Bevin Part 3
The Communist, May 1981, Second Editorial
Bevin made his first appearance in Parliament on June 27, 1940, dealing with affairs of state in question time. On July 3 he made his maiden speech, introducing a Bill to increase unemployment benefit and extend the National Insurance system. He put on no maidenly affectations. He made no reference whatever to the fact that it was his maiden speech, and was even oblivious of the fact that the was thereby doing something original. He did not pretend to be anything other than an experienced courtesan ho had acquired a new salon.
Silverman tried to make a patronising speech, telling his grandmother ow to suck eggs. Gallacher followed with an opposition speech: ‘I did not have the opportunity of hearing the Minister make his maiden speech, because I was an interested listener at a meeting in another part of the building which was discussing the question of the removal of the men of Munich… There was a time many years ago when I liked to hear the minister of Labour but that is quite long time ago…The Minister of Labour is now giving us an idea of the new world. He says we will have mass unemployment…’
Bevin, of course, said no such thing. Gallacher’s reasoning seems to have been that, since Bevin was extending the National Insurance system to include categories of white-collar workers previously excluded from it, he was preparing for mass unemployment.
On October 13, 1944 Bevin introduced a Bill to increase unemployment benefit by 20%, and was attacked by McGovern, Shinwell etc. as if he were repeating eh cut in benefits enacted by Snowdon. He replied as follows:
‘I want to state a principle. I happen to be a Socialist, and I am still a Socialist, in spite of the chains that join me to the Coalition, and in spite of the same chains that the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) would probably have riveted on himself with great alacrity if the right post had been found. As a Socialist I am never going to admit the principle that insurance is the right way in total to deal with unemployment…
I take one view, having gone into this insurance system…There is a great difference between my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals and me. He was trained in what is called the Little Bethel of Socialism, the I.L.P. I got my economic basis when I was young, with the S.D.F. I was like my hon. Friend the Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague); we both kept right on the strait and narrow path. I take the view, having got into this insurance, that it was, after all, not a Socialist measure. It was a Liberal measure… and it was devised at the time to avoid the actual steps that ought to have been taken to deal with unemployment. … I am being asked to forsake all my Socialist principles and come down to the I.L.P. philosophy that the dole is the solution for unemployment, and I am not going to do it.’
Bevin had by this time already taken steps to make the maintenance of full employment in the post-war period the first priority which all parties would have to subscribe to, and had proposed measures for achieving it. The Beveridge Report, produced under his auspices, was a detailed development of an approach which he had had in mind since about 1930, and on Une 21, 1944 he introduced a White Paper on employment policy based on the Beveridge Report. The object of the White Paper was the maintenance of a ‘high and stable level of employment without sacrificing the essential liberties of a free society’:
Bevin: We have had many marches of the unemployed.
And good marches, too.
The hon. Member may have enjoyed them but the unemployed have not…
I had an opportunity of visiting one of our ports and seeing the men, of the 5oth Division… going aboard ship…They were going off to face this terrific battle…The one question they put to me … was, “Ernie, when we have done this job for you, are we going back to the dole?”
Yes, it was put to me in that way, because they knew me personally… Both the Prime Minister and I answered, “No, you are not.” That answer of “No” … I hope, will be supported by the House… There is an obligation on all of us to bend our abilities and our energies to finding the right solution, and not to dissipate energy merely in destructive criticism.
The Government have come forward not only with a statement of their objective, but with an outline of the practical measures for attaining it…. I am convinced that although of course Governments may change … any party which faces the people of this country at a General Election and refuses to accept the principle of full employment, will not be returned to this House…
The Government do not claim that the White Paper is the final solution of this problem. The proposals do not raise the question, for instance, of whether industry will, for ever, be privately or publicly owned. Some say that all benefits of enterprise arise from private industry, and some say they arise from public ownership. Well, I have seen a bit of both. I have seen enterprise absent from public ownership and I have seen enterprise completely absent from private ownership. Therefore, the question of how you can give effect to decisions as to who will own industry, is not prejudiced by this White Paper. The proposals of the White Paper will operate, whatever the ownership of industry may be. There are those who have gone “cock-a-hoop” in certain parts of the Press, because they think that we who represent the Labour Party in the Coalition Government… have abandoned our principle concerning what we think the right ownership for industry ought to be. What we have tried to do, is to devise a plan which, however you may decide the ownership of industry by adjustments which may have to be made, seeks to attain its objective.
The main purpose of the White Paper… is to declare war on unemployment, and to indicate how our resources should be harnessed for that purpose. Our monetary system, our commercial agreements, our industrial practices, indeed, the whole of our national economy, will have applied to them the acid test—Do they produce employment or unemployment? Under the system which governed our economic life from the industrial revolution onwards, unemployment and deflation were regarded, in the main, as automatic correctives for the lack of equilibrium in our financial and economic position. Incidentally, it was just 100 years ago, after the passing of the Corn Law Act and the Bank Act, that that automatic control was introduced. This meant that industry and human beings had to adapt themselves to the working of the financial system, instead of the system being adapted to the needs of the individual. …
Revisions of rates of wages or production had to be made from time to time, very suddenly, and as a result the two sides in industry were set in conflict. Strikes and lockouts followed, there was lowered production and the national income was cut down still further. We had, moreover, to buttress the old system with our social services… and directly this was done, the automatic adjustments which were the basis of the old system could not be made in the way intended under the doctrines of laissez-faire. The stronger the trade unions became the more the resistance to change in money wages. With the buttress of the social services, the weapon of starvation and bankruptcy did not operate at all quickly enough to make the old system work, and it was doomed from the day when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) introduced his social services into this House.
It is worth while briefly to call attention to what had to be done between the two wars, …From 1922 to 1939 we lost 250,000,000 days of production, through strikes and lock-outs alone. Over 6o per cent. of those disputes arose from the need for adjustments due either to deflation or Gold Standard adjustment, and were outside the control of industry. Therefore, you set two parties to settle a dispute that someone else had created but which they had no power to settle…
I may be forgiven for referring to the General Strike, for which I have never apologised. What happened? In 1921 there was an adjustment of 40 per cent. Many of us trade union leaders had to spend three solid years in making new agreements and, when we had made them, within a year we were thrown out by 12½per cent. No industrialist in this House will get up and say that you can adjust industrial efficiency to make up 12½ per cent. in one year. … And how was it proposed to deal with it? It was sought to take 2s. 6d. a ton off coal, which meant so much off steel, and so much off other things, all the way up through industry. And so, the people who suffered were one class of the community. I make the assertion, and this is a basic principle of this White Paper, that if either exchange or financial adjustments have to be made, they must be made over the community as a whole, … And … if this House had understood it, we should never have had the General Strike.
What happened? With all that loss of 250,000,000 days, wages went down, wages went up, went down again and went up again. What was the net result at the end? The change in money wages over the whole field of sheltered and unsheltered industries, which I admit did not suffer equally…was only five points. In the 17 years from 1922 to 1939, we had all these fights and struggles going on throughout the country, with all the consequent difficulties, and the adjustment was five points. I suggest that the House ought to find some better remedy than that. There will be strikes, there will be disputes, but they ought not to be on this issue, which those concerned cannot settle of themselves. In that same period of 17 years, we had an average of 1,700,000 unemployed, and we paid out a total of£1,260,000,000 in unemployment benefit and assistance. That payment helped to keep the consuming market going and, to that extent, probably prevented unemployment from being worse, but we had not a single pennyworth of production for all that expenditure. I do not think that that was good for the country…
We shall be facing a very difficult situation at the end of this war, and apart from all sentiment that one might impart into this proposal, we cannot afford loss of production this time. It would be unsound economically. We shall have to carry the aged on the new pension scheme—good luck to them. We are raising the school-leaving age in order that our children may have a better chance in life. That is right, but if we are to do this, then we must employ every able-bodied man to the full and under decent conditions during the best productive part of his life.
Therefore, we are dealing with the situation through the education proposals, the health proposals, the policy of this White Paper and the housing policy, and I want the House to view it as a concerted attack, and not as being dealt with in isolation by this White Paper alone. The coming of the State into the arena, full-blooded, as is now proposed, must mean the writing of a new code of conduct for industry, a new set of rules in our economic life… I ask the House whether a common objective, nationally, cannot be adopted to carry us, not only through the transition period, but into a better economic state after the war.
They do not like that over there.
I am not without hope.
Does the right hon. Gentleman mean a continuous Coalition?
No, not even if my hon. Friend were a member of it…
In future the Government’s policy will be to meet the onset of any depression at an early stage by expanding and riot contracting capital expenditure, and by raising consumption expenditure and not reducing it, by such means and devices as may be found most effective. Paragraph 62 declares that this is a policy directed to the deliberate ironing-out of the slump and the boom, but that it will involve more economic control by the State than has hitherto been experienced. There are three elements to be considered …; there is capital expenditure, both private and public; there is consumption expenditure…; and there is the foreign balance. In the case of private investment, one has to admit that this covers the greater part of the field at the present moment, because it is the most subject to fluctuations and is, admittedly, the most difficult to control. Various devices, such as variations of interest rates and that kind of thing, have some effect, but we cannot rely on that, because the policy of the Government is to maintain our policy of cheap money. … It is impossible to see very far ahead, but,… as at present advised, cheap money is our policy.
Mr. MacLaren (Burslem)
It will not stop a slump.
Nothing, by itself, will stop a slump. It is necessary to have a combination of activities to stop slumps. Private enterprise will be encouraged to follow the Government’s line in timing investment. …
The idea is that … plans will be coordinated and that a target will be set each year …. This is not to be regarded as a public works policy, as understood in the old sense. … this is intended to include the whole range of public activity, using developments of all kinds—just as, when there is a slow down in industry, every wise management turns on the maintenance for the next turn of the wheel and improves the productive capacity of its undertaking. This sort of thing is being translated into this public works policy—to turn on national capital at the right moment to improve our country, and improve our health and efficiency for future developments. It is in that sense that we should use the Public Works Fund, and we want to adjust it in order to meet those ebbs and flows which are, to a very large extent, outside our control.
The ebbs and flows of overseas trade, harvests and such things are very largely outside Governmental control. We cannot control the harvest failure in the Argentine, or something of that kind….
The second line of defence is consumption expenditure. If we are not successful in preventing a decline in capital investment, purchasing power for consumers goods will inevitably decline…’
Bevin then went on to discuss purchasing power, labour mobility, regional development as against transfer of labour, the modification of the concept of profit in the new circumstances, and ways of establishing a ‘reasonably stable international price level’. He was especially concerned to ensure that expenditure was geared to production:
The fundamental issue is simple. It is little use injecting purchasing power to keep up the volume of employment if the additional money all goes in profit. It is equally useless if it all goes in wages and you get no production for it. If the effect of making more money available, for example, for housing, is simply to put up the price of houses and not to get more houses and more workers employed, the Government’s policy will fail. The adjustment of wage rates must go on through the ordinary processes, but the general level ought to be related to productivity. I do not object to that principle. If we had had through the nineteenth century a rise of wages comparable to the productivity of the working people, the standard of living in this country would have been about double. …
…. What instrument does the right hon. Gentleman intend to use to raise wages to the index of production?
We have to discuss it with the parties and work out the methods, …I have not worked out the precise methods, but I have asked my trade union friends, industry and everybody to realise that this is an essential thing that must be done. If it is to be done, we have to alter the old catch-as-catch-can methods … No one has had more throws in the wrestling system with wages than I have had, but the catch-as-catch-can method was rot always on one side. I would like to see that old system in wages go. We want to relate wages to efficient production.
During the three-day debate on the White Paper a backwoods Tory-Labour left united front emerged as an ineffectual opposition to it. The main body of Labour opinion enthusiastically supported the White Paper and the main body of Tory opinion found it impossible to oppose it— some for opportunistic reasons, and others because they had become convinced that a reversion to laissez-faire would not be possible in the post-war period.
The White Paper was supported on principle by Quintin Hogg (now Lord Hailsham), representing the Reform Toryism that reached its full development in the Macmillan governments of the late fifties and early sixties. It was also given considered support by the one Ulster Unionist who spoke in the debate (June 22):
I must congratulate the Government upon the White Paper which they have produced. … It approaches the problem on a scale never attempted before. Certainly it aims high, in its attempt to solve the age-old riddle of recurring booms and slumps and to put in their place, as far as possible, a state of continuing good employment. To effect this, it proposes a number of measures of a novel character, such as control of private capital, regulation of public expenditure and works, and the variation of the rates of premium for social insurance in relation to the state of trade. All these involve a measure of Government control of industry, to which this country has never before been subject. The British people do not like Government control, and that may be the snag on which this scheme will founder, but it seems to me obvious that booms and slumps cannot be prevented by allowing the completely free play of economic trends, as in the past. We must recognise that, if stability is to be obtained, there must be some control. It is to a large extent a choice between two evils….
I feel that this Debate is the precursor of an attempt to inaugurate in this country a scheme for maintaining employment in the years to come of a character which has never before been attempted by any other Government in the world. All one can do is to wish it success…
O’Neill also dealt with the question of foreign markets in a post-imperialist framework:
‘In facing this problem we have to recognise that many of our old markets are probably permanently lost; some of those, for instance, in the Dominions and India. Take, for example, Australia, … Australia is becoming a manufacturing country. We used to look upon Australia as mainly a primary-producing Dominion. Now, owing to the war, they are manufacturing more and more. … and after the war Australia obviously will not be the market for our manufactured goods that she has been in the past. The same observation applies to India…’
Thus did Ulster Unionism take in its stride the policy of ending laissez-faire and the anticipated fact of the end of Empire. But who would ever guess from what has been said about eh Ulster Unionist record at Westminster that such things were said by a Unionist at one of the critical turning points in modern British history?
O’Neill was followed in the debate by James Maxton, of the very, very left-wing Independent Labour Party, who proved entirely incapable of seeing the difference between a socialist tract and a government policy. He could have written a much better socialist tract than the White Paper, and he could only judge the White Paper as if it were a propagandist pamphlet:
I do not know where to begin to deal with this document, because if it had finished after the first sentence in the foreword, which says: “The Government accept as one of their primary aims and responsibilities the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment after the war”, it would have said all that it has said of practical value. It could well have been published as a pamphlet, bearing the title, “Some musings and meanderings on the economic problems of our time, by a Cambridge undergraduate,” … we are seeing some of the ideas that Keir Hardie propounded on the first day he was in the House, being acknowledged in general terms by the Government of the day, … For the last 20 years, I have taken a primary responsibility for carrying on the party which Hardie led during the whole of his political life, the Independent Labour Party…
I find very little ground for congratulation in the fact that, 50 years after the pioneering started, there is an acceptance, in general principle, of the idea. Progress at that rate will not do for the future…
This is Mond-Turnerism in 1944. There is not a single concrete thing in it for the working class, and no real serious recognition of the problem as it is now. They put in the forefront the necessity to capture the export markets.
I remember Mr. Baldwin… declaring some years ago that our export trade called for 20 per cent. of the total of our industrial production. … It is all wrong to approach our economic problems on the basis of what is going to be needed for that 20 per cent., instead of approaching it from the point of view of the other 80 per cent…
Mr. Spearman (Scarborough)
Would the hon. Gentleman agree that we want our export trade, in order to get the materials for the people at home?
I wonder. I did not mean to speak at any length, … but it is a subject of interesting rumination to me. I could write a pamphlet meandering along on this topic, which would compare very well with the White Paper… But, as I saw this problem of export trade before the war, we were bribing, financing customers across the sea to take our goods. …. We would say, “Do not bother about the money; give us the order, and we will lend you the money.”
After the war, as before the war, the other nations will want to export. They are all on this same game of wanting to export, and there will be no difficulty about us getting all the imports we want. In approaching the problem from that state of mind, you do not get into the difficulties that are indicated here. …
I say, Do not start at the export end at all; indeed, do not start at the end of trying to find employment for our people. Start on the assumption, the general Sodialist assumption, and it is the only assumption that can be defended ethically and philosophically, that everybody in the world has a duty to take a share in the work of the world, … Everybody taking a share in the necessary work of the world, … has a right to a full share of the wealth that his labour produces…’
Shinwell followed Maxton in rejecting the White Paper view that exports would continue after the war to be a substantial and necessary part of economic activity in Britain. But whereas Maxton disposed of the problem of exports by declaring that nothing less than the world economy should be the unit in which economic policy should be applied, Shinwell dealt with it by proposing that the British economy should be made independent of the world economy.
‘Suppose we did not require imports; would there be any need for exports? Of course not. Why should we send our wealth out of the country? It is because, to some extent, we depend on imported foodstuffs, and a certain quantity of imported raw material, …
Suppose we expand our agriculture. … suppose we make up our minds, as regards certain categories of foodstuffs, that we can make ourselves independent, is it always to be asumed that this country can only produce at high cost …? Someone said we imported raw materials. Petrol is one of the raw materials. Does anyone suggest that we could not, if we cared, produce synthetic petrol …? The argument can be extended in many directions…
We must eliminate waste in peace-time, as we have tried to eliminate it in war-time. I want it done scientifically.
A few weeks ago we had a Debate on an International Monetary Agreement. … I opposed it because I maintain that the implications of that International Monetary Agreement prevent us from adopting our own internal expansionist policy. … Is it not about time that we stopped allowing ourselves to be led by the nose, by American financial experts, or even by Lord Keynes? … I am not going to accept Lord Keynes as my mentor in matters of this kind because I rely on an internal expansionist policy, …
Full employment and capitalism cannot go together; there must be a margin. Full employment and Socialism can go together. … If my hon. Friends opposite can solve the problem of unemployment by private ownership or capitalist measures, let them do it and then there will be no need for Socialism.’
Shinwell was followed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Anderson (Tory), who replied to him:
‘I know pretty well what we can do in the matter of producing oil from coal, but I tell the hon. Member that if he would like to set about organising our industry with a view to producing from coal all the products we now import in the form of petrol, fuel oil and kerosene he will be setting a terrible task to the people of this country, a task which would bring them to something very near to slavery. The consumers have to be considered, because they are identical with the workers….’
Bevan passed judgement on the White Paper on the third day of the debate (June 23):
I have been astonished … by the laudatory statements which have been made about this document. …Why did the Government find it necessary to produce this document? I can see… that the Government must make some provision for the immediate situation. … But why should the Government assume that they should produce a document dealing with the permanent position? And why on earth a Coalition Government should consider it possible to do so, I cannot understand.
The subjects dealt with by the White Paper represent all the matters which distinguish that side of the House from this. The questions of how the work of society is to be organised, how the income of society is to be distributed, to what extent the State is to intervene in the direction of economic affairs—all these are questions which first called this party into existence. They represent in themselves the main bone of contention between the main parties of the State. How on earth, therefore, can a Coalition Government pretend to approach those problems without the gravest sacrifice of principles? It is an impracticable proposition. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that if the implications of the White Paper are sound, there is no longer any justification for this party existing at all. … the Coalition Government has gone outside its terms of reference—it has exceeded its mandate. It was called into existence for the purpose of fighting the war to a successful conclusion, … But the policy we are now discussing is a post-election policy; it can never be operated until after a General Election…
…the Minister of Labour told us that this document does not pretend to deal with whether industry should be State-owned or privately-owned. I understand from that that he believes that even under private ownership unemployment can be prevented by the application of these remedies. If a progressive society and an expanding standard of life can be achieved by this document and unemployment can be avoided, then there is no justification for public ownership and there is no argument for it. Nobody believes in public ownership for its own sake. This party did not come into existence demanding Socialism, demanding the State ownership of property, simply because there was some special merit in it. … If private enterprise can deliver all these goods, there will not be any argument for Socialism and no reason for it. My hon. Friends on the other side of the House know full well that that is so, and they will go to the hustings at the next election and will say that the Labour Ministers have stated in the House of Commons their belief that by the application of this doctrine all the worst evils of society can be not only mitigated but prevented. If that be the case, what is our argument going to be? We shall find the argument all right, but I do not want only to find arguments, I want to find international integrity behind the arguments too, and if I believed this document, if I thought its aims would be achieved, …I would join the Tory reformers who have welcomed this document with as much enthusiasm as the Minister himself.’
Bevan then proceeded to caricature the White Paper in order to raise the spectre of labour camps, thereby flying in the face of his assertion that if he thought it would work he would join the Tories in order to implement it:
This is the scheme which the members of the Tory Reform Committee suggest is the alternative to Socialist regimentation. … When the demand for coal fails, the miners are unemployed. The Minister says, “We will start a public works scheme.” The collier, the steelworker and the building worker are forcibly and at once taken away by the State from their normal occupations and put in labour camps. … The right hon. Gentleman and his friends behind him are suggesting the worst form of regimentation for the workers as a means of dealing with a slump which has already been caused by the unjust distribution of the national income.
The workers will not have it. What working class people want is to remain in their jobs all the time … What they do not want is this thermostatic operation to occur every five or six years by which they are taken forcibly away from their normal occupations and put to do some job of public works in order to pump spending power into the system which has caused unemployment. It seems to me that the White Paper makes the final admission of the bankruptcy of a system that hon. Members opposite are attempting to defend.
A good deal of it we are asked to welcome because it makes certain admissions. I have heard this sort of thing on Socialist platforms ever since I was a boy. The great British Treasury has caught up with the soap-box orator of Hyde Park. That is all that the White Paper is. Every worker knows that the reason he is idle is because he has not enough money to buy things. …. The fact of the matter is that the White Paper is shallow, empty and superficial and bears all the stigmata of its Coalition origin. It runs away from every major social problem…’
Bevan was followed by Sir Herbert Williams, a Tory backwoodsman, who expressed agreement with his conclusions about the White Paper, declaring: ‘This is a miserable document.’
The gist of Bevan’s attack was that Bevin had sold the pass. He had given the Tories a policy for winning the post-war election. Could Aneurin Bevan undo the damage at the 11th hour? Could he dismantle Bevinite hegemony over the Tories, and persuade the Tories to become Thatcherites, in time to secure a Labour victory in 1945?
Of course Bevan failed to overthrow Bevinism, and because he failed the Labour Party won its most famous electoral victory. Bevin’s success in imposing Labour political priorities on the Tories had the reverse effect of that anticipated by Bevan. Instead of giving the Tories policies to win the election with, it convinced the electorate that the Labour Party was the party most fit to govern in the post war period.
Here is how Michael Foot deals with the incident, in a chapter entitled, ‘the Fight Against Coalition:
Among what Bevan called ‘the tired, turgid and tepid documents flowing from the muddy waters of the Coalition’ was one sponsored by Ernest Bevin and hailed in many quarters as a state paper of historic importance— the White Paper on ‘Employment Policy’ issued in may 1944. Churchill undoubtedly regarded this document as the cornerstone of his post war policy, the means for fulfilling the hope he had expressed in his broadcast of March 1943 that the best men of all parties would stay together after the war to carry through a four year plan. Ernest Bevin looked upon it with pride as an acceptance by all parties of the expansionist economic policies he had sought to urge on the governments in the thirties. In view of the uninhibited blast with which he blew his own trumpet, it was not fanciful to fear but that the Labour leaders had still not made up their minds to end the Coalition. If Churchill and Bevin had agreed on a common policy to secure the all important objective of full employment, why should they suddenly choose to go separate ways? Or if the Labour ministers did eventually make the breach would they not leave Churchill with the claim that he had an employment policy which Bevin had blessed? Bevan attempted to tear up the employment White Paper…
The Employment White Paper was a tentative, aridly oversimplified essay in Keynesian economics. Its chief practical proposal amounted to little more than the suggestion that public works programmes should be available to be turned on and off as the signs of slump appeared or disappeared. But it did contain the admission that private enterprise left to itself would produce unemployment and an acknowledgment that it was the duty of the state to sustain a high and stable level of employment. These were the innovations in government thinking which Ernest Bevin wished to see hailed as revolutionary strides forward. Aneurin Bevan was more shocked than angered by such naiveties (Bevan, Volume 1, p. 474-5).
The White Paper gave monopolies and cartels no more than a warning scold and then remained silent on the main body of principles which had identified the Labour Party since its inception— the demand that the main industries and services of the nation must be national property. Could Ernest Bevin really regard the concealment or disparagement of this great argument as a victory? ‘Soon’, said Bevan ‘there will be no escape from the grim alternatives looming up before the Labour Party. It will have to abandon either its principles or its leaders’.
Bevan’s belief at the time was that with some reluctance throughout 1944 the Labour leaders were making up their minds to reject the Churchill proposal for a post war coalition. Today all concerned who are still able to do so would doubtless condemn as quite on warranted his suspicion that they had ever contemplated the idea at all. The claim may be correct, although no evidence has been adduced to prove it. What is incontestable is that well into 1945 Churchill still thought his project feasible. Attlee and Bevin, it seems, did not take the precaution of warning him privately in a contrary sense’ (p. 474-6).
Why on earth should Attlee and Bevin have felt it necessary to convince Churchill privately that they meant what they were saying publicly? Bevin had said repeatedly that the Coalition was a wartime arrangement. If Churchill could not believe that he meant what he said , despite the pains which he always took to make his position clear and his long record of abiding by what he said, it certainly wasn’t Bevin’s business to have private dealings with Churchill to convince him of it. Bevan’s fears and Churchill’s hopes were both grounded in the past, and because of that neither of them could see what was happening in the present. It would have been no more possible to persuade Bevan than to persuade Churchill late in 1944 that what was happening before their eyes was actually happening. History told them that Labour politicians were made use of in wartime Coalitions to arouse the enthusiasm of the workers, and that at the end of the war they were either sold out or were discarded. It had never happened that Labour politicians pulled their weight in a Coalition, and ended it on terms favourable to the Labour movement , so how could it possibly happen that Labour politicians would dominate the Coalition and determine the nature of post-war arrangements? Bevan knew his history, and therefore knew that what was happening wasn’t happening. So did Churchill, his great Parliamentary enemy and friend. Bevin, who was using his power to arrange for the unprecedented to happen, wasted none of his time and energy in trying to make them think otherwise.
Bevin’s speech introducing the White Paper was one of the epoch making speeches of British political history. It reviewed the economic process in a way that had never previously been done by a government politician outside the Soviet Union, it established a framework of priorities which every party striving for political power has ever since had to accept, and it established a political responsibility for economic affairs which even Thatcherism is being compelled to acknowledge.
And for all Foot’s sneers about ‘an aridly oversimplified essay in Keynesian economics’ (imagine! arid Keynesianism in 1944!!) it was a far more complex and realistic review of economic history and economic possibilities than any that Foot has ever undertaken, or that he is likely to undertake 40 years later if he becomes Prime Minister. Foot and Benn have still not moved beyond the perspectives which Bevin established— indeed they have hardly caught up with them.