In 1914-18 Britain, to protect its world interests and prevent Germany dominating Europe, had thrown all the resources of the country and empire into the First World War. Emerging triumphant, but weaker financially and militarily, Britain found itself losing markets and influence to the US – who gradually supplanted Britain as the dominant western power.
Britain’s armed forces spent the time between the two world wars mainly in their traditional role of policing the Empire. New forms of warfare were used to keep British rule in place and aircraft were found to be cheap and effective weapons for machine-gunning and gassing ‘rebels’ and dropping bombs on towns and hamlets ‘to teach the natives a lesson.’
Before the Second World War many members of the British ruling class had been virulently anti-communist and pro-fascist. This included various members of the Royal family, as well as sections of the media, aristocracy and big business. They even turning a blind eye to the overthrow of the elected republican government in Spain, by a group of right wing army officers led by General Franco.
Many progressives and militants in Britain and other countries had volunteered to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. And when Franco won, with the help of Hitler and Mussolini, they felt that fascism could have been checked if the establishments in Europe had opposed it.
Ruling class opinion in Britain began to change, however, when it became clear that unchecked fascism threatened parts of the empire and even the old order in Europe itself. So, just over two decades after the end of the ‘War to end all wars,’ Britain and the Empire became embroiled in another global conflict, this time against German Nazi expansionism and its Japanese ally in the far east.
In the Second World War, imperialist countries again used their modern technology of warfare against each other with devastating effect, as this conflict became the first conventional modern war in which more civilians than combatants were killed.
The Common Wealth Party
Throughout the Second World War Britain’s hierarchy remained intact and the armed forces continued with the officer class in control. Many militant anti-fascists, however, had joined up to fight Hitler and Nazism – and some were not inclined to trust those in authority.
Instead, they did their best to subvert establishment and officer class views, circulating books like Jack London’s ‘People Of The Abyss’ and Robert Tressell’s ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.’ They believed fascism had to be fought, but wanted a more democratic army and country – and a world free from totalitarianism and war.
Based on similar ideas a new political party, Common Wealth, was established in Britain. It disapproved of the war time electoral truce between the main political parties and advocated a left and progressive coalition at Westminster around a programme of ‘Common Ownership, Vital Democracy and Morality in Politics.’ They were backed by some in the Labour Party and the Trade Unions and secured enough working class support to win a few by-elections.
In 1942 Sir William Beveridge produced his famous report, about the need for a ‘welfare state’ that would care for people ‘from the cradle to the grave.’ Social planning was seen as the means to build on the solidarity forged by battle and overcome the ‘five giants’ – ‘Want, Ignorance, Squalor, Idleness and Disease.’ The Beveridge Report was supported by the Common Wealth Party, who demanded its immediate implementation.
The British Army in Egypt
In 1943 the British Army in Egypt had a large base camp at Maadi, on the outskirts of Cairo, where allied reserve forces would regularly be joined by front line troops on leave from the western desert and North Africa. Many of the men were under canvas and some were reported to be bored and prone to spend their time in brothels or drinking dens.
Officers, especially those responsible for welfare and education, encouraged the troops to attend musical events and other entertainments instead. These, however, proved unpopular, so it was then suggested that discussion groups be organised instead. These did prove successful and were rapidly progressed into a more formal structure based on the parliament at Westminster that met in an old cinema called the Concert Chamber.
The anti-fascist radicals, who had joined the forces to fight Nazism, had encouraged discussion groups because they saw them as a way to express their views and win support at them from their fellow soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Soon the ‘Cairo Forces Parliament’ at Maadi was regularly attracting hundreds of troops to debates. A Speaker was appointed and a general election was declared at which the Tories got 17 votes and the Liberals 38. All the other votes went to Common Wealth and Labour and they formed a left coalition, which had a large majority. They then started to propose motions that started to disturb the senior officers and over time the Forces Parliament became so radical that the officers eventually decided to suppress it.
The Officer Class Close it Down
This happened in 1944, when Leo Abse, who later was to become a Labour MP, was serving with the Royal Air Force in Egypt and he moved a motion at the Forces Parliament that advocated the nationalisation, without compensation, of the land and banks. The officer in charge of army education, Brigadier Chrystal, then moved to close it all down.
Many years later, a New Zealand ‘Kiwi’ veteran recalled how it happened:
‘At the April session, 600 servicemen packed into the Concert Chamber. Word had spread that the brigadier intended putting an end to it all. Before the Speaker could bring the house to order, in marched the brigadier, a phalanx of military police with him. First he ordered all press representatives out. Then he declared that the current debates were being held in clear contravention of King’s Regulations. The meetings were to be dissolved, forbidden and supressed and all cables or letters referring to them would be forthwith subject to censorship.
One by one, each of the party leaders, Labour, Commonwealth, Liberal, Tory, stood and condemned Brigadier Chrystal. The Speaker said it was totally against British tradition for a standing army to seize power from the parliamentary estate. He put the matter to a vote and the house condemned the Brigadier’s action 600-1, the Brigadier’s vote being the only dissent. The Speaker now declared the Brigadier’s ban could only apply to subsequent sessions and by another big majority, the banks were duly nationalised.’ [http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10879584]
The leading members of the Cairo Forces Parliament were then detained and quickly posted to other far off areas of war operations. But the story did not end there, because afterwards in the British Army in India there were reports of two other Forces Parliaments being set up at Mhow and Deolaili. There were also many discussions opened up at camps, on transport ships and any locations open to such activity.
It was activity of this sort that helped secure the huge ex-services vote for Labour after the war had ended. Common Wealth had ceased as a party by then and most of its members had joined Labour – and this party, now with numerous ex-forces MPs, went on to implement many of Beveridge’s recommendations and bring in the NHS and the Welfare State.
Soldiers’ Democratic Spirit
The British Army emerged from the Second World War highly mechanised with a formidable array of weaponry. It had helped defeat fascism and liberated countries, but ironically, it was then returned to its role as an Empire guard – keeping other peoples’ countries in bondage.
At the end of the war, in many parts of the Empire, there occurred a series of ‘protests’ and ‘strikes’ by British soldiers, sailors and airmen. Although often brought on by the slow rate of demob, many men also objected to the colonial role these Second World War veterans were now being ordered to fulfil. This democratic spirit lived on for a while among the troops, but was gradually extinguished by carrot and stick style concessions and repression.
From 1939 to 1945 Britain’s armed forces had been filled with valiant combatants who had fought Nazism because they found it repugnant, and to stop a foreign power from occupying their country. For a time, during the period of the Cairo Forces Parliament, a ‘peoples army’ had threated to emerge, but in the end the control of the ruling class was re-established.
Nonetheless, we must not let this story slip from our minds, or history, because, in a scenario that echoed the times of Cromwell and the Agitators and Levellers, rank and file members of Britain’s armed forces had again strived to bring a measure of democracy to both the army and the country – and their deeds should live on in our memories.