ON THE WORLD TODAY
BY VOTING the British Labor Government into power and, for the first time in history, giving it a big majority over all other political parties combined, the British electorate spelled out in ABC fashion the news that all Europe is moving towards socialism.
This movement is bound to affect the relationship between Europe and the United States. For nineteenthcentury Europe, — the Europe of the Tsars, of Napoleon, and of Metternich, — American democracy was an element of ferment. Even as late as 1918, Europe was still a continent of monarchies steeped in feudalism, with the middle class as their ally. But when ancient dynasties were overthrown by the First World War, the middle class came to the top, submerging many islands of feudalism.
Now this same middle class has allied itself with the working class. In continental Europe the socialization of the middle class began with a vengeance during the inflation of the early twenties. Fascism and Nazism were partly the snobbish protest of the middle class against being pulled down to the social level of the proletariat.
In the latest British elections a large sector of the middle class voted Labor. Although the shopkeepers, civil servants, clerks, and professional folk of Britain are still much better off than their Continental counterparts, the British lion has less fat on his bones than formerly.
After their second world war, Europeans are overwhelmingly anti-capitalist. Europe is gravitating towards a new social and economic system, rapidly in regions under Soviet influence and gradually in areas under Western influence. From Europe, the United States — no longer the land of ferment — today appears as the great conservative power, the last ally of “free enterprise” wherever it survives in the Old World. The leftward shift in continental Europe is one of several major movements that brought about the political earthquake in Britain. What other factors account for the landslide?
Resentment blows up
First, there was a time bomb of resentment among the British people against the blunders and failures of successive Conservative Governments between the wars. Voters had stored up bitterness against the years of unemployment and against the men and the party which appeased fascist dictators. A Freudian might say that this popular sense of shame and guilt, repressed under the duress of war, at last found its outlet when the ballot boxes were opened.
Second, the result was a revolt against the election campaign of the Conservatives with its stunts and crude underestimate of the voters’ intelligence. The assertion of Winston Churchill, in his first campaign speech, that a Labor victory would mean the rise of a socialist Gestapo in Britain was too much for anyone to swallow. This rubbish could never be palatable to people who know the moderation of the British Labor Party and its devotion to civil liberty.
A clear Conservative policy was lacking, and the attempt to substitute for it the prestige and popularity of Churchill was another miscalculation. Churchill’s greatness as a war leader was acknowledged. His countrymen remember how, overcoming deep anti-Soviet emotions, he rallied all Britain to the side of Russia when Hitler attacked in the East. Nor have they forgotten Churchill’s splendid spirit at times when smaller men would have wavered.
Yet it was to the future that people were looking, and in Churchill they missed the guidance they sought. Many recoiled from the hint of a Churchill dictatorship. One commentator, hearing of Churchill’s disappearance from the Premiership, said it was very much like the vanishing of a mountain which you are accustomed to see from your front door. The mountain had been a symbol of hope for five years, but it was becoming an obstacle to progress.
Labor and the middle class
The result of the poll was unmistakable. Labor’s representation in Parliament jumped from 162 to almost 400, while Conservatives toppled from 358 to about 200. The 18 Liberals in the last House of Commons shriveled to 11. The popular vote in July, 1945, compared with the last general election a decade ago, shows these changes: Labor from 8,378,000 to 12,000,000; Conservatives from 10,488,000 to 9,030,000; Liberals from 1,378,000 to 2,280,000. (Despite the gain in votes, the Liberals lost seven seats.)
The British electoral system tends to give a successful party a much bigger proportion of seats in Parliament than the proportion of its votes to the total number cast. In this election the votes cast for “socialism in our time” amounted to about half of the total poll, and Labor gained almost one hundred seats more than it had ever held before.
After twice holding office as a minority Government, Labor had gone down to defeat in the elections of 1924 and 1931 and its hold then shrank until it covered little beyond the coal fields, a few industrial towns, and London’s slum neighborhoods. In 1935 it made a partial recovery. Now it has swept ahead everywhere. Labor not only completely dominated the election in its old strongholds, but it also captured the business districts of Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham and made slight inroads into the rural vote. Many returns, like the four-fifths of London’s vote that went Labor, revealed how deeply Labor has cut into the ranks of the middle class.
Moreover, the character of Labor’s representation in Parliament has changed. In the last House of Commons more than half the Labor members were tradeunion nominees whose election campaigns were financed by the unions; now the labor unions control only about one-fourth of them. The Labor membership shows a big ratio of professional men, and many men who are still in uniform. This weakening of tradeunion influence and the corresponding strengthening of the party’s political wing foreshadow a somewhat bolder policy.
A silent revolution
The Manchester Guardian termed the outcome of the election “a silent revolution.” Silent? Yes, if what is meant is that the voters kept their secret well and that almost all oracles predicted Churchill’s return to power with a reduced Conservative majority. But revolution? Hardly.
A look at the Labor Party’s platform suggests that what would have been revolutionary to our fathers is today more accurately described as reform. To expand social security and to create conditions for full employment no longer require cabinet ministers who can sing all stanzas of the “Internationale.” Even a Conservative Government would have been forced to profess those aims. Nor does the top priority in the Labor Government’s program — waging war against Japan until her unconditional surrender — differ from the first objective that Churchill had set himself.
Next in the order of importance for the Labor Government comes the building of houses, which was the outstanding issue of the campaign. The state will have a big part in the rehousing program. Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s Government will authorize local authorities throughout the nation to purchase — and wherever necessary, to requisition — land for houses. The Government will centralize production of building materials, buy those materials in bulk, and allocate them to town and village authorities. Prices wall be strictly controlled, and profiteers will have a thin time of it.
How does nationalizing begin?
Economic change will become more pronounced when Labor begins nationalizing a limited number of key industries, starting with the coal mines. Coal has long been Britain’s main export. In 1923, British coal exports totaled 73,000,000 tons in one year. By 1938, this total had dropped to 35,000,000, and nowadays there is not enough British fuel to go around at home. Exhaustion of coal deposits only partly explains this decrease. Labor’s view is that the coal industry, after floundering under hundreds of independent companies for a quarter of a century, must be modernized under public ownership.
The gas and electrical industries, which are closely tied to the fuel industry, are earmarked for nationalization too. Then come railroads and other inland transport. The Bank of England will undergo very little change when it becomes responsible to the state instead of to its present directors, and its staff will probably remain untouched. Nationalization of the steel and iron industries is a much greater job and is expected to be near the foot of the list in Labor’s first five years in office. All these changes would leave the vast bulk of British industry and business in private hands. It is not just the mists of London that make the flag above Downing Street seem a subdued Fabian pink.
Even Labor’s reformist program is bound to meet opposition, however. National insurance, especially in the field of health, is going to receive swift attention in bills which Attlee’s Government will present to Parliament. Powerful insurance corporations and the British Medical Association will resist the state’s encroachment on their private domains. But the electorate has given Labor a sharp signal to go ahead with a state medical service and with the Beveridge Plan for social security.
More serious opposition may come from the House of Lords, especially if rich landowners in Britain’s upper chamber sniff any Labor infringement on land values or on ownership of their immense estates. In 1911, Asquith encountered stonewalling from the Lords against his budget, and their Lordships gave way only when Asquith threatened to ask the King to appoint enough new peers to pack the House. Labor has the same ace in the hole. As one prominent Labor politician smilingly said, “We can always take the first seven hundred and fifty names in the telephone directory and elevate them to the peerage.”
Labor looks at India
And what of Labor’s foreign policy? There will be no dramatic overnight change, but it would be wrong to assume complete continuity with the past. A socialdemocratic Britain will avoid any choice between friendship with the United States and friendship with Russia. With a social and economic system midway between those of her two partners, Britain will try to regain her traditional role of mediator.
Discredited monarchies of Greece, Italy, Spain, and Yugoslavia are in for a long vacation. The “kindly words” which Churchill ill-advisedly addressed to Franco will be replaced by support for the Spanish Republicans.
Will Labor succeed where the Tories failed in India? Even the absorption of the India Office by the Dominions Office, which the new Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, promised last May, would be regarded by nationalist India as a meaningless gesture without a new move towards Indian self-government.
British Labor chiefs view with distrust the part of India’s wealthy industrialists behind the Congress Party. Just before the July election, Herbert Morrison, now the leading figure in Attlee’s inner Cabinet, told American newspapermen at a press conference that the Labor and Conservative Parties are in agreement on India. “We want India to get selfgovernment as soon as possible,” Morrison said, and added with heightened emphasis, “but the next move is up to the Indians, and it’s time India talked business.” It would be rash to expect Labor to make a radical departure from Britain’s present policy.
Labor and Germany
British Labor has never defined in detail its policy towards Germany, partly because opinion among the leaders has been divided. They agree in demanding the Reich’s complete disarmament, but there is a strong active group at the top of the Labor Party which is “against creating a hungry, resentful German population in the heart of Europe.”
This attitude does not include being nice to the German industrialists and bankers, but it does mean leaving Germany most of her industry. Turning the Reich into an agricultural country is opposed on the grounds that Europe needs German manufacturers, and that lowering the German people’s standard of life would rob Britain and other nations of a German market.
The attitude of the left wing of Labor and of a growing sector of the rest of the movement is against dismemberment of Germany. This involves opposition both to Poland’s maximum territorial claims and to French aspirations to dominate the Ruhr and the Rhineland. Here lie seeds of future British discord with France and Poland.
Finally there is a return of old misgivings concerning heavy German reparations. British trade-unions think of German deliveries in kind as competing with Britain’s home production and therefore threatening to throw British workers out of jobs. The Labo Party has drawn up a list of German articles wanted as reparations, and it stresses commodities such as timber, which do not compete with British domestic output.
What has happened in Britain in several respects stultifies Marxist prophecy. Britain’s pre-war economy, resting overwhelmingly on private capitalism, was transformed into partial state capitalism early in the war. State controls covered almost every branch of industry. This change-over to a mixed economy occurred under a predominantly Conservative Government. The planned economy exacted by modern war has given Labor a flying start in its tasks. The existence of economic controls has made impossible the flight of private capital, which could otherwise have sought asylum abroad.
Marxian prophets had long anticipated that the armed forces in every bourgeois country would be hostile to the rise of a labor government. Socialist soothsayers have been inclined to view standing armies as the praetorian guard of counter-revolution, which would be available to Conservatives or reactionaries to prevent or overthrow a Labor regime.
Nothing could differ more sharply from the reality in Britain today. Unofficial estimates suggest that about four-fifths of the Britons in uniform balloted for Labor. Although Colonel Blimp continues to personify many a British officer, the rank and file of Britain’s army, navy, and air force stand solidly behind the new Labor Government.