George Strauss, the son of Arthur Strauss, was born on 18th July, 1901. His father, a Conservative Party MP, sent his son to Rugby School. His friend, Tam Dalyell, later argued: "George Strauss came of a family of well-to-do Jewish metal merchants... Quite often I would talk to Strauss abut public-school boys in the Labour Party. Although he was grateful to Rugby for its high-quality teaching, a scar was left at the rough treatment meted out to Jewish boys at school. From that time on Strauss cared vehemently about issues of race."
Following his father's death in 1920 he decided to join the family firm rather than go to university. Strauss became an active member of the Labour Party and in 1925 was elected to the London County Council (LCC). In the 1929 General Election Strauss was elected to the House of Commons as the representative of North Lambeth. Soon afterwards he was appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Herbert Morrison. Strauss was an opponent of Ramsay MacDonald and his National Government and like most Labour members he lost his seat in the 1931 General Election.
In 1931 G.D.H. Cole created the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda (SSIP). This was later renamed the Socialist League. Other members included George Strauss, William Mellor, Charles Trevelyan, Stafford Cripps, H. N. Brailsford, D. N. Pritt, R. H. Tawney, Frank Wise, David Kirkwood, Clement Attlee, Neil Maclean, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Alfred Salter, Jennie Lee, Gilbert Mitchison, Harold Laski, Frank Horrabin, Ellen Wilkinson, Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Pugh, Michael Foot and Barbara Betts. Margaret Cole admitted that they got some of the members from the Guild Socialism movement: "Douglas and I recruited personally its first list drawing upon comrades from all stages of our political lives." The first pamphlet published by the SSIP was The Crisis (1931) was written by Cole and Bevin.
According to Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977): "The Socialist League... set up branches, undertook to promote and carry out research, propaganda and discussion, issue pamphlets, reports and books, and organise conferences, meetings, lectures and schools. To this extent it was strongly in the Fabian tradition, and it worked in close conjunction with Cole's other group, the New Fabian Research Bureau." The main objective was to persuade a future Labour government to implement socialist policies.
His biographer, Andrew Roth, has argued that during the 1930s, like many Jewish intellectuals who felt the threat of Nazism, he moved to the left, joining Sir Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan in their efforts to form an anti-fascist alliance stretching from the Communists to the Liberals." Strauss returned to the LCC and served as Chairman of the Highways Committee (1934-37). Strauss returned to Parliament in October 1934.
In January 1937, George Strauss and Stafford Cripps decided to launch a radical weekly, The Tribune, to "advocate a vigorous socialism and demand active resistance to Fascism at home and abroad." William Mellor was appointed editor and others such as Barbara Betts, Aneurin Bevan, Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Castle, Harold Laski, Michael Foot and Noel Brailsford agreed to write for the paper.
William Mellor wrote in the first issue: "It is capitalism that has caused the world depression. It is capitalism that has created the vast army of the unemployed. It is capitalism that has created the distressed areas... It is capitalism that divides our people into the two nations of rich and poor. Either we must defeat capitalism or we shall be destroyed by it." Stafford Cripps wrote encouragingly after the first issue: "I have read the Tribune, every line of it (including the advertisements!) as objectively as I can and I must congratulate you upon a very first-rate production.''
Strauss also joined with other left-wing Labour Party MPs that campaigned for the formation of a United Front with other left-wing groups in Europe to prevent the spread of fascism. At the 1936 Labour Party Conference, several party members, including Strauss, Ellen Wilkinson, Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan and Charles Trevelyan, argued that military help should be given to the Spanish Popular Front government, fighting for survival against General Francisco Franco and his right-wing Nationalist Army.
Along with Aneurin Bevan, Emanuel Shinwell, Sydney Silverman and Ellen Wilkinson Strauss toured Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Shinwell later wrote: "The reason for the defeat of the Spanish Government was not in the hearts and minds of the Spanish people. They had a few brief weeks of democracy with a glimpse of all that it might mean for the country they loved. The disaster came because the Great Powers of the West preferred to see in Spain a dictatorial Government of the right rather than a legally elected body chosen by the people."
Stafford Cripps declared that the mission of the Socialist League and The Tribune was to recreate the Labour Party as a truly socialist organization. This soon brought them into conflict with Clement Attlee and the leadership of the party. Hugh Dalton declared that "Cripps Chronicle" was "a rich man's toy". Threatened with expulsion, in May 1937 Cripps agreed to abandon the United Front campaign and to dissolve the Socialist League.
By 1938 George Strauss and Stafford Cripps had lost £20,000 in publishing The Tribune. The successful publisher, Victor Gollancz, agreed to help support the newspaper as long as it dropped the United Front campaign. When William Mellor refused to change the editorial line, Cripps sacked him and invited Michael Foot to take his place. However, as Mervyn Jones has pointed out: "It was a tempting opportunity for a 25-year-old, but Foot declined to succeed an editor who had been treated unfairly."
Strauss continued to campaign for a United Front and in March 1939 he was expelled from the Labour Party along with Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan and Charles Trevelyan. However, they readmitted in November 1939 after agreeing "to refrain from conducting or taking part in campaigns in opposition to the declared policy of the Party."
In 1940 Strauss won substantial damages from Henry Newnham and the journal Truth, after it was claimed that he was a coward for not fighting for his country during the First World War (Strauss was too young to fight in the war). During the Second World War Strauss became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Stafford Cripps, the Lord Privy Seal (February 1942 to November 1942) and later Minister of Aircraft Production (November 1942 to May 1945).
In the government formed by Clement Attlee after the war, Strauss served as Parliamentary Secretary for Transport (August 1945 to October 1947) and as Minister of Supply (October 1946 to October 1951). Tam Dalyell argued: "It fell to Strauss to steer through Parliament the most controversial legislation of that government, the nationalisation of iron and steel. This he did with consummate skill and there is no doubt that, had there been Labour governments in the 1950s, Strauss would have been a major minister."
Strauss remained in the House of Commons and was Father of the House between 1974 and 1979. In 1979 he was created Baron Strauss and entered the House of Lords.
George Strauss died on 5th June, 1993.
(1) Emanuel Shinwell initially argued that the British government should give support to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He wrote about his visit to Spain in his autobiography, Conflict Without Malice (1955)
While the war was at its height several of us were invited to visit Spain to see how things were going with the Republican Army. The fiery little Ellen Wilkinson met us in Paris, and was full of excitement and assurance that the Government would win. Included in the party were Jack Lawson, George Strauss, Aneurin Bevan, Sydney Silverman, and Hannen Swaffer. We went by train to the border at Perpignan, and thence by car to Barcelona where Bevan left for another part of the front.
We travelled to Madrid - a distance of three hundred miles over the sierras - by night for security reasons as the road passed through hostile or doubtful territory. It was winter-time and snowing hard. Although our car had skid chains we had many anxious moments before we arrived in the capital just after dawn. The capital was suffering badly from war wounds. The University City had been almost destroyed by shell fire during the earlier and most bitter fighting of the war.
We walked along the miles of trenches which surrounded the city. At the end of the communicating trenches came the actual defence lines, dug within a few feet of the enemy's trenches. We could hear the conversation of the Fascist troops crouching down in their trench across the narrow street. Desultory firing continued everywhere, with snipers on both sides trying to pick off the enemy as he crossed exposed areas. We had little need to obey the orders to duck when we had to traverse the same areas. At night the Fascist artillery would open up, and what with the physical effects of the food and the expectation of a shell exploding in the bedroom I did not find my nights in Madrid particularly pleasant.
It is sad and tragic to realize that most of the splendid men and women, fighting so obstinately in a hopeless battle, whom we met have since been executed, killed in action - or still linger in prison and in exile. The reason for the defeat of the Spanish Government was not in the hearts and minds of the Spanish people. They had a few brief weeks of democracy with a glimpse of all that it might mean for the country they loved. The disaster came because the Great Powers of the West preferred to see in Spain a dictatorial Government of the right rather than a legally elected body chosen by the people. The Spanish War encouraged the Nazis both politically and as a proof of the efficiency of their newly devised methods of waging war. In the blitzkrieg of Guernica and the victory by the well-armed Fascists over the helpless People's Army were sown the seeds for a still greater Nazi experiment which began when German armies swooped into Poland on 1st September, 1939.
It has been said that the Spanish Civil War was in any event an experimental battle between Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. My own careful observations suggest that the Soviet Union gave no help of any real value to the Republicans. They had observers there and were eager enough to study the Nazi methods. But they had no intention of helping a Government which, was controlled by Socialists and Liberals. If Hitler and Mussolini fought in the arena of Spain as a try-out for world war Stalin remained in the audience. The former were brutal; the latter was callous. Unfortunately the latter charge must also be laid at the feet of the capitalist countries as well.
(2) George Strauss and Aneurin Bevan issued a joint statement after they were expelled from the Labour Party in March 1939.
The refusal of the Executive to allow us to appear before it so that we might defend ourselves; its failure to give us clear guidance as to the manner in which we could advocate our views without coming into collision with the Constitution; its rejection of the reasonable assurances which we were prepared to give in our last letter; the fact that it listened to letters read containing charges against us without giving us the elementary right of being told of them, much less the chance of defending ourselves against them; all these events force us to the conclusion that the Executive has allowed itself to become party to a controversy rather than to remain the administrative head of a great organization.
(3) Henry Newnham, Truth (August, 1940)
I was reading early this week the official list of our casualties during the Battle of France. I noticed among the names of other members of the 'ruling class' those of the Duke of Northumberland, the Earl of Aylesford, the Earl of Coventry, Lord Frederick Cambridge - all killed in action. I did not notice any names like Gollancz, Laski, and Strauss, from which I draw the conclusion that what happened in the last war is being repeated in this. The ancient families of Britain - the hated ruling class of the Left Wing diatribes - are sacrificing their bravest and best to keep the Strausses safe in their homes, which in the last war they did not don uniforms to defend.
(4) Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan (1962)
The House of Commons was his (Aneurin Bevan) main forum; Tribune was used to fill in any gaps or oversights. He more than any other Member was resolved to keep the place alive. Sometimes he acted in conjunction with a considerable number of Labour Members or, on one or two important occasions, a majority of them. Sometimes he found himself competing or consorting with other prominent but less persistent critics such as Emanuel Shinwell. More often he was supported by a few of whom Dick Stokes, Sydney Silverman, George Strauss, Tom Driberg and Frank Bowles were the most effective. Frequently he was alone or almost alone. His closest friend in the Commons during these years was Frank Bowles, who had been returned for Nuneaton in 1942 and who gave him a staunch comradeship which he never forgot. What he achieved in this period was to help cut Churchill down to size - a fact which played its part in the post-war history of Britain.
(5) Tam Dalyell, The Independent (1993)
George Strauss came of a family of well-to-do Jewish metal merchants, whom he said quite openly had done well out of the First World War - a matter which was to be the source of some guilt to him and one of the reasons why he fought so hard for a rational iron and steel industry in this country. His Conservative MP father, later to join the Labour Party, Arthur Strauss, sent him to Rugby. Quite often I would talk to Strauss abut public-school boys in the Labour Party. Although he was grateful to Rugby for its high-quality teaching, a scar was left at the rough treatment meted out to Jewish boys at school. From that time on Strauss cared vehemently about issues of race.
Unlike many of those born into prosperous Jewish families Strauss, to his eternal regret, did not go to a university. This was partly because his father died in 1920 and he felt an obligation to concern himself with the family business. This was to be his bread and butter until Attlee gave him government office in 1945. He told me that working in the metal industry not only gave him first-hand knowledge which was of great use in a party that did not have too many industrial managers in Parliament, but it also provided the wherewithal to be his own man and express his own views.
Although Strauss, with Aneurin Bevan and his close friend Stafford Cripps, was to be expelled from the Labour Party for advocating a popular front against the Nazis and Fascism, Strauss kept the closest personal link with his first patron and London mentor Herbert Morrison, whose Parliamentary Private Secretary he was between 1929 and 1931. In 1947 Strauss, after service as a junior minister in the Department of Transport, was promoted to become Minister of Supply, which although it did not rate cabinet status was a key position in the post-war Labour government.
It fell to Strauss to steer through Parliament the most controversial legislation of that government, the nationalisation of iron and steel. This he did with consummate skill and there is no doubt that, had there been Labour governments in the 1950s, Strauss would have been a major minister.
I was invited once to his beautiful and elegant house in Kensington Palace Gardens, which he had inherited from his father. He was totally honest with his Vauxhall constituents about the style in which he lived and as the guest of Vauxhall Labour Party I know the high regard in which he was held as a clever and good man who took infinite trouble about their grievances. This was partly the result of experience for nearly a quarter of a century representing on the old LCC some of the poorest parts of London.
In 1957 Strauss got entangled in a controversy which raised important questions about parliamentary privilege. He had written a letter to the then Paymaster General, Reginald Maudling, saying that from information he had received the London Electricity Board was disposing of scrap cable in a way that did not obtain the best price available. Strauss wanted an immediate investigation. Maudling contacted the board, who threatened Strauss with a writ for libel. Strauss raised the matter in the Commons and claimed that a letter from an MP to a minister concerning a public board should be covered by parliamentary privilege. This raised the whole issue of 'proceedings in Parliament', which was to be so important in many other privilege cases and in particular in the Clive Ponting case.