Say not the struggle

J.M. Winter

  • The Labour Governments: 1945-51 by Henry Pelling
    Macmillan, 313 pp, £25.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 333 36356 6

Judged by European standards, the role of intellectuals in the history of the British Labour movement has not been especially distinguished. There are no figures in British Labour history of the stature of Jean Jaurès, Karl Kautsky or Antonio Gramsci, whose theoretical and historical works have been recognised as significant contributions to socialist politics. Furthermore, the debate over revisionism largely, but not completely, bypassed English socialists, most of whom were unconcerned about the status of Marx’s work as a guide to the development of capitalism. Despite the productivity of the Fabian Society in publishing tracts on socialist themes (194 appeared between 1884 and 1920 alone), its members were a polyglot mixture of middle-class socialists, free-thinkers and advanced liberals whose lack of involvement in the organised working-class movement was one of its characteristic features. At the same time, British intellectuals of the Left never had an easy political path to follow. At times treated with contempt by trade-unionists who had an ouvrieriste suspicion of middle-class manners, labour’s intellectuals have throughout this century been more politically isolated in Britain than perhaps in any other country. In addition, their rejection of fundamental aspects of British society was never complete or unambiguous: thus the history of British radical intellectuals has never been the history of an intelligentsia. This is part of the explanation for the weak or non-doctrinal character of labour politics in Britain over the last three generations.

But if British intellectuals have never provided the Labour movement with a workable theory of political action, they have nonetheless fulfilled an important political task – that of offering it a record and a sense of its own history. In one sense, British intellectuals have constructed history in place of theory: retrieval of the past has become on occasion a substitute for thinking out a strategy for the future. And this has met a real need within the Labour movement. One primary challenge which has repeatedly faced the rank and file of organised labour in Britain (and elsewhere) over the past century is that of how to deal with political failure. What the early historians of labour offered was a way of coping with political despair, a means of surviving reversals by locating them within a long and complex experience, the scope and outcome of which are always bound to remain obscure to contemporaries. In this sense, the retrieval of lost strikes, abortive insurrections, political compromises and collapsed utopian experiments which forms a large part of the history of the Labour movement in Britain was carried out in order to give heart to activists or militants of whatever persuasion. This body of writing showed how other men and women in the past faced similar defeats and still managed to survive and to pass on the message of the struggle to the next generation.

Labour history was created, then, as an assertion of the dignity of defiance. It is not surprising, therefore, that much of the pioneering work in this field was done by labour activists who were also distinguished historians. In this as in so many other areas, the Webbs showed the way, but among the founding fathers of the craft, R. H. Tawney and G.D.H. Cole made distinctive contributions to the study of the culture and institutions of working people. Activists’ history, though, inevitably offers a positive invitation to revisionism, for the question arises as to whether partisan historians can distinguish between the record of the past and the need of the present to create a past in its own likeness. For this reason, and also because of the appearance of an increasingly voluminous mountain of archival material which scholars can now consult, Labour movement history has in the past thirty years turned into labour history, which is largely the study of the institutions of labour set in the context of the evolution of working-class communities. One of the earliest and most prolific of this generation of more detached historians of labour is Henry Pelling. From his early account of the Origins of the Labour Party to his histories of trade-unionism, the Labour Party and the Communist Party, all models of compression and precision, he has supplied essential works of reference for anyone embarking on the study of working-class politics. His latest book is a clear and concise account of the policies of the Attlee Governments of 1945-50 and 1950-51 and of the pressures under which they operated.

The style is the same as that of his earlier work: self-effacing, unemotional and efficient. The clash of ideas and personalities is relegated to the background; lines of institutional development and decision-making set the parameters of the story. One senses that precisely because of the highly-charged and partisan character of earlier writing on labour history, Henry Pelling has made it his business to provide accounts of working-class politics which avoid the sound and fury of contemporary struggle. How much a matter of choice this is will be clear to anyone who glances at the other major study of the Attlee era to appear recently, Kenneth Morgan’s Labour in Power 1945-51, which does find room for the passions and personalities of the period. That Pelling has chosen not to write this kind of history shows where he stands in the contest between the idea of the labour historian as professional scholar and the idea of him as guardian of the struggles of past generations of working men and women. Of course, there is nothing in any way unprofessional about Morgan’s book: but what is of interest in this context is its emotional appeal, an appeal which Pelling has consistently eschewed throughout his long and fruitful historical career.

The choice in question here is one that confronts anyone who writes labour history, simply because the working-class movement has developed a number of what Henry Phelps Brown has recently referred to as myths presenting ‘an account of past happenings that epitomises and inculcates a certain interpretation of contemporary affairs ... With the force of drama it convinces the British trade-unionist that he is inherently liable to oppression and exploitation and that the working class is engaged in a continuing struggle to defend and advance itself.’ For thirty years, Pelling has set about reducing these ‘myths’ to the level of documented narrative, and in the case of the Attlee Governments, he has done it again. Sobriety characterises all his findings. The election landslide of 1945 was largely a ‘swing of the pendulum’ and not a reflection of a socialist majority born in the turbulence of war. The nationalisation of hospitals, which in part made the National Health Service possible, was less the inspiration of Aneurin Bevan than of John Hawton, his chief civil servant – the measure was not even part of the Labour Party’s programme. Even on an issue as close to the hearts and minds of the party leadership as the nationalisation of the mines, Pelling’s account emphasises muddle and improvisation: no heroic culmination of decades of struggle here. Shinwell, as Minister of Fuel and Power, found in 1945, to his embarrassment, that there was no blueprint for nationalisation at all. Each of these arguments is rigorously documented; they form the basis of a powerful study which adds substantially to our knowledge of the period.

And yet there is a sense in which an account of Labour history which sets ‘myth’ ruthlessly aside is incomplete. Phelps Brown’s remarks on Labour’s myths are vitally important here. After all, social movements, like individuals, seem to need such things in order to survive, and they are apt to develop a life of their own which may be as important as electoral or ministerial history. The election landslide of 1945 has (not surprisingly) been a constant source of inspiration and refreshment to leaders and rank and file alike in the subsequent generation. Either as a latterday St Crispin’s day or as the culmination of a sixty-years’ march, 1945 and the subsequent six years of Labour Party rule have become – and indeed had to become – the stuff of which myths were made. How the Labour Party nurtured these images of virtue triumphant and vice deposed from the earliest days of peacetime is a subject any historian of Labour must treat. And it is one that sheds light on the anachronistic rhetoric of much of today’s debate on the future of the party.

The only way to take the measure of a myth is to set it alongside a carefully-researched account of the period to which it refers. In this respect, we are all in Pelling’s debt. But the quiet, undemonstrative style of his work is double-edged in its effect: if it shows that Labour historians do not need to stand up and be counted in order to write good history, it also deprives much of that history of the passion and conviction which give it its special character. There is a Tom Lehrer lyric which sends up the romanticism of the American Left: we have all the good songs, though they may have won all the battles. Both the songs and the battles matter, and Labour history must attend to both.