The Revolt Against Bevin
RICHARD CROSSMAN, M.P.
A British Labor "rebel" reveals the inside story of the political fight over Britain’s foreign policy
During a debate in the British House of Commons last November, Richard H. Crossman, Labor Member of Parliament for East Coventry, proposed an amendment in which he called on the Labor Government to review and recast its foreign policy and “provide a democratic and constructive Socialist alternative to an otherwise inevitable conflict between American capitalism and Soviet communism.”
In the ensuing division, not a single vote was cast against the foreign policy of Labor Minister Ernest Bevin, but approximately 100Labor M.P.'s pointedly abstained from voting for the Bevin policy.
Many observers saw in the episode the beginnings of a full-scale “revolt” in the Labor Party. In this outspoken article, written at the request of Maclean's, the man who led the “revolt” gives his interpretation of the issues at stake.
THE TRUE STORY of the rebellion in the Labor Party revealed in the opening debate of this new parliamentary session is a great deal less melodramatic than many reporta have made it.
Some United States journalists have described it as a well-organized conspiracy. One actually rang me up on the day after the debate and said that he knew that Bevin was due to go in three months and he just wanted to find out whether it was Morrison or Dalton whom we were substituting for him as Foreign Secretary.
All that, of course, is pure fantasy.
The 100-odd Labor M.P.s who abstained from voting against the amendment which I tabled were not even remotely concerned with the personalities in the Cabinet. We have been long enough in Parliament to know that foreign policy is a collective Cabinet responsibility. Our only concern was to express our dismay at the direction in which British policy had been drifting the last year.
To talk of a deep-laid plot is to say much more and much less than the truth.
Much more than the truth, because there was no group or cabal before the debate, and there has been no group or cabal after it. When the six of us tabled our amendment we informed the Party meeting next morning that we had agreed not to force a division but to withdraw the amendment after the discussion had taken place.
We had no idea then of the strength of the support behind us, and if we had had, it would not have altered our decision.
Mr. Attlee finished his speech in reply with a request that the amendment should be withdrawn. We immediately acceded.
It was only because two members, the total strength of the independent Labor Party, forced a division that a division took place. We were as surprised as the Government, when the members
went into the division lobbies, to see the lines of backbenchers sitting tight behind us. The “rebellion” was really a spontaneous demonstration.
The very fact that this revolt was not organized gives it its real significance. Without any prior conspiracy, 100 Labor backbenchers spontaneously failed to support the Government when challenged on its foreign policy. Spontaneously 55 supported an amendment against conscription and 100 abstained on this issue.
After this no one could fail to draw the conclusion that, though the Government has the full and enthusiastic support of the Conservative Party, both for foreign policy and for conscription, a large section of the parliamentary Labor Party is deeply disturbed by the present line of British foreign policy. None are opposed to the Government or wish to change it, but they are passionately convinced that it is their duty to do everything they can to modify that line.
Promised New Foreign Policy
IN ORDER to understand this situation, one must go back to the summer of 1945. The General Election had been fought and won on a domestic policy of full employment and nationalization which had aroused furious Conservative opposition. To this policy every member of the Labor Party felt himself personally and collectively pledged.
The hundreds of new members in the first weeks of the session watched with growing enthusiasm the quiet confidence of the Government front bench, as it pushed through the legislation which was to be the basis for Socialist reconstruction. Each minister, ns he came forward with his Bill, was greeted with uproarious applause from his own supporters, and subjected to violent, but ineffective, attacks from the Opposition benches.
When in August, 1945, Mr. Bevin rost* to make his first speech as Foreign Secretary, he had behind
him a united, loyal and enthusiastic Party. He had done a magnificent job during the war as Minister of Labor.
At the Blackpool Conference of the Labor Party, he had made a speech on foreign affairs which had brought him the biggest applause of the Conference. Now he stood at the Government dispatch box, a monumental representative and symbol of British trade-unionism. But he also stood as the spokesman for His Majesty’s Government on foreign affairs.
He and his colleagues in the Cabinet, together with every one of the backbenchers behind him, had spoken confidently during the election of a Labor policy which would prevent the drift of the world into two ideological blocs. All of us had denounced the Tory policy of opposition to Russia which we believed had prevented collective security and so given Hitler his chance.
We had exposed the Churchillian friendship for General Franco, and the Churchillian preference for the Greek King against the Greek Left. We had assured the country t hat no Tory Government could come to terms with Russia, but that the Labor Government could co-operate effectively both with U. S. democracy and with the U. S. S. R.
Hiverything we had said implied that a Labor Government would found its foreign policy not on the traditional methods of the Foreign Office but on new Socialist principles.
No wonder there was tension and excitement that day when Mr. Bevin rose to make his first speech.
That tension was heightened by the fact that the new parliamentary Labor Party had more Members with a knowledge of foreign affairs than any of its predecessors. Some 120 of the new M.P.’s had served in the forces overseas, some as fighting soldiers, and many in positions where they could fake an active part in the formulation of policy.
There were men with experience of Burma, and Indonesia, of India and of the Middle East, of Africa, of Greece, of Italy, France and Germany. During the closing months of the war we had
watched with indignation the twists and turns of Anglo-American policy in the liberated territories. We had come to Westminster with the firm conviction that a Labor Government would inaugurate a new era. Even more important, each of us, with regard to the country he knew well, had plenty of ideas as to how that new era should begin.
The Foreign Secretary’s first speech was made from a carefully prepared brief. It contained many general principles which won immediate support, but it made it clear that Mr. Bevin contemplated no change from the Churchillian policy, with regard to Greece or Spain.
You could almost hear a sigh of relief from the Tory benches. You could feel the chill of the let down among Mr. Bevin’s supporters. Up jumped Lyall Wilkes, who had served as liaison officer with the Greek resistance movement, to voice his protest . He was followed by Michael Foot, Member for Devonport, and the most brilliant pamphleteer of the Socialist movement. His maiden speech contained all the central ideas which were to inspire the revolt of the backbenchers a year later:
“We are a European country, and I hope that we are determined to maintain our influence in Europe, but it cannot be done by force any more than we can maintain our Empire by force. It can only be done if, added to our strength, we have a more subtle magnet.
“The Leader of the Opposition, in his speech, appeared to suggest that the leadership of the nations had in some way passed to the United States. He appeared to approve the process, or at least he said that we must limit our ideas of British influence throughout the world. I do not know exactly what he meant, but I hope we are not going to have from this new Government an unambitious foreign policy.
“We do not wish to play the part of Lepidus in this triumvirate of great nations. Britain stands today at the summit of Continued on page 38
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The Revolt Against Bevin
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her power and glory, and we hold that position because today, following the election, we have something unique to offer. We have a conception of political liberty which our friends in Russia unhappily have not been blessed with. We have at the same time a conception of economic democracy, which we on this side of the House are proud to call by the name of Socialism, a conception which is unhappily not yet shared by the people of the United States.
“If, however, we were able to take a free vote of all the peoples in Europe, I believe that they would vote overwhelmingly for these two ideas. It is this unique combination of treasures, together with the prestige that this country has acquired during the war, and the support we had from the Dominions who are travelling along the same road as ourselves, which gives to us the commanding position of leadership if we choose to exercise it.”
But a whole year passed before Michael Foot and the rest of us felt ourselves driven to such a drastic step as to table an amendment on the King’s Speech. During that year, despite our growing concern, the vast majority of the backbenchers interested in foreign affairs, confined their criticisms to private meetings.
They made constant efforts to persuade the Government of the need for a drastic comb-out in the Foreign Office. The only result was the appointment of Sir Alexander Cadogan as British representative on the Security Council, and his replacement at the head of the Foreign Office by Sir Orme Sargent, the outstanding representative of the old-fashioned diplomatic tradition.
Our dismay about events in Greece was well known, but despite the warnings of the backbenchers, the Government pressed on with the elections, and the plebiscite which could only have one result.
We begged for some word of support for the Spanish Republicans, but the policy remained unchanged. Then
last May the unanimous report of the Anglo-American Commission on Palestine was published. Here was a country in respect to which the Labor Party was solemnly pledged to a precise policy by no less than 11 Conference resolutions. The last and most precise was passed unanimously a few weeks before the election.
A Labor Government, it had been promised, would repeal the Chamberlain White Paper of 1939 and permit the remnants of European Jewry to enter the National Home freely. This Labor policy was confirmed by the unanimous findings of the Committee, but instead of accepting and implementing the report, the Government hesitated, and finally preferred the advice of its permanent officials.
In June the Jewish Agency in Palestine was closed and thousands of Jewish Labor and trade-union leaders were arrested. Britain seemed to be drifting into an Anglo-Jewish war, and Sydney Silverman and I moved the adjournment of the House, with the support of a small group of Labor backbenchers, to voice our protest.
“Struggled Against Drift”
Palestine, Greece and Spain—but behind these specific failures was a background of power politics which caused us even more concern. Despite out election speeches, the world was in fact drifting into two ideological blocs, one dominated by America, and the gospel of free enterprise, the other by Soviet Russia and the doctrine of Communism.
Instead of the one world based on U.N., which is the only hope of preventing a third world war, two worlds were being created and were preparing actively not for peace but for war. We all knew that this was not the fault of the British Government.
Honestly and sincerely, every member of the Cabinet concerned with external affairs had struggled against the drift. But by last summer it was clear that their struggle had been unavailing. Britain, dependent economically on the U. S. until she could reestablish her peacetime markets, was
now politically and militarily aligned with her.
Churchill’s policy, first announced in the Fulton speech, seemed to have become the policy of the Labor Government. The Socialist Parties of Europe, which had greeted our electoral victory with such enthusiasm, were dismayed and disheartened, and were being gradually squeezed out between the reactionary forces, which sided with the U. S., and the Communist parties which were the pledged allies of Soviet Russia.
During the whole of the first year we had remained silent on this central theme. We were all concerned to strengthen and support the Government in its domestic program, and we were all reluctant to say publicly what we discussed in private. As a result public criticism of the Government’s policy had been left exclusively to the two Communist members, Mr. Gallacher and Mr. Piratin, and a small group of near-Communists who had already made only too clear their conviction that “Bevin must go.”
This near-Communist group was very small but very vociferous, and slightly to the right of it stood the formidable figure of Konni Zilliacus, the one Member of Parliament who had persistently and ably expressed a welldocumented criticism of Mr. Bevin.
Zilliacus is an incalculable personality. He knows 17 languages and his life’s work in the League of Nations Secretariat has given him a knowledge of foreign affairs so great that Bernard Shaw the other day stated in a letter to the New Statesman that he knew more about foreign policy than any other man alive.
His enemies call him a crypto-Communist, but they are wrong. Zilliacus has too strong opinions to be accepted by the bosses of the Communist Party. But as an independent guerilla, he put the Communist case against Mr. Bevin more powerfully than any Communist could ever have done.
The result of the activities of this small group, who demanded a joint Anglo-Russian policy for settling the affairs of Europe, had been to drive many of the more moderate critics of
Mr. Bevin to despair. They had made it look as though the only alternative to an Anglo-American alliance was an Anglo-Russian alliance, that if Britain was not to be a junior partner of America, she had to become a junior partner of the U. S. S. R. Such an attitude will always be totally unacceptable to all but an insignificant fraction of the Labor movement.
After the summer recess, some of us felt the time had come to show the country that the debate on foreign policy did not really consist of a private war between Mr. Bevin and Mr. Zilliacus. Twenty-one members, none of whom had been remotely connected with the Communists or near-Communists, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister expressing their concern.
Three “Decisive” Events
Among them were two members of the National Executive, Barbara Ayrton-Gould and Joe Reeves of the Cooperative movement; prominent tradeunionists such as Mark Hewitson of the Municipal and General Workers, experienced parliamentarians such as Sydney Silverman, journalists, including Michael Foot and myself, and a number of members who had special experience of foreign affairs.
Jennie Lee, a director of Tribune and the wife of Aneurin Bevan, and his parliamentary private secretary, Major Donald Bruce, were actively concerned. Other parliamentary private secretaries who added their names were Colonel Wigg, who works with Mr. Shinwell, the Minister of Fuel and Power, and J. P. Mallalieu, whose boss is John Strachey, the Minister of Food.
In this letter to Mr. Attlee sharp criticism of the past was combined with an earnest appeal for an independent Socialist policy which would encourage the democratic forces in Europe and take Britain out of the Anglo-American camp and back into a position of independence from which she could hope to play the leading part in relaxing the tension between America and Russia. A copy of the letter was later circulated to all members of the Parliamentary Party.
The first session of the new Parliament closed at the end of October, and the new session began five days later with the debate on the King’s Speech, which is the one annual occasion for the discussion of all aspects of the Government’s policy.
In that interim period three decisive events occurred. At the Trade-Union Conference at Brighton resolutions criticizing the Government’s policy along much the same lines as our letter to the Prime Minister, received unexpectedly heavy support. Clearly the industrial side of the movement shared our concern.
Immediately afterward Mr. Attlee announced his decision to maintain conscription after 1948. A few days after that the overwhelming Republican victory in the U. S. elections dashed any hopes that the New Deal had survived the peace. While Britain moved to the left, the U. S. was swinging to the right.
These three events coming together convinced a few of us that the time had come to bring the debate on British foreign policy, which had been going on in private meetings for many months, out into the open.
We believed, and we still believe, that events were on our side, that the Republican victory had destroyed the economic basis for any close AngloAmerican partnership in the years ahead. The opportunity had arrived lor a new British initiative designed to break the deadlock with Russia. It was felt the principles which Michael Foot
had first announced in 1945 must be reaffirmed on the floor of the House of Commons by Socialist backbenchers.
Looking back, I am convinced that what we did achieved its main purpose. We wanted, not to attack the Foreign Secretary, but to make a demonstration of the depth of feeling in the Party and in the country, and in particular to show to America the true state of public opinion in Britain with regard to AngloAmerican relations.
Most of us had voted very reluctantly for the U. S. loan, disliking intensely the political conditions which were attached to it. But on that occasion we had followed Mr. Bevin’s lead and accepted the unpleasant conclusion that beggars could not be choosers.
Now we saw a new and dangerous development. In the Anglo-American partnership which has emerged, it looks as though Britain has been forced to undertake commitments which she cannot sustain. While the U. S. still hesitates to adopt compulsory military service in peacetime, Britain, as her ally, has to introduce conscription for 18 months. At the moment we are maintaining armed forces of 1,300,000 men, and at least 600,000 workers are engaged in the armaments industry.
To survive and to avoid default on the loan, Britain must increase her exports to 175% of the pre-war level. This is a physical impossibility if two million young men are taken from production into the Army or munitions.
In Greece and in the Middle East, large British armies carry the sole military responsibility for what should be, under an Anglo-American alliance, a joint responsibility. In Germany, under the agreement recently signed, a Britain starved of dollars and bearing the full brunt of an austerity far more severe than anything she suffered in war is being asked to share with America half the costs of rehabilitating the fused Anglo-American zones.
Even if an Anglo-American partnership were necessary to resist Communist aggression, the present distribution of responsibilities between Britain and America is impossibly unjust to Britain.
“The Wisest Course-—■”
But is the partnership desirable, either in British interests or for the sake of world peace? I cannot believe it is. All the evidence seents to show that Russia, crippled by the ravages of war, is both unable and unwilling to risk a major war. Stalin needs peace desperately, and his threatening behavior in Persia, in Trieste and elsewhere, last spring and summer, was the result, not of “red imperialism” but of the chronic Russian fear of what the Russians call an Anglo-American capitalist conspiracy.
If Britain enters into a close partnership with the U. S. which includes the maintenance of a combined Chiefs of Staff, and the standardization of armaments, she will only confirm that Russian fear and make genuine peacemaking more difficult.
That is why anything in the nature of an Anglo-American alliance at this moment is unnecessary for British security and positively harmful to the chances of world peace. Instead of bringing all the nations together into one world, it hastens the division of the world into two ideological blocs, and thus frustrates the central purpose of the United Nations.
Such an alliance would only be defensible if war were imminent. But today that danger does not exist.
The wisest course for Britain would be to plan on the assumption that there is no chance of her being engaged in a major war for the next 10 years. These 10 years should be used to carry
through Socialist reconstruction at home and abroad to harmonize the conflicting interests of the free enterprise and the Communist blocs. Britain can achieve this if she co-operates with both and depends on neither.
The partnerships which the Labor Government should foster in this period are those within the Commonwealth and with her western European neighbors. The Dominions and, in a different way, the western European democracies are bound to this country by ties of tradition and of common interest.
Working loosely together, not as a bloc but as a group of peoples united by a common outlook, we could form a “centre” in the United Nations between the U. S. right and the Russian left. Content not to impose our ideas
on other people, but to solve our domestic problems in our own ways, we could forge useful economic links with one another, and thus increase our bargaining power with both the U. S. and the U. S. S. R.
The nations of the British Commonwealth and of western Europe are the most advanced democratic countries in the world, both as regards political freedom and social legislation. Measured in terms of war potential, we are weak. But in terms of leadership for world pacification we could, in close collaboration with one another, be the strongest influence in the Assembly.
The issue we raised in Parliament is not merely a domestic matter of British Labor politics. Britain’s position in the postwar world is decisive for peace or for war.
As a junior partner of the U. S., weighed down by a burden of armaments far greater than she can bear, Britain would be unable to give moral leadership. Britain would, in the last resort, only retain importance as an advanced American base off the coast of Europe.
That is a future which 1 reject with scorn both as a Briton and as a Socialist.
But a Britain, free and independent, boldly rejecting alliances of convenience with either Russia or the U. S., and co-operating closely with her traditional friends, can regain the moral leadership which she won in 1940 when, with the Dominions, she stood alone against the full force of Fascist aggression.
That is the future for which my colleagues and I fight. ★