MANY people have endeavored to explain the English. For eight years I have tried in these letters
to describe the changing scene in the old country and to decode for you the moods and paradoxes of this Island race.
A foreigner said the other day: “Why do you say ‘He will meet his Waterloo’ as if that means a disaster? Was not Waterloo one of your greatest victories?
Then why is it a word in English for defeat?” I told him I did not know.
Byron complained of England’s cloudy climate and chilly women. Voltaire said
that England was an island and so was every Englishman. Carlyle, anticipating the American idiom, remarked that the English were dumb. Shaw summed it up by contending that no Englishman has any common sense or ever had or ever will.
But perhaps of all the verbal arrows which have been shot at the English none finds so true a mark as Macaulay when ho said that he knew no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.
Which brings me to the strange story of Sir Oswald Mosley. You have read all about it and have had the salient facts put before you by your newspapers. But it might prove profitable for us to enquire together into the reasons for the hysterical outburst which caused Parliament at Westminster to be besieged by men who left their benches in the war factories to demand of us, the elected representatives of the people, that Morrison should be overruled and Mosley returned to prison.
My experience was much the same as other M.P.’s and therefore my story is in no way unique. It will serve, however, as an example.
Hardly had I taken my place in the debating chamber on the day that Morrison was going to make his explanation when a card was sent in from the Lobby. The chairman of the Communist Party in my Division had arrived together with two delegates from the workers in a large factory in the same district. They asked me to see them.
Since it was impossible to listen to Herbert Morrison and to them at the same time, I deemed it my duty as a legislator to hear what the Home Secretary had to say.
Fifteen minutes later another card came in from the same people saying that they were waiting and were growing impatient. This was unfortunate but it had to be borne so we continued to listen to Morrison. Half an hour later a peremptory message arrived. My presence in the Lobby was demanded. As Morrison had finished I went out to see the gentleman.
They were an earnest collection and so we began to talk. The dialogue went something like this—and for purposes of identification we shall use C for the Communists and B for their member of Parliament.
C: We have come in the name of the people to demand the dismissal of the Home Secretary and the return of Sir Oswald Mosley to prison.
B: What people do you represent?
C: Fifteen hundred workers in Messrs.--’s
factory and many mothers of soldiers in the Eighth Army who have signed this petition.
B: What is the charge against Mosley?
C: He is a Fascist.
B: Is that a crime?
C: Certainly. We are fighting Fascism. This is a war against Fascism and, therefore, to be a Fascist is a crime.
B: Will we still be fighting Fascism when the war is over?
C: We’ll always be fighting it.
B: Then what you really mean is that Mosley should go back to prison for life. C: It’s what he deserves.
B: I recognize your right to put your case to Parliament, but are you being strictly logical? Sir Oswald Mosley was a Fascist before the war. He had a private Army just as you Communists had— unarmed, of course, but armies just the same. We disbanded them both because it took too much time from the police and
kept them from arresting motorists for speeding.
C: We’ll thank you not to joke, Mr. Baxter. The sooner you realize we’re deadly serious, the better.
B: Oddly enough so am I. However . . . The war began. Mosley’s Fascists had been disbanded. Then came Dunkirk and it looked as if we might be invaded. Now here was a real danger. If the Germans had landed they would probably have tried to set up a puppet government under an English Quisling. Mosley might have played that role.
C: You know very well that there’s no “might” about it. He would have done it like a shot.
B: Perhaps. But remember that a man may be misguided or even a fool before a war, without being a traitor when war comes. However, the risk was too great so we jugged him.
C: And now you’ve let him out.
B: We shall come to that in a moment. Now in prison, whatever their intentions might have been, Mosley and his followers could do no harm. They were held without trial—a dreadful thing—but probably the situation demanded it. Now what did the Communist Party do?
C: Don’t go drawing a red herring across the trail. Stick to your subject.
B: Whether it’s a herring or not might be argued, but certainly it is red. The Communist Party decided to sabotage the nation’s war effort. You fomented strikes, tried to stir up trouble in the Army, until eventually we had to close down the Daily Worker.
C: Look here. We’ve come to talk about Mosley. Why don’t you come to the point?
B: But surely this is the point. Supposing we had jugged all your leading Communists? Personally I believe we should have done it. Like Mosley you were misguided. Because Russia was not in the war you wanted Britain to be beaten. Then Russia did come in and you have behaved like patriots ever since. But supposing we had put you in prison in 1940, would there be mass meetings of Tories in 1943 protesting if we began letting you out? Of course there wouldn’t. But here you are crowding the Lobby to demand that a man must be kept in prison without trial and with no charge against him. If you can tell the difference between that and Fascism I should be grateful.
After that the conversation took many turns but toward the end one of the factory workers, a sincere and fine-looking man, said: “Can’t you see how
discouraging this is to us factory men who are working ourselves to the bone under conditions that you will never know or understand? What do you think it means to us to hear that this rich Fascist has been let out? What effect do you think it will have on the workers in Europe?”
I wanted to suggest to him that it was not only our workers who are carrying on under harsh and even
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crushing conditions, but that our sailors, airmen and soldiers were not exactly escaping the toil and tragedy of war; but I saw in his eyes that he was deeply stirred and that the whole demonstration was more than mere mob hysteria.
After they had gone the explanation liegan slowly to take form. It is the nature of the masses, and I use the word solely for its numerical implication, to oversimplify political issues. Since they have not the full facts at their bestowal to arrive at a logical conclusion they reach, instead, an emotional one.
Thus they argue that Russia is fighting Fascism. Since Russia is the great Communist State, then the war Is obviously one of the workers against the rest — and the rest becomes Fascism. In their minds this is a holy war and they believe that it is being fought in the factories.
There is no use pointing out that Russia and Germany have been fighting each other for centuries, for no extreme Left Winger in Britain ever mentions "Germany” or "Japan.” The enemy is Fascism, always Fascism. If you point out that the wealth of the nation has gone in the prosecution of the war, that Britain has lost her foreign investments, that taxation is almost at the level of confiscation, their minds cannot or will not take it in. It is a workers’ war and those of us who do not toil with our hands are no more than camp followers.
So inflamed are they with this vision, so convinced of its truth, that the release of Mosley came as an act of defiance and even aggression by Herbert Morrison. "Mosley is rich,” they say. “He has a title. He has powerful friends. That’s why he has got out.” They might pause a moment and wonder why a lifelong Socialist such as Herbert Morrison should suddenly become susceptible to social position and wealth. But everything is so clear to the extreme Left Winger. He is never puzzled about anything.
Point out to him that Hitler is a man of the people and secured the backing of millions of German workers. Point out that Mussolini was a man of the people. Then give it up. Their process of oversimplification will defeat you. If this is a war against the workers then, in their view, the peace must belong to the workers. And make no mistake about what they mean when they say “workers.” They mean organized labor. Capitalism is accused of having brought on the war —just as it is accused of having failed to stop the war at Munich—and therefore capitalism must go. The methods by which England was made great and powerful must be swept into the discard. The brave new era of government of the people by the party for the workers is at hand.
Only one or two things stand in their way. First there is the immense middle class which provides air crews in a war, pays taxes to the limits, lives modestly and insists upon voting Tory. Another difficulty is that the Socialists and Communists hate each other with a fervid enthusiasm. Then also, of course, there are Sir Richard Aeland and his Common Wealthers protesting that they alone are the pure, distilled essence of Left Wingery. There is the large number of Trade Union Workers who believe that there is a place for capital and for management and will not support the Socialist, Communist
or Common Wealth Party. And, finally, there is the Agricultural Worker who despite long discouragement stubbornly votes Conservative or Liberal.
In matters such as we have been discussing in this letter one can but put forward an opinion without presuming to adjudicate. Somewhat diffidently, therefore, I suggest that Herbert Morrison was wrong to release Oswald Mosley in the way that he did. The repercussions, quite aside from the artificially stimulated hysteria, showed a complete failure on the part of Herbert Morrison to grasp the psychological importance of it all.
Mosley was a symbol. Therefore his release took on a significance which could not apply to any other imprisoned British subject. The fact that he had phlebitis was not important in the circumstances.
If a man is such a menace to the State that he has to be imprisoned without trial then he should not be let out because his leg has become a menace to himself. Morrison based his whole case on the recommendation by a Committee of Doctors that Mosley should be allowed out for rest, exercise and treatment. “Had I failed to release him,” said Morrison, “he could have applied to the High Court, which would have ordered his release.”
To which one can only reply: “Not Pygmalion likely.” The Emergency
Powers which we conferred upon the Home Secretary in 1940 place him above the law. The only authority which could alter his decision is Parliament itself. In other words we could make him resign.
In the opinion of well-tempered people Mosley was allowed out of prison in the wrong way, and therefore the storm which followed —extreme and absurd in its violence — was inevitable.
Mr. Morrison would have been on far safer ground if he had not dealt at all with Mosley but had gone straight for Regulation 18B which empowers him to imprison and detain British subjects without trial.
It is a hateful regulation. It is the abnegation of a thousand years’ struggle for human freedom. It is the denial of Magna Charta.
We had to agree to it in 1940 when the tide of invasion was at our very shores. We should repeal it now when the tide has receded so far that it is ready to break in irresistible fury over Germany. Mosley should have come out of prison as No. 999 with the rest of them.
Regulation 18B will go. The medieval cruelty of imprisonment without trial will be ended. That much, at least, has emerged from the strange affair of the Fascist baronet and his timely phlebitis.
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