The British Left

Jul 08

The Search for Socialist Fellowship

In this paper from my research project on Other People’s Struggles, I examine how wealthy Victorian socialists addressed questions of solidarity and fellowship. My focus is the degree to which the socialists thought their own lives needed to change in order to play the roles (which were of course diverse) they assigned to themselves and those like them in the socialist movement. I am interested in whether, when and how the disjointnesses of background and experience and present positioning – wealth, privilege, modes of living and so on – were perceived as problematic for an emerging socialist movement, what solutions were proposed and adopted, and how successful they were.

To provide some focus, I will examine four distinct views on this question in 1883, the year of the great Socialist revival in Britain. They come from three men who each declared himself a socialist in that year: William Morris, Edward Carpenter and George Bernard Shaw, and two who had already done so: Sidney Webb and Belfort Bax.Morris_smooth_leaf

Of the ways that Socialist Fellowship is made

The first case I consider is William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite artist and businessman. Morris was perpetually troubled by the ‘great class gulf’ that impeded true fellowship among socialists. For him, socialism was not just a set of beliefs one might entertain, but a prefigurative social practice which must be lived. What he wanted most for workers was not improved labour organisation, nor electoral independence, nor even the acceptance of socialist doctrine, but a whole-hearted embrace and exemplification of fellowship in ordinary life. Socialism for the rich was not only a matter of encouraging workers to achieve solidarity among themselves. The rich could not live as though indifferent to the sources of their wealth, but needed somehow to renounce it and its horrible provenance in capitalist exploitation. They too must achieve fellowship with the workers.

This was difficult. Morris felt separated from working men by painful disjointnesses of background. It was hard to move from the intimate fellowship he had enjoyed in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to the larger, rougher and unfamiliar world of the working men’s clubs. The tensions were partly a matter of differences over socialist strategy. Morris was torn between his Marxist distaste for ameliorative parliamentarism and palliative trade unionism – at least when they were made part of a socialist programme – and the desire for an intense comradeship with working men. He acknowledged that differences of background might underlie these differences of strategic perspective. ‘I have always belonged to the well-to-do classes, and was born into luxury’, he told one audience, ‘so that necessarily I ask much more of the future than many of you do’. But how could fellowship with working men be achieved if one disapproved so much of the strategies and institutions they had developed for themselves? Morris could not feel content with the heightened ambition that privilege had given him. Class differences also seemed to him ‘strange … sad and shameful’, and he thought that his audiences would find them so too.Morris_smooth_leaf


orris’s unhappiness persisted because the gulf that divided him from the workers was not just a matter of past background, but also his present manner of living as an employer and a wealthy man. A further challenge, therefore, was that so neatly worded by G. A. Cohen in his question for socialists today, ‘If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?’. This question frequently arose at Morris’s lectures. He replied that when socialism came he would be willing to sink his wealth into the common stock of the nation and work for the same wage as everyone else. But for the present, it would do no good because even the richest were ‘but minute links in the immense chain of the terrible organisation of competitive commerce’. ‘The poor would be just as poor, the rich, perhaps, a little more rich’, Morris retorted to a heckler, ‘for my wealth would finally get into their hands’. To give away his wealth would not amount to more than a drop in the ‘great ocean of economic slavery’, he told a friend in 1884. Such sacrifices might reduce the anxiety of his workers’ lives. But this would be almost worse, because they would fritter away small sums on ‘swinish comfort’, and larger sums would turn them into little capitalists. There was another difficulty too. It would not be fair to expect his family to bear the cost of his principles. ‘I feel the pinch of society, for which society I am only responsible in a very limited degree’, he wrote.

Morris’s arguments do not provide a strong defence of the rich egalitarian. Even if the primary injustice under capitalism is a systematic inequality which cannot be corrected by individual giving, the rich egalitarian can still do something now to remedy the secondary injustices suffered by the poor. Even a drop in the ocean might nonetheless make a real difference to the lives of the recipients. This is tacitly accepted by many rich egalitarians who accept the obligation to give something to the poor and who only resist giving most of what they have. Moreover, the money Morris gave to the socialist cause mostly ended up in the hands of capitalists too, but he did not regard that as a sound reason for not spending it. Even accepting the priority of the struggle over private giving, Morris did not, of course, give most of his wealth to that either.Morris_smooth_leaf

It is therefore tempting to dismiss Morris’s arguments as hypocritical. Maybe he found it too hard to renounce beautiful objects and the means to acquire them. For Morris, perhaps, Liberty trumped fraternity and equality. But this would be to simplify a complex discomfort. Morris made little use of more reasonable defences for the rich egalitarian. To expect the rich to give away most of what they have, Cohen suggests, is to expect more of them than others, because they will feel the self-inflicted pain of the loss more sharply than the poor who have no choice and are used to it. Morris, however, would have thought this reply unsatisfactory because it drew lines between socialists on the basis of their class backgrounds and experiences. The question that drove his own socialism was, ‘How could you bear it yourself?’. The reply implied by Cohen’s argument – ‘You couldn’t, but they can’ – was unacceptable to him, because in justifying persistent differences of wealth in terms of different expectations and needs, it reinscribed the difference between the rich socialists and the workers with whom they sought fellowship.

Cohen also argues that there may be pragmatic reasons for the rich to retain wealth and position. Morris’s wealth allowed him to finance party activities that could not have been afforded otherwise. It paid to bail out working class demonstrators when they were arrested, and for the printing and distribution of socialist tracts. Morris’s social position also enabled him to take greater risks on the platform than working-class speakers, and to pull rank in the police station or court room. But, again, although Morris did exploit his position, he disliked doing so, because it drove a wedge between himself and his comrades, exposing the differences of wealth, experience and background which his socialism sought to abolish. What he needed to satisfy his desire for fellowship were not justifications for disjointness, but a means of achieving conjointness.

Conjointness, however, was not easily achieved. The pretence that as a craftsman-employer he was a worker like any other – ‘a workman, at any rate in my own way’ – fooled no one, least of all himself. The self-questioning – ‘How could you bear it yourself?’ – could achieve only a hypothetical sharing of the worker’s life-experiences. It might prompt shame, the uneasy emotion Marx had described as a ‘revolution of a kind’. But shame was not the primary feeling of workers, rather of the shamed rich, and could not ground fellowship.Morris_smooth_leaf

Instead, Morris sought to erase the differences through participatory conjointness, that is, through the feelings of belonging created by common experiences in the movement itself. He was, as Hyndman acknowledged, ‘even too eager to take his full part in the unpleasant part of our public work … never satisfied unless he was doing work … he was little fitted for, and others of coarser fibre could do much better than he’. He ‘carried the banner, sold literature, took the hat round for collections … acted as a sandwichman, between placards advertising Commonweal …. gave a hand with the smallest mechanical details of office or branch organisation’. In Glasier’s affectionate depiction of him, Morris, dressed in his famous rough blue shirt, is continually suggesting collective activities, walks and discussion, and picnics and singing, and refusing the deference that workers offer him. Hyndman himself behaved differently. He addressed audiences of working men wearing the garb of a stockbroker (which he was), offering ironic thanks to the workers for their stupidity in keeping him in his privileged position. This invocation of disjointness was consistent with Hyndman’s wider views. ‘A slave class cannot be freed by the slaves themselves’, he believed. ‘The leadership, the initiative, the teaching, the organisation, must come from those who were born into a different position’. The problem was that, however theoretically correct, Hyndman’s disjointness was alienating. ‘At almost every meeting he addressed’, the socialist trade union leader Tom Mann recalled, ‘Hyndman would cynically thank the audience for “so generously supporting my class”. Indeed, he brought in “my class” to an objectionable degree.’Morris_smooth_leaf

Morris, by contrast, ‘did not harangue his audiences’, or so Glasier tells us, ‘but spoke to them as a man to his friends or neighbours and as one on their own level of intelligence and goodwill’. In a way Hyndman could never have done, Morris cheerfully admitted that he struggled to understand Marxist economics, and solicited everyone else’s opinions on political questions rather than impose his own. His ‘chants’ for socialists were, unlike those earlier in the century, neither instructions to the workers to ‘rise like lions’, nor attempts to speak on their behalf, but were written from the midst of a common struggle in which all were comrades, in which there was no special place for the socially smart, and ‘named and nameless all live in us’. Above all, Morris shared the risks of the cause. He was arrested for assaulting a policeman in 1885, and summonsed for obstruction the following year.Morris_smooth_leaf

It is hard to be sure how successful participatory conjointness was. Morris found a basic and insoluble problem of address. He couldn’t employ the mateyness that Mann and John Burns used in their speeches. ‘[I]t is a great drawback that I can’t talk to them roughly and unaffectedly’, he wrote after a meeting in Stepney in 1885. His diary of political meetings in 1887 frequently records a lack of connection. ‘I shall have to be as familiar and unliterary as I can’, he told himself before addressing a ‘rather rough lot of honest poor people’ in Mitcham. But even the best audiences were quiet, unresponsive and uncomprehending; and the worst, ignorant, ‘perfectly supine’, and ‘degraded’, with drunkenness often the only thing that prompted a critical intervention from the floor.

Morris’s lectures were also heavy with instruction, because his purpose was to convert workers to socialism, rather than offer them the half-loaf of palliatives they already wanted. His value to the socialist movement came from the expensive education that had made him ambitious, insightful and eloquent concerning their condition. When his journalism was criticised for its difficulty, he responded that he ‘could not offer to the workers what he did not himself think good’. But this was bound to leave such audiences feeling that the small betterments that they sought through the unions and co-operatives were unworthy, and that there was some higher, less selfish goal that they were missing or perhaps could not comprehend. This rarely aroused hostility. The atmosphere at Morris’s meetings tended to be, as Shaw described it, one of ‘ignorant and uncertain reverence’. The deference was a sign of Morris’s value, but also of a difference he hated yet could not erase. His audiences always contained a large component of those who had come to see Morris the artist and writer – the ‘distinguished curiosity’ who still lived at a distance from them.Morris_smooth_leafMorris_smooth_leaf

Of William Morris and participatory conjointness

Of Edward Carpenter and isolated conjointness.

The possibilities of a deeper conjointness were being explored elsewhere in 1883 by another of that year’s converts to socialism. Edward Carpenter had abandoned the church for university extension lecturing, but was frustrated to find that his audiences consisted not of manual workers but other middle class people. In 1883, he met Morris and Hyndman and paid for the Democratic Federation to launch its newspaper, Justice. But Carpenter’s desire for conjointness took him in a different direction to either of them. Using a legacy from his father, he had purchased Millthorpe, a house and seven-acre plot of land in rural Derbyshire, which he spent the year repairing and improving. In Towards Democracy, also published in 1883, Carpenter set out his vision of conjointness with the unprivileged.

This required a sharper break than Morris felt able to make. Millthorpe involved a commitment to self-supporting labour, simple living, and a reorientation of friendships and associations. For Carpenter, divestment meant much more than disposing of financial assets, but a reconsideration of every convention of daily living, from clothing to diet and health, household arrangements, and family and personal relationships. He advocated simple dress not merely on grounds of health and cost but also so as to remove the disjoint class signals which expensive clothing introduced into human interactions. He also embraced radical democratic notions of learning from below. The poor not only knew things the elite had forgotten but knew all one needed to live conjointly. He ‘seems to live in great amity with the workmen and the women’, wrote Morris after visiting Millthorpe. ‘[T]hey all live together in the kitchen and ‘tis all very pleasant’.

For all this, Carpenter found a lived egalitarianism effortful. His early days at Millthorpe, living amid a ‘perfectly illiterate unprogressive country population’ were lonely. Over time, however, he did construct an extensive network of personal friends, which included manual labourers, though also many of the disillusioned and lost middle classes too. Like Morris, Carpenter adhered most readily to craft workers rather than newly organising semi-skilled or unskilled workers. His relationships with them did not always match his hopes. Many workers were distressingly materialistic and ambitious, and remained stubbornly attached to cheap goods. They missed the possibilities of the ‘larger socialism’ and new ways of living in fellowship. 

These were perhaps the unavoidable inconsistencies of any such effort at adherence. Carpenter’s social experiments were, after all, artificial and impossible for anyone poorer to emulate. Millthorpe was a freehold property, purchased with his legacy, so its commercial viability rested on inherited wealth. When its stresses became too much for him, there was always the possibility of a foreign holiday for recuperation. As his biographer acknowledges, Carpenter had not become poor himself, but was ‘looking at the poor and outcast and willing himself among them’. Carpenter did more than any of his generation to show how a middle class man of private means could detach himself from a Victorian upbringing and its expectations. Where he was less successful was in reattachment to something else.

But it is arguable that was never his intention. Carpenter sometimes romanticised the notion of becoming one with the poor, but he did not minimise its difficulties. Far from fostering fellowship, he argued, contact with the poor usually punctured it, requiring great patience and tolerance. Many of those of Carpenter’s own class who fetched up at Millthorpe with dreams of ‘crossing over’ were either dabblers with hopelessly impractical schemes, or drifters who hoped to postpone any manual work until the day when the socialist revolution made it unnecessary. ‘[B]elonging neither to one class nor the other, outcasts from one, and more or less pitied or ridiculed by the other’, wrote Carpenter, they were in a kind of spiritual limbo. What he wanted for himself was not to become working class, but to displace class: to live as though class did not matter. This is what has made him such a fine visionary example for contemporary libertarian socialists. To them he seems a man ahead of his time. But for the purposes of adherence to other people’s struggles, especially when the struggle is oriented to solidarity, being a few steps ahead is still to be out of line. Carpenter’s desire to displace class was unhelpful to those for whom class emphatically mattered. They saw class difference as not something to transcend, but, on the contrary, as the basis of struggle.

As a consequence, Carpenter remained remote from the tasks of organising workers or building socialist parties. He was, of course, not a political hermit. Like Morris, though less energetically, he managed to erase some of the disabling disjointness of his own background through the shared experiences of open-air speaking, pamphleteering, street corner politics, ‘amusing and exciting wrangles with the police and the town-crowds’ and their associated intimacies. But he resisted taking up membership, making alignments and commitments. He could ally with movements which wanted a loosely affiliated friend, but not with more organised struggles for whom commitment was the cement needed to fix adherents in place. This was Morris’s own conclusion. He contemplated the attractions of Millthorpe ‘with longing heart’, sensing the attractions of ‘a decent community as a refuge from our mean squabbles and corrupt society’. But to throw up the political struggle for such a retreat would be ‘dastardly’. Voluntary simplicity of life was all very well, but socialists’ task was to end the involuntary simplicity of the lives of the poor.

In the terms I use in my book Other People’s Struggles, therefore, this was a project of limited ambition, not in the relationship it proposed to workers, which was admirably uninstructive, but in terms of its projected size and timescale. Through his own example and the stimuli it gave to others, Carpenter showed that an individual could live very largely as though class did not matter, provided a blind eye were turned to certain founding anomalies like the legacy that had kickstarted Millthorpe. But he had nothing original to say about how to get to the place where class no longer mattered. 

The year 1883 also saw the formation of another socialist body interested in conjoint fellowship in small numbers. This was the Fellowship of the New Life (FNL), which Carpenter characteristically associated with, but did not join. It emerged from a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the spiritual emptiness of Victorian bourgeois life. Its socialism came from recognising that the unearned privileges of the middle classes rested on ‘the ceaseless toil, cheerless lives and the pinching want of the masses of the people’ and its ambition was ‘to refuse to have a part in, or to profit by, the competitive system’ through living a communal life. Other socialists, the FNL held, deferred the improvement of personal character until after their economic and political schemes were complete. But this was to put the cart before the horse, for such schemes required a prior, or at least parallel, ethical transformation too. Its ethos was ‘the cultivation of a perfect character in each and all’.

The FNL therefore advocated the dignity of labour, and much the same renunciation of luxury as Carpenter did. But it did so not so much in the interests of solidarity with the poor, as of personal improvement so as to set a better moral example, not to workers but to members of their own class.

The special interest of the New Lifers lay in the personal ethical dilemmas of the middle class socialists. Its journal Seed-Time ran a regular feature on ‘Every Day Ethics’, which covered such questions as ethical shopping, whether middle class socialists should employ servants or own shares, what they should wear, and whether they should travel third-class on the railway. For Maurice Adams, socialist fellowship precluded rent and profit, all of which were ‘tolls levied on the worker’ and involved living off others. He argued for ‘voluntary service of all, by each, and living by one’s own labour’. He and other correspondents to Seed-Time argued that interest was theft, so socialists ought not to profit from shares, but only invest in co-operative ventures which did not pay dividends. But others argued that no matter what socialists did, shares in joint stock companies would still exist. Socialists who divested would thereby deprive themselves of any influence over the capitalist firm in the matter of wages and conditions. ‘We cannot by one step take ourselves out of the Actual into the Ideal’, J. F. Oakeshott concluded. Socialists should not stop shopping, Clementina Black urged, but enquire about the true costs of goods they purchased and press for the formation of a Consumer’s League to enforce fair prices. Giving to the poor also presented a dilemma. Clearly the poor needed money, but would donations really help them, or end the conditions which made them poor? Perhaps it was better for middle class socialists to make them interest-free loans, or pay for socialist activity? On the vexed question of servants, Edith Lees hoped that simplicity of life and a general commitment to manual labour would make domestic service unnecessary in a socialist home. But until then, she wrote in Seed-Time, socialists must dispense with a spirit of servitude, that is, treating their servants merely as means and not ends in themselves. The article prompted correspondence defending the good socialist mistress, and complaints about the poor quality of the servant class.

Amid such difficulties, the re-education of desire sought by the FNL could therefore best be achieved by living apart.  Like Millthorpe, it was more an exercise in detachment than adherence. ‘Class breaking’ was potentially so difficult that it was only possible with a supportive group of likeminded and similarly situated souls. The FNL was unusual in a socialist organisation of its time in actively discouraging membership. ‘Do not, unless you cannot help it’, was its advice to prospective members. Isolation and small numbers were needed for the members to keep each other up to the mark. In 1891, the New Lifers set up Fellowship House in Bloomsbury.  In Attainment, a novel written by Edith Lees, one of its inhabitants, the FNL is thinly disguised as the Brotherhood of the Perfect Life. Their efforts prove well-meaning but ineffectual. It takes the maid ‘an hour extra in the mornings to undo the heroic attempts of the Brotherhood at manual labour’, and she is pleased for all the wrong reasons when they double her pay. The problem is that the devotees of the Brotherhood have arrived at socialism by being satiated and bored by capitalism, rather than exploited by it. This is why they want the rewards of a simple life, but this necessarily puts them at odds with those they want to help, who simply want a better rewarded one.   The FNL sought an end to the disjointness of their relationships with the workers, but only managed to achieve conjointness with each other. Depth and intensity in conjoint relationships could be achieved, but at the cost of social isolation.


cientific Marxist thinkers, like Engels, Aveling and Bax, the anxious desire for conjointness exhibited by Morris, Carpenter and the FNL was unnecessary. Fellowship was for the future, communist society. Solidarity in the working class would be produced by capitalist exploitation, which would create first a single class interest and later class consciousness and common action. But such solidarity would not extend to the middle class, which was bound to fight against its impending dissolution. As a class, it could never be persuaded of the justice of the proletarian struggle. The FNL’s hope of ‘moralising the capitalist’ was therefore an idle one. Of course, individual members of that class might adhere to scientific socialism through coming to appreciate the direction history was taking in advance. They were therefore invited to ‘renounce their class’. This meant, however, not that they should seek to be at one with the proletariat, but that they should devote their ‘influence, wealth, or educated intelligence … to bring about the inevitable change as speedily and as peacefully as possible’.

Bax thought that the desire for deeper conjointness was a residual form of guilt, fostered by Christian religion and the utopian socialism it had inspired. Christianity, with its passion for individual salvation, was naturally concerned with the inward character of its believers. Modern Anglicans held that believers must put their beliefs in practice, and not merely prepare for the kingdom to come. But modern scientific socialists were different. They looked not inwards, but outwards to the forces needed to transform a whole society. Such a transformation required more than acts of expiation on the part of individuals. Nor should socialists seek guidance from small experimental communities like the FNL or Millthorpe, or from isolated gurus like Carpenter. The correct direction for socialists must be deduced by a proper examination of economics and history at the scale of the whole capitalist system, not artificial micro-communities perched inside it.


ocialists should therefore not condemn Hyndman for refusing to deny – indeed, for continually signalling – his class. What else could he do? For Bax, ‘whenever the Socialist hears of a man professing or striving to practise Socialism in his life he knows he has to deal with either a fool or a humbug’.  Nor should Morris feel guilty about the position that capitalism had placed him in. A socialist employer could, of course, choose to pay the minimum union-agreed wage, but should not imagine that doing so would bring the proletarian revolution a day closer. Nor should he feel obliged to give away his wealth. It might be an act of kindness, but it would not make him ‘any more of a Socialist than the man who keeps his pockets more tightly buttoned up’. To emulate the poor, moreover, was mere sentimentalism. The condition of the proletariat was neither desirable nor enviable. For socialists to seek to share it rather than end it was to place personal cleanliness ahead of the collective good. ‘I know of a young man who thinks it an act of Socialistic virtue (not an unfortunate necessity, mind!) to live on 15s. a-week with wife and children’, Bax wrote in disgust. But all he had done was to prove what every capitalist wanted proved: that it was possible to survive on very low wages.


n early 1884, Bax’s newspaper To-Day serialised George Bernard Shaw’s novel An Unsocial Socialist, which its author later claimed to be the ‘first English novel written under the influence of Karl Marx’. Its protagonist is Sidney Trefusis, who has inherited land from his mother and shares from his father’s cotton business, but on reading Marx becomes disgusted with his own class and its means of profit. He leaves his wife five weeks after their wedding, and disguises himself as a labourer, Jeff Smilash, whose conversation alternates bewilderingly between forelock-tugging deference to his social betters and Marxist political economy. When, out of embarrassment, a lady offers him more than the lowest market wage, somewhat in the manner of the Brotherhood of the Perfect Life, Smilash gives her a lecture on Marx’s theory of surplus value, concluding, ‘You have a noble ‘art, lady; but youre [sic] flying in the face of the law of supply and demand’.

However, although he disguises himself as one of the workers, Trefusis does not identify with them. On the contrary, he finds them supine and ignorant. They will have to be saved by the superior brains of intellectuals if they are to be saved at all.


n the question that troubled Morris, Trefusis takes a robustly unabashed attitude. If rich socialists sold their shares, they would only get into the hands of some other capitalist and the workers would be no better off. Even private munifence is pointless. Schools originally built for the poor, like Eton College, were invariably appropriated by the rich. ‘Plant [a park] at the very doors of the poor so that they may at least breathe its air’, Trefusis comments, ‘and it will raise the value of the neighbouring houses and drive the poor away’. In any case, there was no point in ministering to poverty, for ‘[n]o matter how much you give to the poor, everything except a bare subsistence wage will be taken from them again by force’. Trefusis is angry about all this, but in contrast to Morris, he refuses to feel guilty about it. It is not his fault that he is where he is.

Shaw thought the FNL mistaken to put personal perfection ahead of political organising, and found his socialist home in the Fabian Society. In an early paper for the Fabians, titled ‘Why we do not act up to our principle’, he pointed out that most Socialists lived off rent, interest or profit, and some were direct exploiters of wage labour. But he denied, like Bax, that this was hypocritical because he thought no one could live as a socialist yet. The worker could not do so, because if he refused to accept less than the fair price of his labour, he would never get work. The capitalist could not live as a socialist because if he refused to take interest or profit, his firm would be bankrupted, reducing him to the position of the worker. Even the socialist consumer could only purchase goods made through exploitation, because under capitalism there were no other goods to be had.

There was no escape in divestment either. The rich socialist could neither enjoy her wealth, but nor share the life of the poor. ‘[W]ealth cannot be enjoyed without dishonour’, Shaw wrote in 1884, ‘or foregone without misery’. Unlike Carpenter, Shaw refused to be sentimental about the condition of the poor or the supposed wisdom born of living cheaply. The workers did not want spiritual enrichment and the simple life, but the relief of poverty and material goods. Trefusis also expresses Shaw’s own conviction that there were deep divisions of experience and feeling between the classes which could not be bridged with fellowship. While he admired Morris, Shaw thought his ‘costly and carefully dyed blue shirt’ was an affectation. Socialism must reconcile itself to an unabashed disjointness. Socialists must not try to get on with everyone. They must be unsocial and somewhat heartless.

For Shaw, then, the task of the middle class socialist was neither to seek to share the life of the poor, nor lament her inability to do so, but to stay put and act as an irritant within her own class.

Shaw’s provocations made people think and smile, and mercilessly exposed false argument. The harder question for Shaw’s fellow socialists was whether his outrageous performative disjointness was any basis for a political movement. Trefusis, after all, disconcerts and tricks his hearers, but converts no one to socialism. Even Bax, who shared the analysis, found the continual play of Shavian paradox and amusing inversion wearing.  For his part, Morris liked Shaw’s book, and indeed Shaw himself, but also thought him sometimes too ‘superior’ in his lectures. ‘He has … got a pocket of conundrums which he pulls out from time to time: his real tendencies are towards individualist-anarchism’, he wrote after hearing Shaw speak. He was also unhappy with Shaw’s inability to reach the working class who made up a large proportion of the audience.

Bax and Shaw’s unabashed disjointness was, like other approaches, neither a good thing or a bad thing. It simply limited the possibilities of the adherent’s contribution in a distinctive way. The only common location the unabashedly disjoint adherents would admit to their working-class audiences was one of being on the same side of history, but without acknowledging a shared understanding that this was the case. Their paradigmatic contribution was the instructional lecture, at which Shaw excelled. Yet even Shaw’s lectures could leave his working class audience feeling strangely put down. Shaw ‘fails to “catch hold” of the ordinary man … ’, wrote Sidney Webb, ‘just as a locomotive engine, when its wheels revolve fast without making the train progress’.

Of Belfort Bax and Bernard Shaw and unabashed disjointness.

Of Sidney and Beatrice Webb and functional disjointness.

Sidney Webb shared Shaw’s view that the rich socialist could not rest content with the unearned income she derived from rent or interest on capital, ‘much of which inevitably comes stained with tears and blood’. Mere divestment was also no solution, he wrote to Jane Burdon Sanderson, for under capitalism, ‘[w]omen and children will be oppressed and starved with your capital, whatever you do’. But in rejecting scientific Marxism’s catastrophist account of the evolution of capitalism, Webb and the Fabians also came to reject its conclusion that little could be done to live as a socialist until the revolution. For the Fabians, socialism was already making converts through its evident superiority as a mode of social organisation. Since socialism was already on the march, there were useful things that wealthy socialists could, indeed ought, to do now.

The socialist shareholder should, Webb advised, retain her shares so as to be a responsible steward of her wealth, writing to the directors of the companies in which she held shares to urge higher pay. She should consume, but – a typical Fabian prescription – make proper enquiries as a consumer. The primary duty of every healthy adult, Webb insisted, was to work full time for her living. To live off the labour of others made one a mere drone, and ‘a dead loss to the world’. The Fabian theory of rent identified unearned income as the main way that the rich lived, legally but immorally, off the work of others. But rent included not only land and capital but also that part of income enjoyed by the skilled which was a consequence not of their efforts, but of luck, opportunity, educational advantage, and the vagaries of supply and demand for their particular skill. This ‘rent of ability’ was not simply a bonus to be privately enjoyed. Like land and capital, it was a social resource to be used in the interests of all. For him to fail to place it at society’s disposal, Graham Wallas argued, was as bad a failing as for a landlord to fail to maintain his property, or a rentier to live idly on unexamined investments.

Socialism also meant a frugal life. The socialist, Wallas believed, should consume personally at a level no higher than he could do were capital fairly distributed. In Webb’s view, rich socialists should restrict their own private expenditure to the level set by the needs of their own working efficiency, but not a penny higher.  Socialism, according to Beatrice Webb, meant ‘not .. simply the grasping of good things by the Have nots, but a deliberate giving up of luxury and fashion by the “Haves”’. For all but the poorest, this meant cutting back. This was bound to be difficult to do. Sidney agreed with the simple life, not because it was good for the character, but because it was efficient.

The Fabians therefore acknowledged immediate personal obligations which were more demanding than those accepted by the scientific Marxists. But they were also more extensive than those envisaged by the FNL. The FNL insisted on a significant change of life, but confined such obligations to fellow initiates. The Fabians, by contrast, envisaged duties and responsibilities on a national scale, which covered not merely the rich, but also the talented in every sphere. Like the Marxists, however, the Fabians believed that socialism could not be achieved in miniature, by moralising private individuals. The duty of the rich socialist could not be, as Carpenter had proposed, to ‘hand rent back’ to his own tenants or workers. Rents did not properly belong to them either. They were produced by social co-operation, and had therefore been appropriated from the community as a whole and not from individual members of the proletariat. Carpenter’s proposal that wealth should simply be ‘passed on’ locally to the less privileged was therefore much too close to charity. Fairness could only be achieved when the state assumed responsibility for collecting and administering rents for everyone.

The Fabians therefore soon moved away from the small questions of personal conduct examined by the FNL. The New Lifers were interested in washing their own domestic relationships, such as those with servants and shopkeepers, clean of the stains made by capitalism, in much the same way as they washed their own clothes. By contrast the Fabians, to pursue the analogy, wanted a public enquiry into the conditions of domestic service and municipal laundries. To the Fabians, separated, quasi-socialist ‘communities’ were a poor model for socialism. They usually failed even on their own terms, and when they prospered it was almost always by abandoning the elements of socialism with which they had started. Any shortlived success was an illusion created by forgetting to take into account their founding capital, the missing costs of maintaining children, the old and the sick, and the fact that their members already agreed on so much. Real societies could take none of these for granted. ‘Wise prophets nowadays’, Webb argued, ‘do not found a partial community which adopts the whole faith; they cause rather the partial adoption of their faith by the whole community.’

Conjointness for the Fabians meant the common duty of all able-bodied individuals to contribute to the collective good through useful work. To the Carpenter and the FNL, however, this looked more like efficiency than fellowship. Compared to their own thick but restricted notion of community, the Fabians offered something more extensive but thinner. Fabianism would not involve committed individuals living directly for each other, as in a small socialist community. On the contrary, it would preserve significant differences between the ways people lived, justified in the name of efficiency. Under Fabian socialism, work would not be of equal value, nor would there necessarily be equal incomes. Shaw alone argued for them, and not until much later in life. Far from giving up his vocation or its rewards, Wallas thought, the intellectual ‘must see that he gets his full pay’, but then dedicate it to social service. There would probably still be social classes, although they would be differentiated not by varying amounts of control over factors of production but simply by ability and function, and they would not differ much in status.

Within the socialist movement, the Fabians therefore practised and preached a functional disjointness. The affluent socialist should neither surrender her advantages, nor feel bad about them, nor reserve them for fellow-members of a private community, but develop them through work for the general good. Such work might include attentive managing of her own investments, or participation in local government, or opening her home for socialist discussion among her friends. She should not worry too much about the social distance such specialisation created between herself and workers. This was unavoidable given the increasing complexity of society and the demands of efficiency. For people to do things for which they had not been trained –a valued learning technique among New Lifers – was to the Fabians an inexplicable waste of talent. What socialism needed was not for people to become interchangeable in their various social roles, but more distinct and expert and oriented to the collective good. United by the thin sense of common duty, but divided by different competences, growing numbers of socialists – conscious or unconscious – would each have their own part to play, whether as workers by hand or by brain, producers or consumers, representers or represented.

These were the four principal answers to the question of socialist fellowship in the 1880s. What is most striking is the wide spectrum of view, ranging from those who thought that to become a socialist involved changing nothing other (though nothing less) than one’s core beliefs, and those who thought it meant changing everything else too. It is also clear from the breadth of the disagreement that the problem was an intractable one. None of the solutions was without its drawbacks. Unabashed disjointness did not promise immediate fellowship at all: even proposing itself as an alternative to it. Isolated conjointness was intense, but hard to broaden to workers. Functional disjointness was broader but thinner. It still meant split lives. Adherents who sought conjointness through vigorous participation encountered the difficulty that to be useful as participants they had to preserve aspects of themselves which continued to signal that they were special and different.

In the longer version of this paper, I explore these divisions of opinion and approach in more detail, and trace the trajectories they followed after the 1880s. I also make some contrasts between the questions that arose here and those which arose when middle-class socialists acted as labour representatives, which are the subject of another paper written for the research project on Other People’s Struggles.

Concluding matter.


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Jul 06

Labour Representation and the Professional Classes

The picture above shows Oliver Baldwin, son of the Conservative party leader Stanley Baldwin, campaigning in the October 1924 election in Dudley, a West Midlands coal-mining and iron-founding town at the heart of the Black Country.

Oliver Baldwin was himself a candidate in the election. He was, indeed, a candidate for Dudley. But what was unusual about his candidacy was that he was the Labour candidate. The photograph shows him campaigning in the back-to-back housing of Dudley, which was, according to Baldwin, a ‘dreary, poverty-stricken place’, electorally corrupt, and ‘very backward politically’. The Topical Press Agency, or perhaps the photographer John Warwick Brooke, ironically captioned the photograph as Baldwin ‘canvassing his next-door neighbours’. Needless to say, Baldwin did not live next door. He shared a farmhouse in Oxfordshire with his lover Johnnie Boyle, who had in turn been provided with it by his brother-in-law Lord Macclesfield.

The photograph is certainly fascinating.

This is not a group engaged in general interaction. If it were, they would be standing in a loose semi-circle and we would have to study the photograph closely before being able to pick out the candidate. By the 1950s, photographs of that sort – the candidate ‘sharing a joke’ with the voters, or getting down to their level – would become commonplace. Eventually they would become a campaigning cliche.

But the photograph here shows a pre-democratic situation. It is not a general interaction, but an encounter between two sides, divided by the vertical of the fence-post into a wary stand-off. There is no difficulty whatsoever in picking out the candidate. He looks directly at them, and they, directly and indirectly, look back at at him.

oliver_baldwin_closeupOliver Baldwin has also dressed down for the encounter. He has removed his jacket and also his shirt collar. Indeed, his shirt is open at the neck. To meet the ‘respectable poor’, he has chosen, for himself, not to be ‘respectable’. His trousers do no look especially well-tailored. They resemble workman’s heavy wool trousers of the kind you can now buy in Shoreditch at inflated prices, and are held up with a rough leather belt. However, Baldwin’s hair, presumably harder to change for the occasion, is elegantly waved, and his moustache is neatly clipped. He is a tall man, certainly; perhaps half a head taller than anyone else in the photograph. His hands are pushed deep into the pockets of his workman’s trousers, in the confident manner of his class. His gaze is downward, the line of the nose almost perfectly vertical. Baldwin, in common with many other Labour candidates from the middle- and upper-middle classes, had been an officer in the trenches, and his gaze seems to resemble that used in military inspections it had evolved in a conscript army: not fierce or severe, but professionally concerned. His brow is slightly furrowed, in the manner described by Raymond Williams as the gaze of concerned ‘man management’: ‘the calmly apprising eyes (narrowed about an eighth of an inch; more would look suspicious), the gentle silences, the engaging process of drawing the man out’. ‘Having taken these surroundings, having really got the feel of his people, he will point the way forward’.

Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (London, 1961), 333.

The constituents are also intriguing. They, in contrast to Baldwin, seem to be wearing their Sunday best clothes. Their expressions – although we should always be wary of expressions in newspaper snapshot photography – suggest a mix of responses. The daughter, if that is who she is, looks excited and eager to please. Her smile is certainly the largest.

The man, wearing jacket and tie, is more smartly and less effortfully dressed than Baldwin. But he does not look nearly as much at his ease. He is not making eye contact with Baldwin. He looks towards the women in the family. Perhaps he is concerned how they will appear to Baldwin or to the press photographer. Perhaps he is concerned for them in this artificial, contrived situation.

The older women, however, look more wary. There is a marked contrast between the assurance of Baldwin’s expression and the strain in theirs. He looks directly down at them. But the older women do not directly face Baldwin. In each case, the head is half-turned towards him, creating a sharp line of muscular tension in the neck. In one case, furthermore, the glance comes only from the corner of the eyes, a line of gaze characteristically indicating suspicion and unwillingness to face straight towards an interlocutor. While Baldwin’s hands are pushed deep into his pockets, her hands grasp the wooden fence, her left arm is placed protectively across the line of his gaze, and there is more tension in her face than his.

Baldwin failed to win Dudley in 1924. It was, he later wrote, a ‘personal campaign of beer, lies and bitterness’ which ended in a narrow victory for the sitting MP, the Conservative and Unionist Cyril Lloyd, chairman of Hingley’s, one of the large local iron-working and chain-making firms.

In his autobiography, The Questing Beast (1931), Baldwin claimed that the constituency had been so ‘hopeless’ that no one else had been prepared to take it on after the previous Labour candidate had polled fewer then 2,000 votes. In fact, the situation was not so hopeless. Labour had narrowly taken the seat in a by-election in 1921, and the low vote in 1923 had been the consequence of a Liberal intervention. Nonetheless, Baldwin continued to nurse the seat through the second half of the 1920s, and was rewarded in 1929 when he took it, on a swing of 8% (about twice the national swing to Labour) and a 3,000 majority.

How should we understand Labour candidacies like that of Oliver Baldwin? Until recently they were barely known about, and the accounts that have appeared in the last few years, such as those of Martin Pugh and Kevin Morgan, suggest that show that Labour was – at least in some places – a weak party. It was financially vulnerable to rich candidates who bought their way in to candidacies, and culturally deferential to the upper classes.

I have thrown doubt on the aristocratic embrace argument elsewhere, and I do not think that the wealth argument is very persuasive either. By and large, Labour candidates who were not working class did not spend more than the working class candidates. Baldwin, for example, did not spend much on Dudley: 38% of the legal maximum in 1924 and 27% in 1929. On each occasion his opponents spent a great deal more. This point can be generalised too. As I discuss below, candidates from middle- and upper-class backgrounds spent on average less than candidates from working-class backgrounds. Of course, the seats they contested were often poor prospects, not worth spending a lot on. But then the safe seats, which often went to working-class candidates, did not need high expenditure.

I think that the best way to understand the Labour candidates of the inter-war years is to look at Labour representation over a longer period. The interwar period is the third stage of a longer process by which the Labour Party had first tolerated, or even relied on such candidates; and then quite deliberately excluded them.

This three-stage explanation – disposal, exclusion and readmittance – is one of the cases I discuss in my book Other People’s Struggles.



The first stage begins with a little-known debate that took place as the trade unions started to make their political break away from endorsing Liberal candidates in elections. The British labour movement began, as social movements emerging into a hostile environment often do, with a certain reliance on adherents. The degree of reliance was not, in comparative terms, especially great, because so many of the things that, elsewhere, only adherents could supply, were in Britain either not needed, or available to the labour movement from its own resources. Nonetheless, the labour movement did rely on ‘friends of labour’ for some specific purposes, especially advocacy in parliament and the press, and advice on questions of law and political strategy. The first important transition I discuss, which ran roughly from the late 1870s to the late 1890s, is that by which the labour movement disposed of its adherents in those areas in which it did not need them, and its growing control of the relationships where it still did.

This was not a simple process of extrication from external sponsorship, because the question of who spoke for Labour was cross-cut by disagreements over political alliances. Most of the trade unionists wanted to continue to work with the Liberals, but to exclude middle-class people from their own organizations. They wrote the rules of the Labour Electoral Association (LEA) to keep middle-class ‘friends of labour’ out. In this they were opposed by socialists and the advocates of independent labour – such as Keir Hardie – who wanted to break with the Liberals and run independently, but were obliged (or wished) to take the money and political support of middle- and upper-class socialists. The LEA wished to organize independently on the basis of class, but was willing to fight elections alongside members of other classes in the Liberal Party. Hardie and his fellow socialists of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), by contrast, wished to fight independently of the Liberals, but were willing to collaborate with members of other classes in order to do so. Both sides were therefore, of necessity, working with other classes while asserting their independence of them, and angrily accusing their rivals of dependence. Each side had its corresponding vulnerability to counter-accusations of bad faith. The LEA believed that class interests could be harmonised, but nonetheless excluded members of other classes from its own organisation. The socialist organizations, on the other hand, combined their belief in the inevitable clash of class interests with a paradoxical willingness to work politically with those of other classes.



The chances of vicarious representation of workers by the middle-classes were dealt two further blows at the start of the twentieth century, which is the start of my second period. These were the labour alliance between socialists and trade unionists (1900), and the Progressive Alliance with the Liberals (1903). Where the Liberals were strong, there was little chance for any independent labour candidate at all, from whatever background. Where the Liberals were weaker, then such a candidate might stand a chance of winning, provided he attracted Conservative-inclined working-men. In two-member constituencies, the Liberals were sometimes prepared to run alongside such a candidate, or even in single-member ones stand down in his favour, provided he was pledged to follow the Liberal lead in Parliament. This normally meant a popular union official capable of attracting workers’ votes. The Liberals had no interest in making way for middle-class candidates who did not complement their own appeal and whose anti-Liberal speeches suggested they would be unreliable MPs. The best prospects for the middle-class socialist arose where these calculations broke down, usually when local Liberals ran an unpopular employer or landlord, or imported a candidate with faddish views. But even here, things were difficult. Working-class Conservative-inclined voters were suspicious both of causes and plans for their betterment. It was hard for any candidate to get socialism across to such audiences, but the best chances lay with those who could translate it into the everyday and practical, such as populist workers and trade unionists, rather than middle-class socialists. In short, only bona fide workers would do if trade unionists and working class voters were to be seduced from their existing electoral inclinations. As a consequence, from 1906 to 1918, over 85% of Labour MPs came from working class backgrounds.



However, thereafter something quite puzzling and unexpected occurred. From 1922 to 1935, the average proportion of Labour MPs from working class backgrounds fell from 85% to 71%, and from 1945 to 1966, to 36%. The proportions among Labour candidates fell more sharply still, and in various important party positions, the middle classes came to be highly visible. This constitutes the third period of my analysis.

The core of my research in this third period is an original database of Labour candidates in the elections of 1924, 1929 and 1931. Almost all studies of the sociological character of British parliamentary parties examine elected legislators. But such data is distorted by a party’s overall electoral performance. If, as in Labour’s case, safe seats are contested disproportionately by one social group, then when the party does well it will appear more dominated by that group than when it does badly. This says something important about who was dispensable in the Labour Party, but it does not help us get a proper picture of its composition as a whole. For that we need to look at the entire pool of candidates. Social backgrounds have been explored by questionnaire for the Nuffield election studies since 1950, but not for earlier elections. However, it is possible to retrieve the data from various biographical sources in up to 95% of cases. Table 1 summarises the data I have retrieved from such sources for the elections of 1924, 1929 and 1931.


1.iiCompany director2.62.42.6
1.iiiHigher professional9.4108.7
2.iiSmall business owner or manager5.43.75.2
2.iiiLower professional23.325.427
3.iManual or non-manual supervisory8.59.89.8
3.iiSkilled manual41.538.238.1
4Semi-skilled manual55.45
Unspecified manual2.60.40.4
[number of known cases]424 cases539 cases459 cases
[% sample of candidates]512 candidates [82.8%]568 candidates [94.9%]509 candidates [90.2%]

SOURCES: The Times Guide to the House of Commons (London, various dates, 1919-1931); S.V.Bracher, The Herald Book of Labour Members (London, 1923 and 1924); Labour Who’s Who: A Biographical Directory to the National and Local Leaders in the Labour and Cooperative Movement (London, 2 eds., 1924 & 1927); Joyce M. Bellamy, John Saville and others (eds.), Dictionary of Labour Biography (Basingstoke, 13 vols, 1972 – ); G. J. Mayhew, ‘The ethical and religious foundations of Socialist politics in Britain: the First Generation and their Ideas’, (PhD, York, 1983), appendix, 618-89; British Political Party General Election Addresses: The National Liberal Club Collection from Bristol University: Part 2, 1923-31 (microfilm, 16 reels) (Brighton, 1986); 1929 election addresses, Conservative Party Archive, Bodleian Library, Oxford, CPA PUB 229/5/1-19; W. Field, British Electoral Data, 1885-1949 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], November 2007. SN: 5673, supplemented by F. W. S. Craig, British Parliamentary Election Results 1918 – 1949 (London, 1977).

Some caution is needed concerning the reliability, comparability and class categorization of largely self-reported data. Nevertheless, the broad pattern can be stated with confidence. The proportion of candidates from working class backgrounds is much lower than it was before the war. According to Neal Blewett, 84% of Labour’s candidates in 1910 were working class. In the enlarged campaigns of the postwar period, the candidate base is much more diverse, with a significant middle class presence, but of a particular type. Farmers and landowners were present in only small numbers (1 to 2% of candidates). Only about a further 6 to 8% of Labour candidates came from business backgrounds, and most of these were skilled manual workers running small businesses on their own account, such as self-employed printers and builders. This absence of significant business leadership helps to explain why it would have been impossible for Labour to have become a plausible party of industrious producers, as the Liberals with their Labour allies in some parts of the country had tried to be before the First World War, and as some Conservative businessmen-politicians and a few ‘patriotic’ trade unionists hoped to be at its end.

Neal Blewett, The Peers, the Parties and the People: the General Election of 1910 (London, 1972), 230.

Middle class Labour candidates came from the higher and lower professions and other semi-professional ‘white collar’ employment, especially journalism and political organization. In 1929, around 35% of Labour’s candidates fell into these categories. This was an early stage of a process that, for the post-1950 period, has been well documented. But it is certainly striking that the penetration of the party by professional candidates, so unsuccessful before 1918, got so far so quickly. It is, however, mistaken to subsume these quite specific developments into an undifferentiated, rising professionalism. There were frequently significant breaks with normal professional career paths among the ‘professionals’, as I shall term them. If they were lawyers, they did more work for the unions or industrial claimants than any of their colleagues. If they were lecturers, they as often taught workers as undergraduates; if writers, they were journalists for the labour press rather than men of letters. If doctors, they worked in poor districts, not Harley Street. The clergy were not orthodox clerical professionals, but displaced radicals who had often been held back by irate parish councils or bishops. The precise angle of this break varied. Labour professionals ranged from those who had done no more than undertake pro bono work for unions or party, to those who had become ancillary workers of the labour movement.

The latter group converged occupationally with the ‘workers’ – Labour candidates of working class origin – of whom almost all had become trade union officials, labour organizers, co-operative society workers or party agents. However, such ‘workers’ were not orthodox professionals either. Their skills were neither acquired through training or validated by qualification, nor did they have much value outside the world of labour. Although now occupationally distanced from the workplace, the ‘workers’ had not thereby become ‘bourgeois’. As I have shown elsewhere, working class Labour MPs rarely acquired significant personal wealth, and neither altered their modes of living, nor succumbed easily to an ‘aristocratic embrace’. This was largely because they recognised that mere historic ‘resemblance’ was no longer a sufficient condition of representativeness. The labour movement had provided for its representatives what wage labour could not: not just better pay and conditions, but also a career structure and working practices governed by relationships of trust. While many ‘workers’ still claimed to speak directly for the working class, this claim needed to be shored up not only through re-engagement with their social origins, in speeches and autobiographical writing, but also by conspicuous demonstrations of service beyond the union. Labour’s candidates therefore shared not common social origins, but a common dilemma: how to speak for a labour interest from which almost all stood at a distance.

Each therefore distinct – even marginal – in their respective social classes, these two groups – ‘workers’ and ‘professionals’ – dominated the Labour Party in and out of Parliament. Between them they accounted for over three-quarters of the candidates in 1929 and over four-fifths of the parliamentary party. Table 2 divides constituencies into five bands of equal size, defined in terms of the safety of the seat, and shows the percentage distribution of each group’s seats.




Furthermore, the ‘professionals’ grew in status as well as numbers. Using biographical data, it is possible to track their career paths. They were energetic organisers, especially where the unions were weak. They often acted as party officers and conference delegates, even where they only represented a tiny section of the local party. They were prominent in party journalism and publicity work. They dominated the new policy committees set up in 1918, especially in those areas where the unions lacked interest. And perhaps most surprisingly, to anyone familiar with the party before 1918, they achieved significant influence at the top of the party. The parliamentary party executive was quickly peopled with them. Even on the National Executive Committee (NEC), ‘professionals’ were successfully nominated and elected to represent the affiliated societies, women’s section and divisional parties, despite the fact that the unions dominated the voting. When Labour formed governments in the 1920s, the ‘professionals’ did exceptionally well. In 1929, the chances of an MP acquiring a government post of some kind were about equal for ‘workers’ and ‘professionals’. At the top, the Cabinet posts were handed out with a fairly scrupulous regard to the claims of the trade unions. Further down, the ‘workers’ were more prominent among the junior payroll posts, such as the Whips’ Office, and the ‘professionals’ among the junior ministers. The pattern of appointment to vacancies that arose as Labour governed suggests that the ‘professionals’ were likely to be a growing presence, as indeed they were after 1945.

Why did this happen? The longer historical account I provide shows that this was both a substantial break in the party’s trajectory before 1918, and that the break was unexpected. It is not easily explained by the party’s new electoral strategy, nor by its supposed penetration by pushy middle-class aspirants. The crucial distinction to appreciate, I argue, is that between the middle class presence, which rose, and its self-positioning, which remained diminished, and if anything subject to tighter control through new party structures and rules.



The diminished self-positioning is best revealed through a further examination of candidate manifestos. I have contrasted the election addresses of the Labour and socialist candidates in 1895 with the Labour Party candidates in 1929. Of the 568 Labour candidates in 1929, I have identified election addresses for 346. Of these, 124 come from ‘professionals’ and 139 from ‘workers’. I have analysed them to assess the proportion that cite ‘social resemblance’ (‘I am like you’), ‘service’ (‘I have served you’) and ‘sacrifice’ (‘I have given something up for you’). In 1895, ‘professional’ Labour candidates tended to justify themselves using the language of ‘sacrifice’, while ‘workers’ cited ‘social resemblance’ and ‘service’. By 1929, however, the self-presentation of Labour candidates had converged and standardised. Background was mentioned much less. Of my sample of 346 Labour manifestos in 1929, over three-quarters provide no significant information on the candidate’s social origins at all, contenting themselves with presentation of the party’s policies and criticism of their opponents’ record. In the manifestos of ‘professionals’, claims of ‘sacrifice’ were now a minor theme. Only three manifestos made such appeals, citing respectively sacrifice of social position, popularity and financial security. More frequently, ‘professionals’ saw nothing in their background needing apology, and employed justification by works. 36% of their manifestos cited a record of public service. The three main categories were, in descending frequency, local government, health work, and social investigation. Tellingly too, by 1929, ‘workers’ also deployed themes of ‘service’ in their manifestos, and to almost the same degree. ‘Social resemblance’ – the representative grounding of the uncrystallized social movement – was now a minor theme. ‘I have lived amongst you, and I know your needs’ sufficed for older candidates in industrial seats. But elsewhere ‘service’ was now the representative grounding required by a more crystallized social movement. The proportion of ‘workers’’ manifestos in 1929 invoking ‘service’ is 34%, almost exactly the same as it is for ‘professionals’. The proofs of service offered were most commonly work on tribunals, pay councils and industrial boards. But other forms of service were quite similar to those cited by ‘professionals’: local council committees, the defence of jobs, pensions and benefits, and the pursuit of improvements in health and housing. War had brought the ‘workers’ into many of the same bodies cited by the ‘professionals’, in defence of the living standards of workers and their communities. After 1919, demonstrated especially in local government, such services formed the core of the party’s appeal. Indeed, the party’s 1928 statement Labour and the Nation, drafted by R. H. Tawney, argued for the ‘deliberate organisation of the resources of the whole community in the service of all’, and appealed to ‘all who bring their contribution of useful service to the common stock’.

The General Election, July 1895: The address of every candidate as sent out to the various constituencies (London, 1895); British political party general election addresses: the National Liberal Club collection from Bristol University: part 2, 1923-1931 (microfilm, 16 reels), (Brighton, 1985).



In essence, then, ‘service’ became an acceptable substitute for ‘resemblance’ both for ‘professionals’ and for ‘workers’ alike. It defined a shared party culture. This common party culture persisted once successful candidates reached Parliament. Labour MPs’ claims to represent now rested on what they did, and not on a pre-emptive claim about what they were. Linking data on social backgrounds with the data of the parliamentary division lists allows us to compare the backbench activities of Labour MPs. I have used the data on backbench dissent gathered by Mark Stuart and Philip Cowley to see whether the workers and professionals differed once they got into the House of Commons. My analysis shows that by 1929, Labour was not only the most socially diverse parliamentary party, but also the most politically cohesive. Dissent was generally low. In 948 Commons divisions between 1929 and 1931, 177 of the 288 Labour MPs did not cast a dissenting vote at all. This is unusually high for a governing party without a majority. But more importantly still, there is no significant correlation between social background and backbench dissent, and this holds true wherever the line is drawn between the middle-class and working-class MPs. Rebelliousness among Labour MPs was also unaffected by social origins. The rebels came from diverse social backgrounds. What the rebels had in common were not their social origins but factional alignments, overlain with personal dispositions, friendships and other contingencies.

Mark Stuart and Philip Cowley, Dissension in the House of Commons, 1924 and 1929-1931 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], July 2002. SN: 4520.

Within Parliament, ‘professionals’ and ‘workers’ alike were guided by a single code, which valued hard work, dedication, respect for boundaries and procedure, and loyalty to collective decisions. For both ‘professionals’ and ‘workers’, such a code avoided messy questions of authenticity – who was really or really still a worker? – with a new question of performance. As the code applied to ‘workers’, the primary offences were to ‘forget where you came from’, social climbing, and succumbing to an aristocratic embrace. As it applied to the ‘professional’ adherents of the party, the sins were ‘intellectualism’ (the dismissal of practical experience), ‘irresponsibility’ (indifference to the consequences of one’s thinking or actions for ordinary people), ‘adventurism’, ‘ambition’ and ‘crankishness’ (the attempt to use the labour movement for, respectively, excitement, personal advancement, or a pet cause). These were superficially different offences. But at a deeper level they were the same offence, against a largely agreed code of service to the movement and the class.



This is therefore an account at odds with the idea of a party infiltrated by rich interlopers. I do not deny that there are examples of such interlopers to be found. But I do deny that they were typical. One way of testing the theory that middle-class candidates bought their way in to the Labour Party is to examine campaign expenditure for all candidates from the official returns. In each seat there is a ‘legal maximum’ for what may be spent by a candidate, and returns showing actual expenditure. Notoriously such returns do not capture spending between elections, or indirect spending such as the subsidy of an agent or the rental of party offices. But they do provide a useful snapshot of what could be done. Although there are certainly some examples of high spending middle- and upper-class candidates, there are also union-backed workers who spent up to the maximum. In 1929, indeed, ‘professionals’ actually spent significantly less on average – 37.7% of the legal maximum – than did the ‘workers’, who spent on average 45.5%. This partly reflects the relative insecurity of their seats, but not wholly so. The ‘workers’, on average, outspent the ‘professionals’ not only in the safe seats, where spending was in any case lower, but also in the marginal, unlikely and winnable seats where, as we can see from Table 2, candidacies were shared more evenly, and where spending was generally higher. The differences in spending in these less safe seats are not as great, and not statistically significant (around 47% for ‘professionals’ and 51% for ‘workers’ according to the definitions of ‘safety’ used). But they certainly do not suggest higher spending by the ‘professionals’. Since 1929 was an election in which the unions, bruised by the ‘contracting in’ provisions of the 1927 Trade Union Act, put in less than usual, these are noteworthy differences. They suggest that the typical case was not a rich individual flooding the local party with funds, but a ‘professional’ doing his or her best without union funds to keep the party banner aloft in often inhospitable territory.

Election expenses: Return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated 25 July 1929, for Return of the Expenses of each Candidate at the General Election of May 1929, 16 April 1930, Parliamentary Papers 1929-30 (114) 755-853.

In this regard, Oliver Baldwin, with whom we began, is an interesting case. When he got into Parliament in 1929, Baldwin was disappointed with the Party’s performance. Labour’s trade union leaders were too stupid and deferential to the civil servants to mount any serious challenge to Treasury orthodoxy. In February 1931, he left the Labour Party to sit as an Independent, close to, if only briefly, the New Party founded by Oswald Mosley. The led to a fatal breach with the local party in Dudley, and Baldwin was effectively dropped by them, and by the Labour national officials, as soon as he resigned the party whip. He was evidently loyal enough to be offered another Labour seat in October 1931, although it was the unwinnable seat of Rochester and Chatham.

Baldwin’s relationship with the party is therefore certainly one of disjointness. To that degree, the photograph, with all its visible social asymmetries, does not lie. But it is not the whole story. For one thing, Baldwin seems not to have been typical of Labour’s ‘professional’ candidates, most of whom seem to have been much more loyal to the party leadership, energetic representatives of their constituents, and valued by the party for the professional contributions they could make. But for another, even he had to operate within the culture and rules the party had put in place by 1918. It was these that made it possible for the middle-class candidate to be readmitted to the Party. The relationship, in other words, is disjoint. But it is a quite specific form of disjointness: a service relationship, tightly defined by a party culture and structures which were made in common with candidates from very different social backgrounds.

This is paperdartlogo750_turqa summary of a longer piece which is also discussed in my book Other People’s Struggles. As ever, if you would like to read it, please click on the paper-dart icon and send me a message.



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Jan 18

The Labour Party and the indignity of speaking for others

The phrase ‘the indignity of speaking for others’ was used first of all by Gilles Deleuze in 1972, at a conference in Paris, in addressing Michel Foucault. ‘You were the first,’ Deleuze said, ‘to teach us something absolutely fundamental: the indignity of speaking for others’. Foucault’s work marked the end of the era in which the Left had spoken for every social struggle, transposing their various demands into a single key. It had revealed the power relationships at work when ‘difference’ was absorbed and appropriated by the mainstream. For some in the 1970s and 1980s, this reappraisal took the form of an irreducible politics of identity, in which misrepresented and silenced groups – especially ethnic minorities, women, and gay people – contested the Left’s attempts to speak for them, and tried to make their own demands in their own voice.

This paper is concerned with the resistance that these ‘demands from difference’ encountered in the British Labour Party. There are two literatures which touch on the subject. First, there is a large descriptive literature which narrates the progress of the various demands from difference, much of it produced by campaigners themselves, or heavily based on their accounts. But there has been little attempt to examine the processes as a whole, and even less to understand the resistance that they encountered. The dominant impression to be gained from this literature is one of committed campaigners battling against unthinking intolerance in the labour movement. Secondly, there is a literature, more institutional but also largely narrative, which describes the intra-party battles between the party Right and various Lefts, soft and hard. Here the new demands are regarded as part of a Left agenda which was adopted, modified or defeated by the Right according to its new electoral strategy.

I want to suggest that the existing literature over-simplifies the processes in two ways. The first literature exaggerates the resistance, in the interests of producing a heroic account of the campaign. Its account of party attitudes is outdated and undifferentiated, as though nothing had changed since the 1950s. It fails to distinguish adequately between attitudes held by the party leaders directly – their own conscious and unconscious prejudices – and those they imputed to Labour’s electorate. It also offers no explanation of the unevenness of resistance. Some doors swung open at the first push; others were firmly kept shut. These differences were partly, but not only, a consequence of how hard those making the demand were pushing.

The second literature offers a more sophisticated explanation of the intra-party forces involved, but it too over-simplifies. It treats the new demands simply as demands of the Left, which the Right resisted on those grounds alone, as well as in the interests of an appeal to an electorate which was assumed to be generally hostile to them. This, I think, is a mistake. It lumps together a large, varied set of demands – ethnic minority, lesbian and gay, feminist, peace, anti-nuclear, green, ‘third world’ solidarity and many others – which prompted varying forms and degrees of intra-party resistance. In each of these areas, there was a cluster of demands, more or less radical. Even when allowance is made for this clustering, the new demands do not map at all neatly on to the intra-party struggle, though they were, of course, deeply marked by it. Not all of the new demands emerged on the Left; and the Left was itself divided over their significance, as indeed was the Right.

I think the difference about the new demands is neither that they came from the ‘Left’ of the ‘Left-Right’ ideological spectrum, nor that they were ‘post-materialist’ in contrast to older, materialist demands. The difference between the new demands and others lies between demands which could be articulated by anyone without significantly being altered; and demands which couldn’t. They posed a problem of voice: of who ‘speaks’ demands, and who has authority over how they are to be articulated and pursued. In short, they raised issues about representation. The resistance they aroused was primarily, though of course not wholly, on this account.

The best evidence for this view is that resistance to the demands from difference arose less over their policy implications, though of course these were resisted by some, than with their implications for representation. Labour, as a party of specialist advocates, found it easier to cope with demands for policy change than it did with challenges to its expertise in speaking for others.

In policy terms, in the 1970s and early 1980s, Labour moved quite rapidly to a position of ‘indifference to difference’: the guiding principle being that ‘being different should not matter’ in public policy arenas, such as the workplace, the police and the courts, or in dealings with local councils and social services. This readily supported a politics of anti-discrimination (though less easily a politics of identity.) By the mid-1980s Labour policy had already moved substantially to accommodate the demands from difference. It had also put clear water between itself and the Conservatives, although the electoral costs from these policy choices were considerable.

The sticking point were the representational implications of the new claims, not the radical policy content, or electoral unpopularity. This point needs be made carefully, and distinguished from similar claims.

There were six features of the new demands that made them representationally complicated.

1. First, the demands from difference were unusually strongly felt, differing from other demands not only in degree or quantity, but also type. The difference concerned was not simply another interest, to be satisfied so far as possible bearing in mind other interests. It dominated, such that it had to be satisfied first; and it was necessary, in that its being satisfied was a precondition of anything else being satisfied. Older conflicts could be reconciled through an ordering of priorities in a way which left some of them delayed but not thereby devalued. This was much harder with the demands from difference: to delay them was to devalue them.

2. Secondly, and for the same reason, the demands from difference were also not so susceptible to bargaining, i.e. trading concessions with other demands. This was because they concerned indivisible identities. In this respect, a politics of difference can usefully be contrasted with a politics of interests, in which there is scope for compromise because the interests are divisible. They can be fractionally satisfied. The demands from difference, by contrast, were, at their heart, non-negotiable, and ‘all or nothing’. For gay men, the lowering of the age of consent from 21 to 18, rather than equality at 16, was not ‘half a loaf’ but ‘no bread’.

3. Thirdly, the demands from difference were personally-owned. They concerned not just accidental attributes of the demand-maker, but essential ones that belonged to, or perhaps defined, her. Indeed, misunderstanding of what was meant by the ‘personal’ is a good indicator of Labour’s difficulties with the politics of difference. One of the main critics of the politics of difference – Eric Hobsbawm – provides a case in point. Hobsbawm’s main criticism was that the new demands appealed to identities that were merely personal choices. They were ‘optional, not inescapable’, ‘like shirts rather than skin’, he argued. This was why they could not ground a politics of the Left. Not only were they secondary and diversionary, when the main battle lay elsewhere. They were also selfish, individualistic choices, rather than social ones. But this was to move too quickly from the claim that the new identities were ‘constructed’ (rather than ‘objective’) to the view that they were therefore optional, and hence dispensable, lacking the hard, objective quality of class position. It was also to miss the resonances of the term ‘personal’, taking it to mean merely small, even quirky, and endlessly various; rather than, as the advocates of difference argued, essential to the actor and hence to the political action she might undertake. Her own identity was at stake.

4. The consequence of these characteristics – fourthly – was that the demands from difference were owned demands. Unowned demands might be defined as those which can be articulated by anyone without thereby being altered. I distinguish them from owned ones, which have to be articulated by particular people, and are diminished if articulated by others. To take examples from the period with which we are concerned, the demand for unilateral nuclear disarmament was unowned. It was common property. But the demand for the full recognition of gay identities was owned (by gay people). It was diminished by being made by others. It was also non-transferable. Owned demands may be more or less transferable, in that – while ownership is retained – they can be transferred (handed over, leased temporarily, etc) to others as advocates, or champions, or trustees. It was under such an arrangement that the unions had made the Labour Party its parliamentary agent, pursuing under license the unions’ interests. The demands from difference were both owned and non-transferable. The identities they concerned, and their accompanying interests, could not easily be transferred for others to use as bargaining-chips, because the activist was affected in herself if they were won or lost. She was not an unchanged person who had come off better or worse in a clash of interests, but a changed person. The demands from difference therefore required not a politics of representation but a politics of presence. They posed a challenge to one of Labour’s two modes of solidarity: the asymmetric or disjoint ‘cause’, in which one group campaigns on behalf of others.

5. A fifth feature of the demands from difference was that they were emergent and uncrystallized, i.e. both new (not raised before) and also still-taking-shape rather than fully-formed. In this respect too, they can be contrasted with the demands with which the Labour Party was familiar. The older demands, often pre-cooked by deliberation in the trade unions, arrived in a more or less finished state. The newer demands were still fragile and unconfigured at the time they came to be considered. They did not emerge as a unified call to the Labour Party from an undivided, oppressed, formed community. On the contrary, all the communities were split. Significant numbers were suspicious that work with unreconstructed political institutions would lead to betrayal or co-option. Examples include revolutionary feminists, radical black community activists, and radical gay and lesbian groups, all of whom favoured mobilising their own communities first, and separatist or highly cautious coalition arrangements. This was especially problematic in a context of intra-party factional dispute, because an unformed demand was more liable to capture than one which had already taken on a definite form.

6. Furthermore, and finally, the claims were also dynamic. What they meant and implied changed over time. The question of who articulated them was not resolved even once they had been introduced and adopted by the party. At issue, therefore, was not merely the significance and correctness of the claims themselves, let alone their electoral attractiveness, but questions of provenance (who had the right to make the claim) and interpretative authority (who was to interpret, redefine, manipulate the claim over time). The problem was not that Labour had no means of reconciling class and non-class demands, but that its means of reconciling them involved methods, such as the reordering of priorities, bargaining and vicarious representation, that advocates of the demands from difference could not easily accept.

I wrote this paper for a conference in 2015 on ‘Contracting Horizons: Projections of the future and imaginations of the past among the British Left in the 1970s and 1980s’ at the University of Nottingham. If you would like to read the full version, please click to the left and send me a message.

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Dec 06

The Labour Party and the Aristocratic Embrace

The article tests the claim that certain Labour MPs and ministers in the 1920s succumbed to an ‘aristocratic embrace’. It begins with a short account of debates in the early Labour Party over social mixing, which culminated in the 1924 dispute over the wearing of Court Dress by some Labour ministers. The extent of ‘embrace’ is assessed through the examination of who wore Court Dress (and why), who was offered and accepted honours, and of patterns of residence, income and wealth, and participation in London Society, measured by club memberships and appearances in the Court & Social columns of The Times. The article concludes by examining the usefulness of the idea of ‘aristocratic embrace’ in explaining the defection of J.R. MacDonald and others from the Labour Party in 1931.

What is the aristocratic embrace?

Aristocratic embrace needs to be carefully distinguished from other explanations of Labour’s political failures. Its essence is the separation of leaders from the movement they lead, through the privileges they enjoy as leaders and the efforts of the higher classes to suborn them. It therefore differs from explanations based on claims about the restricted scope of working-class ambitions, in which leaders merely express the limited demands of their followers. It also differs from theories of ‘labour aristocracy’, in which the class interest of better-paid, more securely-employed workers leads them to collaborate with the employing classes; and embourgeoisement, in which better pay leads to the adoption of middle-class habits and modes of living. Aristocratic embrace is rather a phenomenon of representative politics, in which the representatives of labour, through the privileges they gain as representatives, adopt the attitudes and style of living of higher social classes.

The notion of the aristocratic embrace is important to several conceptualisations of the history of the Labour Party. It is now widely accepted that the rise of the Labour Party was not, or not simply, a matter of articulating a pre-existing working-class consciousness, but of constructing a popular politics in which Labour’s capacity to speak for the people was contested. One important difficulty in this project was the tension between the collective social transfomation that was the formal objective of the party, and the remarkable individual intra-generational mobility of much of its leadership.

Secondly, these new understandings of the motors of Labour’s growth have focused attention on the 1920s, and in particular on the multiple groups and identities within the party, and the varied political strategies it employed to build its support. Examination of the social behaviour of the party leaders, and the rules and norms that governed it, provides a useful means of testing the extent and effects of these differences of identity.

Finally, work on social elites in twentieth century Britain has been impressed by their capacity to deflect and absorb challenges from below, whether through the political manoeuvres of party leaders studied by Cowlingites, the conspicuous displays of public service discussed by historians of monarchy or of charity. Consideration of the aristocratic embrace, as another mechanism of deflection and absorption, allows us to examine in more detail how these efforts were received by those they were designed to impress.


When Labour became the official Opposition in 1922, the question arose as to whether it would accept royal invitations. These were problematic because they were not quite state occasions (which Labour had few problems attending) nor simply Society events (which could easily have been ignored). The issue split the party three ways: between ‘incorruptibles’ – the Clydeside MPs were prominent – who thought such invitations should be refused; those who wished to accept them on the grounds that following traditional practice was a sign that Labour was to be accepted on the same terms as the other parties; and Labour’s upper- and upper-middle-class supporters, who feared that of Labour’s working-class leaders got close to Society they might be corrupted.

The question of ‘court dress’ – the uniform that Labour’s ministers were expected to wear on formal occasions, and which is illustrated to the left – expressed these divisions. Court dress, at least as worn by Cabinet Ministers, was known to the Court as ‘civil uniform’, and understood simply as such, it could be worn as a sign that LabJRM fullour had attained a status indistinguishable from that of the other parties. Understood as aristocratic garb, however, it suggested that its wearers had lost their own identities as representatives of the working-class. The controversy over court dress arose largely because clothing (with accent) was one of the two most powerful indicators of social class in 1920s Britain, and hence of whether such a transformation had occurred. Ramsay MacDonald, with the authority of an incoming Prime Minister, made a crucial and unnecessary concession in agreeing to wear court dress himself, largely out of gratitude to the King, whom he believed had shown fairness in resisting pressure to keep Labour out of office. The rest of the Cabinet did their best to get this decision reversed, and managed to force MacDonald and the King to concede that only those Ministers who wished to wear it need do so, and that a less elaborate version of the costume might be worn as an alternative.


Court dress might just be excused on the grounds that it was, as John Burns had put it in 1906, ‘the tools of the trade’, no more and no less than was necessary for government duties. But there was a much more powerful storm of protest when some of the Cabinet and their wives were seen to be entering Society. To measure the extent to which this was done, and by whom, I used the Court & Social columns of The Times, January 1918 – August 1931, which can be analysed easily now The Times has been digitised. The tables below give the frequency of appearances, and the percentage in the periods of government indicate the proportion of events which were ‘non-official’, i.e. not part of ministerial duties.

Snowden (Ethel)4
Snowden (Philip)1
MacDonald40 (60%)
Chelmsford31 (74%)
Parmoor28 (79%)
Thomas24 (67%)
Haldane19 (21%)
Clynes15 (33%)
Snowden (Ethel)14 (71%)
Henderson13 (54%)
Olivier9 (44%)
Thomson9 (67%)
Snowden (Philip)8 (75%)
Walsh8 (37%)
Buxton6 (83%)
Trevelyan6 (33%)
Wedgwood5 (40%)
Wheatley 5 (40%)
Jowett4 (25%)
Shaw 4 (0)
Gosling3 (33%)
Hartshorn3 (33%)
Webb2 (50%)
Adamson1 (0)
Hastings1 (0)
Roberts1 (0)
Snowden (Ethel)49
Snowden (Philip)12
Snowden (Ethel)114 (59%)
MacDonald87 (30%)
Sankey63 (46%)
Thomas59 (58%)
Alexander59 (39%)
Henderson53 (32%)
Jowitt52 (46%)
Parmoor51 (45%)
Benn48 (37%)
Thomson43 (47%)
Snowden (Philip)37 (57%)
Mosley32 (71%)
Webb27 (22%)
Clynes25 (48%)
Greenwood22 (14%)
Buxton21 (62%)
Shaw 17 (29%)
Trevelyan15 (33%)
Graham14 (50%)
Lansbury13 (23%)
Attlee13 (38%)
Bondfield13 (38%)
Arnold12 (67%)
Hartshorn10 (25%)
Adamson10 (20%)
Morrison9 (33%)
Ponsonby 9 (38%)
Amulree9 (44%)
Lees-Smith7 (29%)
Addison7 (0)
Roberts2 (50%)
Johnston1 (0)

Before 1924, hardly any Labour MPs were well known in Society and even those who were known at all had only a small presence. Of the members of MacDonald’s first Cabinet, none of the Labour MPs had been mentioned more than seven times in the previous six years, compared thirty or more mentions each for the non-Labour ministers Haldane, Parmoor and Chelmsford. These three and others who had joined Labour from Liberal or Conservative backgrounds, also participated more frequently than those who had not. Moreover, when the working-class Labour Ministers appeared at all, it was almost always at fundraising events concerned with charitable causes, such as industrial welfare, hospitals for the poor, or schemes for working-class youth. Since they attended as representatives of the beneficiaries, their status on these occasions clearly differed from that enjoyed by other guests.

Once Labour entered Government, however, Labour’s senior Ministers appeared more frequently, and not just at official events. The more junior Labour ministers, with the exception of recent recruits from other parties, were barely visible at all. These patterns diverged somewhat after the Government fell. From January 1925 to May 1929, most of the Labour ministers disappeared from the Society pages. Ex-Conservatives such as Parmoor, and new recruits from other parties, such as Mosley, Sankey and Thomson all appeared much more frequently. However, they were joined by MacDonald, the Thomases and, above all, Ethel Snowden, who is recorded at 49 events in the period between the two Labour Governments, and 114 events, 67 of them non-official, during the period of the second Labour Government. The strictly non-official events were dominated by the Snowdens, MacDonald and Thomas, the lawyers Sankey and Jowitt, and Parmoor, Thomson and Mosley. As in 1924, other ministers from working-class backgrounds were almost entirely absent at Society’s private events, and seem to be less frequent attenders even at the official Government events too.

This indicates a hierarchy of sociability, in which the senior positions were taken by the recruits Labour had made from other parties, joined only by the Snowdens, MacDonalds and Thomases.

This impression is strengthened if attention is paid to the most prestigious Society events. This was measured by examination of the visitors’ books of the six principal Society hostesses of the 1920s: Lady Londonderry, Lady Cunard, Mrs Greville, Lady Astor, Lady Granard and Lady Colefax. Labour’s working-class ministers met Society at public and official occasions – an extension of the necessary and permitted interactions of the Westminster lobbies – but not at home. They rarely, if ever, attended the familial rituals of Society, such as the Coming Out Ball or the Society Wedding, or the most sought-after events of the London Season. These remained closed affairs, except to Labour’s recruits. Society weddings in the 1920s, for example, were attended very frequently by Mosley, Chelmsford, Jowitt and Benn, and a little less so by Buxton, Sankey and Ponsonby. Their own children and other relatives also married in Society style, sometimes spectacularly so. Trevelyan’s and Noel Buxton’s eldest sons married Colonels’ daughters, Ponsonby’s son the daughter of a Viscount and Parmoor’s eldest son the Duchess of Westminster. To these occasions, the recruits invited each other – they were already somewhat interrelated as families – but not their other Labour colleagues. And, of course, there was no instance of inter-marriage between the families of Labour’s working-class leaders and the upper classes. Once again, MacDonald, Thomas and Ethel (though rarely Philip) Snowden mark partial exceptions to this pattern, appearing as occasional guests. One of Thomas’ daughters, for example, married in April 1927 amid the full Society treatment, with Baldwin and Lloyd George signing the register.

The King, more anxious than anyone that social relations with the Labour Party went well, gave audiences to all his new Ministers, but it was more often the middle- and upper-class intermediaries, such as Haldane and Parmoor, who were invited to dine. The working-class ministers and their families were invited only to the controlled setting of the garden party, which well symbolized the limits within which they were desirable guests. The evidence of their diaries suggests that they too found such occasions socially stressful. Meetings with royalty, which were largely a matter of duty on both sides, never provided an entrée into Society, which was viewed with suspicion or indifference. The cultural resistance to embrace was considerable.


Other measures of upward mobility suggest further impediments to the operation of an aristocratic embrace. Although becoming an MP meant higher status in itself, large gains in personal wealth were rare. The financial rewards of political office were held down by parliamentary self-restraint and labour movement suspicion.

MP pay did not keep up with the general advance in wages. A Labour MP (non-miner) on the eve of the First World War earned about four times as much as a male skilled worker and fell into the top 1% of paid employees, alongside the higher professions. By 1931, a Labour MP’s parliamentary salary amounted to only 60% of what would have been needed to keep pace with inflation over that period, and 45% of what would have been needed to match rises in average wages. This placed it at a level equivalent to the earnings of the clergy and qualified male teachers, and about twice those of male skilled workers. The MP also had to maintain two homes, pay their own travel and office expenses and secretarial support, and meet demands from parties and related associations for financial support, especially at election time. Ministers were better paid, but the expenses of office, which reflected the assumption that a government minister would have a large independent income, made significant inroads into them. Many MPs took on extra work, especially journalism, to supplement their pay; others, sometimes unwisely, took loans or gifts from rich donors; and trade union allowances were sometimes still paid, if at levels which reflected the strong feeling that Labour MPs should set an example in an era of high unemployment and economic depression, and cultural hostility to anything that might permit high living. No Labour MP relying solely or largely on his or her parliamentary salary could live on a grand scale.


Probate records can be used to measure wealth accumulated over the lifetime. Bill Rubinstein’s judgment, based on analysis of the 1922 Parliament, that the Parliamentary Labour Party was ‘overwhelmingly a party of the poor’ is confirmed by my own analysis of the probate records of Labour MPs over a longer period.

The table below compares the median estate at probate (at 1913 prices) left by Labour MPs with the data obtained by Rubinstein and Harold Perkin for a series of elite groups, for pre-war and post-war cohorts.

Labour MPs1,0971,036
Newspaper editors5,1005,000
Top civil servants8,4005,200
University vice-chancellors (non Oxbridge)10,7008,000
Presidents of professions22,30015,200
Liberal Cabinet Ministers53,7006,200
Conservative Cabinet Ministers59,50044,000
Big company chairmen118,30079,800
Large landowners311,300274,700

As Perkin suggests, the occupants of elite roles in the interwar years were not especially wealthy, unless the elite was one already defined by wealth (e.g. landowners, company chairmen etc). But even in such company, the Labour MPs were on average badly off. However, this was in the setting of a society still characterized by gross inequalities of wealth; so that, in other company, Labour MPs were decidedly well off. In the interwar years only about 10% of adults left estates in excess of £1,000, while more than 60% of Labour MPs did so. Personal upward mobility is therefore very evident. Few of the Labour MPs seem to have inherited much, if anything. Yet they generally left amounts well in excess of the popular average. It is harder to tell how this position changed in the longer term, but such evidence as is available now therefore supports the idea that Labour MPs did not grow relatively more wealthy, but were brought closer to the elites by the declining wealth of those above them and the recruitment of richer people to the party; and closer to the people by more rapid rises in affluence below.

Within the Labour Party, the distribution of estates was distinctly unequal, especially at the lower levels. Ranking the estates of the Labour ministers (at 1913 prices) produces a familiar order at the top. Whatever their earnings from journalism, Labour ministers from lower class backgrounds never caught up with successful lawyers such as Amulree (2), Haldane (3), Sankey (4) or Jowitt (5), or with the recruits to the party who had inherited substantial property such as Buxton (1), Wedgwood (6), Parmoor (7), or Trevelyan (8). MacDonald (12) came closest to doing so, partly through an advantageous marriage which had brought him a trust fund worth around £25,000 (not far from £2M today), but neither Thomas (22) nor Snowden (27) amassed significant personal wealth. The lower half of the Labour MPs held only a tiny fraction of the wealth: the bottom 50% held less than 10%.



These differentials of wealth were expressed in residential patterns. Here I have used the residential addresses provided to biographical dictionaries such as Who’s Who. Labour leaders in the 1920s formed probably the most geographically dispersed group of any twentieth century Government. The recruits from other parties stayed where they were, which usually meant socially exclusive districts such as Westminster (Trevelyan), Belgravia (Chelmsford), St James’s (Haldane), Chelsea (Benn, Ponsonby), Knightsbridge (Buxton, Parmoor), Mayfair (Jowitt) or in mansion flats near Parliament (Amulree, Mosley). They invariably employed residential domestic servants. The working-class members generally recorded only their non-London constituency residences, and lived in cheap hotels, or shared service flats in Victoria or Battersea without the servants and facilities needed for entertaining on a significant scale. Geographic mobility was, again, confined to MacDonald, who moved in 1925 from Belsize Park to a large house in Hampstead; Thomas, who in 1920 acquired a property in Dulwich, and the Snowdens, who moved to West Sussex in 1923, purchasing a £3,500 ‘slap-up mansion’, as Henderson described it. But in each case, this was dependent upon additional funds: in MacDonald’s case a donation from Henry Markwald, in Thomas’s with a trade union whip-round for his leadership in the previous year’s railway strike, and in the Snowdens from the unusual case of a husband and wife, both of whom made significant sums from journalism and lecturing tours.


The honours list is also a useful source of evidence. Labour MPs accepted honours in large numbers. Of the 532 who sat in the House of Commons before the election of 1945, 158 (around 30%) were honoured at some point in their lives. Although there was a tendency for later cohorts to be rewarded with higher honours than earlier ones, no generation or group lay altogether beyond the pale of the honours system. Indeed, the chances of a Labour MP from a working-class background being honoured in some way were hardly lower than those of a colleague from a middle-class background.

Even so, the table below, which shows these chances broken down into three grades of honour for different groups in the party, suggests there were certain important differences. The lower social classes generally received honours of a lesser grade and at a greater age. The average age of those knighted and given peerages from the core working class group – the skilled workers – was 68.2, some ten years older than the average for the highest occupational class (58.3). This suggests that Labour leaders were safer to honour, or felt able to accept honours, once their connections to working-class politics were dormant. Another indication is that party disloyalty was especially well rewarded – recruits from other parties were much likelier to be honoured, to be honoured at an earlier age, and to be given the higher honours; as, to a lesser degree, were those who defected from the party.

ALL LABOUR MPS (532)12.811.310.763.5
PARTY BACKGROUNDAlways Labour (466)
Recruit (39)
Defector (36)13.938.98.364.6
BIRTH COHORTBefore 1870 (150)
1870 - 1879 (151)
1880 - 1889 (148)9.515.518.261.6
1890 - 1914 (82)8.58.515.963.4
(first significant adult occupation)
I (66)4.519.733.358.3
II (99)
III i (50)
III ii (267)
IV and V (43)20.914.04.766.6

There were difficulties in using the honours system to incorporate new groups. Existing holders’ concern for status had to be considered, as did the reluctance of traditional clients – the older parties and the state bureaucracies – to make room for newcomers, as well as conceptions of public service which before the Second World War undervalued the contribution of trade unions. On the side of the recipients, moreover, there were financial costs involved in accepting higher honours which the system was slow to address, and party resistance to the social transformation which ennoblement seemed to involve. Here again, there was cultural resistance to the incorporation of Labour.


It was also very rare for Labour MPs to join West End Clubs. Of around 1700 entries in the Labour Who’s Who of 1927, no more than 30 record West End Club memberships, and in nearly every case they were former Liberal MPs, activists or peers.

It seems, therefore, that while MacDonald’s party was distinctly socially stratified at the top, its norms included a definite unwillingness to succumb to an aristocratic embrace – which, in any case, was not being widely offered. They also included a refusal to take direction on matters of lifestyle and behaviour from upper- and middle-class members of the party. The failure of Beatrice Webb’s Parliamentary Labour Club, of her Half-Circle Club for Labour wives, and of Easton Lodge, the Countess of Warwick’s attempt to provide a country house for the Labour Party, are all good evidence of the difficulties of creating a common party culture.

The question of why it was so hard to build a single party life in Britain is a large and complex one, but two of the principal difficulties are apparent in this series of failures. The first is a certain provincialism and under-confidence in British socialism, which never managed to develop at a national level the democratic instincts which were so visible locally in much of branch life, but tended to inhabit, with some resentment, traditional forms. The second was the ambiguity of the behaviour of middle-class recruits to Labour, few of whom felt much sympathy with the Webbs’ efforts, and none of whom abandoned the social world in which they had grown up.


8. 1931

What role did the aristocratic embrace in the behaviour of the three principal defectors from the Labour Party in 1931? In some respects, their behaviour is not significantly different from that of their colleagues. Court dress, for example, was worn during both periods of Labour Government, by those who stayed with Labour, such as Henderson and Clynes, even if MacDonald was its instigator. But while other Labour ministers moved in Society circles, only the three defectors could be said to have entered Society in the 1920s.

This, we can hypothesize, may have mattered in three ways: first, that association with Society disposed the defectors to take a different view of the main issue that finally divided the Cabinet – that is, the case for a 10% cut in the standard rate of unemployment benefit; secondly, that it made them more willing to contemplate governing with the leaders of the opposition parties; and thirdly, that it made them more amenable than their colleagues to the influence of the King who was a powerful force in – perhaps even the ‘instigator’ of – the formation of the 1931 National Governments.

The first of these claims can only be made subject to very heavy qualifications. Very little of the motivations of the defectors is traceable to their social activities. The second claim is a little more sustainable – political alignments are not unaffected by social ones – but there is little evidence that it mattered much. One test case is MacDonald’s close relationship with 0929_001Lady Londonderry. However, in the several hundred surviving letters, there are seemingly endless pages of tired grumbling and Highland whimsy, but almost no politics at all. Attempts at influence were all the other way, as MacDonald tried to persuade Lady Londonderry, probably with little seriousness, to abandon her Conservative leanings. The third claim is also only tenable with heavy qualifications. The King’s name and authority carried weight with the three defectors. But they had resisted royal pressure on other occasions and it seems unlikely that his preferences carried decisive weight on this occasion. The larger effect was that the ‘aristocratic embrace’ became a way of denouncing the defectors’ betrayal. The importance of the aristocratic embrace is not so much that it made a significant difference to the choices MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas made, than that it helped to make their return to the party impossible.


There were two distinct obstacles to an aristocratic embrace in the 1920s. The first and more important of these was the degree of resistance to be found in the labour movement. That there was a certain level of working-class deference towards, and even interest in, the activities of the upper ten thousand seems hard to deny. But this was partly what made working-class culture distinct from that of the labour movement, which, was anxious for incorporation (though not assimilation) on equal terms, not much interested in Society, and definitely hostile to the socially ambitious, especially among its own members. This supported forms of behaviour which could easily be mistaken for deference, especially where the forms were themselves ambiguous in their class character.

Participation in traditional parliamentary rituals, for example, was almost always acceptable because Parliament was regarded as a class-neutral arena. Honours were legitimate inasmuch as they recognised the distinct contribution of workers to national life, but not inasmuch as they conferred superior social status on the recipients. Wearing court dress split the party because it could not decide whether it conveyed social superiority, as the ‘incorruptibles’ thought, or equal status, as MacDonald claimed. For the working-class representative to climb the ladder into Society, however, was almost always unacceptable because it blurred the outlines of the labour interest. Even where the code was reasonably clear, however, it was not always easy to judge whether or not it was being observed. This was because what mattered was not simply the form of social behaviour, but the stance: most crucially, whether, in such cases, the representative ‘remained himself’. This was why, for example, MacDonald could be praised in 1922 for much the same social skills that were regarded as his undoing in 1931.

This was matched by reservations on the part of the embracers, who do not seem to have been as adaptable or open as is sometimes suggested. Late nineteenth century aristocratic Society managed to embrace plutocrats because they had money, which was badly wanted, and only wished for a quasi-aristocratic status to match. Proletarians were harder to assimilate because they did not have money and did not want aristocratic status, but only recognition of their distinctiveness, which aristocratic status would blur. Monarchical and elite efforts were also indirect, seeking to integrate Labour more through those who were already known to it, than through those who were not.


This article was published as Nicholas Owen, ‘MacDonald’s Parties: The Labour Party and the Aristocratic Embrace, 1922-31’, in Twentieth Century British History (Oxford University Press) in 2007. You can find the article here.


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May 25

The British Left and India

The British Left and India is the story of two interwoven quests: (1) the search of the British Left for a form of anti-colonialism if which they could approve; and (2) the search of Indian nationalists for a mode of agitation which did not offend their commitment to self-reliant struggle. One of its innovations is to try to tell these two stories in parallel, altering the direction of the gaze chapter by chapter. Some chapters examine how India looked to the British Left. Others examine how the British Left looked to India. The book also tries to show how these two perspectives interacted.

My starting point is to consider some of the usual explanations of the British Left’s failure to develop a strong and committed anti-imperialism. The first was economics. The British trade unions, and the Labour Party which they dominated, it is often suggested, gained economically from imperialism, through higher wages, cheap consumer goods, and the export opportunities provided by colonial trade. They were therefore unlikely to ally with those who sought to end the empire.

This argument had already been much damaged by the “imperial accountancy” school of thought, whose work showed that, before the First World War, “Labour Britain” – industrial, working class, and outside the south-east of England – was economically, geographically and socially almost the opposite of “Imperial Britain” – finance and service-oriented and based in south-east England.

I added to this two further points: (1) that the pattern of economic gains and losses from empire was not well understood, and (2) that the implications for this economic stake of ceding power to nationalists were not clear. Was the stake safer under imperial rule, or only once power had been ceded to the nationalists? The effect of this uncertainty, I argued, was indeterminacy. Trade unionists and Labour MPs were potential allies of an Indian nationalism which might end a cotton boycott, or promote industrial co-operation, and also potential allies of the Raj in suppressing the challenge of an unregulated industrial competitor.

I also explored five further explanations of the weakness of metropolitan anti-imperialism. They were (1) the apathy and ignorance of the Left’s political constituencies; (2) the electoral consequences of adopting anti-imperial positions; (3) the lack of a theory of anti-imperialism and the reliance on liberal humanitarianism; (4) the Left’s inability to challenge an all-encompassing orientalism; and (5) the resourcefulness of imperialists and their capacity to co-opt their critics.

In each case, these factors were complex, and again indeterminate, in their effects. Apathy and ignorance about India, for example, were certainly widespread. But it is a mistake to suppose that they are necessarily a barrier to effective anti-imperalism. Apathy allowed those who were anti-imperialists to define the party’s programme. Provided they did not demand too many resources, or clash with bigger priorities, they could take control of policy. Ignorance was not as profound as might be guessed especially among the leadership of the Labour Party. The party’s five principal leaders from 1906-1947, four – Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, George Lansbury and C. R. Attlee – made India a specialism, three of them – Hardie, MacDonald and Attlee – made visits to India, and two – Attlee and MacDonald – served lengthy terms on specialist commissions on India. In 1924, MacDonald was the first Prime Minister since Wellington to have visited India before taking office. Ignorance was greater lower down the party. But ignorance should not be conflated with apathy. The most informed could be the most conservative about India, and the least informed the most radical.

Electoral considerations also neither promoted nor precluded anti-imperialism. Any Indian policy could be defended to a working-class audience, the Labour Secretary of State for India cheerfully admitted in 1930. They were “a mixture of ignorance and idealism, always with racial prejudice ready to be excited, so that the ground is indeed clear for any argument”. When an Indian crisis threatened to take advantage of British weakness, or interlock with parallel disturbances elsewhere, especially in wartime, Labour MPs and ministers drew back from alliance with nationalists. On the other hand, maintaining the momentum of political progress, timely concession and good relations with the rising classes were the key skills of the leaders of an empire under stress. After 1945, a close political relationship with anti-colonial nationalists was far from an electoral liability. It was a sign that the Left was in touch with modern developments.

The argument that ideological weaknesses explain the weakness of the Left’s anti-imperialism comes in two forms. The older one stresses the poverty of British Marxism in addressing questions of empire, and the existence of a powerful Fabian alternative which saw the empire not an obstacle to international socialism, but as a framework through which it might be built. The newer one – postcolonialism – suggests that all those ideologies which might have developed an anti-imperial cutting edge, including classical Marxism, failed to do so because they were themselves children of imperialism, and until challenged by the colonised themselves, tainted by orientalist assumptions of colonial inferiority. Here too – as much other writing has shown – there is indeterminacy. Socialist ideologies are not definitionally anti-imperialist. Indeed, there are socialist critiques of anti-imperialism, and perhaps even socialist forms of imperialism. Yet socialism has, at times, and selectively, formed one of the most effective cutting-edges of anti-imperialist work.

Orientalist images and assumptions, finally, are certainly very visible in the British Left’s accounts of India. But they did not always lead to imperialism. For one thing, there was an affirmative Orientalism which argued that India was the civilizational equal of the west, and which mobilised anti-imperialist argument on that basis. For another, after 1900, forms of Orientalism which insisted on essential “racial” difference and the impossibility of India ever “catching up” with the west, were giving way to more contingent “civilisational” forms, which suggested the desirability of devolving power to modern, westernising elites. Indeed, the insistence of many British liberals and socialists that there was only one true route to modernity – that taken by the British – could make them keen to develop the necessary modern institutions in India – constitutionally limited and accountable government, a free press, the rule of law, widening educational opportunities. This could work against certain traditional forms of colonial rule, although it was also possible to co-opt it into support for the modernising forms.

In each case, therefore, there is a high degree of indeterminacy.

My own explanation begins with a suggestive point made by Edward Said. At one point in his book Orientalism, Said describes Orientalism as not so much a matter of holding particular views, but of “positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient, without ever losing him the relative upper hand”.

This idea of relational superiority is, I think, a very powerful explanation of the gulf between the British Left and Indian nationalists. It was not only a matter of the views they held but of where they stood in holding them. Despite the fact that Congress had been founded some fifteen years before their own party, Labour often saw it as a junior partner in need of education in the arts of political activism or of good government. It seldom questioned whether tactics designed to advance the interests of uniquely class conscious workers in an industrial society whose ruling classes generally eschewed repression were appropriate for the divided mix of classes and interests over which Congress presided.

Before the First World War, a procession of Labour’s senior figures visited India. They included J. Keir Hardie in 1907-08, Ramsay MacDonald in 1909 and again in 1913, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb in 1911-12. Each set down thoughts on the nature of healthy political development. The lessons they drew were quite varied, and were strongly coloured by their views of how the Labour cause had advanced at home. For Hardie, the devolution of political power to village councils would ensure that the urban professionals who made up the Congress movement were brought face to face with the problems of the rural, labouring poor. The Webbs hoped to see co operation between the “natural aristocracy” of educated Indians and sympathetic British officials in local schemes of social improvement, through which Indians might acquire the skills to run a modern, interventionist state. MacDonald regarded Congress as only at the first stage of its development, comparing its proposals to the narrow, class bound demands of the mid Victorian Liberal Party. Indian nationalism should, he argued, follow the same lines of political evolution as the movement for labour representation had at home. Congress was a healthy development, but to develop further had to carve out a broader based political support among Indian workers and peasants, reduce its dependence on middle class activists, and campaign not merely for political independence but for social reform to raise the condition of India’s impoverished masses.

In the years after 1914, Labour scanned the subcontinent for signs of appropriate progress and the emergence of authentic nationalism: perhaps the emergence of a multi-party system divided along class lines, or the political recruitment of peasants and workers, or the development of schemes for practical socialism, or the evolution of party programmes that went beyond attacks on the raj. As Labour moved from oppositional movement to party of government after 1918, it became increasingly keen to push Congress down the same road to responsibility. But judged against these standards, Congress, in moving away from parliamentarism towards Gandhian non-co-operation, seemed to be going in reverse. Many British observers, especially in the trade unions, doubted whether it was truly interested in social reform. Its demands for independence seemed too closely entwined with the vested interests of the Indian middle classes and too bound up with impractical Gandhism to act as an instrument for genuine industrial and economic change. Indian unions seemed too prone to spontaneous and undisciplined outbreaks of labour unrest, their leadership provided by lawyers or even employers rather than workers, and their work characterized by political objectives that ranged too far beyond wage-bargaining. This could all be satisfactorily changed, given time and patience, but to those who had won acceptance for Labour through negotiation in the parliamentary arena and demonstrating their fitness to govern to local electorates, there could be no short cuts to political maturity. As late as 1943, Labour ministers worked on plans to undermine the Congress leadership and remould Indian nationalism into a more acceptable form.

However, there were very good reasons why Congress and other Indian nationalists were unable to meet Labour’s criteria. India lacked nearly all the structural underpinnings that would have made Labour’s strategy appropriate. The emergence of British Labour had been greatly eased by the fact that it happened in a state with a liberal constitutional framework, in which trade unions and socialist societies could operate without serious restriction. Labour’s leaders had come to see the state as a largely neutral force, committed to rule-following and publicly declared “fairness” between classes, which could be captured by winning a parliamentary majority. In India, by contrast, politics were very much more circumscribed. The raj, despite its liberal pretensions, was very ready to lock up nationalist agitators without trial, ban newspapers and proscribe hostile organizations. It was quite impossible for nationalists to see it as neutral, or to make capture of local legislative power the sole aim of its strategy.

Labour had emerged almost entirely within pre-existing political structures, and only rarely needed to step outside them. Even when it did, it did so within the wider margins of acceptable dissent. Congress, since it sought to displace the raj from India, could not work wholly in the same fashion. It had to step, often and far, outside the plans of the raj. Moreover, the Indian nationalist struggle after 1920, as Gandhi and others conceived it, was not intended to mimic British political traditions. It rejected the mendicancy of the early Congress. Independence was to be won through the purification of Indian efforts, not learned at the feet of British sympathisers, no matter how well-intentioned. This kind of struggle was dictated by the specificity of Indian conditions, and in particular by the need to rally the support of much wider groups than had been attracted by the westernized strategies used hitherto. But it was also quite new and it is hardly surprising that so many Labour figures misunderstood it. The inner workings of the “dominant parties” that led anti imperialist struggles were more complex than their own typologies allowed, and could only be poorly understood by those anxious to squash them into the moulds of western, and usually British, experience.

The problem, therefore, was akin to those identified in contemporary postcolonial theory as false universalization and of the neglect of multiple routes to modernity. The judgement and values of the British anti-imperialists were “provincial”, the product of a specific and localized historical experience, but falsely universalized as the paradigmatic standard form, against which Indian versions were found wanting. Labour’s early twentieth century leaders, like most of their contemporaries, were soaked in Victorian ideals of unilinear social progress. For them the rise of democracy and the emancipated working man were the highly desirable fruits of these ideals, and it was their duty to encourage them to emerge elsewhere. Labour’s industrial struggle was thus, as befitted the world’s first industrial nation, the model from which others might learn. India was judged for its ability to replicate this pattern of development. From this standpoint, there was but a single route to maturity. Few could see India’s differences as other than deviations from proper, western norms of historical and political development. Its industrial workers were judged against the superior rationality, energy and technical expertise of their British counterparts. Its political leaders were judged by their capacity to foster western conceptions of modernity, progress and development.

This helps to explain a feature of the interaction which is hard to understand in terms of persistent economic interests or enduring apathies: the repeated, almost cyclical pattern of engagement and failure. When Labour leaders visited India, they hoped to identify signs of modernity that they recognised. They were not wholly disappointed, for Congress leaders showed them newspaper editorials modelled on The Times and printed appeals resembling Victorian petitions. They took them to public meetings where the procedure and platform oratory seemed slightly dated, but familiar. Yet like all such mimicry, it also seemed too imitative to be authentic. Other sightings – the unfamiliar modes of anti-partition protest – caste sanctions, the use of religious appeals, and traditional forms of leadership, for example – seemed to have more popular resonance and deeper roots, but they also seemed immature and pre-modern, rather than non-modern. At the heart of the problem, however, was confusion over the marks of authenticity. Indian nationalism seemed to most western observers too narrow, too shallow and excessively derivative. Yet efforts to deepen and broaden it, or to “Indianise” it, inevitably made it look even less familiar.

This pattern of projection, crisis and paralysis was to be repeated many times, as the movements of the western left stepped forward to engage with Indian nationalism. A number of possible responses might follow from this lack of fit: sometimes a sense of blockage, followed by withdrawal and disengagement – the apathy noted above – sometimes conditional support, provided only if things changed; sometimes efforts, more or less successful, to ignore one or other side of the picture. Postcolonial theorists, often persuaded that the psychological tensions of encountering such irresolvable contradictions led to a kind of anxious fracturing of identity, probably underestimate the degree to which distance damped them down: the most common response was simply retreat.

It is here that Labour’s dilemma interlocked with that of Congress. Some of the early Congress leadership shared the view that there was only one route to modernity, and made the case for home rule on that basis. But others did not, either because they believed that such a perspective undervalued Indian traditions, or because they did not think that a nationalist movement could be built on such foundations. Others again varied their repertoire: to their British supporters and their fellow Indian professionals they appealed in the language of universal Victorian liberalism; to other, less westernized Indians in the language of Hindu tradition and other local idioms. The former appeal was not necessarily weak strategy, despite its imitative character. Opponents held that it could only lead at best to a perpetually deferred promise of equality and hence a permanent secondariness. But the early Congress was not just engaged in mimicry, but in using the leverage provided by commonly held values to demand consistency of treatment. Its occupancy of British liberal positions was designed not purely for the purposes of mimicry, but in order to stretch them and reveal their limitations. Such appeals gained in effect at the metropole from being framed in the language of their occupiers, and also from their proximity. The officials of the raj feared a united front of Indian nationalists and their British friends speaking the language of modernity more than a solely Indian movement which could be depicted as alien, hostile and regressive. Nevertheless, such a strategy was contested by those who wanted an indigenously-oriented and self-reliant struggle, which would sacrifice intelligibility in London for gains in support in India among those who had not been much troubled by the compatibility of their world view with the dominant ideologies of the west. Gandhi, who became the spokesman for this position, exposed the false position in which the otherwise effective early Congress had placed itself. Rather than representing themselves as imperial subjects of sufficient maturity to be granted self-government, Indians should grant themselves the status of equals.

This debate had implications for the relationship between Congress and its British sympathisers and supporters. This relationship could operate in a number of different modes. The early Congress used an agency arrangement, hiring a British journalist to act for them. However, this was short-lived, and was abandoned in favour of reliance upon voluntary, unpaid, British “responsible public men”, among them former civil servants of the raj and Liberal MPs, running an autonomous British Committee of the Indian National Congress. This method was, however, disliked in India for its mendicancy, and was countered in Britain by the rejectionist mode favoured by Vinayak Savarkar and the India House which tried to dispense with British supporters altogether in a version of nativist struggle. However, such rejectionist campaigning was very hard to achieve, partly because it was so much easier to resist. Without the British supporters to create space for its operations, it was generally either ignored, or easily crushed by the raj, but also, and more subtly, because it inverted, rather than displaced, the claims of the west.

Vicarious struggle at the metropole was thus unavoidable, so the problem, when Gandhi encountered it in 1909, became one of finding a mode of interaction with Britons which did not leave them in charge, or Indians deferring to them. Gandhi believed that it would not be right to reject the contribution of British supporters, but that if their priorities were not to distort the growth of swaraj – i.e. self government, but also autonomy – they had to be dislodged from positions of authority. More widely, as Ashis Nandy has argued, Gandhian strategy sought to decentre Europe and topple it from the position of natural hegemon in any discussion, in an effort to reassert the basic equality of cultures and their mutual imbrication.

This explains the otherwise mysterious destruction of the British Committee in 1920. It was not, as is usually assumed, a failing organization, but one which had to be destroyed because of the redundancy of the mode of interaction it represented. “I do not want you to determine the pace”, Gandhi told an audience of British allies in Oxford in 1931, “Consciously or unconsciously, you adopt the role of divinity. I want you to step down from that pedestal.” Was there not much that England had yet to teach India, a Labour Party member had asked Gandhi: “certain things for which she has a special gift” such as “her political sense and her gift for evolving and managing democratic institutions’?” “I question this claim to exclusive political sense that this English arrogate to themselves”, Gandhi had replied. “There is much in British political institutions that I admire. But … I do not believe that they are the paragon of perfection… Whatever is worth adopting for India must come to her through the process of assimilation, not forcible superimposition.” Many of Congress’ British supporters were disconcerted by such claims, as they were intended to be. Resistance will always be in certain senses incomprehensible, at least at first, from the perspective of the dominant. Gandhi neither succumbed to nor straightforwardly rejected their authority. This would have been easier to meet, either with instruction or a shrugging indifference. Instead, he aimed to transform it, and them in the process. This was why they generally preferred Jawaharlal Nehru, with his demands for the consistent practice of international socialism – oddly reminiscent of the pleas of the early Congress for consistent liberalism – he asked less of them.

Each of the modes of interaction therefore required a different type of response from the British left, whether the provision of guidance, as in the days of the British Committee; distant sympathy – the rejectionist preference of Savarkar – dependable, active support or mutual affiliation to wider, internationalist bodies – Nehru’s preference – or a kind of critical solidarity in the search for truth – Gandhi. These are often elided into a general notion of support, but they are really quite different phenomena, varying according to the relative position of the parties in relation to each other and to the raj, and the functions that each undertakes. There was an important difference, for example, between British supporters who saw their role as being not to side with either the raj or its opponents, but to interpose, or negotiate, between them in the hope of achieving conciliation, and those who became more directly absorbed into the struggle on the side of the latter.

Only rarely before 1920, and almost never thereafter, did British supporters seek positions of formal or even informal leadership. They saw the necessity for this to be in Indian hands, although paradoxically their exhortations to this effect often took the form of instruction. But they did not disdain to act as advisers, adjudicators, intermediaries, conciliators or defence counsel. Indeed, one type of support, at times perhaps the dominant one offered by the British left, was a kind of professional mediation, involving sincere feelings of sympathy for the Indians as victims of imperialism – though not usually fellow-victims – and the desire to intercede on their behalf, speaking for them and representing them to British audiences. It was guided more by an ethos of public service to those less fortunate than by one of common struggle.

Some effective anti-imperial work was undoubtedly done in this fashion, but it was structured unequally, seeking to alter the relationship between the Indians and the raj without much altering the relationship between the emancipating sympathiser and the emancipated Indian. The professional campaigners on Labour’s Imperial Advisory Committee were drawn to the lawyers, writers and political organizers of Congress, whom they believed represented the same civilizing force in Indian society as they themselves did in Britain. But they were reluctant to give them places on the Committee, instead preserving their own role as spokespersons for Indians and mediators of their interests to the British Government. It was their books and journalism which represented India to Britain and their parliamentary speeches which stated India’s demands. The informal title “Member for India”, bestowed at Westminster on MPs who made India their specialism, was, for Josiah Wedgwood and Fenner Brockway as it had been for John Bright, Henry Fawcett and Charles Bradlaugh, a highly prized one, even though it involved a kind of appropriation.

Congress’s strategic dilemma was, after 1920, translated into an organizational problem. Once authority was denied to them by Gandhi, British supporters lost a key incentive, for which no substitute was easily found. It is usually assumed that as Congress outgrew its early reliance on British leaders it shed them, as a multi-stage rocket jettisons its boosters. But self-reliant campaigning was not at all easy to achieve, mainly because Gandhi’s hope for self-generated movements of solidarity were disappointed. Congress moved through a series of attempts to organise its British work, none of them satisfactorily reconciling the need for self-reliant, India-centred activity with the need to persuade British allies and audiences of India’s case for self-government. Support for Congress in Britain came to be a function of other commitments and objectives, communist, theosophical, pacifist, socialist, anti-fascist, etc. It was in essence parasitic, reliant on the hospitality offered by progressive movements of the left, but still vulnerable to their desire for status. This pattern of indirect engagement was not necessarily weak: parasitic arrangements only arise at all if each party is getting some net benefit out of them. What mattered was the closeness of fit between these primary objectives and the anti-imperialism. When this was close, as it became briefly, and arguably misleadingly, over anti-fascism, then Congress was feted in London. But such enthusiasm was generally fragile, transitory and characterised by boom and bust, as competition between different elements of the left first distracted and then split the Indian nationalists.

There was little inevitable about the scale of such disappointment. British and Indian concerns did not need to be identical to provide each other with mutual support, but only to mesh more effectively. The forms of struggle which might have avoided this trap altogether are not always easy to discern. The key elements were probably critical solidarity, a location alongside and not above or ahead of the colonised, a sharing of risk, and willingness to undertake what a later generation of theorists, notably Gayatri Spivak, has identified as the “unlearning of privilege” or “learning to learn from below”. There are some isolated examples of such practices in the relationships between the British left and India, though they are isolated, and it is evident that it was hard for most to descend from the pedestal Gandhi had identified in 1931.

Some recent historical studies have identified individual efforts to stretch threads of friendship across the barriers thrown up by imperialism in other settings. There are some examples of transcendental personal friendships in this story too. Yet the unresolved problems in making such connections even at the personal level are very evident in such studies, let alone the difficulties of expanding them beyond the personal, into the larger public sphere of organised political action, with implications for the lessons which their authors might wish to draw from them. Does their rarity suggest that they are unreasonably demanding? Are they really relationships of equals, or does only one party to it hold a guarantee of support from the other? What scope is there for criticism or other expressions of conditionality in a solidaristic relationship.

Viewed in the longer perspective provided by such considerations, the work of the metropolitan anti-imperialists in the interwar years might be judged as provisional, but not deferred, work. Like much politically oppositional activity, anti-imperialism made necessarily crab-like progress, before triumphing, as C.L.R.James wrote “by whatever tortuous and broken roads, despite the stumbling and the falls”. Gandhian techniques, for example, were self-consciously experimental, and failure was written into their design, though failure from which one learned. The tensions and disagreements between metropolitan anti-imperialists played out in the pages that follow might seem, from this perspective, no more than the unease through which any liberatory politics emerges, through which, as Homi Bhabha once put it, “newness enters the world” and ideas productively “travel” from one setting to another, or encounter the limits of their application. Attractive though this vision is, it needs to be sharply distinguished from simpler possibility of failure, and to be true to the lived experience of its subjects. What distinguishes the enabling tensions posited by postcolonial theory is their propensity for growth, and the test of them is what, if anything, is left at the end of the engagement.

The British Left and India was published by Oxford University Press in 2007, in its series Oxford Historical Monographs. The opening chapter was chosen in 2009 as one of the one hundred best pieces of writing on imperialism, in William Roger Louis’s ‘100 Top Hits of Imperial History’. William Roger Louis, Ultimate Adventures with Britannia (2009), pp. 277-81.

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May 10


This paper concerns the British Labour Party and its relationship with the defining figure of Indian nationalism: M. K. Gandhi. This relationship is usually regarded as close and supportive, thanks to the occasion recorded in the photograph above: Gandhi’s visit to Lancashire in 1931, where he was greeted with cheering crowds, despite the effects of the Indian nationalists’ cotton boycott on Lancashire exports.

Immediately before Gandhi’s takeover of Congress in 1920, the Labour Party had been on the verge of an alliance with Congress, mediated by B. G. Tilak and his allies. The alliance was based on some pledges concerning the plight of the Indian worker and peasant on the part of the Congress leaders, and a commitment to Indian self-determination on the part of Labour. Gandhi’s new direction for Congress, however, seemed much less familiar. There was the resort to boycott, which threatened British workers involved in export industries. There was also the resort to non-co-operation, a technique which the trade unions and the Labour Party thought should be used only sparingly and on important single issues, such as to counter the threat of war.

Above all, however, there were worries about how Gandhi garnered support. Congress under Gandhi clearly now had a mass base, which had worried Labour in the past. It was no longer possible to argue that it was an unrepresentative clique of westernised politicians. However, there were still worries about how this base had been acquired, and the relationship the Congress leaders had with it. Gandhi linked the political project of self-government to a religious movement of self-discipline – ‘swaraj’ meant both things – and his techniques motivated supporters through reworked conception of Hindu duties. Gandhian agitation thus gave expression to exactly those traditional and backward-looking forces which progressive and socialist British observers had believed precluded genuine democratic advance.

The price of Gandhian mobilisation, moreover, was a certain loss of control. Subaltern protest had its own logic and easily slipped out of the control of Congress leaders. This was most evident when participants abandoned non-violence for attacks on landlords, and also as Congress demonstrations changed from orderly marches of well-behaved petitioners into uncontrolled festivals characterised by the rowdy, undisciplined energies of the peasantry and urban poor. Insufficient leadership of the right type seemed to have been displayed by Gandhi and his associates.

In fact, closer inspection showed that great thought had been put by Gandhi into imposing discipline on the mass movement. Constitutions, rules and orders were developed to govern the conduct of non co-operators. However, the imposition of Gandhian discipline on the masses was not what Labour had envisaged when advising Congress leaders to base their movement on the demands of the worker and peasant. It reversed the proper relationship, as Labour saw it, between leaders and followers. The Congress leadership had not gone to the trouble of winning consent for their nationalist programme. The Indian peasantry was a resource to be mobilized by a Brahmanic elite using religious authority, for their own purposes. Gandhi himself did not stand for election. His leadership was, it seemed, completely unaccountable to anything except his own divine inspiration. Too much leadership of the wrong type seemed to have been displayed.

These differences deepened in the interwar years. The Gandhian Congress moved from respectability to agitation. The Labour Party moved in the opposite direction, as it abandoned direct action and brief spurts of ‘outsider’ industrial militancy in favour of the long slog of parliamentary politics and organized ‘insider’ pressure.

Through the 1920s, it became slowly clearer that Gandhi was not simply an agitator whose brief ascendancy had ended in 1922, but the defining figure of Indian nationalism. This revived the question briefly smothered by Tilak: was Congress really a modernising, progressive, even socialist, force, or not? As Congress demands were enlarged from swaraj (self-government) to purna swaraj (self-determination), moreover, this question became more urgent, for if India were to write its own constitution, the Indian poor would have to look to indigenous nationalists like Gandhi, and not British constitution-makers, for protection.

This especially troubled the British trade unions, who made their own enquiries into the Indian position in the mid 1920s. Visits were made by the Dundee MP Tom Johnston in 1925-6, Tom Shaw for the Textile International in 1926-7 and A. A. Purcell and Joseph Hallsworth for the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 1927-8. India was industrialising, which created opportunities for some British industries, such as engineering, railways and shipbuilding. But industrial competition with an unorganised labour force and atrocious working conditions was more threatening to the British worker. Indian trade unions were often run by Congress lawyers, and used to exert political pressure on British rule, rather than economic pressure on an exploitative employer class.

Thus although the TUC sent money to support Indian workers in their industrial disputes and lobbied the India Office with the demands of the All-India TUC, its support for the political aspirations of the trade unionists was more conditional. It accepted that, under colonialism, the national struggle necessarily preoccupied the Indian unions and that they were right to attack the legal and practical restrictions on labour organization imposed by the raj. At the same time, they had to maintain their independence and build their internal strength for a larger struggle, against the landlords and capitalists who, increasingly, were taking control of Congress. Gandhi’s attitude to the rich seemed worryingly untroubled.

When Gandhi visited Britain in 1931, he made a poor impression on British Labour leaders. The cheering crowds gave a misleading impression of their response. The cotton boycott was disliked , even though Gandhi blamed the raj for making it necessary. Trade union leaders suspected that the boycott was backed by the Bombay cotton millionaires for the same reason they wanted Indian freedom. Labour MPs were unpersuaded by Gandhi’s paternalist attitude to Indian workers, and his plans for the future of India, which favoured hand-spinning over factory work, and moralising and self-purification over union organization. While they could admire Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’ (truth-struggle) as a fine example of personal spiritual growth, they found it much harder to see it as an adequate solution to the deep economic and communal problems of India.

In this respect, Gandhi’s visit was ill-timed. Labour’s sensitivity to questions of class interest was particularly raw. Only a few days before he met Labour MPs, Parliament had reassembled for the formalities of the end of the second Labour Government. Its first business thereafter had been an emergency budget and cuts in unemployment benefit even more drastic than those that had been dividing the party for months. At his first meeting with Labour MPs, therefore, Gandhi was subjected to some fairly rough questioning. There was incredulity about his attitude to machinery, the Middlesbrough MP Ellen Wilkinson demanding to know ‘if it was not a reactionary policy to refuse to use the inventions of science … [and] the human mind’, the effect of which was simply to keep India poor. But most of the points the Labour MPs raised concerned the Lancashire boycott and Congress’ attitude to questions of industrial relations. The Co. Durham MP Manny Shinwell told Gandhi that the Indian coal-owners were ‘much more reactionary and brutal to their employees than British coal-owners’ and that he wanted to know how Gandhi reconciled that with his claim that Britain exploited India. Gandhi replied that when he spoke about exploitation, he ‘was not thinking about these few thousand labourers in the coal-mines, or in the factories of Bombay or Calcutta’ but of India’s immensely larger rural population. The Indian coal-miners were ‘oppressed but … not starving’ like the villagers. Gandhi also insisted that the cotton boycott was designed only to serve the interests of these villagers in year-round employment. However, the anti-imperialist Norman Angell, now MP for Bradford North, pointed out that its likely effect was that Lancashire goods would be replaced by the products of the industrial mills of Bombay and Calcutta rather than home-spun cloth. The Sowerby MP and weavers’ leader, W. J. Tout asked Gandhi to deny the rumour that the boycott was paid for by the Bombay mill-owners for precisely this reason. Gandhi was unable to deny the financial involvement of the mill-owners, but claimed that the hand-spinners would be able to take them on and win when independence came. Another Labour MP asked Gandhi what the Indian villagers would answer if asked why they were led by Gandhi. Gandhi replied that he led them ‘because they could not express themselves [and] that he was expressing their aspirations for them’. ‘Bloody hopeless’ had been the verdict of Tout afterwards.

A second meeting, held at the National Labour Club, was little better. Here the questioning touched on the issue of communal tension in India. Asked whether he was not risking a communal war after a British withdrawal, Gandhi told the Labour MPs:

It is likely that we the Hindus and Muslims may fight one another if the British Army is withdrawn. Well, if such is to be our lot, I do not mind it. It is quite likely. Only if we don’t go through the ordeal now, it will simply be postponement of the agony and therefore, I personally do not mind it a bit and the whole of the Congress … has decided to run the risk of it. .. Did the British people themselves not run the maddest risks imaginable in order to retain their liberty? Did they not have the terrible Wars of the Roses?

There was little more reassurance for questioners eager to know Gandhi’s plans for Indian defence. Foreign rule, Gandhi announced, had fostered a ‘rot of emasculation’ which was worse than fighting. Invasion would therefore simply be met by non-co-operation with the invader. Gandhi, Dalton had already concluded after an earlier meeting, had ‘a terrible physical inferiority complex’ on this question.

Attlee, although he is not recorded as having spoken at these meetings, also had substantial reservations. He had told the Fabian Society earlier in the summer that there were three difficulties that a Socialist must encounter with the proposal to leave India. The first was the likely effect on the Indian economy, for the British, far from impoverishing the country, had created an artificial prosperity which would collapse into confusion and famine on their departure. Conditions in native-owned industry were worse than those in British-owned factories, and Indian trade unionism was ‘largely racketeering run by the lawyers’. The second difficulty was the question of defence, which Attlee continued to believe could not be transferred to Indian ministers without removing British officers, and thereby stripping it of all its senior ranks. Finally, there was the problem of religious minorities. The Moslems formed a kind of ‘diffused Ulster’. On the Hindu side, few inroads had been made into caste prejudice, and the Brahmins would certainly oppose democratic growth. The only solution was to attract the ‘best nationalists’ who, in Attlee’s view, were not the Gandhians but more moderate nationalists who were participating in provincial government. With franchise extensions, ‘unscrupulous lawyers’ would give way as ‘parties in the proletariat’ rose against them. But there could be no immediate clearing out of India: the result would be ‘the loss of the North-West Frontier and of the bulk of our Indian trade’.

On the eve of his departure, Gandhi was pressed by Labour’s Indian experts to come back into co-operation with the British. But Gandhi was no help at all. There was, he insisted, no real room for manoeuvre in what had been wrung from the Conservatives, and the Labour experts’ suggestions that he should welcome the prospect of future conference work merely revealed ‘the paralysis of the British mind’. Gandhi genuinely found the insincere politics of coalition, as the Labour experts explained them to him, simply incomprehensible. He could not see how MacDonald could make an equivocal declaration at the behest of the Conservatives and expect to please Congress at the same time. When Laski told Gandhi that some members of the coalition Cabinet did not support the use of repression in India, Gandhi snapped back `No? Then the members should resign. It is a sickening thing. It is positively horrid … If you remain silent in a matter of this kind you are guilty.’ This was no less than an irreducible clash of moralities. One of those present, the writer George Catlin, later wrote of the occasion:

Everyone was, I think, a little stiff and a little embarrassed. The politicians and worldly men did not know what might be said next. They might be asked whether they had been saved, as by a Salvationist…

I was impressed – impressed by the signs and wonders, by Gandhi as an unusual kind of politician; but I had, as yet, no insight…. Even some of those at the party … dismissed him as “too much of a Jesuit for them”. His religiosity offended their Fabian common sense, their Marxist prejudices, and indeed their Bloomsbury good taste … [A] god in a drawing room … [is] always liable to say things in bad taste… There is a collision of two worlds.

British interest in Gandhism in 1931, which was considerable, reflected neither sympathy nor hostility, but a desire to find a place for the seemingly anomalous Gandhi in the belief-systems and political world-views of the progressive left. Gandhi was not so alien that this task was impossible. Some aspects of his thinking were undoubtedly attractive, notably those which had been derived from familiar sources. Ruskin, for example, who had provided Gandhi with his belief in the dignity of labour and the necessity of service to the poor and marginalized, had also been one of the dominant influences on the thinking of the British left. Gandhi’s disparagement of western materialism, technology and uncritical scientific progress aroused distant echoes of similarly-inclined critiques by Edward Carpenter and other `new age’ critics, which had been influential in fin-de-siecle socialist circles. The popularising of Gandhi by Romain Rolland and others in the 1920s had also helped to assimilate Gandhi to dissident Christian traditions, especially the Franciscan one of poverty and service, which resonated among Christian Socialists and others influenced by Christianity. The Gandhian ashram seemed to offer an ideal of equality, simplicity and austerity and Gandhi himself the incorruptibility of a man of the people, an exemplar which had a special place in Labour mythology. His concern for the harijan was a useful counterweight to their suspicions of the entrenched caste system.

However, in the Labour Party of the interwar years, alternative visions of modernity and radical approaches to realising socialism and democracy, which had been quite prominent before 1914, had been marginalized, if not squeezed out altogether, in a drive for electoral growth and state power. While Gandhi’s personal integrity and commitment to social experiment could be admired, therefore, most thought his ideas too retrograde, anarchic or utopian for nation-building. British socialists favoured hierarchical, pyramidal political structures, in the interests of central planning. Villagers would have to make way for dams. But Gandhi wanted structures made up of ‘ever-widening , never ascending circles’ in which the village would resist control from the centre. His hostility to machines which displaced manual labour, for example, suggested an admirable concern for rural employment, and appealed to the dwindling numbers of ruralist or handicraft socialists in the William Morris tradition. But to the majority of British socialists, Gandhi’s ‘absurd economic dreams’, as Beatrice Webb termed them, offered no solution to the material impoverishment of the Indian peasant. Industrial modernisation, with its accompanying clash of class interests, was seen as quite inevitable if India was to be free. ‘Rejection of the machine is always founded on acceptance of the machine’, wrote George Orwell, ‘a fact symbolised by Gandhi as he plays with his spinning wheel in the mansion of some cotton millionaire.

Of course, many of Gandhi’s Indian critics agreed much of this critique, and certainly with its underlying assumptions. This made them, especially Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress Socialists, closer allies of the British left than Gandhi ever managed to be. But in making such alliances, they were neither willing nor able to disown Gandhi. While they disagreed with many of his beliefs, they were dependent on him to reach supporters and voters to whom their own ideals remained unintelligible. They were also in awe of him as a strategist. Congress leaders who hardly agreed with a word of Gandhian thinking on the questions that mattered most to Gandhi – spinning, self-purification, harijan uplift, and so on – nonetheless deferred to his leadership of political campaigns, even when he was not formally placed in charge of them. Thus Gandhian ideas and strategies, for all their novelty and complexity, remained the force-field within which Congress was policy was made even when Gandhi was not directing the campaign.

Such strategies seemed alien and unfamiliar to the British Labour Party. Non-co-operation had a legitimate, if limited, place in their armoury. But Gandhi used it as a technique for building and cementing a movement, rather than as a tactic of last resort. Labour’s preference was for the capture and use of legislative power and, above all, the exploitation of the opportunities that office-holding permitted for a party to strengthen its position. This was why, from the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms in 1919 to Stafford Cripps’ offer in 1942, Labour invariably advised Congress to stand for election or take office as a stepping stone to further advance. From Congress’s point of view, however, such offers looked more like traps rather than stepping stones. To step forward risked splitting the movement and diverting its energies, as occurred in the mid-1920s. Hence those who did enter the councils always kept one foot outside, and one eye on those who had not entered, above all on the irresponsible Congress Working Committee, and, of course, Gandhi.

Above all, Gandhi was an anti-politician. Labour had been able to work with Tilak in 1919, despite differences of view about India, because they shared with him a sense of how politics worked. Tilak had been mildly misleading about his commitment to socialism, and doubtless this, had he lived, would have become evident sooner or later. But this would not have wholly surprised his Labour friends, because they understood the business Tilak was engaged in. While Labour’s leaders did not altogether like it, they did understand it. Gandhi’s more principled refusals were harder to construe. ‘Politics is a game of worldly people and not of sadhus’, Tilak had told Gandhi reproachfully in 1920. But Gandhi was engaged in building a largely new form of sadhu politics much better adapted to the position of weakness in which Congress found itself. As Ashis Nandy observed, he ‘wanted to liberate the British as much as he wanted to liberate the Indians’, awakening dormant or undeveloped elements in their civilization and making them aware of the wrongs they had committed. This was an unsettling and largely unwelcome reversal of the expected direction of influence. To Indians who asked for their advice, and leadership, Labour offered support and apprenticeship. Those who simply refused to address them at all, they ignored. But the Gandhian proposal bewildered and at times infuriated them because it did neither. It spoke to them, but as equals.


Material from this paper appeared in Nicholas Owen, The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, 1885-1947 (Oxford, 2007).

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May 03


When the Indian National Congress was founded in the 1880s, one of its purposes was to seek to influence the British Raj not only directly, in India, but by going over its head to lobby government ministers, MPs and the public in Britain. The dual structure of imperial power – a Viceroy in India ultimately subject to a Secretary of State in London, in turn responsible to an elected Parliament – provided leverage. It was a heavily qualified leverage. The Viceroy had considerable autonomy, and the civil servants in the India Office and the Council of India, dominated by retired Indian officials often made it hard for the Secretary of State to get his way, even if he was well-disposed to Indian pressure. Parliamentary powers of scrutiny were restricted, and there was an understanding among MPs that they might criticise government ministers, but not take sides with the Indians.

Nevertheless, there was some scope for criticism, which could invoke arguments, especially liberal ones, which were more readily heard in London than in India. Such criticism was exercised through the British Committee of the Indian National Congress. This had not been the first choice of the Indians. They had begun in 1888 with an agency arrangement: paying a political agent and sympathetic MPs who were willing to raise Indian issues in Parliament for cash. However, it proved hard for the Congress to collect the money for such distant work, so the agent’s activities were subsidised by private parliamentary work for other rich Indian clients. This work – which sometimes aired Indian scandals – threatened to discredit the Congress and its parliamentary allies. Instead, therefore, the Congress set up the British Committee, made up of Liberal MPs and a few Indian politicians resident in London. The British Committee was unpaid, unlike the agent, but it reserved the right to make India’s case in its own way. The best symbol of its approach was its journal India. This was ostensibly a newspaper provided to make India’s case in London, but was actually written by British Liberals and exported to India to inform Indians, whose subscriptions paid for it, what they thought and felt. The various points of difference between the British Liberals and the Indians – free trade, for example, which the Liberals insisted upon, but which the Indians disliked for its effects on home production – therefore never became the source of open disagreement . Instead the Indians grumbled privately and withheld their subscriptions.

The form of metropolitan agitation favoured by the British Committee was an appeal to shared liberal values. These appeals had mixed success. On the one hand, British Liberals were vulnerable to being criticised on precisely the grounds on which they now justified empire: its capacity to produce self-government. Where empire seemed to be impeding progress along these lines, it could be effectively criticised, using arguments grounded in claims the British Liberals had already acknowledged. The Indians could demand consistency between liberal principles held at home and their application in India. On the other hand, the Indians struggled to acquire sufficient authority to challenge the buried assumptions of liberalism – its single model of development, its undervaluing of other cultures – let alone rework its principles for themselves, stretch them, bring them to crisis or reject them. British liberalism was shared with Indians, but not commonly owned.

The organizational outgrowth of this asymmetric relationship was the British Committee itself, with its reliance on British sponsors to validate Congress grievances and guide its political strategy. This explained its successes, especially its work on civil liberties, which British liberals cared deeply about and which enjoyed unquestioned authority. But it also explained its failures: its inability to connect with emerging movements of Indo-centric struggle and self-reliance, and the hidden grumbling and footdragging this aroused in India. The Committee, the radical Indian critic Bipin Chandra Pal wrote bitterly (though for Indian eyes only) in 1905, ‘vitiates the very root-springs of our own political life and activities, by leading our best and ablest men to view Indian questions through British Liberal spectacles’.

For this reason, political radicals like Pal who wanted to build more challenging, self-reliant movements in India also needed to reverse the relationship of dependence on British Liberals in London. Their chosen method was for Indians themselves to seek to persuade the British public, without the complications of British Liberal intermediaries. Shyamji Krishnavarma’s Indian Home Rule Society, based at India House in Highgate was the best example. Unlike the British Committee it was open to ‘Indian gentlemen only’. Its newspaper, The Indian Sociologist, was a counterweight to the moderate coverage of India.

This mode of agitation had a brief flowering in Edwardian London, which I have explored at greater length in another article, called The Soft Heart of the British Empire. It took advantage of the extent of freedom available at the metropole for anti-British agitation. As police repression of Indian extremism grew, indeed, London proved a useful haven for the agitators. Many of them moved there, including Pal himself. For reasons I explore in the article, the experiment was shortlived.

This left the British Committee in command of the field in London, but increasingly resented in India. It experienced financial crises and drifted into irrelevance. After the First World War, the Committee was finally disbanded. This is usually explained as the consequence of its slow decline in effectiveness. In fact, however, the Committee had undergone a revival, stimulated into action by the upsurge in Indian nationalism in 1917. The leading figure in this upsurge, B. G. Tilak, insisted that the British Committee must henceforth take instructions from the Congress in India rather than decide for itself what was best. The new arrangements also included more secure funding from India, a professionalised press campaign, and an alliance with the Labour Party.

Following his takeover of Congress in December 1920, however, Gandhi unilaterally abolished the British Committee. His explanation was the necessity for Indians to be self-reliant. The struggle was to be waged in India, not Britain. The old reliance on British public men, who expected deference to their expertise, and whose priorities were set by British left-wing politics, was therefore too dangerous a temptation.

Material from this paper appeared in Nicholas Owen, The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, 1885-1947 (Oxford, 2007).


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Apr 21

The Labour Government and the Middle East, 1945-51

‘The benefits of partnership between Great Britain and the countries of the Middle East have never reached the ordinary people’, Ernest Bevin wrote to Halifax in October 1945, ‘and so our foreign policy has rested on too narrow a footing, mainly on the personalities of kings, princes or pashas. There is thus no vested interest among the peoples to remain with us because of benefits obtained. Hence it is easy for Great Britain to be blamed when difficulties arise.’ Bevin’s unsuccessful attempt to raise the standard of living of ‘peasants not pasha’ through economic and social development in the Middle East has usually been mocked as sentimental and ignorant. For John Saville, it amounted to little more than an old man’s vanity, which the career diplomats of the Foreign Office were prepared to indulge provided it did not disturb the familiar rhythms of Britain’s traditional alliances in the region. From the opposite end of the historiographical spectrum, Correlli Barnett has pilloried Bevin as a deluded ‘world fantasist’ obsessed by the fallacy that the Soviet Union was itching to acquire the marginal and poverty-stricken states of the Middle East and that as a consequence, Britain should pour scarce national resources into a fruitless attempt to develop them. However, between the lines of William Roger Louis’s account of British policy in the Middle East and in more detailed studies by Wesley Wark of the diplomat Sir John Troutbeck and by Paul Kingston of the Development Division of the British Middle East Office, a more sympathetic reading of Bevin’s policy can be found. The experiment repays study, not least for the intriguing light it casts both upon Labour perceptions of empire and upon the severe constraints under which any new departure in imperial policy operated.

The origins of Labour’s distinctive Middle Eastern policy are to be found in several developments. The first was the belief – new in Labour circles – that the British Empire-Commonwealth, if suitably reformed, might serve as a vehicle for the strengthening of socialism and prosperity at home and peace abroad. This view had been far from dominant in the Labour Party of the interwar years, when under the influence of Liberal refugees such as H.N.Brailsford, Leonard Woolf and J.A.Hobson, imperial policy had been dominated by the internationalist conviction that since competition for colonial raw materials and markets had been a prime cause of the recent global conflict, only the establishment of open diplomacy, regulated by democratic checks and controls, and the placing of colonies under international supervision might prevent a future war. By 1945, this had changed. Radical critics on the left had felt from the start that, in the absence of socialist victories at other metropoles, internationalising the empire would simply collapse into a form of collective colonialism. By 1940, with the failure of the League of Nations to fulfil the internationalists’ expectations and the apparent resilience of European colonial systems in the face of internal and external criticism, it now appeared even to Labour’s pragmatists that internationalists had placed too much faith in the benevolence of other nations and the power of international organizations. Most importantly of all, Labour had come to favour schemes for strong, centralized, state-led development and active trusteeship with the aim of transforming the colonial empire through economic planning, educational and technological development and scientific socialism. It was hard to see how these could occur without keeping, even strengthening, the framework of colonial rule.

Of course, Labour’s attachment to developing the empire was not merely a matter of ideological preference. It seemed to follow from the cold logic of Britain’s post-war economic and strategic position. In these calculations, the Middle East, delicately poised between the emerging superpowers and their conflicting post-war interests, was to play a central role. With the loss of the Indian Army, bases in the Middle East were essential bulwarks in Britain’s global defences. Airfields in Iraq offered a means of striking at the Soviet Union’s oil interests in Grozny and Baku. The Suez arsenal provided Britain with unrivalled military installations in the region and the ability to control the vital artery to the east through which dollar-free oil supplies and Egyptian cotton, each in their way essential for Britain’s industrial recovery, were brought. It lay at the heart of Britainís system of global communications to India, the Far East and Australia and its loss would force costly excursions around the Cape or across central Africa. Were Britain to weaken her presence, Soviet influence, already pressing hard at the northern tier of the region (Greece, Turkey, Iraq and above all Iran, where they remained in occupation until mid-1946) would swiftly move in, with exactly the same hideous consequences for British prestige and power as had occurred in eastern Europe. Soviet success in the Middle East would provide communism with a way in to India, Burma and Malaya and southern and western doors into Africa. For Bevin no less than Eden, therefore, the Middle East was Britainís jugular vein, to be protected at almost any cost. It was with these arguments and the aid of the Foreign Office and the Chiefs of Staff, that Bevin was able by the summer of 1947 to crush Attlee’s attempt to question Britain’s place in the Middle East. For Attlee, modern air power and decolonisation in Asia had rendered the historic role of the region as the gateway to the Indian Ocean redundant. It might be left as a huge and desolate buffer zone – a ‘wide glacis of desert and Arabs’ – between areas of British and Soviet influence. But Bevin’s view prevailed.

If the region was to play this part well, however, it had to be developed. ‘My whole aim’, Bevin wrote to Attlee in January 1947, ‘has been to develop the Middle East as a producing area to help our own economy and take the place of India.’ True, its economies were still weak and vulnerable, lacking the trained manpower necessary for high productivity in peacetime and effective defence in war. Its states were divided by ethnic and dynastic rivalries. But with measures to promote economic growth and regional defence reorganisation under British auspices, Bevin hoped, this could all change. ‘This was once a rich region’, he told Attlee, ‘and could be so again with good government and modern methods’. Besides its military and economic benefits, development would bring political stability to the region. Schemes of economic modernisation, in offering a better standard of living to the peasants and workers who benefited from them and political experience and authority to the educated classes who would be trained to administer them, would strengthen the case for future partnership with Britain. They would also undermine the arguments of radicals and communists both in the Middle East and the Soviet bloc that such ties were inherently exploitative. The sensitivity Britain showed in handling the nationalist demands of her colonies, after all, was a significant measure of her international moral reputation, and as such an important weapon in the propaganda of the cold war. To meet the Soviet challenge required an effective partnership with the United States and acquiring a reputation for liberalism at the United Nations and other international forums by replacing the language and practice of colonialism with that of partnership and development.

Bevin’s schemes for the Middle East drew on plans he had made with Cripps concerning India in the Second World War. These had been intended to bypass and disempower the Congress leadership and strike new alliances with the younger nationalists. They had been abandoned when Congress victories in the 1945 elections rendered them irrelevant. But many of the same ideas found their way into Labour’s plans for remaining parts of the Empire-Commonwealth, such as Cyprus and west and central Africa. In the Middle East, it took the form of Bevin’s attempt to harness the energies of Arab nationalism for new purposes. Force and coercion would not be used to repress nationalist political activity, except where this itself took the form of violence or terrorism. New treaties would make it clear that the British were keen on partnership, development and political progress. Socio-economic reform would divert anti-colonial feeling into nation-building, blunt the edge of anti-British criticism, and develop the prosperity and institutions which would enable democracy, when it came, to flourish.

Bevin’s plans failed almost wholly to achieve their objectives. When Churchill brought the Conservatives back to office in 1951, British power in the region rested largely on the old foundations. Negotiations to renew the treaties had either collapsed, as in Egypt, or had resulted in agreements that were almost immediately repudiated, as in Iraq and Transjordan, and Britainís presence in the region remained heavily dependent upon privileges secured under the old regimes, above all for the increasingly vulnerable soldiers in the costly and resented Suez base. Worse still, Bevinís cherished development plans were only implemented in the most limited way and never proved sufficient to win Britain popularity, let alone reshape Arab nationalism. Neither in India nor even in West Africa did Labour’s new imperial policy stem the tide of political agitation against British rule to any appreciable degree. But nowhere did it fail as spectacularly as in the Middle East.

This was largely because the constitutional structures through which the reforms were to be proposed, debated and implemented were unwieldy. Since the 1920s, only Palestine had been under direct British rule. Especially before the development of the region’s oil resources, Britain’s economic penetration had been relatively shallow and its cultural influences had never succeeded in making much impact upon established patterns of belief and social practice. British control was sustained much more through military and diplomatic supremacy than through the imposition of an administrative structure and the construction of networks of local collaborators, as was the case in Asia and Africa. The emerging party structures of the legislatures of Cairo and Baghdad lay largely outside the reach of British influence. Few credible intermediaries thus existed to publicise and argue for the worth of British socio-economic reforms. Lacking sufficient popular support to call for sacrifices on the part of the colonised themselves, the British found themselves able neither to explain the lure of development to those who might benefit from it nor anticipate likely objections.

There was, indeed, a contradiction at the heart of Bevin’s policy. Acceptance of British views, especially on questions of socio-economic reform, had to be won indirectly, through the careful courting of clients and the promotion of local initiative. This dictated a cautious and slow approach right from the start. His commitment to the principle of partnership debarred him from more energetic attempts to push reforms on reluctant pashas and governments.

Such a potentially abrasive process inevitably required copious supplies of lubrication. Unfortunately, this was in lamentably short supply. Proffering development aid to such allies was difficult to justify to hard-pressed British taxpayers. Without the ability to levy local taxes themselves, which – especially now that Egypt and Iraq were sterling creditors – would have made British-led development look somewhat like vicarious generosity, Bevin found his schemes lay at the mercy of the Treasury, which treated requests for overseas development with miserly parsimony, especially when they involved spending outside the dependent empire. Staffing and expertise proved hard to attract, and bureaucratic rivalries in London made matters worse. U.S. assistance with development might have helped, but the Americans wanted a swift return to free and private international trade, and American involvement meant that American firms would win the bulk of the contracts that resulted.

Bevin also failed to find his desired allies. For the ‘old guard’ of British allies, shaken and discredited by the reassertion of imperial power during the war, public association with the British was a dangerous gamble that threatened to expose them to their political rivals at their most vulnerable point: their inability to resist foreign domination. Bevin’s schemes required an army of British technicians, experts and advisers intervening in the way that merely created anti-foreigner feeling. Most of the Arab political elite preferred American plans for capitalist free trade as the best means of defending the region against communism,to Bevin’s socialist remedies. Younger nationalists feared that development aid would simply drain away into the old gutters of palace corruption and be used to consolidate the power of existing elites. To them, Bevin’s offer of development and a settlement of Anglo-Arab differences threatened the prospect not of partnership, but of a more permanent exclusion from power. Those who were interested in social reform were not interested in co-operation with the British, while those who were interested in co-operation with the British were not interested in social reform.

Above all there was the question of Palestine. In 1945, Bevin had hoped that the rising standards of living that development would bring might even ease the Palestinian situation, by softening the conflict for land and resources in the area and thereby allowing rates of Jewish immigration to be stepped up. Such optimism did not last for long. Broken promises on the questions of Jewish immigration and the Palestinian homeland, and Britain’s acquiescence in the creation of the state of Israel suggested to Arab leaders that British promises of security – and hence the military alliances of which they were part – were not worth having. Bevin was undoubtedly desperate that the resolution of the Palestinian problem should not be allowed to disrupt his attempts to build new alliances in the Arab world. But American pressure from without and the Zionist ties of the Labour Party within made it impossible for him to go further in meeting Arab demands for the suppression of Israel. In the poisonous atmosphere this created, plans to create a new Anglo-Arab understanding based on economic development were bound to be seen at best as an irrelevance. While Arab states remained uncertain and divided about the regional ambitions of the new Jewish state, there was little chance of British-led economic development being successful unless it was primarily directed towards military preparations for a war with Israel, rather than to the education, welfare and redistributive projects to benefit the least well-off that Labour favoured.

At the end of their efforts, therefore, Bevin and his Labour colleagues, like a small team of foreign developers struggling to complete an over-ambitious hydroelectric dam in hostile country, found their resources inadequate for the task, and the great river, whose force they had hoped might drive the turbines of British influence, impossible to divert.


The full version of this chapter appeared in Michael J. Cohen and Martin Kolinsky (eds.), Demise of the British Empire in the Middle East: Britain’s responses to nationalist movements, 1943-55 (London, 1998). You can find the book here.


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Feb 27


The independence of India, which occurred under the Labour Government in 1947, was a heavily constrained decision, due to overstretched global military commitments, financial weakness created by wartime debt and a crippled export trade, a moribund and unpopular civil administration and an increasingly Indianised Indian Army. I explored these constraints at greater length in a chapter in Nick Tiratsoo’s The Attlee Years.

The point I take up here is that these constraints make it hard to be sure whether the outcome was really what Labour wanted.

Since Labour had been in favour of an Indian settlement before the war, it has been natural to assume that independence was what the party sought. However, Labour’s pre-war position was more complex and conflicted than this judgment suggests. This is what I have argued in The British Left and India. There were also important shifts in opinion which occurred in wartime. In the late 1930s, Jawaharlal Nehru and his London-based ally Krishna Menon had persuaded British socialists such as Stafford Cripps that the Indian National Congress was becoming more socialist in orientation, more attuned to class identities than communal ones, and, above all, readier to fight against fascism. Unlike the Raj, Congress was ready to modernise India along western socialist lines. However, when the test came, Nehru proved unable to deliver Congress in support of the anti-fascist war. Gandhian non-violence and the opportunistic exploitation of the war by Subhas Bose made it impossible. Cripps himself brought an offer of independence to India in 1942, in return for co-operation in wartime government. But Gandhi and Nehru rejected it. When the ‘Quit India’ movement was launched and quickly crushed later that year, almost no one in Britain protested.

In the years between the suppression of `Quit India’ and the 1945 election, Labour therefore worked on alternative plans. These are the focus for this paper. There were three.

1.First, I look at Labour interest in sponsoring a new political party in India: M.N.Roy’s Radical Democratic Party. This had formed after ‘Quit India’ to support the war. Its trade union wing – the Indian Federation of Labour – persuaded many British trade unionists that it spoke more authentically for Indian workers than the Congress-dominated All India Trades Union Congress, let alone the Congress itself, dominated by financiers, business interests and the absurd ruralist Gandhi.

2.Secondly, I examine the plans drawn up by Cripps and Ernest Bevin to use social and economic development schemes in India. After the defeat of his 1942 mission, which he put down to the artificial hold that Gandhi had obtained over Congress, Cripps wanted to split it, using government-led socio-economic development as the wedge. He and Bevin produced a grand plan for agricultural mechanisation, model villages, infrastructural investment, cheap credit, and modern, scientific education. This would salve anti-British grievances and break the unnatural hold enjoyed by Congress over the Indian poor. Churchill, long convinced that Congress spoke only for ‘lawyers, money-lenders and the Hindu priesthood’, thoroughly approved.

3.Thirdly, I look at Attlee’s desire to make an appeal over the heads of the imprisoned Congress leaders to a new generation of more representative local politicians. Attlee had always been cautious over India, a consequence of his experience on the Simon Commission in the late 1920s. The behaviour of Congress in the war merely confirmed his view that Indian nationalism was socially conservative and dominated by speechifying anti-British leaders who shied away from the hard work of developing proposals, winning consent for them, and implementing them. It would therefore be a mistake to give the Congress leaders power in wartime. They were irresponsible in both senses of the term: unaccountable to electorates, and unserious as democratic politicians. It would be better to seek out those non-Congress Indians who were co-operating at the local level in wartime government. These views were sufficient to tempt the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, to propose Attlee as the new Viceroy in 1942.

All three of these schemes suggest that Labour ministers – there are similar statements by Hugh Dalton, Herbert Morrison and others – believed that something had gone wrong with Indian nationalism. They shared a concern to divert it from the sterile oppositional tactics of the Gandhian Congress towards the more constructive channels of nation-building. In defining such constructive work, the Labour leaders fell back upon the paths which had brought their own party to prominence: local government, labour organisation, and practical social and economic reform, reinvigorated by new wartime impulses and commitments to planning and collectivism.

None of the schemes came to anything. M.N.Roy’s party collapsed at the polls in 1945. The cost of Cripps’ and Bevin’s schemes was prohibitive, and there was little chance of implementing them in wartime without the help of Congress politicians. Attlee’s hopes for a non-Congress alternative were swept away at the war’s end, once the Congress leaders were released from detention and rapidly re-established their grip on the electorate.

Nevertheless, the Labour schemes have their importance as indications that other routes to Indian freedom existed, and that these were perhaps for Labour more attractive routes than the one they were forced to follow. Independence, in the form in which it occurred, was therefore a second best solution, something which is not very often acknowledged in existing accounts. This was so not only because the partition of India marked such a defeat of pre-war objectives, but also because, for Labour, there was more work to be done in India. Signs of what this work might have involved are visible in the more considered plans adopted by Labour in other colonial settings – Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean – where the constraints seemed less pressing.


Material from this paper appeared in Nicholas Owen, The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, 1885-1947 (Oxford, 2007).


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Feb 05

The Attlee Governments and Indian Independence

This chapter was part of an attempt by a group of younger academics to re-examine the work of the Attlee Governments (1945-51) using the archival material released under the thirty year rule. The achievements of the Attlee Governments were much discussed in the late 1980s because they could be deployed in arguments between the left and the right over the ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party as it lost elections in 1987 and 1992. Many of the positions in these debates – on both sides – arguably failed to appreciate the tight constraints under which the Attlee Governments had worked. The old questions of intention and ideology – whether the Attlee Government was truly “socialist” or not – assumed a degree of policy freedom that was not much evident in the archival records.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the policymaking surrounding Indian independence, hemmed in by prior commitments, economic weaknesses, military demands, and the intractability of Indian disagreements. My chapter also set the Attlee Government’s India policy in the context of Labour’s long involvement with Indian nationalists, and argued that that the Labour ministers and the Indian politicans did not encounter each other for the first time in 1945. On the contrary, there had been a complex history of solidarity, friendship, quarrels, misunderstandings and differences over political strategy.

Part of this history concerned Labour’s worry that Indian nationalism was socially conservative, and that a rapid transfer of power into its hands would leave the Indian worker and peasant at the mercy of employers, landlords and religious authorities. Its methods of winning power seemed suspect and pre-modern. These worries had prompted most of the senior Labour figures in the wartime coalition – Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, Cripps and Dalton – to favour very different schemes for Indian independence. I wrote about these elsewhere.

After 1945, such schemes were almost immediately abandoned, and Labour was forced rapidly down a single, narrowing road towards independence and partition. Although almost always regarded as a political triumph, the outcome seemed a defeat for most of Labour’s pre-war objectives. Violent partition, even if chosen by the principal Indian parties, had always been considered by Labour to be an illogical and damaging solution. While diehards might console themselves with the reassurance that India had never really been a single nation, such thoughts were alien to Labour’s conception of Indian unity. Labour hopes of reforming Indian nationalism in more socially and politically progressive directions were also stillborn. Power was transferred to parties whose claims to the allegiance of the Indian masses had never been tested by elections on the basis of universal suffrage. The Indian electorate remained largely illiterate and impoverished, and vulnerable to the types of communally-driven, caste-ridden or corrupt electoral politics that Attlee deplored. The history of the pre-war Congress suggested that land redistribution or public ownership would be voted down by Congress leaders attentive to the interests of Indian industrialists, rural landowners and the richer farmers, or dropped at the behest of Gandhians anxious to avoid dividing the traditional rural order.

However, by the end of the 1950s, many of Nehru’s social democratic promises had been unexpectedly realised, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. The reasons for this were complex: the deaths of Gandhi and Patel left Nehru free to establish a powerful planning bureaucracy, and the electoral hegemony of the Congress Party, of which Nehru regained the leadership in 1951, helped him to break some of the resistance of the local Congress parties, and establish the basic principles and commitments of what has come to be known as the Nehruvian state: the erosion of communal identities and caste discrimination through secularization, representative democracy based on universal suffrage, and state-led industrial planning in a mixed, though largely state-built, economy. This programme, with its astonishing closeness to Labour’s own ideals, naturally earned the latter’s approval, though what was being admired was as much Labour’s reflection as India. Approval of this kind had always been easy to give.

Labour’s Indian dilemma, chewed over since Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, had been a question of reconciling familiarity and authenticity: what was familiar turned out not to be authentic and vice versa. For all his radicalism, Nehru had proved a much more digestible nationalist than Tilak or Gandhi, because he had satisfactorily resolved this dilemma: India was, it turned out, set on the same historical path to modernity as everyone else, and the authenticity of this orientation was guaranteed by Nehru’s discovery of India and earning, through the independence struggle and election, the right to speak for it. The anomalies and inauthenticities which in the past had complicated this view of India were still there, not least among the large numbers of Indians for whom Nehruvian politics remained unintelligible, but they had been buried for the time being, and they did not trouble Labour. Indeed, for those of the 1930s and 1940s generation that knew Krishna Menon and Nehru best, faith in the Nehruvian state would extend to the defence of his daughter’s Emergency in 1975-7, on the grounds that it was necessary to protect the gains for the poor that the Nehrus had made.

Labour’s preferred schemes for India had thus first been set aside in the interests of a quick political solution, rather than abandoned through reflection, and then strangely validated by the successes of the Nehruvian state. Labour was able to decolonize without needing fully to abandon its traditionally-held criteria of fitness for self-government.


The chapter appeared as ‘Responsibility without power: the Attlee Governments and Indian Independence’, in Nick Tiratsoo (ed.), The Attlee Years (London, Pinter Publishers, 1991).


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