LONDON LETTER

THE MASTERS AT MARGATE

Beverley Baxter December 1 1950
LONDON LETTER

THE MASTERS AT MARGATE

Beverley Baxter December 1 1950

THE MASTERS AT MARGATE

LONDON LETTER

Beverley Baxter

MARGATE is two and a half hours from London by train. Margate is on the sea. In August the crowds from London are so large that the sands are completely obliterated by the human concourse.

When the summer is over most of the hotels close and the boardinghouses, with their traditional names of “Seaview,” “Mon Repos,” “The Beach” and “Hillside,” clean themselves up and then go to sleep. The fun fairs are silent and deserted and the donkeys are put out to grass to fatten up for the next children’s crusade.

Lest you think I am merely boosting Margate to attract you from your lesser beauty spots over the ocean I must hasten to explain that Margate has suddenly become vastly important in the political sphere, for it is there that the mighty Labor Party of Great Britain decided to hold its annual conference.

A man of more delicacy than your London correspondent might have decided that a Conservative M.P. would hardly be the most welcome visitor to such an exclusive gathering but, as a contemporary historian, I like to look upon the great and the powerful. So last Sunday I went by train to Margate to attend the opening of the conference.

At my hotel in Margate there was a great bustle and liveliness. Ministers, whips, backbenchers and delegates from the constituencies were arriving like MacArthur’s reinforcements. Political correspondents were there too, wearing the curiously indeterminate clothes that seem inseparable from the profession of journalism. Now that I think of it I cannot ever remember seeing a newspaperman in a new suit.

The first Socialist to speak to me was a peer—which, you will agree, raises the whole social tone of this

letter. Lord Strabolgi was once a Liberal M.P., but inherited his title from his Scottish father and then joined the Labor Party. He is a man of grace and some charm, but for some reason the Socialists have never rewarded him with office or a governorship or even a directorship on nationalization boards.

Strabolgi smiled at me and remarked: “Where the carcass is, the vultures gather.” Not bad, but rather pessimistic I thought.

And so to bed.

The next morning broke bright and clear and it was good to walk by the sea. The tide was out, two ships were anchored off shore, the beaches were as deserted as those on which Robinson Crusoe landed, and the empty hotels showed no sign of life. It was just the setting for a seaside funeral.

But at the Winter Garden, the vast emporium in the front, there was great activity. No fewer than 2,000 delegates were already in their seats and the organizers had to arrange an overflow meeting where the speeches would be relayed. In such circumstances what chance had a member of His Majesty’s loyal but obnoxious Opposition?

Now I must make a confession. The Socialist is at heart a friendly fellow who calls a chap by his first name after one meeting. I like that. In fact this warmth and humanity of the Socialists led me to a candid confession in a recent speech when I said that I felt with the Socialists but thought with the Tories. Nor did they fail me on this occasion. I was given an excellent seat in the gallery from which I could gaze upon our masters and our mistresses —if that is the right way of putting it.

The first great man on the platform to catch my eye was Aneurin Bevan who

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is constantly referred to as a man of destiny, which Aneurin never denies.

He is what one might describe as a professional Socialist and has always dressed to the part. While he knows the difference between a Cliquot 1928 and a Louis Roderer 1932 he has stubbornly refused to wear formal dress at official functions, even those held at Buckingham Palace. Instead he has always turned up in an old homely lounge suit with a soft-collared shirt. In fact, as a man of the people, he is in the great tradition of Dickens’ Vincent Crummies, who was so sincere an actor that when he played “Othello” he blacked himself all over.

But at Margate I saw nothing less than a transformation. Bevan had been to his tailor, to say nothing of his hairdresser. Savile Row never turned out anything better than this new blue serge suit. What is more he was wearing a stiff white collar and his white cuffs showed just the proper length for a man about town. Overnight the revolutionary of the boulevards had become the Beau Bevan of the seaside. No wonder that La Belle Summerskill, sitting next to him, seemed rather drab and put out. The plumage of the male bird had put her out of countenance.

Herbert Morrison, with his cockatoo hairdo, surveyed the vast throng of delegates with, I am certain, mixed feelings. He has become the great middle-of-the-roader, the wooer of the middle classes, the apostle of the thesis that Capitalism and Socialism can exist side by side.

Beside Morrison, crouched in his seat as if trying to establish an alibi, was Prime Minister Attlee looking as detached as an Orangeman in a Catholic Cathedral. What an enigma of a man! He has no magnetism, no powers of purple oratory, no glamour and no projectability but he is the absolute unchallenged leader of the governing party. Not even Churchill’s authority in the Conservative Party is as unquestioned. Behind him was his charming wife, knitting as if she were in her own drawing room at Downing Street.

While I was noting these things Sam Watson, the chairman of the conference, was delivering the opening speech. Sam is a trade union leader, full of common sense, forthright in character and with a healthy sense of fun. The Communist germ has no chance with such a healthy body. Politically, however, he is given to oversimplification, but we shall let that pass.

Whenever there came a touch of humor the great chorus of delegates filled the air with good British laughter. There is sanity in such laughter, and believe me the Labor Party of this country needs all the sanity it can command. In fact, within a few minutes after the end of Watson’s opening speech, we began to see the yawning gulf between the realistson the platform and the political bemusement of many of the constituency delegates.

Their opportunity came when the chairman in charge of procedure had to deal with the innumerable constituency resolutions printed on the agenda. The chairman was cutting them down mercilessly like Herod but individual delegates were allowed to come to the microphones and make three-minute speeches in favor or against.

A Lancashire delegate deplored our supporting the Americans in Korea. “The South Koreans have crossed the 38th parallel,” he shouted. "Who is the aggressor now?” In fairness I must record that he only got a hearty jeer.

A woman from Yorkshire accused the Government of letting down the unity of Europe by favoring the Empire. “The Government is becoming a party of Empire flag wavers,” she cried. “It is all wrong and I know the party is with me!” There was a deep embarrassed silence and Morrison gazed pensively at the ceiling.

Then the Schuman Plan raised its bloody head. A panting delegate intended to denounce the Government for even thinking of placing the British steel workers under a supernational authority, but his spirit ran away with his tongue and he called it “a supernatural authority.” Once more the healing balm of laughter cleared the air, and Aneurin Bevan ran his hand over his brilliantined head without displacing a hair.

They Could Simplify Einstein

But it was in the printed agenda that one really saw what a divergence exists between the constituency associations and the ministers who have become responsible and moderate through the hard experience of office. It might be said that the local associations do not matter and that the real power lies with the Government and the trade union leaders, but it must be remembered that the local association chooses its parliamentary candidate and he is pledged to support the views of his supporters.

It was in the realm of nationalized industries that the outer rim of the party showed its divergence from the centre. The miner cannot understand why the coal he produces from a State-owned mine should have to pay interest on the bonds given to the former owners by the State. To his mind the industry should have been taken out of the owners’ hands, and that would be the end of it.

There were other workers, beside the miners, who are deeply anxious about the burden of compensation. Another thing that worries them is that private industries should be allowed to make and distribute profits. A third matter that disturbs their dreams is that a huge sum has to he paid each year to meet the interest charges on the national debt.

Since compensation and profits and interest charges have to come out of production why not make an end of them or, if that is too drastic, reduce or postpone them? Therefore a Birmingham local Socialist sent, a resolution that the interest on the national debt should he suspended until the economic condition of the country justified the resumption.

One can see the process of reasoning, even if one cannot applaud it. A party that has been suckled on slogans could simplify the Einstein theory.

The Earnest Reformers

But who are the owners of Govern ment bonds? '1’hey include tens of thousands of little people who patriotically put their savings into war loans. By the law of the years they are now held by innumerable widows for whom it is their only source of income.

One does not need the imagination of a poet to visualize the misery and chaos which would follow the announcement that the guaranteed interest would reuse for an indefinite period.

Anri how can you make these earnest reformers understand that Britain’s national credit would collapse overnight and that foreign balances would Isinstantly withdrawn from Dindon?

In the matter of profits in private industry the Bassctlnw Dical Association wants a low limit, and asks that anything in excess should be distri-

buted to the consumers. Again we must admit that the idea is neat and suffers from no confusion. It simply means that shareholders would get nothing in bad times and very little more in good times. The companies would have to take their losses and never be allowed to make them up when business improved.

Rut perhaps the most sinister, though well-intentioned, resolution came from the Llanelly Association. Here you see good intentions completely at the mercy of confused thinking. This particular association does not believe in confiscation. It wants the Government to play fair in taking over private industries. But it thinks the Government should postpone the payment of compensation until the condition of the nation’s finances permits it.

Blackmail and Robbery

On this basis if the Canadian Government decided to take over the CPR it would announce that as soon as the bill was passed through parliament (a process of something like one year) the State would then acquire the railway at a compensation figure to be determined at an unspecified date following the take-over.

What would happen with such an announcement? The CPR bonds and stocks would collapse on the market and the State would be able to acquire them at a figure bearing no relation to the actual value. In fact what these good people of Llanelly want is for His Majesty’s Government to use blackmail and robbery as an instrument of government policy. How can you explain to them that if the Government stooped to this the reaction in the Western world would be such that Britain would be forced into a Communist revolution or would be reduced to a standard of living lower than any country in Europe. A nation no more than an individual, can carry on when its credit is gone.

Short Cut to Paradise

So I looked on our masters at Margate and wondered what were the thoughts that passed through the minds of Attlee. Morrison, and even Bevan. Can they pursue a policy of reasonable restraint and basic responsibility if their supporters want the moon and green cheese served on a silver platter?

I left the Winter Garden and walked slowly and pensively to my hotel. What a task for responsible politicians to maintain a government which looks for its strength to decent, honest people whose minds do not grasp even the bare essentials of economic reality. How long can Socialism maintain a sense of responsibility before it is forced into something more violent? I ask that question not as a party politician but as an observer who recognizes that behind all this mental confusion there is no individual greed or lust of power, but a feeling that there must be a short cut to paradise on earth, it