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Ray Challinor

The other war

(July 1982)

From Socialist Review, 5 July-14 September 1982: 7, pp32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Engineers at War 1939-1945
Richard Croucher
Merlin Press £4.80

Richard Croucher has written the first serious Marxist analysis of the subject, a book that will remain essential reading for those interested in the question of industrial relations in the Second World War. He shows the class war was not put on ice for the duration. In 1944, a total of 3,714,000 days were lost through industrial disputes, more than at any time for the previous 12 years. This happened despite jingoistic appeals to patriotism.

Strikers were depicted by politicians and the Press as either being pro-Nazi or, at best, the unfortunate dupes of sinister subversive agents. These concocted stories stretched credibility to the limit. Perhaps the most fantastic came from Scottish miners’ leader, Abe Moffat. In September 1943, when 20 collieries in Lanarkshire were idle, he blamed anarchists, Trotskyists and the Duke of Bedford for causing the stoppage.

Both Labour and Communist Parties tried to restore industrial peace, creating conditions of class harmony where productivity would rise. This book examines their role fairly, and in detail. Where, in my opinion, Richard Croucher’s work becomes less satisfactory is when he comes to consider the impact of repressive legislation.

The State possessed an armoury of 868 regulations, many deliberately couched in vague, ambiguous terms, with which it tried to impose its will. Workers were fined for staying at home to care for sick children, arriving at the factory late because of a transport hold-up, and for not working with sufficient enthusiasm.

In May 1945, Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, told the House that 18,436 persons had been convicted for absenting themselves from work or being late without reasonable cause; of whom 1,323 were imprisoned. Asked how many employers had been convicted, Bevin replied: ‘I would want notice of that question’.

Trade unionists became increasingly resentful of the manner wartime regulations operated, making them weapons employers could use against workers. Far from cowering them into submission, fines and imprisonment often resulted in the downing of tools; production only resumed once the punishments had been waived.

Richard Croucher could, I think, have dwelt a little more on these victories. In a sense, the 1944 Tyneside Apprentices strike fell into this category. Nationwide agitation helped to secure the release of the four imprisoned Trotskyists. The dispute, as well as the ensuing publicity, gave greater credibility to the industrial activities of the ILP, RCP, etc. Moreover, the strikers won what they came out for – no apprentice was ever conscripted into the armed forces.

Attempts to contain the mounting opposition sometimes ran into trouble. For example, when the Amalgamated Engineering Union leaders decided to suspend the Barrow District Committee for backing a strike at Vickers’ shipyards, the Huddersfield District Committee en bloc resigned in protest. Wal Hannington, then AEU national organiser, journeyed to Yorkshire to try and smooth it over.

To his dismay, he discovered the District Committee solidly ILP. Its main spokesmen were the Warwick brothers. They had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1928, charged with Trotskyism, largely through the efforts of hatchet man Hannington, and they were anxious to even old scores.

The industrial unrest needs to be seen in a wider context. In the ten by-elections between 1939 and 1945, the ILP secured an average of 25 per cent of the total vote, fighting on a definite anti-war ticket. Many socialist ideas were beginning to gain a resonance within the class: controls were imposed more rigorously on labour than on capital; profits of the arms manufacturers – the ‘merchants of death’, as Brockway called them – rose as the soldiers fell; and firms continued to honour trading agreements reached with their German counterparts.

British fighters in the Battle of Britain had inferior bullet-proof glass to the Messerschmitts because the Germans had the patent rights. Similarly, German tanks had greater speed and mobility because the lightest metal – beryllium – was used in their manufacture but could not be used in British tanks for the same reason.

As facts like these became more widely known, disenchantment increased until a large proportion of the population, although not having clear and definite ideas, nevertheless wanted to see a fundamental change in British society. It is one of the ironies of history that it was because this feeling was so intense and widespread that a Labour Government was elected – and because a Labour Government was elected that the fundamental change did not take place.

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Last updated: 17 May 2010