1940 - The bridgehead of freedom

The fall of the Chamberlain Government saved this country, and with it the cause of European freedom, from utter defeat. For a few weeks after the collapse of the French army it was touch and go. But a new leadership, the hard work of the men and women in the armament factories, the endurance of our sailors and, above all, the skill of a few thousand pilots have thwarted Hitler's chances of victory this year. Instead of living perilously from day to day, we can now look forward and plan the strategy by which we can emancipate Europe from the Fuhrer. At the last hour, democracy has rebelled against the defeatism and complacency which were leading it to its destruction. Now that rebellion must be organised into an orderly offensive against our real enemy.

The greatest achievement of the new Churchill-Labour Government has been its recognition of the nature of total war and its willingness to face the revolutionary changes which the waging of such a war implies. Mr Chamberlain and his friends were determined to fight the last war over again, although by doing so they nearly brought us to defeat. Mr Churchill is prepared, we believe, to sacrifice orthodox finance, diplomacy and antiquated military etiquette for the sake of victory. If victory entails a peaceful social revolution at home and a violent revolution abroad, he is not dismayed. He has the will to victory and the power to win the confidence of labour, and that in itself is a revolution after the epoch of Earl Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald.

What Mr Churchill lacks is a precise understanding of the revolutionary changes which modern war involves and it will be the function of his Labour colleagues to give content to the noble phrases which he used last Tuesday. In two spheres, in particular, will their collaboration be of special importance: first in our social policy at home, and second in our contacts with the people of Europe.

At the moment, national unity is cemented by the threat of invasion and the ardours of air attacks. But during the winter months these perils will probably decrease, and only the blind optimist can believe that Hitler will have a monopoly of troubles on the Home Front. We too shall have a huge army, quartered often in lonely places and paid far less than the factory worker. We too shall have an industrial population suffering under the strain of the blackout, the air raid alarms and the increased cost of living. Our chief enemies will be the boredom and human frictions which are bound to plague the inhabitants of a beleaguered fortress. There will be restless movements among organised and unorganised labour and there will be defeatist tendencies among those classes for whom the social revolution of modern war means the destruction of privilege. What is needed is a positive social policy even while the war is on. Next winter we must not have another interim Budget but a financial policy based upon an economic plan; we must proceed to the nationalisation at least of transport and coal and to a new, democratic educational policy which brings the public schools within the national system of education. If Britain stagnates this winter, she will face the spring as divided and weakened as France was this year. Democracy must advance or perish.

Meanwhile in Europe, we must be preparing the ground for the great offensive. We must use the winter to establish contact with revolutionary forces in every country and to persuade them that our cause is theirs. In its attitude to European revolution, the Government at present displays a lamentable lack of imagination. Europe will not spontaneously rise against the Nazis except under a leadership whose revolutionary zeal exposes the falsity of the so-called Nazi revolution. What shall be the aims of that revolution? On this point Mr Churchill prefers to remain silent, but silence is in itself the tacit admission of a policy. By not declaring its aims, the Cabinet lets it be understood that our object in this war is the restoration of those governments now in exile in this country and of the frontiers which Hitler violated. Possibly that is not the Cabinet's intention - but that is immaterial. As long as we do not propound our alternative to Hitler's New European Order, Europe will believe that our aim is the restoration of the Versailles order. For that, no people in Europe will fight. On the contrary, they will meet our armies, if they land, with cold hostility.

We do not minimise the value of the assistance offered by the exiled Governments, but no Government in exile can represent its people adequately. It would be fatal to permit them to become the symbols of our European policy. That must rest on the solidarity of peoples, and that solidarity can only be created by a common faith and common objectives. The peoples of Europe will not throw off the Nazi yoke either for the sake of the British Empire or for that of their Governments in Britain. They want a Europe united and yet free, as radically different from the Europe of Versailles as the Britain of 1942 will be from that of 1939.

Why do Mr Attlee and Mr Churchill unite in saying that the time is inappropriate for outlining our aims in Europe? Is it because they are still influenced by that insularity which caused us to fail so lamentably in our duty to Europe after 1918? Unless we can overcome this insularity we shall not accomplish the second stage of the democratic revolution. For that second stage is no longer a matter of domestic policies, but must be based on the recognition that the survival of our liberties depends upon the recovery of theirs by the other peoples of Europe, and that any future peace will demand intimate links between Britain and Europe. It is our fate to be the "bridgehead" of freedom, which unites the New World and the Old. Mr Churchill and his colleagues are developing our links with the New World. Their task will be incomplete, and victory will be beyond our grasp, unless they show the same vision towards the oppressed peoples of Europe.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery