Paul Foot

Portrait of an Appalling Man

(February 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.66, February 1974, pp.27-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Herbert Morrison: Portrait of a Politician
Bernard Donoughue and G.W. Jones
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £6.00.

HERBERT MORRISON was appalling. In his youth he flirted with Marxist ideas and organisations until one day he went to listen to Ramsay Macdonald. From that day, Morrison modelled himself on ‘the old man’, and took up Macdonald’s stance on the extreme right wing of the Labour Party. As leader of the first Labour-controlled London County Council from 1934; as Home Secretary during the war and as overlord of the Labour government’s post-war home policy he never abandoned his passionate hatred of communism or of independent working class activity.

When in the early 1920s, the Labour-controlled Poplar borough council paid its unemployed more than the pitiful rates allowed by law and paid its workers more than the rate negotiated by collective bargaining machinery, Morrison, then secretary of the London Labour Party, denounced the Poplar Councillors: ‘No electorate,’ he argued, ‘could trust local authorities which spent ratepayers’ money so recklessly.’

Any direct action by workers or their representatives horrified Herbert Morrison. ‘He rather scorned strikes’, write his biographers. After the collapse of the General Strike in 1926, he gleefully rubbed home the lessons to his supporters.

‘A general strike,’ he argued, ‘must become a physical force, revolutionary struggle aimed at the forcible overthrow of the constitutional government and the seizing of power by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress... nobody with half a brain believes that in Britain such a policy could be successful.’

The alternative to all this direct action nonsense. Morrison argued, was to build up the Labour Party and get hold of parliamentary office.

Parliamentary office gave him what he needed to carry out his concept of ‘socialism’ - a well-ordered, well-regulated state capitalist society in which Morrison would be chief orderer and chief regulator. He was the bureaucrat par excellence. Or, as Beatrice Webb put it in her diaries, ‘Herbert Morrison is the quintessence of Fabianism.’ Give him the machinery of government, the blue books, the statistics, the loyal civil servants, the insignia of office and Morrison was in his element. Socialist society, he believed, would be built by a handful of able and enlightened bureaucrats in Whitehall.

‘Public ownership’ to Morrison meant control by bureaucrats selected ‘on their ability’ by the minister. When he was minister of transport in 1930, he refused to appoint workers’ representatives to the board of his new London Transport undertaking. He wanted the undertaking to be run exclusively by ‘men of a business turn of mind’ which, he explained graciously, ‘might include such people as trade union bodies as well as men of business experience in the ordinary sense of the word’. These included Lord Ashfield, the tycoon who owned the main private London transport companies before Morrison’s 1930 Bill.

‘Morrison,’ writes Mr Jones, ‘came to admire Ashfield and had him in mind to be the chairman of the new board. To nationalise Lord Ashfield was his objective.’ Lord Ashfield was thoroughly sympathetic. ‘He became a devotee of the public corporation,’ and did a lot to persuade Liberals and Tories in the House of Commons that ‘Morrisonisation’, as it came to be known, was really a more efficient form of running capitalism.

This relationship with big business was taken up even more enthusiastically when Morrison took charge of Labour’s economic policies after the war. ‘Morrison liked dealing with tycoons,’ writes Mr Bernard Donoughue, his other biographer, ‘and in general they liked him, as Chandos said, “because you got down to brass tacks with him”.’

When the Morrisonisation of steel was proposed by the majority in the Labour Cabinet in 1947, Morrison discovered to his horror that the steelmasters were against it. The coalowners and the railway bosses had, after a few statutory grumbles, conceded the Morrisonisation of coal and rail transport. But Sir Andrew Duncan, the steel industry leader and a favourite tycoon of Morrison’s, did not want steel Morrisonised. Morrison promptly sabotaged the Cabinet’s plans by working out new proposals, in secret, with Sir Andrew. The majority of the Cabinet, prompted by Aneurin Bevan, finally forced through steel nationalisation against Morrison’s wishes, but Morrison’s sabotage ensured that steel was not nationalised until the end of the Labour government’s term of office. This left Sir Andrew and his friends much more time to mobilise.

Morrison was one of the fiercest anti-communist witch-hunters in British history. He carried out a ruthless and permanent campaign against communists of every description. But his hatred of communists in Britain did not extend to Russia. As Mr Jones writes:

‘He found little similarity between the attitudes of Russian communists and the Communist Party of Great Britain. The former appeared cautious, believing in gradual development; they did not accept workers’ control.’

When Morrison was Home Secretary in January 1941 he proposed that the Daily Worker, the organ of the British Communist Party, which was then advocating a ‘revolutionary defeatist’ line on the war, should be banned by government decree. The Tory-dominated Cabinet agreed. Writing about the incident in his autobiography, Morrison commented: ‘Not unexpectedly there was no protest from Russia about the closing down of the Daily Worker. The Soviet Union admires bold and firm action.’ One state capitalist censor could quickly detect another.

Morrison was a social imperialist of the old Jimmy Thomas school. Visiting New York in 1946, he proclaimed: ‘We are friends of the jolly old Empire. We are going to stick to it ...’ He added, for good measure, ‘The monarchy is a real factor among cementing influences between Britain and the Commonwealth. The monarchy is a great institution.’

Morrison was also, by the same token, a passionate Zionist. ‘In Israel,’ he wrote in The Times in 1950, ‘the spirit of human service exists more sincerely and more in practice than in any other part of the civilised world and we are glad it has a Labour government.’

This devotion to a civilised democratic society extended to Ireland, where Morrison was a passionate supporter of the Orange cause. In July 1943, as Home Secretary, he addressed a meeting of the 30 Club where the crusted Orange monster, Sir Basil Brooke (later Lord Brookeborough) was the guest of honour.

Morrison praised the loyalty of Ulster as ‘almost aggressive in its nature’. ‘After the war,’ writes Mr Donoughue, ‘he continued to keep a protective eye on Ulster’s interests in the Labour Cabinet.’ An elected Parliament was at stake, after all, so why should a man like Morrison care about a million evicted Palestinians, or half a million oppressed Catholics?

In his private life, Morrison emerges from the book almost as hideous as he was in public. He was greedily ambitious, arrogant, sentimental, male chauvinist, mean. And a hypocrite to the end. ‘Several times,’ he told the Daily Mail on 22 June, 1959, ‘I could have accepted a viscountcy, but all my life I’ve been of the working class and that’s how I’d like to stay.’ Three months later, on 19 September, the Tory Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, announced the appointment of Lord Morrison of Lambeth.

All this makes unpromising material for hero-worship, but Mr Jones and Mr Donoughue, lecturers at the London School of Economics, do their best to idolise Morrison. Endless senior civil servants are wheeled out to prove that Morrison was the ‘ablest’ minister they ever dealt with (is it only an impression, or is it the case that all senior civil servants take the view that any minister about whom they happen to be interviewed was the ‘ablest they ever dealt with’?). We are left to marvel at Morrison’s ‘mastery of detail’, his ‘ability to command an argument’, his ‘organisational genius’.

For the authors, politics takes place within the square mile which includes the Houses of Parliament, Whitehall, all the ministries, and the London School of Economics. Not for them the tumultuous developments outside. Hardly a mention in the book of the great social upheavals which shook the period about which they write, no explanation of the downfall of the Macdonald government; wartime socialist revival; of post-war slumplessness. Politics for them is how ministers behave and respond, and Morrison suits them admirably. The only time Mr Donoughue seems to get upset with Morrison is when the latter offends the Foreign Office mandarins with his brusque manner. ‘He handled ambassadors in a casual and offhand way’ scolds Mr Donoughue. ‘He often received them – and kept them waiting – in his room at the House of Commons leaving the unfortunate but not misleading impression that his prime loyalty and interest lay there rather than with the Office.’ Egad, Sir, What next?

If this was just an enormous book by two precise dons about a right-wing Labour leader, that would be the end of the story. But it is not. The account of Morrison’s life is so comprehensible that, almost by accident, it tells us a thing or two about British social democracy.

Herbert Morrison represents, perhaps more than anyone else, British social democracy in its heyday. His political life was dominated by the belief that a better life for the dispossessed could be created by the election of Labour governments and councils.

Substantial changes were made to the workers’ advantage under Herbert Morrison-especially in London. Patients in LCC hospitals were much better off under Labour; the blind and mentally ill got a much better deal; schools were improved; classes were smaller, teachers better paid; ‘a great change came over the LCC parks’ - more baths were built; more swimming pools, gymnasia, refreshment places, paddling pools, athletic grounds, bowling greens. The briefest comparison between facilities of this kind for workers in London compared with, say, New York, measures the advances of social democracy under Morrison in London.

Similarly, the post-war Labour government did force through a Health Service in opposition to the Tories and the doctors; it did nationalise the mines and the railways (leading to better working conditions for the workers in both industries), it did wipe out the old Poor Laws, and establish a new system of industrial injuries compensation. It solved none of the contradictions of capitalism; it left capitalism stronger in 1951 than it had been in 1945. But a wide variety of reforms in a wide variety of areas were carried out by Herbert Morrison and his colleagues.

Above all, these reforms, and the hope of much more where they came from connected the Labour Party to the working class. Morrison understood better than any Labour leader does today that his brand of social democracy can only survive as long as it sustained the active interest of large numbers of workers. Morrison never stopped writing Labour Party propaganda. The number of leaflets, pamphlets, brochures which he organised, wrote and distributed from London Labour Party headquarters all the year round was prodigious. He put a premium on individual membership of ordinary workers in the Labour Parties. He organised choirs, dramatic societies, almost anything to sustain and excite the London Labour Party membership.

Above all, he realised the danger to his political aspirations of corruption. All his life he fought relentlessly against corruption in the Labour Party, especially in local government. LCC councillors during Morrison’s rule were subjected to the strictest discipline as to their relations with officials or contractors. Morrison himself never accepted any job with private enterprise, though he was offered literally hundreds.

Throughout Morrison’s life, the results were obvious. In the 1930s, and, especially, in the 1940s, the British working class did respond, not just with votes, but with interest and involvement Herbert Morrison could not speak anywhere without attracting hundreds, often thousands of people. Any post-war meeting he addressed in South London was attended by an inevitable 1500. The crowds who came to hear him were almost incredible. During the 1950 General Election, he travelled to Yarmouth to speak to a mass rally of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, whose cause he had always espoused. A hundred thousand farm workers poured into Yarmouth from all over East Anglia to hear Herbert Morrison. A hundred thousand! Imagine a visit by today’s Labour deputy, Ted Short, to Yarmouth at election time to speak on the subject of farm workers. Short would be lucky to attract 10 farm workers to his meeting.

There is a vast gulf between the strength of social democracy in Herbert Morrison’s time and social democracy today. The gulf is not in aspirations. Judging by resolutions at Labour Party conferences, the Party’s aspirations last year at Blackpool (or the year before at Brighton) were just as grandiose as anything Herbert Morrison ever thought up. Indeed Morrison would have been shocked at the ‘shopping list’ of nationalisation proposals drawn up at those conferences.

Rather, the gap is in the connection between the aspirations of Labour politicians and the involvement of their rank and file. No amount of nationalisation resolutions at conference can mask the breathtaking apathy of Labour’s dwindling rank and file.

The constituency parties have been abandoned to hacks and careerists, and the MPs and councillors have no one to answer to. As a result, the entire Party has become infected with corruption. There is hardly a Labour MP who does not hold some ‘watching brief or ‘interest’ in industry or public relations to supplement his already vast annual salary; hardly a Labour council in the country free from the attention of rogues and speculators in private enterprise. The corruption is tolerated on a wide scale. One of the few MPs who has tried to clean his Labour Party up - Eddie Milne of Blyth (former seat of Lord Robens) - is being hounded out of his candidature. The process works both ways. Corruption grows because the rank and file either does not exist or does not ask questions. And the rank and file is increasingly sickened by the stench of corruption.

It is no good yearning, as Mr Jones tends to do, for the ‘good old days’ when Labour politicians like Herbert Morrison meant something to people, when Labour corruption was the exception, not the rule. The deterioration of social democracy has its roots in the politics of Herbert Morrison, and those like him. If what matters above all is the vote – if the vote paves the path to workers’ power, it follows that the most important contribution of workers to Labour is their vote. All other forms of labour mobilisation - strikes, demonstrations, agitation, education, organisation - inevitably become an embarrassment. Any Gallup Poll will show that all these things are ‘unpopular’. If the votes are to come to Labour, Labour must oppose strikes. It must not make socialist propaganda. It must not organise at the place of work.

When all these forms of mobilisation are systematically abandoned, as they have been by the Labour Party, there is nothing else to which workers can respond. There are no pamphlets, very few leaflets, no socialist propaganda, no factory organisation, no local organisation outside vote-collecting, no youth movement worthy of the name – nothing to do to help create a new society save vote for the next hack who comes along. The demobilisation of rank and file members is death to the Labour Party, but that demobilisation is an essential part of a political strategy whose central aim is to shift capitalist society through parliamentary endeavour.

Social democracy, in short, is its own grave-digger, and the pit is now deep and black. It is worth dwelling at length on the careers of illusionists like Herbert Morrison if only to harden our resolve to build socialism on the rocks of workplace organisation and direct action which Morrison so detested.


Last updated on 8.3.2008