on 16 December 2014
The author attributes this slogan to his then editor and owner of the Guardian, CP Scott, and it seems to epitomise his own approach to grand reportage. It also mirrors with his personal trait of being able to see both sides of a question. This quite remarkable, lucid, wise, and instructive autobiography written in the late 1960s talks of three different countries moving away from various degrees of feudalism and privilege, the divine rights of kings, tsars, Junkers, and industry magnates, towards social democracy. It follows the life of a privileged man, a squire, who had traded with Tsarist Russia for his family timber business to become a rare British witness (and reporter) to both the Russian Revolution and the German turmoil soon after it (then as a reporter for the Daily Herald). He then goes on to talk about his experiences and actions as a Labour MP during the much-needed but less convulsive British levelling of the social classes.
In Russia in 1917, Philips Price saw that the west wrongly regarding it as having become a dangerous place. He advocated Allied assistance in part to counter German aggression in the Ukraine and the danger of Moscow running out of food because of it. He had travelled extensively as far as the Caspian Sea after the formation of the Soviets, before the arrival of the Bolsheviks, in order to gauge peoples’ reactions and environment and what the March revolution meant to them. We learn of a racially tolerant country. He witnessed the momentous verbal confrontation between Lenin and Kerensky in May 1917 while the Bolsheviks were still in a minority. He saw the emergence of Trotsky as a great orator and Lenin as the organiser of the Bolsheviks and their emerging Military Revolutionary Council that took power from the moderate Kerensky. The cool-headed Lenin took over from Trotsky and managed to unite the peasants and factory workers, now armed with guns used in the war. It was agreed that Russia had no interest in making a peace with Germany, but Britain and France failed to see the opportunity and instead abetted the amalgam of White Russians and displaced Czechoslovakian forces then in Russia. When the Bolsheviks decided to make public the secret accords agreed by the Tsar with Britain and France, Philips Price found himself with a scoop and scandal which was printed in the Guardian. France was to get Syria and a free hand up to the Rhine; Russia to get Constantinople and eastern Turkish provinces and a free hand in Poland; Romania to be bribed to enter the war by getting parcels of land from Yugoslavia, the Ukraine and Transylvania; Britain to get Mesopotamia and part of Persia not attributed to Russia. His reports became increasingly inconvenient for the British Government (abetted by the bellicose, demagogic and powerful Northcliffe press). The censor went to work and he became concerned about the possibility of being arrested upon his return to Britain. On September 18th 1918 the Red Terror and martial law commenced in order to save the Revolution from enemies on its territory.
Late in 1918, Germany caved in and he moved there to continue reporting. Abetted by Russians who failed to understand the different circumstances, the German Communists failed. The country lacked political maturity and had become unstable and fractured. Those in power in feudal eastern Germany, led by Prussia, colluded with the industrial magnates in the western regions. Right-wing military and paramilitary attacks on members of the left wing movements remained sanctioned by the socialist defence minister, Gustav Noske. Philips Price remarked on the damaging effect of exorbitant war reparations and the fact that the working masses were paying for the bulk of the costs of State (43% of GDP), with the owners of industry getting off lightly. Then came the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 over the non-payment of war reparations and need for coal. It provoked a nationalist backlash that fatally nourished Hitler’s fascist and anti-Semitic movement in Bavaria.
In the third and final part of the book, aspects of which resonate today, the author talks of the dying era of privilege in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century. He describes an environment of pastimes of fox hunting and having to make one’s own music, being able to sail into Harrow and Cambridge against a background of an income tax of only 7.5%, unregulated capitalism, the precariousness of employment for the lower classes, Poor Laws and workhouses, private-only schooling, a down-trodden Ireland, and Gladstone’s bid to protect British inefficiencies through Tariff Reform. He talks of trying to get his company unionised. He describes the emerging but inexperienced Labour Party which still clung to backward and unrealistic ideas and remained subjected to a cacophony of conflicting ideologies in the late 20s and early 30s. The then important Liberal Party had become dependent on the Irish vote to stay in power. The levelling process included the clipping of the power of the House of Lords, and the need was recognised for social insurance, land reform and abolishment of plural voting. It was no longer thought that the crude law of supply and demand must dominate the economy of the nation. Full employment and trade were being held back by Churchill’s re-introduction of the gold standard which was provoking deflation, and the lot of the masses worsened by Chancellor Philip Snowden’s planned cuts to government social welfare spending. Oswald Mosely, then a Labour MP, led a group advocating the release of credit in order to revive industry and employment, but the Bank of England was not under government control. Britain was poor. At the outbreak of the Second World War it even had to requisition and sell private investments in US and Canada to pay for American war materiel in dollars. Philips Price talks extensively about his own actions as Labour MP, but regrets that the nationalising of old and dying industries such as coal and steel, in part to bring stability to employment in those industries, only seemed to bring strikes. He also points out the flaws in changes abroad, tarnished by examples such as a Hindu bias of the Indian Congress Party, lack of consideration for the Arabs who had owned their land in Palestine and the Turkish population in Cyprus.
The book is an exciting account of three dramatic changes in recent history, and retains plenty of optimism thanks to the personality, beliefs and achievements of its author.