Attlee’s First Year

TREVOR EVANS July 15 1946

Attlee’s First Year

TREVOR EVANS July 15 1946

Attlee’s First Year


A RASP has crept into the voice of Clement Richard Attlee, Prime Minister of Britain, as he addresses the House of Commons. When he answers questions there is an increasing tendency to be snappish in his handling of supplementary enquiries—particularly if they come from members of His Majesty’s Opposition.

These uncharacteristic developments are worth recording and examining. They are the outward sign, at the highest level, of the strain and tension marking the closing phases of Britain’s first year ,of majority Labor Government.

Mr. Attlee has always been noted for his urbanity, his earnestness, and his shyness. So when Mr. Attlee begins to show his mettle it is worth while searching for the causes. In them will be found the story of Britain in its change from war to peace.

It is worth going back to that overcast day in July of last year when one half of Britain was delighted, and the other half shocked, to discover that in a total of 640 parliamentary seats the Labor candidates had won 393. The Conservatives, who had 387 members in the old Parliament, were now a poor second, with only 198 seats. Labor candidates had polled 11,992,292 votes out of a total of 24,973,298 cast.

Winston Churchill and his Conservatives, with the memory of close wartime associations with most of the leading members of the new Government fresh in their minds, settled down to the unfamiliar role of Opposition with the belief that the inevitable turmoil of the transition from war to peace would lead to constant and intimate consultation between the leaders of the two major Parties. In other words, there were hopes that although a formal Coalition was improbable, an unofficial group of the principal national political leaders would be the real rulers of the country.

Mr. Attlee started off his career as Prime Minister with correct punctiliousness, scrupulously shaping his demeanor toward Mr. Churchill and Anthony Eden to reflect his acknowledgment of their great war services. He included Sir John Anderson, technically a non-Party man but Chancellor of the Exchequer and holder of many other high offices in Churchill’s wartime Government, in his entourage to Washington. Everything was quite courteous.

Most of the Conservative leaders and, indeed,

"We in Britain are seeing a peaceful revolution . . thus far the Government has held its people."

millions of the British electorate did not believe that Labor candidates meant what they said in their election speeches and addresses. And, it must be added, it is possible that some of the principal Labor leaders paid little more than lip service to some of the policies to which they had committed themselves.

When the election landslide happened, however, it sent back to Westminster nearly 200 men and women who had never sat in Parliament before. They took their seats with zeal and with a fervor which startled some of the experienced parliamentarians of their own Party.

In the early days of the new Government these new, slightly fanatical members were described, with much headshaking, as “young men in a hurry.” But they and the feeling they reflected won the day. The Cabinet suppressed whatever feelings some of its members had about “orderly development toward our Socialist goal,” and accepted the view of the new men that Britain had sent them back to Westminster because it demanded a change from pre-war systems and practices.

So this first year of a Labor Government with a supreme majority has seen the greatest spate of new laws in Britain’s peacetime history.

One member of the Government said to me the other night, in the Lobby of the House of Commons, “We are in for five years. We will pass practically all our major proposals in the first year. Heaven knows what we’ll have to do in the other four years.”

Here are the high spots so far. In various stages of becoming law are measures to reorganize air transport; plan investments; direct industrialists to establish their new factories in areas considered in the best national interest by the Government; bring all classes of the community into social insurance schemes for protection against unemployment, sickness and old age; build whole new towns to house up to 60,000 people; license the granting of scarce raw materials to various industries; control the raising of capital for new enterprises; nationalize the Bank of England, coal mines, hospitals and medical services, railways, canals and road transport, electricity and gas production and distribution, docks, and some sections of the iron and steel industry; and continue the bulk buying of food

and some raw commodities, particularly cotton, by the Government.

This is not all. Sir Stafford Cripps, using his powers as president of the Board of Trade, has set up “working parties” for 15 major industries which are not being nationalized. These working parties are made up of independent representatives, employers and trade-union leaders.

The first major working party report—that on cotton, where the chairman of the group was Sir George Schuster—foreshadows the tone of other reports. While it promises freedom from nationalization, it obviously puts blinkers on private enterprise, for it recommends that each cotton producing firm pay a levy of one penny on each pound of yarn to a central fund for modernizing mills. The most shattering recommendation demands full publicity on profits and costs, even of private companies.

Of the 12 members of the working party, seven, representing the employers and the independents, objected to the latter recommendation. Schuster and the trade-unionists supported it.

Battle Lines Drawn

A FIGHT is developing between the sponsors of partial control and those who want free enterprise to be unfettered. The clamor will demand a straight answer from Sir Stafford Cripps when he returns from India. There’s not much doubt that he will favor Schuster’s partial control, but no one knows how far Sir Stafford will go to implement these and other proposals.

Whatever happens, we in Britain are seeing now a peaceful revolution. In the past a change of government involved not much more than changed emphasis on one or two aspects of a wide policy. But when this Labor Government has finished its job, what it has done cannot be undone without another major upheaval.

The omelet cannot be unscrambled. Nationalization cannot be broken up again to recreate private enterprise. New towns can neither be unbuilt nor left derelict. The administration of whole industries, with workers having a share in deciding policy, cannot revert to its traditional pattern without revolts from the trade-unions. There is a deep instinctive feeling that while

Britain is being steered away from the unfettered, unrestricted playgrounds of free enterprise she is not heading toward Communism. Her haven is some port somewhere in between these two extremes, but there are times when the passage is a bit bumpy and some of the passengers are brandishing their fists and shouting their imprecations to the skipper on the bridge. Many of the passengers, on the other hand, are huddling together in dark corners and passages between décks, and some are hanging over the sides—plain seasick.

But the officers and the crew go about their business with faith in the skipper, in his navigating officers, in his engineers and in themselves.

There never was much doubt about the ability of the “Big Five.” They are Attlee, Erhest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps. There is, however, one slight surprise in their performance during the first year. Only one has come out with scarcely a blemish on his record. That is Hugh Dalton, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

He has handled the nation’s financial affairs with a bland confidence which has delighted his own supporters, to most of whom the mysteries of high finance are overwhelming, and impressed the most experienced critics among the Opposition. His shrewdness in paying close attention to the aspirations of the great trade-unions guarantees him massive support if he ever chose to put any ambitions for political advancement to the test. Naturally, the only advancement could be to the prime ministership.

If anything happened to Attlee suddenly, Dalton would be a formidable claimant to the succession just now—particularly if the crisis happened to be largely domestic. His greatest rival would be Herbert Morrison.

Morrison is a combination of navigator and , engineer, of trainer and jockey, of coach and player. He can reprimand and conciliate. He performs all his many parts with artistry. He is the master politician of them all. Yet he suffers from one suspicion—that he wants to be Prime Minister. Morrison is a paradox. He can claim with truth to be the selfless architect of his Party’s success, yet his Party has been readier to notice his shortcomings than Continued on page 34,

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acknowledge his great service and qualities.

There are just two camps about Bevin: he is loved or hated—none of the neutral shades are in, or for, him.

The great mass of the British people, regardless of political affiliations, regard him as a great success as Foreign Secretary. He has “stood up” for England. He is the John Bull from the factory.

His most bitter critics are in his own Party the pro-Soviet group headed by Zilliacus, scholarly part-Finnish Labor member for Gateshead, and formerly a League of Nations official. The Zilliacus group numbers about 10 Labor M.P.s, who deplore Bevin’s uncompromising attitude toward Soviet diplomacy.

Bevin hates appeasement of any kind. Yet beneath this rugged exterior, behind the assertiveness, there is a cool brain and a big heart. Bevin really wants a true family of all nations. He has a great belief in the contribution which Britain and the Dominions can make to the permanent peace of the world. He believes in Britain’s industrial resilience. This is important to Bevin, who bases his foreign policy more on economics than on diplomacy. He thinks bread more important than boundaries. But, bulwark though he is in the inner councils of the British Cabinet, he may be forced, by the pressure of that group within his own Party desirous of better understanding with Soviet Russia, to modify some of his own attitudes.

Sir Stafford Cripps is deeply religious and austerely logical. Because of this he delights most members of the Labor Party, and is feared by the antiplanners.

Cripps has the greatest brain in the Government -and, many think, the smallest heart. Privately, Stafford Cripps has a dazzling charm. He has a boyish sense of humor. But he prefers to appear to the public as “the seagreen incorruptible.” He was the most pleased of Labor’s Big Five to discover such an enthusiasm for Socialism among the young, new Members of Parliament.

Cripps, who made biggest private income of all the senior Ministers before becoming a Minister—as a barrister, he was generally acknowledged to be earning £30,000 a year, but lived like a Spartan in the midst of dignified plenty—is determined to iron out the extremes of social life in England by taking from the rich and raising the poor. Thousands of the wealthiest people in Britain wish he had never been born. This he acknowledges, with a wintry half-smile, to be the greatest compliment to his success.

No Government, however, can be sure of success with only five star performers, particularly when it has set itself such a tremendous legislative and administrative task.

What about the Government’s second-string men?

For two reasons, the most fascinating of these is Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health, who is responsible for housing and the creation of a vast, highly controversial national medical scheme.

Bevan has not made good in housing yet. But there Ls a belief among his admirers and a suspicion among his critics that, in spite of a halting start in the job of creating 4 million new homes, this ex-Welsh miner, bitter, eloquent, tempestuous and natural, will win through.

If he does, he takes long strides toward future premiership. If he fails, there will be unconcealed delight at his discomfiture—particularly from

the many who have in the past felt the lash of his tongue. Among those who are torn between one desire, to see Britain well-housed again, and another, to see Aneurin Bevan fail at the job, is Winston Churchill. Churchill remembers with a flush Bevan’s wartime sniping in Parliament.

Significantly, Bevan has not responded characteristically to the taunts that there are few new houses yet. He creates the impression that he knows they will be delivered long, long before he and his Party have to face the country again.

Another Minister chosen—like Bevan —for toughness is Emanuel Shinwell, who steered his Coal Nationalization Act through Parliament with a blend of suavity and truculence, and Ls about to take over all the rich coal mines in Britain without having quite persuaded the miners and their leaders that their lot is going to be any easier.

One of the rising stars in the Party is John Strachey, 44, recently promoted from undersecretary in the Air Ministry to the highly important Food Ministry. Strachey, called the Cavalier of the Left, is heir presumptive to a centuryold baronetcy. Many thought this product of Eton and Oxford was a lightweight administrator when Attlee made him second minLster at the Air MinLstry, but in his first year his cool, effective, good-humored handling of Parliament raised his prospect of promotion, so that his succession to Sir Ben Smith in the Food MinLstry caused no surprise.

Already the pundits have allocated him place in the succession to the prime minstry after Aneurin Bevan.

There was one Minister selected more for his earnest, past contributions to Party discussions than for any promise of future spectacular performance— James Chuter Ede, theHomeSecretary. He has been a great success, has shown balance and sound judgment, goes about his job studiously and unruffled and has shown a calm sense of humor. It was unsuspected in him, and rare enough in his Party to make it noteworthy.

And there Ls the law chief, Sir Hartley Shawcross, the AttorneyGeneral, who was politically an unknown up to a year ago, but has made such a success of his job that he is entitled to expect early political advancement-except for the danger that Attlee has no great wealth of legal brilliance from which to choose a successor. Among the junior Ministers the ablest are Hector McNeill at the Foreign Office and Edith Summerskill at the Ministry of Food.

Among the second-string Ministers who have done just about as well as was expected of them are John Wilmot, Minister of Supply; George Hall, Secretary of State for the Colonies; Ellen Wilkinson, Minister of Education; George Tomlinson, Minister of Works; A. V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty; and Tom Williams, the Minister of Agriculture.

But some MinLsters have not come up to their supporters’ expectations. George Isaacs, personally extremely popular, suffers from contrast with Ernest Bevin, his overtowering predecessor at the Ministry of Labor. Jack Lawson, also popular, has proven so gentle and amiable that he Ls sadly miscast at the War Office, and Alfred Barnes, an introspective co-operative stalwart, is suspected of being too malleable in the hands of his permanent officials at the Ministry of Transport.

Sir Ben Smith, lately deposed by Strachey, ran up against a sucession of only partially overcome difficulties at the Ministry of Food. Jovial, wellupholstered Sir Ben did not look the part of a Minister who had to inflict further food cuts on a nation in its

seventh year of austerity rationing. Every time he posed for a picture he was smiling, every time he made an announcement of further shortages he found it difficult to keep a cheery note out of his voice. The truth was that hearty Sir Ben, by being his own cheery natural self, put himself out of tune with harassed housewives. They wanted to blame someone for their present plight. Sir Ben smiled himself out of the Ministry.

Food causes most grumbles. Lack of accommodation is the next cause of governmental criticism. Both are substantial bases for complaints. Women know too readily that there is not enough food, men too bitterly that they have no places in which to re-establish their horpe life.

But in spite of this the Government commands a remarkably high degree of public support.

The people of Britain are saying, in effect, “Well, we elected them only a year ago. Let’s give them a chance before we start kicking up a fuss.”

There are plenty of jobs. Out of a working population of 20 millions there are now 15,300,000 working in civilian industry, nearly 3,500,000 still in the forces and in civil defense services, 875,000 ex-servicemen in various stages of resettlement leave before taking up civilian work, and only 371,000 unemployed. Within a year, the experts —employed by the Government—say, there will be an actual shortage of workers. There will be more jobs than men to fill them. Wages continue high.

Indeed, wage rates are actually higher now than they were at the peak of the war. Generally, with the aid of colossal subsidies, amounting to more than £300 millions a year, the Government has managed to peg the cost ot living. For uncontrolled goods and luxuries, however, prices have soared. Automobiles and spare parts command famine prices.

A typical five-room London suburban house now sells for £2,000, compared with £900 before the war. This inflation baffles the administration, which urges buyers not to pay more than 50% above the pre-war price. But the demand is so great that buyers ignore the Government’s advice. The boom is likely to continue at least three years—until the government building program approaches homeseekers’ demands.

That is the story of Britain today— a nation with plenty of money in its pocket and exasperatingly little to buy. It is a situation which demands the difficult mixture of patience and faith.

The British people were showing commendable signs of patience toward the end of a year after a long war. Then came three events which made the people take fresh stock:

Bevin returned from Paris with admissions that the Foreign Ministers of the United Nations still had a long way to go on almost every major principle before a Peace Agreement could be concluded.

Attlee was maladroit in his parliamentary performance when announcing the withdrawal of all British troops from Egypt.

The brilliant Winston Churchill, refreshed after the plaudits of liberated Netherlander, tossed out a devastating phrase on hearing of the proposal to hand India over to her own elected leaders. Lisped Winston, of the Cabinet Mission of three (Lord PethickLawrence, Stafford Cripps, A. V. Alexander), in India, “They have worked for that solution with a zeal that would be natural if it were to gain an Empire and not to waste it away.”

Now comes the test. Most people feel

that government policy on Egypt and India is magnanimous and far-seeing— if the Government is confident about its future success in establishing peace in the world.

Attlee knows that Britain has entered one of its most fierce phases of intensive internal political war. He knows that inside Parliament, with his mighty majority, he is safe for another four years. But he also knows that outside Parliament a discontented, disillusioned people can hamper and hinder—and even destroy—some of the plans of his Government.

Attlee knows another thing. The greatest weakness of his Administration is its performance of the important job of public relations. It is not enough for Ministers to feel inspired about their plans or confident about carrying them out. It is not enough, even, for the Morrisons, the Bevins, the Bevans and the Daltons to score brilliant triumphs on the floor of the House of Commons—as they do with impressive regularity. The people must be fortified in their patience and their faith.

Francis Williams, ex-editor of the Daily Herald, has a difficult job as the Attlee Cabinet’s public relations ad-

viser. He is improving the presentation of government policies in the newspapers and in providing facilities for background talks between newspapermen and Ministers, but even Williams cannot infuse the necessary spark of warmth and imagination into the presentation of long-term government plans. That must remain the prerogative of the Ministers, and some fail.

For instance, Alfred Barnes, the Transport Minister, last month coldly announced a 15% increase in railway charges without troubling to develop a vision of modern, improved services. This attitude indicates a characteristic government overassumption that the public understands ministerial inner motives

In spite of this the Attlee Government has held the people. The time draws near when it must reward the people—with new homes, with full larders, and with well-stocked shops.

We approach the great divide between promise and performance. It is a delicate time. It is a time when thrusts cause winces, when blows rouse furies.

And that is why the rasp has crept into the voice of Clement Richard Attlee.