on the World Today
THE non-English-speaking visitor in London the week after the election would have got from the pictures in the papers a very confused impression of the outcome, for Churchill, the winner, never faced cameramen with a more dour scowl and Attlee never greeted them with so broad and contented a grin.
That idealized image of Conservatism, the armed crusader that appears on the masthead of Lord Beaverbrook’s Tory Daily Express, was depicted with inked-in chains on his limbs in the last weeks of the Labor administration as a means of dramatizing to voters what Lord Beaverbrook held to be the issue of the coming vote. Though election day is long past and the rascals have long since been ousted, the Daily Express still hasn’t erased the chains trammeling its symbolic knight.
Churchill himself betrayed a subconscious confusion about the results the day his new Parliament assembled the week after the elections. On entering the House of Commons he marched straight to his old seat on the Opposition front bench - the loser’s seat — only to gaze in embarrassment at finding Attlee there. A wave of cheers and hoots reminded him that his status had been lately changed and he crossed the floor to take the seat traditionally reserved to the Prime Minister.
These confused reactions were fully justified by the election results. Though Labor fought with all its might and main to win, there is no doubt that its partisans knew that defeat would be good for it. Its Cabinet ministers were tired men; their reactions were slow; their tendency always to be a couple of steps behind the events was pronounced. For example, the Iranian crisis might have been avoided had the Labor Government offered at Teheran six months earlier those concessions it readily offered after the crisis broke out.
In domestic affairs Labor had fulfilled all of its 1945 legislative promises and had no further blueprints for government. It was involved in a true crisis of philosophy as to how or whether socialism could be made relevant to the changed world’s problems. In this crisis the party had begun to split at the seams with Bevan leading the left and Morrison the right.
The internecine struggle for the party’s soul which has become inevitable might have been disastrous for its future had it occurred while the party was in power. In defeat and in opposition Labor has at least the possibility of settling the issue without unsettling the nation, and of returning to the arena in the next election both physically refreshed and spiritually at one with itself.
The numerical results made it a comforting kind of defeat. To call the results a swing to the right, as some American papers did, is very wrong; it was an almost infinitesimal budge rather than a swing. Of 625 Commons scats contested, only 25 changed hands. They were seats which Labor previously held by a few hundred votes and which the Conservatives now won by a few hundred votes. In other words, the election was decided by a group of voters insufficient to fill half of one of London’s football stadiums.
Moreover, in terms of the popular vote, the budge was not rightward but leftward. Though Labor lost seats in Commons, it won a bigger popular vote than the Conservatives did. Indeed Labor won its biggest popular vote ever — over a million more votes than it received when it swept the country in the landslide of 1945.
The defeat took place in such a manner that it virtually ensured that Labor’s six-year legislative program would not be undone by the Conservatives. For, in so close a race, Churchill was provoked repeatedly to commit himself to policies he would have preferred to have a free hand on. In response to Laborite charges, he promised freely that he would introduce no legislation limiting the great power of the trade unions and that he would not curtail expensive food subsidies. It would be impossible for him to break his word now without courting defeat in the next election.
Moreover, intangible moral factors count more with the British electorate than with any other. Labor’s popular vote gave it a kind of moral victory amid defeat and virtually forbids Churchill to introduce “controversial" legislation. Accordingly, some Tory papers are suggesting that their party should not denationalize the steel industry, which Labor handed over to public ownership, and Churchill’s first post-election utterances show his hesitation about fulfilling that one distinctive plank in the Tory election platform.
In addition to these spiritual limitations on Conservative legislation. Labor has a powerful physical rein to prevent any serious dismantling of the Welfare State. The final majority of the Tories in Commons was seventeen seats. This majority was reduced to fifteen because the winning party must fill the posts of Speaker and Deputy Speaker, who become voteless. Against so small a majority Labor can adopt the practice of calling surprise snap votes and forcing allnight sessions, as the Conservatives did in the Labor Government. That would put a tremendous physical strain on about fifty of those members of Parliament who must fill full-time executive posts in addition to being always within running distance of Commons. The threat of such a campaign of harassment will doubtless be a powerful inducement to Churchill to avoid contentious measures.
How little can John Bull eat?
Churchill and his colleagues were never under any illusion about what power would mean. The fruit of victory, one of them said, will be it crown of thorns. Even in that mood, however, they were shocked when they took over the accounts of state and saw the quantity of red ink therein.
While Britain’s attention had been occupied for six weeks by King George’s health, the hectic disputes with Iran and Egypt, and then the election campaign, the nation’s financed reserves on which it depends to fill the gap between the low income from exports and the high cost of essential imports were steadily declining.
In his first address to the House of Commons, the new Premier said that at the present rate of flow all Britain’s gold dollar reserves would be exhausted in twelve months, the national economy would be bankrupt, and the defense program would collapse.
The first quick emergency measure announced by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Richard A. Butler, was to slash drastically all imports and other expenditures of foreign currency.
Most of the import cuts fall on food: canned bacon, ham, cocoa, chocolate, sugar mixtures, sugar fat mixtures, fruit juices, cooked meat, canned meat, sausages, canned vegetables, and fruit except oranges and bananas.
In the House of Lords the new Lord President of the Council, Lord Woolton, said, “We are now living on a diet which, while it is sufficient for our sustenance, is almost devoid of jov.” And he asked the British “kinsmen in the Empire lo secure for us extra meats, fats, and sugar.”
And Major Gwilym Lloyd George, the new Minister of Food, told the Commons that “our stocks of wheat and flour, margarine and cooking fats, sugar and butter, to take a few examples, are well below the level of 1941.” It was his unpleasant duty to announce that, beginning November 11 the infinitesimal meal ration would be cut to 20 cents a week for each person.
This and other reduetions in the food rations which are bound to follow the cut in imports will bring home to the British worker the very real connection between production for export and his daily bread.
The slash in imports, however, was strictly an emergency measure. As the London Times said, it is like the Irish drayman who attempted to reduce expenses by gradually conditioning his horse not to eat — theoretically a logical policy, which was frustrated when it was on the verge of success by the death of the horse.
The problem is of course not how to cut imports, which in the long run would deepen the crisis by depriving industry of essential raw materials and the people of the incentive for goods; it is how to increase exports. That involves inducing the workers to work harder and management to rationalize production more.
The most articulate version of what should be done has been stated by the Economist: Britain’s almost penal tax rates — the highest in the world — must be reduced in order to provide management with the incentive of gain from increased production. Some degree of rationing by purse must be introduced in order to make Britain’s workers work longer and harder than they do now amid the featherbedding of the Welfare State.
Cut taxes and subsidies
The Economist suggests one step that will do both these things: the tremendous subsidies which the Government now pays in order to keep staple food prices low must be slashed in order to permit a cut in taxes and make the workers work more to earn their pay. The matter of subsidies, says the Economist, “will be the acid test “ of Churchill’s ability to save the nation.
There is no doubt that in their heart of hearts this is the solution the Conservatives would like to apply. But it is easier to state than to do. If the Tories should cut subsidies they would not only be breaking their word but would be inviting the first serious wave of strikes since the war, as unions demand further raises to catch up with rising living costs. Yet if they don’t do this, the exhaustion of reserves and national bankruptcy seem inevitable.
The Churchill Cabinet would thus seem to be badly boxed in. As one Tory member of Parliament said, Churchill is not in power, he is in a firetrap. His home situation induces many in London to expect that Churchill will seek some dramatic egress via foreign policy. The reasoning is that if a new economic crisis is brought on by rearmament, then the cause of rearmament, which is East-West tension, must be attacked in order to ease the strain.
A time for initiative
There is wide expectation in London that Churchill may make a personal visit to Moscow after his visit to Truman in January; during the election campaign Churchill repeatedly said he would do that.
It is not hard, however, to imagine him boxed in equally in this realm. High American spokesmen have shown themselves cold to the belief that a personal meeting with Stalin could accomplish anything, and the recent Russian attitude at the United Nations and at other conferences indicates no chinks through which relations might successfully be restored.
A few editorial writers in London have warned the new Prime Minister not to expect results to equal those that his personal contacts won during the war. While Britain’s self-confidence and influence have fallen considerably in six post-war years, America on the one hand and Russia and China on the other have had intensive practice as self-reliant great powers and it will be hard to sway them from their present attitudes.
The popular aphorism about Churchill to the effect that Britain is too narrow a stage for his talents may require amendment. In the present condition, Britain’s problems are likely to need all the statesmanship he can summon: some of his less faithful admirers fear they may need more.
Shakespeare and South Pacific
There is something vaguely appropriate in this nation of apparently chronic political and economic deadlock in the fact that this season’s chief theatrical event in London is likewise a deadlock of sorts. With thirtyseven of Shakespeare’s works to choose from, Orson Welles in his first London appearance in the autumn decided to produce the same play—Othellowhich the Old Vic was at that moment rehearsing.
The Old Vic company protested, but since the only possible copyright owner was not available, nothing could be done about it. The Wellesian touch, however, proved so unique (he produced, directed, planned designs for, and starred in it—and many suspect he wrote some of it) that it might almost be two different plays, and the urge to see the contrasts has filled both houses nightly.
Another event of note was the London opening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway gold mine, South Pacific, with Mary Martin in it. It is said to clear her name of a fiasco she suffered in another show in London some years ago. As an inevitable reaction to an overbig previous buildup, critics were for the most part unkind — “South Soporific” one called it. The public took little notice of them, however, and your report’s ticket, applied for a month before the opening, is dated next April.