Should Attlee Merge with the Liberals?

Beverley Baxter February 15 1955

Should Attlee Merge with the Liberals?

Beverley Baxter February 15 1955

Should Attlee Merge with the Liberals?


Beverley Baxter

IF YOU can imagine such a paradox, we Conservatives in Great Britain are becoming worried about the health of the Labour Party. I do not mean that we lie awake of nights wondering whether Mr. Attlee is apt to catch a chill, or Aneurin Bevan burst a blood vessel. Man is but mortal, a truth which at least Mr. Attlee accepts. Each of us in his turn lights a candle which must flicker sometime to its end. I must say, though, that politicians keep glowing longer than most people.

Quite frankly the Tories in Britain are suffering from a split mind about the socialists. We definitely do not want them to win the next election. On the other hand we are worried about what will happen to the Labour Party if once more it goes down to defeat.

Only twice in its history has the Labour Party held absolute power in Britain. That was in the five-year period following the amazing election of 1945 when the Conservatives were hurled out of office with the force of a hurricane. Then there followed that uneasy one year when the Labour majority was reduced to a corporal’s guard in the election of 1950.

To complete the historical survey, there were short periods when Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister—but even then he was the prisoner of the Tories.

Therefore it is a historic fact that over a period of thirty-three years, from 1922 to 1955, the Tories have dominated the situation, either by sole power or coalitions, in all but the six years of socialist government following the Hitler war.

It is hard on the morale of the socialists-—and particularly hard on those who have served as ministers. Imagine the position of a man like Herbert Morrison. When in office he drew five thousand pounds a year as a cabinet minister. Then there comes disaster at the polls, and overnight he reverts to his MP’s pay of one thousand pounds a year. Yet the surtax on his ministerial salary has still to be paid because it is always a year late.

I hope I am not disclosing a confidence in stating that Sir Winston Churchill was deeply worried about the plight of the socialist ministers after the 1951 defeat. I lunched with him on the Queen Mary not long after he had been returned to power in that election and he talked with the greatest sympathy and understanding about the problem.

“I wish I could arrange it,” he said, “so that there would be no collection of surtax on ex-ministers’ salaries following an electoral defeat.” It was typical of the man that with his sensitive mind and warm nature he could visualize the plight of his opponents and want to help them.

It is equally typical of some diehard Tories, and we have quite a

number of them, to have no sympathy at all for the fallen ministers.

“They don’t have to be politicians” is the usual smug pronunciamento

on the subject. It would be a bad day, and a retrograde moment in

history, if political life were open only

Corinued on page 71

London Letter


those with private incomes or professional earnings, such as lawyers and journalists.

Yet the problem of semi-permanent relegation to the Opposition benches has other sides than mere finance. Take for example the case of Hugh Gaitskell who succeeded Sir Stafford Cripps as Chancellor of the Exchequer and who is being touted as the ultimate leader of the Labour Party.

I imagine that Gaitskell has a small private income, perhaps five hundred pounds a year—but this is mere assumption on my part. Having held the immensely important post of finance minister it would have been easy for him to secure first-class directorships in the City when he reverted to the rank of a private MP.

But such a move would be impossible. Undoubtedly he will be chancellor again if the socialists win the next election and he could not afford to have affiliations in the City, no matter how strictly he and his business associates maintained a complete severance of relations on his return to the Treasury.

You may think that as an observer and participant in the political arena I am not only weeping crocodile tears but being unduly confident about the coming Tory victory.

On the second point I am quite willing to lead with my chin. It was in Maclean’s that I predicted a disastrous rout of the Tories in 1945—a London Letter that caused me the greatest embarrassment when the socialists produced it here in the middle of the election. I also predicted the re-election of President Truman in his last fight, and in a British by-election last year I forecast that the Tory would increase the majority by 981. Here I was wrong. He only increased it by 979.

Therefore I now give it as my opinion that whether the Conservatives hold a general election next spring or next autumn we shall be returned to power with an increased majority.

Let us assume that this proves to be true. Can Mr. Attlee in his seventysecond year survive yet another defeat? But if he resigns shall we then see a fierce battle for the leadership fought to a finish between Hugh Gaitskell and Herbert Morrison?

You may ask, “What about Nye Bevan?” Mr. Bevan’s only chance of leading the Labour Party would be if there was an industrial and financial collapse. Like the phoenix, he could rise from the ashes—but only from ashes.

The truth is that Socialism is an emotional movement. In the Victorian era the Fabians drew some of the finest minds in Britain, including Bernard Shaw, who were shocked at the inequality of life between the haves and the have-nots. It can he said indeed that trade unionism, Fabianism, the co-operative societies and the Labour Party have all attained their objective. Nor should these achievements he underestimated. There were martyrs who paid the price of sacrifice in blood, sweat and tears. There were intellectuals who had to endure the sneers and contumely of their friends. There were dreamers and bores and heroes and poseurs in other words, just as in any political movement in the making.

Undoubtedly they quickened the pace of social reform and, in doing so, began to drain away the strength of the Liberal Party. Then came the feud between Asquith and Lloyd

George which drew still more blood from the weakening veins of the party.

Rut there was another reason why Liberalism as a coherent political movement came under sentence of death. With Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George, the Liberal Party did its work so well that almost everyone in Britain became spiritually some kind of a Liberal.

It is the paradox of politics that when a party has completed its evangelical crusade it begins to die. The Liberal Party went to impotent death because it had converted too great a proportion

of the electorate to its doctrine.

Thus Socialism swept into second place in the party setup. It had the vigor of comparative youth, it had the confidence of inexperience, it had the mighty backing of the trade unions, it had the street-corner fanaticism of the zealot.

But not until 1945 did it achieve absolute power with no coalition with any other party. “Now,” said the socialists, “we shall create the welfare stete.” “We shall help you,” said the decimated Conservative Party, “because we have already prepared our

plans on the same lines.” And this was quite true.

Then what went wrong? More than once in these letters from London-^ have quoted the old saying of the mining broker in Toronto: “Many a

good mine has been ruined by sinking a shaft.” Well that is what happened to Socialism when it came to power.

How splendid the words sounded on public platforms and street-corner rallies: “National ownership of all means of production and distribution.” Hurrah! Hip-hip-hurrah! In decency the socialists bought out the owners of the

railways, the electricity plants, longdistance road transport and gas. Hurrah! Hip-hip-hurrah! Now the people would own these vital sinews of the nation’s strength. No longer did the miners in the pits have to deal with a scrounging owner or a wage tyrant in the shape of a manager. The boss was out for keeps and good riddance to him. Instead of the boss there was remote control.

Socialism carried through its program, including the establishment of the welfare state. And in 1951 a grateful nation threw the socialists out of office and sent back the Tories once more.

Which brings us to the socialist dilemma of today. In foreign policy there is almost no difference between the socialists and the Tories. In matters of defense the socialists not only played their part when in power but bravely introduced peacetime conscription.

The electorate wants no more nationalization, but it would like bigger pensions and more benefits from the welfare state, and better housing.

But where is the money to come from? The taxpayer is bled to the limit, so there is no hope in that direction. The nationalized industries are struggling against the dead hand of bureaucracy, in spite of strenuous attempts to bring about increasing efficiency.

Reluctantly, sadly, the socialists have come to the conclusion that the welfare state can only be developed to its full stature if there is a vigorous and prosperous private enterprise.

Which prompts the old, old gag: “This is where we came in.”

Not even a Tory like myself believes that we should have a Conservative ' government for ever. Two things are bad for the health of a political party: 1, Too long a period of power; 2, Too long a period of Opposition. Naturally I make an exception of Canada where permanent one-party government seems to be working fairly well.

Yet there is one move which Attlee could make if he had the courage and the vision. Let him make some such pronouncement as this:

We, the Labour Party, have won our historic struggle against prejudice and against vested interests. The street-corner days are over, just as the hunger marches will never be seen again. The welfare state has been established and the poorhouse is as finished as the debtors’ prison. We socialists owe much to Liberalism which suckled Socialism in its infancy. Therefore we have decided to rename our party and reconstruct our policy in many directions. Henceforth we shall be named “The Liberal-Socialist Party.”

Bevan would belch fury. There would be mass protests. The Communists would howl to the moon.

But remember this. There is no Parliamentary Liberal Party left except for a leader and a male quartet in the Commons, but there is still a big Liberal vote. No true Liberal wants to vote Tory if he can be offered a sound, respectable alternative.

Such a move cannot take place before the next general election but if the socialists go down to defeat there will be disruption, feuds, intrigues and open rebellion unless someone produces a plan.

That is why we Conservatives are worried, even though it does not haunt our dreams or take away our appetites. ★


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