Travels on the left

Paul Foot

  • John Strachey: An Intellectual Biography by Noel Thompson
    Macmillan, 288 pp, £27.50, May 1993, ISBN 0 333 51154 9
  • John Strachey by Michael Newman
    Manchester, 208 pp, £12.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 7190 2174 X

In the 1929 General Election campaign, the Labour candidate for Aston, Birmingham issued the following leaflet:

£5 Reward!

DESPERATE TORIES WILD LIE.

Mr John Strachey writes: ‘It has come to my notice that Tory canvassers are making the outrageous statement that I am a foreigner. This is a most serious allegation which the Aston Tory Party, utterly beaten in political argument, has fallen back upon as a last desperate throw. I WAS BORN IN GUILDFORD, SURREY, AND MY FAMILY HAS LIVED OVER 400 YEARS IN SOMERSETSHIRE.

‘I offer £5 reward to anyone giving me the name and address of anyone spreading this lie and leading to the issue of a writ for slander.’

The leaflet signed off with the slogan ‘Strachey is British.’

There is unhappily nothing in the annals of the Birmingham Labour Party to tell us Whether the £5 reward was ever claimed. There was definitely no slander action. No one will ever know the going rate in defamation damages for an allegation of that kind. And in any case was it a defamation? It wasn’t easy to see how Strachey’s enthusiastic support for international socialism and his recent conversion to the works of Karl Marx (one of whose notions was that the workers had no country) could be squared with his jingoistic leaflet. Always a little worried by his long nose and slightly swarthy appearance, Strachey was very sensitive to the ‘outrageous’ conclusion that he was not as patriotic as any other old Etonian from Somersetshire. The text of the leaflet is reprinted in Hugh Thomas’s biography of Strachey published twenty years ago. Thomas told us much more about Strachey the man (cricket, tennis, adoring family, etc) than about Strachey the socialist. This is perhaps because Thomas was wrestling with his own flight from socialism, which was consummated in 1979 with his appointment as chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies.

These two books, by contrast, deal almost exclusively with Strachey’s politics. Michael Newman writes only briefly about Strachey’s private life, though he does reveal that young Charles Strachey, born at the height of his father’s revolutionary fervour, was promptly put down for Eton. Noel Thompson calls his book ‘an intellectual biography’ and ignores the man altogether, as if the politician’s ideas can be cut clean away from the rest of his life. Strachey started out at the beginning of the century in a well-to-do Liberal home, where there was much talk of the Spectator (which his father owned) and God. In his twenties he broke to the left, shocked by the fact that too few workers had enough money to buy the things they produced. If only clever and intelligent people such as he were in charge, the economic system would soon be fixed and this obvious absurdity put right. He wrote a book to show how to do it, called, comfortingly, Revolution by Reason. Then came the General Strike in which Strachey found himself editing the Birmingham strikers’ bulletin. Swept up in the activity, and increasingly puzzled as to why the workers were treated so abominably, he shifted further to the left, read Marx with passionate interest, but still believed he could help change things from the top, which is why he stood for Aston in 1929, and (with or without the help of his last-minute leaflet) won the seat.

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