1941 Committtee

In June, 1940, J. B. Priestley became the presenter of Postscripts, a BBC Radio radio programme that followed the nine o'clock news on Sunday evenings. Within a few months it was estimated that around 40 per cent of the adult population in Britain was listening to the programme. Some members of the Conservative Party complained about Priestley expressing left-wing views on his radio programme. As a result Priestley made his last talk on 20th October 1940.

Priestley and a group of friends now established the 1941 Committee. One of its members, Tom Hopkinson, later claimed that the motive force behind the organization was the belief that if the Second World War was to be won "a much more coordinated effort would be needed, with stricter planning of the economy and greater use of scientific know-how, particularly in the field of war production."

The chairman of the 1941 Committee was J. B. Priestley and other members included Edward G. Hulton, Kingsley Martin, Richard Acland, Tom Wintringham, Michael Foot, Peter Thorneycroft, Thomas Balogh, Richie Calder, Tom Winteringham, Vernon Bartlett, Violet Bonham Carter, Konni Zilliacus, Tom Driberg, Victor Gollancz, Storm Jameson, David Low, David Astor, Thomas Balogh, Richie Calder, Eva Hubback, Douglas Jay, Kitty Bowler, Christopher Mayhew and Richard Titmuss.

In December 1941 the committee published a report that called for public control of the railways, mines and docks and a national wages policy. A further report in May 1942 argued for works councils and the publication of "post-war plans for the provision of full and free education, employment and a civilized standard of living for everyone."

Later that year Richard Acland and J. B. Priestley and other members of the 1941 Committee established the socialist Common Wealth Party. The party advocated the three principles of Common Ownership, Vital Democracy and Morality in Politics. The party favoured public ownership of land and Acland gave away his Devon family estate of 19,000 acres (8,097 hectares) to the National Trust.

The party won by-elections against Conservatives at Eddisbury, Skipton and Chelmsford. However, in the 1945 General Election only one of its twenty-three candidates was successful - at Chelmsford, where there was no Labour contestant. The Common Wealth Party was dissolved in 1945 and most members joined the Labour Party.

Primary Sources

(1) J. B. Priestley, Postscripts, radio broadcast (21st July, 1940)

We cannot go forward and build up this new world order, and this is our war aim, unless we begin to think differently one must stop thinking in terms of property and power and begin thinking in terms of community and creation. Take the change from property to community. Property is the old-fashioned way of thinking of a country as a thing, and a collection of things in that thing, all owned by certain people and constituting property; instead of thinking of a country as the home of a living society with the community itself as the first test.

(2) Tom Hopkinson, Of This Our Time (1982)

The 1941 Committee was an organization typical of the time, in that it sprang up spontaneously from the desire of a number of people - mostly in this case middle-aged or elderly and to some extent public figures - to do more towards furthering the war effort. It was a loosely organized group with no rules and no particular commitment, but met regularly for an evening of serious discussion on some aspect of the war. Its motive force was the belief that the country had survived so far by the grace of God and the public's resolution, but that if we were to survive the next four or five years a much more coordinated effort would be needed, with stricter planning of the economy and greater use of scientific know-how, particularly in the field of war production. Though the committee might occasionally publish a manifesto or report, it was felt that its most valuable work would be unofficial, through the influence members could exert on individuals in key positions.

The chairman was J. B. Priestley, whose standing as a public figure had been much enhanced by a series of 'Postscripts' delivered on radio at that key moment of the week following the nine o' clock news on Sunday evenings. The committee over which Priestley presided was a highly individualistic bunch; there was a nucleus of regular attenders, but many more looked in from time to time when a subject interested them or a fellow member urged them to attend. Among the best attenders were the journalists and editors, some because they found good copy, others because they had something valuable to contribute. Among the editors were Gerald Barry (News Chronicle), Kingsley Martin {New Statesman), Michael Foot (soon to become editor of the Evening Standard), David Astor (part-owner and future editor of the Observer), with Edward Hulton and myself. Journalists with special knowledge included Thomas Balogh (economics), Ritchie Calder (science), Elizabeth Denby (architecture and planning), Douglas Jay (finance and industrial organization) and Tom Wintringham (military affairs).

(3) J. B. Priestley, Britain Speaks (1940)

It so happens that this war, whether those at present in authority like it or not, has to be fought as a citizen's war. There is no way out of that because an order to defend and protect this island, not only against possible invasion but also against all the disasters of aerial bombardment, it has been found necessary to bring into existence a new network of voluntary associations such as the Home Guard, the Observer Corps, all the A.R.P. and fire-fighting services, and the like ... They are a new type, what might be called the organized militant citizen. And the whole circumstances of their wartime life favour a sharply democratic outlook. Men and women with a gift for leadership now turn up in unexpected places. The new ordeals blast away the old shams. Britain, which in the years immediately before this war was rapidly losing such democratic virtues as it possessed, is now being bombed and burned into democracy.

(4) Edward G. Hulton, World Review (March 1941)

The 1941 Committee, under the chairmanship of J. B. Priestley, is forging ahead. It is at present the only group uniting a large body of progressive leaders, and uniting them not for general mateyness, but for action. A statement of aims headed by the words 'We Must Win!' has been published. The drawing up of such an agreed statement from about thirty intellectuals and others is itself a genuine epoch-making event.

(5) Margaret Thatcher, The Path of Power (1995)

The command economy required in wartime conditions had habituated many people to an essentially socialist mentality. Within the Armed Forces it was common knowledge that left-wing intellectuals had exerted a powerful influence through the Army Education Corps, which as Nigel Birch observed was 'the only regiment with a general election among its battle honours'. At home, broadcasters like J.B. Priestley gave a comfortable yet idealistic gloss to social progress in a left-wing direction. It is also true that Conservatives, with Churchill in the lead, were so preoccupied with the urgent imperatives of war that much domestic policy, and in particular the drawing-up of the agenda for peace, fell largely to the socialists in the Coalition Government. Churchill himself would have liked to continue the National Government at least until Japan had been beaten and, in the light of the fast-growing threat from the Soviet Union, perhaps beyond then. But the Labour Party had other thoughts and understandably wished to come into its own collectivist inheritance.

In I945 therefore, we Conservatives found ourselves confronting two serious and, as it turned out, insuperable problems. First, the Labour Party had us fighting on their ground and were always able to outbid us. Churchill had been talking about post-war 'reconstruction' for some two years, and as part of that programme Rab Butler's Education Act was on the Statute Book. Further, our manifesto committed us to the so-called 'full employment' policy of the 1944 Employment White Paper, a massive house-building programme, most of the proposals for National Insurance benefits made by the great Liberal social reformer Lord Beveridge and a comprehensive National Health Service. Moreover, we were not able effectively to take the credit (so far as this was in any case appropriate to the Conservative Party) for victory, let alone to castigate Labour for its irresponsibility and extremism, because Attlee and his colleagues had worked cheek by jowl with the Conservatives in government since 1940. In any event, the war effort had involved the whole population.