Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER
Britain Faces an Election
OVER here preliminary manoeuvres are going on for as strange a general election as Britain has held for many a decade. It is unlikely that it will take place until February or March yet there are certain possibilities and imponderables which may bring it about before that time.
The present Parliament was elected in 1935. That was the year when you in Canada toppled R. B. Bennett off his throne and sent him into a spin which did not end until he came to rest in the House of Lords. True to democratic principles you have since held regular provincial and federal elections without any apparent injury to the nation’s well-being.
The legal life of a Parliament is five years but elections are usually held at a favorable moment for the Government during the fourth year. Thus we would have gone back to our constituents for a renewal of their confidence sometime during the autumn of 1939but the war intervened and we were too busy to think of politics.
Since then, year after year, we have solemnly prolonged our parliamentary existence by a special resolution for 12 months at a time. Our leaders said that the emergency of war demanded unity and that a general election would only mean upheaval and distraction. Australia, South Africa, the U. S. and, as I have said, you in Canada were able to go to the polls without any particular hang-over, but in Britain, the very citadel and shrine of parliamentary government, we denied to the people the right to change their masters.
Like most things over here it was well-intentioned; like some things over here it was a mistake.
There are thousands of young married men and women with families who have never voted. The generation that came of vot ing age in December, 1935, have added almost a decade to their years, a decade of war production, of sacrifice and death, without exercising the franchise which is their inalienable right. We have said, in effect, to them;
“Representative government is the safeguard of your liberties, and Party confect is its very lifeBlbod. But when the nation^* existence is at stake we cannot let the nation direct its destiny.”
None of us know what harvest that will bring. If Party Government is too weak to bear the strain of war, then should we return to it when the strain of peace is on us? Already we see a disturbing answer to that question. Registration forms Have been sent to the armed forces everywhere to be Ailed in and thus secure the necessary qualification to vote. But the response has been half-hearted. Some observers say that men and women in the services become so accustomed to obeying orders that they lose tKe instinct of voluntary action. That may be true, but I think that one of the causes is the long, unhappy Party truce which has kept the Parliament of 1935 in authority without the mandate of the people.
Fascism has failed but its^propaganda has left its unconscious effect upon the world. Thus in most of the countries of Europe ^the* hatred of Germany is complete, yet anti-Semitism has been born and has not gone with the departing Nazis. The lure of the strong man at the head, that weakness of children for a minder, is in the veins of many people. The towering success of Russia under the absolute dictatorship of a single party appears to many a far mpre efficient
system than a Parliament which argues before it acts.
I was speaking at a public meeting at Cardiff recently when a man shouted from the gallery: “Why have a Parliament at all? Why not give the job to Churchill and let him get on with it?” If he had thought for a moment he might have had more respect for a political system which permitted him to rise in public and denounce the British form of government, knowing that Parliament itself would sustain his right to speak his mind. In Germany he would have been shot. In Russia a similar denunciation of the existing regime might not exactly have advanced his happiness as a citizen. Freedom is like health. We take it for granted and only know its value when we lose it.
Even the British, with their vast powers of endurance, have paid a heavy toll of nerve strain in these five years of war. Their determination to continue the war until Germany and Japan are prostrate and beaten is unalterable, but tempers are frayed and exasperation muddles the clear stream of reason.
How Will They Vote?
nESIDES—how and for whom shall they vote? I believe that the attitude of the normal elector toward the various Parties which will ask for his support when the election takes place is one of confusion and almost frustration. Perhaps we could put it in his own language.
“The Tories? They were in power most of the time between the two wars and therefore they got us into this méss. Look how they kowtowed to Hitler at Munich. Look how they let Hitler get away with it in Austria and Spain and Czechoslovakia. And why didn’t they arm? The Tories are all right at looking after themselves and the people with money but they let the nation down. They even allowed that wop, Mussolini, to get away with it.”
You will notice that the jargon of the American films has begun to influence the British vocabulary, but we can let that pass. The truth is that the people have been particularly well briefed in the case against the Tories. A gentleman called Mr. Gollancz, a publisher by trade and a propagandist by instinct, has produced various books entitled “Guilty Men,” “Your M.P.,” “The Trial of Mussolini,” “We Were Not All Guilty,” and similar volumes of political instruction. I have had the doubtful honor of appearing in most of them, and Mr. Gollancz now announces a forthcoming book by Michael Foot to be called “Brendan and Beverley.” Brendan can only mean Brendan Bracken and something tells me that his partner in the dock will not be Beverley Nichols.
I shall not use valuable space in explaining that these books consist of isolated quotations removed from their context. That game is as old as controversy itself and is undoubtedly effective. The sins of the Tories have been exploited to the full.
One would therefore assume that the electors, in their resentment against the Conservatives, will rush to the polls to replace them with the Socialists. That might Happen, but first let us examine the attitude of Homo sapiens toward the Labor Party.
“I don’t think much of these Socialist blokes,” he muses. “There’s Morrison, for example. He’s as clever as a monkey but he was a concHie in the last war, and didn’t he refuse to let the Territorials use the London County Council school playgrounds before the war for drilling? Attlee is a decent fellow but he couldn’t hold a candle to Churchill. Bevin is a strong man but we don’t want to be ruled by the trade unions. And who wants to see everything nationalized? Not me. I’ve had all I want of filling up forms and being told what to do by labor exchanges.
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“Of course there are the Liberals, but there are not enough of them, and anyway who wants free trade with the foreigner dumping his goods on us and closing down our factories?”
So his mind roams over the political scene. “The Commonwealth Party? No, sir. That’s just a circus. The Communists? Not blooming likely. I think I’ll go to the pub and have a pint.”
It may seem odd to you but I regard the general attitude of this normal citizen as understandable and even inevitable. What is more I regard it as healthy. It means that the general election will not be fought on the past. Even if it were there would be no landslide. For every shortcoming of the Tories there is the accompanying charge against the Socialists and Liberals, of urging disarmament when guns were the only answer, of preaching collective security while demanding that we should not be able to play our part in it, of voting even against the Spitfire when the forgotten Baldwin insisted upon its expansion—and it was the Spitfire that saved the world in 1940. There are no treasures in the past for any political Party, despite
the strenuous and financially profitable efforts of Mr. Gollancz.
Since, therefore, the election is unlikely to be fought on Munich and all its complications, what will decide the issue? The answer is obvious. The electors will mark their ballots for the Party which shows the greatest vision and strength in planning the future. Victory in the war will not perch on the banners of any one Party. The nation knows that the effort has been a united one and no Party leader would be fool enough to make it an issue or make claims for special credit.
So we turn to the future, that period of time which does not exist since it has not yet happened. But as the schoolboy said about the elephant: “I cannot describe an elephant but I would know one if I saw it.” The public will know the future when it becomes the present.
The future, therefore, is the challenge to the British political Parties. That is why the Socialists are on the point of breaking away from the Coalition Government and demanding the right to go to the country as a free and independent Party. The Socialists’ Ministers in the Government would like to stay with Churchill until the
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final victory but the instinct of the
rank and file is right. They have not forgotten the collapse of the great Liberal Party, which formed a coalition with the Tories in the last war. They are determined that this time history will not have the chance to tell the same story twice. If their leaders are stubborn about this the Party will break away from them—therefore the leaders will follow them. Mr. Churchill knows that and is making plans accordingly.
Then what can the Socialists offer the country? They have a case to make, and if they put their trust in Morrison, that clever little Cockney (with his one eye and cockatoo hair) could draw up a very attractive program. This would in essence be Morrison’s platform:
“We are not for the nationalization of everything but when the rights of the many are menaced by the privileges of the few we shall not hesitate to inaugurate state direction and even state ownership. Essential services such as coal, gas, electricity, agriculture, armaments and even the banks should come under a graduated process of state control.
“It may be that the State will retain the services of the existing management and form a partnership with them, thus keeping what is best in private enterprise while substituting the interests of the people for the interests of the private shareholder. Unemployment will be abolished, there will be security for all, and the good of the nation, instead of the claims of vested interests, will be put first in peace as it is in war.”
Now that is not bad. It Ls reasonable, it is not revolutionary, it is comforting and it is patriotic. Many a nice old lady and many a thoughtful young man will decide that such a policy is good enough for their support. And “vested interests” is always a good card to play.
What then is left for the Tories to put in their shop window? They have only one chance and that is to throw off all the inhibitions of their association with coalition Parties of the left during the last 13 years. They must enunciate and believe in Conservative principles or else prepare for a long twilight.
So I think that Churchill, supported by Eden, will say something like this:
“The Socialists claim that they will do away with unemployment. And how will they do this? They will do it by creating such an army of bureaucrats that half the population will be civil servants looking after the other half. Industry, trying to compete in world markets, will have to carry that dead weight on its shoulders and add the cost of its wages to the selling price of their goods.
“The Socialists will guarantee employment. They can only do that by assuming the right to direct labor into any channel where it is needed. No longer will the individual be a free agent and choose the risk instead of the security. This will be an island of industrial slaves and liberty will be a thing of the past.
“What is Britain? Is it a country with such natural resources that it can live upon itself and devise a scheme of existence independent of the outside world? Britain is an island with practically no national resources. Left to itself it could only maintain a population of 10 millions. What then made her powerful and prosperous, even if her prosperity
was not as widespread as it should have
“Britain became great because the chains were removed from the individual. Our explorers, adventurers, scientists, buccaneers if you like, burst their bonds and crossed the seven seas to sow the genius of our race in many lands and many continents. They built the Empire, the greatest edifice for peace and liberty the world has seen. In time they established the code of honorable trading and obligation to one’s word in half the world.
“Admittedly times change. No longer can the individual owe no allegiance to anyone but himself. The State, as guarantor of the peoples’ rights, must be a guiding voice in industrial policy, even a partner when necessity arises. The claims of the workers must come before the rights of capital but we, the Tory Party, hold that every man has the right to be free, to make his career where and how he likes, to live in his own home or go abroad, to be the master of his fate and captain of his soul. Individual liberty plus responsibility to the community. That is the policy we put before you.”
I do not doubt that Morrison or even Attlee could knock that about a bit, but you must remember that freedom is deep in the Englishman’s blood. What is more, we live closer to Europe than you do and have seen the lights of liberty go out one by one. For years we have received on our shores the helpless victims of tyranny, driven like leaves before the wind.
In other words the Tories, if true to themselves, will offer a virile, almost pugnacious policy as a contrast to the Socialists’ promise of seourity in chains. It is their only hope. In many ways it is the nation’s only hope.
Then what will happen when the public mark their ballots? Undoubtedly the policies of the two major Parties will play an important part but it must be remembered that personalities also influence events. Winston Churchill, for example, has broadened in mind and vision and character since assuming supreme responsibility. He has a cosmic mind and a poet’s imagination, which permits him to see the suffering people of the world as one human family. His faults of temperament have dropped from him in the fiery trial of war, and today his magnanimity brings comfort and hope to the whole civilized world.
Many of us thought that his gifts were only for the waging of a war and not the making of a peace. That feeling was so widespread as to be almost universal. Now in his patience and cleanness of heart we see another Churchill, a leader who would raise the common man in peace to the honorable level of a warrior in battle. If his health holds good his speeches during the election will sway the judgment and emotions of his listeners. It is difficult to believe that the nation will reject him at the polls.
In my opinion the Tories will be returned but with a reduced majority. The Socialists, faced with their unhappy role of a perpetual opposition, will almost certainly be forced to regroup the forces of the Left into a new Progressive Party—in other words the rebirth of Liberalism. The age of the common man is on us and yet it will be the Tories who will guide its first faltering steps, while the Socialist Party, which has fought for the cause of the workers so long, may go into a decline from which it will not recover.
Britain is still the island of eternal paradox.