What was your original political formation? What special influences were at work?
Iwas brought up in a liberal family, but when I went to Oxford in the year 1931 everybody was naturally obsessed with the whole economic crisis of the time and the student population was travelling fast leftwards. I didn’t travel so fast then, but immediately I left Oxford I went to work in Liverpool and it was my first intimate sight of industrial England. It was there that I joined the Labour Party. I joined the Left of the Party right from the beginning and I’ve stayed there ever since.
I fought the 1935 Election as a candidate in Monmouth, which was a hopeless seat, and I came up to London afterwards to try to become a journalist. I’d been working in a shipping firm in Liverpool, but when I came to London the dominant issue was the mass unemployment throughout the country. Very soon
What about intellectual influences on your political development?
Of all the socialist journalists that influenced me, I think that H. N. Brailsford had the most powerful effect. I think he was the best of all the socialist journalists writing at the time, and I still think he’s the best socialist journalist of the century. Property or Peace was the title of a book that he wrote in about 1935. I went and read most of the books that he’d written earlier, and when he’d been Editor of the New Leader, and I got to know him somewhat, and so he had a very considerable influence upon me. I read Hazlitt a great deal (inspired by my father) and though I don’t suppose Hazlitt could be described as a socialist, I think that his outlook on politics was the right one. He still has a considerable influence on what I believe. Later when I came to London I started reading Marx and the orthodox socialist classics—I read Karl Marx with Barbara Castle, and I hope we both derived benefit from it. I then went to work on Tribune when it was founded in 1937. William Mellor was the Editor, Brailsford, Bevan, and Cripps were the people who ran it, and I learned a considerable amount from their attitudes.
What was your formative political experience?
The plight of the Labour Party in the thirties. People sometimes forget how deep was the disaster which the Labour Party suffered in 1931. The outward sign of it was the drop in the Labour Party membership in the House of Commons to about 50, but even more spectacular was the collapse in Union membership. At the end of the First World War Union membership was up to about 8 million or more. After 1931 Trade Union membership sank to lower than 4 million. Until just before the outbreak of war, the unions were fighting a rearguard action against wage cuts and the depression of the standard of living of their people, and official unions were participating very little in the protection of the unemployed. But the most absorbing activity of the time was the organization of the unemployed, and to a great extent the official trade union movement cut itself off from that. So I think that all that has a decisive influence on what I thought afterwards. When the Labour movement in this country is scattered, very serious events follow—the standard of living goes down. Although there have been many awkward moments, and tragic moments, in the period since 1945, there has been nothing comparable to the agony that the Labour movement of this country had to endure after 1931.