When the decision to develop the first British thermonuclear device – the so-called H-bomb – was announced in 1955 Nye Bevan had led a revolt of 57 Labour MPs when Labour’s front bench gave the Tories their backing. Communists applauded this, for they stood for “the universal banning of the atom and hydrogen bombs, with international inspection and control; and for substantial reduction, by international agreement, of all other weapons and armed forces”. All this was to be seen in the context of an independent foreign policy, also. [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)] The prospect for adopting a unilateral step in the renunciation of nuclear weapons was a step yet to come for the vast majority of progressives beyond pure pacifists.
As Communists saw it, British foreign policy relied on building up a myth regarding the supposedly enormous Soviet military capacity as an extension of its supposed in-built determination to expand its territorial influence. Yet, in proportion to its population, Britain actually spent “more on its armed forces than any other country in the world. The weight of expenditure on the armed forces of Britain is much greater per thousand of the population than that of the Soviet Union. This fact, which exposes the falsity of all capitalist propaganda about the huge arms expenditure and war preparations of the Soviet Union, has been brought to light by U.N. economic experts.” [Daily Worker 2nd June 1951]
Failing to find a measurable comparison, in an economic survey of Europe, the UN experts estimated how many human-years per thousand of the population each country was in fact spending. While Britain’s war expenditure for 1951 was 82 human-years per 1,000 inhabitants, and that of the United States worked out at 74 human-years, in the Soviet Union the comparable figure was only 49 human-years. Even more striking were the differences in arms expenditure between NATO countries and countries of eastern Europe. By this measure, war expenditure jumped in the United States from 30 man-years per thousand in¬habitants in 1950 to 74 in 1951, and in Britain from 47 in 1950 to 82 in 1951; in the Soviet Union it only increased from 43 to 49 over the same period. The report of the U.N. economic experts warns that for some countries of Western Europe the total of war expenditure will be raised to around 10% of net national income, and in Britain the share will be even larger, even though such nations “are not well placed to carry the additional claims of rearmament.
Thus, issues of peace and war were increasingly becoming critical. The United States had been agitating ever since the Korean War for international agreement on the rearming of West German military forces. Its promotion of a separate state for the segments of Germany occupied by Britain, France, and the USA was then seen by progressives as a highly aggressive act. To be clear: the responsibility for the division of Germany and the erection of a physical barrier in the shape of the Berlin Wall, however awful that was, lay squarely with the imperialist comfortableness with playing with fire – or more precisely with war. Communists argued that the division of Germany should be ended. “The Four Powers should meet, and in consultation with East and West Germany arrange for the holding of free elections throughout Germany to establish a single all-German Government.” [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)]
A parliamentary motion demanding talks between the four main wartime allies, now the major powers, before the final decision to rearm West Germany was put by Sidney Silverman (Nelson and Colne), Tom Driberg (Maldon), Harold Davies (Leek) and Michael Stewart (Fulham East), all MPs who had already had the Labour whip withdrawn due to their earlier vote against German rearmament. In support of the dissident MPs, and the wider issue, thousands gathered to bobby MPs on Tuesday January 25th 1955 against German rearmament. The National Assembly of Women’s especially brought a large contingent of working-class women from across the country. The Communist Party and a few close allies had been the main mobilising force but many Constituency Labour Parties and trade union branches joined in.
Bilateral agreement between the major parliamentary parties saw British support for German rearmament but it was by no means the major issue in political life. The Conservative Party had begun to worry about a need to seriously redefine its image. There had been speculation that Churchill, then still Tory prime minister, was very ill when, in early 1955 this was publicly conceded. Anthony Eden became the new Tory leader and thus prime minister in April. The government brought in a special tax cutting budget on April 19th.
There was widespread talk of disunity at the top in Labour and the fact that the Tories could make much of PLP support for Tory economic policy was highly damaging to the party. Tory chancellor R A B Butler and Labour’s shadow chancellor, Gaitskell, found their names linked in the phrase ‘Butskellism’, denoting the consensus politics favoured by Labour’s right wing. Also, Labour’s leadership was very elderly; nine members of the Shadow Cabinet were over the pensionable age. These factors, along with the poor state of organisation inside the Labour Party and the emergence of television, ensured Labour’s defeat at the election when it came.