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Ray Challinor

The unpopular war

(March 1982)

From Socialist Review, 20 March-19 April 1982: 3, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

You, You & You
Pete Grafton
Pluto Press £2.95

Pete Grafton claims to have ‘prodded an enormous iceberg’ – a cold and, I would have thought, not a particularly useful exercise. Having interviewed a mere 49 people, he rightly concludes that not all Britain enthusiastically supported the Second World War. The only surprising thing is that Grafton himself should find it surprising. For even the flimsiest research would have disclosed that, beneath all the war propaganda, profound tensions existed.

Let me prick the official myth of the British people, harmoniously and unitedly backing Churchill throughout, with three facts selected almost at random:

  1. A Gallup Poll, published on 28 March 1942, revealed only 35 per cent were satisfied with Churchill’s government while 50 per cent of the people were critical of it.
  2. The centrist ILP, fighting on an anti-war socialist platform, contested ten parliamentary by-elections during the war, averaging 25 per cent of the total votes cast. Remarkably, on one occasion it came within 349 votes of winning a Tory seat.
  3. Despite howls from politicians and the press about ‘stabbing oar troops in the back’, workers still continued to go on strike – more days were lost in 1944 through industrial disputes than in any year since the General Strike.

Unfortunately, Pete Grafton’s book hardly helps at all to explain these facts. His interviewees give personal rather than significant accounts; they tend to deal with their own particular grumbles, not with the powerful protest movements that were emerging. As a result, many of the most interesting experiences are missing.

We never hear what it was like to put forward the case for international socialism from a public platform. Nor do we know what special problems confronted strike leaders because of the state’s vast array of repressive legislation. Likewise, that soldiers in the Eighth Army, far from condemning strikers, actually came out in support is never mentioned. Yet the inclusion of these would have made it a much more valuable and interesting book.

Had he quoted the soldiers in the Western desert declaring that ‘the right to withdraw one’s labour is one of the essential freedoms we are fighting for’, then we might even have sent a copy to Mr Norman Tebbit!

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