When Oxford University Press commissioned Ross McKibbin to write the volume in the New Oxford History of England covering the years 1918 to 1951, they got more than they bargained for. McKibbin couldn’t contain what he wanted to say within the covers of a single volume, and Oxford wouldn’t agree to the inclusion of a two-volume work in their series. The result was the separate publication in 1998 of Classes and Cultures: England 1918-51, which concentrated on the social history, now followed by the publication of the Ford Lectures delivered in Oxford in 2008, which concentrate on the political history.
The story McKibbin tells, with predictable skill, is of the way the successful Edwardian alliance between the Liberals and Labour came to be followed by the disintegration of the Liberals, Labour’s traumatic humiliation in 1931, a seemingly unchallengeable Conservative dominance up to 1940, Attlee’s unexpectedly large majority in 1945 and the return of the Conservatives under Churchill in 1951.
No reader is likely to disagree with McKibbin that ‘the historical evolution of this political system was not inevitable.’ Indeed, those (if any) for whom history is still about great (or not so great) men may want to argue that it was just a series of personal failures of character and judgment at the critical moments: Asquith’s in 1915-16, MacDonald’s in 1930-31 and Chamberlain’s in 1938-39. But the influences at work were of course a great deal more complicated than that. The explanation of what did (or didn’t) happen lies, as McKibbin rightly says, somewhere in the relationship between underlying social change and contingency in the context of a parliamentary franchise which was enlarged from the 7,709,981 men eligible to vote in the general election of December 1910 to the 28,850,870 men and women eligible to vote in 1929.
The replacement of the Liberals by Labour as the anti-Conservative party of government has been a subject of dispute among both participants and commentators ever since it occurred. In the book on the early history of the Labour Party which established his reputation, McKibbin argued that the organisational and financial resources provided by the trade unions had by 1914 put Labour in a position to overtake the Liberals as the party representing the working-class interest. He has now moved closer to what seems to be broad agreement among historians of the period that the Liberal Party was in a stronger position, electorally speaking, in 1914 than it looked in retrospect. Even though the First World War exposed dilemmas and divisions among the Liberals which might otherwise have been contained, it is not inconceivable that if Asquith had brought Bonar Law into a coalition to be dissolved as soon as the war was over, an election fought in 1918 might have kept the progressive alliance intact with the Liberals continuing as the dominant partner. But the survival of the alliance was always going to depend on agreement between Labour and the Liberals on the issues which mattered most to the enlarged electorate. As these changed, and party preference became more closely linked to ‘class’, the Liberals found themselves in the position of representing neither ‘capital’ nor ‘labour’, and in the 1920s that was not an electorally promising position to be in.
An alternative possibility, once Lloyd George had displaced Asquith and become ‘the man who won the war’, was that the Conservatives and Liberals would come together under his leadership against a Labour Party committed since 1918 to an explicitly socialist programme. That this didn’t happen could be seen as a consequence not only of the problem posed by Lloyd George himself, whose motives were distrusted and morals disapproved of as much by mainstream Conservatives as by Asquithian Liberals. It was also the consequence of a multitude of unanticipated contingencies of which the Chanak crisis, when it looked as if the coalition might be taking the country into a war with Turkey, was one and a Midlands iron-founder called Stanley Baldwin another. But McKibbin doesn’t believe that ‘fusion’ was on the cards. The partisan alignments of the prewar decade re-emerged as they were bound to do in time of peace. Baldwin’s apparent miscalculation in 1923 about the electoral appeal of protectionism didn’t change them, any more than the apparent reunification of the Liberals on a ‘reconstructionist’ platform in the run-up to the election of 1929 did. The Labour Party, meanwhile, had patched up its own internal divisions with sufficient success to become the largest party in the Commons. But it was a victory owed largely to the intervention of a Liberal Party that had fought the election on a programme of large-scale deficit-financed public expenditure which, as McKibbin sees it, ‘neither the majority of its voters nor its MPs believed in’. And that election, for reasons nobody could have foreseen, turned out to be one it would have been better to lose.
Labour’s debacle in 1931 remains in some ways as puzzling as ever. McKibbin is unpersuaded by the argument that it was due to the government’s failure to adopt a semi-Keynesian anti-deflationary policy for dealing with the economic crisis although such a policy was available at the time, had MacDonald and his colleagues had the wit to see it. But even if it was – which is questionable – no other British government would have adopted it either. For McKibbin, the Labour Party’s failure lay ‘not in having the wrong ideas but in allowing itself to be driven from office in politically the worst possible way’. This it assuredly did, and MacDonald cannot escape responsibility for decisions which were very much his own. But he and his colleagues were always uncertain what section of the electorate they were seeking to mobilise, whose interests they were seeking to represent, and what long-term aims they were seeking to achieve. The result was that for the rest of the decade the Conservatives could not only denounce what they claimed to be the fallacies of socialist doctrine but portray the Labour Party as demonstrably unfit to govern.
The Second World War changed that. But it wasn’t war as such which did. McKibbin is sure that the Conservatives would have won an election held any time before the summer of 1940, and the contemporary polling data support him. It was the fall of Chamberlain that called into question not only the now manifestly mistaken policy of appeasement but the whole of the Conservatives’ interwar record. Thereafter, the electorate became sufficiently disillusioned with the Conservatives to produce a swing of 12 per cent to Labour in the election of 1945. Both the timing of the swing and the reasons for it have been much disputed. The Gallup poll, which had reported a drop in Conservative voting intentions from 51 per cent in February 1940 to 23 per cent in February 1944, was largely ignored. But it wasn’t the experience of Dunkirk and the Blitz that had radicalised public opinion so much as the accumulation of wartime grievances and an increasing disposition to blame Chamberlain, Baldwin and the ‘old gang’ for what were now regarded as their failures in domestic as well as in foreign policy. Despite McKibbin’s emphasis on the fall of Chamberlain as the critical event, he accepts that the war broadened the perceptions of English people about the way their fellow citizens lived and modified some of their inherited attitudes accordingly. For all the apathy and cynicism that accompanied the fading of hopes for a New Jerusalem, the near universal enthusiasm with which the Beveridge Report was received is compelling testimony to the new public mood. There was still no consensus within the coalition government itself. From the time when postwar policy began to be discussed at all, the Labour and Conservative Parties had very different ideas about what it should be, and the 1945 election was as strenuously contested as any. But on no interpretation of the result can it plausibly be denied that it reflects the spread of a desire for change among both working-class and middle-class voters sufficient to give Attlee a majority of 146 seats over all other parties together. The unwillingness of Churchill after 1951 to reverse the legislation over which Attlee had presided doesn’t mean that he would have initiated the same measures himself.
It is, however, peculiarly difficult to account for the behaviour of the electorate in the requisite depth. Psephology is one of the branches of social science of which it can be said that the more we find out the less we know. The statistics of general election results, however assiduously deconstructed, reveal very little by themselves. McKibbin knows the value not only of the polls but of the evidence from municipal and by-election results, constituency studies, newspapers, contemporary diaries and the reminiscences of practising politicians. But the question which hangs over the whole period McKibbin considers is: why could a national party explicitly claiming to represent the working class not win and then retain the support of more of the working-class electorate than it did? After no fewer than 6.2 million working-class electors had voted for Churchill in 1951, how was it, as Peter Shore was plaintively to ask in a Labour Party pamphlet of 1952, that so many who were neither wealthy nor privileged had been recruited to a cause which was not their own? The answers, at the individual level, are many and various. Family tradition, residential milieu, local history, gender, religious denomination, age and work situation are all discernible influences. Loyalty to community and class competed with loyalty to king and country. Labour might be acknowledged as the party of the working class, but by no means all voters whom pollsters would code as ‘working-class’ thought of themselves as such. Much caution is needed if the link between ‘class’ and ‘party’ is not to be taken to be stronger than it is. In the 1930s, the Conservatives didn’t set themselves to capture the working-class vote as such. But they didn’t need to. They assembled, as McKibbin says, ‘a highly diverse electoral coalition’ which was successfully kept together by an ‘ill-defined, but often strongly held, anti-socialism’. And this was as true in 1951 as it had been 20 years before.
In the aftermath of the 1945 election, a story did the rounds of the chattering classes about a woman who told an interviewer that she’d voted Labour but the socialists got in. It is presumably apocryphal. But the suspicion of socialism among working-class Labour supporters was pervasive and long-standing. Some of it was directed not against socialism as such so much as against middle-class intellectual socialists. But just as what united Conservative voters was not conservatism but hostility to socialism, so hostility to capitalism was what united Labour voters. The latent contradiction between state control of the economy and free collective bargaining could be glossed over for as long as the ‘wages struggle’ against the employers was consistent with a demand that the state should intervene, when it did, on the side of the workers and not of the capitalists. But how was ‘planning’ under the direction of a centralised bureaucracy to be reconciled with the traditional liberties of the British citizen? Illusions nourished by the wartime popularity of the Soviet Union may have helped for a while. But by the time of the election which returned the Conservatives to power, Labour policy-makers were starting to be concerned about how to present the party as socialist without helping the Conservatives by doing so. Socialism needed to be shown in a way that would appeal to a working class of consumers as well as producers, of payers of income tax as well as recipients of benefits, of would-be homeowners as well as rent-payers and of aspirants for a better life as defined not by politicians or civil servants but by themselves.
After 1918, when the famous Clause IV was incorporated into the Labour Party’s constitution, nationalisation became, in McKibbin’s words, ‘central to Labour because it always seemed appropriate to a socialist programme’ as part of the ‘moral critique of capitalism’. But, as he then adds, none of the justifications which Labour went on to give for nationalisation had much substance. It did not redistribute income, or empower the workforce, or lead to greater efficiency. Clause IV retained all its symbolic importance, as Attlee’s successors were forced to recognise. But it made no difference to labour relations at the place of work whether the industry in question was owned by institutional and private shareholders or by the state. And the unions were well aware of the paradox inherent in the slogan of ‘worker control’: they were there to negotiate, and when necessary fight, with the bosses, not to become bosses themselves.
As McKibbin knows better than anyone, the fortunes of the Labour Party from the moment of its birth were inseparable from the vicissitudes of its relationship with the unions. The industrial and political wings of the party could be as vociferous as each other in denouncing the capitalist system as both inefficient and inequitable. But the unions’ dislike of involvement by the state in the regulation of wages was, in McKibbin’s view, disastrous for the two interwar Labour governments, and it was seriously discomfiting for Attlee’s. After 1945, the union leaders agreed to a measure of wage restraint for a limited time, but by the 1950s Attlee would have had no more success than Harold Wilson was to have in sustaining an incomes policy. It was as unacceptable as compulsory arbitration or, worse still, direction of labour. The unions were not yet as unpopular with the general public as they subsequently became. But it was not only middle-class Conservative voters who disapproved of strikes which appeared to inconvenience the public as much as they did the employers. Trade unionists on the militant left could be as unhelpful to the cause of winning the electorate over to socialism as the moderates who had never believed in it anyway. If it meant free schooling and healthcare, middle-class Conservative supporters were socialists too. If it meant permits, controls and intrusion into individual liberties, working-class Labour supporters were as resistant to it as anyone else.
In what direction, therefore, was an anti-Communist Labour Party to go? By 1951, in McKibbin’s metaphor, ‘the first wave of the Attlee government’s reforms had beached itself and then ebbed.’ In his judgment, that government, for all its acknowledged achievements, failed to do what it could, and therefore should, have done to modernise the institutions in which the traditional hierarchies of class and status survived unchanged – the monarchy, the aristocracy, the Church, the City, the ‘ancient’ universities and the ‘public’ schools. McKibbin himself came to one of the ‘ancient’ universities from the University of Sydney, and he has not lost a robust Australian antipathy to antiquated forms of privilege. He cannot help wondering why the Labour Party was so timid in the face of them and why its leaders thought that British society could be democratised by redistributing wealth without redistributing social and political authority. Would it not have been possible for the country to evolve in the direction of either American-style or Swedish-style democracy?
It’s an intriguing question. But it raises another one. Suppose the Attlee government had started to re-engineer the political system on an American or a Swedish model. Would the electorate have liked what they were getting? There are aspects of each which it is very doubtful that they would. The question is not readily answerable, since not only the political but the demographic, geographical, military, commercial, ethnic and cultural history of Britain would have to be rewritten if the British political system were to evolve in such a way as to fall into the same sub-type of ‘democracy’ as either Sweden or the US. But it is not immediately obvious what electoral benefit the Labour Party would have gained had it tried explicitly to move the country’s institutions in either an American or a Swedish direction.
No doubt a more iconoclastic Labour government could have done, or at least attempted, some things that Attlee’s didn’t. The monarchy was untouchable: republicanism had been a lost cause since before Victoria’s jubilee, and it suited Labour as well as Conservative politicians to preserve the Crown as the symbol of national unity. But the House of Lords wasn’t untouchable. Nor were the public schools, the established church, or the electoral system itself. Nor is it as if dislike of old-style privilege was confined to the left. I wonder how many readers of this paper will recognise the source of the following quotation: ‘A party that cannot gain power without a big share of the working-class and lower middle-classes’ vote cannot afford to be led predominantly by a group of Old Etonians, however gifted they may be. This makes a bad joke of democracy and nowadays it is seen that way, especially by the younger generation.’ The answer is Reg Bevins, one of the few working-class Conservatives to hold ministerial office, who was equally scathing about the ignorance among ‘top brass’ civil servants of the living conditions of working-class families in London and Liverpool. You don’t have to be anti-elitist to be sceptical of the merits of the public school system, or scornful of the Gilbert and Sullivan trappings of much of English political life, or cynical about the appetite of Labour politicians, acolytes and donors for peerages. Yet it all carries on almost as if Queen Victoria was still on the throne and the voters choosing between parties led by Gladstone and Disraeli.
Perhaps, therefore, the conclusion to draw is Disraeli’s own, in his much quoted interview with the Old Etonian Marxist Henry Hyndman: ‘It is a very difficult country to move, Mr Hyndman, a very difficult country indeed.’ The political history so readably, as well as convincingly, analysed by McKibbin has plenty of dramatic surprises and unexpected reversals of fortune. But once given escape from defeat in two world wars whose outcome was by no means inevitable, ‘gradualness’ was virtually bound to be the way that things would go. That, to be sure, was what the Fabians had always assumed. But then they had assumed that it would mean gradual but irreversible advance towards their idea of a socialist state. It may have been just as well for the Labour Party’s subsequent electoral fortunes that Attlee, when asked late in life by his wife if he’d really been a socialist, agreed that he’d at any rate not been a ‘rabid’ one.