1. Patrick Wintour, 'Ed Miliband moves to claim Disraeli's "one nation" mantle', The Guardian, 2 September 2012, posted here
2. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or The Two Nations, Project Gutenberg, 2010, First published 1845, posted here
3. James Heartfield, Unpatriotic History of the Second World War, Winchester, Zero Books, 2012, p 163
4. Roy Greenslade, 'Don't damn the Daily Mail for its fascist flirtation 80 years ago', The Guardian, 6 December 2011, posted here
5. Winston Churchill, Workers (Deputations to Ministers) HC Deb 23 March 1943 vol 387 cc1475-7, Hansard, 23 March 1943, posted here
6. Winston Churchill, quoted in Keith Middlemas, Politics in Industrial Society: the experience of the British system since 1911, London, André Deutsch, 1979, p 143
7. Ernest Bevin, quoted in Keith Middlemas, Politics in Industrial Society: the experience of the British system since 1911, London, André Deutsch, 1979, p 275
One Nation Labour is not a new invention
Always patriotic, The Guardian praised Ed Miliband for making '... an audacious raid deep into Conservative heritage in a speech to his party's conference promising that Labour could rebuild Britain as one nation.' (1)
Most of the press commentary has concentrated on how Miliband has revived the idea of "One Nation", credited to Benjamin Disraeli, after his cautionary tale of poverty amongst wealth in a divided but changing industrial society: Sybil, or The Two Nations, was published in 1845, and has been republished ever since. (2) Disraeli wrote about the collapse of Chartism, attempting to represent working class interests through parliamentary democracy. One Nation Conservatives stand in that tradition. However One Nation Labour is not a new invention, and Labour patriotism has had dire consequences for the workforce. We should learn the bitter lessons of history, because Ed Miliband and Ed Balls will surely proceed to repose Labour history as a positive.
Oswald Mosley would have appreciated Miliband's One Nation Labour speech. As James Heartfield notes in his Unpatriotic History of the Second World War, Mosley, '... the sixth Baronet of Ancoats, had been a Labour Member of Parliament before setting up first the "New Party", and then the British Union of Fascists, which gathered a following among lesser establishment figures and the unemployed.' (3) As blogger Roy Greenslade of The Guardian was keen to point out, in 1934 the Daily Mail headlined "Hurrah for the Blackshirts", and the Daily Mirror asked its readers to "Give the Blackshirts a helping hand." (4) Both papers were effectively owned by Harold Harmsworth, the Viscount Rothermere. We shall see what all these papers will make of One Nation Labour in 2012, and how they are opposed to anything that might resemble the BUF of 1932, but clearly The Guardian is already in favour of Miliband's appeal to represent every social class in Britain. That is the political problem.
The awkward fascism that sprung from Labour failed in the 1930s because Labour was already a more effective and organised national socialism than the BUF, and with a loyal working class constituency. A loyal constituency that Labour has repeatedly betrayed precisely because it seeks to sustain a sense of national unity across all social classes.
When asked to support British fascists in the 1930s, '... employers' associations showed little interest.' Instead '... they put their hopes in the National Government formed when Labour Party leader Ramsay Macdonald led a cross-party coalition that isolated the left. Having lost the chance of influencing government, the British Labour Party and its backers the trade union leaders dedicated themselves to proving their commitment to the nation.' They did this with enthusiasm.
Former British trade union leaders turned parliamentary politicians like Ernest Bevin, and trade union leaders like Walter Citrine, isolated the more radical militants and revolutionaries to the point that the establishment had '... little need of a fascist militia to beat them up on the streets.' This patriotism was rewarded as war broke out. 'Though Bevin's loyal and respectable Labour movement was kept at arm's length by the National Government in the 1930s, it would turn out to be the factor that gave Churchill's government the advantage over Hitler in the 1940s.' (3) As Winston Churchill said himself:
'We have had a very great success in this war in getting along without great stoppages in industry, and we have done it very largely by our reliance on the great trade unions. I am sure that Members of Parliament would wish to have their co-operation as fully as possible.' (5)
As Keith Middlemas insightfully appreciated in Politics in Industrial Society, Labour in Churchill's government could easily reward "extremists" with kicks, and "responsible workers" with kindness. During the strike of railway clerks in February 1919, Churchill had noted how useful unions could be to the establishment:
'Trade union organisation was very important, and the more moderate its officials were, the less representative it was; but it was the only organisation with which the Government could deal. The curse of trade unionism was that there was not enough of it, and it was not highly enough developed to make its branch secretaries fall into line with the head office. With a powerful trade union, either peace or war could be made.' (6)
Bevin's Labour Party made it possible for the Second World War to be fought, sending one nation's industrial workforce to kill workers in other nations, and be killed themselves, while fusing the Labour Party to British capitalism in the barbaric process. Strikes and lockouts were banned from 1940 to 1951. Trades disputes were compulsorily arbitrated, unofficial strikes penalised, and limitations placed on freedom of speech in industry, all with the consent of the trade union movement leadership.
Bevin as Minister of Labour had addressed 2,000 trade union leaders at the Central Hall, Westminster, on 25 May 1940, just days after being given the job in Churchill's wartime government:
'I have to ask you virtually to place yourselves at the disposal of the state. We are Socialists and this is the test of our Socialism. It is the test whether we have meant the resolutions which we have so often passed... If our Movement and our class rise with all their energy now and save the people of this country from disaster, the country will always turn with confidence to the people who saved them... And the people are conscious at this moment that they are in danger.' (7)
Mutual slaughter and protracted hardship is where "One Nation" thinking led to, but where Miliband will take his One Nation Labour Party remains to be seen. He may fail to take it anywhere. He should be made to fail.
We need to be conscious that a One Nation Labour Party is a danger, and not mere "spin". It is not a new invention, but it is a reinvention. It will end badly for the workforce they most claim to represent. It must be opposed as yet another political trap of the "we're all in this together" variety, even before Miliband and Balls manage to regain power.
That is not an invitation to support the Conservative or Liberal Parties, as it seems fashionable to do among policy wonks and self-styled "radicals".
All parliamentary parties are clearly pro-capitalist today with Old Labour attempts at, and New Labour fantasies of socialist reformism a thing of the past. We are not in this national predicament together.
Ian Abley 02.10.2012 updated 05.10.2012 following helpful criticism
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