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From the NS archive: Reorientations on the razor’s edge

28 September 1946: How to forge an effective socialist foreign policy for the country.

By New Statesman

In the year following the end of the Second World War, the Labour Party under Clement Attlee was in power. But while domestic reconstruction was proceeding apace, Britain’s foreign policy was floundering. What was needed, says this New Statesman writer, were clear directives from the most senior members of the cabinet as to what British aims should be overseas, rather than a series of expedient reactions to events. Clarity of aims would lead to clarity of delivery. “Our best security is to set an example of rational moderation in a world of ruthlessness and insanity,” they write, “keeping our own balance and helping others to maintain theirs between the ideological precipices.” British socialism should be apparent abroad as well as at home. Easier said than done.


The Cabinet crisis in America has reminded us of the inherent instability of American policy. Bismarck, with reference to Great Britain, once remarked on the danger of relying on an alliance with a democracy, whose policy could be reversed by a change of government. The constitution of the USA sanctifies this uncertainty by forbidding the concentration of power. As a result, American foreign policy is formed by an explosive series of domestic conflicts which can be controlled only by the personality of a great President.

Instability in foreign policy is not an American peculiarity. Faced with the uncertainties of a post-war world, and the acute internal pressures of reconstruction, every Power, great or small, is liable to sudden and unpredictable deviations from consistency. Russian policy seems steady, largely because inner disagreements are concealed; but there is every reason to believe that the Wallace-Byrnes dispute has its counterpart in the [Soviet] Politbureau, as it certainly does in the British Cabinet.

In the Kremlin, no less than in Washington and London, there is the conflict between the pessimists whose distrust of “the aggressor nation” makes them incapable of negotiating a lasting agreement, and the optimists, who are willing to sacrifice a good deal of “security” in order to remove suspicions on the other side. The argument is all the more bitter since neither optimist nor pessimist can prove his case. Decisions are usually an uneasy compromise, between rival hunches.

In such a situation it is absurd to base our policy on the assumption that either American or Russian policy is fixed and unalterable. British policy, at least for some years to come, should take as its model, not the self-righteous pugnacity of Palmerston, but the caution and moderation of Wellington’s campaigns. The British Cabinet is indeed on the razor’s edge, balanced between the precipices of defenceless isolation and a fatal alliance; between a “Little England” retreat from world obligations and a braggart attempt to shore up an Empire; between a sell-out to the Right and appeasement of the USSR. The middle way of democratic Socialism is difficult enough in domestic affairs: in international relations it demands a combination of firm conviction and mental elasticity, of hard negotiating capacity and political imagination, of toughness and human understanding, which is extremely rare.

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So far we have failed, not because the Cabinet has been extemporising – that was inevitable – but because its expedients were based on no principles at all. In previous articles we have indicated the principles on which a Socialist foreign policy must be based, and the redefinition of “vital” interests, which the application of such principles involves. But no one from outside the Foreign Office can produce a blue-print of policy, without leaving himself open to ridicule; and the permanent officials can only too easily accept a policy in general terms and completely stultify its detailed application.

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In foreign policy, especially in a period of flux, the day to day decisions are often determinants of principle. Members of the Cabinet, who have no departmental responsibility for external affairs, are unable to intervene effectively in discussion of foreign policy because the basic principles are submerged in daily routine. A long series of ad hoc decisions, on none of which a point of principle seems to be involved, produces finally a result in flagrant violation of their convictions. The Cabinet is collectively responsible, but it has never had the chance to decide anything – until it finds itself committed. The only way to stop this drift is for the Prime Minister to order that a series of “directives” for external affairs should be prepared by relevant Departments, discussed at length in the Cabinet and then laid down as binding Cabinet policy.

Such directives, stating our aims in order of priority, and defining the Cabinet’s attitude to the most difficult problems in each field, would have a really startling effect in the administration, for instance, of the British Zone of Germany and of our West African colonies. At present the officials are ineffective, partly at least because, faced with a myriad problems, they are provided by the Cabinet with a picture neither of the job to be done, nor of the tempo required, nor of the order of importance of the various parts of the programme. Hence the listlessness and aimlessness of men who have so much to do, so little to do it with, and so vague an idea of what it is all about that finally they invent paper work to keep themselves busy.

What should such Cabinet directives contain? The first would lay down the central aim of our policy; the strengthening of democratic Socialism, both by positive support in areas where our influence can be direct, and negatively by doing everything possible to frustrate the drift into two world blocs. The second would define the principle of “concentration of effort”, laying out in order of priority our vital interests and indicating the areas to which primary attention must be given. The third and most important would explain the attitude to be adopted in Whitehall and overseas to the conflict of ideologies. It would expose the dangers of a one-sided opposition to Communism, and the futility of “non-political neutrality”.

The British diplomat represents not only his country but a positive faith opposed to the dogmas of both Communism and anti-Bolshevism. He must regard both as reactionary forces, incapable of establishing world government by consent and opposed to humanity and reason. It is his task to fight them, not by blank opposition, but by proposing constructive solutions which neither can reject without forfeiting popular support. He must remember that the two ideologies are backed by far greater force than his government possesses. If it comes to a showdown, democratic Socialism loses. He must prevent the showdown and mobilise in his support the chief force at his disposal, the popular demand for both bread and freedom. Britain must represent the real desires of the common man.

It may be argued that such a directive is sentimental. But the “realistic” alternatives are infinitely more romantic. Our best security is to set an example of rational moderation in a world of ruthlessness and insanity, keeping our own balance and helping others to maintain theirs between the ideological precipices. In carrying out this Socialist policy, the motives of action are almost more important than the action itself. Because our motives were honest in India, the “failure” of the Cabinet Mission redounded to our credit and relieved the tension throughout the Far East. In contrast, no one trusts us in the Middle East because we have felt constrained to conceal the motives of a policy which has little to do with democracy or Socialism.

Granted, however, the existence of such Cabinet directives, something else would remain to be done. Success depends on the character and convictions of the men who represent us. Mr Roosevelt and Mr Churchill directed that there should be Anglo-American unity of command. A handful of men like Eisenhower and Harold MacMillan by their personal example made that directive a reality and ruthlessly dismissed those who failed to follow their example. The same thing applies to Socialist foreign policy. It must be carried out, at all the key points, by men who express it in their personalities. Not more than a dozen appointments in the Foreign Office, Colonial Office and Service Ministries, and in a few positions overseas in areas like the Middle East, West Africa and Germany, would be sufficient.

Most civil servants are quick to imitate the example of those on whom preferment depends. At present the Cabinet in relation to external affairs – including strategy – is in the hands of the departments. Its Policy is nothing more than the traditional and uncoordinated reaction of these institutions to current events. British Socialism is represented all over the world by men who, in a strictly non-political way, are opposed to every Socialist principle and are hot-gospellers of the anti-Bolshevik ideologies. And Cabinet policy is based on the information which these men provide. Mr Bevin is well satisfied with their loyalty, and no wonder!

They have found in him an admirer of the institution which is their whole being. Any attempt to remedy this would fail if the Cabinet were content simply to formulate a directive. The institutions themselves must be remodelled, and this depends on the introduction, at a high executive level, of a few men who really believe in the new policy. In establishing the Coal Board, Mr Shinwell selected men who really believed in nationalisation. No one has accused him of introducing a spoils system!

But when this has been said, it remains true that the primary need is for a recognition by the Government of the reasons for its lamentable record in external affairs. In the case of previous Labour Governments, failure on the domestic side has been partially recompensed by successes abroad. This time the position is reversed. A remarkably effective beginning of domestic reconstruction has been accompanied by a foreign and imperial policy, which, apart from India, has been incompetent even by Coalition standards. Mr Churchill at least has a policy. Mr Bevin slithers out of one expedient into another, and has achieved a situation where the American anti-Bolshevists and the Greek Royalists are his only wholehearted supporters. The Foreign Office finds Mr Bevin more “realistic” than Arthur Henderson. But his old-fashioned Socialist convictions never brought us to this plight.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

[See also: Clement Attlee: Labour’s own Captain Mainwaring]

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