Nearing the end of WWII, armed forces stationed in Egypt established their own parliament to demand a socialist transformation of Britain’s economy. On VE Day, we republish an article from a ‘Minister’ of the Cairo Forces Parliament.
British armed forces stationed in Egypt. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
For six months towards the end of the Second World War, Maadi—a large, dusty British Army base on the outskirts of Cairo—was the unlikely setting for one of the most interesting experiments in military democracy this country has seen.
Britain’s armed forces established their own parliament—the Cairo Forces Parliament (CFP), a troops’ parliament—where they stood candidates, held elections, formed parties, and voted on policies they wished to see enacted at the war’s end.
Determined not to return to the same Britain they left, the CFP demanded a radical overhaul of the country’s economy, with soldiers voting for, among other things, the nationalisation of banks, land, mines, and transport in the United Kingdom.
Though short-lived—the CFP met just six times—the troop’s parliament inspired several satellite parliaments in Greece, India and elsewhere in Egypt. After initially being tolerated, the apparent radicalism of the rank-and-file spooked the military’s upper brass. Following a vote in favour of nationalising the banks, the CFP was suppressed, with its most prominent members being swiftly reposted.
While the democratic experiment in the desert was brief, it signalled a broader appetite for political change that would soon be realised with the election of Clement Atlee’s post-war Labour government. Indeed, two of its participants, Leo Abse and Henry Solomons, would go on to be elected as Labour MPs after the war.
On VE Day, we republish an article first published in Tribune on 26 May 1944, written by an anonymous ‘Minister’ of the CFP.
A Desert Democracy
EVERYBODY here is talking about the Troops’ Parliament held at “Music-for-All” — a Service club in Cairo. The Parliament is unique in history. It is attracting large crowds — well over 500 at each meeting (a number far higher than the average attendance at the House of Commons), and this is additionally significant in view of the fact that each soldiers wanting to attend the Parliament has to pay 7½d as admission to the club. In spite of this sum, scores of people are turned away when the “House Full” notice is up. Not only is this Parliament attracting local attention and the imagination of the troops, but has attracted world-wide attention in the Press. American papers such as Time have given it prominence. The German radio has even seen fit to draw the attention of its listeners to its existence. True, they have lied about the Parliament, and said that it shows dissension among the troops and dissatisfaction with Churchill as War Leader, but nevertheless the listeners who still understand what democracy means will appreciate the true significance of this confident expression of the people’s desire to discuss current affairs.
It is enlightening to examine the history and some of the problems of this Parliament, especially in view of the fact that those taking part are soldiers, and as such are restricted by the relevant passages of King’s Regulations. The Parliament arose out of a Discussion Group which had been functioning at “Music-For-All” for years, and having weekly talks and discussions on current affairs. Last November, a South African Division presented a Mock Parliament at one of the weekly meetings, and this proved such a success that it was decided to make this a permanent feature of the Discussion Group’s programme. It was agreed, at first, not to run the Parliament on Party lines, and two meetings of the Parliament with Bills such as “Retail Trades Nationalisation Bill” and “Inheritance Restriction Bill” were put forward. There were some criticisms, mainly on lack of continuity, and it was decided by the Discussion Group Committee to run future parliaments more or less on recognisable lines. Accordingly, a General Election was arranged, and aided by publicity from the local press, there was a sharp increase in attendance at this election, about 400 people being present.
There were four candidates, and each was given ten minutes to speak and fifteen minutes to answer questions. Then a vote was taken, with the result that Labour was elected with 119 votes, Common Wealth* next with 55, Liberals 38, and finally Conservatives 17. Not all present voted, but the results were more or less as expected, judging from the trends of discussion in the Group previously. Labour, having gained the majority, formed a Government, with Common Wealth principal Opposition Party.
The next meeting — March 1st — consisted of a King’s Speech outlining the Labour programme for the coming session. The organisers visualised a session lasting six months, and accordingly the Labour Party were instructed to prepare legislation for the period. At this meeting there were over 500 present, and the doors had to be closed. A Parliamentary Committee was set up to arrange the running of the Parliament, publicity, and other problems, and Committees of each party also had weekly meetings to discuss their attitude. Other bills due to follow were on India, Housing, Land and Agriculture, Nationalisation of Power, Fuel and Transport, and an Education Bill. In order to avoid dealing with actual day-to-day problems, and therefore be accused of political agitation, the period in which the Parliament was sitting was at some future date, between the Armistice and the signing of the Peace Treaty. An announcement was also made that although the actual parties were being used, no speaker could claim to speak officially on behalf of any party.
There were no reactions from the Military Authorities until the election results were announced in the local press, and from thence all over the world. Then it started. There were many stories, some true and some perhaps untrue; one said that “instructions had been received from the War Office for the Parliament to be banned.” These were considered but rejected because the Parliament had already been given such publicity as would make such a step undesirable. In any case, the Press correspondents of the big dailies were ready to support the Parliament, and in this respect the names of the Daily Herald and Daily Express correspondents should be mentioned.
But although no decision on banning the Parliament was taken, certain steps were considered an in attempt to curb its effect, and perhaps to prevent any militancy. For instance, the local press were informed verbally that no further mention of the Parliament was to be made, a picture feature for a picture paper was stopped by a censor, and moves against the Parliament were constantly rumoured. Nevertheless, undisturbed preparations went on for the next session, at which a Bill was to be presented for “Nationalisation of the Banks.”
On the night of this meeting — April 5th — the hall was crowded. By the time it started it was packed, and the “House Full” notice was again up. The atmosphere was electric. Representatives of the Press were present, and the audience included high-ranking Army officers, who had come to see this truly remarkable meeting.
Before the Speaker took the chair, an Army officer walked on to the platform and read a notice from the Military Authorities, which said, in effect, that as the German radio was making capital out of the Parliament, it was decided that it should no longer be called by that name, but instead a “Discussion Group,” and that, further, civilians (who were allowed in if accompanied by soldiers) were in future not to attend.
Immediately on finishing this order, the Labour Prime Minister stood up and moved to an energetic protest against this treatment of the Parliament by the Military Authorities. He said that this new step would add fuel to the fire of the enemy’s abuse, and that, in any case, such decisions should have been conveyed to the Committee, who would have solved all questions without having brought them into the open in this way. The Prime Minister was joined in the protest by leaders of all the other parties, who pointed out the blunder of the Military in bringing the matter up in precisely this way. A vote was taken from the body of the hall, and there was unanimous support for the protest.
The business of the meeting then began, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer put forward his Bill. explaining how it would loosen the stranglehold of the country’s resources by the big Banks.
[…] He praised the Labour Movement, “the child of the working people of Britain, the Engineers, Miners and Steel Workers,” and appealed to Common Wealth to park their snobbery and confusion, and march side by side with their comrades against a common enemy. The Bill was passed. Cairo Troops Assembly had nationalised the banks!
Everything written here leads up to the opinion that this Parliament must not be suppressed, but instead supported and encouraged. It would definitely have a bad effect on the morale of the troops in the Cairo area if any step towards suppression were taken. Such a step, too, would give the German radio further propaganda, as it is evident that the longer the life of the Parliament, the bigger is the lie that the Parliament is in any way a sign of dissension among the troops. Every attempt is made to encourage the Opposition to put forward their view. The organisers’ aim was not at putting across political propaganda, but at dressing up debates on matters of vital importance to everybody by use of Parliamentary procedure. This use also has the valuable secondary effect of interesting the troops in Parliament as an institution, and as such can only be applauded by all who have democratic ideals at heart. It is emphasised, once more, that everyone who attends this Parliament has to pay to do so, and no further proof is required that this Parliament fulfils a real need, when it is a fact that some 500 soldiers and airmen do pay this sum.
* This refers to the progressive Common Wealth Party (founded in 1942), not a party of soldiers from Commonwealth countries.Original post