to leave their valley neighbourhoods.

However, despite the deliberate intervention of the Baldwin Government in 1927 to ensure that the Guardians did not provide relief which would provide a disincentive to migration, it does not appear that either unemployment benefit or public assistance operated in this way. In the first place, many families and individuals experienced a significant drop in income as a result of either short-term working or more permanent stoppages in the coal industry. This decline was even more marked when compared with the standard of living in the ‘prosperity’ of the immediate post-war period. Even in 1937, by which time the administration of Unemployment Benefit and the UAB had changed substantially, a Ministry of Labour enquiry focusing on four employment exchanges in the Rhondda found that only one of the managers considered that rates of benefit or assistance had any impact on the willingness of juveniles and their parents to consider transfer. The other three managers reported that they did not consider this factor of importance in stemming the tide of transference.

Where state provision for the unemployed did act as a disincentive to migration, this was often related to the specific operation of policy rather than to the general level of the provision. For instance, while the means test often broke up families in the depressed areas, it also prevented their reunion in the more prosperous areas. Parents were reluctant to follow their sons and daughters because they feared, not without justification, that if they joined their earning children, their public assistance would be reduced and they would become at least partially dependent upon their children. By the 1930s, the Unemployment Assistance Board was under considerable pressure to amend its policy in this respect and found itself having to make discretionary adjustments to allowances in order to remove this obstacle.

It was the innate conservatism in many mining families, particularly among older men, that led to contradictory attitudes to transference and migration among the parents of prospective young migrants and transferees. On the whole, they were far more willing for their daughters to be placed in other districts than their sons, provided employment took the form of domestic or institutional service. The idea of girls being placed in factory work was described as anathema to the average Rhondda mother by the chief official to the Minister of Labour, J A Jones, in the mid-1930s. The idea was barely more acceptable to the girls themselves, whose reluctance to take up this form of employment was attributed to their entire inability to visualise the conditions of work and what they would do in the evenings. Out of 256 Merthyr girls who were placed in other districts between 1935 and 1937, only nineteen went into some form of factory employment. On the other hand, as the transference policy continued, and more information was provided for parents concerning the nature of factory work, they were more willing for both their daughters and sons to be transferred to this type of work. Mothers in particular, as has been noted, would rather their sons went into factory work elsewhere, than to go into the collieries.

Much of this parental opposition to transference was determined not only by a prejudice against factory work for their daughters but also by the strength of the extended family and by a consequent reluctance to relinquish parental control. Whilst it had been accepted practice for girls within the family to go into service, though often no further than to the coastal towns and cities, it was considered usual for the male members to remain in the home until marriage, which often meant well into adulthood. This tradition was so strong that many young men only told their parents of their decision to leave at the moment of departure, or after all their plans had been carefully laid, and some left without parental consent or knowledge. Others preferred to remain at home, even if this meant prolonged unemployment and the postponement or abandonment of marriage; some men remained in this state for sixteen years after leaving school.

The Ministry of Labour official who visited the coalfield in June 1929 reported that unemployed boys in Neath were being kept away from the instruction centres by their parents who feared they would be forced into transferring. Parents in Blaina were said to give their consent to transference ‘unreadily’ due to the strength of ‘family feeling’ and the loss of potential financial help. Of the sixty-eight Blaina boys placed in the South Eastern Division, seventeen had returned home, a ‘returnees’ rate’ of twenty-five percent. This ‘family feeling’ was a far more significant obstacle in the communities of the South Wales coalfield than it was in those of the Durham coalfield, according to the Pilgrim Trust’s Survey, which contrasted the attitudes of sixteen families in Crook with those in the Rhondda:

None of them complained, and several said how proud they were that the children should have found good employment and be earning good wages… “It’s been a great success with the boy and girl, but I’ll not go myself (colliery horse-keeper, aged fifty-seven). … All these were families of a decidedly good type, and it is plain that the better social types are also, on the whole, more ready to move… It was a striking contrast to the atmosphere in Wales, where many complained that they had brought up their children with much trouble and expense and now, when they might reasonably expect some ‘benefit’ from them, they were going away and benefiting their landlady rather than their parents. 

This resentment was also apparent in the responses of Massey’s interviewees in Blaina, many of whom complained of the break-up of family life and of other areas benefiting from the upbringing they had given their children and from the local public expenditure on them in terms of education. Massey also encountered the attitude that transference gave ‘the kids a chance’ and was ‘the only hope for the young’. Many respondents admitted that those transferred seemed ‘fairly happy’, since they were able to pay their own way, and it seemed that a number of the families were grateful to receive the money which was sent home. The truth is that the ‘Crook’ attitudes and those from the Rhondda were not universally polar opposites. There existed a spectrum of family attitudes to transference in both communities. Many parents were caught on the horns of a dilemma of whether to accept transference with its demoralising effects in terms of their values of family unity and solidarity, or whether to resist this form of intervention which in turn might mean their children falling prey to means test bureaucrats and social workers instead. The following response from one of Hanley’s witnesses provides a direct illustration of this dilemma:

I’ve a lad seventeen who did eighteen months in the pit. He stopped the same day as I did. He wants to go to one of these camps, and I say nothing in the matter. If he goes everybody’ll say “oh, look at him! His son’s gone to a labour camp”. If he doesn’t, somebody else will say, “No, he won’t let his son go. Rather see him rot”… You really don’t belong to yourself any more.”

It appears that the more fundamental the challenge to family life posed by the Transference Scheme the greater was the resistance from families closing ranks in a determination to stay put at whatever the cost, or through a parallel evolution of kinship networks which conducted the entire process of migration on a wholly autonomous basis. Family migration was conducted, in the main, without the help of the state, though financial assistance was available for this. In those cases where the parents were considering following juvenile or adult sons or daughters to a new area, they often felt constrained by the need to maintain two homes while looking for work and suitable housing in the new areas. The prospect of paying rent in two places, combined with a lack of tenure in his new employment for the older man, militated against successful migration.

Moreover, as Goronwy Daniel, then a young Welsh research student in Oxford pointed out, men who had lived in South Wales married and had children there, were more in the grip of Welsh ways of thinking and acting than single men since they had experienced more extensively and more intimately those ways of living characteristic of Wales. They had absorbed Welsh ways of bringing up children and maintaining a home and would, therefore, find the movement to an alien district more disturbing. Daniel concluded that economic, social and psychological factors made men with large families far less ready to move than those with few or no dependents. Given this, it is interesting to note that although young, single men were dominant in the migration streams, family migration was far more significant in the case of South Wales than it was for other depressed areas. The nature of Welsh family life would appear to have both stemmed and channelled the flow of migrants.

Within this ‘family factor’, attachment to the Welsh language in coalfield families was an important prohibitive factor to migration. Certainly, among Daniel’s interviewees, there was a detectable correlation between their allegiance to the language and their potential adaptability to a new environment. One Welsh-speaking family, whose ‘head’ had been employed in a mine near Neath until migration to Oxford in 1934, and which comprised four sons aged between thirteen and twenty-one and a daughter aged twenty-two, expressed with unanimity the sense of loss they felt at being unable to use the language and their strong desire to return to Wales. Professor Marquand of Cardiff University, the chief author and editor of the two Industrial Surveys of the 1930s was correct to identify the strength of ‘family feeling’, the strength of institutional life and the sense of ‘belonging’, the extensiveness of home ownership and the problem of declining health as major obstacles to migration, whether voluntary or state-induced and controlled. Attachment to the Welsh language was less inhibiting in the decade following his original statement in 1931, particularly among young people, male and female, who were already embracing a broader, transatlantic popular culture.

Naturally, the issues of wages and conditions were also of primary practical importance to many coalfield families. Gwyn Meara’s 1936 survey of juvenile unemployment showed that the ‘the juveniles’ will to move and the parents’ consent, would be very much easier to obtain if wages were offered sufficient for the full support of the boys or girls concerned. All too often the transferred juvenile became an additional drain upon the financial resources of a family already hard pressed at home. Resistance was reinforced by the appearance that Transference was the only policy adopted by successive, mainly conservative governments, to deal with large-scale, long-term unemployment. Many in the coalfield, led by the recovering SWMF, felt that there was a deliberate conspiracy to lower wages, undermine the strength of trade unions and weaken its true political leadership. As early as 1929, officials within the Ministry of Labour were noting that these opinions were more freely expressed throughout South Wales than in other depressed areas:

My impression is that the north country miner is much slower to express his own ideas than the more argumentative Welsh miner who is disposed to criticise the inadequacy, from his point of view, of the Government Schemes.

Although the basis for widespread public opposition existed in 1929, it was not until the late 1930s that the disparate strands of opposition were galvanised by an awareness of the social effects of a decade of migration and by the possibilities for the introduction of new industries. The chapels began to frighten mothers about the evils of city life, tradesmen suggested that although one might find a job in England there would be little gained, because the cost of living was so much higher: Trades Councils, always uneasy about the dilution of wages, began to oppose the transference of juveniles; the Lord Mayor of Merthyr, D J Evans, stated categorically that the flow of young people from this borough to other parts of the country, the steady movement of depopulation must be checked, and soon. 

The authors of the ‘General Review’ of the Transference Scheme were in little doubt that this publicity, which appeared in the Western Mail and elsewhere, had some adverse effect on the willingness of a number of applicants to consider transference to more prosperous areas.  This was not simply a government view, looking for scapegoats, but was supported by A J Lush:

The constant reiteration in press and pulpit of the dangers to the social life of South Wales by migration made it possible for many of these young persons to quote eminent authority against the whole policy. This made it extremely difficult to stress the value of ‘training’ itself. 

One of the most significant obstacles to both transference and voluntary migration was the widespread ill-health bred by poverty and malnutrition. The statistical evidence on the effects on women’s health was fully investigated by and published by Richard Titmuss in 1938, and have been dealt with above. The poverty of diet endured by many potential young transferees, many of them already forced to live away from their parental home due to the operation of the means test, is revealed by James Hanley’s more anecdotal evidence:

It has already been seen that young people who have left Wales and gone elsewhere and have got work and gone into lodgings, have vomited up whatever first wholesome meal they have had served up to them by their landladies. I verified five instances of this.       

Other important obstacles were the strength of trade union traditions, a deep-seated resentment of official and quasi-official intervention and a broadening communal opposition to the Transference policy. More negatively, there was, at least until the introduction of new industries in the second half of the thirties, a widespread antipathy to factory work, especially among women, though a preference for such work over colliery work by young men, both attitudes receiving parental support, especially from mothers. Specific aspects of the levels and administration of unemployment benefit and allowances, together with the emergence of a subsistence sub-economy within the coalfield also played a significant though secondary role, in preventing migration.

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Between 1911 and 1939, the working population of Britain increased by twenty percent. In peacetime women formed thirty percent of this working population; most of them were young, single women, but towards the end of the period, married women tended to continue at work, at least until the birth of their first child. For some working women, like those in the photograph above, very little changed in their working lives. The photograph could have been taken at the end of the nineteenth century, in any of the coalfields, since there were pit-brow lasses in all of them at that time. Perhaps surprisingly, there were still well over three thousand women employed in coal mines in Britain in 1930, 239 under the age of sixteen, and more than half of the total employed in the Lancashire and Cheshire districts where the tradition of women colliery workers was strongest. They worked on the sidings, tramways and, as in the photo, in washing and sorting the coal. There were sixteen mines in operation in Wigan when the photo above was taken and it is believed that the scene is from the largest of these, owned by the Wigan Coal Corporation Limited.

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Above: Unemployed man and daughter (?) in Wigan, 11 November 1939

(Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

Of course, Wigan was made ‘infamous’ by George Orwell’s visit there in 1937, which led to his somewhat fictionalised account of the lives of the local unemployed in The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell provides the historian with an invaluable, if somewhat emotive picture of conditions in the depressed area. However, as he himself admitted later, he emphasised the worst rather than the improving features of British Society and his picture, therefore, gives the most pessimistic view of northern English communities like Wigan. In particular, he graphically describes the operation of the means test and the real character of poverty, based on his own experiences and fieldwork. Yet there is also a sense of working-class resistance and resilience alongside the ironic comments in his account and, as with those visitors to the South Wales coalfield, he emphasises the role of women and the family in this:

The most cruel and evil effect of the Means Test is the way in which it breaks up families… Nevertheless, in spite of the frightful extent of unemployment, it is a fact that poverty – extreme poverty – is less in evidence in the industrial North than it is  in London. Everything is poorer and shabbier, there are fewer motor-cars and fewer well-dressed people: but there are also fewer people who are obviously destitute… But in the industrial towns the old communal way of life has not yet broken up, tradition is still strong and almost everyone has a family – potentially… Moreover, there is just this to be said for the unemployment regulations, that they do not discourage people from marrying. A man and wife on twenty-three shillings a week are not far from the starvation line, but they can make a home of sorts; they are vastly better off than a single man on fifteen shillings… 

003 (2)

Above: Part of the cover design for Theo Baker’s book,

The Long March of Everyman, by Ken Carroll.

Bibliography:

Andy Chandler (1982), The Black Death on Wheels: Unemployment and Migration – The Experience of Interwar South Wales in Papers in Modern Welsh History 1 (the Journal of the Modern Wales Unit), Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

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. Unpublished PhD. Thesis.

Theo Baker (ed.)(1975), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Bill Jones (1993), Teyrnas y Glo/ Coal’s Domain. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales.

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

 

Gwyn Thomas (1979), The Subsidence Factor; The Annual Gwyn Jones Lecture. Cardiff: University College Cardiff Press.

Picture Post (?) (1938), These Tremendous Years, 1919-38: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war. London. Unknown publisher.

D. Hywel Davies (1983), The Welsh Nationalist Party, 1925-1945: A Call to Nationhood. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

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

Margaret R. Pitt (neé Wates) (1981), Our Unemployed: Can the Past Teach the Present? Work done with the unemployed in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Harrow: Margaret R. Pitt. (obtainable from Friends Book Centre, Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ).

 

Posted March 29, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Coalfields, Communism, democracy, Edward VIII, Family, History, Integration, Migration, Mythology, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Poverty, south Wales, Unemployment, Wales, Welsh language, Women's History

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