It has been intriguing to read complaints on the right about the Democrats and their supporters blaming the Republicans for the financial mess, when, they argue, so much of it was the Democrats’ fault what with bad legislation, pressure on banks and refusal to agree on any kind of control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. How is it possible to be that cynical and for the populace to be that credulous?
I suppose we shall not know just how credulous the populace is until the results start rolling in on November 4 – 5 but I could not help thinking back to the 1945 General Election in Britain, the one that Churchill’s Conservatives so shockingly lost.
There is a great deal of rather vague historical rationalizing along the lines of people wanting a new order and the war democratizing the British society to an extent not known before. This rather clashes with what we know about the fifties but let that pass. There may have been a feeling that something new was required after a war of that magnitude, though the feeling did not last.
What is far more rarely discussed is the dishonest Labour Party campaign that focused on the issue of “guilty men”. In not very subtle terms this was a campaign that blamed Britain’s unpreparedness for the war and, indeed, the fact that the war even happened on the Conservatives who had refused to rearm in the thirties, thus finding themselves unable to stand up to Hitler in 1938 and fighting a losing battle in 1939. After he had lost the election Churchill added his own version of the tale, which was substantially the same as the Labour one.
This is neither true nor fair. Rearmament had started in the mid-thirties under Baldwin and continued under Chamberlain. The latter may have thought it was worth negotiating with Hitler at a time when Britain was not ready to go to war but he was never so deluded as to think that rearmament could be abandoned. Yet Chamberlain’s name has gone down in history as the epitome of stupid, unimaginative appeasement. Even Andrew Roberts wrote recently that Chamberlain’s achievement, of which he was justly proud, of making Britain much better prepared for the fight with Germany was “unintentional”. A very unfair comment and unworthy of Mr Roberts.
One very important reason why rearmament was slower than it should have been was the determined opposition to it by the Labour Party and the trade union, the very groups who were proclaiming the “guilty men” theory of history about the Conservatives. Negotiations with the unions were interminable and much that could have been built or produced was not. It is worth noting that the trade union problem that bedevilled Britain till the eighties was becoming serious in the thirties but grew exponentially during the war and in the decade after it. I suspect Churchill’s American admirers do not know how much of it was his fault for giving in to them without any fighting, not just during the war, when this course of action might have been justified even when the unions went on strike at times of great danger to the country, but in his second premiership of 1951 – 1955.
Some years ago, when I was working on my doctoral thesis I discussed this subject with my supervisor, none other than A. J. P. Taylor, life-long member of the Labour Party and, possibly, even further left than that. He maintained that he had realized at a very early stage that Germany would be a threat to Britain but that he had also supported the Labour Party’s opposition to rearmament. When I asked him why the party that, allegedly, saw through Hitler’s mask should not have wanted the country to be prepared for war, if necessary, he explained that they had been convinced of Baldwin’s aim in rearming being to attack the Soviet Union. It sounded like he still thought that many decades later. If a man of his intelligence could believe all these contradictory ideas, what can one expect from an average left-wing academic or analyst?
And so the myth of “guilty men” was born and is believed by many to this day: the stupid or, possibly, pro-Nazi Conservatives who carelessly or treasonously left the country open to Hitler’s blackmail and military attack. Not a word about the far greater part played by the Labour Party in that mess. Of course, such a myth could not survive and flourish in the days of the internet. Or could it?