Sir Walter and the Workingman

Beverley Baxter September 3 1955

Sir Walter and the Workingman

Beverley Baxter September 3 1955

Sir Walter and the Workingman


Beverley Baxter

THE CRAZY railway strike was over. The crazy seamen’s strike was still on. Sir Walter Monckton, the Minister of Labor, rose to open the debate in the Commons on the industrial situation.

As always he was courteous and scrupulously fair but as the interruptions came from all sections of the Labor Party benches the shadows under his eyes darkened and his shoulders drooped with fatigue.

When the time came for winding up the debate Sir Walter was not in his place. Outraged nature had at last taken its revenge. The debonair Monckton was on the verge of collapse and had been ordered to rest.

When I heard the news my mind went back to 1951, a few days after the Conservatives had been returned to power following six years of socialist government. Parliament had not yet assembled but in the smoke room of the House of Commons I saw Monckton sitting pensively in a comfortable chair, staring at nothing in particular.

I offered a penny for his thoughts and he smiled ruefully. “Every man is entitled to his ambitions,” he said. “I knew that Churchill was forming his ministry so I sat by my telephone and never left it. There was no particular reason why I should be given office but there is always hope. And sure enough, the summons came.”

He waved his hand rather like a conductor bringing the violins into action. “I did not drive to Number Ten,” he said. “I danced along the streets. As a lawyer, I knew that I would come out of Downing Street as solicitor-general or attorney-general.”

“Well ... ?” I asked.

“Well ...” he echoed. “Ten minutes later Churchill chucked me out. I was Minister of Labor! And just to add to the fun, Winston said he was reducing all cabinet salaries from five thousand pounds to four thousand.”

Monckton might have added that as a divorced man he had two wives to support; no doubt it was in the back of his mind. At any rate there was his task—to take over the Ministry of Labor at a period of fierce resentment in the labor ranks following their government’s defeat. And for five years he has served his sentence without any remission for good conduct. Truly the ambitions of men lead them into strange paths.

Monckton was born sixty-four years ago but his figure has remained slim and youthful and his hair is plentiful and dark. In a favorable light he could pass for fifty.

Without any effort he exudes unaffected charm, for he is totally without conceit or pomposity. In World War I he was awarded the

MC in France but almost certainly never disliked the Germans. As a young fellow he went to Oxford and of course became president of the Oxford Union. He did not have to open a door— it was always ajar wherever he wanted to enter.

But temperamentally he was drawn to lost causes. He was an official adviser to the Indian princes when independence was ending the subcontinent’s day of glory. He was attorney-gene» il to the Prince of Wales and, when in later years the abdication crisis came, it was Monckton who stood by the side of the young King until a destroyer took Edward away to France and the beginning of his wanderings in exile.

It would require all my space, and more, to enumerate the various offices that Monckton held after that. Suffice it to say that finally he entered the House of Commons as a Conservative a few weeks before the general

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election of 1945. To his delight was appointed solicitor-general, a j great honor in the legal world, | hardly had he assumed that spld role when a grateful electorate out the war-winning Tory governrj with extraordinary heartiness.

The man who had been solicj general for a few days was no more tl a private member at a salary of thousand pounds a year. But hej become chairman of the board of ¿ ernors of St. George’s Hospital—an paid post. "I do not vibrate to I money medium,” he said ruefully.

So there came the elections of lj and 1951. The twenty-five yean socialist rule which Aneurin Be prophesied had come to an end in And Walter Monckton, who could h earned twenty-five thousand pouni year at the bar became the four-th sand-pound-a-year Minister of La

Truly it is a strange story. Here man of such gifts and charm thal could have made a fortune as a lav or an industrial adviser. Instead chose the path of service to the s with all its hazards, its strain and meagre financial reward.

But, clear visioned as he is, I do if he foresaw the storms ahead. Lá is nearly always restive but recei Monckton had to face a crisis w both the dockers and the railway gine drivers were to strike at nation’s very existence. By night i by day he met the leaders of the Tra Union Congress and the heads of j striking unions. Day by day he ¡ swered questions in the House of C mons. Nor did he ever fail to meet1 parliamentary attack with absol courtesy.

No wonder the socialist leaders pi tribute to him—but they could a arrest the fatigue that was wearing W down. Yet he did not leave the post! duty until the railway strikers hj gone back to work.

Utopia At Last?

What has gone wrong with organiî labor in Great Britain? The ordina British worker has not changed I spots. At heart he is a decent go( natured fellow, inclined to leave thin too much to his union leaders, J prone to give ear to the hotheads wh chief asset is a gift of the gab.

It is a fact, and a disturbing fai that in a period when trade unionii has won its place as the fifth realm the state there has not been such u rest since the dark days of 1926. i of us who are concerned with the trei of public affairs are trying to undf stand what is going on beneath tl surface.

Undoubtedly the failure of nationa zation has much to do with it. Fro the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs tl cry of labor has been for state conti of essential supplies and services. I stead of the wicked mine owner ridic in his carriage and grinding the fad of the poor, there would he the ui selfish benevolence of the all-wise an all-human state.

And so the transformation cam With a mighty majority in parliamer the I^abor Government nationalize the railways, road transport, coal an steel. Utopia had been born at las'

Instead of the hard-faced mine owns and his managers there was the Col Board situated far away. It was rf mote control-—so remote, in fact, the the miners could not reach the boar with their grievances. *•

The rumblings and the grumbling

grew into a menacing growl. Production dropped and costs rose. In fact, Britain became an importer of coal—an absurdity in excelsis. The year 1955 will mark the biggest imports of coal in our history.

In the meantime the dockers were proving fruitful soil for the glibtongued Communist agitators. Over the last three years we have hardly had more than a few weeks at a time without holdups in the docks.

Yet here is the paradox. Despite the plague of strikes British industry, under private ownership, was doing well and share prices were rising right across the board. It is a fact that for more than a year now there has been a sustained stock-market boom which has brought untaxable gains to investors and gamblers alike. Women especially have found that the stock exchange is far more exciting than Monte Carlo.

The mugs and the experts fared alike, and when prices seemed likely to fall the American investors stepped in and sent them up again. Americans had discovered that British equities were giving a higher yield than American equities.

Who Goes to Coventry?

Yet there was a perfectly sound reason behind it all. When Sir Stafford Cripps became Labor’s Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1948, he called for a dividend restraint. In fact, he demanded it. On the other hand there was no comparable wage restraint. Statistics show that from 1947 to 1954, the period that opened with Cripps’ "standstill” policy, wages and salaries rose from £5,475 million to £9,265 million. Yet in the same period interest and dividends rose by only £271 million.

Therefore, what has really happened is that interest and dividends have now come into line with wages and salaries. The fact that a lot of silly or shrewd women have cashed in on it is not important. The very essence of a stock market is that shares can be freely bought and sold. Otherwise, there would be no means by which new companies could raise essential capital.

Nevertheless, the psychological effect has been bad and has supplied the agitators with material for their inflammatory speeches. Fortunately, the market now seems to have settled down so that investment—and not just quick profits—will be its chief concern.

The ugliest feature of the strikes has been the un-British attitude of strikers toward the few who refused to strike. There is an English phrase, "being sent to Coventry,” which has a cruel meaning. The origin of the saying is obscure but the meaning is stark clear. When a man is sent to Coventry none

of his mates will say a word to h

Thus, after the railway strike enc there would be an engineer who wo not speak to his fireman because fireman had remained at his post dur the strike. In many cases this sile treatment was continued off duty ¿ even applied to the fireman’s wife.

It is hard to explain in a pec normally characterized by humor i broad humanity. But probably defeat of the Labor Party at the p and the clear evidence that st ownership is doomed to failure, 1 robbed the British workman of drei that he had cherished for generatie

Free enterprise has won the i against socialism. Individualism , won the war against collectivism. Ht ever he might phrase it, the cry of> British worker is: "Give me 1

dreams!” But he knows that his drei have been destroyed by reality.

Wisely, Sir Anthony Eden, Chan lor R. A. Butler and Labor Minii Sir Walter Monckton are encourag the industrialists to a greater spirit co-partnership. Some of the I industrialists have introduced pit sharing with their workers and thÜ likely to spread.

So we return to Sir Walter Monj ton. Organized labor likes him ^ trusts him but it is worried by realization that behind his courtesy 8 humanitarianism there is a surpris toughness. For example, young ij of military age are exempted from ari service if they sign on for merchj navy duty. But hardly had the empted young seamen walked off Queen Mary on strike than they ceived notice from Sir Walter’s depa ment that they must stand by and w for their army call-up papers.

"Why did you act so quicklj demanded the socialists in the Co' mons. To which the suave Sir Wal replied, "Because otherwise I woi not have been able to find then Nothing more was said. That veh glove of Monckton’s conceals a ticularly tough bit of metal.

My own feeling is that organ« labor will be brought to reason, not employers or politicians but by th real bosses: there is an old saying tl strikes end when the wives can longer endure their husbands idli about the house.

It may well be that the women Britain will play the last card. If, seems probable, the wives’ patience exhausted, we may see a defin change in the troubled psychology organized labor.

Perhaps Sir Walter will even he a to get away for a summer holiday, in his heart he will know that the ti has not yet come when he can ut those last immortal words of Haml "The rest is silence.” if