Sixty-five years ago this month the Daily Express published a particularly horrific picture on its front page. Under the heading Hanged Britons: Picture that will shock the world, it showed two British sergeants, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, who had been murdered by Irgun paramilitaries in the Mandate of Palestine. The sergeants had been kidnapped and killed in reprisal for the execution of three members of the Jewish underground organisation in what was becoming an increasingly ugly guerrilla war.
There had been other terrorist incidents in the course of the conflict, but what became known as “the sergeant’s affair” was different. The sheer ugliness of the event – the bodies were also bobby trapped – brought the conflict home to the people of
Britain, causing the most widespread anti-Semitic rioting the country had ever seen, notwithstanding the fact that the killings had been condemned by British Jewish leaders.
By the end of the August holiday weekend there had been serious anti-Jewish rioting in
Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool, with more minor disturbances in Bristol, Hull, Warrington and London. Although there were no fatalities a number of people were beaten up and property destroyed, including a wooden synagogue in West Derby. In Eccles, John Regan, himself a former sergeant, harangued a crowd of some seven hundred people, saying “Hitler was right. Exterminate every Jew – every man, woman and child. What are you afraid of? There’s only a handful of police.”
Serious stuff, but in the end it all proved to be so much hot air, not just Regan’s incitement, for which he was charged and fined, but the whole violent wave. Even obvious fascist politicians like Jeffrey Hamm, formerly of the British Union of Fascists and now in charge of the League of Ex-Servicemen, could not make any lasting political capital out of the incident. The Express, which had triggered the violence with its sensational front page lead, backed off in shock, calling for calm and describing the attacks on innocent shopkeepers as a national disgrace.
That short hot summer has left almost no memory. It’s a pity, really, because as history the whole episode is really quite intriguing. Although superficially caused by an event far from these shores, it revealed much more about problems and difficulties far closer to home: the problems of austerity
George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, published two years after the sergeants’ incident, is supposedly about a dystopian future. In actual fact it was much more about a dystopian present, as people reading it at the time would have recognised. The drab
London he depicts in the novel was not some imaginative construct but a living reality. Like so many other British cities, it had not fully recovered from the war. Vacant lots and bomb sites were everywhere. With a housing shortage came a serious problem of homelessness.
The war, and its financial legacy, also had had a profound effect on the economy. Some foodstuffs, like butter, meat were still rationed. Confectionary had come off ration in 1949, but distribution had to be brought back under state control because demand was simply too great. Shortages meant that people took to producing their own food in back gardens and allotments. Income tax was at an extraordinarily high level, more than twice what it is today. Bureaucratic red tape was a major feature of everyday life, also brilliantly reflected in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the 'social comedies' being produced by Ealing Studios, movies like Whisky Galore and Passport to Pimlico.
The war had been won; the peace was clearly being lost. Food shortages and serious unemployment were compounded by a fuel shortage in the bitter winter of 1946-47, when coal was rationed in a coal-rich country. Unhappy and bewildered, people looked for scapegoats, turning to the greatest scapegoats of all – the Jews. Rationing created a vigorous black market which, by common perception, was controlled by the Jews. It’s not that surprising that so many ordinary people were taken in by this, especially as Ernest Bevan, foreign minister in the Labour government of the day, made anti-Semitic remarks, including one to the effect that the Jews of Europe were “pushing to the front of the queue.”
Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, where the rioting was worse, also happened to be the places most affected by unemployment and general deprivation. What began there as anti-Jewish riots soon turned into a looting free for all. But the whole thing passed just as quickly as it had emerged. The hooliganism had been based on personal frustration not on any deep rooted anti-Jewish hostility. It was too soon after the Holocaust, details of which were still being revealed, for anti-Semitism to become a credible cause. 1947, as Lionel Trilling said in an article on the subject (New Statesman, 28 May), was the end of a chapter, not the beginning.
The following year the state of
Israel was formed and the sergeants’ affair, and the riots, forgotten. It left one painful and unnoticed irony: Clifford Martin was Jewish.