Dean Parker: Kiwis helped stir up ruling classes

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What did you do in World War II grandpa? Well, actually, I was appointed Prime Minister in Cairo.

Forces gather in Cairo on Empire Day in 1943. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Forces gather in Cairo on Empire Day in 1943. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

It's hard to find information on how many Kiwis were involved in the infamous "Forces Parliament" in Cairo 1943-44, hard to find as it more or less ended being censored out of history.

In World War II the centre of the Allies' Middle East and Mediterranean operations was Cairo. It was a city where the British Ambassador strode about the Gezira golf course with a bearer and a brace of shotgun loudly claiming that kites were stealing his golf balls, and where King Farouk could set off for a day's shoot up the Nile and be reported in the local papers as potting 1500 ducks.

By late 1943 the Allies' reserve forces were still stationed there. Their base camp was at Maadi, on the outskirts of the city. The reserve forces there would regularly be joined by troops on leave from the western desert and North Africa.

There was little diversion at the base camp.

To chipper the boys up a bit, the Army Education Authority conceived the idea of holding formal debates in the forces' impressive Concert Chamber.

The Concert Chamber was a converted cinema off Suliman Pasha St, once called La Pontiniere.

It had largely lain empty while the men lay in brothels, so the officer in charge, Brigadier Chrystal, gave his enthusiastic approval.

The debates began in September 1943.

Then someone suggested they could take the form of a sort of parliament. This was responded to with an enthusiasm that only dimmed when it was found nobody had a really clear idea of how parliaments worked.

A South African lieutenant who'd made a study of parliamentary procedure was found and immediately voted into office as Speaker.

He took the chair and drew the gathering's attention to the need for a government and opposition to fill the parliament. The rowdy crowd in the Concert Chamber cheerfully split up into two sides and moved for business to commence at the next session.

This was held on December 1 and the 500 who turned up debated the problems of a national transport system. All views and alternatives were aired. When the matter was put to the vote, a large majority voted to nationalise everything.

At the second session, a month later on New Year's Day, 1944, the same large majority passed a bill entitled, the Inheritance Restriction Bill.

So: all transport to be nationalised and the wealthy, on passing from this earth, to have their riches seized.

An account of proceedings in Basil Davidson's Special Operations Europe records, "It was noted that the Area Education Officer was beginning to look worried."

At the third session a proposal was made to formalise the parliament into political parties. But wouldn't such a move be in breach of the King's Regulations? Well, no, because this was a mock parliament with mock parties.

Four political parties were instituted: Conservative, Liberal, Labour - and a party called Commonwealth, made up largely of New Zealanders and Australians.

At the February session, a general election took place. The Conservatives got 17 votes and the Liberals 38. The rest went overwhelmingly to Labour and Commonwealth. Commonwealth declared itself in alliance with Labour and a left-wing coalition with a huge majority took the government benches.

A private from the Pay Corps found himself Prime Minister and announced that at the next session, in April, the Labour-Commonwealth coalition would introduce a bill nationalising the banks. The Forces' Parliament, as it had now become widely dubbed, was attracting a great deal of attention. Its decisions to nationalise transport, confiscate inherited wealth and seize the banks were being eagerly reported in news sheets. German radio was broadcasting that British troops in Egypt had taken over the country and set up Soviets of Soldiers and Airmen.

At the April session, 600 servicemen packed into the Concert Chamber. Word had spread that the brigadier intended putting an end to it all.

Before the Speaker could bring the house to order, in marched the brigadier, a phalanx of military police with him. First he ordered all press representatives out. Then he declared that the current debates were being held in clear contravention of King's Regulations. The meetings were to be dissolved, forbidden and suppressed and all cables or letters referring to them would be forthwith subject to censorship.

One by one, each of the party leaders, Labour, Commonwealth, Liberal, Tory, stood and condemned Brigadier Chrystal.

The Speaker said it was totally against British tradition for the standing army to seize power from the parliamentary estate. He put the matter to a vote and the house condemned the Brigadier's action 600-1, the Brigadier's vote being the only dissent.

The Speaker now declared the Brigadier's ban could only apply to subsequent sessions and by another big majority, the banks were duly nationalised.

But it was all over for the Cairo Soviet. Its leading members were detained and rapidly posted to faraway places.

The Forces' Parliament lived on, of course, in spirit, in Britain's general election in July 1945 when Labour took office in Britain with a radical programme of nationalisation.

Forces Parliament

* Sept 1943 Formal debates begin

* Dec 1943 First new parliament session is held. 500 debate national transport issues

* Feb 1944 A general election is held

* Apr 1944 A brigadier and military police storm the April session, effectively ending the Forces Parliament.

Dean Parker is a writer and dramatist. His plays include Midnight in Moscow and The Hollow Men.

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