IT might be going too far to state that Labour stole the 1945 General Election. The campaign was fought under peculiar circumstances. There had not been a General Election for a decade owing to the outbreak of war, and the country had in effect had a socialist government for half that time. Wartime did not stop the Left, and they mobilised numerous supporters to blame the Conservatives for losing a peace they themselves did nothing to preserve. The Conservatives had abandoned political campaigning for the duration, and capitalism had been widely disparaged at an intellectual level during the final years of peace. Defenders of capitalism were few and far between in the UK, arguably the most notable being F A Hayek. Socialist political propaganda was restricted by paper rationing and little more.
Churchill, warrior-statesman as he was, had left the domestic economy in the hands of Labour politicians and Left-leaning civil servants such as Harold Wilson, who had been tutored by G D H Cole. Cole had written prolifically about socialism, even at one stage advocating that the National Socialist economy of occupied Europe was actually beneficial to its participants owing to borderless coordination despite this militarily-imposed Union. The British public were force-fed socialism and the promise of a utopian peace based on a benevolent but highly dominant state. The Army ran education courses for conscripts to make them aware of current political and economic events and ideas, but their socialist tutors ensured that those regimented by war could appreciate only a state-regimented peace.
It is reasonable to state that for the Left in the 1930s, pacifism was a stronger force than anti-fascism. Rearmament in the face of the rise of Nazi Germany was met with widespread opposition such that it could not begin in earnest until after the 1935 General Election. The British Left’s credentials for fighting fascism rest on the despatch of volunteers to the International Brigade in Spain, where the communists seemed to fight amongst themselves as much as they fought Franco, plus also street-fighting against the British Union of Fascists, an organisation founded by a former Labour MP that counted at least one other former Labour MP amongst its number. This appeared the limit to the Left’s opposition to fascism in Britain and overseas. They certainly did not support or cheer ramping up production of Hurricanes, Wellingtons and Matildas in the face of the rising tide of Bf 109s, Do 17s and PzKpfw-IVs. In this they amplified the top-down support for pacifism in the UK. Even George V was vocal in opposing the prospect of war, declaring he would rather demonstrate in Trafalgar Square waving a red flag than declare war again. Sentiment defeated objective reality.
It was therefore sadly inevitable that in the later war period Conservative politicians were subjected to intense criticism for Chamberlain’s foreign policy, despite its refutation by Churchill. There was no examination of Labour and the wider Left’s part in opposing rearmament. At least one commentator, a Labour MP writing pseudonymously, defended Labour’s pacifism by suggesting that this was opposition in detail rather than principle, when it was the exact reverse.
This relatively faint anti-fascism by Labour was demonstrated in another way. The number of Labour MPs who served in the forces in wartime was rather small.
To counter the wartime criticism of the Conservatives of the years of appeasement, epitomised by the pamphlets Guilty Men, The Trial of Mussolini and Can the Tories Win the Peace?, Quintin Hogg, latterly Lord Hailsham, authored the book The Left Was Never Right. Hogg had excellent credentials for doing so. He had opposed the Oxford Union motion against fighting for King and Country in the infamous debate of February 1933. His book tried to take down the Left’s assertion that war was brought on this country exclusively by the Conservatives. It did not succeed, and has been somewhat forgotten compared with Guilty Men. However, Hogg produced the most fascinating series of statistics concerning the number of MPs from all sides who served in wartime. It is not unreasonable to state that the best expression of anti-fascism was not to pontificate about it at length, but to take up arms, as so many socialists had done in the International Brigade. Well, the International Brigade of 1939-45 was His Majesty’s Armed Forces.
One hundred and thirty-six Conservative MPs donned a uniform in the war, compared with just 14 Socialist MPs of all hues. Ten Conservative MPs fell in the service of our country. No Socialist MP made the ultimate sacrifice to protect his comrades-in-arms and people back home. Fifty-seven Conservative MPs were decorated, compared with only five Socialists. Commenting on this, Hogg said: ‘I am entitled to observe that whilst some of the poor derided Tories were fighting the enemy, these egregious pamphleteers were sowing discord in the ranks at home behind our backs and attacking our sincerity and personal honour.’ Which is exactly what went on. Politics is a cruel business. Churchill, despite leading the country to victory, was lumped in with the appeasers who had preceded him and lost the 1945 election by a landslide, laying the foundations for the persistent clientelist big state we have today.
It is important to remember now more than ever that there was a battle against fascism that was bigger than Cable Street or in homage-worthy Catalonia, and when that battle was joined, Conservative MPs were by far more numerous than their Left-wing counterparts in taking up arms and running towards danger to decisively defeat fascism. While Socialists talked the talk, Conservatives walked the walk.