The Common Wealth Party: c1940-1950

‘The Story of Common Wealth, 1942-1993’, was written by John Banks, for many years secretary of Common Wealth. The writer’s copy was accepted by the Peace Museum, Bradford.   

Common Wealth existed to ‘inspire, enhearten and reinvigorate’ the Labour Party

The Story of Common Wealth, 1942-1993. is a valuable historical record, which could fill in gaps in academic research in several fields. Its aims, activities and ideology would also interest today’s PPE students. Party documents have been stored in the University of Sussex (Special Collections) at the prompting of Angus Calder (son of Ritchie) who wrote a thesis there on Common Wealth and a copy of the draft of John Banks’ book is lodged with the Peace Museum in Bradford.

Common Wealth’s membership ranged from soldiers fighting in the trenches to  many well-known academics, politicians and writers, including: Edward Hulton (publisher of Picture Post) – Tom Driberg – John MacMurray – Phyllis Bottome – Prof. C.E.M.Joad – Kingsley Martin – Michael Foot – Ritchie Calder – Lady Violet Bonham Carter – Konni Zilliacus – Peter Thorneycroft – A. W. Blunt (Socialist Bishop of Bradford) – Stanley Unwin (publisher) – Victor Gollancz – Storm Jameson – H.G. Wells – Ian Mikardo – Aneurin Bevan – Oswald Mosley – Ernest Bader – Ethel Mannin – Clovis Maksoud – Alexander Thynne (Marquis of Bath) – Geoffrey Carnall – Gwynfor Evans – Bayard Rustin – Martin Buber – Will Elliott – Wilfred Wellock – Fenner Brockway – Christopher Mayhew – Honor Balfour – Dafydd Williams – John Papworth.

* * *

Common Wealth had a substantial membership in the serving forces during the war and afterwards, with correspondence outlining their hopes and dreams for a better Britain. For six years its headquarters – and that of Common Wealth Publishing – were at 4 Gower Street in London. In 1948 its work was continued in Hampstead and Chorlton, Manchester. It was formed when the 1941 Committee, launched by J.B.Priestley, merged with Forward March (formerly Our Struggle) formed in 1940 and named after the book of that name by Sir Richard Acland.

Our Struggle proclaimed:

We are fighting to get a better world, and that we will NOT go back to the old world we knew after the last war . . . to the world of unemployment queues . . . the world in which from birth to death “the rich” and “the poor” lead utterly different lives. The little group of men who happen to have got to the top shall not be allowed to keep things all in their own hands, to shut us out of any control over our own lives, and to preserve scarcity in their own interests when we could produce plenty in the interests of all. 

The first overt evidence of collaboration was the issuing of its Declaration:

GREATER EQUALITY of work, payment, sacrifice and opportunity as between soldiers and civilians, shareholders, directors and workmen, men and women 

TRANSFER TO COMMON OWNERSHIP of services, industries and companies in which managerial inefficiency or the profit motive is harming the war effort. This will increase the war effort and will be a token of the post-war new deal, in which common ownership of all the great resources of the country must become the fundamental basis of our whole economic life. 

REFORM OF THE GOVERNMENT SUPPLY ORGANISATIONS to put them entirely in the hands of men who have no financial interests in the commodities or industries they are controlling. 

ESTABLISHMENT OF EFFECTIVE WORKS COUNCILS in every production unit, including management, technicians and workers. 

ELIMINATION OF RED TAPE in the Civil service – where promotion should always be by ability. 

MAXIMUM FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION subject only to the demands of security, in the strictest sense of that word. 

BRITISH INITIATIVE IN PLANNING AN OFFENSIVE GRAND STRATEGY, unifying land, sea, and air forces, and the political warfare of all the Allies, and directed to the mobilisation of all peoples for war by mass resistance and revolution. Immediate aid for our Russian allies is essential. 

REPUDIATION OF ANY POLICY OF VENGEANCE against the ordinary people of enemy counties once they have completely overthrown the Fascist regime. 

PRELIMINARY POST-WAR PLANS for the provision of full and free education, employment and a civilised living standard foe everyone. Such plans for Britain must be integrated with those for word-wide relief and reconstruction, which become our peace aims and the basis of our political warfare.

Though Common Wealth confined itself in later years to political education, for several years it was involved with electoral politics.

Members of Parliament

Richard Acland (Barnstaple 1942-1945)

Vernon Bartlett (Bridgwater 1942-1945)

John Loverseed (Eddisbury 1943-1945)

Hugh Lawson (Skipton 1944-1945)

Ernest Millington (Chelmsford 1945-1946)

In 1945 it polled the highest number of votes of all the minority parties. At this time there were 160 active branches. A year after celebrating its 50th anniversary in 1992, many of its members having died, it disbanded.

There were two Common Wealth strands of thought: one was that it existed to ‘inspire, enhearten and reinvigorate’ the Labour Party – which many Common Wealth members later joined or rejoined, the other that it had its own distinctive role, based on the ‘unique, indeed naïve notion that political action should have a moral basis’. 

Their slogan was “Common Wealth asks not WILL IT PAY but IS IT RIGHT?”

Many events and combinations include interaction with Fenner Brockway, the National Peace Council, the international Congress of Peoples against Imperialism, the Netherlands Third Way peace movement: De Derde Weg, CND and the Committee of 100. The text records:

  • strong links with some Chinese groups,
  • effective opposition and frequent silencing of Oswald Mosley’s fascists and
  • picketing of the Savoy Hotel which was then making very low-paid people work in squalid conditions.

Although the party no longer stood candidates at parliamentary level, a number of individual members stood for the Ecology/Green Party, whilst others became local councillors. 

Common Wealth later became associated with the burgeoning ecology movement and then with regional organisations, including the Campaign for the North, based in Hebden Bridge, Wessex regionalists, the SNP, an Orkney and Shetland group, Plaid Cymru, Mebyon Kernow and the Movement for Middle England.





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