Published Date

July 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 41: Our British Ally (1944)

The two chief British parties today are Conservative and Labor. A quarter of a century ago they were Conservative and Liberal, with Labor as a new challenger but not yet strong enough to seem a serious threat to the old parties. The party names tell a little about the policies. The Conservatives wanted to conserve their economic, political, and social vested interests, rights, and privileges, to look after the landlords, the church, and the Empire, and generally to resist as long as possible any change which might hurt them. But as the manufacturing and commercial classes grew strong and as the middle class, wage earners, and villagers gained the vote, some of the “new rich” were welcomed into the Conservative fold, while the party had to advocate popular measures if it wished to get enough votes to win or keep power. Hence important social or economic reforms were carried through by Conservative governments because they believed in them, because events made them necessary, or as a device for “dishing the Liberals.”

The Liberals included some landowners, but represented rather the new industrial and commercial classes. They wanted liberty; they believed that men should be liberated from old restraints on their free development—free trade, freedom for the colonies, home rule for Ireland, and so on; but when freedom seemed to produce bad results they were willing to impose restraints to protect the sufferers. They were opposed to the old privileges of the church, the landlords, and to the power of the House of Lords. They were for peace, retrenchment, reform, and low taxes. But early in the present century they embarked on a program of social security, old-age pensions, etc., to be paid for partly by higher taxes on land and incomes. They did this partly because they believed in it, and partly to “dish Labor.”

These two old parties ran Britain politically, economically, and socially. The richer families formed a privileged section of society, which filled the good private schools and old universities, the diplomatic services, the judiciary, the naval and military high posts, the colonial administration, the Lords and Commons, and “high society.” Much of this class domination had always been there; there was nothing new about it, except that some people were beginning to doubt whether the “right people” should enjoy the thick end of such an unequal distribution of wealth, power, and opportunity.

After 1900 the Labor Party arrived on the scene. It was the child of two parents, as is usual. In the first place some wage earners decided that their interests would never be adequately cared for by the old parties. In the second place new ideas about social betterment were floating around and conditions which had existed for decades or centuries were now being regarded as shameful. Here in the heart of a great empire there were widespread poverty, low wages, overlong hours, slums, ill health, malnutrition, inadequate education, acute misery. All this in spite of countless beneficial laws and widespread voluntary organization. The cure, said some men, was not in passing more reform laws, though these might help to ease the situation. The real cure was socialism, a new economic order in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange would be owned by the state and worked for the benefit of all rather than the profit of a few. These reforms and this ultimate revolution were to be brought about by building up a labor party, which might eventually be strong enough to form a cabinet and pass the necessary laws to “nationalize” whatever branches of enterprise seemed best suited for the change.

So the Labor Party was born. Its main strength and much of its funds were provided by the trade unions, as were most of its candidates. It won a few seats before 1914, but at the end of the war it made a bold appeal to all “workers by hand or by brain,” and attracted much wider support from salaried and professional people. In its growth it weakened the Liberals, for some joined Labor but others went Conservative. Twice it held office, in 1924 and in 1929–31; but it did not have an absolute majority in the House of Commons, and had to rely on the support of the small Liberal Party. In 1931, when a terrible financial blizzard hit Britain, the party split on the policies necessary to cope with the crisis. Some of the leaders joined hands with the Conservatives and Liberals to form a “National” government. Most of the Labor members remained loyal to their party and functioned as the Opposition.

This government appealed to the people in a general election, and was returned with an overwhelming majority. The Conservatives soon dominated the coalition, and through the thirties they were in virtual control of the country, with Labor as the Opposition. When however Mr. Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, he invited the Labor Party to join hands with him, to allow some of its leaders to enter a coalition cabinet, and generally to help in running the war. Labor said “Yes” unanimously, and since 1940 has shouldered its share of the task, with one man as deputy prime minister, others in the war cabinet and in charge of very important departments. Parliamentary criticism of the cabinet is not silenced, but it is no longer party criticism. In spite of provocation, the Labor Party has faithfully kept the truce it entered into in the days before Dunkirk.

This chart records the growth of state plans for social security in the last forty years. What was at first a limited plan to care for the destitute out of taxes gradually spread to cover most people from the risk of lack of income because of sickness, unemployment, or old age. It became a vast insurance scheme to which workers paid weekly contributions while they were well and busy, and to which employers and the state also made contributions. The Beveridge Report of 1942 recommends still further extensions of such insurance.

This united front has been possible not merely because a grave emergency called for it, but also because British party divisions do not cut as deep as they seem to do. Labor has had no chance to see if it could turn any part of its public ownership program into reality. Yet the Conservative Party, which has been in power for most of the last two decades, and which is professedly antisocialist when it talks of social theories, has taken Britain at least four steps along the road toward public enterprise. It organized radio as a state service in the British Broadcasting Corporation, financed by a small annual license fee paid by the owner of each radio set, rather than by selling time to advertisers. It reorganized the making of electricity by establishing a board which built a series of superpower stations and distributed cheap electricity to every part of the country. It took over the jumble of busses, streetcars, and subways that served Greater London, and put them in the hands of a public transport board. It nationalized coal deposits as a prelude to reorganizing the mining industry.

Some of these steps look like socialism; in fact the London transport plan was prepared by a socialist minister when Labor was in power, and was put through by his Conservative successor. But they were not taken because they fitted into any abstract theory of enterprise, private or public. Such questions as “Is it constitutional” or “Is it socialistic?” are less important to the British than the query “Is it necessary, is it desirable, and will it work?” In a country which has long had publicly owned streetcars, gaslight, electricity, telegraph, and telephone, and which in 1936 established a long-distance phone call service from any part of the country to any other for twenty-five cents after 7:00 p.m., there is no philosophical or “natural” objection to state action if the results promise to be satisfactory and if existing interests are fairly compensated for any injury that may be done them.

As in the past, so it is likely to be in the future. In the postwar years no matter which party is in power, the plans for reconstruction will probably contain much government aid to private enterprise and much government enterprise as well. But if the state nationalizes the land, the banks, or the railroads, it will not do so because it has become converted by the socialist arguments of the Labor Party intellectuals, but because the step seems to be a necessary method of promoting the country’s welfare.

In domestic politics, therefore, parties differ in their views as to the expediency of a proposal and of the methods to be used, rather than in their fundamental aims. In imperial affairs the same is largely true. The British people in general give little thought to their Empire. Visitors to England from the dominions are so dismayed by this lack of knowledge and interest that they ask themselves (a) How did the British ever put an empire together? and (2) How do they keep it together? Those who do think about the matter will readily admit that there are dark chapters in the imperial story, but they will insist that at least they are no darker than the chapters telling how other people have handled black, brown, or redskinned races. They may remind us that if the British laid not taken a particular area some other nation would have done so, and that historically it was not a matter of free and independent India versus British India, but of British India rather than French, Dutch, Portuguese, or even Russian India. They will point with pride to the developments which turned colonies into dominions, which have already transferred the greater part of Indian rule to the peoples of that peninsula, and will transfer the remainder when those peoples can agree on methods of using it. They will remind us that any picture of crude exploitation of natives has been out of date for at least half a century. And if they know much of our history; they may ask if our own hands are spotlessly clean.

Imperial policy has largely been in the hands of the two older parties. The Liberals were much more favorable to colonial self-government than were the Conservatives; the latter were keener on plans for tightening imperial ties than in what seemed like loosening them, and they bitterly opposed the granting of home rule to Ireland. Yet it was a Conservative prime minister who handed over to Eire three Irish naval bases, thereby seriously weakening the ability of the British fleet to fight the Battle of the Atlantic when war came. As for Labor, it approves self-government wherever possible, and the recognition that Britain must serve solely as a trustee for the welfare of natives in regions not yet ready to rule themselves. In short, no party is imperialist in any conceivable old-fashioned sense of that word; but no party would passively watch any part of the Empire pass into the hands of any other people than those who inhabit it, or would turn them adrift to sink or swim.

In foreign affairs the differences between party views have also been relatively small, until the Labor Party began to try out sonic of its ideas in the 1920’s. A change in government from Liberal to Conservative brought little alteration in foreign policy. There were three basic needs that must guide any party in protecting the nation’s vital interests: (1) Britain must guard its home base, the British Isles, against any attack, especially from across the Straits of Dover or the southern part of the North Sea. If a strong power held the other side of the Straits, Belgium, or the mouth of the Scheldt, it could hold a pistol at the head of England; and if any such power dominated the Continent, especially the western half, it might menace the British Isles. British policy therefore had to be watchful of France in the centuries when France was powerful. It had to guarantee the neutrality of Belgium, and take notice of Germany when that nation grew strong and built a large navy. (2) Britain must protect its overseas Empire. (3) It had to defend the lanes of sea communication with the Empire and with foreign markets.

These three lines of policy could easily and cheaply be pursued from the days when France ceased to be a menace till the time when Germany became one. A modest navy was all that was required; the army could be small, and conscription was unnecessary. If any power threatened to become dangerously strong, Britain might throw its weight behind states that were endangered, and thus restore the balance of power. But this would be the limit of its willingness to play a part in Continental affairs. If we were isolationists, the British were limitationists. They would not tie their hand in any entangling alliances, but act only if their three interests were threatened.

All three were threatened when Germany rose as a power seeking to dominate the land mass of Europe and to challenge Britain’s sea lanes as well. The British were slow to realize the new danger before the first World War, but once awake they did an amazing job. A country which began with an army of 250,000 regulars and 250,000 spare-time volunteers eventually put 6,000,000 men in uniform, while carrying most of the naval burden, making mountains of munitions, and financing a large part of her Allies’ efforts.

At the end of the first World War a million of the Empire’s soldiers were dead, the export-import economy was badly damaged, and a national debt of $40,000,000,000 rested on Britain’s shoulders. The country’s three vital interests seemed to have been made secure again, and perhaps any future difficulties might be dealt with by the League of Nations. Many Britons, especially Liberals and Laborites, were enthusiastic supporters of the League. They believed as much as we did that aggressors would in future be restrained by signing pacts to “outlaw” war, by respect for treaty pledges, by membership in the League, and by fear of the public opinion of the rest of the world, especially if that opinion was voiced through the League and supported by some joint economic boycott of the offender.

Next section: Britain and the Aggressors