Jul 2010 Journal

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Vote, vote, vote for Clement Attlee?

Now that the dust is settling on the close-run general election of May 2010, we can expect a period of political jockeying where no single party has a stable parliamentary majority. It is interesting to look back 60 years to the successive elections of February 1950 and October 1951, when, rather as in 2010, a tired-looking Labour government faced a groundswell of demand for change. By 1950, the electorate had grown weary of the austerity, rationing and controls associated with ‘socialism’, and the Labour Party that had swept to power with an unassailable majority in the anti-Tory landslide of 1945 was returned 5 years later with a wafer-thin majority of 5 seats.

Prime Minister Clement Attlee had little alternative but to go to the country again in October 1951, when Winston Churchill’s Conservatives won with a small but workable majority. By a not untypical quirk of the British first-past-the-post voting system, the Tories won 321 seats on 48 per cent of the total number of votes cast, while Labour, polling nearly a quarter of a million votes more, won only 295 seats on 48.8 per cent of the vote. The Liberals, in the absence of a slick Nick to woo the voters on television, won a mere 9 seats. Labour went into opposition, and remained there for 13 years.

Readers of this journal have another reason to pay attention to the elections of 1950, since they were of special, indeed unique, significance for the Jewish refugees from Hitler who had settled in Britain. For the great majority of the refugees, it was the first time that they were able to vote in a British parliamentary election, and for most of the younger refugees it was their first experience of voting in any general election under a democratic system.

In Germany, all vestiges of democracy had been extinguished in 1933 by the Nazis and, in the same year, Chancellor Dollfuss had put an end to parliamentary government in Austria and introduced his variant of the authoritarian, corporate state, the Ständestaat. Only Czechoslovakia held out as the lone outpost of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, until it, too, fell into Hitler’s hands in 1938-39. So, those from Czechoslovakia apart, no Jewish refugee born after 1915 had been old enough to vote in a properly democratic election. The last German Jews to have had the experience of participating in a (more or less) free poll were those who had reached the age of 18 before the elections of March 1933, when the processes of multi-party electoral democracy still operated despite a ferocious Nazi campaign of intimidation against the Communist Party.

Very few refugees were entitled to vote in the British parliamentary elections of 1945, as most of them had not yet acquired British citizenship. And as the AJR Information began publication only in January 1946, some six months after those elections, there is no source to tell us how the refugees reacted to the shock result of the election that removed Winston Churchill from office and replaced him with Attlee. No doubt the refugees were as surprised as most of the British, perhaps more so, as Churchill was, if possible, an even more popular figure among the refugees than among the British - he had, after all, been the incarnation of successful resistance to Nazism.

Unfamiliar though the refugees were with British electoral practices, few of them would have shared the fears of an elderly Yugoslav lady who, aware of the fate that awaited overthrown political leaders in Eastern Europe, reportedly remarked: ‘Poor Mr Churchill! I suppose that now he will be shot.’ Most refugees would probably have had only a vague impression of Attlee, a man of few words who was not given to high-profile speeches and ringing political slogans. Churchill dismissed his apparently uncharismatic adversary with several choice phrases, calling him ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’, ‘a modest man, who has much to be modest about’, and mocking his anonymous demeanour with the jibe ‘An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.’

Such barbs aside, the Attlee government proceeded fairly speedily with the naturalisation of the refugees from Hitler. By 1950, tens of thousands of them had taken British citizenship. Most of them had arrived before the outbreak of war and had by 1945 been resident in Britain for the 5 years required for a successful application for naturalisation – they had had little chance of leaving Britain during the war, of course, other than on service in the armed forces, and that also counted towards the required period of residence. The way lay open for the former refugees, or ‘new British citizens’, as the AJR Information sometimes called them, to participate in their first general election.

Recognising this to be a crucial step on the refugees’ road to full and equal participation in British society, the AJR Information of February 1950 devoted its entire front page to the coming election. The leading article was captioned ‘Rights and Duties’, a title whose solemnity emphasised the significance of its subject. The journal was concerned that the refugees should demonstrate their willingness to participate in British public life by casting their votes, thus confirming their status as citizens fully engaged in the democratic system: ‘In a totalitarian state the individual has no influence, but in a democratic state the vote of every citizen counts. The right to vote is, therefore, at the same time a duty to share the responsibility for the fate of the country.’ The election would seal the readmission of the refugees to the politics of the community in which they lived, after their disenfranchisement in 1933: ‘February 23 thus symbolises the end of a long period during which we were barred from taking part in the political life of our environment.’

The AJR was scrupulously neutral in political matters: it refused to endorse any party or to offer any advice to its members on how to vote, beyond the obvious injunction to oppose any candidate who held anti-Semitic, fascist or pro-Nazi views. The journal took pleasure in underscoring the fact that, unlike the situation in Germany and Austria even before 1933, a Jew could vote for any of the three major British parties without any qualms of conscience, for none of them was anti-Semitic.

This had not been the case in Germany before 1933, when the parties of the non-Nazi right - principally the DNVP, the Nationalists who were the approximate equivalent of Britain’s Conservatives - were overtly hostile to Jews. Jews were therefore forced to choose between the parties of the working-class left, the Social Democrats and Communists, which were large and powerful, but as parties of the industrial proletariat unattractive to middle-class Jews, and the moderate parties of the centre, principally the Democrats (DDP), who were impeccably liberal in their programme, but had by 1930 dwindled to a position of electoral insignificance (3.8 per cent of the vote).

The situation in Austria was no better. The country was divided politically between the ‘Reds’, the Social Democrats, who stood to the left of their German sister party and took much of what would otherwise have been the Communist vote, and the ‘Blacks’, the Christian Social Party, which was avowedly anti-Semitic and had been the first modern political party to achieve electoral success on an anti-Jewish platform. Austria’s many middle-class Jews and those who supported the moderate, democratic centre in politics had no major party to which to turn, for the third party in Austria, far from being liberal, was formed by the Alldeutsche, the Pan-Germans who wished for the unification of all ethnic Germans into one nation and were readily transformed into Austrian Nazis.

The AJR Information repeatedly emphasised that in Britain there was no question of a Jew feeling obliged to vote for or against any major party as a Jew, since none of them was objectionable to Jews. A Jew could vote for the party of his choice, just like any other British citizen. There was therefore no such thing in Britain as a ‘Jewish vote’, for Jews were divided across the spectrum of all the major parties. ‘This healthy state of affairs,’ stated the journal, ‘is also mirrored in the fact that Jews are to be found amongst the candidates of all parties.’ Indeed, the journal was fulsome in its praise of the British political system: ‘Political maturity is one of the outstanding features of British public life. Party controversies are not as fierce as they are on the Continent, and sound compromise is often preferred to doctrinarianism.’

One Jewish refugee who missed out on the election was the actor Peter Illing. Born Peter Ihle, the son of a Turkish father, he had not been eligible to vote in Austria or Germany. But a few days before the election, he was offered a part in a New York stage production of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, and departed for America. ‘Bad luck for citizen Illing, good luck for the actor,’ commented PEM, the AJR Information’s cultural correspondent.

Anthony Grenville

next article:In praise of … old age