P. 28 Appeal for Liberal-Labour Agreement at Oxford . Mr. R. F. Harrod, the Christ Church Economist,on Need for Electoral Pact [1]

[ Oxford Mail , Monday, 10 October 1938, p. 1. © Oxford Mail]

10 October 1938

Mr. R. F. Harrod, the well-known Oxford economist, has sent the following appeal for a Liberal-Labour agreement in the Oxford City by-election to the prospective candidates representing the two parties:--

May I assume that we are in agreement on the four following propositions?

(1) It is urgently necessary that foreign policy should be directed to securing the safety and integrity of this country and the survival of democratic institutions here, and, as a means to that, to maintaining the closest and friendliest possible relations with all countries who share our interests and perils in the face of possible aggression.

(2) The policy of the present Government is not so directed.

(3) The issue of foreign policy at this present juncture transcends all others in importance.

(4) The best possible and, perhaps, the necessary pre-condition for the execution of this policy is a change of Government. [2]

I attach particular importance to the fourth point. The prestige of the present Government abroad has been so undermined by recent events, and its willingness and ability to execute a resolute policy in the face of threats so thrown open of doubt, that even in the event of its making overtures for closer collaboration for collective security, the countries approached might reasonably doubt whether they were worth responding to.

Strong lead needed

In the present shattered, dissipated, humiliated and disillusioned condition of the democratic forces in Europe, only a strong lead can put life and soul back into them; but the record of the present Government disabilitates it from giving such a lead.

A change of Government might make all the difference. In the first place, it would show that the British people were not wallowing in their temporary respite with their jaws open to swallow the next dose of humiliation and surrender. Secondly, foreign Chancelleries get to know in an extraordinarily short time, perhaps a matter of hours, when the Government of a country changes from a condition of weakness and division to one of firmness and resolution.

We have to consider, also, the probable reaction of Russia, on whom so much depends, to the accession of Labour to a share in our Government.

My contacts lead me to believe that if the opposition to the present Government were united it would win at a General Election in the near future. If it remains divided the prospect is more doubtful. [a]

The voters may feel, not necessarily correctly, that no one section of the opposition contains a sufficiently powerful personnel to be trusted with the conduct of affairs in these times. On the other hand, the sections taken together clearly contain a much more powerful personnel than that of the present Government.

Again, many voters are in incomplete sympathy with the internal programmes of any of the opposition sections and would be unwilling to vote for them if there were no prospect of their collaborating on the more important issue of foreign affairs.

I regard, therefore, an electoral pact as essential; but I am aware of the appalling difficulties in the way of it. I feel that in Oxford to-day we have a unique opportunity. This is the home of compromise and sweet reasonableness; party divisions are not embittered; moreover, we have time and a better atmosphere for conducting negotiations than exist in the flurry and fluster of an impending General Election.

Moreover, if agreement could be reached here, it might serve as an example for the rest of the country. And again, if the Oxford seat could be won by the opposition at this juncture it might have a notable international importance.

It would be a straw showing which way the stream was flowing in England. Such an event, small in itself, might be of great moment in the history of civilisation.

I therefore appeal most earnestly to you to move your committee to get into touch with the Liberal (Labour) committee.

I intervene in this matter as one completely ignorant of the previous history of your candidature on this occasion. My suggestion is that the two committees should take counsel in joint session and agree either

(a) that one of the present candidates should withdraw or

(b) that both candidates should withdraw and a third candidate be put forward with the full backing of both organisations.

Such a third candidate might adopt the label Democratic, it being understood that this label implied agreement with the four propositions advanced in the first section of this letter.

Stopping the rot

I am convinced that if the decision, reached in the common interest on whatever grounds, involved your personal self-effacement, you would not hesitate to comply.

Some will no doubt be inclined to the view that this action is impossible until there is an agreement on a national scale. Such a view would only be another example of the tendency to shirk responsibility and throw it on to other shoulders, which has been so characteristic of the downward slide of the democracies.

Let the rot be stopped in Oxford. My argument is that by example we might make a contribution to national action along the same lines.

I have one more word. Since in the event of Opposition victory Labour must be in a preponderating position, it is most desirable that the attitude of other sections should be made clear in advance. Members of other parties should be prepared to make some concessions.

On the other hand, they cannot be expected to adopt the full Labour programme; even if their consciences allowed them, such action would alienate too much electoral support, which is needed for the victory of the agreed foreign policy programme.

Labour concessions

Moreover, Labour might reasonably agree to suspend some items in their programme, especially those which, whatever their merits, are symbolic of social revolution and likely to excite strong party passion and bitter dissension in the country at this time when national unity is so important.

At the end of another five years the international scene will have greatly altered, and it may be possible for parties to resume their own alignments on internal issues. Or it may be that present lines of division will be by that time obsolete.

Careful study of "Labour's Immediate Programme" [3] leads me to suggest that Conservatives and Liberals who agree on the foreign issue might undertake to support this programme in full with two exceptions, nationalisation of the land and nationalisation of the Bank of England.

With regard to the former, however, it should be understood that the Government should have the compulsory powers necessary to execute a policy of agricultural reconstruction, the preservation of amenities and national defence. With regard to the latter, as an expert on currency and banking who believes that certain essential reforms are required, I judge the question of the nationalisation of the Bank to be profoundly unimportant; [4] but it excites violent, if unreasonable, opposition among the uninformed, and it would be excessively foolish to press for it.

But again, it should be understood that compulsory powers would be taken in the (unlikely) event of the Bank refusing to co-operate in the Government's credit and currency policy, designed to secure full utilisation of productive resources in the country and a stable purchasing power for the currency.

Finally, may I urge you not to await initiative from the other side? I am convinced that much arm is at present flowing from squeamishness on the part of leaders in the matter of mutual approach and understanding. [5] The urgent situation demands that all scruples of dignity and precedence be swept aside. [6]

  1. 1. Since the beginning of 1938, opponents to the National Government's appeasement policy were called from several quarters to form Popular Fronts against the dangers of fascism. Hundreds of Popular Front committees were formed nationwide, embracing people from all left and centre parties (see for instance A. Marwick, "Middle Opinion in the Thirties: Planning, Progress and Political `Agreement'", English Historical Review LXXIX:311, April 1964, and J. Fyrth, Britain, Fascism and the Popular Front, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985). On 29 September the government subscribed to the Munich agreement, accepting the division of the Sudeten in the hope that the concession to Hitler would eventually prevent Britain's involvement in war. This soon split the country's opinion: although the majority of people approved of Chamberlain's policy, many lamented British humiliation and weakness. Harrod was among those.

    Only a few days passed before Harrod wrote to Archibald Sinclair enquiring about the prospect of a general election and exploring the possibility of forming an electoral pact with other forces which, from both the right and the left, opposed dictatorships (letter 845 of 2 October 1938). Sinclair's reply was quite pessimistic, especially as to the co-operation of the Labour Party (letter 850 R of 6 October 1938). On 4 October, Harrod wrote to Churchill, suggesting that he approached Attlee with a view to an electoral pact which would see Churchill virtually in charge as he was "the biggest man in the lot". Harrod also discussed these matters with Lindemann, but met with "a massive iceberg of pessimism" (letter 847 to Churchill, 4 October 1938). Churchill thought Harrod's argument was "very silly" (see note 3 to letter 847 .)

    Nevertheless, a chance soon arose for Harrod to voice his opinions. The Oxford by-election--the first to be held after the Munich agreement--was approaching. With the prospect of a three-cornered battle it was quite clear that the Conservative candidate Quintin Hogg would be hard to beat. In September the Liberal candidate Ivor Davies offered to retire in favour of an independent progressive candidate, but Labour did not seem to take up the proposal. On 10 October the Oxford Mail published this letter by Harrod suggesting that the opposition, united under the banner of a strong foreign policy would win a general election, and urged that the Oxford opposition candidates withdrew in favour of a third candidate backed by both Labour and Liberal parties (copies of the letter were sent to the Liberal and Labour candidates on 8 October: see the diaries of the Labour candidate Gordon Walker, in GNWR 2/1/I, p. 5).

    2. Harrod's argument is fully in line with the popular front campaign, which was almost exclusively concerned with foreign policy (see D. Blaazer, The Popular Front and the Progressive Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, chap. 7). It should be noted, however, that in several other occasions Harrod also advocated policies related to domestic affairs: see, for instance, letter 855 , [jump to page] , and his article on "The Opposition. An Electoral Pact Needed" (Harrod 1938:23 , press item 30 ).

    3. The National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, Labour's Immediate Programme (1937). For Harrod's comments in the margin of his own copy see note 6 to press item 30 .

    4. For Harrod's opposite opinion in 1932 see "Central Banking" (essay 8 ), [jump to page] . For the position in 1934 see note 1 to letter 357 .

    5. Harrod approached himself the leaders of the Liberal and Labour parties and Churchill as a dissident conservative (see letters 845 and 851 to Sinclair, letters 854 and 861 from Dalton and letters 847 , 855 and 863 to Churchill), and eventually wrote an article for the Manchester Guardian urging a nationwide electoral pact ("The Opposition. An Electoral Pact Needed", Harrod 1938:23 , here as press item 30 ; see in particular note 1 for further references to the later correspondence relating to this issue).

    6. On 11 October the Oxford Mail published 8 letters from readers supporting Harrod's suggestion. On the same day, the Oxford Labour president, H. S. Richardson, expressed his personal agreement with Harrod's proposal, and revealed that many of his colleagues also agreed. On the same page Ivor R. M. Davies, prospective Liberal candidate, was interviewed, and declared that he though unlikely that Labour would offer such a pact. Nevertheless, a few days later A. D. Lindsay, the master of Balliol College, advanced his candidacy as an independent (see "Oxford By-Election. Suggested Candidature of Dr. Lindsay", The Times, 13 October 1938, p. 11), and after harsh negotiation--in which Harrod took part, mediating between Lindsay, Davies and the Labour headquarters--the other two candidates stood down in his favor, with only ten days to go before the polling date (on the negotiations see letter 854 from Dalton, and a letter from W. H. Gallup, the electoral agent of the Liberal candidate, who referred to Harrod on 15 October that Davies was willing to withdraw only if Lindsay withdrew his membership of the Labour Party--in HP VI-501-502/3).

    It should be noted that although Lindsay's candidacy was made public only at a later stage, the Labour candidate Gordon Walker was personally informed of such proposal on 8 October by a visit to his rooms at Christ Church by "R. H. S. C[rossman]" (on Crossman's role see note 1 to letter 861 ). Harrod's letter to the Oxford Mail should therefore be read in the perspective of a concerted action in favor of Lindsay, rather than of a simple proposal formulated in general terms. Mary Murray also knew of the proposed Lindsay candidacy (see Gordon Walker's diary in GNWR 2/1/I, pp. 1-2).

    Harrod became the chairman of the executive committee (see D. Scott, A. D. Lindsay. A Biography, Oxford: Blackwell, 1971, p. 245. Later, however, Harrod recollected that Lindsay took the business of the committee very much into his own hands: The Prof., 1959, p. 172), and as such gave the following opening speech at the inaugural meeting of the campaign:

"from the Chair at inaugural meeting of Oxford By-election"
  • My first duty is to explain very briefly the circumstances which have brought us here together this evening.

    The governing factor is the national emergency. The people of this country now find [their] lives and most precious liberties in grave jeopardy. The dangers which beset us are greater than any we [had] to face for decades, perhaps for centuries.

    We believe that this woeful situation in which we find ourselves is the fault of the present government. No more than five years ago this country was stronger in herself than any likely enemy, and buttressed also by a great system of collective security and strong friendships.

    In the course of five years this government was so slack and dilatory as to allow countries far poorer than ourselves in resources to get far [ahead] in armed strength, so that we now stand much weaker than our possible enemies. In the same five years that same govt. has allowed the system of collective security to melt away, so that if a direct attack was levelled at us we should be hard put to find outside support.

    [page 2 missing]

    Against the fanaticism we must revive in our hearts the love of those things, freedom of conscience, toleration, the rule of Law, democracy, believing in social regeneration, which have made this nation great for centuries. Let us raise our heads from the slough of despond and regain our faith in ourselves. Then our unity will be as [strong] as theirs, nay stronger because we know well that what we stand for is bound up with civilisation itself as it has developed in the Christian era.

    The one essential condition for such a rebirth of faith is that our government should share the faith. If and only if its pulse beats with a united nation can we save ourselves. Efficiency in diplomacy and defensive strength will follow as a matter of course.

    There is a chance that Oxford this week may be the scene of this rebirth of faith. Make no mistake, what we settle here does <+> affect ourselves alone. It will send out a ray of hope to the whole nation whose eyes are fixed on us. Nay more it will have a world-wide significance. Democratic forces, dejected, humiliated and dis-illusioned as they are will regain courage. Those who now think they can ride rough-shod over us will re-learn caution. The danger of [the] immediate will recede.

    Therefore we have a message of hope. How deeply I pit those who by the support of the government show that they believe this country can do no better than continue its downward slide.

    You will not wish one to go into the details of the negotiations during the last week which have led to this happy result. I am well acquainted with those details and prepared to answer any questions that may be put to me when our other business is over.

    Suffice it to say that the decision of the Liberal and Labour Parties not to run candidates enable[s] progressive and patriotic forces to unite in a single-minded opposition to the government.

    But before we turn our eyes to the future, there is one point about the past which should be made. Our cause stands deeply indebted to the work of two people, Mr. Gordon Walker and Mr. Ivor Davies. Mr. Gordon Walker has put in devoted work for many years to build up a Labour party in this city and he fought a splendid campaign in 1935. Mr. Ivor Davies has come to us more recently, but if his campaign has been lacking [length], it has made up for that by its remarkable intensity and vigour. The work of both these men will stand us in good stead and we are grateful for it.

    One final personal word. I cannot stand on a election platform in Oxford without thanking that great personality, and good friend of mine, Frank Gray. If anyone doubts my title to speak about his mind, I may refer to what [he] <kindly> said of me in his autobiography. [see note 1 to letter 64 R] I am convinced that were he with us to-day, no man would throw himself more whole-heartedly and joyfully into this campaign.

  • (AD, four pages out of five survive--page 2 is missing--, in HP VI-503; this documents bears the mark of having been drafted rather hurriedly; typos and misspellings are silently corrected throughout, alterations being indicated in square brackets). (For a report of the meeting, see "Mr. Lindsay Opens his Oxford Campaign", Manchester Guardian, 19 October 1938, p. 10; on collective security see for instance J. Haslam, The Soviet Union and the Struggle for Collective Security in Europe, London: Macmillan, 1984)

    During Lindsay's campaign, Harrod and a number of senior members of the university signed a manifesto declaring that they "do not own any single political allegiance, but do advocate the candidature of the master of Balliol, who is not standing as a party candidate." This was a reply to a letter to the press by other senior members of the university stating that as Lindsay recently retired from a "notably successful" vice-chancellorship, there was the danger that it might be thought that his opposition to the government candidate may command more support among senior members of the university than in fact it does ("The Oxford Election", The Times, 20 October 1938, p. 15). The manifesto of Lindsay's supporters was also signed by W. Beveridge, master of University College: C. M. Bowra, warden of Wadham; C. M. Charvasse, master of St. Peter's Hall; E. S. Cohn, fellow of Brasenose; B. E. Gwyer, principal of St. Hugh's; R. H. Hodgkin, provost of Queen's; Richard Livingstone, president of Corpus Christi College; J. A. R. Munro, rector of Lincoln College; J. A. Paton, White's professor of moral philosophy; H. H. Price, Wykenham professor of logic; Michael E. Sadler, formerly master of University College; Gilbert Ryle, of Christ Church; and N. V. Sidgwick, fellow of Lincoln College (Manchester Guardian, "Liberal Lead to Electors. University Members Views", 21 October 1938, p. 12; The Times, "Issue Joined at Oxford. Conduct of Foreign Policy. A Day of Manifestos", 21 October 1938, p. 7).

    The poll took place on 27 October. Lindsay lost (for the results and Harrod's evaluation see letter 868 ), but Harrod was not discouraged: he insisted on approaching politicians from various quarters and wrote an article for the Manchester Guardian advocating an electoral pact on national basis: see, for more details, note 1 to press item 30 (Harrod, "The Opposition. An Electoral Pact Needed", 1938:23 ).

    1. a. Bold characters in the original.


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