Common Wealth was founded in July 1942 by the alliance of the left wing 1941 Committee - a think tank brought together by Picture Post owner Edward G. Hulton, and their 'star' writers J.B. Priestley and Tom Wintringham - and the neo-Christian Forward March movement led by Liberal Party Member of Parliament (MP) Richard Acland, who disagreed with the electoral pact established with other parties in the wartime coalition, former Liberals who believed that party had no direction, and independents. 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.
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 that ultimately led to his parting company with CW. In his book The Forward March he claimed that in Britain under a Common Wealth 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.
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 the 1945 UK 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. 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 post-war 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. 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. 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.
CW’s later political philosophy was pervasively influenced by James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941). Burnham argued that the rise of a salaried managerial class, accompanied by the withdrawal of shareholders from active involvement in the running of businesses, had transformed the nature of capitalism, creating a split between ownership and control. CW used this idea to develop a modified Marxist analysis, interposing managerialism as a new mode of production between capitalism and socialism. This proved to be a powerful tool for understanding the Attlee government’s nationalisation programme. In 1948, CW set out its critique in a pamphlet, Nationalisation is not Socialism.
Many features of Labour’s programme appeared to confirm the theory that power, in ‘socialised’ economies as much as market ones, was now in the hands of a largely unaccountable managerial class serving the owners of capital at arm’s length. Private owners were not expropriated; in many cases their shares were replaced by loan stock at inflated valuations, the interest on which was paid from the profits of now State-run industries. Ministers refused to answer Parliamentary questions 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. The official explanation for not extending worker involvement was that workers did not yet possess the organisational skills required, an unconvincing argument given the record of the co-operative movement, the trade unions and the Labour Party itself. The extent to which former military leaders were appointed to run the nationalised industries led Common Wealth to warn throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s against trends towards regimentation in society and later the growing cult of the ‘expert’ technocrat.
CW was active in publicising successful examples of workers’ control in industry, notably the Scott Bader Commonwealth. It was also an admirer of the system of workers’ self-management introduced in Yugoslavia under Josep Tito, though not of the Communist regime itself. Although sympathetic to the non-aligned movement, it was critical of dictators from whatever part of the political spectrum and some members 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. 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.