ONCE upon a time a choleric general travelling on a train in England found he had no cigarettes, so he got out at a station and after some delay and cursing bought a package. When he rushed out the train had gone. A solitary porter stooped to tie up his bootlace. With a roar the general gave the porter a kick that sent him sprawling. “Dammit!” he roared. “You’re always doing up your bootlace.”
I am reminded of this foolish story by the mood of the British public today. Peace has come and with it a hundred irritations.
The Food Ministry has informed housewives that there is to be a cut in the fresh meat ration as well as in bacon and fats, and that the monthly 24 points for the purchase of tinned food and biscuits are to be reduced to 20. Coincident with this is the decision to close down all the remaining state-sponsored British restaurants, where people could get a meal for a couple of shillings.
In foreign affairs Tito is proving obstinate, while Russia, to put it tactfully, is behaving with a lack of delicacy. Factories which hummed merrily by day and night to turn out munitions of war are slowing down to a dead stop and civilian production is not yet ready to take up the slack. Australia, with a team of men from the services, has just beaten England in the first three-day cricket test match at Lords.
And, ns if that is not enough, Mr. Churchill decides to hold an election! It is the last straw. Although the country has not voted for nearly 10 years its mood at this moment is to growl: “Dammit, you’re always holding an election!”
Never did a victorious Prime Minister try more honorably to refrain from capitalizing triumph for political advantage. He had before him the unfortunate example of Lloyd George, who went to the country a month after the Armistice in 1918 with what was, in effect, these two questions:
1. Do you approve of the way we won the war?
2. Are you in favor of making Germany pay?
You will remember that as head of a coalition government L. G. bestowed his coupon upon the particular candidate he wished to gee returned, and such was the magic of his name that the coupon was virtually a ticket to Westminster. Lloyd’ George handpicked the Parliament of 1918.
Mr. Churchill, as well as the Socialist and Liberal Ministers in his Government, was determined that there should be no repetition of this excursion into dictatorship disguised as democracy. Before an election would be held the Coalition would break up, with the Parties offering themselves, untrammelled and unblessed, to the electorate. The Socialists, as fhe biggest of the junior partners, said they would go as soon as the German war was over.
Every employer knows how awkward it is to have an employee who has given a month’s notice but insists upon working it out. No matter how loyally the worker carries out his duties he creates restlessness among his fellows. For one thing he is beyond normal discipline and does not have to please or fear anyone. Therefore a wise employer gives such a man his month’s wages and lets him go at once.
A coalition government is, of course, more complicated than any business. It is something like a marriage of convenience, unsustained by human affection, which becomes increasingly impossible as the element of convenience declines. It is as if the wife says to the husband: “I intend to leave you but must wait until Uncle George dies, as it might prevent him leaving me his money. I shall tell everyone how much I dislike you and that I mean to divorce you, but we must keep up appearances and go to church together every Sunday.”
For the last six months the marriage of the Tories and Socialists has been in name only. They appeared together on the Government Front Bench, to all
appearances a happy family, but in the country they were saying harsh things about each other. In fa^t all the neighbors knew the marriage had gone wrong.
Mr. Churchill’s men friends dropped in to give him advice. Our fellow countryman, Max Beaverbrook, was one; so was shock-headed Brendan Bracken; Captain James Stuart, the Chief Whip of the Government, was another, and Ralph Assheton, the chairman of the Party, made a fourth. They told him he should go to the country in June or July. As delicately as possible they implied that the halo of victory was not an undying flame and that it might dim in the autumn mists.
Churchill was not happy. He did not wish to cash in on a popularity based on victory reaction. “I want the country to return me for what I intend to do, not merely for what I have done.” The Socialists were also talking at the street corners with each other. “The autumn is the time for us,” they said. “The country will be obsessed with the shortage of houses, the troubles in Europe, the change-over of the workers and the worries of demobilization. They will want a new broom and we’ve got it.”
There is nothing cynical in all this. A political party desirous of securing the mandate of the country is just as entitled to seize the advantageous moment as any prize fighter who wants to be at the top of his form when he tries for the championship. I imagine that even in the austerity of Canadian politics governments and parties manoeuvre to offer themselves to the electorate at the most propitious moment.
Therefore, as Germany went down in complete and disastrous defeat, the Conservatives said “July” and the Socialists said “November.” Churchill pondered between the two.
Attlee returned from San Francisco, and after a long talk with Churchill journeyed to Blackpool where the Labor Party had gone to hold its annual conference. Blackpool is unlike any other place in the world. It is at once the Brighton, the Atlantic City and the Mecca of Lancashire, the seaside resort to which every mill hand, bookmaker, mining operative and every other Lancastrian goes for his summer holiday. It is a matter of honor for the ordinary cotton worker to come back from Blackpool completely broke. To aid him in this Blackpool supplies him with dip-the-dips, a circus, peep shows, bands, candy stalls, rifle ranges, dance hall—in fact a midway, like that of Toronto Canadian National Exhibition, crowding the seashore for three miles.
The air is so strong and the winds so vigorous that it is often difficult toremain in a perpendicular posture on the front. I cite these seemingly unimportant facts to give Continued on page 32
Continued on page 32
Continued from page 14
you the setting in which Churchill’s letter to Atlee was received.
Just as the sight of marching divisions sent the Kaiser and Hitler crazy with excitement, so the Labor Party, wit h its battalions massed in t he strong air of Blackpool, felt a sense of irresistible power. From their mighty loins sprang the implements of war that crushed Germany like a nutshell. They told each other that they had saved Britain in the war and that they would now save Britain in the peace.
To this highly ozoned, exhilarated crowd Mr. Attlee read the famous letter. It was greeted with a roar of disapproval and derision. What? Fall for that old trick? Nothing doing, lads! There was no use in any of the shrewder minds like Morrison and Ernie Bevin advising careful consideration. The giant of Labor was in no mood for the niceties of political tactics.
Yet what had Churchill written in effect? He said that since an early election was deemed unsuitable by the Socialists, why not continue the Coalition Government until the war with Japan was over, providing that a referendum was held so that the people would declare whether they
wanted the life of this aged Parliament prolonged.
1 may tell you that Tories on the inside who knew about the letter were in a proper dither, as the English say. They thought that even the Socialists, who have never excelled in political strategy, would be certain to accept so advantageous an offer. It would postpone the election until 1946, Churchill would be that much older and that much farther away from victory over Germany, and the weariness of the people with the old order would be correspondingly greater.
Churchill himself was indifferent. He was ready to lead the Coalition for another year or more, or he was ready to fight an election at once. On balance, I imagine that he would have preferred the continuation of the Coalition until Japan was beaten. He has always regarded this second world war as of one pattern, where the defeat of a single enemy was not more than the winning of a major battle. However, the British people take the view that the defeat of Germany leaves the Japanese campaign as only a mopping up process. I hope they are right.
Churchill is both a romanticist and a realist. In other words he is a reincarnation from the Elizabethan days, when warriors were poets and where the swordsman counted his skill as incomplete if he could not carve a sonnet as handily as his opponent’s gullet. But even Churchill, with his ears still deafened from the cheers of the London crowd, must be staggered at what his Socialist colleagues of the war are saying about him now.
From the windy conference at Black-
pool and from the inkpots of the Left Wing editorial writers have come these tributes to the Prime Minister: “A blackmailer in our midst.” “His methods are like Hitler’s.” “He fancies himself as a prima donna.” “He gets pushed around by the people with whom he associates.” “His actions are alien to all our traditions.” And finally Sir Stafford Cripps, the man whom Churchill made Leader of the House of Commons and then Minister of Aircraft Production, calmly declares to the Blackpoodles: “It is time Churchill was put out to grass, instead of going J on eating his own words.”
Macbeth said: “Is this a dagger ' which I see before me?” Churchill might well look at himself in the mirror and ask: “Is this the face that launched 10,000 ships and snatched victory from the jaws of disaster?”
But these attacks are waking the Tories from their stupor. It is true that Churchill was once a rebel but now he is their leader, and when the Tories go into battle it is on the old | cry of the Three Musketeers: “All for one, one for all!” Yesterday 1 dropped in to see our old friend Max Beaverbrook, who was champing at the bit like a war horse on the eve of battle. “There were three great men . of destiny in this war,” he thundered at me as if I were a public meeting: “Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. < Death struck down the first. Shall we strike down the second?” After conducting two telephone conversations simultaneously he fixed me again with his Ancient Mariner’s eye. “He brought us through the Battles of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Shall we Lake him off the bridge and put in
his place an untried captain for the Battle of the Pacific?”
He rang for the immortal Albert, the imperturbable bantam manservant who has probably met more statesmen and conspirators than any servitor in history. “Order my car,” he said, “and see that I have 10 shillings silver in my pockets. Ask Miss Blank what she has done with Dickens. Come on, Baxter.” It is dangerous to drop in on Lord Beaverhrook. You are apt to find yourself being flown, driven or wafted anywhere without the least idea of when you will get back.
But you will sense from his fiery slogans that the Tories will hit back hard, and that the attacks on Churchill may prove to be the wind that stirs the flames of his popularity into an all-consuming conflagration. As far as personalities are concerned this is a one-man election.
Yet there is more involved than personalities. The younger people, in the services and in the factories, who have never voted are thinking things out seriously and soberly. They are less interested in the means than in the ends. The labels of free enterprise and nationalization do not inflame their pulses or their imaginations. Even the promise of social security from the cradle to the grave is not an answer to their yearnings, their anxieties and their aspirations. Deep down they resent a system of society which they believe enriches the few and impoverishes the many. It is not that they begrudge the rich man his wealth, but they feel, with more emotion than logic, that what is good for the employer canhot be good for the worker.
On the other hand the Britisher detests regimentation and will only put up with it in war. He looks with no special enthusiasm on the prospect of social security at the cost of having to live and work wherever the State dictates.
So this is the choice which is offered to the country:
1. Churchill the conqueror, but also Churchill the Tory Leader, with free enterprise and the profit motive in industry.
2. Bevin, Morrison and Attlee, with the dream of a state-controlled El Dorado and an ever-expanding bureaucracy.
3. Sir William Beveridge and the Liberal Party, pining for free trade in a tariff-infested world, declaring that full employment is impossible under Socialization, and vowing that if the Tories are returned to power they (the Liberals) will oppose them.
With such contrasted and conflicting issues to decide, it may well be that the personal factor will prove stronger than was thought. In other words, Churchill may dominate the battle of the hustings and secure for the Tories another term of office, although with a sharply reduced majority. Two months ago it looked as if the swing to the Left was irresistible. Now the pendulum is travelling neither so fast nor so far.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.