We, in England, Have Made Mistakes


By PATRICIA STRAUSS, Author and Wife of British Labour M. P., G. R. Strauss, at Stephens College Forum Columbia, Mo., November 6, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 173-174.

WE, in England, have made mistakes. We have learned some lessons. We have unearthed some new problems. If any of the things we have learned empirically are of value to the rest of the world, and of lasting value to ourselves, our experiences will have been worth while.

First the mistakes: I am not dealing with the mistakes of the Government. I hold strongly that the Government is less important than the people. That the Government should in a true sense be the servant of the people. If it is not, then the fault lies with the people. That was one of our mistakes.

Too many of us happily accepted the advantages of democracy but shirked the responsibilities. We voted when an election came, and then forgot all about things outside our private lives.

We were not good citizens. To be a good citizen in a democracy one must be vigilant, aware, responsible, informed, and try to be guided by considered judgments instead of instinct and prejudice. It is the Nazi creed to "Think with your blood." It is the aim of the civilized democracy to develop the intellect.

Often when electioneering, calling at houses, I have had women say to me, "I don't know anything about elections. My husband sees to all that. . . ." One can't stand on a doorstep and persuade a woman who is spending all her energies feeding and caring for her children that to be a good mother she must first be a good citizen. But it is true. What is the use of guarding your child against colds and illness only to have his legs torn off by a bomb? And wars are not unavoidable freaks of nature, like an earthquake.

War is merely politics in top gear. One could describe the time between wars as the passive season of politics. War is the active season. Yet until there is war, or danger of war, too many people regard politics as being "no concern of theirs." Only when the bomb drops does it "come home" to them.

In our two years of war we have learned a number of lessons. The first lesson, although it sounds paradoxical, is that we haven't had two years of war in a real sense. From September 1939, to May 1940 it was simply the Government's war. It only became a real war when it became the people's war. That is democracy—not in the abstract. It is concrete, actual democracy.

Dunkirk was tangible democracy. When the news came that our men were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, caught between the sea and the German army, the people of England didn't wait for orders. Everyone who could lay hands on a boat set out for Dunkirk. The Brass Hats had failed, somehow, somewhere along the line.

The people, ordinary folk, took a hand. Little river craft that had only been used for Sunday picnics, tugs from the Thames, were setting off across the Channel, long before the Government admitted the need and asked for help. A fourteen-year-old boy in a tiny boat made six journeys. He was wounded. But he had saved some forty men. The people had taken a hand. The war had started.

The same kind of thing happened when the bombing of London started. It was on a sunny Saturday afternoon. September 7th. Very suddenly the dreaded blitz began. The Government had never envisaged raids of such intensity and length.

The Government had made a rule that subways were not to be used as shelters because transport must be maintained. Everyone knows what happened. The people took a hand again. Quietly, in orderly fashion, without panic, they simply went down to the subways. They elected their own committees and marshals from among themselves, and obeyed them implicitly. They made their own rules and stuck to them. Only the people living near could go to the subways. In those first days, when the organization proved totally inadequate, the people in the streets simply organized themselves.

They were being responsible citizens. If they had behaved like totalitarian robots and waited for orders there would have been indescribable panic, and maybe Britain would have been defeated in the fall of 1940. The whole world owes an unpayable debt to the ordinary citizens of London.

We have also learned that men and women are equally affected by war, which means they are equally affected by all the problems of the day.

We have learned that the civic health and the military strength of democracy depends on the attitude of the citizens—and that men and women are equally citizens. Not only are women in every branch of the armed forces, working in armament factories, struggling with rationing and food shortage—the women of the towns are actually in the front line. In the bombings of London, Plymouth, Glasgow, the women and the children and the old people faced horrors unknown in France in the last war. And they did not crack. We have learned that under the stress of war people can make extraordinary sacrifices for the common good.

There is a problem inherent in this. Not only for us in England, but for all people interested in progress. We have developed a real neighbourliness in the face of danger. Not just the neighbourliness of propinquity, but a national neighbourliness.

Even during the war certain social services have been improved. Reforms have been made for which we pressed invain before the war. It is because the people have become more responsibly democratic, they have developed the national neighbourliness.

Here, then is the problem: How are we to arouse that active spirit of responsible citizenship in time of peace?

It is a horrible thing that it takes war to make us cast aside our selfishness and feel a neighbourly responsibility for our fellow-citizens—to make us wary, watchful and critical of our Government. When the war is over, and peace is declared, how are we going to keep that spirit alive? How are we going to keep ourselves worthy of the democracy we have fought for?

When the foreign war is over, when the enemy is defeated, there will still be wars to wage. As long as there are human beings on this planet there will be wars to wage.

If we would wage war on disease, on poverty, with the selflessness that we wage it on the foreign enemy, then wecould proudly say we are worthy citizens of our democracy.

If we would stand up and cry out with one united voice that one hungry child within our country is a cause for shame to each of us, that one intelligent child unable to get the college education for which his mind is worthy, is a national loss—if we would do these things with the energy and enthusiasm with which we defend our soil from foreign invasion, then indeed would our children inherit a world undreamed of.

And it can be done. The colossal changes and upheavals in England show what a nation can do—if only the people care enough. The English care now. Our problem is how are we going to keep them caring enough to build a world which will have made the bloodshed, the misery, the sheer, drab, unheroic horror of modern war worthwhile.