ON THE WORLD TODAY
SOMETHING that happened in the latter half of 1946 broke the magic which was protecting the British Labor Government against serious opposition from its own followers. When the storm came its gusts beat against the foreign policy of Ernest Bevin.
Even in the early months of the Labor regime, there was muffled grumbling from a small socialist minority about Britain’s role in world affairs. The first test came last spring when Bevin himself forced a showdown. At a meeting of Labor members of the House of Commons in March, 1946, he put his conduct of foreign affairs to a vote of confidence. Of 394 Labor members, most of whom attended the meeting, only 6 voted against him and he received an ovation.
The next trial came three months later, at the June convention of the Labor Party. Addressing the convention, Bevin showed himself sensitive to the trend which a few months afterwards was to culminate in a revolt inside his party against his policy. Bevin’s speeches on foreign affairs in Parliament had frequently won approval from the Conservatives, contrasting with uncomfortable silence from the Labor benches. “I can’t help it,” he told his fellow socialists at the June convention, “if Tories sometimes cheer me.”
After Bevin had spoken, one resolution after another denouncing his foreign policy was withdrawn or heavily defeated by a showing of hands. But during the summer a change set in. British-American relations with Russia were deteriorating. Was Russia alone to blame? British Labor thought otherwise.
In any conflict between a conservative power and Russia, British socialism traditionally has sided with Russia. This attitude goes back to 1920, when, in the midst of the Polish-Soviet war, British dockers refused to load munitions ships bound for Poland. By last October the chill blackness which had descended upon British-Russian relations was being ascribed to “Anglo-American domination, isolation of the Soviet Union along with the tying of Britain’s economy to that of capitalist America.”
The rebels speak out
These thoughts were packed into a resolution presented at the British Trades Union Congress in October. Other grievances against Bevin’s policy also found a place in the resolution: Britain was accused of easing the return of the reactionary Greek monarch to his throne; Britain’s continued economic and diplomatic relations with Franco were said to be sustaining Spanish fascism in power; failure to denazify in the British zone of Germany was arraigned.
On October 22, Bevin devoted one hour and fifty minutes in Parliament to defending his international policy. On October 24, Prime Minister Attlee appeared personally to tell the Trades Union Congress that the resolution on which the delegates were about to vote, condemning the Government’s foreign policy, was the sort of thing one expects from Communists and their dupes. Yet on the day after Attlee’s warning it came as a shock when delegates of 40 per cent of British organized labor voted for the anti-Bevin resolution. It was beaten by 3,557,000 to 2,444,000. A majority would have meant repudiation of the Labor Government by its bedrock following.
The outcry from the trade-unions gave fresh heart to critics on the political wing of Labor, who rallied their forces for a new attack on Bevin in Parliament. The climax of this 1946 campaign came less than a month later in the House of Commons. On the eve of the parliamentary episode an influential group of Labor members wrote Attlee of their uneasiness concerning the Government’s foreign policy. Their opinion was in part echoed by an Oxford don who said British policy might be summed up as: “Find out what the Russians are doing and tell them not to.”
There was much more to the critics’ grievances than this, however. A principal point of the letter to Attlee was the Government’s alleged onesided preoccupation with Russia’s expanding influence, contrasting with the absence of British comment on the extension of United States strategic bases in the Pacific and Atlantic, the American monopoly of the atom bomb, the size of America’s military budget, and what was described as the capitalist expansionist nature of the American economy. An exposed spot was touched when the letter pointed to the burden of Britain’s armed forces, “which may fatally cripple our plans for socialist reconstruction.”
The revolt in Parliament
The issue was brought to a head in the Commons on November 18 when Richard Crossman, a young writer who had been on Eisenhower’s political warfare staff, moved an amendment to the King’s Speech at the opening of the new session of Parliament. The amendment demanded a British socialist foreign policy to forestall “an otherwise inevitable conflict between American capitalism and Soviet communism.” When the House voted on the amendment, about one hundred Labor rebels abstained, or in other words refused to support their own Government.
In its earlier stages criticism of Bevin was diffuse and directed against such widely scattered targets as British policy towards Greece, Spain, Palestine, and Russia. Now it was focused against what was considered something approaching an Anglo-American alliance against Russia. The parliamentary revolt led by Crossman brought out the feeling of unrest concerning the 1,385,000 men still in Britain’s armed forces and the 600,000 kept in the munitions industries. Even the independent London Times backed the rebels to the extent of demanding “whether Britain with her crying need for increased production and much expanded exports will long be able to keep in the field and arm and equip armies on the scale now contemplated.”
What had this to do with foreign policy? The rebels answered, “Everything.” Britain, they said, is supplying an inordinate share of the manpower behind Anglo-American policy in Europe and the Middle East. British youth will continue to be conscripted in peacetime for eighteen months, during which their absence from productive work must accentuate the country’s severe labor shortage. The refusal of the Labor rebels to endorse the Government’s foreign policy suggests the limit beyond which Bevin cannot press the Anglo-American partnership without risking a split in his party.
The fear of an American slump
What Crossman called Britain’s gradual drift into the American camp has a further economic aspect. If Britain’s fear of being dragged into an American war with Russia is comparatively remote, British concern lest an American slump pull Britain down to economic disaster is alive and immediate. Viewed from London, American business is the guide scaling a slippery crag, and Britain’s puny economy is scrambling along at the end of the rope. The British people are nervous as to their fate if the guide misses his footing, and some of them would prefer to loosen or cut the rope.
They remember America’s 1929 crash and its reverberations in Britain, where stagnation and unemployment followed. As Britain sees it, America has made a business depression even more certain by abolishing price control before the switch-over to peace production had gone far enough to raise output to meet demand. The British see no escape for America because they believe that it is impossible to stabilize a complex modern economy without much more extensive controls than the American people are willing to accept.
What do the British fear? They foresee American prices toppling and cheaper American goods flooding world ‘markets. They fear that America will sell better articles at lower rates, undercutting British exports. British exports would then be in danger of falling at a time when Britain is committed to enlarge the volume of her export trade to 175 per cent of the pre-war level. The 175 per cent target would have to be lifted even higher if American competition should force down British prices.
There are Anglo-American agreements which it is feared might expose Britain to the cold variable blasts of an entirely unplanned economy and of unregulated international markets, throwing the British balance of payments off its fulcrum. Can Britain with her state-controlled economy insulate herself against an American economic blizzard?
The Labor Government is today armed with controls which were lacking at the time of the last big American slump. First, the state is master of all foreign exchange transactions, so that another panicky flight of capital from Britain could be prevented. Secondly, under the Supplies and Services Act which Parliament passed soon after Labor came into power, the Government has retained many wartime controls over industry, production, and distribution. Thirdly, state control of imports and exports enables the Government to avert a complete upset of Britain’s foreign trade balance. Fourthly, by nationalizing the Bank of England the Labor Government has tightened its grip on the supply of credit.
The strength of British industry
The absence of industrial disturbances is today the major bull point for Britain. In the first year after the end of World War II, 3 million working days were lost through strikes, compared with 34 million days in the same period after World War I. Employers have shown an unexpected coöperativeness with the Labor Government, while tradeunion leaders are saying little or nothing about higher wages and are telling the workers — who would once have shouted them down for such a suggestion — that they must produce more.
Full employment reigns over almost all Britain, and this is a great social gain for the whole nation, though in terms of industry this means a serious labor shortage. Of the total working population of 20,400,000, more than 98 per cent are employed, as compared with 85 to 90 per cent between the wars.
Unemployment is most evident in the Glasgow district and in South Wales, but in these areas and on England’s northeast coast nearly 400 new factories, started after the end of the German war, are built or building, half being financed by the Government and half by private enterprise. Thanks to state planning, the Government is able to order the erection of new industries in regions where unemployment is most likely to recur.
The war years saw a drift from older industries like textiles to newer ones like engineering. This is an asset. Lancashire has lost many markets in countries which have built their own textile mills, but the future for Britain’s engineering products is bright. British shipbuilding is booming. About half the world’s ships now under construction are being built in the United Kingdom.
British steel production, at the rate of almost 14,000,000 tons a year (compared with 10,300,000 in the corresponding period of 1938), is impressively higher than ever before. But it still stands below the 16,000,000 ingot tons current yearly consumption.
Other strong points may enable British industry to cushion future shocks. Skilled labor is available at lower wages than in other industrialized countries. Furthermore, in the past, British industries won strong commercial connections all over the earth, which are still valuable. And, like the United States, Britain can supply herself with most of the machine tools and the other accessories an industrial nation wants.
The weakness of the British economy
Britain’s economy is now healthier than most people realize, but her industry nevertheless has grave weaknesses. Foremost among these is the permanent lack of raw materials except coal. Britain must look abroad for her oil, cotton, wool, timber, rubber, and linseed oil; for most of her iron ore; and for 40 per cent of her food. Her industry is also handicapped by slum factories, especially in the textile, foundry, and tanning fields. These defects are not new.
Today, however, British industry is suffering from a fresh weakness: added to the physical and spiritual weariness of British workers is the serious lack of incentive due to the shortage of consumers’ goods.
What can the miner or bricklayer do with the remainder of his wages after paying for food and shelter and after purchasing the few garments his clothing ration allows? He can buy a ticket to a football game, bet on a dog race, or knock off work for a day. He can hardly buy a new hat or shoes for his wife, or curtains or furniture for his home, because such articles are either tightly rationed or very expensive.
If he could have more fun for his money and buy nicer things, the miner might willingly work extra hours. The incentive to work is also taken away by heavy direct taxation. The normal tax is 45 per cent of income. If the laborer works an extra day, almost half his pay goes to the tax collector.
The coal shortage puts another constant brake on British industry. Gone are the days when Britain financed many of her imports by selling coal abroad; today she has less than enough to go around at home. British miners have grown old, and younger men are reluctant to descend into the pits; so efforts to coax more men into the coal fields have failed. Mining installations, moreover, are antiquated.
Another weak spot is the textile industry, which has lost one fourth of its pre-war laborers. Women who worked in the Lancashire cotton mills went into aircraft and munitions plants and after the war either returned to housework or stayed in engineering trades at much higher pay. The solution of Britain’s textile crisis, however, is not to lure women back into that industry, but to install modern equipment. Despite the several advantages British industry enjoys, it has excellent reasons to fear American competition in the world’s markets.