One Britain, One Europe, One World: The Socialist Internationalism of Arthur Woodburn, Part One

This study was originally a conference paper I presented at the 53rd Annual Meeting of the Midwest Conference on British Studies in 2007 (hosted by Wright State University).  Having decided not to pursue expanding this into a journal article of some sort (as I’m fairly happy with it as is, but it is also too short for most academic journals), I have tweaked some of the content for publication here on the Research Hub, which I will serialize over the next six weeks in (obviously) six parts.  It is somewhat different from my other work in that I was consciously attempting to play around with the conventions of biography. It’s always good to stretch one’s horizons, I say.

One Britain, One Europe, One World: The Socialist Internationalism of Arthur Woodburn, 1960-1970

Part One: Introduction

Most scholars who have written about the Scottish Labour politician Arthur Woodburn have focused on three periods in his life: first, his two and a half years spent in prison as a conscientious objector to the First World War; second, his role in the 1930s as party secretary rebuilding the Scottish Labour Party following the disaffiliation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP); and third, his time as Secretary of State for Scotland during the 1945-1951 Labour Government of Clement Attlee.1  But scholarly attention on Woodburn’s activities following his removal as Secretary of State in 1950 has not materialized, notwithstanding the fact that his career continued for another twenty years.  This is not particularly surprising; the backbench careers of British MPs rarely illicit much attention unless analyzed as groups or a particular member achieves some notoriety or celebrity in the course of future events.2

However, in the case of Arthur Woodburn, this is a shame, for Woodburn’s later activities as a backbench MP for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire, a seat he had held since 1939, provide a remarkable window into the changing dynamics of postwar Scottish politics.  The 1960s, which marked his last ten years in Parliament, are of particular interest.  Although largely considered a politician on the right-wing of his party, Woodburn’s activism prior to retirement was to further the cause of socialist internationalism, a vision that drew its inspiration from the rhetoric and ideologies of William Morris’s Socialist League, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and the ethical socialists in the ILP.3  Woodburn worked hard to garner public support for his internationalist vision, which was intimately connected to his views on British membership in the European Economic Community (EEC).  However, in many ways, he was carrying a lone torch of a bygone era.  Scottish Labour politics since the 1930s had become, according to Christopher Harvie, “irredeemably and incompetently ‘low,’” marked by a parochial disinterest in foreign affairs topics and a myopic focus on the basic socio-economic concerns of the Scottish working classes.4  Just as pithily, Harvie has also referred to this period as the “time of the wee hardman.”5  In part, this reflects the fracturing of working-class attitudes toward internationalism that took place more broadly across the British Labour Movement after 1945 as the postwar Attlee Government proved unable to shape the burgeoning postwar, Cold War reality with internationalist visions developed prior to and during the war.  As such, wartime optimism about a new, internationalist frame to British foreign affairs faded into disappointment and disengagement for many, and the parochial, moribund Scottish Labour leadership followed the trend.6  While Woodburn was an exception in Scottish politics when it came to his interests in foreign affairs, in other respects, he was very much mired in the politics of the “low.”  As his 1978 obituary in The Times described him, Woodburn “took all his duties with great seriousness but lacked the depth and suppleness of intellect to make a substantial impression on his times.”7

In prolonged periods of continuity and normalcy in British and Scottish politics, such unassuming reliability might have served Woodburn well.  But the 1960s marked the reemergence of an energetic political nationalism in Scottish politics, which had a profound affect on how issues were debated throughout the body politic.8  In many ways, Woodburn’s response to this phenomenon stands out as an example of a politician unable to respond to the political changes around him. But shoulder on he did regardless.  Thus, Woodburn’s later internationalist advocacy marked the “last hurrah,” so to speak, of an old school style of socialist internationalism in Scotland, made all the more ironic in that the torch was borne by a right-wing, technocratic Labour politician.

Therefore, this study seeks to illuminate one facet of the monumental changes taking place in Scottish politics between 1960 and 1970 through a biographical examination of Arthur Woodburn’s activism and political thought regarding socialist internationalism and British membership in the EEC.  It will explore four key areas over the next four weeks: first, the underlying ideological reasons for Woodburn’s strongly pro-European positions at a time when the Scottish Labour movement was just as strongly against; second, Woodburn’s participation in pro-European campaign activities in the 1960s; third, his quixotic attempts to promote the development of a common European language; and finally, the intersection of Scottish nationalism and European integration in the late 1960s and how Woodburn ultimately did not fit comfortably within that wider debate.

For next week: Part Two, Uniting Europe and the World

  1. For example, see William W. Knox and A. Mackinlay, “The Re-Making of Scottish Labour in the 1930s,” Twentieth Century British History 6, no. 2 (1995): 174-193.  See also George Pottinger, The Secretaries of State for Scotland, 1926-76 (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1979), 106-116.
  2. For example, see the post-Cabinet activities and political celebrity of the Labour MP Tony Benn.  For examples of the social science approach to analyzing backbench activities in the House of Commons, see Robert Jackson, Rebels and Whips: An Analysis of Dissention, Discipline, and Cohesion in British Political Parties (London: Macmillan, 1968), Hugh B. Berrington, Backbench Opinion in the House of Commons, 1945-55 (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1973); and Donald Searing, Westminster’s World: Understanding Parliamentary Roles (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).
  3. For more information on Scotland’s socialist and radical traditions, see W. Hamish Fraser, Scottish Popular Politics: From Radicalism to Labour (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2000) and Gregor Gall, The Political Economy of Scotland: Red Scotland? Radical Scotland? (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2005).  For a nuanced examination of the Independent Labour Party’s internationalist positions in the 1930s after disaffiliation from the Labour Party, see Gidon Cohen, The Failure of a Dream: The Independent Labour Party from Disaffiliation to World War II (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2007).
  4. Christopher Harvie, “The Economic and Social Context of Scottish Labour,” in Gerry Hassan, ed., The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions, and Ideas (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 57.
  5. Christopher Harvie, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Scotland since 1914 (London: Edward Arnold, 1981), 106.
  6. For more information, see Victor Silverman, Imaging Internationalism in American and British Labor, 1939-49 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 47-114.
  7. The Times (London), 3 June 1978.
  8. For more information, see Andrew D. Devenney, “Regional Resistance to European Integration: The Case of the Scottish National Party, 1961-1972,” Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung 33, no.3 (2008): 319-345.


One Britain, One Europe, One World: The Socialist Internationalism of Arthur Woodburn, Part One — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: One Britain, One Europe, One World: The Socialist Internationalism of Arthur Woodburn, Part Two » Devenney Research Hub

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  3. Pingback: One Britain, One Europe, One World: The Socialist Internationalism of Arthur Woodburn, Part Four » Devenney Research Hub

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