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Dwight Macdonald

England at War

2. Bombs and Politics in Great Britain

(December 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 35, 9 December 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Before this war began, we all read lurid prophecies in the Sunday supplements about the terrific devastation and massacre air bombing would cause in big cities. These predictions have been borne out, but only in the case of cities with little or no anti-aircraft defenses: Barcelona, Warsaw, Rotterdam. The German air force has been bombing English cities for over three months now with the greatest intensity, and yet, according to official figures, during the months of September and October, in all England only 13,288 civilians were killed and 19,310 wounded. In Coventry, worst bombed of all English cities, there were only 422 “known” deaths. The effect of the German air attack on England has so far not been to cause that chaos, panic, and dramatic breakdown of society the Sunday papers expected. These effects are slower-working, less dramatic and sensational – but highly significant, for all that.

The Shelter Issue

In a city under bombardment week after week, class politics takes new and peculiar forms. The usual forms of class struggle tend to be suspended in an armistice by mutual agreement while every one concentrates on the main job: to defend life and limb from the common enemy in the sky. In London today strikes and municipal elections have become subordinate forms of class struggle. Thus the German air attack is a levelling, a “democratizing” force. However, in the course of this common struggle to survive and to beat back the enemy attack, the old class conflicts and injustices reappear in different forms. The great political issue in London today is the air-raid shelter question.

The Chamberlain government, during the “quiet” period of the war, dealt with the matter of shelters as it did with all other problems, with extreme ineffectiveness. Sir John Anderson, Minister of Home Security, adopted a policy of shallow, tin-roofed, individual backyard shelters. These “Anderson shelters” gave some some protection from flying bomb splinters and debris, but were uselesss against a direct hit or even a large bomb blast nearby. They were also too small to be slept in – and, since the raids last all night, shelters must be first of all dormitories.

When the raids began in earnest this fall, the masses of the East End – the great working class slum district which, being near the docks and factories, was bombed worst – took matters into their own hands and crowded into whatever deep holes in the ground they could find. The subway stations were the most obvious safe refuge. The London Transport System tried to forbid this mass invasion of its stations, but it was found to be impossible to enforce the prohibition. The people just forced their way in and spent the night.

But only a small proportion of the London masses could get into the subways. A tremendous popular demand arose for construction of large-scale “deep shelters”, where thousands of people could spend the night in safety. There were some demonstrations organized and led by Communists. A newspaper report reads:

“The group, from Stepney who crowded into the Savoy Hotel on the Strand last night and demanded shelter were obviously under Communist guidance. They delivered a prepared speech demanding the government provide deep bombproof shelters. They were allowed to stay in the hotel’s shelter until the all-clear sounded and then they were rushed out by the police.”

Such invasions of the big luxury hotels clearly have revolutionary implications – the very fact that a mob of people “from Stepney” should venture to set foot inside the Savoy is remarkable. So dangerous did the class tensions over the “shelter problem” become that Parliament held several secret sessions on it, apparently without coming to any conclusion.

The Labor Party Takes Over

When Churchill revised his cabinet this fall, he removed Hugh Morrison, with Bevin the outstanding Laborite leader, from the Supply Ministry and put him in Anderson’s place as Minister of Home Security. This was a really brilliant stroke of Tory politics, since it put a Laborite in a post where he would have to bear the brunt of rising popular indignation over the lack of shelters. Morrison at once proceeded to do his duty: his first public statement was an unqualified endorsement of the Anderson policies:

“There are people who are demanding deep shelters, I am bound to say, for mischievous political reasons, and sometimes doing it in ways which are almost fifth column in their effect. I am not always sure they are not fifth-column in intention.”

Later on he underlined his opposition to any effort to provide deep shelters, actually quoting Anderson’s famous formulation – “In practice, there is no 100% safely.” Here, as everywhere, the leaders of the Labor Party are forced by the very nature of their politics to put themselves in opposition to the deepest interests and desires of the masses they are “leading”. Morrison is sitting on a powder keg, as is indicated by the results of a recent

Gallup poll taken in England and printed in the New York Times for Nov. 30. This showed that of those interviewed, 66% “thought the government had been ill-advised in concentrating on surface shelters”, 19% had’ “no opinion”, while only 15% backed the Anderson-Morrison policy. Nor is the scarcity of deep shelters Morrison’s only headache. Conditions in the makeshift mass shelters are indescribable – no ventilation, a few buckets for all sanitary arrangements, no bunks or cots, people packed together so close as to touch each other. On the other hand:

“In the big hotels, there is plenty of comfort ... At the Savoy, soft mattresses have been installed. There is a maid in attendance from night until morning. There is a man who stands by just to turn snorers over on their sides. Warm drinks are served at bedtime and it is all very cosy.”

This glaring contrast between rich and poor shows that all are not “equal under the bomb”. Likewise, with the treatment people get who are bombed out of their houses.

“In the expensive West End district,” writes a correspondent, “people dug out of their shelters after a bombing are immediately taken oft in taxis to the hotels, given hot drinks and warm beds in an underground shelter. But some of these people in East London’s poor districts wandered about for 13 hours, having lost every possession in the world except what they stood up in, and were directed to a series of addresses which involved as much as eight miles of walking before they were cared for.”

The great question in England under bombardment is how long the Churchill-Labor government can keep control of the masses who see every day, in a more dramatic and direct way than is ever possible in peacetime, the grim realities of a modern class society.

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