Nineteen Thirty-One

Helen McCarthy

If the left didn’t find a constructive policy to tackle Britain’s economic problems at root, Leonard Woolf warned in the Political Quarterly in autumn 1931, the right would go on ‘triumphing until it has created conditions which almost inevitably result in violent revolution’. A global slump, soaring unemployment and a run on the pound had brought about the resignation of Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour Cabinet in August, swiftly followed by the formation of the emergency, cross-party National Government, which immediately pushed massive spending cuts through Parliament.

Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, thought the summer crisis had exposed the realities of class conflict and shoved a ticking bomb under the country’s representative traditions: ‘Democracy,’ he wrote, ‘is a system which can only work while essentials are not in dispute.’ With the interests of finance capital and ordinary wage-earners so visibly at odds, could such agreement be safely assumed any more? G. Lowes Dickinson agreed that capitalism’s days were numbered; the question was whether Britain would ‘relapse into dictatorship’ or build a socialist commonwealth ‘through our traditional method of co-operation and common sense’.

But capitalism and liberal democracy muddled through. The National Government’s position was stabilised by its sweeping victory at the polls at the end of October, after which it steadied the markets by making further cuts and taking sterling off gold. A system of imperial protection, to replace Britain’s historic commitment to free trade, followed in 1932. Dominated by Tories, the National Government quickly solidified into an anti-socialist front, but it wasn’t a fascist dictatorship.

Life was undoubtedly grim for the long-term unemployed, but for the more fortunate the 1930s was a time of rising living standards, dancehalls and holidays with pay. As Martin noted, in everyday life ‘the division of interests between investors and workers is seldom clear cut.’ Britain’s ideological landscape, so brilliantly illuminated for a few months in 1931, became befogged by in-fighting on the left, piecemeal social measures from the right and new threats abroad with the rise of fascism in Europe.

Will things go the same way – from crisis to relative political normalcy – in post-referendum Britain? As in 1931, the EU vote of June 2016 seemed momentarily to have crystallised the existence of two political classes – leavers and remainers – whose views of the world, and Britain's place in it, were fundamentally in conflict. Some observers interpreted the result as final proof of a major realignment of British politics that had been underway for years, with the old left-right spectrum giving ground to the politics of national identity and globalisation. For David Runciman, the cleavage ran between ‘people who can imagine a viable future for themselves in a networked world, and those who cannot’. Pro-Brexit populists framed it more baldly as a struggle between ‘liberal metropolitan elites’ and ‘decent people’ or, cruder still, between ‘remoaners’ and the rest.

The adhesive strength of these new political labels, their power to determine the shape of British politics in the coming years, is difficult to judge. As in 1931, we may fall back into our previous grooves, arguing about the NHS, Southern Rail and the shortage of affordable housing. There are signs that this is happening already, as Remainers lick their wounds and accept that, one way or another, Britain is leaving the European Union. For Labour, split between Leave voters and Remainers, changing the conversation may in the long run be the only route back to electability.

But then again, Brexit may provide the prism through which our politics are refracted for many years to come. Could the emotional communities forged in June – joyous exhilaration among Leavers, dumbfounded despair among Remainers – form the basis of deeper solidarities around which party politics will have to be recast?

The Brexit vote has transformed the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. Recruiting Remainers in droves and surging at by-elections, the party appears liberated from its troubled recent history. Nick Clegg has experienced something of a political rebirth, his newfound status as figurehead for aggrieved Remainers apparently wiping away the sins he committed as David Cameron’s deputy.

For now, Theresa May’s Conservative Party is confidently riding the political wave unleashed by Brexit. Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling barely caused a wobble, as the prime minister reiterated her intent to push the bill to trigger Article 50 through Parliament by the end of March.

But Labour is in danger of being pulled under. The events of summer 1931 occupy a dark place in the collective memory of the left because they destroyed Labour’s credibility in government and locked it out of power for the rest of the decade. Bleaker still was the fate of the Liberals, who split three ways and became electorally irrelevant until the 1970s. Will this be Labour’s future, or will a progressive alliance with the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and Greens offer a way out? Without a more proportional electoral system, or a Labour leader prepared to make political compromises and work across party lines, such a course seems unlikely. Yet given the fractured state of party politics, power-sharing coalitions may present the best or only hope for the left and centre-left to wrest power from the Conservatives, whose position is currently unassailable.

If Woolf and his colleagues underestimated the resilience of Britain’s messy, centrist political culture, it is possible we overestimate it now. Labour intellectuals weren’t the only ones to make false predictions in the 1930s. National Government leaders described a charismatic strong man recently installed in a major western nation-state as someone with whom they could do business. By September 1939, Britain was at war. The political fallout from Brexit may turn out to be far less important than anyone currently imagines.


  • 25 January 2017 at 6:34pm
    streetsj says:
    The narrative that the nation is split into two hostile camps is an easy and attractive one for commentators but it is not, I think, accurate. If you voted in the referendum you had to come down on one side or the other - it didn't mean that you didn't accept there were arguments on both sides, it meant that on balance you had chosen In or OUT. And in the country as a whole, on balance we were marginally in favour of leaving. On both sides there was every shade of opinion held in various strengths.
    It seems to me that the "remoaners" are making the problem worse: by characterising everyone who voted OUT as racist/moronic/isolationist or whatever they undermine their own case for a moderate response to the referendum. Bizarrely it is the INers who are making the OUTers seem much more extreme than they mostly are and are therefore boosting the extreme Brexiters position by implicitly making them representatives of the whole OUT vote.

    • 26 January 2017 at 9:15am
      Joe Morison says: @ streetsj
      You start by characterising remainers with an insult (& if you think the ironizing inverted commas make it okay, is that something you generally think true of insults?), and then go on to make the absurd suggestion we are making it worse by characterizing 'everyone' who voted out as racist/moronic/isolationist. Some people might be that stupid, but I've never met any. What is true is that, though a lot of the people who voted for it aren't, Brexit itself is racist and moronic and isolationist.

      It's racist because it has undoubtedly energized prejudice in this country, there are the official statistics and endless anecdotal evidence - my elder daughter (her mother is from the West Indies) has twice been told 'to go back home' (in London!) since the result was announced, that has never happened before.

      It's moronic because of the damage it is going to inflict on the country while doing nothing to address the legitimate concerns of those who feel left behind by modernity - it's doubly moronic because they are the people who will bear the highest economic cost.

      It's isolationist for the obvious reason that we are isolating ourselves from the EU, our nearest neighbours both geographically and culturally. But far more, the message has gone out to the world that we are no longer the open, tolerant, and welcoming country we used to be - we are little Englanders who want to pull up the drawbridge (the opposite of the 'intellectual' Brexiteers' vision, but that's the way the world is seeing us).

    • 26 January 2017 at 11:15am
      streetsj says: @ Joe Morison
      Well I feel you've made my point for me.
      "Remoaners" are a subset of those who voted Remain who behave in just the way I describe. You seem determined to take offence where none was meant.
      I don't think Brexit can be racist. I guess you could pass some racist laws under its auspices but that is highly unlikely. That the referendum (maybe separately from the actual result) has stirred up some deeply unpleasant elements normally sitting quietly at the bottom of the pond would seem to be true; though I believe these incidents have now reverted back to usual background levels.
      The "moronic" point may be right in that it seems probable that exiting the EU will have at least a short term economic cost. Whether you can say that having any economic cost to a fundamentally political move is moronic I would question.
      The isolationist point was exactly the point I was making. There is no need for the UK outside the EU to be isolationist. The EU is after all fundamentally a protectionist institution. Not every country outside the EU is isolationist. Your rhetoric in the final paragraph is precisely what I was referring to in my last sentence.

    • 27 January 2017 at 5:28am
      Joe Morison says: @ streetsj
      You never suggested that ‘Remoaners’ were a subset of those who voted remain. You implied the opposite: saying that 'Remoaners’ are making the problem worse, that ‘INers’ (not a subset of them) are strengthening extremist ‘OUTers’.
      It doesn’t matter if I took offence (I didn’t) or whether you intended it; ‘Remoaner’ is an insult, (outside of a sexual context) ‘moaner’ is always a term of abuse. You start by insulting the very people you are castigating for being insulting, that seems odd.

      Brexit is not just the laws that will take us out of the EU, it’s the social movement that led to the vote and how that vote has and will change us as a country. It wasn’t the referendum that ‘stirred up some deeply unpleasant elements’, it was the Leave campaign which veered between being overtly racist (posters showing queues of shabby looking dark skinned people supposedly (another lie) queueing to get into the UK) to a racist subtext which permeated almost everything they said from ‘controlling our borders’ to ‘communities changed beyond recognition’ and myths about the 'NHS being milked by hordes of foreigners'. I’m glad you believe that the racism has ‘now reverted back to usual background levels’. That’s not what I hear from the people I talk to who are effected by it, but I do get a strong sense from the east Europeans I know and that they have accepted that this is now the way things are, that they will just have to keep their heads down and not make a fuss - it’s how their parents had to live, so perhaps it comes more easily to them (the head of the Polish Social and Cultural Association says that Poles are now too frightened about losing their right to stay to report hate crimes against them). The British people with darker skin that I know are a mixture of angry, scared, and disgusted.

      Why you think my last paragraph - which says that we are isolating ourselves from the EU, and that the rest of the world sees us as pulling up the drawbridge - is making out extreme Brexiters to be typical is beyond me. But I do find people saying that Brexit is the means to our being a more open country similar to a person announcing that they intend to acquire new limbs and will start by having their left leg amputated.

  • 25 January 2017 at 9:18pm
    whisperit says:
    The Welsh vote, at 53% for leave, was very close to the English. The Scottish vote, of course, was to remain.

    So it's telling that it's only here in Wales that there are signs of a "progressive alliance", with Plaid, Welsh Labour and the Welsh LibDems (such as they are) recently agreeing joint proposals for what Wales should be looking for in the Brexit negotiations.

    The Labour Party in Scotland, sadly, appears too fixated with its feud with the SNP to make common cause there.

    Shame the Supreme Court doesn't think we are worth paying attention too, either.

  • 26 January 2017 at 10:53am
    RobotBoy says:
    Here in the U.S., electing Trump was our exit from...politics as usual? American internationalism? Consensual reality? Shock and horror among liberals (hard to call them 'left') initially included at least some self-criticism about the failure to defeat an eminently beatable buffoon, and even gave a dollop of attention to the Democrats abandonment of the white working class. Now, however, all effort and thought are turned to opposing the ogre, with the economic reasons behind his victory once again ignored or dismissed. In your last issue, Rebecca Solnit, a writer for whom I have great respect, fell prey to exactly this reductive righteousness, downplaying the role Clinton's embrace of neo-liberalism and appeal to Republican chiefs played in her loss. For Solnit, misogyny is the sole explanation for any dissatisfaction with Clinton and the vast majority of American liberals seem to be following her line. As a result, the left version of the populist uprising against the status quo has been marginalized once again. Instead of a 'constructive policy' to address 'economic problems at root', the Democrats instead seem to be pushing for a return to the neo-liberal status quo that got them into this situation in the first place.

  • 26 January 2017 at 3:51pm
    David Timoney says:
    The parallel with 1931 doesn't work. Brexit is the consequence of a popular vote, not a global slump. It is endogenous, not exogenous. We can argue till the cows come home what people thought they were voting for and why, but we cannot avoid the fact that this was the culmination of a process set in train in the late 1980s, not a sudden shock.

    The transformation of the Macdonald cabinet into a National Government was an establishment coup, which is why Labour Party members considered it a betrayal, not some fundamental realignment in the political base. As for today, given that the major parties have not realigned (UKIP is just a Tory ginger group), there seems little reason to believe that further splits are likely, though no doubt many will insist Labour are only weeks away from it for a while yet.

    The suggestion that Brexit has "transformed the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats" is risible. They are at 10% in the opinion polls, well short of their historic highs in the low 20s, while the "political rebirth" of Nick Clegg is firmly restricted to the media. The Remainers they are recruiting are the same ones who deserted them for the Tories in 2015, incidentally giving Cameron a majority and obliging him to proceed with the EU referendum.

    Given your adherence to Godwin's Law in the last paragraph, I'd suggest a (slightly) better parallel would be with 1933 in Germany, when conservative and liberal miscalculation provided an opportunity for the far-right to enter into a "power-sharing coalition".

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