Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

As I get older – and I have another birthday coming up – I reflect with detached curiosity on the changes I have seen. The most considerable change has only just occurred to me. When I was young we all believed in Progress and so did a couple of generations before us. We followed the guidance of Dr Coué and chanted in unison: ‘Every day in every way I am getting better and better.’ Progress was a watertight guarantee that, despite temporary setbacks such as world wars, all would come right in the end. Few people believe that nowadays. Take that incomparable achievement of the 19th century: the railways of this country, the finest method of moving about ever devised. Now they are degenerating fast and we are assured that they will degenerate more: fewer stations, fewer lines, fewer trains. Soon they will come to a halt altogether. Roads are an inadequate substitute. A few years ago the motorways were supposed to be triumphs of engineering. Now they are falling to pieces. The Severn Bridge is rusting. ‘Spaghetti Junction’ may soon have to be closed altogether. I am enough of a motorist to have learnt that it is safer and quicker to travel off the motorways than on them, but one hard winter, it seems, has brought havoc even to the ordinary roads of the country. It all sounds like the end of the Roman Empire. Destruction as an ideal has taken the place of Progress, as witness such varied activities as the riots at Toxteth and the manufacture of nuclear weapons. When Malcolm Muggeridge and I were young we used to speculate about the end of civilisation. Little did we expect it would come in our lifetimes.

I regard myself as a loyal member of the Labour Party. By this I mean that I usually disagree with what it does. Take the indignation against the cricketers who have gone to play cricket in South Africa. I am totally against apartheid. I have often refused to visit a country where my principles were against its government: Italy under Mussolini, Germany under Hitler, Spain under Franco, Czechoslovakia since 1948. But these were my individual decisions and so it should always be. Who am I, who are the indignant members of the House of Commons, to dictate the morality of others? Plenty of English people go to South Africa and for that matter to wickeder countries in order to make money or merely to enjoy themselves. Why pick on the cricketers and not, say, on the businessmen? If these cricketers are subsequently excluded from English Test teams at the request of other Commonwealth countries, that is perfectly reasonable. But I believe every man is entitled to take his own conscience as his guide. I am against witch-hunts, whether against cricketers who play in South Africa or academics who once provided Soviet agents with a lot of harmless information.

There is another question on which I am out of line, this time in disagreement with my old friend Michael Foot. Five 20th-century prime ministers and one non-premier (Joseph Chamberlain) have statues in the lobby of the House of Commons: Balfour, Asquith, Lloyd George, Churchill and Attlee. The inclusion of Joseph Chamberlain seems rather odd unless it be meritorious to wreck first the Liberal and then the Conservative Party. But let that pass. Now it is proposed to put up a statue of Stanley Baldwin, three times prime minister. What’s wrong with that? But Michael says the Labour Party will not support the proposal. The grounds of objection are strange. First Baldwin defeated the General Strike. Actually Churchill had far more to do with the defeat of the General Strike than Baldwin had. Indeed it was Baldwin’s conciliatory attitude that ended the strike so peacefully. Then it is said that Baldwin was responsible for large-scale unemployment – nothing like as great as under the most recent Labour government. Baldwin was an appeaser. To the best of my recollection, we in the Labour Party were for appeasement and we condemned Baldwin for spending too much on armaments. Finally Baldwin got rid of Edward VIII. The best day’s work Baldwin ever did. Otherwise we should have been saddled with a pro-Nazi monarch. I remember George Lansbury telling me that ‘Stanley’ was the only friend the Labour Party had on the Tory benches. That’s good enough for me.

What is Michael afraid of? Is it that if Baldwin gets his statue Ramsay MacDonald will come next? And what is the Labour Party going to say then? MacDonald – the man who created the Labour Party, who secured its first victory in 1906, the man who made Labour the second party in the state and outmanoeuvred Lloyd George and the Liberals, the man who took a brave line during the First World War. Oh dear, what a nuisance historical legacies are. I fear I should not welcome a statue to MacDonald. But then I was against him at the time, unlike most Labour MPs. Nowadays the Labour Party seems to be united only in opposition to their leader and to each other.

Ramsay MacDonald ought to be the hero of that strangely-named party, the Social Democrats. After all, he led a breakaway from the Labour Party, just like the Social Democrats. National Labour actually had a leader, a party organ and Whips – all unlike the Social Democrats. I don’t think our political system works except on a two-party basis: either you are for the Ins or for the Outs, there is or should be no third choice. My former pupil, William Rogers, has just pronounced on The Politics of Change.[*] I sought guidance from him and found little except that the two established parties have made a fine mess of things, which I knew already. I am curious about the alliance between the Social Democrats and the Liberals. If the Social Democrats agree with the Liberal Party, why do they not join it? If they do not agree, why are they in alliance with it? Rogers says firmly: ‘As a new party, the SDP has a momentum which the Liberal Party lacks.’ Hence, he implies, the SDP will run the show after the triumph of the Alliance. If I were a Liberal, I should keep a sharp look-out on my allies.

However, I am very glad not to be involved in politics nowadays. They really are a mystery to me. I remember a time, nine years ago, when all our troubles were attributed to the abrupt rise in the price of oil. Dear oil caused inflation. It caused unemployment. In fact, it has apparently shaped our economic fate to the present day. Now the price of oil goes down and I am told that we are nearer ruin than ever. What is more, oil is to resume its place as the principal source of our energy. Coal and nuclear power will both be priced out of the market. All very bewildering.

I have just read that a piece of sculpture has been cut to commemorate the victims of Yalta, by which apparently is meant the Soviet citizens whom the British and American authorities repatriated to Soviet Russia at the end of the Second World War. But the question of the Soviet citizens in Western hands was never mentioned at the Yalta Conference. At Yalta the Big Three decided that Germany should be under Four-Power control and should pay large reparations to Soviet Russia. They decided that the eastern frontier of Poland should be that devised by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon in 1920. The question of Poland’s western frontier was left to the Peace Conference that never met, but it was assumed to be the River Oder and the Western Neisse. The Provisional Government of Poland was to be reinforced by ‘democratic elements’ from the West and would then be recognised by the Big Three. There were other clauses, including the Soviet promise to enter the Far Eastern war within three years of Germany’s surrender. But nothing, so far as I can see, about the repatriation of Soviet citizens. Those who now run this topic, and that of the murders of Katyn, fail to understand the atmosphere of 1945. The Western powers wanted the total defeat of Germany and were willing to pay the price. The choice was between the Nazi domination of all Europe and the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Many people, including especially Soviet and Polish exiles, now think the price for the defeat of Germany was too high. I expect soon to learn that the Holocaust never took place and that Hitler was the champion of Western civilisation. I am of a different opinion and still think the Yalta agreements were a good day’s work. No doubt I am old-fashioned.

The legend that President Roosevelt knew all about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor before it happened has, I see, surfaced again (Times, 8 March). This seems to me unlikely. Even the Japanese Government did not know what Admiral Yamamoto was planning and Yamamoto himself did not know how successful the attack would be. One might as well claim that Churchill sent the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser Repulse out to Singapore so that they should be sunk, as indeed Sir Arthur Harris foretold that they would be Keynes said, ‘All business is a bet,’ and so are most things in life from birth to death. Would the rulers of Europe have plunged into war in 1914 if they had foreseen the consequences? Would even Roosevelt have suppressed all news of the coming Japanese attack if he had foreseen that half the American battle-fleet would be destroyed? Great historical events stem more often from mistake than from cynical calculation.

[*] Seeker, 199 pp., £7.95, 22 March, 0 436 42080 5.