Meltzer: ‘Ministerial Inefficiency’

By Albert Meltzer
War Commentary, October 1940
”World War – Cold War: Selections from the Anarchist Journals War Commentary & Freedom 1939-1950″

The inefficiency of Ministers used as a slogan for victory? It sounds almost incredible, and maybe it would be in another country, but it is a fact today in Britain. The Tory leaders are thoroughly discredited: Chamberlain has been an omen of disaster to the Conservative Party, and his followers, local Tory MPs who were full of praise for Hitler and Mussolini, would have no chance in the country if – as is not now possible – a General Election came. The man-in-the-street would be very likely to agree now with the statement of one Conservative MP some years ago: ”The Blackshirts have what the Conservatives need” – not dictatorship but Brixton!

This is shown by the phenomenal success of the book Guilty Men. It had a very good send-off by being unofficially banned, but it created a sensation apart from that. Guilty Men tells the familiar tale of a complacent Chamberlain leading a Hitler-loving Conservative solid majority in the days of Munichism. More and more people are coming to recognise this fact: yet, conversely, the Government does not lose in popularity. The antodote to all criticism is: ‘But now it is all different’. A Chamberlain is out, a Churchill is in. Apart from Mr Churchill looking more like a bulldog than his colleague and the more important fact that his support and warmhearted defence of fascism under Signor Mussolini has had a chance to be forgotten while Mr Chamberlain’s visits to Munich are too fresh in the public mind, there is little difference. But the man-in-the-street is fooled: he is led to believe we have suffered some defeats because of inefficient Mr Chamberlain, and now are to be led to victory, via the change of Prime Minister, by Mr Churchill.

Even now, with the change of Ministry to ‘efficient’ Ministers, criticism of them has to continue. Mr Duff Cooper went into office in a blaze of glory, having made a brilliant speech crying out to Chamberlain, ‘Go, go, in heaven’s name, go!’ It was a dangerous speech, though, for now everyone is crying that at Mr Duff Cooper. True Mr Cooper has to defend the ridiculous methods of the Ministry of Information, sure Minister-breaker, since the Ministry can only give official policy, while the nation wants the soothing syrup of Transport House variety, the ‘better land after the war’ type, which the rulers may promise but cannot specify too closely. Also, he has had to tread on the corns of neewspapermen by censorship of news – always a risky business! But apart from that, what significance has Mr Cooper’s inefficiency? True, propaganda could be a great force in the war, and he is retarding it; but no more than any other member of his class would.

The reason seems clear: the Cabinet may be likened to the proverbial Russian sledge, after which the wolves of public opinion run. The mother on the sledge has to throw off her babies one by one: a hard parting, but inevitable, anything to allay the wolves. And this mother is distiinctly hard-hearted and will throw them all off if she can maintain her position on the sledge. Some of the babies, though, are lusty brats and run after the sledge crying, ‘Shame!’ – e.g. Mr Hore-Belisha!

The ruling class can well afford one or two Ministers as a burnt-offering if it can stop the public from thinking and acting thereby.

At the moment, there is some denunciation of Sir John Anderson, and a demand that he should resign, because of the suppression of liberty underneath him, and also because of the internment of so many refugees either anti-Nazi or friendly to the allied cause. But we are not concerned with whether Sir John would resign or not: the question is whether such practices would stop if we had a new Home Secretary. The agitation must be against the offence, not the individual acting as figure-head or held responsible.

In the trade unions, it is the same: agitation against any particular person sometimes leads to their being replaced by better men, who in turn, because of the method of trade union bureaucracy, become equally reactionary. The introduction of Labour leaders into the Government has not altered the character of the war: Mr Attlee, who before had led the demand for a statement of peace aims, once Lord Privy Seal, had to declare that the time for stating peace aims was ‘inopportune’. Labour MPs led the demand for such things as nationalisation of mines; now a Labour Minister of Mines has to state that this cannot be done. So it seems that change of Ministers does not lead to a change of methods. But the agitation against inefficiency leads to a lessening of the struggle against the system, and that, of course, is what the ruling class want.

It might be stated that there is an interesting excepttion to the rule that inefficiency against individual Ministers is largely inspired by a desire to avoid essential criticism rather than to face actual criticism. That is the wide-spread belief in this country that Britain is inefficient, too lenient, too humane, etc. which is, of course, fostered with the intention of making the people believe that we must be less lenient, less humane, etc. If it were stated bluntly – ‘we must be intolerant, we must be inhumane’, etc. – it is doubtful that the British people would agree. But they are told that we are notoriously lenient, ridiculously humane, and are likely to remain so, and the result is support for the reverse action to be adopted. Then, when the news comes out, the reaction is, ‘Well, it’s about time too!’, or the like.

It is, by the way, a remarkable illusion that inefficiency does not exist in Germany – a thing which all good patriots here believe. Why this illusion I cannot fathom: it may have arisen as a means of exhorting people to do their bit, but it has never been very true.

In the last war the myth of German efficiency rose to an alarming extent, but was grossly exaggerated. Hasek has portrayed the corrupt and decaying Austro-Hungarian Army for ever in the Good Soldier Schweik, while as to the German Army in the last war, Bernard Shaw – who has written on everything – pronounced the truest words, in the mouth of a member of the ruling class, who says ”if the British public knew that I had said it, I should at once be hounded down as a pro-German”. It is:

”Our people have for some reason made up their minds that the German War Office is everything that our War Office is not… my own view… is that the German War Office is no better than any other War Office.
I found that opinion on my observation of the character of my brother-in-law; one of whom, by the way, is on the German General Staff.” (Augustus Does His Bit, 1917)

Today, of course, the Nazis have got rid of the aristocratic Junkers: whereas we retain the aristocratic junk. Nevertheless, today in Germany the State is in control: and the State, in its totalitarian stage, though it eliminates capitalist waste and oligarchic inefficiency, creates bureaucracy and its attendant ‘red tape’. When we get much better information on how Germany wages this war (which will only, perhaps, be afterwards), we shall very probably see that Germany has not been winning victories because of the superior efficiency of Nazism, but because the bourgeoisie of the west are fearful, and therefore timid. They fear that a major war of destruction will ruin their property, and expediate social revolution: the Nazis, representatives of a ‘have not’ nation against the ‘have’ imperialisms, and who have deluded at least themselves that revolution is impossible, for they are the revolution, have no such trepidations, and so take the initiative and the drive. They err in underrating social revolution, for it is becoming ever more of an imminence, and will sweep away both them and their bourgeois ‘sisters under their skins’.

A. M.

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