on the World Today
THE saying that “England always does best when ruled by a woman” is deep-rooted in the British mentality. And the fact that her name is Elizabeth has filled the newspapers with hopeful references to a “new Elizabethan Age.” In addition, the new ruler possesses charm and dignity and a compelling sincerity of utterance and has a happy family life — an asset of great value to a woman who must serve as an archetype for a nation.
On the thin extreme fringes of British society qualms have been expressed about her, mainly in regard to the supposed influence that her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, exerts upon her. The Communist Daily Worker recalled that he is a scion of the Greek Royal Family and hinted that therefore Elizabeth might be prevailed on to exercise reactionary influence in British politics.
At the other end of the scale, some high Tories claim to know that Philip idolizes his heroic uncle, Admiral Earl Mountbatten, and will be moved by that “socialist nobleman” (he served the late Labor Government as the administrative instrument who severed the ties of India and Pakistan to the empire and constituted them Republican Commonwealths) to steer the nation leftwards.
These two opposing views are held by only a few and are based solely on the vague evidence of family connections. Of direct evidence from the Duke’s past behavior all that can be said is that his public speeches, written by himself, have shown an unusually modern and virile intellect unlikely to be infected with archaic dreams of restoring royal decision on controversial political questions.
In any case, Britain’s present politicians of all parties seem too deeply respectful of the constitution to countenance royal intervention against opponents even if it should be attempted.
Horatius at the Bridge
The winter that was climaxed by the royal tragedy was begun by Winston Churchill’s victory in the elections and his return to power under conditions which suggest that History intends to test the old warrior’s claim to greatness down to the final moment of his public life. It might have been supposed that the man who led his country, without allies, against the bulk of Western Europe organized under Hitler’s great war machine had passed the most strenuous period of his career. But the deterioration last year in every aspect of Britain’s position has placed before him a crisis perhaps less starkly dramatic than that of 1940 but equally grave.
Shortly after the inventories of national resources were opened to Churchill’s newly chosen Cabinet, his ministers had to announce that national stocks of food and fuel for industry were lower than at any other time during or since the war. Steel production was falling, they reckoned, at a rate which would leave a large deficit under what was needed to maintain present levels of production in dependent industries and to sustain full employment of workers.
Britain was failing to pay for essential imports with her current earnings by a frighteningly increasing amount, and was having to ship out treasury reserves of gold and dollars to cover the gap.
In the last three months of 1951, the deficit in payments to the world was nearly a billion dollars -the greatest trading deficit for any quarter-year in the island’s history. At that rale of exhaustion, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Richard A. Butler, told the nation in January, the reserves would last only eight months more. After that Britain would face “national bankruptcy, idleness and hunger.” The London Times called it “our gravest crisis ever.”
The economic crisis at home threatened to undermine Britain’s already shaky world position. The drainage of her monetary reserves — which are also the reserves she keeps for all her partners in the sterling area to draw upon — was a menace to that last important material link of Commonwealth. For Commonwealth countries would be forced to find another “bank” for their national funds if that of the motherland went broke.
Dependencies with old grudges took advantage of the situation to peck away at British prestige. Iran, which had ousted British oil interests in the last months of the Labor administration of Britain, now flamboyantly rejected the new ambassador that Churchill sent to the country and ordained the closing of all Britain’s nine consulates there.
Egypt, following her abrogation of her two treaties with Britain (one permitting British troops to garrison the Suez Canal zone, and the other maintaining a Bril ish-Egyptian condominium over the vast Sudan to the south; Egypt demands sole possession of the Sudan), suborned a devastating guerrilla war against the British in the Canal zone.
From Malaya, Churchill’s minister for the Colonies returned after a tour of inspection to report that the Communist guerrilla war, which has been smoldering there for three and a half years, has grown critical and is spreading in scope and intensifying in violence.
The necessity of sending large reinforcements to some of these trouble areas overextended Britain’s already strained resources, and in his first statement to the newly elected Commons, the Prime Minister was forced to acknowledge thill the country would not be able to fulfill its defense commitment for the present year to the West European plan of the Atlantic Pact.
As if the problems in themselves were not great enough, Churchill’s parliamentary basis for acting to resolve them was shaky in the extreme. The election had given him a liny majority in the Commons which bared him to the threat of overthrow at any time on a snap vote. And it gave his opponents, the Labor Party, the larger popular vote, which in British constitutional practice makes it “not cricket” to introduce some of the highly controversial measures Churchill would have liked to put forward to meet the situation.
Can Churchill do it again?
It is still too early to estimate Churchill’s long-term chances of sustaining his role as the nation’s savior. But it can be said that in his first months of power there have been more favorable turns than unfavorable ones. The most important immediate danger — the widely predicted winter fuel breakdown due to the unprecedented lowness of coal stocks — did not happen. Surprisingly, the most anti-Tory section of Britain, the coal miners, gave up their Saturdays throughout the winter and produced enough coal not only to avoid an industrial breakdown, but also to increase stocks.
On his visit to America, Churchill won the grant of a million tons of American steel, which just about covers the expected deficit in that basic commodity and removes the threat, at least for the current year, of a large drop in dependent production and a rise in unemployment.
In a series of three bold steps, ending with the budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer Butler cut British buying abroad and took measures to stimulate British sales in foreign countries in order to reduce the drain on treasury reserves.
Also, he presided over a conference of all Commonwealth finance ministers in London and apparently succeeded in inducing the other members of the sterling area to take like steps to reduce their drawings on the reserves.
The result was that the trade figures for the first quarter of 1952 were much improved. The gap between payments and earnings still exists, and it is still large, but it is much smaller than last autumn.
Meanwhile there were improvements in at least two of the trouble points abroad. In Malaya, wholesale administrative changes were made and a new strategy adopted: paratroops were for the first time dropped, and with apparent success, into the hitherto inaccessible heart of guerrilla strongholds. In Egypt, shocked by the excesses of his own people in the Cairo riots, King Farouk changed prime ministers and negotiations with Britain were reopened.
Bevan vs. Attlee
Many of these improvements are windfalls for the new Government. The one clear-cut purely personal triumph for Churchill has been his handling of his own domestic political situation in Parliament, where his mastery has proved unaffected by age. Churchill’s Labor Opposition not only enjoys greater support in the nation than the Tories; its popular support is growing. But Labor suffers from a split between the followers of former Prime Minister Attlee, who would like to turn the party away from socialism into mere liberal reformism, and those of Aneurin Bevan, who would like to steer more abruptly leftwards to pure socialism.
In terms of legislation the Attleeites favor indefinitely “consolidating” their socialist measures of the past, while the Bevanites want to “advance” and bring the bulk of British industry under public ownership. Attlee wants a program which will woo the middle classes, whereas Bevan’s program would appeal only to the militancy of the workers.
Despite their differences, both Labor leaders are doing their utmost to avoid an open split. For if they hold together, a return of Labor to power is inevitable when Churchill has run his term. But if they fall out, either resulting faction would be too small to win an election, and a return of Labor to power would be virtually ruled out. It has been the main strategy of Churchill to force the split into the open.
In his first statement to the Commons at the beginning of winter, Churchill announced that Britain could not fulfill her arms program for the coming year. The arms program had been prepared by the Attlee Government; Bevan had resigned from the Cabinet because he felt the program was too grandiose. So with a glee unbecoming such ill tidings, Churchill, after his announcement, looked over Attlee’s head to Bevan on the back Opposition benches and formally pronounced that “the right honorable gentleman was right,” thereby discomfiting the moderate Labor leaders and stoking the fires of Bevanism.
One reason why there was so little public outcry against Chancellor Butler’s measures to cut the standard of living in order to make Britain pay her way in the world was that Churchill applied the same strategy. His party was able to justify each reduction by precedents set by the moderate Labor leaders in the last months of their power.
For example, Butler was able to require payment for many of the once-free health services because Labor’s Chancellor Gait shell had first introduced charges for a few of the services in 1951. Since another ground for Bevan’s departure from the Labor Cabinet was just that — namely, that Gitskell was offering precedents for the Tories to “destroy the Welfare State” — Churchill by his new cuts once again made Bevan a prophet and deepened the ill-feeling between him and the Attleeites.
Churchill’s big coup was forced on him by the Laborites themselves. During his visit to Washington, Churchill had said in his speech to Congress that Britain was agreed to “prompt, resolute and effective" action should an eventual Korean truce be broken. Laborites interpreted this to mean that he had secretly agreed to a bombing of the Chinese mainland, which they said was a radical reversal of Britain’s policy of not permitting the conflict to spread beyond Korea.
Attlee and Morrison, the moderate Labor leaders, would have preferred not to make too much of the issue. But “Bevanism” was running high in the party; and to stay on top of their leftwards-swinging party, Attlee and Morrison had to agree with Bevan to introduce in the Commons a motion of personal censure against the Prime Minister for his words in Washington.
When in the Commons debate the Opposition attack had reached its peak, Churchill arose, with that twinkle in his eves that always presages misfortune for opponents, to announce that in his talks in Washington he had gone no further than “the late Government “did.. And he pulled out of Cabinet papers a hitherto secret agreement between the Attlee Government and America giving Britain’s consent to Americ’ s bombing of the Chinese mainland should Chinese bombers attack in great force from there doing, in other words, what the same Labor leaders were now censuring him for allegedly doing.
The debate ended in furor. Attlee and Morrison embarrassedly accused Churchill of unconstitutional practice in revealing the contents of Cabinet papers. At this indication of duplicity on the part of the moderate Laborites, Bevan’s prestige soared by contrast, and the strain within the party increased.
While Labor’s internal fissure was still raw from this incident, Churchill cagily called a parliamentary debate on defense — the focal issue of Labor’s internal differences. The results he no doubt desired were achieved. On the day of the debate the Labor leaders fulfilled their function of Opposition by introducing a motion accepting the arms program but declaring no confidence in the Tory Government’s ability to carry it out.
The Bevanites had no choice but to refuse to join the rest of their party in supporting a motion which in effect gave Labor’s blessing to the arms program. Fifty-seven of Labor’s nearly 300 members parted company with Attlee and supported Bevan on the issue.
Disciplining the rebels
Subsequently Attlee in his turn had no choice but to apply disciplinary measures if the party was to remain a unit of Parliament. In a series of bitter private meetings Labor parliamentarians finally voted to restore “standing orders" of the party, which oblige all Labor members to vote as the majority of them decide.
Even this, however, does not seal the split, thanks to a one-word loophole: recalcitrant members are not to be expelled unless they “ persistently flout the majority decision.
The Bevanites hope that this elastic condition will give them time to proselytize and to grow into the majority which makes the decisions for the whole party before expulsion eventuates. This prospect is not as improbable as it might seem. An early spring Gallup poll of the Labor Party’s rank and file claimed that where only 25 per cent supported Bevan last October, 32 per cent favored him in March. Forty-three per cent agreed with his basic tenet that “the Russian military menace is exaggerated" and that therefore the arms program is not urgent.
It is impossible to forecast the outcome of all this at the present time. The only thing that seems certain is that Labor will not provoke Winston Churchill to personal combat on the floor of the House of Commons again without much greater circumspection.