Published Date

July 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 41: Our British Ally (1944)

If a nation lives chiefly by manufacturing, mining, and trading, its social conditions, its class structure, its politics, and its general outlook on life will be different from those of a country mainly devoted to farming. Yet there will be features which have come down from the days when it was rural and agricultural, when feudal landlords ruled their villages of serfs, when the church was a great property owner as well as a shepherd of souls, when monarchs wielded as much power as they could obtain or keep, and when the population was neatly divided into recognized classes. Revolutions may destroy much of the old order, but they rarely wipe it out entirely; and the British have never had anything comparable to the French or Russian revolutions. Their changes have come gradually; it has been said that they always leave the initial “r” off their revolutions. Hence the large landlords, the church, and the monarchy are still there; but the pressure of events erred the inevitability of gradual change have made them very different from their ancestors of 1215 (the year of Magna Carta), of 1776, or even of 1900.

The landlord is one important legacy of the past. Often, but not always, he owns many acres; it was recently stated that twenty-six dukes own in all over a million acres, or about one-fiftieth of the whole country. Through the centuries, land has been an attractive form of property, for the income it yielded, the political power it carried, or the social prestige it gave its owner. Consequently successful merchants manufacturers, bankers, and others have always been eager to “buy a place in the country,” and the landlord class has thus been constantly sustained with new blood and fresh capital. Sometimes the owner is the crown, the church, the universities, or some other endowed institution.

The landlord does not usually work his estate. He divides it into farms, provides the capital needed for permanent improvements and buildings, and then leases the farms to tenants. They supply their own working capital and equipment and if the farm is too large to be worked by their families—as is often the case—they hire the necessary number of laborers. This trinity of landlord-tenant laborer has had its merits and its defects. If times are good the landlord can raise the rent, and the laborer may hope for an increased wage. If times are bad, the landlord will have to reduce the rent, thus cushioning the blow struck by falling prices or bad crops at the farmer’s head, and the laborer will have to take a cut in his wages.

During the last war the farmers did well, and the government set up machinery which gave the laborers higher wages. But the landlords were hit hard by new land taxes, and by much heavier income taxes. Some tenants were therefore willing and able to buy their farms. Many landlords were willing to sell, and a great transfer took place. In 1913 only one farmer in nine owned his land; but by 1927 one in three was a cultivating owner. Between the two wars, however, agriculture became much less profitable in England, as in the United States. Farmers had difficulty in meeting their mortgages and obtaining working capital, and the landlords had no cash to spare for improvements. In spite of tariffs, subsidies, and other state-aid schemes, agriculture was far from healthy in 1939. Some leading agricultural economists were convinced that the land should be “nationalized.” If the state owned the land; they argued, it could provide the capital needed for drainage, reclamation of wastes, reorganization of fields merging of small farms into larger operating units, modern buildings, better roads , etc., and thus make it possible for the tenant farmer to get the greatest possible yield from the soil, and use his own funds for working expenses instead of spending them to buy the land.

Many of these suggested changes have been made under the stress of war. The results have proved the value of the proposals; but the land has not been nationalized. Whether it will be, only time can tell. But it is evident that the landlord class, burdened heavily with taxes, cannot now discharge its old function of supplying the capital needed for keeping they agricultural plant in first-class order. A class which cannot do its job effectively may not last long.

This pattern of rural life is strange to us, as we do not have its characteristic features, or at least do not have them so highly developed. Three-fifths of our farms are owned by their cultivators, against one-third in Britain. Our landlords are mostly ex-farmers, hanks, and insurance companies, and often they hold the land unwillingly because some debtor has failed to meet his mortgage. Finally, hired labor plays a smaller part in our farming life.

When we turn to British urban, industrial, and commercial life we are more familiar with the social landscape. It is much more like what we know. The British picture began to be painted at least half a century before we started ours; the styles are different, and the paint on ours is not yet all dry. But the general features, the composition, and the colors are very much alike.

The British were the first people to encounter and wrestle with the problems of modern industrial society. In that society industry, trade, transportation, and most other forms of enterprise came to be organized in the hands of individuals, partnerships, or corporations, who got together the necessary sums of capital and credit, bought equipment and materials, and then employed as many wage or salary earners as they needed. Sometimes an enterprise needed little or no hired help, as for instance in the small retail store, the repair shop, or the legal, medical, and other professions. But often hired workers were needed by the score, hundred, or thousand. Consequently society sorted itself out into classes. The largest by far consisted of persons who owned little or no capital, land, or property of their own and who therefore depended for their income on their ability to sell their labor for wages or salaries. The second class consisted of those who ran their own little business or professional service. The third were the larger employers—personal, corporate, or governmental—who ran the business themselves or used paid managers and officials. Finally there was a small class of people who owned so much capital or real estate that they were able to live on the interest, profit, or rent they collected.

The relative size of these groups is well known. Of 49,000,000 gainfully employed in 1930 in the United States, 6,000,000 were farmers, about 3,000,000 were employers or employed themselves, while 40,000,000—or 80 per cent—depended chiefly or wholly on wages or salaries for their sustenance. The British distribution is about the same. Of 21,000,000 employed in all kinds of work on the eve of the war, over 16,000,000 were wage or salary earners. Thus each country had about four-fifths of its working population in the employed class.

For the members of this largest group in modern society, two questions are important: How can I improve my welfare inside my class? How can I improve it by getting out of my class? The second maybe asked more frequently in the New World than in the Old, since climbing the economic ladder, going from rags to riches, or passing from hired man to hirer of men has been much easier in North America or Australia than in Europe or Asia. It is not as easy now as it was in the days when free or cheap land was abundant, when the frontier was moving westward, and when an industry, a store, or a bank could be started on a shoestring. But there is still opportunity for a few to climb the whole ladder, for some to go up a few rungs, and for wage earners’ children to obtain the education which may help them to rise to well-paid executive or technical positions or to independent professional practice. Yet the overwhelming majority of wage and salary earners must remain dependent on a pay check or pay envelope.

The situation in Britain has not been very different from our own, save for the fact that there were no such opportunities as were offered by our vast public domain. In the industrial frontier days of the nineteenth century poverty need not be a bar to advancement for the man who combined ability, love of hard work, and a passion for thrift. The British textile, metalware, clothing, and mercantile occupations were well sprinkled with self-made men, and the new industries of the twentieth century have provided some similar opportunities. British radio sets carry the names of pioneer makers who started in small sheds. The British counterpart of Henry Ford began his working career as a repairer of flat tires in a bicycle shop. The spread of public high schools and universities since 1900 has ended the days when higher education was dispensed almost solely by expensive private schools and two ancient universities to the sons of the middle and wealthy classes. The provision of scholarships has made it possible for the talented son of poor parents to attend high school and university without paying a penny in fees or having to “work his way through.” Consequently the professions, the public services, and the technical or administrative jobs in industry, commerce, and finance contain an increasing number of men whose fathers were artisans, small shopkeepers, or “lower middle class” white-collar workers. Britain is far more a land of equal opportunity than it was forty years ago. Yet there is little prospect that more than a few wage and salary earners will ever be other than what they are.

To them, therefore, the vital question has always been: How can I improve my welfare inside my class and my job? Two answers were possible. In the first place wage earners might band together and through their labor organizations strive to protect and improve their working conditions and standard of living. In the second place, those who were unable to organize—children, young persons, women, and unskilled workers—could be protected and helped by the state.

The results of more than a century of voluntary labor organization and of state interest in living and working conditions are evident on every hand in Britain today. Labor organized in five main ways. The first was the trade union, which sought to protect and help the individual as wage earner. The second was the consumers’ cooperative society which helped him as wage spender. The third was the friendly society—or sick club—which looked after him when he was ill or old and thus unable to earn wages. The fourth developed facilities for workers’ education. The fifth was the political movement, which sought to mobilize wage earners in support of a labor party with its own distinctive program. Of the five, the first, second, and fifth call for further comment.

Trade unionism first found its feet about 1850, grew steadily among skilled workers, and after 1890 spread to unskilled employments, white-collar workers, and, in a less degree, to women workers. The total membership in 1939 was over 6,000,000, which is equivalent to 18,000,000 in the United States. The strength of the movement is well described by G. D. H. Cole as follows: “Wages and conditions in all the big industries are habitually settled by collective bargaining; and even the few big employers who refuse to recognize trade unionism commonly observe trade union rates. The right of the workers to organize and to bargain collectively is not a matter of dispute. Trade unionism is as much part of British industrialism as the joint stock company; and consultation of the unions by the government in all matters of labor policy is a well-established practice, whatever the completion of the Ministry in power.” Yet there is no legal compulsion on workers to join unions or on employers to recognize them. Even during the present war there has been no attempt to limit the operation of collective bargaining. Strikes and lockouts can still take place if negotiations break down. The government has provided arbitration machinery to which the disputants may submit their case if direct discussions fail; but there is no formula which limits the verdict the arbitrator can give or the wage increases he can grant:

Consumers’ cooperation celebrates its hundredth birthday in 1944. Its founders, a handful of Lancashire flannel weavers, started with a one-room store in a mean street, selling flour, butter, sugar, oatmeal, and candles to themselves, thus eliminating the retailer’s profit. Similar groups in other towns and villages dug a few shillings out of their pockets to finance stores. Soon the movement spread from retailing to wholesale dealing, to manufacturing the goods the stores needed, to banking, a bit of farming and shipowning, and a lot of insurance. At every point the consumers provided the capital and received a fixed rate of interest on it; they managed the business democratically and received back in dividends on their purchases whatever surplus was left when operating costs and interest charges had been met. By 1939 over a thousand societies were at work, with nearly 8,500,000 members. Over half the British people bought much or all their food, clothing, furniture, fuel, comforts, and luxuries from the “co-op,” and employed more than a quarter of a million persons to produce or distribute these goods under a system which retained interest but had done away with profit.

The political labor movement is much younger, scarcely fifty years old. Any description of it must be prefaced by a brief account of the British political system.

Next section: What about the British System of Government?