The Hippie Moment (1): Tomorrow Never Knows – London’s Summer of Love and all that


There’s an argument for saying that it all began in England, not America. Sometimes, for reasons that are not easily explicable, a city suddenly finds itself at the centre of something. In 1966, that city was London.

That something was, in fact, several things. It was fashion: Mary Quant, Biba, Lord John  and Carnaby Street (above, and below) and the coming of the miniskirt. It was also the emergence of what had been bohemian London into the mainstream.

And, it was the music. In many ways, it was a transatlantic phenomena. In America, the bohemian centre in the early ‘sixties was New York’s Greenwich Village (of which more anon). That saw the avant garde jazz, the beat poets and the folk revival.


Meanwhile, back in Blighty, pop music was swept by Beatlemania. Suddenly, rock and roll was in and guitars ruled all. In 1963, the band’s second single, Please Please Me, got to number one. Every release thereafter did the same until Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane only got to number two in 1967. They went to America, and America fell head over heels in love: in April 1964, 12 Beatles singles were in the Billboard top 100, and the top five were all Beatles’ records.

Many at the time saw them as just temporary phenomena, just like the bands that rose in their wake. The likes of The Rolling Stones, or The Kinks, were just ‘beat groups’, whose day would go as surely as it had come. The would sing their songs about girls, and their covers of American R’n’B numbers, until the audience tired and moved on.

In fact, it would be the bands who moved on. That had something to do with what was, simply, a magnificent coincidence. The likes of Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, or the Kinks’ Ray Davies were brilliant songwriters. But it wasn’t just that.

In part, it was education. After the passing of the 1944 Education Act, all British children got a secondary education. The most academic went to the grammar schools, and the cream of that crop to university. As well as secondary education, college education grew too. The so-called redbrick universities (like Newcastle) expanded. So did Britain’s art schools.

In an age where art was avant garde, experimental and willing to take on convention, an art school education gave young people of that way of thinking an opportunity to do all those things. They also, inevitably, attracted many young people attracted to the less than conventional, or bohemian (as we tend to call those artistic types who like to live outside of challenge society’s norms). And art school was far more readily accessible to working class youngsters who hadn’t made it to the grammar. Inevitably, Those youngsters gravitated towards one another. One hallmark of the art school bohemian culture of the early ‘sixties was music. For some, it might be high end modern classical music of free jazz. For others, it was jazz, blues, American R’n’B, and folk.

The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Mick Jagger had been childhood friends, before the middle class Jaggers moved. In 1961, they met again on platform two of Dartford railway station. Jagger, a university student at the London School of Economics, was carrying records by the blues great Muddy Waters and the great rock’n’roller Chuck Berry. Before long, they were in a band named after a Waters’ song: Rollin’ Stone. Jagger had been in a band with a school  friend named Dick Taylor, who would go on to found the The Pretty Things (see below).

Both Richards and Taylor went to Sidcup Art School. They were hardly alone. A who’s who of British rock were at art college in the early ‘sixties or thereabouts

LennonGambierTerrblogIn the late ‘fifties, the Stones’ drummer, Charlie Watts, went to Harrow Art School, where he developed a passionate love of jazz and blues.  The leading figure in what was known as the blues revival, John Mayall, attended the Regional College of Art, in Manchester. Mayall gave the young Eric Clapton (see below) his break; Clapton attended Kingston in the early ‘sixties. John Lennon went to Liverpool (see right, stood top left, in 1957). The Kinks’ songwriter and lead singer, Ray Davies, went to Hornsey College of Art. Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin’s guitarist and songwriter, went to Sutton (Page played the guitar solo on The Kink’s breakthrough classic You Really Got Me). The Who’s songwriter and guitarist, Pete Townshend, went to Ealing; the Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood, who joined the Stones in 1976, was there at the same time. Younger than the others, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett was at Camberwell in  the mid-‘sixties.

The art school education was surely connected with the way in which these men changed so much in the mid-‘sixties.

As was the fact that, as Dylan sung, ‘the times were a-changin’.’

In 1964, Newcastle’s very own The Animals had a smash hit with their version of the House of the Rising Sun. The song was part of the blues canon, and was the standout track on Bob Dylan’s debut album. That album was largely made up of his versions of old folk songs. However, its follow up, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, saw him singing his own songs. And those songs were different: songs of protest, but also love songs. Most of all, though, there was a new kind of poetry to them. By 1964, the protest songs were giving way to a whole new kind of song, as Dylan’s lyrics drew on literature and pure genius to take the popular song to a whole new place (you can read about it here, and here).

In 1964, the Beatles met Dylan on a much mythologised evening in New York’s Delmonico Hotel. And Dylan had heard The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun. Dylan, famously, ‘went electric’. His songs grew wildly, beautifully poetic. And The Beatles, growing tired of screaming girls and simple pop, began to craft a more sophisticated music. Dylan was a key influence (he is pictured with Lennon in 1966).


They were not alone. The American equivalent of The Beatles were The Beach Boys. Their leader, Brian Wilson, was no less of a genius. Wilson began with wondrous pop hymns to surfing, cars and girls.

beach boys

In December 1965, The Beatles released Rubber Soul. It was still recognisably pop music, but not as we were used to. Already, on Help! (earlier in 1965), McCartney had given us his great ballad Yesterday, which their producer George Martin had set to an elegant and restrained string arrangement. The title song itself, whilst a recognisably Beatles’ pop song, had an emotional depth that they had not embraced before.  Rubber Soul saw both Lennon and McCartney take that process further. Songs such as Girl and In My Life had genuine emotional depth. In My Life also used studio trickery. Lennon had asked Martin to add piano, and play something ‘baroque-sounding’. In the end, what we get on the record, is that piano solo taped, and played a double speed, sounding somewhat like a harpsichord. On Help!, the song Ticket to Ride was still very much a pop song, but was influenced by Indian music. The heavily Dylan-influenced Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) now featured George Harrison playing the sitar:

Then, The Beach Boys made Pet Sounds (see the second part of this series, here). It was a kind of musical race to some kind of top.

The Beach Boys Pet Sounds

The scale of The Beatles growing musical ambition is hard to appreciate now. Context helps. At the time, Paul McCartney was in a longstanding relationship with the actress Jane Asher, whose family were aficionados of contemporary classical music. Just as importantly, their unparalleled success gave them the leverage to get studio time. The result was Revolver.

Drugs had a role too. By 1966, LSD was becoming a drug of choice for many young people in both the United States and Britain. It even had its own gurus, in the form of the American psychologist Timothy Leary and a British academic at Harvard, Michael Hollingshead. As so often is the case, Leary probably wasn’t the author of the phrase ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’, but it will be forever associated with him (more in a later part of this series, here).


It was Hollingshead who had introduced Leary to LSD in 1961(the two are pictured above). In 1965, he opened a World Psychedelic Centre in Chelsea, London. The drug was prohibited the following year, but by then it had already become de rigeur for a generation of British musicians, many of whom had visited Hollingshead’s emporium. It’s influence is clearly evident on Revolver, and beyond. Before the album was released, The Beatles had yet another number one hit with Paperback Writer. Its b-side was Rain.

Rain is often thought of as  first genuinely psychedelic record. it wasn’t. That title is contested between The Byrd’s Eight Miles High (see part 2 of this series, here, to come) and The Yardbirds’ Shapes of Things, both released early in 1966. There was clearly something in the water, or at least in Dr Hollingshead’s Chelsea:

Shapes of Things made innovative use of rapidly evolving studio technology: there are two lead vocal parts, put together as one (double tracking was not new, The Beatles used it, but having the same lead singer sing different parts and them merging them as one was). Most innovative of all was Jeff Beck’s guitar: its use of deliberate feedback, effects (what would become known as the fuzz pedal) and is bending on the notes to give the part and eastern or Indian feel.

If The Yarbirds and their producer/bassist, Paul Samwell-Smith, were making innovatory use of the studio, The Beatles and George Martin, along with their 19-year-old engineer, Geoff Emerick, now had far greater amounts of studio time. They made use of the opportunity. Lennon’s gorgeous I’m Only Sleeping used backwards guitar (the solo was recorded, then dubbed on by playing the tape backwards). Ringo Starr’s drums were close miked (the microphones placed far closer, giving them a crisper and far superior sound). Varispeed playback was used to alter sounds, of come up with wholly new ones. Automatic double tracking filled vocal tracks out.

The final track, Tomorrow Never Knows, used the whole box of tricks to stunning effect. It drew its lyrics from Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Musically, it emulated the idea, and used  a raft of studio trickery to alter a musical reality:

Psychedelia was well and truly born:

Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying

Its lovechild was 1967. The Beatles made Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. From its John Blake cover montage on, Psychedelia’s hour had come.


Lennon always denied that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds had anything to do with LSD, but nobody really believed him. More importantly, having stopped touring, and with unlimited studio time, The Beatles gave free rein to their musical imaginations, and Martin and Emerick’s technical and musical wizardry. A Day in the Life remains one of their enduring masterpieces:

From the splicing together of two songs, to its elusive lyric, to teh use of the full and atonal orchestra, it was daring and brilliantly conceived:

I’d love to turn you on

The Beatles followed on with their international TV event single, All You Need is Love.  There’s an excerpt  of it below:

By 1968, what had previously been R’n’B bands were releasing very different work. Even The Rolling Stones made their own psychedelic single, We Love You, and album Their Satanic Majesties Request (they weren’t very good).


The Small Faces had been another great British guitar band. By the summer of 1967, they had released the great Itchycoo Park:

The following year had seen them release their concept album, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake.


Pink Floyd made their debut with the brilliant singles Arnold Layne and See Emily Play:

The debut album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was recorded in the same Abbey Studios the Beatles used, and at the same time as Sgt Pepper. Astronomy Domine, with its brilliant psychedelic guitar, and themes of space travel, is one of psychedelia’s high points:

If Sgt Pepper was, perhaps, rock’s first concept album, The Who’s Tommy, released in 1969, is generally recognised as the first rock opera, an album telling a narrative story.  In fact, the previous year, The Pretty Things, a band once known for their hard edged R’n’B made the first: SF Sorrow. At the time it disappeared without trace, a fact not helped by the fact that it was released in the same week as The Beatles’ White Album (of which more anon). In fact, it was in many ways groundbreaking. Try I See You:

At one point, it’s central character, Sebastian F Sorrow, believes he is flying to the moon; in fact, he is being taken on a journey into his own subconscious mind. He is finding himself.

Blues was still there: a headlong collision of the blues with all kinds of other music, and the psychedelic moment, also found expression in one of 1967’s most famous songs. Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale gave us soulful, organ led song. yet it was one peopled with mermaids, Neptune and vestal virgins. And its tune featured an organ part straight out of Bach’s Air on a G String.

In 1966, three leading members of the British blues and rock scene had formed a new band: Cream. They were still very much a guitar band, and wholly rooted in the blues, but the final product bore the psychedelic stamp (and it must be admitted, the chemical stamp too): see the classic White Room.

Early in 1967, they went to see a young American, Jimi Hendrix, now based in Britain, play live in London. They were blown away. Their guitarist, the great Eric Clapton, recalls their main songwriter coming up with a riff in direct response. That riff would become Sunshine of Your Love, their signature song. The recorded version is okay, but this live one from 1967, muddy sound and all, gives us Clapton in full flight:

There will be a separate article on Hendrix (to come). For now, suffice to say that Hendrix had already taken London by storm, and now was revolutionising the way in which the guitar was played, and much else in rock music. his debut album Are You Experienced? gave us this, backwards guitar, one key piano and all:

In 1967, Hendrix played the Monterey Pop Festival. Over three days in the California sun, a whole list of leading musicians of the time took to the stage: the Grateful Dead, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Jefferson Airplane and the Mamas and the Paps were among them (see the forthcoming post on American hippiedom). The Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were playing on the same night. The Who finished their set with their classic My Generation. It’s hardly a song of love and peace, it must be said, but it finished in spectacular fashion.

Smashing their instruments at the end of their set had long been a Who trademark. Later, Pete Townshend would see the impact of art school on that: as a kind of performance art (their singer, Roger Daltrey, thought that idea was pretentious rubbish). It certainly had an impact.

However, that night at Monterey, Hendrix took to the stage, played a blinding set, and then finished like this, with a wild version of the old Troggs’ song Wild Thing. After playing the guitar with is teeth, creating overwhelming feedback by holding it to his amp, he did this:

The Who and Hendrix played another festival together, two years later. Woodstock is often seen as the high point of the hippie era (you can see Hendrix and Country Joe Fish at Woodstock in Vietnam Songs, here). Here are The Who performing See Me, Feel Me (the climactic moment of Tommy), at Woodstock:

By 1969, the trippy optimism of the Summer of Love was already giving way to a darker hour, often personified by the Stones’ disastrous gig at Altamont (see a later post), or going back to nature (again, see a later post). The music would, similarly, go elsewhere.

Next time, America’s Summer of Love.


Meanwhile, turning on could do terrible things to people. Pink Floyd’s main songwriter was Syd Barrett (above). How far Barrett’s lifelong mental health problems related to his use of LSD will never be proven. However, even by the time their first album was released, his behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic. By 1968, he was seriously ill, never to recover, and was no longer in the band:

It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here
and i’m most obliged to you for making it clear
that i’m not here.

For years to come there would be occasional sightings of him in Cambridge and around until his death in 2006. Many years later, the second incarnation of Pink Floyd would make their finest album, Wish You Were Here. It is largely about Barrett, and in particular its centerpiece, Shine on You Crazy Diamond:

You were caught on the crossfire of childhood and stardom

The most telling epitaph was Barrett’s own. Floyd’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, was still very much in the psychedelic mode. By then, Barrett had been replaced by Roger Waters (who would become the band’s leading light and the primary force behind Wish You Were Here). However, the last track of A Saucerful of Secrets, sees Barrett reappear:

It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here
and i’m most obliged to you for making it clear
that i’m not here

Jugband Blues‘ psychedelia is there still, but now it’s mournful. The mentally damaged Barrett sings:

and i’m wondering who could be writing this song

It is haunting, terrifying, beautiful and unutterably sad:

Many of those we have discussed above would have their lives, and creativity, ravaged by the drugs some lauded. Leary and Hollingshead had a lot to answer for. I’ll leave the last words to Syd, and his farewell to Floyd:

And the sea isn’t green
and i love the queen
and what exactly is a dream
and what exactly is a joke?


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Civil Rights in Song (1): Eyes on the Prize


Given that one of the most important roots of the civil rights movement was in the black churches, and given the importance of gospel music to those churches, it’s hardly surprising that music provided a vibrant and very important sound track to that struggle. So, time for some civil rights songs: here, from the time itself, in the years leading up to the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

On that famous day, in 1963, when Martin Luther King spoke to the crowd in Washington, it was the gospel singer and civil rights campaigner, Mahalia Jackson, who shouted to to King to ‘tell them about the dream’. King listened, and so did the world.

Music played a major role that  day, as this New Yorker article explains:

Here she is, in the later ’60s, singing the civil rights anthem:

Among the star turns was the young Bob Dylan, who sang two songs from his forthcoming album:

And his then lover, Joan Baez. Here, singing one of the songs she sang that day, but here in 1966:

Black musicians had confronted civil rights issues long before. Probably the greatest of all those songs was Strange Fruit, written by a teacher, Abel Meeropol, in 1937 as a poem, which he then set to music and performed with his wife, the singer Laura Duncan. The song confronts the lynchings that scarred the south for so long:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

1939, it was sung by the great jazz singer, Billie Holiday, with whom it will be forever associated. Here she is, performing it in 1959:

The great Nina Simone was also indelibly identified with the cause (I will put up a section of this devoted to her alone). Here is her song Old Jim Crow. The Jim Crow laws were the ones that enforced segregation in the south:

Jazz was one of the 20th centuries great new art forms, and one which was black in its origins. By the ‘sixties, it was becoming artistically more daring. Furthermore, given that most of its great figures were African-American, it became politically engaged too. Orval Faubus was the governor of Arkansas who refused to allow the Little Rock Nine, nine black girls, to attend what was a whites only school. This was the response of the great. Interestingly, the original recorded version did not include the words: the record label, Columbia, would not allow them. Here is a later, and greater version:

In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, the 16th Street Baptist Church, a black church, was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Four African-American girls were killed. This was the great John Coltrane’s response:

Earlier that year, a white man, William Zantzinger, had killed a barmaid named Hattie Carroll. Bob Dylan wrote one of his greatest songs in response to that killing, and the subsequent trial:

Nowhere in the song does Dylan mention that Carroll was black, and Zantzinger was white, but we know.

Now is the time for your tears

All the above mattered, but they were hardly in the mainstream. Sam Cooke was. Cooke had started as the lead singer in a gospel group, The Soul Stirrers. However, from 1957 to 1964 he had a series of solo hits in the main Billboard singles chart, including a number of classics such as You Send Me, Wonderful World and Twistin’ the Night Away. Cooke was shot dead in a motel in 1964, and shortly after his song Shake was released. In those days vinyl 45 rpm records had two sides. The main song was on the A side. The B side of Shake saw Cooke moving, musically, closer to his gospel roots, but also forward to the new style of what would be known as soul music. It was also a political statement: A Change is Gonna Come.

Like Cooke, The Staples Singers started as a gospel group. In 1965, they still were, but civil rights were on their agenda, as were the traditions of the blues and the new rock and roll. Freedom Highway, written by Pop Staples himself, is about the murder of Emmett Till.

Like Sam Cooke, The Impressions had what was then called crossover success: getting a hit in the mainstream Billboard charts as well as the black R’n’B charts. In 1965, their main songwriter and leading man, Curtis Mayfield, wrote People Get Ready. It a song heavily influenced by gospel and what were then known as negro spirituals, something Mayfield acknowledged. The song’s hook gives us an image set deep into African-American culture:

People get ready, there’s a train a comin’

In the days of slavery, the underground railroad was the term used to describe the escape route slaves took to freedom in the north. The song was a crossover hit: civil rights were going mainstream. The song also became one of the unofficial anthems of the civil rights movement, at least according to Martin Luther King himself.

We’ll finish part one by going back to gospel. Like many a gospel song, the prize of heaven itself could also serve as a metaphor for another prize: freedom. Here is a modern version of the gospel classic, and signature song of the civil rights movement, Eye on the Prize, sung here by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Next time, the later ‘sixties, and early ’70s…

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Political Crises We Have Known (1): 1931 and all that, part three

mac baldIn retrospect, the fall of MacDonald’s second Labour government, the creation of the national government, the 1931 general election and its aftermath mark, in many ways, the end of that period of remarkable political reconfiguration either side of the Great War and the coming of democracy. We can now see that the ‘thirties saw the restoration of two party politics: the two parties which would, after the Second World War, dominate British politics. However, I’m not sure it looked quite like that at time.

In 1931, it was possible to envisage the collapse of Labour. Remember, it had only been the second party of British politics for a decade. Its greatest figure, Ramsay MacDonald, now headed a national government (seen above with Baldwin, right, and the Liberal leader Sir Herbert Samuel).

Nor did the party help itself. More than once, in the aftermath of defeat, the Labour Party has had a tendency to move sharply to the left. In the ‘fifties a bitter left-right schism opened up, in part led by the left-wing Bevanites. In 1960, the party briefly embraced unilateral nuclear disarmament, in what Bevan himself decried as ‘an emotional spasm’. After 1970, it fell into discord over Europe and moved to the left. After 1979, the Bennite left were on the rise and Michael Foot won the leadership. Foot moved the party sharply leftward and the result was ‘longest suicide note in history’, as Gerald Kaufman memorably described the 1983 manifesto that saw Labour poll below 30% for the first time since 1922. At the same time, in reaction to the leftward move, the party split when the Gang of Four created the SDP. Again, in 2010, the party elected the wrong Miliband, perceiving him to be the more left wing; then, in 2015, came Corbymania.

For Labour, 1931 was the mother of all defeats. They were reduced to 52 seats, and some of them sat as ILP MPs. Another 13 MPs who had been Labour now supported MacDonald and the government as National Labour. In total, Labour lost 235 of the seats they had won in 1929. Their leader, Arthur Henderson, lost his seat. So did the home secretary and former leader JR Clynes. Three of the big beasts of the early Labour Party were now National: MacDonald, Snowden and JH Thomas. Only one other member of MacDonald’s Labour cabinet in August 1931 who sat in the Commons kept his seat.

lansbury jhat

That was the veteran London left winger, George Lansbury. By 1931, Lansbury was 72. He had, behind him, a lifetime of political activism. Unlike most early Labour men, Lansbury was influenced by Marxism. He had been a member of Britain’s small Marxist party, the Social Democratic Federation, and was its national organiser in 1895-96.  By the time he had joined Labour in 1904, Lansbury had long been active in local politics and had been elected as a member of Poplar council the previous year: he became something of specialist in and campaigner for the reform of the old Victorian Poor Law.

lansbury (1)

In 1910, he was elected to London County Council and then parliament, where he earned himself a reputation as a backbench rebel. He was a passionate supporter of the Women’s Political and Social Union, and it was in support of Pankhurst’s Suffragettes that he resigned his seat in 1912 to provoke a by-election on the issue. He lost. The following year, he was imprisoned after speaking out in favour of Suffragette violence.

If Lansbury was unusual among early Labour figures in being influenced by Marxism, he was far more typical in his Christian faith. As such, he was a lifelong pacifist, and opposed the Great War. He also founded and ran the Labour newspaper, the Daily Herald. He supported the Bolshevik revolution, visiting Russia in 1920. As the first Labour mayor of Poplar, he along with 30 other councillors had served six weeks in prison for leading a rates revolt in 1921, though in the end the government gave way. Poplarism made Lansbury a hero of the left (below, the Poplar councillors are seen on their way to court, with supporters).


Lansbury was also a republican, which was one reason why he did not enter the cabinet in 1924 (his support for the Bolsheviks was another). By 1929, however, he had changed his mind, voting against republican motions in the Labour party conference.

In 1929, rather surprisingly, he was made first commissioner of works. As such, incidentally, he had plenty to do with the king, and the two men got on rather well. He was also part of the ill-fated cabinet committee looking into the issue of unemployment, under JH Thomas and alongside Sir Oswald Mosley. As the cabinet’s sole real left-winger and as a man who had made his name thanks to Poplarism, which had supported more generous welfare provision, he was naturally opposed to the welfare cuts proposed by MacDonald and Snowden in 1931.

As Labour’s sole surviving cabinet minister, he had obvious credentials after the electoral massacre of 1931. His radical socialism also helped, in a party that now associated moderate reformist politics with the hated ‘traitor’, MacDonald. He became leader of the parliamentary party; when Henderson stepped down the following year, he became party leader overall.


In many ways, he was a success. The morale of the parliamentary party recovered, and he was immensely popular with activists. AJP Taylor would describe him as ‘the most lovable figure in modern politics’. The crucial vote he lost at the 1935 party conference saw him receive a standing ovation in the conference hall itself. The party was reformed, and there were by-election successes: ten, in all. In 1934, Labour won control of London County Council. However, under Lansbury, Labour were never going to return to government.

Lansbury was forced to resign in 1935, primarily thanks to his pacifism, which was rejected by Bevin and the union bloc vote (you can read about that, and the Labour left in the ‘thirties, here). In many ways, he did leave a legacy to the party. The party that Attlee inherited was more left-wing than that of MacDonald’s. It would embrace nationalisation, universal health provision and Indian independence, for example. However, the socialism of Labour’s second generation was markedly different to that of Lansbury’s.

Lansbury’s socialism, for all his Marxist influences, or belief in direct action, belonged to the left-wing socialism of Kier Hardie, Nye Bevan or Michael Foot, or many of the Corbynistas we see today: what AJP Taylor characterised as the emotional left. His pacifism was of a piece with that, as was his support for Indian independence (he is seen below with Gandhi, in Poplar in 1931).

lansbury and ghamndi

That is not to say that there wasn’t hard left politics in the Labour Party. In the ‘thirties one might think of Sir Stafford Cripps, before then perhaps the miners’ leader AJ Cook. In the 1980s, and again now, perhaps the London left of Ken Livingstone, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. In some ways, Lansbury straddled both, as did the Tony Benn of the late ’seventies and early ‘eighties.

Beyond the hard left of Labour, there has often been the wilder fringes. The London left of Corbyn et al always had connections with the far left, especially the Socialist Worker’s Party, as any brief perusal of any of the campaigns they have shared would reveal: the Stop the War movement is classic case. The was a far left in Lansbury’s time (you can read about it here). Some, like Cripps, dallied with it in the face of fascism (you can read about that here)

Already, in 1932, the ILP had disaffiliated from the Labour movement preferring, in Nye Bevan’s words, to be ‘pure, but impotent’. Lansbury’s continued belief in direct action, and his pacifism, meant that there remained common ground between his politics and some of the far left. However, Attlee and Bevin removed that common ground. Whilst their policies were genuinely socialist, their politics were avowedly constitutional. Most of all, their foreign policy changed radically. By 1938, the party that had opposed rearmament and had been led by a pacifist was calling for large scale rearmament and was opposed to appeasement.


In the 1935 general election, in part thanks to Lansbury, there was a marked recovery in Labour’s fortunes. They polled 38%, and won 154 seats. In part, this also reflected an underlying strength beneath the rubble of 1931: in the 1931 election, they had polled 31%. After 1935, the place of Labour as Britain’s second party, so hard won in the ‘twenties, was secure. In that two-party system, as should be in a democracy, there was as much in common between parties as divided. The Labour Party of Attlee and Bevin was patriotic yet worried about the threat of Hitler et al: so were the Conservatives.

attlee1-800x450In domestic politics, the socialist policies the new leadership would adopt were that of Labour’s second generation: the likes of Greenwood, Bevin, Attlee and Morrison ruled the roost. To the chagrin of many on the left, in the pure sense they were not socialist. Nor were they the preserve of Labour. The party of Lansbury and Attlee would make much of the housing issue. Housing had been the signature domestic achievement of the MacDonald governments, in the form of the Wheatley and Greenwood Acts. The responsibility for implementing both acts was, in the end, in the hands of local government, and would remain so after 1945. In 1935, Baldwin would assert slum clearance as one of the government’s primary achievements. The other important legacy of the second MacDonald government had been the initiation of the creation of the London Passenger Transport Board. Its originator (the actual act was carried forward by the national government) was Herbert Morrison, leader of London County Council by 1934 (you can read about Morrison here).


If this could be described as socialism, it was very much managerial and bread and butter socialism. Its roots lay as much in the municipal socialism of the Victorians. Morrison was very much the heir of that movement (he was actually opposed to the creation of a national, as opposed to comprehensive local, health service, for example). As such, it was by no means the preserve of Labour. The high priest of Victorian municipal socialism had been then Liberal Unionist Joe Chamberlain, father of Austen and Neville. Neville Chamberlain had been a key figure in expansion of Birmingham’s hospital services, as minister of health he was a notable reformer; in the late ‘thirties he was looking seriously at the idea of some form of universal medical provision. He ran all his life as a Liberal Unionist (you can read about him here, and here).

mw126975Nationalisation may have been socialist, and heralded in the famous Clause IV of Labour’s constitution, calling for ‘common ownership’. However, nationalisation was hardly just a Labour idea. The story of one man, another one of those stories of mutable political loyalties, might be a start. John Sankey (right, as Lord Chancellor, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery) was a leading barrister of Conservative sympathies. From 1915, he served the government’s Enemy Aliens Advisory Committee. After the war, the coalition government had appointed to chair a commission to examine the problems of the coal industry. The Sankey Committee divided along party political lines, and it was his casting vote that ensured that it recommended nationalisation. It was to no avail, as Lloyd George had promised the coal owners (of whom Sankey developed a very low opinion) that he would not nationalise them. It also earned Sankey the bitter opprobrium of many Conservatives.

He became more sympathetic to Labour. Overlooked in favour of Lord Haldane in 1924, he became Lord Chancellor in 1929. In 1931, now as Lord Sankey, he followed MacDonald: he was one of the four Labour members of first cabinet of the national government. He served as Lord Chancellor until 1935.

As such, he was a member of what was, in effect, a Conservative government with a Labour prime minister. In fact, it was Conservative governments carried out all three nationalisations of the inter-war period: the BBC, the Central Electricity Board and the London Passenger Transport Board. Proposing the nationalisation of other major industries was hardly novel.

By the time Labour embraced the idea of Indian independence in the Attlee Report of 1938, the idea of dominion status was very much on the table. As Ireland was showing, that was very much a stepping-stone on the road to independence. Labour may have being going further, but it was further in the same direction.

libs 35

Perhaps the reason Labour’s collapse in 1931 did not see another political upheaval was the even more calamitous collapse of Liberalism. On the face of it, the formation of the national government saw the battered Liberals return to centre stage: Samuel was home secretary, and Rufus Isaacs, as the Marquess of Reading, was in the Foreign Office (you can read about him here). However, rather than a revival, it was a brief and desultory encore. Even before 1931, the Liberals had split once more, when the followers of Sir John Simon threw off the Liberal whip. In the 1931 election, the cracks were (very thinly) papered over. Sir Herbert Samuel carried on as home secretary (you can read about him here), and Sir John Simon in the Foreign Office (you can read about him here). In 1932, when the government adopted tariffs, Samuel resigned. Simon stayed on, and his 35 Liberal National MPs became de facto Tories. Meanwhile, Samuel’s 33, alongside Lloyd George’s four, now became the rump of the once great Liberal Party. In 1935, that rump was reduced to just 21 seats. The great Liberal Party was all but out of road.

keyenesaThe irony is that, at the same time, liberal ideas were the road ahead. The government had a distinctly liberal tinge: Simon remained a central figure (you can read more about him here and here) and Chamberlain was always minded of his liberal inheritance. Churchill remained a coalitionist by nature. More importantly, in 1936 John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory. In 1942, William Beveridge would write his famous report (you can read about it here). Keynesianism and Beveridge were central to Labour after 1945. In truth, they would be no less influential on the new generation of Conservatives, such as Harold Macmillan (you can read about it here): Macmillan’s family firm published Keynes’ masterwork. In short, if the Liberal Party might have been in the geriatric wing on something like life support, liberal ideas were anything but.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party of Baldwin and Chamberlain ruled over all. They won landslides in 1931 and ’35. Almost certainly, had war not come, Chamberlain would have won another. A 1939 Gallup poll gave the government 50% to Labour’s 44: on a similar vote, 20 years later, Macmillan won a majority of 100. One Nation Conservatism had triumphed, in National dress..

It had triumphed over its own opponents too. The press barons were emasculated, Churchill et al isolated and a dodgy king had abdicated.

Those on the right who railed against Baldwin were left to fume, or dally with fascism. Many did a bit of both. Some admired Hitler or Mussolini (you can read about them here), some looked to Edward VIII (you read about them here) and others to Mosley’s BUF (you can read about them here). Once Edward VIII had abdicated, it is tempting to aver they no longer mattered. Perhaps the real point is that in other circumstances they could have.

In contrast, those who dallied at a distance mattered more. There was something of a Hitlerian charm offensive in the ‘thirties: intermittent, but real enough. Lloyd George visited Hitler (you can see that here), as did the duke of Windsor (you can read about that here). Halifax went hunting with Goering (you can read about that here). Chamberlain never quite lost hope that Mussolini might come good (you can read about that here, here and here). In the end though, the likes of Lloyd George, Halifax and Chamberlain might have dallied, but they saw the light in the end. In short, the politicians of the ‘thirties hung together in the end, making Churchill’s wartime national government possible.

beckettThe story of another wayward soul might be useful. In 1914, John Beckett enlisted. He was wounded and discharged in 1917. He joined the ILP. By 1920, he was Clement Attlee’s constituency agent; in 1922, when Attlee entered the Commons, Beckett became his private secretary. He was active in the No More War Movement. In 1923, he was an unsuccessful candidate in Newcastle Central; he won Gateshead in 1924, before moving to Peckham in 1929. He became a notable backbench rebel, calling MacDonald a liar and seizing the mace. He lost his seat in 1931, by then bitterly disillusioned with Labour.

HD_100741793_02After a visit to Italy, he joined Mosley’s BUF in 1934. He became its director of publications, before falling out with Mosley, who sacked him. He then founded the National Socialist League, along with another ex-BUF mam William Joyce (the future Lord Haw-Haw). Beckett fell out with Joyce, who he saw as too anti-Semitic and pro-German (Beckett could not bring himself to turn against his country). With Viscount Lymington and the duke of Bedford, he formed the British People’s Party, another hopelessly impotent political grouping that brought forth a strange brew of ideas: pacifism, fascism, and socialism. Come war, they became the anti-war British Council for Settlement in Europe. Although he had joined the Local Defence Volunteers, in 1940 he was arrested under the Emergency Powers Act and not released until 1943. In 1952, he converted to Catholicism.

Beckett, like most of his kind, never mattered much. In another European country, he might have amounted to something (many far less able and stranger men made careers in Nazi Germany). That the likes of him did not owes much to the abiding strength of both Labour and the Conservatives. The likes of MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain, or Bevin and Attlee, ensured that the politics of both left and right was constitutional, democratic, moderate and patriotic. Thanks to them, 1931 marked the beginning of the end of a convulsive period in British political history just as the European skies darkened. Of course, they were politicians, looking for political advantage (in Baldwin’s case with spectacular success). These statesmen, for that is what they were, were at least prepared to put the national, and European, interest before that narrow advantage: when it came to the war, they certainly did (below, Chamberlain’s war cabinet). Oh for their like now.

War Cabinet

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