The Battle of Wood Green

August 15 1945


The Battle of Wood Green

August 15 1945


The Battle of Wood Green

SUPPOSING YOU had a horse running in the Derby, and just as the field came into the straight an impenetrable fog descended and obliterated the whole scene. Then also suppose the stewards declared that the race had been truly run but that, the result would not be announced for three weeks!

We who have just fought the first British general election since 1935 are in much the same position as a Derby runner's owner in the circumstances just described.

All day long on Friday, July 6, the people of Britain voted—and where are their ballots now? They are not even counted. In fact, like Mr. Baldwin, their lips are sealed, but, unlike Mr. Baldwin, most of them are now wifely in locked cells at local police stations. They will not be released until the ballots from the overseas forces arrive to make common cause with them.

All elections are different and all elections are alike. Last night, when the polling booths had closed and the Baxter family at last reached the sanctuary of home, I took “Pickwick Papers” off the shelf and read once more the chapter dealing with the Homeric election at Eatanswill between the Honorable Samuel Slumkey of Slumkey Hall and Horatio Fitzkin Esq. of Fitzkin Lodge, near Eatanswill. It is Dickens at his exuberant best, and hidden in the extravagant caricature is the seed of truth. Wherever a democratic election is fought it is more or less Eatanswill over again.

Before an election takes place, however, there is a salutary process of deflation which the existing M.P. has to undergo. Those of us who wrere elected 10 years ago had become so accustomed to the letters M.P. after our names that it is a bit of a shock to find, on the dissolution of Parliament, that we are no more than prospective parliamentary candidates and have to go through the ordeal of being officially adopted or officially rejected by our local associations. We cannot even use our customary letter paper unless we delete the “M.P.” And, as if to aggravate the diminishing process, a curt instruction comes from the House of Commons, ordering us to turn in our official motor car badges.

In the meantime the Liberal candidate (in my constituency a young, attractive Army cnptain) and the Socialist, candidate (a soldier who is also a local councillor) have got off to a headlong start. While they oppose each other they aroofonemind—that the Tory must be defeated ignominiousiy.

These gentlemen are political virgins—albeit eager to lose their virginity—and the existing member is definitely not. He has a 10 years’ record of speaking, voting and writing to be exhumed and examined with eager anticipation. It is a lucky politician who can go 10 years without uttering some comment or prophecy which cannot be used against him by his opponents.

One can almost see the candidates and their advisers gathered round the cauldron, like the midnight hags in “Macbeth,” muttering, “Double, double toil and trouble for the Tories.”

The case against most of the Conservatives was delightfully simple and, on the face of it, highly damaging:

1. Wo supported Chamberlain in his appeasement


2. We supported him over Munich, we voted for the Hoare-Laval Pact and caused the ruin of the League of Nations, the snubbing of Russia, the placation of Franco, the rape of Manchuria.

3. We failed to rearm.

4. We kept Churchill out of office for 10 years, and now hail him as our leader.

Thatseemed a juicy indictment against the majority of us, but in the North London constituency of Wood Green it would be absolutely devastating, because the Canadian-born Tory had not only committed all these crimes but still boasted he was a man of Munich and a supporter of Neville Chamberlain’s record.

In describing what happened in Wood Green I only do so because it must have been symptomatic of hundreds of other constituencies. My list of 18 meetings began with large crowds in excellent voice and high spirits. We found in most cases they were ready to listen to the preliminary speech and to hold their fire for question time, which lasted usually for an hour and a half.

Perhaps we can best describe the result of all this by using the dialogue between the platform and the audience.

Q. Is it not true that the candidate supported Munich?

A. Like the whole country I supported Munich except that I did not turn against Chamberlain afterward. Munich was the deepest humiliation in the history of Britain, and I thank God we had a Prime Minister great enough to accept that humiliation.

Q. Why didn’t you deal with Hitler then?

A. Because France would not fight, we were not ready, and the Poles, already mobilized to attack Czechoslovakia, would have been brought into the Axis, which would have meant the defeat of Russia at Hitler’s choosing.

Q. What about the Czechs?

A. All their defenses were on the German frontier. When Austria was invaded the Czech flank was exposed. Czechoslovakia would not have lasted for a week against Germany, Poland and Hungary.

Q. Why don’t you admit that you wanted a war between Russia and Germany, while the Tories took the profits? (Very loud cheers.)

A. We wanted that war so little that in 1939 we guaranteed Poland, which was on the route from Germany to Russia. By that action we formed an alliance with Russia long before she formed one with us. Neville Chamberlain saved Russia by that guarantee.

Q. Why didn’t you rearm? You were in power.

A. We did not rearm as much as we should have done, but when war came we put into the water a Navy that had to do the work that five navies did in the last war. And we put into the air the finest machines in the world, with the best-trained pilots— they won the battle of Britain and saved civilization.

Q. That’s all very well, but why weren’t we fully armed?

A. Because Britain is a democracy, not a dictatorship. All our plans for rearmament and conscription were opposed by the Socialists and the Trade Unions. As for the Liberals, they kept screaming for disarmament and collective security, shaking their fists at the dictators and making certain that we would have no strength to play our part in collective

security. Q. Why didn’t you trust the League? It had 48 meml>er stat*».

Continued on page 20

London Letter

Continued from page 14

A. We did not believe in the Swiss Navy, the Bolivian Air Force, or the Romanian Cavalry. By the way, the League declared Russia the aggressor against Finland. When is the League going to apply sanctions against Russ»»? Or are we to go to war against her?

Hard-hit ting Firtht

This is, of necessity, a skeletonized version of the dialogue, as there is no space to give the jibes, the bull’s-eyes and the misses which brought cheers, booing, laughter and anger from the crowds. Under such circumstances there is no chance lor reasoned argument or balancing the imponderables with the actualities. It is hard hitting all the way and no Marquis of Qutamsberry rules.

I can only speak for my own constituency with authority, but I can record with absolute accuracy that before the election fight had gone halfway our opponents abandoned the past, as they did not find it fruitful. And although this may anger some of my Canadian critics I must also re|a»rt that Chamberlain’s name was finally received with far more applause than jeering.

However, the Socialist Party was on the hunt and suddenly they discovered a bombshell made in Canada. It seems that the member for Wood Green had written an article for Maclean’s Magazine, prophesying a swing to the Left in England and the loss of UK) seats for the Tories. In this article the question was raised whether the nation would regard the 70-year-old Churchill in the role of reconstruction Prime Minister with less enthusiasm than as a war leader. The article was duly cabled to London, extracts skilfully chosen, and the Left Wing Press gave it full publicity^—or those parts of the article that suited their purpose. My Libenti opponent issued thousands of pamphlets advertising Maclean’s, without charge.

Asked by the Left Wing News Chronicle for a statement, I said that four months ago I believed there would be a swing to the Left and that the nation might differentiate between Churchill the warrior and Churchill the peacemaker; but how was I to know that the Socialists, even with their unique record for bungling, would refuse to stay in the Government until Japan was beaten, and that Laski, as the Party chairman, would disown Attlee, the Party leader?

However, I was duly arraigned as “The man with two voices,” and had to comfort myself with the reflection that I he role of prophet is a hazardous one.

In the meantime the real issue of the election had developed on sound lines between nationalization and free enter-

prise. In this the Tories had all the best arguments, although the Liberals were able to use them too. The Briton does not take lightly to regimentation, and he is sick to death of controls. Yet deep in the minds of the workers is the fear of unemployment and a stubborn, illogical conviction that what is good for the employer is bad for the employee.

While straight issues were being fought, out in the constituencies the Big Boys of all Parties were indulging in personal abuse and recriminations which must have given the outside world a false picture of what was going on. Lord Beaverbrook had more coconuts thrown at his head than any Aunt Sally that ever was, but they bounced off without doing any visible harm. Mr. Churchill, of course, loves a scrap, and he also hit out in all directions but kept, as far as humanly possible, to issues rather than personalities. Inevitably it was something of a shock to the nation to note the swift transition from the head of an all-Party Government to a Party leader, but I must report that all elections are based on Dickens’ Eatanswill, and there is no other way to fight them.

Churchill’s tour of the North was an unbroken triumph but his final appearance in London, at a dog-racing stadium, was not quite like that of a

Caesar returning from his conquests. But his towering personality, his courage, his genius and his magnanimity overshadowed every other personality, and perhaps even the issues as well. The actual effect, of course, will only be known when the votes are counted.

One feature of the fight is something which Dickens could never have foreseen—the loudspeaker apparatus attached to the candidates’ cars. I must confess to a feeling of acute discomfort when my wife first drove me in our car, decorated with posters and a huge trumpet on the roof (I refer to the car, not my wife), and I stepped out with the microphone, in a busy street, with my voice booming above the sounds of the traffic like the Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum giant demanding the blood of an Englishman. In no time a collection of small boys gathered around us in a state of high, though not strictly political, enthusiasm. Shopkeepers came wonderingly to their doorways, matrons put their heads out of the windows, girls giggled and men stopped in their tracks to listen.

And suddenly I felt that it was not silly but, in some strange way, dignified. An ex-M.P. was asking the people to return him to Parliament, he was acknowledging the authority of the citizen over the legislator, his platform was the pavement on which he stood. With 90,000 voters in a London district it is impossible to know one’s constituents personally, except on a limited scale, and yet by this monstrous device one could patrol busy streets and quiet streets, speaking to the bedridden, to the housewife in her kitchen, to the fishmonger in his shop, to the workers in a factory, without moving a yard’s distance from the car.

Finally there is the simple human element, a common experience to all candidates, which touches the heart and leaves one humbly grateful. In Britain an M.P. has no patronage to bestow, no method of influencing local appointments or even building a new post office. We have nothing to offer our supporters but representation in Parliament.

Yet volunteers are at hand everywhere, willing to spend 10 hours a day addressing envelopes, putting up posters, canvassing streets, going on to meetings to cheer their candidate and shout down the opposition. Their loyalty is so genuine, their reward so small!

It was such moments as these that made up for the grotesque hilarity of the last meeting of all when 300 Communists and Socialists booed me while I, and about 50 supporters, booed them—the din lasting for 15 unbroken minutes. I must say I enjoyed it, but one could hardly claim that it was democracy at its best.

What is the secret contained in those ballots? By the time this London Letter appears in Maclean’s you will know' the result.