Triumph of the Poshocracy

Susan Pedersen

  • The British People and the League of Nations: Democracy, Citizenship and Internationalism, c.1918-45 by Helen McCarthy
    Manchester, 282 pp, £65.00, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 7190 8616 8
  • A Lark for the Sake of Their Country: The 1926 General Strike Volunteers in Folklore and Memory by Rachelle Hope Saltzman
    Manchester, 262 pp, £65.00, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 7190 7977 1

After the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-17 and with no sign of war abating, my husband’s grandfather, the oldest child of an impoverished widow in the central German town of Kassel, ran away to join the navy. He was hungry, and though underage and not really military material imagined sailors probably got enough to eat. This was a good guess, and while he had a chancy time of it – surviving the loss of his ship, the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow and more than a year’s internment in a Merseyside POW camp – he never starved. His sister back in Kassel got rickets, the result of severe malnutrition.

Behind this story and so many like it was the wartime British naval blockade of Germany. And behind the policy, Lord Robert Cecil, the maverick son of the late Victorian Conservative prime minister Lord Salisbury, and minister for blockade in Lloyd George’s wartime government. The aim of the blockade was to damage Germany’s war effort but not Britain’s relations with neutral states, and it appears to have been fairly successful, for by the winter of 1916-17 there were not only shortages of necessary matériel but also starvation across Central and Eastern Europe – an experience that sapped public support for the war and helped fuel the revolutions of 1917-18.

Did the experience of running the blockade predispose Cecil to his next great cause: the effort to construct a ‘guarantee of peace’ through the League of Nations? Through 1918 and 1919, Cecil teamed up with American counterparts to draft the League Covenant. At the heart of the doctrine of collective security lay the principle that the individual ‘rogue state’ would be brought to reason through collective action by the rest, especially through the ‘economic weapon’ of sanctions. International censure and hardship, it was assumed, would drive people to force their governments into line.

The blockade was still in effect during those discussions. Although it had in a sense done its work – Germany had asked for an armistice, a fragile democracy had emerged – it would not be fully lifted until the Treaty of Versailles was signed. But as the months dragged on, and news of hunger and unrest throughout Central Europe spread, objections grew louder to a ‘weapon’ that did its work by starving women and children. The blockade didn’t so much end the war as shift its target – and ‘for my part,’ one Liberal MP stated, ‘I prefer the weapon which means men facing men with arms in their hands.’ When a diehard Conservative peer, the Duke of Northumberland, made the point that it was ‘those who are always most fervent in the cause of humanity’ who seemed especially eager to support this ‘particularly abhorrent’ weapon, he clearly had Cecil and the internationalists in his sights.

Cecil would have had an answer ready. He was not a hypocrite, and his support for economic sanctions, and indeed for the League project as a whole, was of a piece with his political faith. The public should take responsibility for foreign policy, he would have retorted: that was the whole point. If an ‘old diplomacy’ of secret treaties and the balance of power had caused the war, only a ‘new diplomacy’ of open agreements accountable to democratic publics could make power change its ways. The blockade, doing its work on the young and old alike, was one way to teach that pitiless lesson.

That she was responsible for the good conduct of the nation would probably have struck my husband’s great-grandmother, bent over her washtub, as absurd. But it did not seem absurd to the millions of ordinary citizens of all nationalities who supported the League project in those tumultuous years. In virtually every member state, and in some that were not members, societies sprang up to educate citizens about the League and enlist them behind it. The societies had distinct characteristics and were only loosely affiliated; but together they incarnated what Hume called the ‘party of humankind against vice or disorder’, an alliance of the cosmopolitan and civic-minded determined to keep national hatreds at bay. And of those national societies, none was more important than the British League of Nations Union.

Helen McCarthy’s book is the first full study of the LNU to be published in more than thirty years. It is an important work of recovery. Almost forgotten today, the LNU was one of the largest and most vibrant voluntary associations of the interwar years. With around 400,000 individual members organised in some 3000 local branches at its height in 1931, it rivalled both the major political parties and the churches in its size and reach. Millions of Britons joined LNU branches at some point in their lives; virtually all of them would have heard speeches or radio broadcasts by Cecil, the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray, the suffragist and internationalist Kathleen Courtney, or some other LNU luminary. Then there’s the LNU’s most famous effort, the ‘Peace Ballot’ of 1935, in which 38 per cent of adult citizens took part and which – so the LNU argued – demonstrated the public’s overwhelming support for the League’s ideals. Although a United Nations Association emerged after the LNU’s demise in the late 1930s, it never gained such a following.

Did the LNU’s strength mean statesmen conducted foreign policy differently, as Cecil hoped? Were prospects for lasting peace improved by the LNU’s dogged efforts? These are not really McCarthy’s questions. This isn’t so much a book about the League of Nations or indeed about foreign policy: its approach owes more to Tocqueville than to E.H. Carr. McCarthy’s real subject is interwar British democracy, and the LNU is a way to examine its changing practices and norms. Who signed up to be internationalism’s foot soldiers? What kind of culture sustained this popular movement? Trawling through the detritus of branch minutes, pamphlets, memoirs and LNU publications, McCarthy offers some answers.

Her findings won’t surprise anyone familiar with the new social history of those years, or even the middlebrow fiction. The LNU became a genuine popular movement, drawing passionate support from all classes; it also deliberately recruited its leadership from across party lines. Inevitably, however, the organisation took root among those whom Michael Frayn would later call ‘the Herbivores’: the ‘do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC’. Free Church congregations were more likely to join than Anglican ones, Protestants more likely to join than Catholics, and while a small majority of branch members were Conservatives, the organisation’s leadership was dominated by independent-minded intellectuals who were liberals in their ideology if no longer always in their party affiliation. Civic-minded women played a major role but so too did married couples, the LNU acting as a harbinger of a new culture of leisure and sociability in those years.

The ‘quiet citizens’ (as McCarthy calls them) threw themselves into the work of supporting ‘peace’, but it’s how they went about it that’s most revealing. The LNU took the principle of democratic accountability seriously, but it also assumed that ‘ordinary people’ needed to be instructed in their new role. Education – some would say propaganda – was always the first task: branches mounted thousands of lectures and distributed millions of pamphlets, and much work was put into developing innovative classroom materials to teach schoolchildren a narrative of international co-operation. Some 1500 schools-based LNU branches sprang up, with enthusiastic young supporters attending special summer schools or visiting Geneva to observe League bodies at work.

Yet the message those schoolchildren received was strangely apolitical. Co-operation was the watchword, to such an extent that matters of real political disagreement were avoided altogether. The organisation refused to ‘take sides’ on such issues as the General Strike and the Spanish Civil War. It was also adamantly non-partisan, insisting that citizens of all political faiths, from the convinced socialist to the true-blue imperialist, belonged in its ranks. Indeed, the empire, at its height in those years, was seen as entirely compatible with internationalism, being portrayed in LNU literature not as the source of Britain’s global power, much less as a catalyst for international resentments or colonial rebellion, but as a model of harmonious development and interracial co-operation that other empires would do well to follow, or even as the prototype for the League itself.

McCarthy shows that the LNU’s inclusive rhetoric did little to challenge and much to reinforce the social and intellectual hierarchies of the time. Every Conservative and every Labour voter, every mistress and every maid should support the League cause – so the LNU said. Yet the organisation’s belief in the ‘possibility of social consensus under conditions of social inequality’, its easy assumption that the mistresses would be on the platform and the maids in the audience, inevitably appealed more to those who were satisfied with the status quo than those who were not. Trade unionists accustomed to a more plain-speaking (and masculine) politics found the LNU mealy-mouthed and patronising; the maids weighed the pleasures of LNU lectures and opted for the cinema. The organisation’s determination to recruit from all political parties, too, may have done more to obscure than to bridge real ideological divides. Too quick to be satisfied with formal professions of faith, the LNU was slow to acknowledge the conditions and caveats party leaders put on their support. Only when the Chamberlain government made clear that its foreign policy was no longer based on the Covenant – since the League, as Chamberlain put it in February 1938, was now ‘unable to provide collective security for anybody’ – did the LNU realise it had to take sides. But once it took on the Conservative government, the illusion that it was above party crumbled and with it much of its middlebrow support. Although formal membership remained at almost 200,000 in 1939, the circulation of Headway, the LNU’s organ, plummeted from 100,000 in the early 1930s to 8000 in 1939 – a good indicator of the scale of the catastrophe. With battle lines hardening, the Herbivores fled.

*

The League of Nations Union in McCarthy’s account was not only a vehicle for mobilising people behind the liberal internationalist cause but also one of the many civic institutions that defined the peculiar political culture of interwar Britain. Activist but deeply anxious about civic or partisan strife, this culture prioritised social harmony, even if that meant differences were swept under the carpet. Indeed, just how determined the ‘party of humankind’ was to rule social conflict out of bounds is made clear in a second recent study, of the massive mobilisation of volunteers during the 1926 General Strike.

That strike has always had an odd place in British history. Though it was the largest 20th-century industrial action, neither at the time nor subsequently have people known quite what to make of it. Called by the General Council of the TUC in support of the miners’ struggle to avoid draconian wage cuts in a poorly run industry being weaned off government subsidy, the strike was an astonishingly successful demonstration of working-class resolve. Between 1.5 and 3 million of a unionised workforce of around 6 million walked out on 4 May, bringing virtually all hauling, loading, lifting, drilling, driving, stoking and even typesetting to a standstill. If the goal was to secure specific economic concessions, however, the strike was an ignominious failure. With neither the miners nor the mine-owners interested in compromise, the Conservative government determined not to negotiate, the TUC itself very reluctant to escalate matters, and, crucially, tens of thousands of volunteers falling over themselves to take over the strikers’ work, the General Council simply called the action off on the ninth day. Many strikers returned to face harsher conditions or victimisation, but the miners, living up to their unrivalled reputation for courage and cussedness, stayed out for seven months – a bitter and scarring experience eerily replayed nearly six decades later.

Oddly, however, the General Strike isn’t remembered this way. That is, unlike (say) Ramsay MacDonald’s decision to form the National Government in 1931, or even Callaghan’s handling of the Winter of Discontent in 1979, the strike is not remembered as one of the labour movement’s great failures. Instead, it is usually recalled (if at all) as a crisis that failed to happen, or even as the moment when Britain faced the prospect of revolution and turned aside. The fact that the strike was conducted virtually without violence and, as Beatrice Webb put it in her diary, opened ‘with a football match between the police and the strikers’ and ended ‘with densely packed reconciliation services at all the chapels and churches of Great Britain’, was taken not only by almost the whole of the press but even by Webb as evidence of ‘what a sane people the British are’. The ‘British workman’ could never be turned into a ‘Russian Red’, or the ‘British businessman and country gentleman into an Italian Fascist’. British culture was immunised against the Continental viruses of open class antagonism and political extremism.

Rachelle Hope Saltzman’s study of the activities and attitudes of the hundreds of thousands of strike volunteers allows us to look more carefully into that celebratory narrative. Saltzman seems an unlikely chronicler of the events: she is American (as I am); she conducted her research for this book in the bitter aftermath of another miners’ strike in the mid-1980s, returning to it several decades later; and, most unusually, she is a folklorist, not a historian, drawn to this episode mostly for its playful, world-turned-upside-down character. The book, as a result, has its limitations: there is no real account of the causes and course of the strike itself or of the shadowy government organisation that enrolled the volunteers, and some historiographical judgments (the claim, for example, that ‘with the exception of the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution, the 1926 General Strike may well be the most written about and reimagined event in British history’) are naive or just plain wrong. But for all that, the book succeeds in drawing on memoirs, newspaper articles and a great many marvellous interviews to capture the motivations and experiences of the many thousands of men and women who volunteered to keep basic services running.

The strike emerges not as a great national festival but as a ritual enactment of the politics of class. Although there were working-class volunteers, the great majority of those who signed up to drive lorries, deliver supplies or run canteens were not. They were not all the Oxford men of popular legend, of course (although the ancient universities did decant their students en masse), but they did not, let us say, aspire to hold the post of delivery man on a permanent basis. They took on these tasks in the belief they were defending ‘the country’ against the forces of chaos: as the son of two volunteers explained, it never occurred to his parents that they were ‘strike-breakers’. They saw what they did as ‘a return to … wartime service’. Volunteers insisted that they were not anti-Labour but rather ‘for their country’. As one Girton alumna put it, while they were sorry for the miners, they thought the strike had to be defeated, ‘as it was based on the rule of force rather than law’.

Servants of the law they might have been, but if Saltzman’s sources are to be believed those undergraduates and bank managers had a whale of a time, and their status as ‘volunteers’ gave them a high degree of licence. Careening a mile or two off the scheduled bus route to deliver a pretty girl to her front door was treated not as a sacking offence but as a sign of chivalry or high spirits; society mothers were said to have seized a chance to introduce their daughters to eligible young men. Driving trains and bedding down in impromptu barracks after a celebratory beer could be great fun, and the accompanying chorus of praise must have been pleasant too. When this ‘lark for the sake of the country’ was over, the volunteers went back to their books or banks in a haze of self-congratulation, surely agreeing with the newspaper that proclaimed: ‘Truly, we are an amazing people.’

There is at once something admirable and terrible about the mindset revealed in this episode. On the one hand, volunteers showed a level of energy, pluck and concern for the common good that seems remarkable today: that they would spring to the defence of their country went without saying. Yet what they were defending was, after all, the idea that the ‘economic weapon’ of the General Strike, unlike the ‘economic weapon’ of sanctions, was beyond the pale, and that the fate of a million miners could not – if ‘the constitution’ were to survive – be a matter for state action. ‘Constitutional government is fighting for its life,’ Neville Chamberlain, by no means one of the hardest of the government’s ‘hard men’ (that would be Churchill), wrote in the middle of the strike, and many Britons – including not a few trade union leaders – agreed with him. But if one didn’t take quite such an apocalyptic view, or perhaps even thought that managing the coal industry was the government’s job, the volunteers’ readiness to have a week’s fun driving trains had a nasty undertone. Christopher Isherwood, remembering the episode in Lions and Shadows two decades later, thought it revealed not the splendid sanity and patriotism of the British but how deeply entrenched the class system was. For ‘the Poshocracy had won, as it always did win, in a thoroughly gentlemanly manner,’ and so completely that it could now ‘pretend that nothing more serious had taken place than, so to speak, a jolly sham fight with pats of butter’. See how easily we can do without you, the volunteers seemed to tell the strikers. It turns out that we – not you – are essential to the country, and don’t you forget it.

Nothing is more revealing of the power of this ideology than the fact that Saltzman, probably unconsciously and against her avowed political affiliations, herself succumbs to it. Her prose incorporates the opposition between the trade unions and ‘the public’, the working class and the ‘country’, that Conservatism promulgated at the time. She tells us, for example, that workers in more than two hundred unions struck to support a million miners, but then adds that even so ‘the general public’s hostility to being inconvenienced outweighed much of the sympathy they might have felt for the miners’ plight’ – a formulation that excludes the strikers, not to mention a million miners, from the ‘general public’. Labour’s claims, we learn, had ‘little resonance for anyone other than the working classes and the intellectual left’, an odd dismissal given that the majority of the population was working class. Sentences like this take for granted precisely that class hegemony that demands explanation.

Studies of interwar political culture have proliferated in recent years, as historians have argued that the sources of Britain’s atypical stability and ‘constitutionalism’ are to be found there. McCarthy and Saltzman echo those arguments, but their recovery of the activism and commitment of ordinary citizens is welcome and new. British politicians didn’t lay such stress on conciliation between the wars simply because its weary citizenry had retreated from politics to tend their herbaceous borders: they did so because the better-off portion of the population, accustomed to considering itself ‘the nation’, was willing to drive trains or deliver supplies to defend that status quo. But if both books portray mobilisation in defence of ‘peace’, the peace the LNU sought was in the first instance international and not domestic. It’s thus worth asking whether McCarthy’s argument about the fixation on social harmony and its likely effect on social differences would hold in the international realm as well. Did the LNU’s inclusive internationalist rhetoric increase transnational understanding or justify Britain’s global hegemony? Were those hundreds of thousands of British citizens truly a force for reconciliation?

McCarthy doesn’t ask this question: had she done so, she might have been driven towards something uncomfortable. For the complacency and aversion to political conflict that were the LNU’s besetting sins also affected its foreign policies, quite possibly with damaging effects. The LNU tended to assume that Britain was the League’s strongest supporter because it was the most selflessly internationalist power: what it couldn’t quite acknowledge was that Britain could play that role because the League was very largely a British creation, formed in the wake of a war the British Empire had won (insofar as any state won) and to enforce settlements the British had crafted. But other states were well aware of, and resented, that bias. While the British tended to think of the League’s mandates system as a means of raising colonial administration to the level of international ‘best practice’ (which they assumed was British practice), the French saw it as a British scheme aimed at forcing the French to govern their territories to suit British ends, and the Germans as nothing more than an excuse for annexation. Perhaps a more forthright acknowledgment of British interests – as, in the domestic realm, a more forthright acknowledgment of class interest – would have provided a more realistic basis for ‘conciliation’, but such thinking ran against the ‘selflessness’ that was believed to be the only honourable basis for voice. Just as Saltzman’s volunteers insisted they represented ‘the country’ and not their class, so McCarthy’s League supporters were certain they defended ‘civilisation’ or ‘humanity’ and not their nation, and did not ask why British interests and ‘humanity’s’ interests seemed so often to coincide. ‘Whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat,’ Proudhon once wrote – an untrue statement, but one that internationalists would do well to ponder.