‘Here, Merv, you’re going to college. What’s “revocable” mean?’
George Cook peered down at the battered copy of The Civil War in France by Karl Marx (given him by his friend John Mitchell) that he was trying to read and quoted:
The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms’
George Cook looked round the compartment, at his three best mates from the Italian campaign. It was just after sunrise on a warm July morning, and their train seemed to have become totally immobile somewhere in the middle of the Kent countryside.
Mervyn Clifton (who was due to go to Cambridge in the autumn but who had served the war as a private soldier) looked up drowsily: ‘Revocable. Well, it means subject to recall. So if someone’s elected to Parliament, or a council, or whatever, and if they don’t represent the electorate properly, then the voters can demand a new election to remove the former representative and replace him with someone they prefer.’
‘I remember,’ chipped in John Mitchell,’ hearing this old boy speak who’d been in Russia just after the Revolution. He was in Petrograd – that’s Leningrad now – and he said the Red Guards fired on some demonstrators and killed them. And within twelve hours over a dozen of the Bolsheviks on the Soviet – that was the council that was running the city – were recalled and Mensheviks put in instead of them. Of course, that wasn’t too good for the Bolsheviks, but it shows how democratic it used to be.’
‘Used to,’ muttered Bill Ellison.
It was as if an electric light bulb had gone on inside George’s head. The stodgy, difficult book had suddenly turned out to be about real life. His eye strayed further down the page to the phrase ‘…the public service had to be done at workmen’s wages.’ But now John and Bill had started arguing about Russia. George decided there would be time to read later and tried to get his oar into the argument.
‘Anyhow, there’ll be no right of recall with the lot we’ve just elected, whoever they are. It’ll be just the same as any other government – all sorts of promises, once they get in they’ll say circumstances don’t permit them to do what they promised, and there’s sod-all any of us can do about it except wait five years and put another cross on a piece of paper. It was the first time I’d voted the other week, and I can’t say it was the biggest thrill in my life, spending ten seconds marking a bit of paper.’
‘Now there you’re wrong,’ aid Bill Ellison, ‘because if we get a Labour Government – and we are going to get a Labour Government – then we’ll really see some changes. We aren’t going to go back to the thirties with everyone on the dole. Things are going to be really different for working people.’
‘Well,’ said John Mitchell, ‘you know we thought that Labour shouldn’t have tried to win the elections outright. They should have carried on the coalition with everyone who supported the Yalta agreements. We could have rebuilt the country with progressive Conservatives like Eden and Churchill…’
‘Winston bloody Churchill!’ interrupted Bill. ‘That old strike-breaker.’
‘Look,’ said John, unruffled, ‘we know all about Churchill, don’t worry. But in a situation like this you have to act tactically. And remember, if we do get a Labour Government, it’ll still be working in a capitalist framework; it isn’t going to expropriate the ruling class and it isn’t going to abolish the laws of capitalism – the boom and slump cycle. So in a year or two we’ll be back to unemployment, whatever the Labour leaders try to do. And then people will start turning to us Communists. But we’ve got to rebuild after the war first.’
‘So the Revolution’s been postponed for a little while, has it?’ sneered Bill. ‘Orders of comrade Joe, doubtless. Wants a bit of a rest before he comes to liberate us all. But while we’re waiting for the red Revolution the Labour Party’s going to get on with making some real changes. Real reforms, not Marxist fairy-stories. We’re never going to be all equal, because we’re all born different. There’ll never be a perfect world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a better world, and that’s what we’ll get with a Labour Government.’
George found these arguments, of which he remembered many over the last twelve months, fascinating but frustrating. Fascinating, because he’d learnt so much he didn’t know, so much he hadn’t even dreamed of before he joined the army. But frustrating because there was so much he couldn’t really get a grip of. John, for example, was a Communist; he’d lent George books and told him quite a lot about Marxism. But on some things – like this coalition government for example – he seemed to be much more conservative than Bill, who was a solid Labour man. As for Merv, well he was clever and no mistake about it; he knew his history and he’d explained a lot to George, but he couldn’t really make it connect.
When George was a kid, someone had told him that if you tied two cats together by the tail and hung them over a washing-line, they’d claw each other to death. Bill and John seemed to be working on something similar.
‘So how about this right of recall, then?’ Bill was saying. ‘Suppose I was in Russia and I wanted to recall Joe, how would I go about it?’
‘You wouldn’t want to,’ John replied. ‘The Russian people have complete faith in comrade Stalin.’
‘Come on, all of them? In any country there’s going to be a little bloke somewhere who doesn’t like the government. But in Russia he’s going to keep bloody quiet about it or he’ll end up with a bullet in his back. Why don’t they have proper elections?’
‘The Russian constitution is the freest in the world.’
‘So how come in one election they announced the result the day before they voted? And then there was one where more than a hundred per cent of the electors voted. Come on, John, you know the system’s rigged.’
‘Look,’ said John wearily, ‘you really ought to stop carping about Russia. If the Russians hadn’t come into the war on our side – and lost millions of dead – we’d be living in a fascist country now.’
‘Come in?’ repeated Bill. ‘I thought they tried to stay out. I seem to remember comrade Joe making a friendship pact with Hitler…or should I call him comrade Adolf?’
‘That was a tactic,’ said John irritably.
‘A tactic, was it? And handing over exiled German Communists to the Gestapo, I suppose that was a tactic too.’
‘That’s a bloody lie,’ shouted John Mitchell.
Mervyn Clifton tried to make peace between the two. ‘As I see it, it’s undeniable that Russia has made enormous economic progress. It’s carried through in about twenty years aprocessof industrialisation that took Britain about a hundred. And it was a pretty brutal process in Britain, so necessarily it was even more brutal in Russia. But on the political level – the superstructure if you like – I think modern Russia hasn’t changed very much from the time of he Tsars. If you really want to understand Stalin you have to go back to Catherine the Great.’
This didn’t help a lot. George didn’t understand what Merv was talking about, and Bill and John didn’t seem to find it very satisfactory either. George said nothing, because he was still puzzled by the whole question of Stalin and Russia. It was marvellous to think that Russia was socialism that actually existed, that showed in practice that there was an alternative to crisis and decay, unemployment and corruption. But was Russia really what people had dreamed of for so long? There seemed too much wrong with it, those terrible trials and the way Stalin was treated like royalty.
John and Bill soon calmed down – it wasn’t the first time they’d had this argument – and the compartment fell silent. Drowsily George thought back to Italy. First of all to the horrific battle of Cassino, where he had seen two of his best friends dying before his eyes. But before Cassino George and his mates had spent several weeks accommodated with an Italian family in a small village. The father of the family was a school-teacher who spoke English pretty fluently if not very accurately, and he had spent many hours talking to George, while nothing was happening except for spasmodic German air-raids.
He told George what had happened in the village before the Allied troops had arrived. When it was clear that the fascist regime was on its last legs the women in the village had chased the local landlord with pitchforks; he’d been a real swine of a fascist who had used his position to get about fifteen village girls pregnant. When they caught him they stabbed him through the gut so he bled like a stuck pig; then they sliced his head off and marched through the village with it on the prongs of a pitchfork.
He also told George what had happened in Naples. Before the Allied troops landed, there was a spontaneous mass rising which threw out the fascists and set up a new government for the city, based on workers’ councils. But when the Allies had arrived they’d disbanded it straight away. The same thing had been happening all over the place. The Partisans had set up their own governments, usually based on direct elections and highly democratic, but when the Allied troops got there the local governments were smashed; often the Partisans were jailed – even threatened with the firing squad. And George remembered arriving in Milan only a couple of months ago, and finding the city was in the control of workers’ councils; and then learning to his horror that the job of the British army was to disarm the Partisans. The war, he had been told time and time again, was to defend ‘democracy’; but when real democracy – the democracy of Naples and Milan, which must have been a bit like the Paris Commune – sprang up, then the so-called forces of democracy wasted no time crushing it. Why? Why?
George could find no answer and as the train at last began to move he drifted off to sleep, dreaming that he was sticking a pitchfork into an enormous drunken Winston Churchill, and that four enormous fountains of whisky were springing up out of the holes he had made…
* * *
On the afternoon of the same day – July the 26th – George emerged from the tube station and began to walk up a North London street. For the first time in over two years he was going home, to spend a couple of weeks leave with his parents. Since arriving in London he’d seen the newsvendors’ boards announcing that Labour was well on the way to an election victory. But the exhilaration this news produced was swamped by the thought of coming home.
At last George arrived at the terrace house where he had grown up. As he went in through the front door his mother, tears running down her face, kissed him and his father ushered him into the front room. George sat down and looked round the familiar setting. How pleasant it was to be in a clean, pleasant, well-lit place after years of battle-fields and barracks. On the wall was a framed photograph of his grandmother, who had died while he was away; as a young woman she had been a suffragette, and George remembered hearing her speak warmly of Sylvia Pankhurst. On a shelf by the fireplace was his father’s small collection of books, some with the dull red binding of the Left Book Club. George noticed one title – The Paris Commune of 1871 by Frank Jellinek – and resolved to borrow it.
‘Well,’ said George’s father, ‘we’ll see some changes now we’ve got a Labour government. More fairness. More equality.’ Mrs Cook brought them both cups of tea and went off to prepare the lunch.
George and his father, sitting back in armchairs, began to talk, but it was soon clear that, despite George’s long absence, his father had little to say. George thought of what he knew of his father’s life. How he had fought in the First World War, then come home to be an active trade unionist. Until 1926. George could just remember the General Strike, not so much for the excitement on the streets as for his father’s bitter anger and despair in the days after the strike was called off. After that his father had been victimised and blacklisted; for most of the next thirteen years he had been without a job; there had been no chance of any trade union activity. He had never actually renounced his earlier ideas, but they had become no more than junk, stuck away at the back of a cupboard in case they might be needed some day.
The conversation, which at best had been halting, collapsed altogether and Mr Cook turned on the wireless to hear the latest election results. A Labour victory now looked certain; already two Tory cabinet ministers, Harold Macmillan and Brendan Bracken, had been bounced out.
‘Well,’ said George’s father, ‘we’ll see what Mr Attlee can do for us. But there’ll be some changes made. Some real changes,’ he repeated as Mrs Cook shouted through from the kitchen that lunch was ready.
* * *
At about half past eight the same evening George walked down to the Rose and Crown, hoping to see some of his former friends. The bar was already full of people celebrating the election result. Churchill had resigned and Attlee was forming a government. A bunch of young women and men from the local Labour Party walked in, wearing their red rosettes in pride and celebration. In the corner a woman was playing the piano; when she played the Red Flag everyone stopped talking and joined in the singing.
A number of George’s contemporaries and friends of his parents greeted him warmly. His hand was shaken, his back was slapped and drinks were bought for him. Then one of the young women from the group of Labour Party supporters pushed her way over towards him. ‘So our hero’s come home, has he?’ she said.
George stared blankly at the tall good-looking girl.
‘You don’t remember me, do you? I was at the same school as you. Rachel. Rachel Sale.’
George thought back to his schooldays, to the drab, uninteresting elementary school, the boring lessons, especially the supremely boring history class, when he had to learn by heart the dates of the kings and queens of England. He remembered what an old soldier had once said to him: ‘The aim of education is to make the working class not want to read and write.’ And yes, he did remember Rachel; he’d talked to her through the railings that separated the girls’ and boys’ playgrounds. She’d been a thin, pale, quiet, submissive child, as different from the young woman in front of him as a slimy, disgusting caterpillar is from a butterfly.
‘You’ve changed a lot,’ said George. But, he thought, it’s not just her. It’s all women – at least the younger ones – who’ve changed. They’re so much more aggressive than they were before the war. George wasn’t quite sure whether this change excited him or frightened him. Certainly he couldn’t imagine spending his life married to a woman as dull and empty-headed as his own mother. But on the other hand he didn’t want to end up with a pitchfork through his balls.
‘You look a bit different yourself to when you’d just come out of short trousers,’ grinned Rachel. ‘But you’re right. The war’s changed us all. After all, we weren’t sitting on our backsides while you were winning medals. It was the blitz that changed things for me. There weren’t any other shelters round here, so when the bombing started we took over the tube stations. They tried to stop us at first but there were too many of us so they couldn’t. You’ve no idea what it was like down there at midnight. It was so filthy, shit all over the floor. And the smell was horrible. You had to do something to take your mind off it all. I got in with a bunch of people who used to argue about politics – some Communists, most of them Labour. They talked about Russia, unemployment, India, how to win the war – everything. I didn’t understand a lot of it at first, but there was one thing struck me – how much so many of those people down in the tube stations hated Winston Churchill. If all you’d done before was listen to the wireless you got a completely different picture. And of course before the war no-one would have bothered talking politics to a girl anyhow.’
‘Then in 1942 I was called up. I was in a munitions factory for two and a half years, making shells for you lot to blow people to pieces with. I was in a trade union; that would never have happened but for the war. Before the war I thought unions were just for men; I didn’t even know women were allowed to join. And we were on strike once, trying to get equal pay with the men. So you can see why I’ve changed.’
And very much a change for the better, thought George, his vision enhanced by the drinks that had been bought for him. And he went on to tell Rachel something of his own experiences – the butchery of Cassino, but also the arguments with John and Bill and Merv; the things he’d seen in Italy and what the schoolteacher had told him.
‘But we shouldn’t be talking about the past,’ said Rachel. ‘Not today.’ She waved an arm at the animated crowd in the pub. ‘Today’s the first day of a whole new period of history. And people know it. With a Labour Government things are really going to change.’
The same words, almost, George thought, as his father had used, but what a different tone. For his father Mr Attlee was like a creature from another planet, come to put a blighted world to rights. Rachel was well aware than people like her had put Attlee where he was and that without them he’d be nothing.
‘Are you so sure?’ George asked. He tried to remember what John Mitchell had told him about the immutable laws of the capitalist economy, but soon found himself floundering. So he switched to ground where he felt more secure. ‘This afternoon my dad said to me: “We’ll see what Mr Attlee can do for us”. But as long as it’s people doing something for us, whether it’s good or bad, nothing’s really changed. We’ve got to do things for ourselves.’
‘Listen,’ said Rachel, her voice very slightly slurred by drink, but her argument still crystal clear. ‘Look at the people in this pub. Are they stupid? If they are, then they’ll never change anything, and you might as well give up. But they aren’t stupid, and they know something has changed. That’s why they’re celebrating. They’re working people, like you and me, they’ve been through the war, at home or abroad, they voted Labour three weeks ago and they know they’ve won. And what’s good enough for them is good enough for me.’
George remembered a discussion he’d once had with Mervyn Clifton about something called ‘false consciousness’, and was going to reply, but thought better of it.
‘And I’ll tell you something else,’ Rachel was saying. ‘You don’t remember my sister Doris, do you? She was two years older than me. And a lot brighter; I was always overshadowed by her. When she was nine she got scarlet fever, really badly. We sent for the doctor, though we couldn’t afford it. But he didn’t come. He was drunk; he’d been out to dinner with his toffee-nosed bastard friends. I’ll never forget Doris crying; she died that night. My father cursed God and my mother cursed the doctor, but neither of them cursed the system that let it happen. And if this government gives us a decent health service – like they’ve promised – that and nothing else, then I tell you that’s change enough for me.’
George remembered a special army discussion group set up to talk about the Beveridge Report, with a young officer explaining it to them. And John Mitchell had got the officer confused and then terribly annoyed by arguing that the whole thing was a plot to strengthen capitalism, because the employers needed a healthy work-force and a mobile one, not tied down to one place through having to look after elderly relatives. But he couldn’t put this into words, he didn’t dare. He wouldn’t have been talking the same language as Rachel.
‘I’ll tell you one more thing,’ Rachel went on. ‘It’s not just me that’s changed. It’s women all over the country that are different because of the war. And we’re not going to change back. Women are going to want a lot more power. And not just a few big names like Jennie Lee or Ellen Wilkinson, but thousands of us. Who knows, before you and me are finished, we might see a woman leading the Labour Party.’
George and Rachel were so intent on their discussion with each other they had almost ceased to notice everyone else in the pub, but now it was closing-time.
‘Where do you live now?’ George asked.
‘Only about three streets away.’
‘I’ll walk you home.’
As they went out into the warm moonlit evening the street seemed full of people singing and dancing. The Red Flag had given way to Knees Up Mother Brown, but George felt he couldn’t disagree with Rachel. All those people couldn’t be wrong. Something had changed.
But when they got into a quieter street, politics seemed to fade as George realised how close he was to a woman’s warm body. Without either of them apparently having made a conscious decision they found themselves holding hands. This was something very different (‘qualitatively different’, John Mitchell would have said) from the whores in Rome.
‘When will you be demobbed?’ Rachel asked. ‘What sort of a job are you looking for?’ If George hadn’t known that women – even women like Rachel – didn’t propose marriage to men, he might have misunderstood the meaning of the question.
‘I don’t know. I hope I’ll be out of the army by Christmas. They say there’s going to be full employment, but I suppose that depends on this government of yours.’
‘Ours,’ said Rachel, but didn’t push the point.
By now they were at Rachel’s front door. They arranged to meet the next day, kissed slowly in the moonlight, and then George went home to sleep between clean sheets and to dream…but not of Winston Churchill.
* * *
‘Now, men,’ said Major Cottrell, a short, fat man with a round face and a loud voice, ‘I know many of you are anxious to be demobbed as soon as possible. But first there’s another job of work to be done. We’ve beaten the enemy abroad, and we can all be proud of that, but there are enemies at home too and they have to be dealt with. Those of you who read the newspapers will be aware that dockers are on strike at many ports throughout the country. You don’t need to be told that this country has economic problems enough without such irresponsible action. Her Majesty’s Government has decided that troops must be used to do the essential work, and you men have been selected for the task. It will be hard work, but it is part of your duty as soldiers, just as facing the fire of the enemy was your duty. You will parade at 7.00 tomorrow morning to board lorries which will take you to a port on the South Coast.’
George looked round at his fellow-soldiers. It was October and they still had no clear indication when they would be demobbed. For the last three months they had been bored. No action, no movement, nothing but the petty rituals of army life and the mindless discipline which George hated, interspersed with what could only be described as idiotic games, like playing at Parliament. Doubtless quite a few of the soldiers would welcome the new activity, if only as a break in the boredom. George’s own feelings were quite different. He remembered when he was only a boy his father had told him: ‘If you haven’t got a union, you’ve got nothing. If you’ve got a union, at least you can stick pins in their feet when they’re trampling over you.’ The very thought of being used to break a strike made the taste of vomit rise to the back of George’s throat. But what could be done? There was so little time. George’s best mates weren’t here. Merv Clifton had been released early to resume his studies, and Bill and John had been sent to different barracks. Would anybody even listen to him if he tried to argue.
* * *
‘I joined the army to fight fascism, not to break strikes,’ said George. ‘I thought it was the fascists who wanted to get rid of trade unions.’
‘You didn’t join the army for anything. You were conscripted like the rest of us.’
‘That’s not what I mean,’ George snapped at the nit-picking private across the table from him. But although George knew what he meant, he sometimes couldn’t get it across, couldn’t express things fluently like John or even Bill. If only he was articulate, he could just stand up on the table and sway them all with one brilliant speech. How did you get to be like that? By going to college like Merv? Some chance!
‘What I mean is, we were told this was a war for democracy. I thought the right to strike was part of democracy.’
‘But surely they shouldn’t have gone on strike so soon after the Labour Government got in. You’ve got to give the new lot a chance. After all, they’re supposed to be the party that sticks up for trade unions.’ By now about ten soldiers were listening to the argument and trying to join in.
‘Listen,’ said George, ‘my dad’s cousin works in the Surrey Docks. All through the war they were loading ships with the bombs falling round them, and everyone telling them they were heroes. Then at the end of May, as soon as the Germans had packed in, they cancelled the piece-work agreement and they had their wages cut. So they went on a go-slow, and the government – your wonderful Labour Government – sent the troops in. That was six days after they were elected, while the war in the Far East was still going on.’
‘You know, you’re right,’ said a young soldier at the end of the table. ‘My dad’s a miner and I don’t want anything to do with strike-breaking. We should refuse to go.’
‘But that’d be mutiny,’ said a tall private to George’s left. ‘A bloke I heard of complained to the NCO about the food and they tried to do him for mutiny.’
‘That’s the risk,’ George agreed. ‘That’s why we have to act all together, as many of us as possible. So we have to persuade everyone we can.’ Keep this up, he thought, and there’s a real chance of getting somewhere…
* * *
‘Sir.’ George saluted. For a couple of weeks after the election result a lot of troops had stopped saluting officers, but by now the practice had been re-established.
It was Lieutenant Blunt. Some people reckoned he was a decent enough bloke, but George had a gut distrust of all officers.
‘I hear you’ve been having discussions this afternoon.’
‘Free speech, sir. What we fought the war for.’
Lieutenant Blunt smiled and ignored the insolence. ‘Discussions, I hear, about the possibility of disobeying legitimate orders.’
George said nothing.
‘I’m really not sure whether I should believe what I’ve heard. I always thought you were such a solid Labour man. I’m sure you realise a patriotic Labour government has got to defend the national interest against layabouts and agitators. I’d have thought it would be you defending the government and me criticising it.’
George still said nothing. He was not going to join this bastard in putting down the Labour Government, whatever its crimes.
‘You don’t want to discuss with me, I see. You must think I’m a hopeless case. I thought progressive officers were allowed to join mutinies.
George glared. Where was it all leading?
‘So just let me tell you one or two things. Now maybe you’re thinking that we wouldn’t want a large-scale court-martial over an issue like trade-union rights just at the present time. You may be right and you may be wrong about that; that’s for more senior people than me to say. But remember something else. We’ve turned those yellow Jap monkeys into a squelchy mess with the Atom Bomb, and a good thing too. But India still belongs to us, whatever your Labour pals may be saying. And we just sent troops into Indochina, to keep it warm till the Froggies are ready to take it back again. And on top of that we’re helping out our Dutch friends in Indonesia. Some troops now in Britain will have to be sent to the East, and you might just be one of the lucky people making their way to the mysterious Orient. Join the army and see the world – how’s that for a recruiting slogan?’
And with that Lieutenant Blunt strode away, leaving George wanting to stick a bayonet into his guts and unwind his intestines like a ball of wool. But it wasn’t the Lieutenant’s face that was being stamped into George’s brain, as if with a red-hot brand. It was Rachel’s. He had seen her every day during his fortnight’s leave, and since then she had written to him regularly. But if he was sent out East for two years or more, would she wait for him? Could he wait for her?
Yet what were the alternatives? To cave in to the threats and buy his little chunk of domestic bliss by a dirty compromise? Could he sit by the fireside and look at his sweet Rachel, knowing that he’d obtained this at the price of trampling on his fellow-workers? And if Rachel knew what he’d done, would she have him at the fireplace? He was pretty sure she wouldn’t.
The two alternatives chased each other round and round George’s brain, each looking less and less acceptable the more he thought about it. Should he just ignore the Lieutenant and carry on trying to persuade as many men as possible? But he could be sure Lieutenant Blunt wouldn’t leave it at one conversation with George. He’d have put the threat of posting to the Far East on the grape-vine, and even if George wasn’t frightened off, most of the others would be. So carrying on would just mean making a martyr of himself for no purpose. And he’d still end up in the Far East, having to do worse things than break strikes. He’d end up killing people for no other reason than that they weren’t white and that they wanted to run their own countries. And he’d lose Rachel into the bargain.
Yet he couldn’t just give up. Certainly there was a lot of resentment among the men at having to break the strike, and there were a few – like the miner’s son he’d spoken to – who had solid principled reasons for not wanting to do the job. But if George pulled out the whole thing would collapse. They’d feel resentful, but they’d go. And if George went along with it, how could he ever face his mates again? How could he explain it to John Mitchell? How could he explain it to Rachel?
Resistance: impossible. Capitulation: impossible. So was there a third way, some way of getting beyond the terrible alternative? (Deep in his brain he could hear John Mitchell reciting: ‘Thesis, antithesis, synthesis’.)
He could go sick. Diarrhoea or vomiting were easy to fake. But that was no solution. He would have clean hands, but it wouldn’t help the dockers. One less private humping boxes would make no difference to anyone. But the failure of a whole squad of troops to turn up could be a real boost to their morale.
Maybe the lorries could get lost. But how could that be fixed? It would mean knowing who was going to be driving the leading lorry, and there was no way of finding that out.
George seemed to be falling into a void, a pit of total despair. Then a name suddenly floated into his brain. Mick Marsh. Mick was a maintenance mechanic. He was also an accomplished crook. George had not spent over four years in the army without discovering a few fiddles. He remembered the old soldier who’d told him: ‘They say the first thing a soldier needs to know is how to clean his rifle. But really the first thing he has to learn is how to sell his blankets.’
Mick Marsh had been a real artist. In Italy he had been responsible for petrol supplies. He would issue the quantity asked for and shove the appropriate form under an officer’s nose. But the figure on the form would be a little higher – just a little – than the quantity issued. He thus accumulated quantities of petrol he was able to sell off on the black market. Once they’d nearly caught him, and George had been in a position to tell a string of lies to get him off the hook. So Mick Marsh owed him a good turn. Mick had no politics, in the strict sense of the term, but he hated officers. If George could find him this evening then something just might be done…
* * *
It was 7.00 the next morning, a gloomy October day. Six lorries stood on the tarmac, and into each of them climbed twenty-four soldiers. The drivers got in. But not one of the lorries would start. George looked round and saw the other soldiers smiling, shaking with mirth. But no-one wanted to be the first to laugh openly…
* * *
‘It seems the sparking plugs had vanished somehow,’ George told John Mitchell, when he met him a couple of weeks later. ‘Of course, they had an investigation, but they couldn’t find out how it happened, Mick’s a sharp operator. And then we heard the next day that the union officials had stitched up the strike and the dockers were back at work, so our services wouldn’t be required. We were confined to camp for five days, but that was just spite because they couldn’t find out who’d done it. And it doesn’t look as though I’m going to get sent out to the East.’
‘You’ve got to be careful with that sort of thing, said John. ‘You don’t have to put your head on the block, you know.’ George felt flattened. He had expected fulsome praise from John, but such approval as he was getting was grudging and dubious. So what had he done wrong? Oh well, you couldn’t win them all.
* * *
It was a cold night in early December. George was out of the army at last and he was due to start a job next week. And tonight he was going to his first Labour Party ward meeting. George had been unwilling to join, but after several long arguments with Rachel he’d given in. As she’d said, the Labour Party might not be perfect, but it was the only organisation they had and they could make it better. If they couldn’t change the Labour Party, how could they hope to change the world?
George and Rachel walked up the steps of the Trades Hall. They’d been holding hands, but as they went through the entrance George pulled his hand away. He wanted to look serious. They went into the meeting-room and sat down on hard, straight chairs. The ward chairman, Ken Chapman, was an obese man of about sixty, who greeted George as a new member.
Soon there were about twenty people in the room and the meeting began. Minutes; matters arising; reports from councillors; appointment of ward election officer and ward postal-vote officer. God, thought George, this is as boring as the army. He didn’t dare look at Rachel; if she liked this stuff, then was she the girl he’d imagined she was?
After about three quarters of an hour, Ken Chapman announced, with a fatuous look of smug satisfaction across his chops: ‘And now I’m very pleased to introduce our new Member of Parliament, who fortunately has been able to get away from the House this evening.’ (He pronounced the word ‘House’ with a tone that suggested it was a place of such sanctity that it made Westminster Abbey look like a council tip.) ‘He’s very kindly agreed to tell the ward something about the work our new Labour Government is doing for us.’
The MP, Len Tyler, was a former trade-union official, a man aged something over fifty, balding, neatly but drably dressed. He began by giving a detailed account of the contents of the King’s Speech. Since the King’s Speech had been delivered the previous August, George thought, surely most people would have got round to reading about it in the Daily Herald by now. He then moved into a lengthy description of the technicalities of the nationalisation of the Bank of England – would they share the money out, George wondered – and followed this with an equally technical account of the proposed nationalisation of coal-mining, stressing compensation arrangements and the management structure. After this he spoke, rather more briefly, about the implementation of the Beveridge Report and the repeal of the Trade Disputes Act
George, out of a sense of politeness to his new organisation, was doing his best not to look bored, when Len Tyler, now on the question of trade union law, said : ‘I must mention at this stage that we have had some unfortunate problems to deal with. Some groups of workers – in particular dockers -have taken advantage of the situation of a newly-elected Labour Government to press for sectional demands instead of waiting for the advantages that will eventually accrue to all working people from the Labour administration. I felt very strongly about this as the dockers were members of my own union, and I was pleased to see the government handle the situation in a firm and responsible manner.’
This did rouse George from his somnolence. He sat bolt upright, pushing his chair back several inches and stubbing the toe of a woman in the row behind, for which he whispered profuse apologies.
When the MP finally wound up his re-enactment of the King’s Speech, questions were invited. George raised his hand immediately, but the first person to be called was a young man with glasses at the back of the room, who asked about the Labour Government’s plans for workers’ control in the nationalised industries.
‘Unfortunately, friend,’ replied the MP, I don’t think the majority of workers in this country have the education, or the experience, or indeed the desire, to control industry. What of course is important is that we get as many trade union representatives as possible on the boards of the nationalised industries. In the world we live in that’s what workers’ control means.’
George was the next to be called and he rose to his feet: ‘I didn’t mean to speak at my first meeting, but I can’t let what our MP said go by. I’ve spent the last four years fighting against fascism. I’ve seen men die. I’ve seen my best friend with his arms and legs blown off and still talking. They told us we were fighting for democratic rights. To me the right to have a union and the right to strike are the most important democratic rights. They were the first things the fascists went for. So how come we’ve got a government that calls itself ‘Labour’ using the army against the organised labour movement? Can our MP explain that?’
Three or four people clapped and George realised thankfully that he wasn’t completely alone. He didn’t dare look at Rachel to see if she disapproved of this outburst.
The MP responded calmly: ‘I’ve been a trade unionist all my life, young man, and when you’re involved with unions you see things from the point of view of a particular group of workers. But when you’re in government you have to look at things from the point of view of the nation as a whole. People have to be fed. Of course, in an ideal world that sort of situation wouldn’t arise, where you have conflict between different sections of the movement, but I’m proud of what our government did.’
The chairman was calling another questioner, but George was back on his feet, insisting on making his point. ‘I may only be a new member,’ he said, ‘but I didn’t join to support strike-breaking. I’m amazed by what our MP has said tonight. If that’s the attitude he’s going to take, then we’ll have to recall him – you know, make him resign and elect someone else.’
‘That’s out of order,’ snapped Ken Chapman. ‘It would be a breach of parliamentary privilege to move that.’
‘Privilege,’ exclaimed George. ‘I joined this party to do away with privilege. How can we have democracy if we don’t have a right of recall? It’s an old tradition, it goes back to the Paris Commune.’
‘Look,’ said Ken Chapman, ‘we know some people get up to funny tricks in Paris, but we have our own procedures here, and you have to respect them. Will you let someone else ask a question?’
Several voices around the room began to mutter ‘sit down!’. George still didn’t dare look at Rachel, but he refused to give way.
‘No, I’ll finish what I’m saying. If you don’t have the right to recall a Member of Parliament, it means he can get elected on a Labour programme, and then straight after the election he can change his mind, and join the Tories, or set his own show up, and there’s nothing you can do about it for five years, till you next get your glorious chance to put a cross on a bit of paper.’
‘This is outrageous,’ protested one of the ward councillors. ‘How dare you suggest that an elected Labour Party representative could behave in such a way?’
‘How about Ramsay MacDonald?’ called a voice to George’s left. It was Rachel.
This silenced everyone for a few seconds. Then a figure at the back of the room stood up. It was Bill Ellison, who had been demobbed at the same time as George and lived only a few streets away.
‘I can’t let my friend George Cook get away with this,’ said Bill. ‘I fought in the war too. I’ve seen as many corpses as George has. I want a better world for myself – and my children, when I have some. And the only way we’ll get a better world is through the Labour Party.
‘In an ideal world we wouldn’t have these problems. But we don’t live in an ideal world and we never will. When we were in the army we used to grumble a lot; but we didn’t shoot our guns at our own side. It’s the same in the Labour Party; you have to be loyal to your own side. You’ll have to learn that, George. And so, Mr Chairman, I’d like to move next business.’
* * *
George folded up his resignation letter, put it in an envelope, and stuck on a stamp. Then he thought back to the previous evening. It wasn’t Bill Ellison’s speech that had finally snapped the chain inside him, nor even the hostile heckling when he’d spoken. But at the end the MP had come up to him. ‘You know, young man, your contribution didn’t offend me at all.’ Since George hadn’t asked him whether it did, and didn’t care much one way or the other, this had seemed pretty irrelevant. ‘I was a bit of a wild man when I was young,’ went on the MP. ‘And we need people like you to keep us on our toes. But as you get older and learn more about the movement, you’ll realise that a lot of compromises have to be made.’
God preserve me from growing old like him, thought George. Better be buried in the mud at Cassino. He picked up his Labour Party card, issued less than a month ago, and tore it carefully in half; then put the two halves together and tore them again, and dropped the pieces in the waste-paper basket.
This morning he had been to see John Mitchell and told him of his intention to join the Communist Party. He had expected John to be overjoyed that his disciple had at last seen the light, but John had simply said: ‘Are you ready?’
Well, George wondered, was he ready? There were a lot of things he still wasn’t sure about. Was Stalin a benevolent uncle or a bloodthirsty dictator? He just didn’t have the information to make up his mind. But he couldn’t stomach the Labour Party and there was nothing else around, so the Communist Party it would have to be. It was a bit like going to church, he supposed. You couldn’t believe in all those miracles to begin with, but if you went along and said enough ‘Hail Marys’ you probably got to believe it all in the end. He wouldn’t cause trouble. He’d sing along with the hymns.
He put the letter in his pocket and went out to meet Rachel.