LAST Monday I journeyed to Liverpool Street Station in London to take the 4.40 p.m. train to Cambridge. In England we have become so accustomed to crowded trains that we patiently arrive, half an hour before trains are due to leave, and get into the queue.
Then, like a snake being devoured from the head, we are gradually assimilated into the belly of the train and, to break the simile, establish our inalienable right to a seat. Thereafter, in league with the others in the compartment, we stare with unfriendly eyes at later arrivals who are looking for foot space somewhere.
The 4.40 train, however, proved an unwilling starter. In vain did we glance at our watches and even at each other. To arrive late is the common fate of passengers these days but to start behind time on a clear day seemed very odd. At 4.55 1 appointed myself spokesman for the compartment and asked the ticket inspector to explain the delay.
“Oh, we usually start late,” he said. “We have trouble keeping the vacuum.” Whereupon he blew his whistle, waved his hand, and the misnamed 4.40, quivering with indignation, rattled its way out of the station. But no longer were we strangers to each other. The mysterious use of the word vacuum had made comrades of us all, and each had his theory to put forward. ,
As usual the only man among us who understood railways waited until we had finished and then said: “The trouble is that the engines are tired, worn-out. In peacetime they would go in for overhaul and tuning up every night, but now they just have to keep going as long as they can pull a train. The best engines are looked after, of course, but they are put on the long-’ distance runs. So that’s what they mean when they say they can’t keep up the vacuum.”
Whereupon we became strangers again and hid behind our evening newspapers. The vacuum had made us friends; the vacuum had parted us. At any rate the evening papers were exciting. The Russians were over the Oder, Berlin was a seething caldron of horror, and spring was in the air after a seemingly endless, cruel winter. It might be a matter of weeks, it might be one of months, but victory would surely be ours.
I wondered what effect the war news would have on the debate that evening at the Cambridge Union, where that famous undergraduate Parliament was going to discuss a motion of mine to this effect:
“That this House considers Fascism a bogey, created by the Left, and not a philosophy.”
How would the students take this onslaught upon their political beliefs? Would they bother about it, or would they roam the streets instead, discussing the problems and chances of impending peace? It was three years since I had taken part in a debate at the Union and I wondered what changes might have occurred sinCQ then. In 1942 the American Army had taken over large parts of Cambridge, the RAF was already there, stationed in the various colleges, nor was the British Army missing.
Under the inexorable Manpower Act classical students were only allowed one year at the Varsity— and then into the war machine! Only science students and the medically unfit were permitted the full course, each shamefaced because every year saw the departure of their companions and left them behind with their books, their sense of frustration and perhaps their dreams.
There is something moving and wistful about the young at any time, when we watch their eager inexperienced hands reaching for the gates of opportunity. In war it is like a sudden clutching of the
heart to see youth on its road to death, or giving up the years of study that can never come again. However, one could not dwell on these things too long as even our train was gaining ground and we were certain to reach Cambridge at least by seven o’clock.
Which we did, and after a light meal with the president and officers of the Union we went off to the famous debating assembly which has been the cradle of so many Ministers of State and men of destiny. I noticed that the undergraduates were wearing gowns but not mortarboards and enquired the reason. “Oh, the Americans took so many of them as souvenirs that they were dropped from regulations,” said one of our party. Perhaps ... Yet I had heard two years ago that undergraduates did a roaring trade selling them at a high price to Americans. Perhaps the truth is found between the two.
The Union is fitted out like a smaller House of Commons. The president sits, like Mr. Speaker, facing the gangway, on each side of which are rows of benches. Above is a circular gallery for visitors. It is the custom of the students to indicate their preconceived attitude toward a motion for debate by seating themselves on the “aye” or “no” benches, according to their feelings.
One glimpse of the scene and I realized how tough a proposition lay ahead of the undergraduate who was to propose the motion, and for myself who was to second it. According to tradition a motion is always proposed and seconded by undergraduate members of the Union and is then supported by the two visiting speakers—in this case the other one was Denis Kendall, the very Independent M.P. for Grantham.
On our side there was a mere platoon of supporters; but opposite us the benches were crowded until they could barely accommodate the numbers that were determined to vote that Fascism was not a bogey, created by the Left, and that it was a philosophy. Two young fellows with crutches sat in the front row, casualties who had come back to continue their studies. Two Hindu students sat side by side, and sprinkled among the blond English were dark-haired Jews from Czechoslovakia or Austria. I saw a solitary Chinaman, who smiled with apparent approval on every speaker on both sides.
Clement Davies, the handsome curlyheaded president, called the meeting to order. His fine features were set in a serious, unsmiling mold and his voice was low and tinged with real authority. Because his father is an M.P. 1 knew something of the young president’s story. He had lost two brothers and a sister in the war, but because he had only one eye, as a result of an accident, he could not get into the services. Three times he lied his way into the Army and three times he was discharged because of his eye. So there he was at Cambridge, a man of 21 among boys of 18, proud and sombre as president of the Union but with his heart heavy with resentment at the fates that kept him from the war.
So the debate began, and my proposer led off with more gallantry than conviction. One gathered that he had taken it on rather as an intellectual exercise than an irrepressible outburst of faith. His attitude was more or less that of: “Well, there’s the motion and it’s the best I can make of it. Personally I don’t think an awful lot of it.”
When he sat down a keen-eyed, good-looking boy of 19 rose from the opposition front bench and took his place at the imitation dispatch box. He took one look at me and I knew that it was going to be tough. Here it should be explained that any public man suffering from an overdose of self-esteem can find instant relief
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by speaking at the Union. By longestablished custom the fledglings are given full license to mock, scratch or bite the old crows to their hearts’ content. They will put even a Lord Chancellor in his place, and as for a Tory M.P., well, that is just a night out. In Parliament we pride ourselves on the cut and thrust of debate, but at the Cambridge Union the cut is often done by a saw and the thrust by the blunt end of an axe. If the victim loses his temper he is lost. If he hits back skilfully the crowd will applaud him, for next to having an M.P. baited they like to see one of their own crowd brought down.
In first-rate style the undergraduate opposer of the motion set about me. “On this bench,’’ he said, “we have in Mr. Kendall a political virgin, since he has only been in Parliament a short time. But opposite us . . .” he waved his hand in my direction, “we have an old maid but certainly no virgin. In his youth he wrote a book called 'The Blower of Bubbles’ and later, in a gust of frankness, he wrote his life story, called ‘Strange Street.’ There you have the measure of our guest in those two titles—nothing but bubbles along a very strange street indeed.” I began to feel like Crippen in the box but nodded appreciatively. “He has the effrontery,” went on the young man, “to come here on the eve of a general election to put over a cheap trick on behalf of the Tory Party whose lackey he is. He will make a plausible case no doubt wiien he addresses this honorable house, and I warn you that as a speaker he is liable at any moment to soar to levels of undoubted mediocrity.”
This was too much for a kind-looking boy who rose and demanded of the president whether it was in order for
the opposer to indulge in calculated abuse.
“It is not calculated,” replied the opposer. “It is quite spontaneous.” Then with a flourish of phrase he hurled his remaining javelins into my chest and with a gesture of expressive hands chucked what was left of me into the young lions’ den as if he had no further interest in the carcass.
On the whole it would have been a better winding-up speech than an opening one, since an audience which is amused by savage satire will often feel a certain sympathy for the victim, providing he is wise enough not to retort in kind. Nevertheless I think we heard that night one of the great lawyers of the future.
However, beneath these pleasantries was a deep seriousness. The reality or unreality of Fascism was something which came as a challenge to everyone in the place. So intense was the feeling roused that at times the speeches rose to a level of eloquence which would have stirred any assembly in the Empire.
Briefly the case of Mr. Torrington (the mover) and myself was this:
Fascism is not a philosophy if we agree that philosophy is a search for truth and wisdom. Not until this search ends in a country can Fascism take growth. Unlike Communism it does not unite men of different race as will be seen by the fact that Fascist Hitler made war on Fascist Colonel Beck of Poland, as well as assassinating Fascist Dollfuss of Austria. Then, also, Fascist Mussolini made war on Fascist Metaxas of Greece. It is, in essence, a Left Wing movement challenging its twin, Communism, for the support of the workers. The extreme Left, as typified by the Communists, has tried to create the legend that the war was not against Imperialist Germany but against an ideology called
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Fascism. Thus the Left claims to be the sole legal residuary legatee of victory, entitled to the spoils and empowered to form the government in all victorious countries.
Mr. Kendall is not an orator and he did not try to destroy my case by argument. Starting with the charge that the whole debate was a Tory trick he ended up with the assertion that the British Tory Party has led the world into the war.
“Didn’t Hitler have something to do with it?” queried a student, but his voice was lost in the thunder of the Left and the shouts of “Question! Question!” from the Corporal’s Guard of the Right.
But the debate was not over. There were young Conservatives ready to mount the rostrum and one of them was Peter Goldman of Pembroke, a former president of the Union.
His was a speech that would have gripped and excited the House of Commons. Quietly, but with mounting logic, he attacked the claim that Fascism was anything but tyranny and totalitarianism. “If Fascism was a philosophy,” he said, “it would survive defeat, it would live through the generations, it would be in the minds and souls of men and would be indestructible.”
On both sides it was broadly accepted that Fascism was based on Socialism. In fairness I must record that several of the opposera, in conceding that point, claimed that in its ultimate form,
Fascism, though based on Socialism, was an expression of ultra-Toryism.
Mr. Robertson of Toronto spoke from our side, but demanded the right to vote neutral. The president said that there was no such vote. Mr. Robertson replied that there ought to be.
He was followed by Mr. Frankel, who is the secretary of the Union. He said that the Union should clearly understand what was happening. A Tory M.P. had come to Cambridge on the eve of xi general election to serve the wicked interests of the Party whose lackey he was and whose speech had proved nothing.
A dozen members were on their feet at midnight, desirous of speaking. It could have gone on until dawn but the closure was applied and we all trooped into the lobby.
The President announced the figures:
For the motion...........42
So we were defeated. But many of the students who had ranged themselves on the opposite side must have voted with us and some must have abstained.
The great advantage of writing an article as opposed to making a speech is that one can have the last word. Therefore I claim that it is not unimportant that 42 students out of a total of 119 should have decided that Fascism is a bogey, created by the Left, and is not a philosophy.
It is a minority view but then reason grows more slowly than prejudice.
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