England: A View From The Left

England: A View From The Left


You asked for a letter on the current situation inside the Labor party—from the point of view of the left. It’s late in the evening and I’ll simply write this out until I’ve finished: spontaneity may bring its own rewards, and those interested can in any case refer to two of my more formal reports (“The Year Zero of British Socialism,” Antioch Review, Summer, 1960 and “Ideology and Actuality in Britain,” Commentary, December, 1960). You say that someone else will be writing from the other side. No doubt, but the boundary lines are shifting and not always clear, the situation is complex, and the positions of most participants in Labor’s great dispute—except for some few on left and right ineradicably attached to simplistic views of the world—are not without nuance and/or ambiguity. Nor should you think that an editor (one of many) of New Left Review necessarily speaks for his colleagues, or that a teacher at Oxford is at the center of British politics. Oxford is, to be sure, very much behnid Mr. Gaitskell: so responsible a figure must attract the admiration and support of many (particularly in these critical times when Labor’s very loyalty to NATO, and to a genteel gradualism, has been called into question) who, if they do not vote for his party, wish it well in some more general sense.

What follows, then, is my own, but you too read the newspapers. Come to think of it, however, as bad as even the respectable British press has been on this issue, you have been horribly served by the New York Times. Drew Middleton’s dispatches have not only been biased (that we expect); they’ve been systematically ill-informed. Mr. Middleton has convinced himself, or thinks he ought to convince his readers, that the Labor party decision was the work of a small band of crackpots, out of touch with public opinion, and unlikely to have anything but limited disturbance value in British politics. Now it is true that the Conference decision was very much ahead of public opinion, as measured by the polls, on the issue of nuclear disarmament. But there is in this country a deep and widening undercurrent of anxiety on this score, which the Labor left might one day turn to electoral advantage. And the Conference revolt against the Party leadership is not something adventitious. It is, among other things, a counterattack rooted in a long series of humiliations for the party’s left—going back to the last years of the Attlee government and to the Party’s bitter dispute over German rearmament in 1954.

For the moment, the counterattack appears to be damaging the Labor party and not the Tory Government. This past week, a “Little General Election” was fought: seven by-elections for vacant Parliamentary seats. “Little General Election” is a misnomer, as most of the seats were in the south and west of England. In Wales Michael Foot, th...