Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Breakfast in Bed for McAlpine the First

(October 1958)

From The Newsletter, 11 October 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Liberal leader Jo Grimond dropped a mighty clanger when he spoke recently of the alleged abuse of patronage by the Labour and Tory parties.

For the last Liberal-led government this country has known went out in a stink of corruption connected with the sale of honours.

From 1917 through to his fall in 1922 Lloyd George awarded an unprecedentedly large number of peerages, baronetcies and other honours, mostly to men of large fortune who in many cases had little obvious claim to public recognition.

Some of them had past histories that would not bear close examination.

It was widely understood that the secret lay in this: that in return for their honours the recipients made contributions (so much for a baronetcy, less for a knighthood and so on) to Lloyd George’s political fund.

Eventually the scandal became so foul that the ruling class jettisoned the Liberal Prime Minister and his associates as a dangerous liability to the Establishment.

Good things of life

Among the ‘Lloyd George creations’ was Sir Robert McAlpine, 1st baronet (1918). He got his honour, the citation stated, for ‘meritorious work in the construction of shell factories’.

There were said to be specially close ties between him and the government. In January 1918, some months before the King found himself raising McAlpine to his baronetcy, a question had been asked in Parliament about an ‘advantageous contract’ secured by the McAlpine firm for erecting army huts: had this anything to do with the fact that a member of the firm was related to a Cabinet Minister?

This first Sir Robert McAlpine was a well-known race-horse-owner and lover of the good things of life.

When he died, in 1934, The Times recalled that ‘he did not believe in early rising, and it is said, that he had got up to breakfast a dozen times in thirty years’.

The story of the ‘Lloyd George creations’, and of Maundy Gregory, who was the go-between for these sordid deals, is told in Honours for Sale, by Gerald Macmillan (1954).

The 1859 building lock-out

The dispute on the McAlpine building site on London’s South Bank has come as we near the centenary of the historic building lock-out of 1859.

It was from the struggle around this that the London Trades Council emerged, in 1860; this lock-out was a major landmark in trade union history – as the Shell-Mex dispute may well prove to be, too.

In 1859 the London master builders tried to smash the men’s unions by means of a general lock-but, presenting every worker with what came to be known as ‘the document’ – a declaration he must sign renouncing membership of a trade union.

The entire movement rallied to the builders’ support, and it was the standing committee of unions formed to organize this support in the capital that developed into the London Trades Council.

After several months’ bitter struggle, the masters had to give in and allow work to be resumed without any signing of ‘the document’.

The building workers came through strengthened by their fight, uniting their two unions into the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners.

A feature of the 1859 trial of strength was the splendid support given the workers by their wives, in spite of the hardships involved.

A receiving officer who visited the home of a locked-out builder reported:

‘I visited this man’s lodging; he was out, but his wife was in bed, with scarcely a rag to cover her, evidently sinking from want; the room contained scarcely an article of furniture and presented a most destitute and neglected and dirty appearance.

‘She said: “We are starving, sir; we have neither fire nor food.”

‘“Why,” I replied, “does not your husband go to work?”’

‘“What?” she exclaimed, with considerable energy, “to become worse than a slave?”’

Unfair to Red Clydeside?

Henry Pelling’s pioneer The British Communist Party. A Historical Profile is a work that calls for serious criticism: not at the level of James Klugmann’s review in the Daily Worker of October 2.

Klugmann professes indignation because Pelling mentions that, at its foundation, the party ‘consisted to a memorable extent of persons of non-English origin’.

‘For Mr Pelling,’ he witheringly observes, ‘men like Gallacher, MacManus, J.T. Murphy and Robin Page Arnot are aliens.’

I don’t think either Arnot or Gallacher would be pleased if Klugmann were to call them ‘Englishmen’. He is not likely to try it on Murphy (characteristic English name, that), since the latter was expelled in 1932.

MacManus is dead, his ashes in the Kremlin wall, but if he were not, and Klugmann called him English, I expect he would reply as on a famous occasion he replied to another James (J.H. Thomas): ‘Ye mauna say that, Jimmy!’

The prominent part played by Scots, Irish and Welsh in the militant Left of the British Labour movement is, of course, a long-noticed fact.

Klugmann will find an illuminating discussion of its significance in Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going?, published in 1926 by the Communist Party of Great Britain.

‘To beat the Reds, go for sterling’

Harold Wilson seems to have startled some people at the Labour Party conference with his warning about a possible run on sterling being organized by the Tories in the event of another Labour government.

Yet Marxists have long since shown that history gives us every reason to expect the British ruling class will use all its economic power, at the very least, to frustrate any serious threat to its fundamental interests.

Naive unawareness of this springs eternal in the Right-wing Labour breast.

During the General Strike the trade union leaders were shocked to learn that for the workers to use their economic power in opposition to government policy was ‘unconstitutional’, and hastily called the whole thing off.

Kingsley Martin, in his The British Public and the General Strike (1926) pointed out that the very constitution itself was founded on a capitalist equivalent of the General Strike.

In 1832, when the Duke of Wellington began to form a government opposed to the Reform Bill, Francis Place and his friends plastered London with posters saying: ‘To beat the Duke, go for gold’ – an open incitement to depositors to withdraw their gold from the banks and create a currency crisis.

A real socialist government must expect at least similar methods of struggle to be used against itself, if not also the sort of military blackmail used against the Liberal government in connexion with Irish Home Rule in 1914; and the movement should prepare in advance to deal with such moves.

Last updated on 11.10.2011