As I Please
Tribune, 15 November 1946
the clouds, most of them much larger and dirtier than a mans hand, come blowing up
over the political horizon, there is one fact that obtrudes itself over and over again.
This is that the Governments troubles, present and future, arise quite largely from
its failure to publicize itself properly.
People are not told with sufficient clarity what is happening,
and why, and what may be expected to happen in the near future. As a result, every
calamity, great or small, takes the mass of the public by surprise, and the Government
incurs unpopularity by doing things which any government, of whatever colour, would have
to do in the same circumstances.
Take one question which has been much in the news lately but has
never been properly thrashed out, the immigration of foreign labour into this country.
Recently we have seen a tremendous outcry at the T.U.C. conference against allowing Poles
to work in the two places where labour is most urgently needed in the mines and on
It will not do to write this off as something 'got up by Communist sympathizers, nor
on the other hand to justify it by saying that the Polish refugees are all Fascists who strut
about wearing monocles and carrying brief-cases.
The question is, would the attitude of the British trade unions
be any friendlier if it were a question, not of alleged Fascists but of the admitted
victims of Fascism?
For example, hundreds of thousands of homeless Jews are now
trying desperately to get to Palestine. No doubt many of them will ultimately succeed, but
others will fail. How about inviting, say, 100,000 Jewish refugees to settle in this
country? Or what about the Displaced Persons, numbering nearly a million, who are dotted
in camps all over Germany, with no future and no place to go, the United States and the
British Dominions having already refused to admit them in significant numbers? Why not
solve their problems by offering them British citizenship?
It is easy to imagine what the average Britons answer would
be. Even before the war, with the Nazi
persecutions in full swing, there was no popular support for the idea of allowing large
numbers of Jewish refugees into this country: nor was there any strong move to admit the
hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who had fled from Franco to be penned up
behind barbed wire in France.
For that matter, there was very little protest against the
internment of the wretched German refugees in 1940. The comments I most often overheard at
the time were What did they want to come here for? and Theyre only
after our jobs.
The fact is that there is strong popular feeling in this country
against foreign immigration. It arises from simple xenophobia, partly from fear of
undercutting in wages, but above all from the out-of-date notion that Britain is
overpopulated and that more population means more unemployment.
Actually, so far from having more workers than jobs, we have a
serious labour shortage which will be accentuated by the continuance of conscription, and
which will grow worse, not better, because of the ageing of the population.
Meanwhile our birthrate is still frighteningly low, and several
hundred thousand women of marriageable age have no chance of getting husbands. But how
widely are these facts known or understood?
In the end it is doubtful whether we can solve our problems
without encouraging immigration from Europe. In a tentative way the Government has already
tried to do this, only to be met by ignorant hostility, because the public has not been
told the relevant facts beforehand. So also with countless other unpopular things that
will have to be done from time to time.
But the most necessary step is not to prepare public opinion for
particular emergencies, but to raise the general level of political understanding: above
all, to drive home the fact, which has never been properly grasped, that British
prosperity depends largely on factors outside Britain.
This business of publicizing and explaining itself is not easy
for a Labour Government, faced
by a press which at bottom is mostly hostile. Nevertheless, there are other ways of
communicating with the public, and Mr Attlee and his colleagues might well pay more
attention to the radio, a medium which very few politicians in this country have ever
is one question which at first sight looks both petty and disgusting but which I should
like to see answered. It is this: In the innumerable hangings of war criminals which have
taken place all over Europe during the past few years, which method has been followed
the old method of strangulation, or the modern, comparatively humane method which
is supposed to break the victims neck at one snap?
A hundred years ago or more, people were hanged by simply hauling
them up and letting them kick and struggle until they died, which might take a quarter of
an hour or so. Later the drop was introduced, theoretically making death instantaneous,
though it does not always work very well.
In recent years, however, there seems to have been a tendency to
revert to strangulation. I did not see the news film of the hanging of the German war
criminals at Kharkov, but the descriptions in the British press appeared to show that the
older method was used. So also with various executions in the Balkan countries.
The newspaper accounts of the Nuremberg hangings were ambiguous.
There was talk of a drop, but there was also talk of the condemned men taking ten or
twenty minutes to die. Perhaps, by a typically Anglo-Saxon piece of compromise, it was
decided to use a drop but to make it too short to be effective.
It is not a good symptom that hanging should still be the
accepted form of capital punishment in this country. Hanging is a barbarous, inefficient
way of killing anybody, and at least one fact about it quite widely known, I
believe is so obscene as to be almost unprintable.
Still, until recently we did feel rather uneasy on the subject,
and we did have our hangings in private. Indeed, before the war, public execution was a
thing of the past in nearly every civilized country. Now it seems to be returning, at
least for political crimes, and though we ourselves have not actually reintroduced it as
yet, we participate at second hand by watching the news films.
It is queer to look back and think that only a dozen years ago
the abolition of the death penalty was one of those things that every enlightened person
advocated as a matter of course, like divorce reform or the independence of India. Now, on
the other hand, it is a mark of enlightenment not merely to approve of executions but to
raise an outcry because there are not more of them.
Therefore it seems to me of some importance to know whether
strangulation is now coming to be the normal practice. For if people are being taught to
gloat not only over death but over a peculiarly horrible form of torture, it marks another
turn on the downward spiral that we have been following ever since 1933.
A character in one of Checkov's stories, I forget which, remarks:
As Shakespeare says, "Happy is he who in his youth is young." I have never
been able to find this line, nor does it sound like Shakespeare. Possibly the
translator retranslated it from the Russian instead of looking up the original. Can anyone
tell me where it occurs?