In the early years of the Cold War, many saw communism as a very real and present threat to British society and the maintenance of the British Empire. The consolidation of the Eastern Bloc, the successful revolution in China, the Malayan Emergency and the Korean War heightened fears that a communist revolution could soon occur in Britain and that pushes for national liberation in the colonies would ultimately lead to socialist breakaway states. To prevent the twin threats of communism and ‘uncontrolled’ decolonisation, the British intervened politically (and sometimes militarily) to ensure that decolonisation, if it was to occur, would happen on their terms. This meant that in most colonies, communist, socialist or workers’ parties were banned.
In the Dominions, where white settler colonies had developed self-government, the British were vital in co-ordinating intelligence to thwart communist activism in these countries, but attempted to maintain the premise that they would not intervene in the domestic politics of a self-governing country, even if within the newly formed Commonwealth.
As I wrote here, Australia and South Africa developed legislation (seemingly) in tandem with each other to ban the Communist Party in both countries, and amongst the communist movement, it was believed that this was being co-ordinated by the British government and MI5. Canada had already banned its Communist Party during the Second World War (the Communist Party of Australia was actually banned from 1940 to 1942 as well) and Southern Rhodesia was considering similar legislation.
Despite this, it seems as though both Labour and the Conservatives were averse to banning the Communist Party of Great Britain. There were bans on communists in the civil service and the CPGB was proscribed by the Labour Party and certain trade unions, but it did not extend to banning the party outright. Allegedly there was considerable pressure within the Conservative Party (often voiced at the party conferences) to call for a ban of the CPGB, which was not taken up by the Party leadership.
In 1950, short-term Conservative MP Nigel Davies called for the new Conservative government to follow Australia and South Africa and outlaw the CPGB. In a debate on the King’s Speech, Davies said:
I believe that, in the circumstances, both to protect the security of our country and to get maximum production, we should ban the Communist Party. After all, they are saboteurs of production who have been very successful in certain cases. We are having a cold war which breaks out in certain areas into a shooting war. They are enemies in this way, and we should be entitled to treat leading and active Communists as enemies. We should be entitled to find out what they know and then, by all means, let them work.
Earlier in the same year, another Conservative MP, Sir Waldron Smithers, called for suppression of communists in Britain after reading a Canadian report on espionage. In March 1950, Smithers had this exchange with the Home Secretary Chuter Ede:
Sir W. Smithers asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many of the persons not of British nationality mentioned on pages 731 to 733 of appendix J of the report of the Royal Commission in Canada on the spy trial have been permitted by him to enter this country and are now here; how long they have been here in each case; and what occupations they have been permitted to take up.
Mr. Ede According to the information in my possession, none of the aliens referred to is in this country.
Sir W. Smithers Will the Home Secretary say whether, in view of the alarming revelations made yesterday in another place, the Government will take immediate and drastic action to suppress the Communist enemy in our midst?
Mr. Ede As far as the persons referred to in the hon. Member’s Question are concerned, a strict watch is kept for them, and if they attempted to come here they would not be allowed to land.
While not calling for a ban of the CPGB, Conservative MP Sir Arthur Baxter proposed that the Daily Worker be banned during the Korean War:
I would not stop the “Daily Worker” preaching Communism until it was black in the face, or denouncing capitalists and Socialists and Tories with equal venom, but have we any right to send young men to fight while a newspaper is advocating mutiny and sabotage? I think it is wrong and, much as I regret it, I think the Government ought to give a warning to the “Daily Worker” that it must not do this or it will be banned. I am sorry to say that I had to make the same suggestion in 1939. I was glad when the “Daily Worker” was given back its liberty. However, I find something terribly indecent, terribly revolting, in its columns these days. If we are at war with Russian imperialism, then this paper is an agent of that Power. I suggest to the Government that they should give this matter their consideration.
Although some Conservative MPs called for the Communist Party to be banned, Tory peer the Earl of Iddesleigh warned against this, stating:
My doubts arise from my fear of driving Communism underground. At the present moment it is the policy of the Communist Party—it is not for me to guess why the Party should pursue that policy—to do a good deal of boasting. The boast was made by the Communists themselves of their 2,000 school teachers. I am informed that there is good reason to believe that that figure represents a very considerable over-statement. But the curious and significant thing is that Communists are boasting of their power. If they are covering their activities to any degree at all, they are covering them most inadequately and, it seems to me, very carelessly.
I am seriously alarmed about what the Communists could do if they abandoned these comparatively open methods and took to secret penetration of the public services and of our public life.
All of these calls for the banning of the CPGB or the Daily Worker occurred in 1950, the year that the Korean War broke out and after Labour was narrowly returned to power (although the CPGB’s two MPs lost their seats). By the time the Conservatives took power in 1951, these calls seem to have subsided – at least in parliament.
The next step is to look at the Conservative Party’s literature from this period, as well as its internal documents, to see whether there other calls for the banning of the CPGB. I have identified a bunch of files at the Conservative Party archives to examine, it is just a case of getting to Britain again!