Common Wealth was founded on 26 July 1942, during World War II, by the alliance of two left wing groups, the 1941 Committee - a think tank brought together by Picture Post owner Edward G. Hulton, and their 'star' writers J.B. Priestley, Spanish Civil War veteran Tom Wintringham - and the neo-Christian Forward March movement led by Liberal Party Member of Parliament (MP) Richard Acland, along with independents and former Liberals who believed that the party had no direction. It aimed to be more appealing to Labour's potential voters than those leaning Conservative.
Common Wealth stood for three principles: Common Ownership, Morality in Politics and Vital Democracy. Disagreeing with the electoral pact established with other parties in the wartime coalition, key figures in the 1941 Committee began sponsoring independent candidates in by-elections under the banner of the Nine Point Group.
Following the electoral success of Tom Driberg with this support in 1942, there was a move to form the Committee into a political party, through a merger with Forward March, though many disliked the idea of being a Party rather than a social movement, and through pressure from Priestley and Wintringham, the word 'Party' was never formally part of Common Wealth's name. Led by Sir Richard Acland, Vernon Bartlett, J.B. Priestley, and Tom Wintringham the group called for common ownership, "vital democracy" and morality in politics. Its programme of common ownership echoed that of the Labour Party but stemmed from a more idealistic perspective, later termed "libertarian socialist". It came to reject the State-dominated form of socialism adopted by Labour under the influence of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, increasingly aligning itself instead with co-operative, syndicalist and guild socialist traditions. One party proposal was that all incomes should be subjected to an absolute upper limit.
Though the party was initially chaired by Priestley, he stepped down after just a few months, unable to reconcile himself with the politics of Acland - who as a sitting MP had undue influence within the party. Wintringham was Priestley's natural successor but deferred to Acland, despite very real political differences between them.
Acland himself had a less easy-going approach, in his book The Forward March he had claimed that in Britain under a Forward March government:
the community as a whole which must decide whether or not a man shall be employed upon our resources, and how and when and in what manner he shall work...[the community shall] run camps for shirkers on very tolerable conditions.
Acland went on to say of these camps:
[Hitler] has stumbled across (or has needed to make use of) a small part, or perhaps one should say one particular aspect of, what will ultimately be required of humanity.
These differences, which led to Priestley stepping down from the leadership and his gradual withdrawal from the party (though he continued to support and endorse individual candidates), were a source of continued tension between former 1941 Committee and Nine Point Group members on one side and Forward Marchers and Christian Socialists on the other.
These differences in underlying approach within Common Wealth were highlighted in a booklet by Tom and Kitty Wintringham in 1944 titled Fellowship or Morality?. Wintringham encouraged C. A. Smith to become party chairman, the two having been brought together in the journal Left, after both severing ties with their respective Marxist parties (Communist Party of Great Britain and Independent Labour Party) over support for the war as an anti-fascist cause, and his election in 1944 strengthened the syndicalist / libertarian ideology of the party.
During the war years, there was an all-party coalition government incorporating the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Parties, who agreed that casual vacancies should be filled unopposed. CW intervention allowed a radicalising electorate to return socialist candidates in Conservative heartlands, in Eddisbury, Skipton and Chelmsford. In February 1943 the party contested four by-elections. In Ashford, 10 February 1943, Catherine Williamson lost against the incumbent Conservative party candidate by 5,000 votes. The following day, the journalist Tom Wintringham was lost to the Conservative candidate for North Midlothian by a margin of only 869 votes. The party lost two subsequent elections in North Portsmouth (16 February) and Watford (23 February) by more than 2,000 votes.
In April 1943, John Eric Loverseed, became Common Wealth's first elected MP after successfully winning a by-election held in Eddisbury. In November 1944, he left the party and joined Labour in May of the following year. In the 1945 general election, voters deserted CW for Labour and only Chelmsford (not fought by Labour) was held. In 1946 after Tom Wintringham finally left the party, Common Wealth's MP, Ernest Millington, crossed the floor to join the Labour Party.
The inability to maintain a Parliamentary presence created a crisis for Common Wealth and at the Hastings conference in 1946, the party split. Two-thirds, including the original leadership, defected to Labour but were unable to persuade the remainder to disband. Tom and Kitty Wintringham left and Tom joined the Labour Party, though kept friendly with CW members and kept an active interest the party and the development of its theory and stance until his death, Kitty remained informally involved with The Libertarian until her death in 1963. Many of the new leadership then elected had joined while serving in the armed forces and included a number of personalities who had played an active role in the Cairo Forces Parliament.
During the 1950s, CW made preparations to contest the Oxford constituency, with Douglas Stuckey as prospective candidate, but these were never brought to fruition. For the remainder of its existence CW became, de facto, a pressure group, its organisation evolving, and generally contracting, as old age took its toll of the leading figures.
In the postwar period CW was active in a number of domestic and international campaigns and developed worldwide contacts. In the Middle East, it worked for a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine issue. At home, it helped to form the Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM) and campaigned with others in its situation for small parties to be allowed to make party political broadcasts. Through the latter campaign it developed close links with Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party. Common ground was found with Plaid Cymru's syndicalist tradition.
The high point of active collaboration was the joint publication in 1956 of Our Three Nations. This advocated the replacement of the United Kingdom by a 'confraternity' of self-governing states. CW also favoured regional government within England and was sympathetic to Mebyon Kernow. Several of its members, including Banks, later joined the Wessex Regionalists. Executive Committee members played an active, at times leading, role in English regionalist movements, especially during the 1980s. Other members were active in the environmental movement, including the Ecology Party.
In 1992, surviving members and political associates met in London for a 50th anniversary lunch. Shortly after, the death of W.J. 'Buck' Taylor, for many years CW's secretary, called into question the organisation's ability to continue. At a meeting in Cheltenham in 1993, the decision was taken to dissolve.
The CW archives are deposited with the University of Sussex. The early history of CW was the subject of a PhD thesis by Dr Angus Calder. Much detail of the partys' formation and by elections can be found in the Tom Wintringham's biography The Last English Revolutionary by Hugh Purcell and Phyll Smith, while the wartime wrangle between Acland's authoritarian Anglicanism and Wintringham's syndaclist Marxism is detailed in Socialism and Religion: Roads to Common Wealth by Vincent Geoghegan. Later history was written up by John Banks in a series of articles in CW's periodical, The Libertarian and its successor, Common Wealth Journal.
The Common Wealth Party's later political philosophy was heavily influenced by a notion that a new mode of production, known as managerialism, was replacing the archetypal forms of capitalism. This idea was drawn from works such as James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution (1941). Burnham (a former Trotskyist Marxist turned pioneering neoconservative) argued that the rise of a salaried managerial class, accompanied by the withdrawal of shareholders from active involvement in the running of businesses, was creating a split between the (legal) proprietors of organisations and a class of non-proprietorial professionals who were responsible for the day-to-day management of those organisations. CW used this idea to develop a modified Marxist analysis, which saw managerialism as a historical stage between capitalism and socialism.
Managerialism, according to CW, characterised the Attlee government's post-war programme of nationalisation. The party set out its critique of managerialism in a pamphlet entitled Nationalisation is not Socialism (1948). In essence, this critique suggested that: many features of the Labour Party's programme had not been approved by voters; this confirmed the theory that power, in "socialised" economies as much as market ones, was in the hands of a largely unaccountable managerial class, which served the owners of capital at arm's length; most private ownership was continuing; shares were being replaced by loan stock at inflated valuations, the interest on which was paid from the profits of state-run industries; ministers refused to answer questions in parliament on operational matters, meaning in effect that the managements of nationalised industries were not subject to ongoing democratic control; worker representation at board level was either token or non-existent and often justified by reference to populist beliefs that workers did not yet possess the skills required (an unconvincing argument, in CW's view given the record of the co-operative movement, the trade unions, and the Labour Party itself), and; a growing cult of "experts" (i.e. technocracy) and a drift towards authoritarianism, which could be seen (for example) in the frequent appointment of former military officers being to run nationalised industries.
Worker-controlled organisations were also promoted by CW, which publicised successful real-world examples, such as the chemical manufacturer Scott Bader Commonwealth. While CW was critical of communist dictatorships, it expressed limited support for the system of worker self-management that existed in Yugoslavia under Josep Tito (see Economy of SFR Yugoslavia).
Although sympathetic to the non-aligned movement, CW was critical of its inclusion of dictatorships from various part of the political spectrum. Some members of CW were active in Amnesty International.
Other influences during this era included humanistic psychology. Noted psychologists Dr Don Bannister and Dr James Hemming were CW members, and via Hemming and Wintringham so did their friend Ernst Schumacher make contributions to party thought. CW enthusiastically adopted the 'executive-sensory nexus' model of organisation, derived from left/right brain theory. Under this model, the Executive Committee, responsible for current decision-making, is shadowed by a scrutiny panel, known in CW as the Sensory Committee, whose role is monitoring and review, research and longer-term development. CW's interest in optimising social organisation consistent with its principles also led it to develop close links with the School of Integrative Social Research at Braziers Park, Oxfordshire.
Left 1942-1947 Town and Country Review 1943-44 Common Wealth Review 1944-49 Common Wealth News 1949 The Libertarian 1950-1988 Common Wealth Journal 1989-1990