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17 August 2021

From the NS archive: Reflections in recess

5 January 1946: How far away now seems the debate on the Loyal Address, when the new members were determined not to be changed by Westminster but to change it.

By Phineas

Labour’s landslide win at the 1945 election had come as a surprise. Less than 12 weeks earlier, Winston Churchill had announced the surrender of Nazi Germany and the Tories were convinced that an election victory was also guaranteed; “for them parliament has meant primarily office or the promise of office…They held power not in order to carry out a programme in which they believed, but because they were the right people to hold power.” When Labour won 47.7 per cent of the vote, the newly elected prime minster Clement Atlee could begin on postwar reforms. With a campaign built on promises to end wartime austerity and economic depression through plans of nationalisation, by implementing the Beveridge Report and creating the welfare state, it appeared that “this was, for the first time, a people’s parliament elected by the people, for the people, of the people”. In this article from January 1946, the author, who signed as “Phineas”, reflects on six months into the Labour government and whether it was as radical as previously hoped.

***

Inescapably one is reminded of the end of a school term. That first day at home was always a moment of violent adjustment. The family asked questions to which there could only be formal answers. For the values of school – its ceremonies and language, its personal relations, ambitions and tensions, its pleasures and its pains – belonged to a different world, set apart from the slow continuity of home. The schoolboy accepts a split personality in order to achieve integrity in both places.

There is a strangely similar hiatus between Westminster and the constituency. The devoted local party has saved and stinted to send its standard-bearer to the house. Last July came the glorious news of success, the celebrations, the leave taking, the good resolutions. How far away now seems the debate on the Loyal Address, when the new members were still successful candidates, with a single loyalty to their constituencies, determined not to be changed by Westminster but to change it. Now, in this Christmas recess, they go back to their constituencies as initiates, aware that they – similar to generations before them – have surrendered to the potent tradition, become absorbed into that close and closed community over which the Speaker presides; and begun the double life, from which no-one, whatever he may say, retires willingly. For 12 weeks they have lived in the chamber, the lobbies, the tea-room and the library, emerging only to sleep for a few hours, and read Hansard over breakfast before they hurry back to a morning committee. Now they must answer questions in their constituencies, knowing perfectly well that the essence of their experience is incommunicable to the outside world.

[See also: From the NS archive: New York, New bloody York]

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Seen in perspective, this absorption to some 250 socialists into the traditional life of Westminster is the most important single development of this sitting. The house, elected last July, was so new and so different from any of its predecessors that it might have brought about at the very least a “New Deal” in parliamentary government. The huge Labour majority reflected a new mood in the electorate, a refusal of confidence to the ruling class, a determination in favour of self-government, government by representatives who belonged personally to their supporters, who could be called quite naturally by their Christian names. This was, for the first time, a people’s parliament elected by the people, for the people, of the people. Would this new wine burst the old bottle?

We know the answer now. The crowds in the central lobby and the member’s letter-bag prove that the Parliamentary Labour Party is in closer touch with the people than any previous government party. The backbencher’s job is not merely to vote for the government but to be the point of personal contact between a socialist Cabinet and the people which it serves. This by itself is a whole time job, vital to socialist democracy. The Cabinet lays down the policy and administers through a vast and growing bureaucracy: the backbencher represents the individual, for whose sake the socialist law is passed, but on whom, time after time, the law and its administration imposes a hardship or injustice, which can only be remedied by ministerial intervention. The more socialism we get, the more we shall need a throng of active, sympathetic backbenchers, representatives of the individual against the bureaucratic machine.

The greatest achievement of the Parliamentary Labour Party is that it has settled down to do this job. Instead of trying to govern the government, it has accepted the dual responsibility of keeping the government in touch with the people, and of defending the people against the inequities of bureaucracy. The Labour whips have never had an easier time: there have been no revolts, or caucuses or left-wing cliques, such as were confidently predicted last July. Indeed, self-discipline and common sense acceptance of leadership have been so widespread that the party is even considering the abolition of disciplinary standing-orders. Partly, no doubt, this is due to the inclusion in the government of practically everyone who could lead a ” ginger group “; partly to the impotence and inner disagreements of the Opposition; and partly to the really remarkable mastery of the House displayed by the front bench. But the main cause has been the Parliamentary Labour Party itself. Most of its members, returning from service overseas, know by experience what the destruction of liberty means; and are not ashamed to accept with thankfulness the traditions of Westminster, to permit themselves to be licked into parliamentary shape, and to carry out the arduous and unspectacular duties of the Labour backbencher.

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To the outside critic this may seem disappointing. What has happened, he asks, to all those brilliant newcomers whose maiden speeches marked them out for distinction? Why do we hear so little of them, in· comparison with the old stagers such as Dick Stokes and Sydney Silverman – not to mention independents such as DN Pritt and WJ Brown? Why are there not more men of personal conscience such as Raymond Blackburn? The answer is fairly obvious. The government is carrying out its programme: the speeches are made from the front-bench, and, unless the government falls down on its job, very little will be heard from behind it. The silence of the newcomers is the tribute paid to a leadership, which, taken all in all, has surpassed expectation.

[See also: NS Archive: What do opera and adultery have in common?]

So far, indeed, this session has seen a steady increase in Labour solidarity. Last September, there was a marked tendency to barrack the weaker members of the government from the rear. The pattern of loyalties was often across the floor of the House, uniting young Tories and Socialists against the two front benches. This tendency has disappeared, as the Tories began to realise the full implications of their defeat. At the beginning of the session, neither side quite grasped what had happened. Labour members, who had spent their lives in Opposition, were still temperamentally “against the government ”  – even their own; Tories could not believe that power had shifted, and were inclined to support “the powers that be.” But week by week, the iron has entered into the Tory soul. They, to whom office appertained by ancestral right, have been cast into the outer darkness, where a man must criticise the government without access to the facts. Anthony Eden no longer sees the Foreign Office telegrams and cannot discuss them over dinner with his young confidants. Oliver Lyttelton is no longer in the Chancellor’s confidence or hobnobbing with the President of the Board of Trade. Rab Butler is no longer the master of our education and Robert Hudson of our agriculture. Strangest of all, Churchill cannot send for the chiefs of staff at any time of the day or night. To the Tories, this is a monstrous and inexplicable stroke of fate. For them parliament has meant primarily office or the promise of office. They have not needed a policy. They held power not in order to carry out a programme in which they believed, but because they were the right people to hold power.

And now, suddenly, totally unexpectedly, they have been dispossessed of their ruling status by a thankless electorate. At first, they refused to accept the idea, talked confidently of a split in the Labour Party and the return of a coalition government, which would restore office to the right people. But, by Christmas, they had grasped the full enormity of what had happened. A Labour government was really carrying out a Labour programme. Opposition theory was becoming the law of the land. What was worse, Socialists were showing themselves masters of parliamentary procedure and quietly taking possession of the key positions of political and economic power. They, the traditional rulers of Britain, were out, clean out.

To the increasing self-discipline of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the increasing anarchy of the Tories has been an exact correlative. Labour, gathering self-confidence week by week, has been shedding the factiousness which arises from the impotence of Opposition. It is beginning to feel in its bones that it has a natural right – not merely a theoretical duty – to rule this country. The Tories, at last aware of their impotence and deeply resentful of it, are turning against each other. To recapture power, they must have recourse to the “theorising” which they despise and evolve a policy which is a real alternative to the new “status quo”. But what shall it be? Shall they resign themselves to socialism and seek for key positions in the Socialist State? Then, their place is outside parliament. Shall they oppose socialism? Then they will never regain power by constitutional means. Shall they patiently await a crisis which calls for a national government? Then, at the best, they enter as junior partners; at the worst, they will wait till Doomsday. Meanwhile, they blame each other, hate the usurpers and despise the electorate.

[See also: From the NS archive: White socialism?]

This is a dangerous mood, and the danger will grow with time. Few Tories have the perspective of Oliver Stanley or Lord Cranborne, who can go into Opposition with the confidence that, as in the past there have been periods of ill-fortune, outlived by the family, if not by the individual, so some time in the future, the wheel will turn. Such equanimity – and cynicism – is the birth right of the very few and the very elect. For most of the party, it is out of the question. They want their privileges back-and quick. No one should be surprised if, within the next five years, a wing of the Tory party begins to justify unconstitutional behaviour by an appeal to a “higher loyalty”. The Curragh mood is already noticeable. To this (still small) section of Tories, Eden, as heir apparent to Churchill, seems an ineffectual architect of reaction.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)