IF IN the last seven years I have failed to convince you that Britain is a strange island, then my words have lamentably failed in their purpose. However, the letters that now are reaching you from your kinsmen over here will convince you of Britain’s strangeness even if I have not.
It is the island of paradox. It is the despair of the wit, the sentimentalist and the logician. Just now soldiers from the Dominions, the U.S.A. and half the countries in Europe stroll about with the bemused faces of men who have wandered into a gallery of curios with no catalogue to guide them. Oddly enough it is the Poles who feel the least strange of the lot. They have taken to Britain as if it is their spiritual home—but then Poland herself has always been an enigma nation.
And one of the things which puzzles the visitors, as they scan the four-page newspapers, is the astonishing amount of space given to discussing what is going to happen after the war. There are critics who say that there is more planning going on for after the war than for the war itself. The fact that 22,000,000 people have been mobilized for the war effort would go to disprove that, but the essence of the charge is not wholly inaccurate.
The reason, perhaps, is that the British have a greater instinct for the centuries than any other nation. They spend a lot of time looking back, for they believe that yesterday is the parent of tomorrow. They do not regard Hitler as an unprecedented phenomenon but merely as an evil and extremely disagreeable descendant of Philip II of Spain, of Louis XIV, of Napoleon and of Frederick the Great.
“Things go in cycles,” says the Englishman, puffing thoughtfully at his pipe. “There were the wars of conquest waged by Ancient Rome, by Sparta, by the Persians and by the Turks. Then there were the religious wars of Charlemagne, Philip of Spain and the others. There were the expansionist wars waged by Napoleon, by Austria, by Prussia and finally, the Japanese.
“All cycles come to an end and in 1914 there appeared the first of the politicoeconomic wars in which one combination of powers sets out to impose its economic and political will upon the rest of the world. That war has really gone on for twenty-five years and now is being fought out to a finish. This may well be the last of the politico-economic wars. At any rate we’ll do our best to see that it is.”
Still looking back, the Englishman muses: “Every time a war cycle ends, the world leaps forward in a new development. The end of religious wars brought a great opening up of the world’s overseas frontiers by the British, the French, and the Dutch. Humanity was dazzled by the vast heritage of lands which the seamen-adventurers brought to them. The old world inherited the new, and the pioneers stormed the seas to claim their
inheritance. It was a great and mighty period.
“When the bloody cycle of Europe’s expansionist wars ended with the defeat of France by Germany in 1870, the world found itself in the throes of the industrial revolution. Britain had secured a lead while Europe was fighting but soon the cry went up from every side: ‘Give us machines! The day of manual labor is past. Give us machines!’ ”
That was a thrilling and terrible period, a time of advancement and selfishness, of avarice and charity, of enlightenment and ignorance, of luxury and poverty. The spirit of progress was loose upon the land but she was so soot-begrimed from the smoking factory chimneys that it was hard to distinguish her.
The dignity and the kindliness of Britain’s stately homes brought graciousness to the countryside, while pale, undersized children went down to the pits to earn a few pennies a week. It was the age of the individualist and the slave. The arts flourished, the churches were full, and slums spread like vermin.
One day in Lancashire I stood beside the Mayor in an industrial town and watched the parade of the local Home Guard and A.R.P. workers. In columns of four the men of forty-five up to sixty marched by.
Hardly one but was undersized. Hardly one whose features were regular. There was a stocky courage in their bearing, a cocky humor—but they could not hide the homes of their origin, the sunless, foodless, bathless slums of the industrial North. They had been born when England was rich. Now England has been drained of her wealth.
Yet such is the paradox of this island that looking upon the children and the older boys and girls who were watching the parade, one saw healthy bodies, a good height, clear eyes and a decent skin. Since 1918 Britain has made great strides in human progress and human justice. There are still too many slums but the human conscience is waging an endless war against them.
So the Englishman looks back and by his instinct for history he knows that when this war is over the world will move forward into a new and mighty development. He feels it in his bones and it fills his thoughts even as he stands by the guns waiting for the bombers to come.
Let me repeat that England is no longer a rich nation and may never be one again. Her colonial possessions have been ravished, her foreign investments have been liquidated to pay for war supplies, and her national debt has become a mountain.
BUT the Englishman with the pipe is not unduly perturbed by that. “Our wealth will be in the skill of the workers,” he says, “and there’s no nation that has so many good
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workmen as us. There was a lot that was good in the Victorian era but we should have buried it with the little old Queen when she died.”
In fact Britain is getting ready for a revolution—a determined, drastic, good-natured and bloodless revolution. “Things have got to change,” says the Englishman as he strolls into his tiny garden, takes a last fond look at his sprouting vegetables, empties his pipe by tapping it against his heel, and goes to bed.
Yes. . . things have got to change. But how?
If you asked the ordinary Britisher to give a name to the new era he would scratch his head and probably give it up, yet what he visualizes is a new order of world co-operation. He is not violently dogmatic about it but these are the points on which he feels deeply and on which he bases
his convictions. And again we might let him express these points in his own language (with or without his pipe):
1. “Science has increased production enormously and there is almost no limit to human consumption. Yet there are millions of people all over the world undernourished and maintaining a miserable level of existence. The nations will have to organize the thing properly so that the producer and the consumer get together.
2. “Blokes in Wall Street and London shouldn’t he able to corner raw materials. That’s a rotten system and it should be stopped.
3. “Unemployment is worse than criminal, it’s silly. We must
have security of wages and work. That won’t make us soft, it will make us adventurous again. Insecurity breaks the pride and spirit of a man.
4. “This private school business, even if they are called ‘public schools’ over here, will have to go or be changed. Eton and Harrow are good schools and I always go to see them play their annual cricket match but the trouble is that the leadership of the nation is drawn from these schools, and the boys that go to them are drawn from one class of the community. That’s bad. In fact it’s silly. It perpetuates class distinction and it limits the source from which the nation obtains its leaders. Besides it isn’t natural for boys to be by themselves from eleven years of age to eighteen. We ought to have universal state education and co-education.”
(In fairness it must be admitted that our Britisher is not a passionate advocate of co-education. He is just coming around to it.)
“I don’t think much of these church schools. Nearly every denomination has got these schools and all of them are partly maintained by state grants. The Catholics have the most but the whole lot should be scrapped. I agree with the resolution of the Trades Union Congress that these church schools are out of date.
5. “There’s something wrong about the medical services. I don’t see why hospitals have to be kept up by charity appeals. It means that if one hospital has a lively chairman it gets lots of funds and has the best equipment. Another hospital has a dud chairman and gets poor equipment. That’s just silly.
6. “Old people must have a proper pension. It’s bad enough to be old without wondering if you can afford another lump of coal on the fire or a second cup of tea.
7. “This children business is serious for the nation. WTe’ve got to have larger families and instead they’re becoming smaller all the time. If a bloke and his missus have an extra baby their wages or allowances should be increased. This system of making every extra baby an additional burden is just silly.”
That is enough to show the trend of our Englishman’s thoughts. He is not a revolutionary or a firebrand — but note how often he says, “That’s silly.” It’s not an exciting statement but it is the British equivalent of “My patience is exhausted.”
Not Only “Ordinary Blokes’’
NOR MUST it be thought that it is only the ordinary man who is thinking along these lines. It is true that there are a few rich families, feudalists and snobs who still hope that the twentieth century will be followed by the eighteenth but they are an unimportant minority.
Many of the greatest men of the
land are thinking in sympathy with the “ordinary bloke.” Some weeks ago when I was speaking in Lancashire I went to lunch with Lord Derby at his country house. He is an old man now, and his body is becoming feeble, but his mind still flashes and his vision is clear. In the dark days of the depression in 1931 he refused the post of Viceroy of India so that he could devote the rest of his life to the people of Lancashire, for is he not called: “The Uncrowned King of Lancashire?”
His one thought is for the betterment of the little people. He dearly loves racing and it was his horse that won this year’s Derby. But he did not go to see the race. Instead he kept a long-standing engagement in Liverpool with a small body of exservicemen.
To some degree the quiet revolution that is going on beneath the war effort is going to have important political repercussions. The Communists are waging guerilla warfare against the Socialists and are trying to drive that worried party into the twilight which sent the Liberal Party to sleep. The Communist creed, as practiced in Britain, is not one of good will or toleration. It is for the control of everything by one party and one class.
It is making progress because the other parties have declared a truce for the duration of the war. Thus the Communists have the field to themselves and have been greatly encouraged by the lifting of the ban on the Daily Worker.
But the normal Britisher does not like Communists or Communism. When the comrades claim that they represent true democracy the Englishman murmurs: “Yes. Yes of
course. You believe in the two-party system—that is, one party in power and one party in jail.”
The strength of the Communists is in the fervor of short-haired young women who seem disinterested in having children—and of long-haired young men who believe that it is easier to remake the world than to make a career for themselves.
I cannot believe that they will ever be more than guerillas but, as such, they will cause a good deal of trouble. I do not doubt that their present representation in the House of Commons (his name is Gallacher) will be increased in the next general election.
Pipe of Good Will
AND now, in finishing this London • Letter, let us return to a last glimpse of our Englishman with the pipe.
In his own way he is pleased and rather excited about the future. He thinks that things will be better for us all if we set about it in the right way. He knows that Britain will have to work with other nations, and he likes that idea too. He knows that it will need a lot of good will but he feels good will in his own heart. He does not want to destroy what is good in the existing order of things but to get rid of what is bad and archaic. Yes—things have got to
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