H E more one reflects on the nature of the third successive defeat of the Labour Party in this country—for it was that defeat rather than the Conservative victory which was significant—the more one realises that we are bringing a whole political era to a close in Europe.
For more than a century the undercurrent of social politics in the capitalist world has been the challenge of the social reformers, whether Marxists, democratic-socialist, liberal or Christian. This challenge was against the pattern of "two nations" in every country: the nation of the rich and the nation of the poor.
This challenge was led by a great variety of idealists. Some of them believed with Marx that the movement was predetermined in the form of inevitable class-war. Most perhaps combined a moral passion for social justice with the sense of the inevitability taught by Marxism. Others were moved by purer Christian or at least genuine moral ideals,
But they all owed their success to materialistic, rather than idealistic factors. The weight of numbers was on the side of the vastly greater "nation" of the
poor. The underpaid and. too often, unemployed masses either supported revolutionary leaders who dictated a new social order or recorded their votes for the Left as democratic suffrage widened.
LOOKING back, the surprising thing has been the slowness of that Lefiward drive —fear of what might come probably being a main factor in the resistance to what seemed to be a fated movement.
The economic disruptions caused by the two world wars were a potent factor in shaping this seemingly inevitable movement which between the wars took diverse courses: Communism or near Communism; Right totalitarianism (which was only a variant of Communism); and democracy, more and more threatened by internal disruptions and by socialism.
The immediate effect of the second world war was to give political power practically everywhere to parties of the Left or to Centre (often Christian) with strong inclinations to social reform.
It looked as though the pattern was set for the rest of the century.
Most surprisingly it has now been completely reversed, not only in Britain but in most of Europe and in the Commonwealth.
Why has it been reversed? For the very simple reason that unemployment has virtually come to an end and that more and more of the "workers" of yesterday have become secure members of the community, often in a much better financial and welfare position than the lower ranges of the old middleclass.
In other words, post-war political and social history is teaching us that the decisive factors have not been either the idealism of leaders of socialreform or the economic realism of the Right and Centre parties, but the simple fact that when men are unemployed and earning insufficient wages, they will vote for parties of the left, but when they are secure and wellpaid, they will find themselves coming over to the side of the parties of the Right.
THIS fact, and its significance, should have been obvious from the first, but in
this country at least it has needed three increasing Conservative electoral victories, each of which was fundamentally against all expectation, to make it clear.
Thus it was not for nothing that the recent General Elections were fought and won on purely materialistic considerations. In parts of the country where everyone was doing well, the Conservatives did far better than even they expected. In parts of the country where things were not so good, Labour retained or improved its position. And very many chose the Liberal Party (especially where it seemed perfectly safe to do so) as a conscience funkhole. The 1959 General Elections should be dubbed in history the "I'm all right, Jack" elections.
If this is basically a correct analysis of what really happened, and if indeed it is true that the century of social reform, moving towards an era of materialistic well-being, has for its real basis a mere change of voting from Left to Right as unemployment changes to full employment and low wages change to high wages, it cannot be said to present a very pretty picture of the twentieth century in Britain and Europe.
Happily, as inquests get going, there are signs of better things to come. For it is clear that on purely materialistic grounds there is little chance of a decisive swing against Conservatism so long as a well-distributed national prosperity continues. Parties which have any hope, whether separately or in coalition, of winning power will have to nurse the latent idealism that lies deep in most of us and appeal to it.
FOR the true Christian that idealism rests on a deep sense on the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all men in Christ. Unhappily, such language might well sound hypocritical if adopted by a political party. But what derives from it should not.
We need to arouse and spread to the masses something of the idealism for social justice which in fact gave the drive to many of the leaders of the 19th and 20th century — and today we must interpret social justice in a rather different sense.
Men, in fact, must replace the masses, men offered a political programme which, if implemented, will increase responsibility, give the opportunity of enterprise and allow for the risk inherent in all truly human action. They must he taught and be afforded the opportunity of positive freedom — freedom to serve, not only their own countrymen, but the good and decent life throughout the world.
The opposition of the future to the established party of the successful Right must be a party prepared to denounce the materialism of the past and see in money, leisure, education and culture the opportunity for making life better and fuller throughout the different sections of the people.
Whether this be done by Liberals or by Liberals united with Labour it may well be that it will take many years to secure electoral victory. But meanwhile such a party could, if it is really honest in its purpose, derive consolation from shaming the party in power into rising above the narrow, self-regarding conception, virtually universal today, of " I'm all right, Jack ".