Do Labour really want peace? A letter from Cecil Day-Lewis: 7 March 1936

From our correspondence.

7 March 1936

SIR,—The Labour Party has now banned the Authors World Peace Appeal. This is a body so loosely organised that it cannot be said to have a membership. It was founded by a dozen respectable, worried writers, mostly of the generation on which the 1914 war had such a shattering impact. Some seven hundred signatories have signed a declaration which says: “We writers believe that our civilisation is unlikely to survive another world war. We believe that differing political and economic systems can exist side by side on tile basis of peacefully negotiated settlements. As writers we want peace and through our work will try to get it: and pledge ourselves to encourage an international settlement through peaceful negotiation. We condemn writing liable to sharpen existing dangers and hatred. As signatories we are associated with no political movement, party or religious belief, but are solely concerned with trying to stop the drift to war.”

Now, does the Labour Party intend all signatories who happen to be Labour Party members to write and say they don't believe our civilisation will be upset by another war: that they don't believe that differing Political and economic systems can exist side by side that they don't want peace and won't try to get it through their work? Or what?

The organisation, in so far as it exists—it is extremely hard to organise writers at all, as the Labour Party has found in its day—consists of an executive committee elected at an annual conference, and several working panels or groups of writers who volunteered for some kind of work. Thus, one such group considers hate and war themes in children's books; it has been extremely efficacious in so far as it is now, since the publication of the AWPA evaluation list (very similar to that of the American Cincinnatti committee—which has, we think, survived all purges in the States!) almost impossible to buy any of the really shocking comics from the multiple stores and bookstalls which used to stock them freely. It also hopes to start a cheap children's paper, so as to provide better alternative fare: are Labour members not to write in it? If a Peace Book Club is started through AWPA, are Labour Party members not to belong?

Now let us consider what happens to any of the banned organisations if Labour Party members are withdrawn lest they should be corrupted by Cormmunists. There remain a few Communists, some “fellow travellers”, a few Liberals, a few dissident Tories (unless the Conservative Central Office takes a leaf from Transport House), some convinced pacifists and Quakers and a great many well-meaning non-political persons who can usually be pulled round by the politicians. But the old hands from the Labour Party who can, on the whole, see what they are doing and why, and are prepared to argue and be tough in a friendly way, are to be taken away. Not enough dissident Tories, Liberals and pacifists are left, and the Communists will doubtless be able to pull the organisations their way.

Is this what the Labour Party intends?

We writers can do a good deal in the way of interpreting the various angry ideologies to one another. We can do a great deal in the way of establishing relations with writers in other countries. We can cool the war, which is hotting up against the real wishes of all but a tiny minority, with irony and laughter and even with that most dangerous thing, truth (or, to use Beatrice Webb's phrase, “a few facts”). We can do it better if we are in a professional organisation. Does the Labour Party not want us to do these things? If so, is it so sure that it really wants peace?

C Day Lewis
Naomi Mitchison

Cecil Day-Lewis with his wife, daughter and son Daniel. Photograph: Getty Images.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times