* The British Labor Movement: Labour Outlook (1930s)

The British Labor Movement: Labour Outlook (1930s)

Figure 1.--Labour Member of Parliament (MP) Dr. Edith Summerskill (1901-80) was a rare female doctor and even rarer female MP in the 1930s. Summerskill was an ardent feminist and anti-fascist. Forcefully resisting Fasism was becoming increainly acceotavle to Labour when Summerskill won her parrlientary seat (1938). Thanks to the support of Liberal activists, and absence of a Liberal candidate, she secured more than a 7 percent swing to overturn the Tory majority. The Conservative Party had a huge majority in Parliament to support Prime-Minister Chambrlain's Appeasement policy. Here she is with a Hampestead Geath fair with her husband and two children in June 1938. Dr. Summerhill after the War became the Parlimentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (1945-50). Food was still being rationed in Britain. She also played .a major role in the new National Health Service as Minister of National Insurance (1950-51).

The governing British Labour Party as a result of the Depression was faced with a national crisis. Prime-Minister MacDonald faced demands to cut public expenditure as a condition for receiving loans from foreign banks. The Keysian idea of defecit spending to stimulate the economy was not yet widely accepted. MacDonald rejected the objections of most Labour leaders and formed a coalition government with Conservatives and Liberals. In the subsequent General Election, Labourís parliamentary representation was reduced from 288 to a mere 52. While the Depressiin was the major issue, Labour's flirtation with the Soviets alienated many Catholic voters. The election gave the Conservatives total control over national Government which they held for the rest of the dacade. World War I casualties had traumatized Europeans. Labour as a socialist party believed in Marxist principles like the idea that war was inevitable result of capitalism. This they believed is what had caused World War I which had been both tragic and futile. Similar views emerged in the United States. There was a huge increase in pacifist sentiment. The British Labour Party was a socialist party and as such had a strong pacifist element--as did Socialists throughout Europe. (The major exception here was the Soviet Union.) Particularly important in Britain was the strong pacifist feeling within the Labour Party. As the major opposition party, this had considerable influence. Labour at its annual conderence adopted a resolution without oposition to 'pledge itself to take no part in war' (1933). This of course was the same year that Hitler seized power in Germany. Labour did not adopt a pacifist policy and unilateral disarmament. It did idealistically support peace through a world socialist commonwealth and the outlawing of war, but supported 'collective security' through the League of Nations. Labour tended to favor cuts in military spending, insisting that available funds be used for social programs. There were more radical pacifist voices within the Party. An important Labour pacifist was George Lansbury, a Christian pacifist. He chaired the No More War Movement and was president of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). He was the Labour Party leader (1932-35). He famously insisted in an election, "I would close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world: 'Do your worst' (1933). Of course 7 years later, Hitler did just that. Stafford Cripps's organized the vocal Socialist League which criticised Labour's policy. He charged that the League of Nations was 'nothing but the tool of the satiated imperialist powers'." [Toye] And Labour was not the only part of the poilitcal spectrum to believe this, but they embraced the idea with particular fervor. And they were convinced that another war had to be avoided at all cost. They opposed amilitary spending and defense programs. Many Conservatives reached a similar view from a different perspective. They saw the rise of the NAZIs as the inevitable result of legitimate German greviances arising out of the Versailles Treaty ending the War. They also were determined to avoid another War and were prepared to appease Hitler and the NAZIs. The Labour Party Conference even after Hitler's appointment as chancellor endorsed total disarmament (October 1933). And they threatned another general strike if Britain ever went to war again. A Labour canndidate running in a bi-election flipped a safe Conservative seat--East Fulham. This seams to have scared Prime-Minister Stanley Baldwin more than Hitler. As a result, Baldwin rejected calls from Churchill and others to match Hitler's massive rearmament program. The result was 6 years of appeasement in which the Germans built up a military advantage. Baldwin and Chamberlain also saw Hitler as a bulwark against Communism. The Conservatives retained a 200 seat majority in the next General Election (1935). This gave Prime-Minister Neville Chamberlain political dominace and the ability to ignore the warnings of Churchill and the growing humbers of the other anti-appeasers. Ironically given their ideological mindset, it would be Labour that join the anti-appeasers who saw the NAZI threat. Here NAZI supression of the German free labor movement and socialists was a factor. Also Labour saw the NAZIs as a form of unbrialded capitalism and not its essentially socialist character. Labour began to embrace anti-Fascist policies even while Chamberlain remained determined to appease Hitler (1936). [Bouverie] Hitler's rise in Germany began to change minds about military spending, even within the Labour Party. Non-pacifists within the Party forced Lansbury to resign. His replacement was Clement Attlee. The NAZI threat forced the Labour Party to abandoned pacifism and support increased military spending. A factor here was Soviet efforts to confront the Germans. Ernest Bevin and Hugh Dalton were important figures in realiggning Labour policy. They convinced the Party to oppose Primeminister Neville Chamberlain's effort to appease Hitler and the NAZIs. [Davies] Prime-Minister Chamberlain on the other hand convinced himself that he he alone could prevent another war. His whole political experience meant that he had never met anyone who actually wanted another war. He thought it was inconceivable despite the growing evidence. Chanberalin's arrogance and mistaken asessment of Hitler nearly destoyed the British nation. Labour ministers finally joined a wartime coalition government headed by Winston Churchill (May 1940). The Labor Ministers refused to enter a Chamberlain Goverment, but agreed to join a Churchill Govermrnt.


Bouverie, Tim. Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War (Tim Duggan), 496p.

Davies, A.J. To Build A New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair (Abacus, 1996).

Toye, Richard. The Labour Party and the Economics of Rearmament, 1935-1939.


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Created: 3:29 AM 9/13/2019
Last updated: 11:38 PM 9/24/2020