France and Britain

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> 13 September 1947</strong>

Whoever wins this spring'

Anglo-French relations, after the eloquent formalities of the Dunkirk ceremony last spring, and the brief get-together for the Harvard speech, are now as bad as ever. We are back at the usual recriminations. The French, we say, are impossible about the Ruhr; so we must go ahead with the Americans despite Bidault's objections. Anyway, the government and the franc are both so unstable that we cannot afford to be linked with them.

The French reply is equally emphatic. As one French politician put it to me last week, “But you have ceased to make even the pretence of having a view of your own. In the discussions on the level of German industry, your representatives might at least have shown one difference of inflection from the Americans. But they seemed too tired to resist – almost indifferent.” And an alert young Communist editor drew his obvious moral, “We had a bad patch last July. But now things are going just as we predicted, except that the Americans surprised us by not even attempting to conceal their intentions. They let us know that they regard the German industrialists as more reliable allies than France. So much for your Marshall plan. There will be confusion in France with winter, and we can expect to profit by it.”

It is not difficult to see why the French Communists have suddenly recovered heart. The internal situation grows worse month by month. The controlled economy of a government headed by Socialists is now an empty mockery; and the frantic invocations to show a discipline like the British have no effect on a people which has just experienced the doubling of the price and the halving of the ration of bread. Everyone knows that as a result of putting the price and the halving of the ration of bread. Everyone knows that as a result of putting the price of maize higher than than of wheat, the peasants fed the wheat to their livestock, and that this summer's terrible drought has made the position still more desperate. But what is to be done in a country where the Food Ministry reckons that half the population is directly or indirectly concerned with the black market, while the other half has to live on its rations? The traditional conflict of town and country has now become a pre-revolutionary deadlock in which the working class is forced down to the level of a Marxist proletariat – and votes Communist accordingly. Meanwhile the Socialist Party commits a slow hara-kiri “for the sake of the nation”; and the “democratic planning,” for which it is held responsible, becomes a synonym for a moral chaos in which the rich grow richer and the poor poorer. French public morality, never very strong and undermined by years of Vichy, has now almost ceased to exist.

In such a situation, and despite all evidence to the contrary, France still hopes that Britain will see reason. There is a self-deprecatory admiration for the civic discipline with which Britain accepts the cuts. Even more significant, the memory of 1940-41, when Britain spoke and fought for Europe, has been re-awakened, and I was amazed to be told in Paris by a most reliable British observer that the Churchill offer of 1940, so scoffed at when it was made, would now meet with a response in all circles outside the Communists. The French know that they can only be saved by a deus ex machina, and the vast majority of them would prefer a British to an American or Russian divinity. Hence the extraordinary violence of their feelings about the British conduct at the recent tri-partite meeting on Germany.

Here, indeed, is an inexplicable contradiction. Britain and France are bound together by closer ties than ever before in their history. France won the first, as Britain won the second, World War at a cost far beyond her strength. Each in isolation and relying only on its Empire, is incapable of an independent policy; each, working alone, is strategically indefensible against both East and West. Yet working together they could still form a policy to direct American assistance into constructive channels instead of leaving Western Europe as a passive and divided recipient of anti-Bolshevik (or Bolshevik) aid. Since this is possible and vitally to the interests of both peoples, why does it not happen?

The reason usually given in this country is the internal French situation, which I have already sketched. No French Government is capable of an initiative of any kind. The Cabinet does not rule: it reacts feebly or violently according to the pressure applied. All this is true enough. The French political crisis is far more severe than our own. Indeed it is insoluble in terms of the present balance of parties, which prevents the existence of a French Government, in our sense of the word government.

But is this sufficient justification for British isolationaism? In dismissing France as an incurable schizophrene, who must be made to toe the Anglo-American line, are we not making our own crisis as insoluble as the French? Three weeks wandering in France, Switzerland and Austria gave me an opportunity to look at Britain from outside, and to see us as our fellow-Europeans see us. I found abounding good will, but an increased bewilderment at our policy.

“Social democracy is immolating itself on the altar of national sovereignty,” said a Swiss Socialist at Zurich. We had been discussing Mr Bevin's policy in Palestine, and seeking to discover how a Labour Foreign Secretary could be driven to such extremities. “French Socialists in Indo-China and British Socialists in Palestine are both suffering from the same disease. To save something of their national greatness they are sacrificing principle and morality itself. The strong imperialist can afford to be moral, sometimes; the weak Socialist, trying to defend imperial interests, is compelled by circumstances to adopt strong-arm methods and gradually destroys both the Empire and his Socialism too.”

There is more in this than we like to admit. Both of us are trying to sustain something of an imperial past. But the French have lost so much already that they are ready to consider the sacrifice of national sovereignty. We are not. Mr Bevin would regard it as unpatriotic to admit that we need France as much as France needs us, or that our economic problems are insoluble in terms of a national trade balance. So the deeper our crisis grows, the more insular we become; the more obvious our need for union with Western Europe, the more obstinately we seek for a British Empire solution; and with a contemptuous indifference dismiss France as “hopeless.”

In fact this is a superficial judgement. Though he immediate symptoms in France are much more acute than ours, the crisis is not nearly so fundamental. In normal times France can feed herself, and it is theoretically possible to foresee how her exports could balance her imports. It may be very difficult to work the Monnet Plan, but at least it exists. If the political deadlock could once be broken, if the outside aid could be used sensibly instead of leaking into the morass of the black market, then a national plan could be enforced, and French recovery achieved within a few years.

Our position is the exact reverse. We still enjoy a political stability and public morality which permit the Cabinet to impose, without undue difficulty, any cuts which it chooses. But we have no plan. This is not because the Cabinet does not want one, or because its officials are incompetent, but because an island, wholly dependent on foreign trade, cannot make a national plan. So long as we remain an insular economic unit, and try to balance our national imports against national exports, we cannot bridge the gap. We could certainly reduce it by economies and bilateral arrangements, and we must seek to do so. But the ugly fact remains that no economist can show the way to make the British Isles a sound business concern, in a world where, when American prices rise, we cannot afford imports, and when they slump, our export markets vanish. If the French political deadlock is insoluble, our economic deadlock is no less so. Neither can be resolved within the framework of the nation state.

But there remains this difference, that we refuse to admit it, while the French know they are licked. Even the Communists, though they talk of confusion next winter, remember uneasily the similar talk among German Communists in the winter of 1932. Psychologically France is ready for any proposals, however revolutionary, for Western European union. There are times when a belief in miracles becomes realism. In France such a time has arrived.

But on this side of the Channel – as so often happens in Anglo-French relations – the mood is different. Our political stability conceals the extent of our economic peril. Moreover, since we are in no danger of “going Communist”, the Cabinet can still hope to evade the issue by means of extensive American aid. With a gradually declining standard of living, and a steady deterioration in public morality, we can struggle on for a few years – if the Americans are reasonably generous – keeping up appearances ever more shabbily and looking with disdain at the antics of the foreigners across the Channel.

In winding up the most recent debate on the economic crisis, Sir Stafford Cripps produced unanswerable arguments to prove that the sixteen nations of Western Europe cannot survive in isolation from each other against the preponderant industrial strength of the U.S.A. What we refuse to admit is that this applies much more urgently to Britain than to all the rest. We need Europe much more than she needs us, from the strictly economic point of view. Yet by equating Socialism with nationalism we fool ourselves with the idea that internal reconstruction, combined with a manipulation of foreign trade, can see us through. But can it? Or does Britain after all, just as much as France, need a European plan to make her national plan a reality, and a European union to save her political independence? Without it, France will probably founder first; but our need, though not so obvious now, is just as great. In France the hour has struck. But the clocks on this side of the Channel seem to be set not to European, but to American time.