2011 promises to be a turbulent, troubled year. A palpable mood of apprehension and anxiety looms like a threatening cloud above the obligatory joviality and faux optimism accompanying the end of the decade. Even the ConLib government’s defenders and apologists cannot easily pretend that the coming months and years will not be painful. They know that they are heading into mined and uncharted waters. They are hoping that the painful medicine soon to be administered will be swallowed without protest. Their hopes will almost certainly be vain.
It would be pleasant to report that the government faces a determined army of popular resistance led by an opposition party in parliament willing and ready to lead a mass movement against the most draconian cuts in public services ever attempted in peacetime. But it is not so. There will be resistance. It will come from the trade union movement, from students and young people and from the still disparate but increasingly determined and experienced grass-roots campaigners such as UK-Uncut, who have recently appeared on the streets with dramatic effect. But, unless it is dragged unwillingly into the fray, the opposition parliamentary Labour Party will be ineffectual at best, and – at worst – obstructive. Against the inevitable popular anger that will become more potent as the cuts begin to bite, the forces of reaction are already mobilizing. Police handling of demonstrations will become more brutal; the government will attempt to impose harsher restrictions on the already seriously curtailed right to strike; ‘anti-terror’ laws will be used to demonize those deemed to be ‘trouble-makers.’ Already all ‘respectable’ and ‘moderate’ opinion holds that the demonstrations that have so far taken place have been irresponsible. This will be the charge leveled against all striking workers and all who take part in public demonstrations.
Those, including members of the opposition shadow cabinet, who regard themselves as paragons of moderation, apparently believe that those millions whose livelihoods and prospects are soon to suffer savage assault should meekly accept their fate, or, at best confine themselves to grumbling and hoping for a silver lining. Nothing would suit the ConLib government better than this. No matter how unbearable the pain, you must, in the interests of wiping out the deficit, accept it. If you are amongst the millions of young people who were encouraged to believe they had ‘the right to buy’ their own homes but now don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of doing so, you will be expected to wait for better days. If you find yourself amongst the 500.000 soon to be made redundant without prospect of finding work, you will be expected to endure your plight patiently. Whatever you do, don’t protest too much. Trust us. We’re all in this together. We have the national interest at heart. That is the sentiment and the advice of a cabinet of whose 23 full-time members, 18 are millionaires.
Turning to the parliamentary opposition this New Year of 2011, one is struck by the almost complete absence of anyone of serious political substance. This applies not only to the shadow cabinet, but to the parliamentary party as a whole. It is commonplace now, from the standpoint of supposedly sensible, ‘non-ideological’ political moderation, to attach the label ‘old Labour’ to those remaining on the left of the party who still describe themselves as socialists. The term ‘socialist’ itself is now regarded as a badge of sclerotic antiquity, derided as the delusion of incurable nostalgists. This attempt by the political mainstream and its compliant media to elide socialism from serious political discourse, is itself a highly ideological enterprise. It is part of the intensified assault against the left, Marxist and social democratic, launched in the 1970s and 80s by the Friedmanite Chicago School responsible for the lurch to the right under the banner of neo-liberalism. Not only was the term ‘socialist’ virtually banished from the vocabulary of New Labour; it became – and remains - obligatory never to use the term ‘working class’. Instead one must always refer to ‘hard working families’.
One of the most lamentable effects of this right wing offensive has been the seemingly deliberate encouragement of ignorance and disdain for history. It may be objected that this is too harsh; that television is overflowing with historical dramas and documentaries. Most of this is not serious history but part of what may be termed the ‘heritage industry’. It is very popular but has more to do with nostalgia than history. There is a woeful ignorance, not only about the more distant past, but also about the past that is part of the living memory of older people in this country. Those who have been politically active on the left for most of their lives, may be forgiven for occasionally succumbing to sentiments of despair when contemplating this pervasive culture of forgetfulness and ignorance about the history of the Labour movement in Britain.
The title chosen for this column, ‘Past Years’ Unhonoured List’ attempts to address this elision. For those unfamiliar with what has been called the ‘preposterous charade’ of the British honours system, there are three occasions during the year when the queen, on the advice of the prime minister, confers honours on certain people nominated for the outstanding contribution they are said to have made to public life. Additionally, for others there is the supreme accolade of elevation to the House of Lords – the creation of life peerages. Thus we have an arcane array of Lords and Dames, Knights, and Orders of the British Empire. Nearly 1000 have been ‘honoured’ this year. It is worth noting that of the fourteen bankers to have been knighted in past years, eight received their knighthoods under New Labour. Sir Fred Goodwin, who brought the Royal Bank of Scotland to its knees, received his knighthood from Blair for his ‘services to banking.’
Those old enough to recall political events of fifty and even sixty years ago may have difficulty in remembering much about the past recipients of honours and peerages. But those with any knowledge of, and affection for, the Labour movement in Britain will have vivid memories of many others who neither sought nor received rewards of that kind. To the wider public some of those on the ‘unhonoured list’ will be unknown. They deserve to be remembered and honoured. Many of us, in the past, may have been critical of them for one reason or another. From the standpoint of a somewhat puritanical Marxism, they sometimes seemed too closely wedded to reformist social democracy rather than to revolutionary socialism. Most of them were members of, or closely associated with, the Labour Party. Many were MPs. They were all proud to call themselves socialists. Many more could be included, but here are some who were outstanding in their day and who dedicated their lives to the cause of the working class and socialism.
Aneurin Bevan. 1897 – 1960.
Best remembered as Minister of Health in the post-war Attlee government, ‘Nye’ Bevan came from a working class Welsh mining background. He was elected for Labour in Ebbw Vale in 1929, a constituency he served in parliament until his death in 1960. He was one of Britain’s greatest orators. Always on the left of the party, during the 1930s he was a supporter of the republican cause in Spain and a staunch opponent of appeasement. As a minister he spearheaded the formation of the National Health Service. In 1951 he resigned from the cabinet when Gaitskell imposed prescription charges for NHS dentures and spectacles. With Labour in opposition after 1951, Bevan became the leader of the left wing of the party and was closely associated with the newspaper Tribune. One of his greatest speeches was delivered at the huge Trafalgar Square demonstration against the invasion of Suez in November 1956. It galvanized the opposition to the war and led indirectly to the resignation of Anthony Eden as prime minister.
Best known books: Why Not Trust the Tories. 1944. In Place of Fear. 1952.
Jennie Lee. 1904 – 1988.
Scottish socialist, married to Aneurin Bevan. Born into a mining family, she was elected to parliament in 1929. At the age of 24 she was the youngest MP in parliament. Her first parliamentary speech was an attack on Churchill’s budget proposals. In 1945 she was re-elected for the mining constituency of Cannock in Staffordshire. After Bevan’s death, in 1964 she was appointed Arts minister in Wilson’s government and was responsible for setting up the Open University. She died in 1988.
Ellen Wilkinson. 1891 – 1947.
Ellen Wilkinson was a dominant figure in the Labour Party and wider labour movement in the1920s and 30s. She was elected to parliament in 1924 for the depressed north-eastern steel making constituency of Middlesborough East. In 1926 she supported the General Strike. She lost her seat in 1931 but was re-elected in 1935 as MP for Jarrow, where, during the depression, 80% of the working population was unemployed. She was the main organizer of the Jarrow march to London in 1936. She immortalized the event in her book ‘The Town that was Murdered’. She was a supporter of the Spanish Republic and visited the international brigades in Spain. In the 1945 government she was appointed Minister of Education – the first woman ever to hold the post. She was only the second woman to be appointed to a cabinet post. She oversaw the implementation of the 1944 education act.
Books: The Workers’ History of the Great Strike. (With Frank Horrabin and Raymond Postgate) The Terror in Germany. 1933. Why Fascism. 1934. The Town that was Murdered. (1939)
Sydney Silverman. 1895 – 1968.
Born in Liverpool into a working class Jewish family he won scholarships enabling him to attend Liverpool University. Unable to find work in England he spent some years teaching English at the National University of Finland. He later read Law at Liverpool University and qualified as a solicitor. As a conscientious objector during the First World War, he served three prison terms. He was elected to parliament in 1935 for Nelson and Colne, a constituency he served for the rest of his life. During his years in parliament he stood consistently on the left of the party. The Labour whip was withdrawn in 1954 over his opposition to German re-armament, and again from 1961 – 63. He was one of the founders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and in 1960 became Chair of the Victory for Socialism group. His most enduring achievement was his tireless campaign for the abolition of the death penalty which he pursued from the back benches. His private member’s bill was finally passed in 1965. He died in 1968.
Konni Zilliacus. 1894 – 1967
Konni Zilliacus was one of the most extraordinary MPs of the modern era. He was a left-wing socialist and internationalist who had the unique distinction of being refused a visa for both the United States and the Soviet Union. He was expelled from the Labour Party for being a communist ‘fellow traveler’ and, during the Stalinist trials in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and early 50s, accused by Moscow of being an agent of British imperialism. The son of a Swedish-Finnish father and an American mother, educated in Sweden, Finland, England and America, he was fluent in eight languages and understood several more. He served in the First World War and was later a member of the British military mission in Siberia. He became a supporter of the Bolshevik revolution. He joined the Labour Party in 1919. From then until 1938 he was also a member of the League of Nations Secretariat. In 1945 he was elected Labour MP for Gateshead. Zilliacus was described by Bernard Shaw as ‘the only internationally minded member of any note in the House of Commons.’ He was an indefatigable campaigner for peaceful co-existence during the cold war and a scathing critic of NATO and the Anglo-American alliance. There has been no one remotely like him since.
Best known of his many books:
I Choose Peace. 1949. New Birth of Freedom? World Communism after Stalin. 1957.
These are just a few of the outstanding MPs who belonged to the left wing of the British Labour Party fifty and more years ago. Today, more is the pity, there is no-one to compare with them.
The next ‘Letter from the UK’ (Fellow Travelers of the Right) will return to this theme with a serious consideration of the evidence that after 1947 the right-wing leaders of the British Labour Party were suborned by the U.S Central Intelligence Agency, which was determined to destroy the party as a viable vehicle for radical social change.