29 MARCH 1963, Page 12

Living With Labour

By HENRY FAIRLIE It is difficult now . . to convey the intense sensation which many of us felt in those first days. . . That first sensation, tingling and triumphant, was of a new society to be built; and we had the power to build it. There was exhilaration among us, joy and hope, determination and confidence. We felt exalted, dedicated, walking on air, walking with destiny. A loud cry broke from one of our new boys, new both to Parliament and to office. 'We are the masters now.' It was the voice of Hartley Shawcross.

CO Hugh Dalton begins his memories of the CLabour Government of 1945-51. Only two years after 'those first days,' the mood had gone, and Sagittarius, in her long lampoon, 'Let Cowards Flinch,' looked back caustically to that red, revolutionary spirit.

The Carlton Club drew down its ancient shades, The City's heart felt palpitating flutters, The Bank Bastille called out the Fire. Brigades, The fiends of commerce all put up their shutters, High Civil Servants manned the barricades, While propagandist /euilletons choked the gutters.

Three times the Tories rose and thrice went under, To leave the realm to arson, rape and plunder.

There will be new voters at the next general election who do not remember that fiery dawn: There Attlee squats, who fouled the Tory nest, Like Meat. ranting on the mob's behalf. Beside him Bevin, the arch-Jacobin, A very Damon. scowling and satanic.

Next Morrison, who cracks the three-line Whip, Another Fouche, swollen with conceit.

Next Cripps, a St. Just, with a breast of ice, Antithesis of native British bonhomie.

Sagittarius's verses were more than ribald raillery. They were a lament, written bitterly in the first moment of disillusion.

By 1951, 'the intense sensation, tingling and triumphant,' had been replaced by another. 'I had been having trouble for some time with pains in my stomach and also eczema,' writes Attlee in his autobiography, and somehow it seems the most appropriate epitaph on his Government. It had pains in its stomach and also eczema. Cripps was dying; Bevin was dead; Bevan had resigned. The Government could not hope to keep its support in the House of Commons under the strain of constant divisions: Many of our Members lived in the outer suburbs. It was easy, therefore, for Conservatives who resided in central London, to keep things going until last buses and trains had gone. It only needed a breakdown in health of half a dozen of our Members to put us in a minority.

'The King was worrying a good deal about it,' Attlee was to add in later years. 'He was rather the worrying type, you know. I'm not a worrier.' Somehow, one cannot help feeling that the King was justified : Attlee himself, after all, was being treated for a duodenal ulcer.

How did it all happen? Was it inevitable that it happened? What was it actually like? Can one, indeed, remember it at all?

The new Labour majority in 1945—almost 400 strong—sang the Red Flag. But Mr. Maurice Edelman glanced at the full benches, and observed 'a lot of smooth-faced young men who look as if they meant to do well out of the Peace': an early promise which some have richly fulfilled. Perhaps, even then, Mr. Edelman, our only politi- cal novelist, had found the core of decadence. Decadence was to come. In 1945, it was simply so very decorous. Shinwell introduced the Coal Industry Nationalisation Bill: the Conservatives politely opposed it; and Lady Windermere's fan played at the Haymarket. Dalton nationalised the Bank of England; the City observed the change with an almost exquisite indifference; and at Hatchard's the current best-seller was Osbert Sitwell's Left Hand, Right Hand.

Early in 1946, Dalton was to go to Eton and address its Political Society : 1 told them that just now Eton and King's was the best password to high influence at the Treasury and the Bank of England. . . . 1 cited myself, the first Old Etonian Chancellor for fifty years, Cobbold, Keynes and, last but net least, Robin Brook.

It was by no means altogether 'a jest, Even the Federation of British Industries, on the eve of the first Opposition motion of censure in Decem- ber, 1945, had announced that it was ready to co-operate with the Government.

Already, however, the Government had been confronted by imminent disaster. A month after it took office, Truman announced, without any warning, that Lend-Lease would come to an end immediately: 'a grievous and unjust blow to the prospects of British recovery,' Aneurin Bevan was to call it. Keynes set out for America, on his last killing act of public service. He was optimis- tic: he told Labour Ministers before he left that he thought he could obtain .a gift of £1.500 million.

The months of negotiation and, as Dalton himself later said, retreat began, At home, he, Cripps and Bevin, working together, found them- selves faced by Cabinet colleagues whose objec- tions 'consisted of wishful moralising in vacua' In the end, Keynes's thankless task was com- pleted: a loan of £1,000 million, on conditions (especially the early conVertibility of sterling) which Britain could not hope to fulfil.

Three months later, having attended the first meeting of the International Monetary Fund at Savannah, Keynes took the night train to Wash- ington. The next morning, he began walking to the breakfast car: The train swayed heavily. He felt very tired sand exhausted. He was buffeted about. It was becoming a torment. Would he ever reach the end? Step by step, he struggled on. He settled down to breakfast, and his'strength revived. . . . He would have to do the return journey very gently. Back to his walk along the swaying coaches. . . . He did not have to balk for long. They carried him to the nearest club car and stretched him on a couch. He lay there for some two hours. It was the worst attack he had ever had.

A month later, on Easter Day, 1946, he died: the man who, more than any other, had created the economic weapons and the climate of opinion on which the Labour Government would have to rely for its success.

The omen was hardly favourable. Already, in these first months, swaying, buffeted and tor- mented, would it ever reach the end? But, im- mediately, there was work to be done; and, for the next eighteen months, the Government was carried forward by its own impetus.

The year 1946 was one of breathless legis- lative activity. Altogether eighty-four 'Bills were Passed in that first session, and the main ones were given their Second Reading in rapid succession: January 29, Coal Industry Nationalisation Bill; February 6, National Insurance Bill; February 19, Trades Disputes Bill; March 21, National Health Service Bill; May 6, Civil Aviation Bill; May 8, Cable and Wireless Nationalisation Bill; May 21, New Towns Bill.

Even those who had their doubts could not help sharing the exhilaration of all this, and had to concede the Government their awe, if not, in every instance, their admiration. It was, in fact, fulfilling the contract which the Coalition Government had made with the people during the war: that, when it was over, a new society Would be built, 'with much more equality in it than the old.' None could seriously object.

Throughout this period, in fact, the Labour Government was, by and large, given the bene- fit of the doubt. It could draw on a very general goodwill; and, as it entered 1947, it could claim that it deserved it. Why, then, was 1947 to be annus horrendus. as Dalton called it?

It would be easy to give the answer in terms of the slogan : 'Starve with Strachey and Shiver with Shinwell.' Certainly, shortages began to seem oppressive. Bread had been rationed in 1946, potatoes were rationed in 1947. For a time We had been held in thrall by announcements such as: 'The flour extraction rate will be raised to 85 per cent.' But the novelty of living in siege conditions in peacetime began to wear off. The fuel crisis of 1947 was not altogether the Government's fault—the winter was the most severe since 1880-81—but people began to feel that there was something in Swinton's jest that it was due 'not to an act of God, but to the inactivity of Emanuel.' If one wants a cameo of 1947, it is in Dalton's diary for February 7: Today, at this morning's Cabinet, Shinwell suddenly asked permission to tell the House of Commons this afternoon that all electricity must be cut off from industry in London, South-East England, the Midlands and the North-West.... This is a complete thunderclap, following the usual rather hopeful tales we have had from him Cripps reported that the crisis had cost the nation £200 million, and Shinwell was un- ceremoniously repiaced by Gaitskell, thus creating the first of the personal resentments which were later to dog the party. But the importance of these acute difficulties the indirect, undermining the Government's and h e party's morale rather than popular con- fidence- The Government could still have recov- ered, if it had understood the problems which now faced it, and known what to do about therm iv In 1947, it in effect completed its legislative carrying through Parliament the Transport Bill, the Town and Counrty Planning Bill, the Agriculture Bill and the Electricity Bill, Bevan,

during the past week.

by a mixture of vigour and cunning, was turning the flank of the doctors and forcing the Health Service into shape. When that was accomplished, the first creative task of the Government was over.

All of this was done, it should be remembered, in this year of savage crisis, and done, still, with some élan. It was the year, in fact, in which Dalton, in his second Budget, pledged himself to find 'with a song in my heart,' all the money that was needed for the development areas. The phrase was later torn from its context, and un- fairly used against him. But it reminds us today of the spirit which was still there in 1947, and which the Government could have sustained.

The turning-point came in July when, with great misgivings, but in fulfilment of one of the conditions of the American loan, sterling was made convertible into dollars. A month later, convertibility had to be suspended: it was the first great balance of payments crisis: the Gov- ernment cut imports drastically: the dollar gap and Cripps were with us—to stay.

It was, however, also the year of the Marshall Plan. For the second time—the American loan was the first— a period of opportunity, if not of grace, was given: If all this money had been absorbed into investment and so transformed into an addition

to the country's productive capacity. the British industrial dynamic might well have been on the scale of Germany in the 195:'.s. But in fact—and for quite respectable reasons—the money which America provided was deliberately turned to serve other ends.

This is Mr. Andrew Shonfield's unpart'san sum- ming-up, and there are few, now, who would find cause to disagree with it.

These respectable reasons were Bevin's in- sistence on maintaining huge commitments overseas, and the general assumption, rarely challenged in those days, that (in pursuit of her total independence) Britain should free herself of external aid as soon as possible.

Nothing is more remarkable in the whole his- tory of the Labour Government than the way in which the controversy about Britain's overseas commitments became the focal point of all political discussion in 1947—and left almost no impression on the Government's policies, Bevin often said that his task as Foreign Secretary would be transformed if only Britain were ex- porting coal. He never seems to have understood the implications and the logic of his own insight.

This complete failure to understand the changes in Britain's position and role in the world paralysed every attempt at economic re- covery between 1948 and 1951: and, indeed, for ten years after that. This was the real, and dis- astrous, legacy of the Labour Government.

This was paralleled, in these same locust years. by an equal unwillingness to rethink the traditional attitudes of the party, especially in such matters as planning and controls. For the first years, these were justified and easy to carry out. People had grown used to the logic of con- trols and planning in war-time; and, as long as there were shortages in peace-time, and there- fore no consumer choice, the same logic appred. But when production rose all over the world, and consumer choice became possible, no one in the Government re-examined the role of plan- ning with either skill or accuracy. One can still see Mr. Harold Wilson, announ- cing to a jubilant House and especially a jubilant Opposition, on March 22, 1949, his 'bon- fire of controls.' But these controls were the essence of the planning of which the Govern- ment still boasted. The confusion crept into the most characteristic documents of the period— the Economic Surveys which were produced annually from 1947 onwards: the out-of-date Bradshaws on which it tried to run a railroad.

Forecasts which seemed to be made to be proved wrong, exhortation, working parties for down-and-out industries, exhortation: it was to this that planning had come. Already, by 194, Cripps had said that 300,000 unemployed (the figure at the end of 1947) was not enough: he looked for an increase of 50 per cent.: to 450,000. It still remains the most astonishing statement of all those later years.

So, the country lurched from devaluation, to economy measures, to the Korean War, to re- armament, to its climacteric year.

1951: the year of the Festival of Britain. 'The Festival,' said the official handbook, 'is nation- wide. All through the summer, and all through the land, its spirit will be finding expression in a variety of British sights and a great range of British sounds.'

The Spectator greeted the Festival with a poem which could only be read with a fitting sense of irony: South Bank's sad ruins are remov'd from sight And Dome and Skylon rise for our delight; While dreams in steel and concrete now restore The nation's pride to heights scarce reach'd


On April 3, the Minister of Food, Mr. Maurice Webb, announced that food prices were bound to rise, and that it was going to be 'a grim business' feeding the island.

Loud shouts the people's happiness proclaim; E'en pleasure gardens spread Britannia's fame. Art joins with Science; a Pavilion shows How British freedom round the whole world


British freedom allowed each person between three and five ounces of bacon, between three and four ounces of butter, between one and a half and two ounces of cheese and, at the be- ginning of the year, eightpenceworth of carcase meat, supplemented by twopennyworth of corned beef. By the autumn, Mr. Morrison, who had somehow arrived in the post of Foreign Secretary, was wanting to throw British troops into Persia, and complained that there were none available.

'Mid feasts and pageants rustic sports are seen With choirs and dancing on the village green. And foreign guests. beneath our flag unfu:l'd, Admire this nation. Wonder of the World.

Dalton addressed the Cremation Society: 'What happens inside a coffin is not very pretty,' he said. 'Is it not better to go quick and clean in a bright flame?' But even this was to be denied to the Government. What was happening ins:de the coffin was made clear enough when Bevan and Wilson resigned.

There are many reasons which have been given, and could be given, to explain why the Labour Government lost its way in 1947—only two years after it had been returned to power. But, as I have been trying to recollect the period, my mind will not leave the attempt which was

Made in 1947 to force Attlee out of the leader- ship of the party. That this attempt did not succeed seems to me to have been the irretriev- able disaster.

I admire Attlee as a stylist, but I cannot share the common and high opinion of him as a states- man. It is to him that one must attribute his Government's failure to adjust its basic ideas and attitudes. As Mr. R. H. S. Crossman has written: His autobiography is staggeringly reveal- ing. . In every chapter one finds an utter obliviousness and disregard of theories and values which are outside Mr. Attlee's range. Men and ideas are flattened down to the level at which he can comprehend them....

After paying tribute to all which was accom- plished. the verdict of posterity on Mr. Attlee's competent revolution may be that it was the only event of its kind in history which contri- buted almost nothing new or imaginative to the Pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment.

If Mr. Crossman is considered a prejudiced judge.' there is the unpartisan judgment, again, of Mr. Shonfield, writing of Attlee's failure to dive the party adequate leadership after 1951

It was at this stage that the intellectual defects of Mr. Attlee as leader, indeed his almost com- plete lack of interest in ideas, were revealed as a serious weakness of the party.

Attlee. he' says, presided over a spiritual interregnum.

But this interregnum began in 1947. We are accustomed to being amused by the stories of Attlee as the laconic, uncommittal chairman of his Government—acting with decision and pre- cision only when his personal position was in danger.

But it was these methods which enabled Bevin to continue with a foreign policy far beyond the known strength of the country. It was these methods which allowed the confusion about planning and controls to remain at the core of Cripps's economic policies from 1947 to 1950. It was these methods .which placed the Labour Party in the wretched condition from which Gaitskell had to rescue it.

Indeed, one realises that a left-wing party can afford Attlee's leadership even less than a right- Wing party. Precisely because its attitudes are unavoidably based on theories elaborately worked out in opposition, there is always the danger that when it gains power these will be out of date. This is exactly what happened in 1945, and why the revolution deserves to be called sqUare.

Gaitskell, one begins to see, not only provided the kind of leadership which the Labour Party needed at a particular moment : he provided the kind of leadership which it needs at any moment. A. Labour leader, in short, must have, not only the intellect, but the determination and singlehanded courage to push his party forward, beyond its 'conventional wisdom.' It was not the purpose of th's article: but I cannot avoid the conclusion that Mr. Wilson's constant affirmation that he intends to follow Atdee's and not Gaitskell's methods of leader- ship is a threat whose meaning we should under- stand. can't ever get Clem to say anything,' said Bevin to Dalton in 1947, and inquired:

tan you?' It is the last word that needs to be said.