The Desert Parliament

Soldiers during the Second World War were determined they would not return to the same Britain they left. So they set up their own parliament.

Illustration by Joanna Neborsky

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.

Morale was low in Maadi by 1943. Troops had already been there for two or three years, they were bored and living in terrible conditions under canvas. Communication with home was poor and, with the war shifting away from Egypt, there was a sense of restlessness.

Hoping to provide some entertainment and distraction, the army set up a club called ‘Music For All’, which hosted concert parties and amateur operatics societies. But according to Samuel Bardell, a British non-commissioned officer stationed at Maadi, there was an appetite for something more substantial. ‘Some sort of solid fare for people to chew on,’ was what the soldiers were looking for, he said, ‘different from the usual beer and skittles or listening to pop music or seeing films’.

The idea for the Cairo Forces Parliament (CFP) evolved from two activities already running at Music For All: an informal debating society called Thinking Aloud, and the local army education corps’ ‘Brains Trust’ — a panel of experts who toured the local camps giving talks. Some troops heard that a South African division based nearby had held a mock parliament and suggested copying the format.

There was huge concern among the troops about what kind of life they would return to once peace was declared. Reports by the army’s ‘Morale Committee’ observed that ‘the nearest thing that the ordinary soldier has to a conscious “war aim” is to make sure that he will have a home and a job and what he regards as a fair deal after the war’.

There was a determination not to repeat the mistakes of the previous generation. ‘Our parents,’ Bardell said, ‘had fought in the First World War and been promised a land “fit for heroes” and got the Great Depression and the slums and finally, the war again’. But there was also excitement about the possibilities of post-war life. The Beveridge Report, published in 1942, had offered a blueprint for a welfare state with the capacity to radically improve ordinary people’s lot, and many soldiers were eager to discuss its proposals.

At first the idea of a mock parliament was officially supported by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), which saw its potential as a safety valve, a useful way for troops to blow off steam while improving morale by focusing on post-war reconstruction. This might seem surprising, given the hierarchical, authoritarian nature of the army but, in fact, there was a clear precedent — the seventeenth century ‘Putney Debates’ of the New Model Army, which Bardell believed had a direct influence:

‘A lot of us were imbued with the idea of a Cromwellian army — that the army knows what it fights for and loves what it knows — a thinking army is a much better instrument to defeat fascism’.

But while ABCA believed debate should be encouraged, it was important that the army would retain control of all discussions. An early ABCA report stated that: ‘The officer . . . must never relax nor abdicate his leadership of the discussion.’ A ‘Forces Parliament’ would allow troops more freedom than the army was generally comfortable with, and not everyone was convinced. The officer in charge of army education, Brigadier Chrystal, was known to be lukewarm on the idea. Nevertheless, the first meeting was held 1 December 1943, in an old cinema at Music For All.

According to Bardell, who became the CFP’s secretary, it was run ‘along pukka parliamentary lines’. There was a speaker who was ‘versed in all the rules and regulations’, and at each meeting a bill would be debated and voted on. Anyone who attended was considered an MP and could vote on the bill. Around 150 troops turned up to the first meeting.

A few of the participants had been politically active before the war as union officials or councillors, and one had even been a parliamentary candidate; but most were ‘perfectly ordinary troops, who just came out of curiosity’, according to David Wallis, another participant. At first there was reticence: ‘there was no heckling . . . we were a darn sight more courteous than what you hear from the House today!’ But over time it took on an atmosphere closer to Westminster: ‘later that went with a bit of pump-priming . . . people would ask more aggressive questions from the floor’.

Meetings lasted about two hours, and ended before the bars closed to avoid the audience drifting away. Subjects were chosen with a view to generating discussion. At the first meeting, the government proposed a bill which would nationalise the distributive trades; it passed easily. By the second meeting the following month, attendance doubled to 300. This time the bill suggested placing restrictions on inheritance, and again it gained a large majority. For Wallis it was ‘very exciting . . . to hear all these subjects openly debated’; to Bardell it was ‘a real revolution . . . the fact that you could get up in the presence of an officer and argue with him’.

Meetings were open to anyone who wished to attend, including civilians, but in practice few officers attended. Although many of the organisers were left-leaning and saw the parliament as an opportunity to get their ideas across to other troops, a special effort was made to encourage Conservative voters to attend, since this would make for more interesting debates (and perhaps help counter any accusations of left-wing bias).

Organisers had to be mindful of ‘King’s Regulation 541’, which prohibited soldiers from criticising the government of the day. To get around this, the CFP’s guidelines made clear that this notional parliament was taking place at some point in the future: ‘Please bear in mind that this parliament is supposed to be sitting in the period after the armistice but before the signing of the peace treaty . . . it must be clearly understood that, though the names of existing parties have been used to lend verisimilitude to the proceedings, the various speakers have no claim to speak officially on behalf of any party.’

After several successful meetings and votes, it was decided that a general election would be held on 2 February 1944. Four parties were represented: Labour, the Common Wealth Party, the Liberals, and the Conservatives. Each candidate spoke for ten minutes, then took questions from an audience of over 400. Labour won an absolute majority, with Common Wealth coming second and the Conservatives a distant fourth.

At the next meeting, ‘Prime Minister’ Harry Solomons (who would later become MP for Hull) presented a King’s Speech. Its proposed legislation included nationalisation of the banks and financial institutions; equality of opportunity in education; increased pensions; and the building of four million homes over the next ten years. According to the Egyptian Gazette, ‘The House welcomed the speech with enthusiasm. There was little criticism that mattered.’

Then, with very little warning, the army’s patience with the Forces Parliament seemed to run out. Perhaps they were alarmed by the radical nature of the King’s Speech, or by reports that questions had been asked of the parliament’s ‘foreign secretary’ about whether the British occupation of Egypt would continue after the war.

At the next meeting on 5 April, the area education officer attended and announced that future meetings would need to be held under new conditions. The term ‘parliament’ would no longer be used in advertising, and meetings would be supervised to ensure that ‘no violent political propaganda and nothing subversive to discipline occurs’. Each of the party leaders in turn made a speech protesting the proposed regulations, all of which were ‘received with vociferous applause by the audience’, Bardell recalled. The matter was then put to a vote, and the House condemned the changes 600–1, Brigadier Chrystal’s being the only dissenting voice.

The speaker announced that any new regulations would only apply to subsequent meetings, and so the House would proceed with the order of the day. The ‘chancellor of the exchequer’ Leo Abse (who would later serve as a Labour MP for nearly thirty years) then proposed a motion to nationalise the Bank of England. It passed, but was to be the Forces Parliament’s final action. The army’s reaction, according to Abse, was surprisingly strong, given their earlier support of the CFP:

‘That night I nationalised the bank; but in the morning I was arrested . . . I was taken under escort to Suez and kept in custody to await the arrival of a boat which was to take me to a hot and arid island in the Persian Gulf where I was to be quarantined.’

In the days that followed, several other leading members of the left-wing parties were posted abroad without warning. One further meeting was held under the new conditions, but it was boycotted. Bardell recalled, ‘the only people found there were a couple of officers who had been deputed to attend, and a courting couple who’d sought the place out for a bit of solitude.’

The official reason given for the new rules was that the Germans were using the existence of the Forces Parliament in their propaganda broadcasts, as evidence that the British Army was low in morale and on the verge of mutiny. But for the organisers, it was clear that the strength of support for Labour had spooked the ‘brass hats’. Chrystal was reportedly overheard to say, ‘Of course if the figures had been reversed we shouldn’t have had to worry about it’.

The ‘fun started after suppression’, according to Bardell. Several organisers wrote to their MPs and the cause was taken up by a few of them. DN Pritt, MP for Hammersmith North, became ‘the forces’ pin-up’ after he initiated several debates on the CFP at Westminster. Articles about the parliament appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the New Statesman; the Daily Mirror and Tribune wrote pieces denouncing its suppression.

Despite only having held six meetings, the CFP inspired several satellite parliaments, including the ‘Heliopolis House of Commons’ at another base near Cairo, and at least two in India. One of these, at a reception camp at Deolali, was shut down after it voted in favour of Indian independence, but reopened after Pritt again raised questions about the suppression at Westminster. One of its organisers, Bert Ramelson, acknowledged where its inspiration came from: ‘the Cairo Parliament captured the imagination of the whole army’.

And to everyone’s astonishment, the CFP’s election foreshadowed Clement Attlee’s result the following year: ‘Every politically-minded chap expected Churchill to go back in ’45 . . . or at least not to have the sweeping win Labour did . . .’, Wallis recalled. The Labour manifesto ‘Let Us Face the Future’ covered much of the same ground as the King’s Speech had at Music For All: nationalisation of major industries, a major programme of house-building, and the founding of a comprehensive welfare state.

With it, Labour gained a majority of 145 seats. The 10.7 per cent national swing from the Conservative Party to the Labour Party remains the largest ever achieved in a British general election. The shock was felt at Maadi, where Bardell was still stationed: ‘The atmosphere at the time of the election was electrifying — for three days in Cairo no officer was saluted on the streets — the officers really believed the revolution had arrived’.

It has often been said that activities like the CFP helped to catalyse the famously strong Labour vote amongst the forces. Certainly, it presaged the seismic political shock that was to come.