The Radical Rhetoric of the Common Wealth Party in Political Literature, 1942-1945

By John Concagh, MA Modern History.

Hello, I’m John Concagh, the current MA Intern at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives. Over the last few months, I’ve been working on the Archival Collection of Tom Wintringham, the radical writer, activist, politician, and Spanish Civil War Veteran. Within the collection are papers covering Common Wealth, a radical political movement he formed a key part of.

Wintringham 3/5/10.

Forward March?

AN AGE IS ENDING. A whole way of living is breaking down and is reaching its end. If the evidence before your own eyes does not convince you that this is true, no words of ours are likely to persuade you. The future struggles to be born.

Wintringham 3/5/10, Common Wealth Manifesto, 1944.

Thus begins the fourth edition of the Common Wealth manifesto, published in June 1944 as Operation Overlord – the great allied invasion of Occupied Europe – was underway. As the combined forces of the United Nations began what General Eisenhower called “the Great Crusade”, Common Wealth would continue its political operations with the same zeal as those in uniform; but with far less recognition both at the time, and in posterity.

This legacy (or absence thereof) is not for lack of trying. Common Wealth’s grassroots campaigning to upset the wartime electoral truce was more than just ‘shouting into the void’; instead, the movement would see significant electoral success on a radical political platform of common ownership, post-war reconstruction, and the principle of ‘vital democracy’ – which that 1944 manifesto describes as “a democracy which is a living freedom, not dead, formal or buried in red tape.” In both politics and rhetoric, is an echo of its leadership: the radical left think-tank around JB Priestley and Thomas Wintringham and the ‘New Christians’ of the Forward March movement. It was a broad church of insurgent radicals of all kinds, from industrialists and ex-Liberals to Socialists, Syndicalists and ex-Communists like Tom Wintringham himself.

There were certain trends of insurgency within the party. It rejected the ‘state socialism’ of the Labour Party; it abhorred the continued incumbency of the Conservatives; and most importantly, it rejected wholeheartedly the continuation of the wartime electoral pact. That final attack line is a commonality across almost all Common Wealth literature.

The Common Wealth Programme?

The early manifesto of Forward March, a pressure group working against the electoral truce from 1941 onwards, illustrates the aggressive, radical rhetoric that would characterise the movement:

Wintringham 3/5/1. 

What sets Forward March and its successor, the Common Wealth movement, apart immediately is this sort of colloquial political language.[1] That determination that “we are not going to be led up the garden path” is part of a trend, consistent with its final mission statement that

“The Forward March” as an organisation doesn’t care two hoots who gets this thing done, or what organisation gets it done. But it does exist in order to see that it is done.”

Wintringham 3/5/1, Forward March Manifesto, 1941.

Common Wealth rhetoric, once the ‘party’ (the organisation is deeply inconsistent about whether or not they are a formal political party or simply a political ‘movement’) was formed in 1943, remained extremely focused on challenging the status quo of both the British establishment and the Labour Party that co-operated with it.

The Common Wealth Five Point Programme delivers on that with typical bluntness.

Wintringham 3/5/10.

This 1943 manifesto is another vital representation of the radicalism at the heart of Common Wealth; not just a call for the end of the electoral truce, but for the creation of a new world in all terms; common ownership, proportional representation, total social equality and an immediate end to empire.

“The task before us is nothing less than the building of a wholly new civilisation which must be built around the basic principles of human fellowship—not inhuman competition—between men and nations.”[2]

There is something almost biblical about the language of the programme; there is no obsession with the technical language of Marxism (even if the conclusions and programmes are the same); the emphasis on

‘human fellowship’ and ‘vital democracy’ instead puts political power directly at the feet of the people.

“Democracy means that in every department of our common life the ordinary people shall express their desires, and that the will of the ordinary people shall prevail against the will of a privileged minority. This must happen in Industry and in Local, as well as in Parliamentary, Government.”

Wintringham 3/5/9 Common Wealth Five Point Programme, 1943

Its informational leaflet series, published across 1943 and 1944, covers a multitude of topics, each from a more radical perspective that the National government.

No.11 – on the subject of India – comprehensively declares that “India continues to be ruled dictatorially, in any crisis, by British Viceroys and Governors, and by British armed force”. Despite being more conciliatory in tone than some other material, its contents remain radical – certainly in demanding full independence for India “in terms of weeks and months, not in terms of years”. The party’s response to the Beveridge report – considered to be the cornerstone of the post-war consensus on the welfare state – speaks even further to their radical stance.

“We must, then, while fighting for the Plan, nevertheless be on our guard against the suggestion that the Plan is the last word in social reform. Beveridge himself says that he was asked only to solve the least difficult of Britain’s reconstruction problems. The Plan, is a beginning, not an end: it is a basis for further democratic advance, but it is not a revolution.”

Again here, the anti-establishment rhetoric goes to work to remind the British people:

“not to walk into the reactionary trap…but to see to it that Britain, instead of taking one halting step forward, shall go on advancing with seven-league boots towards vital democracy and common ownership, to the building of a people’s world.”

Aggressive Rhetoric for an Aggressive Party?

Wintringham 3/5/10.

The 1945 general election – the end of the hated truce that haunted all Common Wealth material – was the chance for Common Wealth to prove itself at the ballot box as the real, radical alternative to Labour and the hated Tories. This desire is unbelievably clear in their pamphlet designs, which are built not just on a rejection of the failed peace promises of the 1920s, but on rejecting any sort of compromise on the ‘brave new world’ that is being promised.

“Again?” – a detailed pamphlet discussing the Common Wealth programme is full of the typical rhetoric of the party, with the slogans “We Want a New Society based on Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Service” & “WORK NOW WITH THE ORGANISATIONS WHICH ARE WORKING FOR A PEOPLE’S PEACE” splashed across the opened folds. It finishes with an equally bold statement of intent:

“Does all this sound like Utopia—too good to be true? Rubbish. We can achieve the world this leaflet describes if we really want it. The first step? Getting a Socialist Government in Britain at the next General Election. If you are fed up with the way things are and want something better don’t just chat and grumble. Come in with us and WORK to unite the Left.

Wintringham 3/5/10, Common Wealth Pamphlet “Again?”, June 1945

Another pamphlet – “The Tory Record” is an equally damning and targeted attack; this time on Conservative appeasement in the pre-war years; contain, amongst many accusations, a very prominent table of every Tory vote on pre-war issues.

G= Good Vote, B=Bad Vote, – =Abstention, X=Current Member not elected at time of vote. Wintringham 3/5/10.

The most provocative of these is the titular Is Hitler Hiding in Hampshire?, a rather vicious attack piece on the Tories of Aldershot by Tom Wintringham that, beyond comparing their rhetoric with Hitler and other fascists, makes direct allusions to their pro-appeasement and Nazi-sympathetic attitudes in the 1930s.

Wintringham 3/5/10.

Local magnates dining with Joachim von Ribbentrop is merely the tip of the iceberg for the people of Hampshire, apparently. It not only accuses Tory supporters of outright antisemitism and fascism (such as “the lady Tory who thinks we ought not to have elections”) but accuses the Tories of war profiteering through the sale of industrial material to Japan and Germany. It is an extremely provocative document, and a rather indicative one as well; a good half of it consists

of refutations of accusations of slander made against Tom Wintringham, who appears to have spent a great deal of campaign time calling his opponents German stooges.

“If Hitler is hiding somewhere in Hampshire, or if his ghost is among us, or if his friends and allies of the past are still here— we have got to do something about it….and before you go into the polling booth remember this one fact: that I was twice wounded in 1937 while fighting against the German armour and aeroplanes that the Metalgesellschaft helped to make.”

Polemics versus Practice

The question you may be asking is whether this rhetoric – the aggressive language of common ownership and a “vital democracy” – worked. On immediate review, the answer is no. No Common Wealth MPs were returned in the 1945 election that swept the Labour Party to power; despite the Labour candidate stepping aside to clear the way, Tom Wintringham was unable to unseat the Tory MP in Aldershot. His wife Kitty fared no better in her Midlothian seat, despite the success of the party there. Most of the party – including the Wintringhams – would affiliate with the newly elected Labour Government, leaving the rump movement to form a pressure group for the rest of the century.

This failure in 1945 is somewhat of an unfair assessment; what is more interesting is how successful Common Wealth was when the odds were well and truly against them, as they were during the hated electoral truce. The Coming Change points out that Common Wealth and its affiliated candidates achieved widespread support and success whenever they challenged the truce.

“Insurgent candidates did find success. They won in Eddisbury in 1943 (a CWP gain); in 1944 they won in Skipton (a CWP gain), West Derby (an independent Labour gain), and Combined Scottish Universities (an independent gain); and in 1945 they won at Chelmsford (a CWP gain) …

Even when they did not win, left-wing truce-breakers often saw significant swings in their favor and very close elections. The Common Wealth Party’s second-ever by-election in Midlothian and Peebles Northern in February 1943 saw the government majority cut by 22 points, down to just 869 votes. Likewise, in Watford in February 1943, the Common Wealth candidate cut down the Conservative majority by 23 points, from 13,290 to just 2,0001 votes. At Daventry in April 1943, the Tory majority of 8,167 was reduced to 2,652 by a CWP candidate.”

The Coming Change

Even though, as the article points out, Common Wealth and its affiliates often stood in for the Labour Party in contested elections, the fact remains that they were able to make a significant impact without the resources of the Labour Party, in a political environment that was totally unfavourable to them. Despite out-of-date electoral rolls, opposition from would-be allies in Labour and the inability of many young service personnel to vote, they managed to make a serious impact across the country.

Was the rhetoric responsible? That is difficult to judge. What is clear is that the writings of Common Wealth are, in many senses, one of the many premonitions of how Britain would react to the end of the Second World War. People were looking for radical change of all kinds. Common Wealth shows how many – fed up with asking for it – were ready to demand it in articulated and extremely direct ways.

Wintringham 3/5/10.

[1] Almost all of its key membership would help form Common Wealth.

[2] Wintringham 3/5/9 Common Wealth Five Point Programme, 1943