They railed at bankers, urged Britain to cut ties with Europe, and argued that austerity was crippling the economy. David Nash tells the story of a mass political movement that was driven onto the streets in the 1930s by many of the issues facing the country today.
In June 1934, a green brick crashed through the front window of 11 Downing Street. This wasn’t the first time that the official residence of the chancellor of the exchequer had come under attack in its long history, but it had never seen anything quite like this. Why had someone felt moved to throw a brick at this symbol of Britain’s financial power – and why on Earth was it green?
The answer lies with a group of economic dissenters known as the Social Credit Party of Great Britain. Fuelled by the conviction that Britain’s economy had been hijacked by a foreign – a few even believed, Jewish – conspiracy, this strange but fleetingly influential movement carried out a series of high-profile ‘attacks’ on the British establishment throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. They threw another green brick in Downing Street – this time at Number 10 – petitioned the king, lobbied the Duke of Windsor, and burned an effigy of the Bank of England’s governor, Montagu Norman, in Threadneedle Street.
Perhaps most memorably of all, they had a penchant for sporting military uniforms, and would soon be identifiable through their signature green shirts.
Countless groups have emerged from the rubble of 2008’s financial crisis to voice their distrust of the world’s leading financial institutions. However, in the wake of the Depression, the 1930s witnessed an even more coherent counter movement, which was determined to provide a viable alternative to both fascism and the liberal financial system. As a lead player in this movement, the Social Credit Party represented one of the most important challenges to Britain’s interwar economic system.
Social Credit as an idea was the brainchild of Major CH Douglas (1879–1952), who noted that the value of the goods that Britain’s workers produced was always greater than the value of goods that they consumed. For Douglas, an engineer by trade, this provided evidence that the machinery of the British economy was malfunctioning. He argued that the producers of wealth were not sufficiently rewarded for their efforts and that their spending power, the gap between what they produced and consumed, was thus also denied to the economic system – producing mass unemployment and poverty. ‘Too much of everything’ coincided with a shortage of money – a situation that, he argued, was being engineered by a shadowy ‘International Credit Monopoly’.
The masterstroke that Douglas offered to revive this faltering economic model was the idea of a ‘Social Credit’ – a reward that would be paid directly to wage earners and unemployed alike. This, Douglas claimed, would give people enhanced buying power and, in doing so, serve to stimulate the economy.
Major Douglas was a theorist trying to convince those within the political system to embrace his vision of economics. He was, therefore, as shocked as anyone when a political party actually began to grow around his ideas. The man most responsible for Social Credit’s migration from dry theory to mass movement was Douglas apostle John Hargrave, who, in 1920, had founded a craft-orientated pacifist movement called the ‘Kindred of the Kibbo Kift’. In the early 1930s, the Kindred mutated into the Social Credit Party of Great Britain and then the Green Shirt Movement for Social Credit – its choice of green as its signature colour possibly influenced by its origins as a ‘folk’ movement. By this time it was displaying a similar distrust of parliament and fondness for military organisation as the black shirts of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
The Social Credit movement did, however, espouse conventional politics. It fielded a candidate in the 1935 general election, while also organising deputations to parliament and 10 Downing Street.
What’s more, some of Britain’s political heavyweights – not to mention leading literary and religious figures – were prepared to give the green shirt cause a hearing. Among them was future Labour chief whip Lord Strabolgi, who not only received a deputation from the movement at the House of Lords in 1934 but also asked the government to consider more seriously the idea of the ‘National Dividend’ as a way out of the financial doldrums.
Despite falling foul of a government ban on uniformed organisations in 1936, supporters remained active into the war years – notably arguing in early 1939 that the “bankers should be conscripted first”.
By the mid-1930s, however, John Hargrave had lost faith in his ability to change the British economic system. Instead, his attention was being drawn to the other side of the Atlantic, where a Social Credit party, led by a Christian evangelist called William Aberhart, had won a landslide victory to govern the Canadian province of Alberta.
Many voters quickly became disillusioned with the party when Aberhart’s attempts to nationalise the banking system were scuppered by the Canadian federal government and its judiciary. Aberhart did, however, start his own publicly owned financial institution, the Alberta Treasury Branches, which survives today as North America’s only government-owned mainstream bank.
Remarkably, the Alberta ‘Socreds’ remained in power into the early 1970s – albeit practising a brand of Social Credit radically diluted by the demands of office – before being voted out, never to hold the reins of power again. They survive today in Canada as a minority party that still opposes what it sees as corrosive business interests.
Their counterparts in Britain proved far less resilient. John Hargrave attempted to revive the fortunes of his party by standing as a candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 1950 general election. His campaign was a fiasco and, in 1951, he decided to wind the party up.
Maybe Hargrave’s failure was a sign of the times. The rise of the Social Credit movement was very much a product of the Depression. It had offered a vehicle for people to vent their anger at those financial institutions (many of them foreign) that they held responsible for economic Armageddon.
In the wake of another great financial crisis, many of the issues that drove the green shirts to throw bricks in Downing Street are making the news today. Anti-capitalist movements are at the forefront of protests against the banking world, isolationist anti-European politics are enjoying a renaissance, while Britain’s coalition government stands accused of not doing enough to encourage consumers to spend. With all this in mind, it is intriguing to speculate what might happen if Britain’s political establishment was confronted by Hargrave’s green shirts today.
Three prominent devotees of Social Credit
1) Ezra Pound, poet (1885–1972)
Pound embraced Social Credit in 1920, attracted by its individualism, which echoed his Quaker upbringing. Pound’s poetry embraced elements of ‘Imagist’ thought, which rejected ideas of development and the sequential nature of history.
This was a cornerstone of the individualism and quasi-anarchism in Social Credit which called on individuals not governments to change society. These likewise became central to the fascist ideas that Pound would also later espouse.
2) TS Eliot, poet and playwright (1888–1965)
Eliot had financial and banking experience and was attracted by many elements of Social Credit.
He wrote enthusiastically in support of the idea in many forums, enthusing about the movement’s desire to re-order society to overcome its immediate ills, which he saw as caused by the terminal decline of liberalism. Unemployment was a moral problem for Eliot, as was misdirected and unnecessary consumption.
3) William Temple, Bishop (1881–1944)
Temple’s interest in the Social Credit Movement indicates how many cultural resonances this idea could have with widely different individuals. Temple tended to disguise his support but openly admired the Social Credit promise of a messianic ‘new age’ that would tackle society’s problems.
Social Credit also inspired Anglo-Catholic admiration of some aspects of medieval England – most notably its prohibition of usury and the absence of ‘interfering’ institutions.
David Nash is professor of history at Oxford Brookes University.