Blog

WRITING THE DRUMS OF ARMAGEDDON: BRITISH SOCIALISTS AND THE OUTBREAK OF WAR JULY - DECEMBER 1914

Posted on

My main inspiration for Under Siege. The Independent Labour Party in Interwar Britain, published, once again, by AU Press in 2017 came when I reviewed Gidon Cohen's book The Failure of A Dream. Gidon dealt with the years after 1932 and up to the outbreak of World War II when the ILP had disaffiliated from the Labour Party to pursue what turned out to be a fruitless search for a 'revolutionary policy' which would be much more radical than anything Labour was likely to come up with and both more genuinely 'revolutionary' and more democratic than that of the Communists.

 

Romancing the Revolution had taken me into the mid 1920s with occasional references to later events so with the ILP book I was researching and writing about periods which were fairly new to me. The research took me to Manchester, Salford and Edinburgh as well as to branches of the British Library and the the LSE one in London. I was still working part-time at Sussex and Amelia Wakeford the university's research development officer helped me get a British Academy grant – the only grant I've ever received for research – which covered the considerable travel expenses

 

A much earlier book than Gidon's in the 1960s was Robert Dowse's Left in the Centre. It had dealt mainly with the 1920s. He seems to have taken the view that when the ILP left the Labour Party they more or less ceased to have any significance. But the ILP had been the main political promoter of the idea of a Labour Party since the 1890s with Keir Hardie's 'Labour Alliance' strategy of linking up with the unions.

Until 1918 taking part in your local ILP branch had been the main way people participated in the larger party. But the new Labour Party constitution that year introduced constituency parties and this posed an existential dilemma for the ILP. Its main raison d''être was gone – what new role could it find to perform?

 

My own book looks at the whole of the interwar period. In the 1911 book I'd already written about the earliest years of the 1920s when there was a concerted effort to get the ILP to affiliate to the (Communist) Third International. I revisited this episode and the 'Left Wing of the ILP' in the second section of Chapter 2 of the new book This was after a look at the long career of Fred Jowett, long-time MP and briefly a government minister in 1924, who I found the most sympathetic of all prominent ILPers. He stayed in the party from its inception till he died in 1944 at the age of 80.

 

In the 1920s the most interesting episodes were the brief period when Clifford Allan was the dominant figure and he – a former wartime conscientious objector – allied himself with future Labour PM Clement Attlee - who had fought in the war and was routinely known to the press as 'Major Attlee' – to promote a 'guild socialist' version of the programme of the party and the adoption a few years later of the well-researched 'Living Wage' demand. By the mid to late 'twenties the Jimmy Maxton had replaced Allan as the dominant figure. He clearly had charisma – almost everyone who came across him was knocked out by him - but in the 'thirties he was largely responsible for taking the ILP into disaffiliation from Labour and the fruitless search for the 'revolutionary programme' I've already mentioned.

 

By the outbreak of war in 1939 the party had shrunk alarmingly and most members were now willing to rejoin Labour. But before they could the war intervened and with Labour joining the Churchill government and the ILP opposing the war, as they had largely done in 1914, this was no longer on. The ILP continued as a very small organisation until in the 1970s it changed its name to Independent Labour Publications and rejoined Labour.

 

One thing about the book gave me much pleasure. I was able to quote a comment by Don Mcgregor from the the October 1939 edition of ILP's internal publication Between Ourselves. I had met Don a few times back in the '70s at Voice of the Unions editorial board meetings. He had made an indelible impression and it was good to think I'd found, and quoted, something that epitomised his approach to socialism.

 

Under Siege. The Independent Labour Party in Interwar Britain Athabasca University Press, 2017

Available in UK from www.combinedacademic.co.uk/under-siege, as well as Waterstones and Amazon.

978-1- 77199-155- 1 paper
978-1- 77199-157- 5 epub
978-1- 77199-156- 8 pdf