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The Guilty Men Thesis and Labour’s Route to Power

by Paul Ewart / August 25, 2020

Bad New Times | Essays  }
Labour victory in 2025 will require a break with the common sense of the post-1979 era. We need a new Guilty Men thesis to enable that rupture. 2919 words / 12 min read

Editors’ Note: This piece was originally commissioned and written in May and the author has extensively tweeted about its central theme.

Selling well over 200,000 copies in the first few weeks of publication in July 1940, despite the refusal of major book wholesalers and distributors to handle it, Guilty Men, written under the pseudonym Cato – journalist and future Labour leader Michael Foot, Evening Standard editor and former Liberal MP Frank Owen and World Championship bobsleigher, Conservative and Daily Express investigative reporter Peter Howard – excoriated those responsible for Dunkirk: “flesh against steel. The flesh of heroes, but nonetheless flesh. It is the story of an army doomed before they tooke the field”, whereby “this war broke out in 1939. But the genesis of our military misfortunes must be dated at 1929”.1 Guilty Men played a crucial role in defining national sentiment about the war, destroying the reputations of its two major targets Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, but also not through the targetting of the guilty as individuals but as representatives of a whole social order, condemning the pre-war ruling class as a whole,

a  miasma of acquiesence settled over our parliamentary institutions and over a considerable section of the Press…When the time came only three years ago, for MacDonald-Baldwin to wind up their firm at last…they bequethed to their successor, Mr Neville Chamberlain, besides a mass of urgent problems which they had fumbled or fudged, a well tested political apparatus for smudging the sharp edges of every issue and for smearing the personalities of those who raised complaint concerning it.2

What would it take for the left – and perhaps not only the left – to attempt a similar effort at shaping the national mood around the handling of the Covid-19 crisis? Could a new Guilty Men (and it remains, almost entirely a question of men) be produced with the same effects, linking the complacency and arrogance of the handling of Covid by named individuals to the malign incompetence of a ruling class whose social position and racism rendered them more than careless but actively productive of the class based and above all racially differentiated effects of Covid? How could the inability of the British state to handle Covid-19 be traced back to the pre-Covid social order to the structuring effects of neoliberalism and their radicalisation by the austerity regime? How do we polarise the representation of healthcare workers as heroes (and heroes again without the necessary equipment) towards radical critique rather than conformist platitudes (and “unhappy the land where heroes are needed”)?3

Guilty Men shaped a patriotic good sense that was crucial to Labour’s victory in 1945. Here, though, the appeal to patriotism works very differently to contemporary demands on Labour. From 1940-45, patriotism was an effect of a successful national-popular struggle, in a sense, it was achieved indirectly. By contrast, demands today that Labour be more patriotic are a demand for adaptation to and definition by existing common sense – an existing common sense defined largely by the themes and interests of capital and the ruling class that got us into this mess.

In the fevered desire to instrumentalise and reframe the war since the early 1980s, a great deal of history has been glossed over. Labour did not win in 1945 because Britain ‘stood alone’ nor were the reforms of 1945 a reward for the ‘Blitz Spirit’. The remarkable landslide in 1945 has been normalised by popular historians determined to erase the radical collectivist spirit 4 that predated the war, and the gains made by radical actors during the war. Indeed, to use the language of the present, there’s a powerful argument to made for Labour’s victory in 1945 as a long victory for politics both in and against the state.

Historians have been grappling with the meaning of World War Two and 1945 since the early 1960s. Recent years have seen a tendency to underplay the rupture of 19455, (Stephen Brooke is a notable exception) arguing that Labour’s victory was a victory for continuity which, given Labour’s absence from office since 1931, and Churchill’s reluctance to outline a post-war future during the war, seems more than a little perplexing. The question then arises, how did Labour go from 38% of the vote and 154 seats in 1935 to 47.7% and 393 seats in 1945, defeating a popular war leader along the way?

Every generation is different, as is every General Election, but there are, arguably, lessons to be drawn from Labour and the broader Left’s strategies from 1935 to 1945 for the politics of the Covid-19 crisis. The foundations for what these future strategies could be have, arguably, already been laid, in the articulation and dissemination of anti-austerity positions6 though, to coin an over-used term, the argument has yet to be conclusively won. Nonetheless, if history rhymes, recent editorials in The Financial Times and The Economist should remind us of an earlier era, when ideas once dismissed as dated and outlandish made their way through thinktanks and the fringes of the major political parties to the covers of both newspapers.7

Can the Labour Party capitalise on the discursive and movement work of the last decade, can the leadership utilise all the talents within and without the party to construct a vision of the future that builds on criticism of the past? Does it even want to? Or will Keir Starmer himself be a guilty man himself?

These are some of the issues that have provoked this short piece (which predates the Labour Together Report), as I worry that the current Labour leadership is in danger of missing an historic opportunity to shape the future by learning the wrong lessons from the past. What do I mean by this? Simply that the signs are that Starmer has bought into that version of history alluded to earlier, that of a Labour Party leader emerging victorious, having earned his or her stripes by proving himself reliable in the face of national crisis. That is the respectable and constructive Attlee that emerges from biographies8 and popular accounts of the war. 9 This is the Labour Right’s version of the war, Attlee as ‘social patriot’ and (later) committed Atlanticist, and, while there’s some truth to this version of Attlee and his political legacy,10 he was a patriot by education and formation, it glosses over the wider PLP and Popular Front politics of, for example, Nye Bevan and Sir Stafford Cripps, as well as the wider alliances built both before and during the war. Moreover, were those of us further to the left of Starmer to accept this reading of the war and of 1945, it would leave the Labour Left without a usable past in the present, a factor that was less relevant in the 1960s and 70s,11 but is increasingly relevant today, 12 as memories of the war were reshaped by the Right during the Falklands campaign and revisionist historians of the erstwhile Left during the 1980s and 1990s.13 The construction of the People’s War was useful to the Left until the hegemonic crisis of the 1970s, when on the one hand it came under substantial critique from left historians, and on the other was rearticulated by the Right. Recent debates over Churchill’s legacy show the dangers in such an approach which effectively relegates Labour’s role in both the war and the subsequent post-war settlement. Churchill is now a social patriot in the popular imaginary rather than the victorious wartime leader but unpopular Conservative leader who was roundly rejected as too partisan to preside over the peace in 1945.

The signs are that Starmer has bought into a version of history in which a Labour leader emerges victorious, having earned his stripes by proving himself reliable in the face of national crisis.

Ripe plums

I have argued that the current Labour leadership risks learning the wrong lessons from history, what do the right lessons look like? Two very different responses, and registers spring to mind, and both are arguably available to the current leadership should they choose to channel them. Both build on the foundations mentioned earlier; the anti-austerity movements that emerged following the financial crisis and the new critical intelligentsia whose origins lie in the early 2000s, but have come to flourish since then. It is at the intersection of these two parallel movements that Labour could flourish, in much the same way as that intelligentsia associated with New Liberalism and the Popular Front14 era of the mid-1930s took advantage of a national crisis to further their aims.15

Guilty Men

Such an approach would, in Gramscian terms, involved replacing common sense with good sense16, but to do so, it is vital that the Labour leadership deconstruct the common sense of the last forty years, by telling a story that leads from attacks on the public sector, through austerity, leading to the state’s inability to deal with the present crisis. It needs to form a social, cultural and economic coalition around the role of the state, the future of work, and the future of the environment along lines suggested by Jeremy Gilbert and Labour’s Alternative Models of Ownership report. Recent battles over cultural and monumental memory may well open a space for a sophisticated Left to peel off and radicalise embarrassed social liberals and forge a new hegemonic fraction.

This involves choosing sides, an approach which the current leadership appears reluctant to embrace, but, constructing good sense involves multiple registers and discussions that could run parallel to, while remaining outside, the leadership’s ‘constructive’ approach. Guilty Men wasn’t, after all, drafted by the Labour leadership, but by journalists, including a young Michael Foot, in response to panic following Dunkirk. Indeed, the origins of the radical populism of World War Two are often traced back to this hastily drafted Left Book Club tract which by associating austerity with appeasement built upon the emergent culture of the Popular Front era to render the hegemonic Conservative inter-war years unusable for decades to come.17 If Labour is serious about the future, it needs first to address the recent past in order to liberate itself from association with defeat and an unpopular regime of political practice: it needs to get ahead of the curve. It needs to produce its own Guilty Men thesis.

Possibilities/similarities

It would be easy at this stage to dismiss the possibilities open to Labour for communicating such an approach, after all, didn’t 2017 mark the end of Left-Populism? And whither the intelligentsia required in a hostile media landscape? But that would be to mistake electoral defeat for political and cultural defeat. We should distinguish between 2017 and 2019 and review what could reasonably be called the ‘long conjuncture’ from 2008 to the present. The wider evidence, as documented by Keir Milburn and others, suggests that there is little in the way of a settled common sense at present; it is easy to forget, in the tumult of our recent history, for example, that The Spirit Level was published in 2009. Moreover, a grouping of left activists, initially informed by Occupy and the Student Demonstrations, and the politics of Zizek, Mouffe and Fisher, is, following those who worked through film, journals and reportage in the 1930s, maturing and deepening its theoretical and institutional commitments using the digital technologies available in the 21st Century. We have gained significant ground since the demoralising defeat in 2015.

The opening up of The Guardian’s Comment section, and generally warmer attitude towards the new leader suggests that a new discursive space has opened up in the post-Corbyn landscape. The new intelligentsia is able to move more freely between digital media and the legacy media and, at times, bypass the legacy media altogether, particularly at a time of crisis (see Novara’s raised profile18). Think-tanks forged or revitalised during the Corbyn years have produced a wealth of critical and future-oriented material, New Socialist, Novara and Politics, Theory, Other provide platforms for said think-tanks as well as editorial contributions. In short, there is an intelligentsia comparable to, if different to that of the interwar years, and the institutional turn post 2015 offers opportunities and platforms, similar to those available to the extra-parliamentary, Labour Left and radical Left in the interwar years, moreover, at far less setup cost. We should not underestimate our potential to influence the party from the Left, nor given recent developments, should we take such influence for granted. It will require patience and hard work. We must also guard against co-option: rather the Left Book Club than Marxism Today. Moreover, if the Left fails to produce a usable past, the Labour Right will; we can see the outlines of such a project in back issues of Renewal, as Blue Labour alumni lay claim to E.P. Thompson’s radical history and hymn the virtues of work, place, family and the flag, and former Blairites form coalitions with the old Right.

1945 was a victory based on hard discursive and organisational labour dating back to the mid-1930s

Conclusions

In, one of his few long form interviews Keir Starmer, citing 1945 and 1997, told Steve Richards that Labour only wins when it constructs a positive future-oriented narrative. He argued that Labour needs to be ahead of the curve, citing automation as possible narrative scaffolding. What he failed to acknowledge was that Labour’s victories in 1945 and 1997, and near miss in 2017, were built on ruptures with the past (if only with the party’s own past, in 1997). Those broad electoral coalitions required for a Labour victory in 2025 are unlikely to forge themselves merely through dissatisfaction, and even if they were to do so, whither the momentum for radical change (the lessons from 1964 and 1997)? Labour needs to outline a future vision that cuts across nation, class and party and prefigures a world as we want it to be against the decadent, corrupt, pre-Covid world, and it needs to do so soon: 1945 was a victory based on hard discursive and organisational labour dating back to the mid-1930s involving multiple actors and sites both within and outside the party.

Horizons, as in 1945, must replace futures forestalled, but first they must be constructed. A Labour victory in 2025 will require a commitment to narrative labour and a break with the common sense of the post-1979 era. We need a new Guilty Men thesis to enable that rupture, and to establish a narrative thread that associates neoliberalism with the contemporary crisis, otherwise Labour is doomed to hold office without power. That’s if we’re lucky.


  1. Cato, Guilty Men, (London: Victor Gollancz, 1940), p. 16. 

  2. Cato, Guilty Men, p. 20. 

  3. Bertolt Brecht, The Life of Galileo, translated by John Willett, (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), p. 98. 

  4. The seeds for such a reading were already visible in the construction of the ‘People’s War’ as Raphael Samuel notes, with ‘the People’ signifying the ‘the popular’, thus eliding the more radical terrain of ‘class’. 

  5. See, Steve Fielding, “What did ‘the people want’?: The meaning of the 1945 General Election” 

  6. Labour did win the argument over austerity, but that argument was made alongside the trade union movement and extra parliamentary movements such as Stop the Cuts, and a nascent New Left social media. 

  7. I refer of course, to the 1970s when Samuel Britton and Peter Jay popularised the ideas of Milton Friedman and Fredrich von Hayek. For more, see Lawrence Black, Hugh Pemberton and Pat Thane (eds), Reassessing 1970s Britain, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013). 

  8. See for example, John Bew Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee, (London: Quercus, 2016) and Paul Addison [1975] The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War, (London: Pimlico 1994). 

  9. It is worth recalling the clamour for a Government of National Unity headed by a figure like Starmer during the Brexit debates. 

  10. See David Edgerton on the post-war settlement as a Warfare State, David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History, (London: Allen Lane, 2018). 

  11. Revisionist histories, and criticisms of Labour’s Imperialism tend to emerge from the 1980s on. 

  12. For more on this, see Roger Bromley’s Lost Narratives: Popular Fictions, Politics and Recent History (London: Routledge, 1988), Raphael Samuel’s [1994] Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Cotemporary Culture, (London: Verso, 2012) and Geoff Eley’s, “Finding The People’s War: Film, British Collective Memory and World War II”. See also Owen Hatherley’s Ministry of Nostalgia: Consuming Austerity, (London: Verso, 2015) for the Conservatives more recent and successful use of wartime symbols and imagery, a case of hyper-reality. 

  13. See, for example, Angus Calder’s riposte to himself, The Myth of the Blitz(London: Pimlico, 1992), and Nick Tiratsoo (ed), From Blitz to Blair: A New History of Britain (London: Pheonix, 1997). 

  14. For more on this see Ben Pimlott, Labour and the Left in the 1930s, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). 

  15. This is a broad coalition that takes in Keynes, The Left Book Club, Mass-Observation, The Crown Film Unit, J.B. Priestley, the CPGB, Left Review, the Labour Party, poets such as Auden, Isherwood and MacNeice, and Orwell. 

  16. Antonio Gramsci, [1929-35] Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p. 423. 

  17. ’Never Again’ was one of Labour’s key messages from 1945 on, one that the Conservative Party felt compelled to accept from the 1950s to the mid 1970s. For more, see Peter Hennessy Never Again: Britain 1945-51 (London: Penguin, 1992). 

  18. This raised profile is clearest in the range of international left-liberal figures including Adam Tooze and Rutger Bregman who have chosen to be interviewed on Novara


Author:

Paul Ewart (@paulewart23)

Paul Ewart is a doctoral tutor and researcher at the University of Sussex working on the cultural memory of the 1970s in the present.