Skip to main content

The Present State of England

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

Winston Churchill. By Rene Kraus. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company. $3.00. Report on England: November 1940. By Ralph Ingersoll. New York: Simon and Schuster. $1.50. Speeches on Foreign Policy by Viscount Halifax. Edited by H. H. E. Craster. New York: Oxford University Press. $4.00. Where Do We Go from Here? By Harold J. Laski. New York: The Viking Press. $1.75.

How difficult it is, even with the best of intentions and the utmost of good will, to understand another country I And how the difficulty grows whenever an emergency increases both the need and the desire I Willing and anxious to be understood, the rulers of England are telling their official story with unusual frankness. But perhaps more useful still, they allow and encourage the publication of a variety of private views, reflecting different facets of the composite whole. Here are four books, two of them by Englishmen, two by foreigners, which throw light upon the present state of England.

The English people, possessed of cultural maturity and a long historical tradition, react to severe pressures by becoming more characteristically themselves, by returning to their older national habits, and even by assuming an attitude of cultural defense. And they often draw in those tentacles which have made intercourse with them easy. The English during a crisis are much simpler, slower, steadier, and more imperturbable than in ordinary times. They are less self-satisfied and more self-reliant. They are distinctly less easy for strangers to understand.

Mr. Churchill is in these respects typically English. Had he never been Prime Minister, he would have had his place in history. A man of many talents, with a touch of genius, sometimes in the center and more often on the edge of affairs, eloquent in the old-fashioned way like his father Lord Randolph Churchill, a great adventurer like his ancestor Marlborough—this would have been the picture. It is something of this picture that Rene Kraus, an Austrian, has given us, with the inaccuracies and the slickness of a campaign biographer. What history will say of Mr. Churchill we do not know, but at least it will not portray him as a combination of Siegfried and D’Artagnan.

Mr. Kraus’s biography ends when Mr. Churchill becomes Prime Minister. Of Mr. Churchill in that highest of offices, a very fine sketch is given by Ralph Ingersoll in his “Report on England.” And indeed Mr. Ingersoll’s whole book is a brilliant piece of journalism. His visit to England was short, his tour suffered most of the handicaps of the semiofficial inspection, he lacked the familiarity with peacetime England that would have given him perspective, his political judgments are naive, and he wrote in haste. Nevertheless, “Report on England” does give the very atmosphere and the feel of England at war. It is a remarkable accomplishment.

What people have to say of themselves, however, counts more than the opinions of outsiders. Two very distinguished Englishmen are here before us in volumes bearing their names, They both discuss a subject more fundamental than the history or the present behavior of England or its rulers. They deal with the soul of England, with the complex of thoughts and hopes that lie beneath the surface of the present and that will determine the future of a whole world to come.

The question of war aims, in these days of ideological wars and mobilized nations, is a most difficult and dangerous one. Yet it will always be raised in any war, particularly when the conflict has spread beyond its original arena. It was clear, as soon as the war got under way, that few Englishmen would be satisfied with a mere restoration of the status quo ante. Yet both Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Churchill, as Prime Ministers, have always refused to explain, however strongly pressed, the purposes for which the war is being fought. Being responsible to a Parliament and to a nation, they have not maintained a complete silence, but they have forced their questioners to be satisfied with the vaguest, if the most handsome, of generalities. “Victory is our war aim, and let us determine our peace aims when it comes time to make peace”—such has been the reply to every question, And necessarily so. For a popularly governed country can fight a war only if it is substantially united. Yet the English, though they are in general agreement about many things, cannot agree completely at any moment on everything. As to the immediate end to be sought in war, they can agree, and therefore talk of “victory” unites them.

Yet in any free country, whether in war or in peace, the government must permit, even if it does not encourage, some discussion of ultimate objectives. For a free nation lives by hope; only slaves are ruled by fear. Lord Tweedsmuir used to make a distinction between “victory” and “success,” Often, he said, you must be satisfied with one or the other, for men usually cannot have the two. But even if you can have both, what you really want is success. But even if the government would rather defer as long as possible any attention to such problems, will it be allowed to do so? Since it became clear early in the winter that England was more than holding her own under attack, English printing presses have poured forth a stream of pamphlets and books expressing different men’s conceptions of the program by which a successful victory may be secured. Lord Halifax’s “Speeches on Foreign Policy” and Harold J. Laski’s “Where Do We Go from Here?” are important examples.

Lord Halifax has had a political career of a brilliance unsurpassed by that of any of England’s present rulers. When a member of the House of Commons he was a distinguished Minister of Education. As Lord Irwin he was the greatest modern Viceroy of India, for without his efforts that great possession would have been lost to the British crown. As Foreign Secretary he worked earnestly for conciliation in Europe. At first sight the volume of his speeches looks like an attempt to justify changes in his thought and policy. But in fact it shows no fundamental change. In spite of the reserve necessary in the published views of one who occupies high office, the speeches show a perfectly clear and consistent conception as to the sort of political arrangements which Lord Halifax thinks desirable at home and necessary abroad.

Lord Halifax seems to accept as unchallengeable the excellence of English institutions today: “Nowhere is the constitution more democratic and the democratic traditions more firmly established by long practice and historical experience. Since the War the democratic development has been carried to its logical extreme. All men and women over twenty-one are now in a position to vote and share direct responsibility for the government of the country.” And as to Europe he says, “if Germany is able to restore the confidence which she has destroyed,” we “will encourage her to take her rightful place in Europe” and co-operate with her, “for only so do we believe that the ordered international life of Europe can be preserved.”

The preservation, or restoration, of what used to exist is the note of Lord Halifax’s speeches.

Professor Laski of the London School of Economics and Political Science, a man nearly as eminent in his sphere of life as Lord Halifax in his, has written a volume which expresses a totally different conception of what should be. Far from accepting British democracy as perfect and her European aim as consisting merely in a general reconciliation of men and governments acting in good faith, Mr. Laski makes an impassioned plea for an international revolution as a necessary means to British victory.

His argument falls into two parts. The first part is an attack on Fascism, which he analyzes as a form of terrorism rather than a form of government. The excessive vehemence of this attack, which would seem unnecessary at this time of day to most of Mr. Laski’s American readers, is explained when one notes that he attacks by implication a large number of Englishmen who have been, and he feels still are, sympathetic with Fascism and anxious to co-operate with it when the difficulties of the present moment can be overcome.

Having shown that Fascism is the enemy, he answers next the question “What are we to do next?” And here he says that the rulers of Great Britain must not only take the offensive against Fascism, they must also persuade the victims of Fascism, including the peoples of Germany and Italy, into militant resistance to their conquerors. “They [the British rulers] have to win a war in the course of which they have to provoke a revolution.” And the power to provoke this revolution “depends on beginning now the transformation of Great Britain into a more equal and more just society.” When this transformation occurs, the news of it will permeate “the countries now under the Fascist yoke, it will light flames there that no terrorism will be able to quench.”

What must be the nature of this transformation? Under the surface of British national unity Mr. Laski still finds great inequality. And he fears that privilege in England, as elsewhere (and he mentions France), may still prefer to sacrifice the working class to Fascism rather than to sacrifice its own economic superiority. “The price of this War is the making of a more equal society.” Great Britain can capture the elan necessary for victory in the war only if all Englishmen alike give up their privileges. “I have not sought to conceal my view that the price of victory is a European revolution.”

Lord Halifax represents the most high-minded and patriotic group of Conservatives of the Right. Mr. Laski represents the equally high-minded and patriotic socialists of the Left. Will the future be divided between them, or can they, in customary English fashion, reach a working compromise?


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading