Labour Ministers and civil servants in the Attlee Government administration, 1945 (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The mythologised history of the Left

Nearly everything you think you know about the history of the Labour Party is false

Labour’s catastrophic defeat in last year’s election led to calls for the party to reconnect with – stay true to – its fundamental values. Yet it is handicapped from doing so by a reluctance to come to terms with the real – rather than mythologised – history of the Left.

Beginning in the 1980s, the labour movement broadened to become truly inclusive of women, gays, and ethnic minorities, a long overdue accommodation of previously marginalised groups. However, there has since been a rewriting of history: instead of an honest appraisal of the past, many on the Left obscure or distort the truth. Rather than concede that the activists and politicians of the past had views consistent with their time, they anachronistically accredit them with the beliefs and values of the contemporary Left.

Earlier this year The Guardian columnist Owen Jones tried to claim Clement Attlee as a gay rights activist, pointing out that he was a founding member of the Homosexual Law Reform Society. He failed to mention that Attlee described homosexuality as an ‘evil’, only wanted to reform the law as it was ‘no deterrent’, and sponsored a House of Lords amendment that would have ensured anal sex between men remained illegal.

The reimagining of past socialist heroes as LGBT allies is dwarfed by the ignorance and obfuscation in terms of attitudes towards ‘race’, ethnicity, and the nation.

Even good-intentioned Labour advocates for decriminalisation used arguments that sound abhorrent today: Roy Jenkins argued for legalisation because ‘those who suffer from this disability [already] carry a great weight of shame all their lives’.

More recently, hard-left movements such as Militant regarded homosexuality a ‘bourgeois perversion’, and a ‘manifestation of capitalist degeneracy’, that would disappear under socialism, something that Jones must surely be aware of.

The reimagining of past socialist heroes as LGBT allies is dwarfed by the ignorance and obfuscation in terms of attitudes towards ‘race’, ethnicity, and the nation. We consistently see claims that ‘the Labour Party has always stood for international solidarity’, or that ‘Labour has always been an anti-racist party’, but this is simply wishful. Back in 1916, in the midst of an acute labour crisis, the party wrote to the government to ‘emphatically protest against the introduction of coloured labour, given the serious moral, social, industrial, and economic considerations’ it would entail.

Although Labour introduced the 1948 Nationality Act, granting British citizenship to subjects of the Empire, this was motivated as much by a desire to maintain imperialism as by anti-racist internationalism. When back in office in the 1960s, Labour renewed the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act – which restricted the ability of British passport holders to enter the UK – and further limited this with their own race-based restriction in 1968.

This myopia with race and immigration is extended to patriotism, with incidents of apparent internationalism seized upon and magnified beyond all proportion. The Spanish Civil War, for instance, despite its hallowed place in the mythology of the Left, did not result in a great surge of working-class internationalism: a mere 2,300 volunteers left Britain for Spain. One of them, the later TGWU leader Jack Jones, recalled the conflict being met with ‘absolute indifference’ by the majority of British trade unionists. Furthermore, the men who served in Spain did not have the values of today’s Left, and indeed many of the latter would be repelled by some of their views: a great deal of their free time was spent in brothels, and they were disfigured by the racism of the era, particularly with regards to Franco’s North African troops.

One of the most romanticised – the late historian David Cesarani used the word ‘manipulated’ – events in the history of the British Left is the so-called ‘Battle of Cable Street’ from 1936. The location where the key confrontation took place has been shifted in the subsequent mythologisation: the main clash happened at Gardiner’s Corner, near the City of London, but in the retelling it has been moved to the more working-class address of Cable Street to enhance its proletarian credentials. Cable Street was hugely significant moment in the history of British Jewry, but according to left-wing myth-makers, one would have thought that a rainbow coalition, of which Jews were only a small part, stood to block Mosley’s fascists. In reality, the vast majority of those opposing the fascists that day were Jews. If you were a non-Jew at Cable Street, likelihood is you were with the fascists or the police.

It was only at the last moment, under pressure from Jewish members, that the Communist Party cancelled its planned demonstration in Trafalgar Square and told its members to rally in the East End. Labour leader George Lansbury refused to endorse a petition calling for the fascist march to be banned, and encouraged other members of the party to stay away from the counter-demonstration. What should be a story about Jews standing up to fascism has become a story about ‘Irish dockers’ standing in solidarity with Jews, a salutary tale of inter-faith working-class solidarity, precisely because such stories are so hard to come by. Meanwhile, the anti-Jewish riots that gripped working-class areas in 1947 are airbrushed from history, as are the thousands of unionised dockers who marched in support of Enoch Powell 21 years later.

While support for the Palestinian people became a key platform of Labour identity under Corbyn, this was an exact reversal of the policy of the Labour Left in the decades after the Second World War

While support for the Palestinian people became a key platform of Labour identity under Corbyn, this was an exact reversal of the policy of the Labour Left in the decades after the Second World War – yet we never hear of the Labour Left’s support for Zionism or Tony Benn’s membership of Labour Friends of Israel. Similarly, the links between Irish and Zionist nationalists in the middle of the Twentieth century were so strong that the latter named fighting units after Irish heroes such as Michael Collins – not something that Sinn Fein activists boast about today.

When Rebecca Long Bailey – or a Guardian staffer – included the phrase ‘progressive patriotism’ in the subtitle of her article opening her pitch for the party’s leadership, this was met with howls from many on the Left, including claims that the term was oxymoronic. But this rejection of the very idea of ‘progressive patriotism’ is almost unique to the current generation of left-wing activists.

While the history of radical patriotism from the English Civil War, through the Chartists, to George Orwell is well-known, even the ‘New Left’ of the post-1945 era couched its appeals in terms of patriotism. The historian Jodi Burkett has revealed how the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s founding charter aspired to show Britain ‘a new way to maintain their leadership of the world’, through disarmament and moral authority. The National Union of Students criticised the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by white nationalists in Rhodesia not because of their racism, but because it was ‘disloyal’ to Britain, and urged British military intervention. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, which fought for the rights of Catholics and the Republican community, argued that they were ‘Her Majesty’s subjects and citizens in the UK’, and thus should be protected by British laws and traditions. Even the Anti-Apartheid Movement was an outspoken supporter of the Commonwealth and argued it was a chance for Britain to have a leading role within a ‘people’s empire’.

It is unimaginable to hear such language from their equivalents today, and this distance from the patriotism of most Britons – including BAME Britons as much as anyone else – goes some way to explain the current predicament of the Labour Party.

None of this means that the Labour Party needs to compromise on its current values of internationalism and liberalism – but we need to tell the truth about our history. Sociologists such as Satnam Virdee and historians like Marc Mulholland have detailed how nationalism and racism has consistently compromised the left, in Britain and elsewhere, since at least the turn of the Twentieth century. We need to ask hard questions about why that is, what the implications are, and what can be done about it, instead of reciting vague platitudes about the Spanish Civil War and the Battle of Cable Street.

A key reason for the recent travails of the British Left is that we can’t seem to accept our own history. All too often we feel the need to ascribe our values to people from a different time, and attempt to romanticise people and movements of the past who reflected the values of their time, not ours. Left-wing journalists, politicians, and activists need to be more honest in the future.

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