Archive for the ‘Sissinghurst’ Tag

The Recovery of the Labour Party & the Left in Britain, 1934-39: Fighting the Right & the Growth of a United Front.   1 comment

The Long & Winding Road to Recovery:

Following the November 1935 General Election, and Attlee’s subsequent election as leader, the Labour Party was firmly back onto the road to recovery. The components of that recovery were many and varied, but they could be summarised as including the following ten ‘key points’:

  • acceptance of the changing nature, or ‘re-making’ of the working classes, from those based on the older extractive and manufacturing industries to those in the newer, lighter engineering industries, including large numbers of women workers;

  • acceptance of the need to put the ‘National Interest’ ahead of sectional ones, whilst still seeking to develop primary policies to benefit the poorer sections of society, especially the unemployed;

  • giving priority to the needs of the working classes for local and national representation rather than promoting revolutionary activism among them;

  • ending narrow sectarianism and developing a willingness to develop socialist ideas in practice, and across a broad front, and in alliance with other groups, rather than on the basis of exclusive ideological principles;

  • developing co-operative and collective means of organising production, distribution and trade by building coalitions of social and economic organisations, including Co-operative Societies;

  • promoting social justice and equity as long-term aims as well as guiding principles for policy-making;

  • upholding the rights of all to the rights of freedom of association and expression, particularly in their participation in trade unions and organisations;

  • upholding the values of the British people, including ‘patriotism’ and the continuing importance of ensuring ‘thrift’ in programmes of public expenditure by ensuring long-term ‘planning’ of essential public services.

  • upholding the institutions of British Democracy, including its constitutional monarchy and the sovereignty of its people through Parliament, based on universal and equal representation.

  • advancing the cause of ‘municipal socialism’ through the development of local parties committed to encouraging a sense of civic pride and the establishment of social services, especially in health, maternity and education, accessible to all.   

These points are not listed in any order of priority but reflect recurring themes in contemporary sources, rather than the current concerns of sectional and sectarian protagonists within the Labour Party. Clearly, however, there are echoes and resonances which affect our interpretations of past principles and priorities. Of course, these interpretations themselves are not necessarily new, as the Thirties were set in mythology before they even ended. Then, in my lifetime, against the background of economic decline under the final Wilson administration in 1977, John Stevenson and Chris Cook published their ground-breaking book, The Slump – society and politics during the depression, which began the process of de-mythologising the period by attempting to separate the myths, potent as they still were in popular consciousness, from the historical realities.

Certainly, the politics of the immediate post-war era were fought on the record of the National Government in the pre-war years.  As late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with the election slogan, ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of the way in which the emotive image of the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché. The popular view of the 1930s as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war; a view which became sharpened against the background of full employment in the 1950s and 1960s.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when that era had clearly come to an end, the ghosts of the thirties stalked political platforms and the media as a symbol of economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent.

Contrasting Images of the Thirties:

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Now we have passed the point of ‘No Return to the Thirties’ and the memories of the decade are no longer first-hand fears, perhaps this process will soon be brought to its conclusion and we will no longer be stuck with the powerful and all-pervasive images of ‘the wasted years’ and the ‘low dishonest decade’, even if the Thirties will be forever associated with mass unemployment, hunger marches, appeasement and the rise of Fascism at home and on the continent. A concentration on unemployment and social distress does not represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. It would, of course, be fatuous to suggest that the Thirties were not for many thousands of people a time of great hardship and personal suffering. At the time, there was a thirst for information on which policy to ameliorate, if not cure this malaise could be based, especially in the Labour Party. However, it took the Party two years until the end of 1937 to set up a ‘Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas’, to produce its report and to agree on a course of action at a special conference in December 1937. This is somewhat surprising, considering that the National Government itself had, in the face of already overwhelming political pressure, passed the Special Areas Act in 1934 to take some measures in four distressed regions to help the long-term unemployed. Commissioners had been appointed and departments created, though Whitehall in-fighting and economic orthodoxy hampered their work.

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But alongside the images of the unemployed must be placed those of another Britain, of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living. Some sectors of the economy grew rapidly, particularly car manufacture, electrical engineering, the paper and publishing industries, and rayon production, all industries heavily concentrated in the Midlands. The output of the UK car industry increased from seventy-one thousand vehicles in 1923 to over 390,000 by 1937, by which time Britain was second only to the USA in the export of motor vehicles. The share of the ‘new industries’ in total industrial output rose from seven per cent in 1924 to twenty-one per cent by 1935. As a consequence of these ‘new industries’, the living standards of people who remained in employment actually improved by about sixteen per cent between the wars. Although the new industries were not sufficiently large to reverse the overall trend of economic decline, they were important in minimising the effect of the Depression for the employed, especially through the migration of workers from the older industries to the new. The economic recovery after 1934 which raised the country out of the trough of unemployment and hunger was limited and precarious. As 1936 progressed, it was recognised that, in part, the recovery depended on a rearmament programme which might ultimately involve Britain in another World War.

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As can be seen from the maps above, giving an Index of Relative Unemployment, South Wales was hit harder than any other region by unemployment and poverty. Average unemployment there was thirty-one per cent, compared with twenty per cent in Scotland and twelve per cent in England. Within Wales, there were also huge local variations in levels of unemployment, from eighty-two per cent in Taff Wells, seventy-two in Pontycymmer and sixty-six per cent in Merthyr and Abertillery down to those in the coastal towns and areas below the regional average, if not the national one. By the 1930s, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire had the highest proportion of people on poor relief in the UK, apart from Durham. To combat poverty, the National government had passed the Special Areas (Development) Act in 1934 and followed it with the Special Areas Reconstruction (Agreement) Act in 1936, which provided financial incentives to industry to move to the four distressed areas of the UK. Most of Glamorgan and west Monmouthshire became one of the ‘Special Areas’. The other areas were Glasgow-Linlithgow-Kilmarnock, South Shields-Hartlepool, and Workington. A few new industries were established in each of the areas, but the effects were inadequate.

South Wales –  A Region in Need of a Plan:

In South Wales, the social effect of high levels of poverty was devastating. With poverty came malnutrition and disease. The incidence of rickets and scarlet fever soared, and the death rate from tuberculosis was 130 per cent above the average for the UK. Local shops and services became unviable. Chapels found their congregations dwindling as large numbers of people found themselves having to leave their country, moving to the ‘new industries’ of the southeast and Midlands of England.  Some of the migration continued to be ‘planned’ by the Ministry of Labour, which sponsored the transfer of workers. Between 1921 and 1940, over 440,000 left Wales permanently, eighty-five per cent of them from Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. They either left with the majority under their own steam, or on the Ministry’s schemes, but by the late thirties, it was estimated that as many as one in ten of those officially transferred had taken themselves back to their valleys. Therefore, those experiencing some form of migration from Wales in the interwar years may well have been closer to half a million.

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In July 1934, Professor Marquand of Cardiff University published an article in The Times arguing for state stimulation of investment by means of a Trust for new industries. But he also admitted that it was unlikely that any government whether socialist or capitalist could do little more than tilt the balance very slightly in favour of regions like South Wales. It was therefore important that the transference policy should be stepped up as the revival of industry in England proceeded. This provoked an angry reaction from y Blaid Genedlaethol Cymru (‘The Welsh Nationalist Party’), the only party wholly opposed to transference at this time, although it advocated resettlement of ‘Welsh’ and ‘half-Welsh’ industrial workers in rural or ‘de-industrialised’ Wales, while the pre-1921 ‘English’ immigrants to the Coalfield could be returned to their counties of origin. The Party accused Marquand of looking longingly towards state aid and admitting that it would never be forthcoming and then hoping that England’s recovery would be sufficient to enable the flower of Welsh manhood to be dumped there. But these were voices heard only as crying in the wilderness of the ‘Celtic fringe’, as Wyndham Portal’s 1934 Report showed that the government continued to advocate transference on the largest possible scale. 

The Portal Report and the continuing emphasis placed on transference by the Government’s ‘Special Areas’ machinery, to the deliberate exclusion of any policy designed to attract new industries did, however, meet with a growing tide of protest and disgruntlement at a local and regional level within Wales. The Nationalist arguments that the ‘best elements’ in Welsh society were being ‘shipped off’, that migration was having an anglicising effect greater than that of the BBC and that the National Government was only concerned to ensure that there there was ‘no trouble’ in Wales, began to have a broader appeal among ‘establishment’ liberals and church leaders alike. They began to accept that transference and migration did not discriminate between the ‘alien accretions’ and ‘the old Welsh stock’, between the citizens of Welsh-speaking Rhymney and those of anglicised Abertillery. The statistical evidence bears this out, as the number of those identifying as Welsh-speakers declined from 155,000 in 1921 to just sixty thousand by 1939. These views were strengthened by the resolve with which the new Commissioner for the Special Areas, P. M. Stewart, set about his task in the New Year of 1935. In his first report, Stewart offered a stern rebuff to the growing tide of national feeling in Wales by suggesting that:

… love of home, pride of nationality and local associations, however desirable in themselves, furnish no adequate justification for leading a maimed life.

In the New Year of 1936, the Government’s policy again came under fire, from a more local perspective, when the Report of the Royal Commission on Merthyr Tydfil was published. The Commission’s recommendations were severely criticised in the increasingly influential journal Planning, as providing nothing that would help solve the bankrupt County Borough’s problems. The author of the review saw two alternative solutions. Either the borough should be subjected to a wholesale ‘evacuation’ or there should be a planned reduction in population and equipment with the bringing in of new industries in order to provide decent opportunities for those that remained. Neither was being pursued with any vigour by the Government, but there was one course of action for which no case could be made. That was:

… the course of raising huge sums of money, locally and nationally, in order to keep Merthyr on the dole … It is this last course which the Government has so far chosen to pursue.

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In May, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. Most of the prominent figures in the Social Service movement in South Wales attended the Conference, including Church leaders and MPs. The young Labour MP for Ebbw Vale (a family scene from where is pictured above), Aneurin Bevan called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacent attitude of the establishment Liberals who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

… if the problem was still viewed as complacently as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken  as there was neconomic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

This was the clearest statement to come from the Labour Left to date, but it was quickly countered by members of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite at the Conference, who suggested that the valleys of East Monmouthshire had no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had not been absorbed into local life … However, the majority view of the conference appears to have been that what had been taking place was ‘expatriation’ rather than ‘repatriation’. Later that summer, the Secretary of the SWMCSS, Elfan Rees developed this theme at another conference in Llandrindod Wells, that of the Welsh School of Social Service, taking issue with the recent comments made by Professor Marquand in his recent short book, South Wales Needs a Plan, that a population largely composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants (had) no very deep roots in the soil … a people without roots may be as ready to move away as rapidly as it moved in. Countering this, Rees argued that:

It is not only the young, it is not only the best, it is also the Welsh who are going … if transference was repatriation it might be a different story – but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going … the unwillingness to remain idle at home … are the qualities that mark our indigenous population. … if this process of… despoilation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they haven’t the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.

This division among the left-liberals advocates of ‘Planning’ and the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite helps to explain what Bevan referred to as the ‘complacency’ of ‘The Welsh Nation’ over the policy of transference during the previous eight years. The liberal establishment in the Social Service movement had hoped that it would remove, as they saw it, the ‘alien’ activists typified by A J Cook and others in the Miners’ Federation who had robbed them of the loyalty of the Welsh people. By 1936, they were clearly embarrassed by their newly-formed impression of a large number of people of Welsh origin who were leaving the valleys. Rees and others tended to exaggerate this process (the 1951 Census shows that the proportion of Welsh-speakers remained similar to that of 1931), it is clear that the growing awareness of the indiscriminate nature of migration led them to abandon complicity and complacency in the transference scheme in favour of a more patriotic opposition to it. Marquand himself was critical of this hypocritical and manipulative élite and the nationalist passions of persons who hold safe jobs themselves. The response which his overtly political South Wales Needs a Plan received in official circles and the prominence given to it in the ‘responsible’ press was seen by contemporaries as a measure of the extent of the shift which had taken place in national opinion. The journal Planning commented that, had the book been published three years earlier, it would have stood no chance of being taken seriously, and wryly suggested that Marquand was…

… still young enough to have the satisfaction of knowing that if the ideas he put forward were to go on making headway at their present rate, he would live to see most of them forced upon a reluctant Whitehall and Downing Street by pressure of public opinion.

However, the Commissioner, Malcolm Stewart responded by allocating funds to the National Industrial Development Council of South Wales and Monmouthshire for a ‘Second Industrial Survey’ to be made with Marquand as editor. His team of investigators worked rapidly, publishing the report in three volumes in 1937. As there was little prospect of the revival of the staple industries, the Report suggested that the only alternative to continued mass emigration lay in the diversification of the region’s economy by the introduction of new industries, supported by state action. The establishment of trading estates, like the one already projected for Treforest, near Pontypridd, was seen as a means of ensuring the success of these industries. Thus, by the outbreak of war, the economy of the region was slowly being transformed, a process which was aided by rearmament. However, this grudging shift in Government policy did not take place until the end of a decade of mass unemployment and migration. Neither was the Labour Party very far ahead of the government in producing its policies. Its own Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas, appointed in November 1936 under the direction of Hugh Dalton, was not published until May 1937. Despite the fact that the Commission received evidence from a large number of local parties, Labour groups, women’s sections and trade union branches, the report on South Wales amounted to little more than a précis of Marquand’s survey in the form of a thirty-page pamphlet, the cover page of which is pictured below.

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The Report echoed the ‘sentiments’ of nationalists and ‘Cymric’ liberals in its statements that ‘the strength of the Welsh communities were being sapped’ and that ‘youngsters’ were ‘being torn away from parental care’. But the overall importance of the slim document lay in its drawing together of the current ‘middle opinion’ thinking and the vogue for ‘planning’ into a coherent set of policies for South Wales as a region. It criticised the work of the Special Areas Reconstruction Association (SARA), established in June 1936, over its bureaucratic and onerous financial provisions. Despite the government’s shift in policy, 1937 was the peak year for the Transference Scheme. Welsh nationalists continued to conduct a forceful campaign, often confronting Welsh-speaking juvenile employment officers whom they accused of being ‘determined to force people out of Wales’ and of adopting ‘a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of transference’. But by the end of 1937, the new public consensus had finally succeeded in supplanting transference as the main official response to the problem of mass unemployment in the Special Areas. However, this did not mean an immediate end to the continued exodus of older workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom in the Midland factories was swallowing up more and more labour.

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Above: Pages from the Labour Party’s Report on South Wales, using Marquand’s surveys. 

The Revolutionary Left & The Radical Right:

The interwar years are frequently regarded as radical ones in political terms, characterised by popular and revolutionary left-wing support for the Labour Party, the growth of the Communist Party, and hunger marches organised and led by the Communists’ organisation for the unemployed, the NUWM. Perhaps it was the genuine fear of the street violence and disorderly protests over the means test which encouraged the vast majority of the electorate to continue to vote Conservative in national elections, most notably in November 1935. In 1935, the Communists remained a small party with about seven thousand members, but each member was, according to Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (in ‘The Long Weekend’, 1940), an extremely active centre of agitation and … adept at giving a Marxist turn to every discussable topic. The Daily Worker had doubled its size and greatly increased its circulation. In addition, between 1935 and 1937 nearly a million copies of the Communists’ pamphlets and leaflets were sold. Graves and Hodge summed up the commitment required to be a Communist:

To belong to the party meant devoting one’s time and money so whole-heartedly to the cause and having one’s political and social history so carefully investigated that very few sympathisers with the Communist position either desired to join the ‘corps d’élite’ of the party or would have been accepted had they offered.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 and was at once acknowledged as a show-down between the Left and the Right in Europe. The passionate cry from Madrid in response to the fascist revolt, it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees reverberated throughout the Labour left. While Bevin, Citrine and Dalton won the TUC in September 1936 for the Eden-Baldwin policy of non-intervention, informal discussions were being held by Cripps, Pollitt and William Mellors on the possibility of united action in support of the Spanish Republic. Earlier that summer Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski and John Strachey had launched the spectacularly successful ‘Left Book Club’, preparing the ground for a ‘Popular Front’ spanning the ‘Labour Left’ and the Communists, the latter by then having abandoned their bitterly sectarian ‘Class Against Class’ policy.

A volunteer ‘International Brigade’ arrived quite early in the conflict, including 2,762 British volunteers, 543 of whom died in Spain. Most of the British popular press was on the whole for the Republicans, but for the Conservative newspapers, they were always the ‘Reds’ or ‘the Communists’. To many people of René Cutforth’s generation, the war remained the most significant and deeply felt experience of their lives, little remembered, or read about, by today’s ‘soft’ Communists on the ‘hard Left’ of the Labour Party. Cutforth’s observation was particularly true of the mostly middle-class associates of the Thirties’ intellectuals, many of whom, like George Orwell, went to fight for the Republicans.  In Britain, communication across the class divide was almost impossible, but in Spain, some were able to achieve this. It was quite easy to dodge the non-interventionist authorities as the arrangements were mostly controlled through the CPGB, and once the volunteer presented himself at the recruiting office, he could be on his way into battle within a few hours. But, as Cutforth commented:

… the feelings which drove the Spaniards to massacre each other in droves turned out to have little or no bearing on those which had inspired the idealism of the British Left, most of which was derived from the protestant Christian conscience. … That the public school ethics of fair play and esprit de corps had played a large part in the formation of the minds which launched the Thirties movement is obvious from their works, and the British Labour movement always owed more to Methodism than to Marx.

This conscience-pricking idealism was utterly alien to the Spaniards fighting their private war. … their motives were personal, local, regional and sectarian. Communists had no hesitation in shooting Anarchists to gain control of a local situation. …

The foreign comrades were slow to realise that … the Asturias and Catalonia were not divisions like English counties, but furiously jealous little nations. … hundreds of thousands died by execution on both sides. … This … applied even to men obstensibly on the same side – ‘Trotskyite traitor’ was a common verdict. It was the sight and sound of these daily mass-executions which revolted the civilised Western participants. Was this the Revolution they had willed? Was there any real connection between this vindictive bloody mess and the social justice to which they were committed? 

But most of the British soldiers of the International Brigade were not socialist or communist intellectuals, but autodidactic workers, many of them unemployed miners from South Wales, some of whom I had the privilege of walking alongside in protest against the returning mass unemployment of the early eighties. Their convictions had been built in over generations of deprivation and years of survival underground had made them tough and fearless. Added to this, long-term unemployment had prepared them for the necessary privations of war, even if they were too young to have fought in the trenches like their fathers. To demonstrate their non-sectarian commitment to the cause, one of the two British contingents was named after the mild-mannered former soldier, Major Attlee. When most of the volunteers returned home in the spring of 1937, as the Germans and Italians moved in to support Franco’s side, they and the British Left, in general, redoubled their efforts to rally support for the Republicans in raising funds and producing propaganda. The survivors had had a short, but tough war. Twenty per cent of the entire British force were wounded, and more than three-quarters of the survivors had been wounded. By the time they disembarked from the ferry, the Civil War was already beginning to look like the ‘dress rehearsal’ for something much worse in the Great Confrontation between Good and Evil.

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While the International Brigade volunteers had been on the front line against fascism, Spain had already become the catalyst that brought a greater degree of united action within the organised labour movement in Britain, than any other political issue of the Thirties. As Michael Foot later reflected:

Spain cut the knot of emotional and intellectual contradictions in which the left had been entangled ever since Hitler came to power. Suddenly the claims of international law, class solidarity and the desire to win the Soviet Union as an ally fitted into the same strategy.

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Above: Oswald Mosley. leader of the British Union of Fascists, with his ‘blackshirts’.

It was not just the growth in extremism on the Left which alarmed many, but the emergence of radical right-wing groups during the second half of the 1930s. These consisted largely of disaffected Conservatives who demanded a renewed emphasis on imperial unity and tariffs to protect British industry, while at the same time rejecting parliamentary democracy. The financial crisis of 1931 was seen as proof of the failings of the policies of the established political parties. The most notorious of the right-wing groups was the British Union of Fascists established by Oswald Mosley on 1 October 1932. Mosley had been a junior member of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929-31 Labour Government, rising to the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, one of the four ministers charged with solving the problem of unemployment. His colleagues were J H Thomas, Minister for Employment, who had the primary responsibility, George Lansbury and Tom Johnston. Mosley had a clear and practical policy but was totally frustrated by Thomas who had little grasp of the intricacies of economics. Mosley thought him ‘a drunken clown’ and treated him with aristocratic contempt, but he had been unable to convince MacDonald to sack the incompetent minister because, as the former national officer of the NUR, he had strong trade union support and influence within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Sir Oswald Mosley, baronet, had arrived in the Party via Winchester, Sandhurst, the Harrow Conservative Association and Cliveden so that his rapid rise in the MacDonald hierarchy after 1924 was regarded with suspicion and resented by many of his colleagues. Mosley resigned from the Labour Government in May 1931 when his radical solution to the unemployment problem was rejected by both the Cabinet and the House of Commons. At that stage, both he and John Strachey were both seen as being on the radical left of the Labour Party. Mosley left it to publish his proposals as The Mosley Manifesto, signed by seventeen supporters including Aneurin Bevan and A. J. Cook, the Miners’ leader, along with Strachey and others.

‘They Shall Not Pass’ – Resisting the ‘Blackshirts’:

Mosley formed the ‘New Party’ and was joined by three other MPs, but when this fell apart, they parted ways with Mosley migrating to the authoritarian Right and founding the BUF complete with Nazi-style regalia. His storm troopers were his ‘Blackshirts’, the élite of them housed in barracks at Chelsea, complete with parade ground. Much of his funding came from Lord Nuffield, the founder of the Morris Motor Company, and other wealthy industrialists for some years to come. Lord Rothermere, the newspaper magnate, was a staunch protagonist for Mosley and on 15 January 1934, his Daily Mail appeared with the headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’.

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Above: Anti-Fascists in Limehouse, London. Wherever Fascism was strong, as it was in East London, anti-Fascists were also very strong and could be violent. While Limehouse had a significant fascist vote (see the text below), it was still the safe seat of Labour leader Clement Attlee.

Mosley held military-style rallies, miniature Nuremberg, at which he could posture as a ‘British Führer’. They were also the scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, the ‘United Front’. In 1934, at the peak of British Fascist strength, Mosley led three big rallies, at the Albert Hall, Hyde Park and Olympia. At the Olympia rally the blackshirts, anxious to demonstrate their efficiency as storm troopers shocked the nation with the violence of their attacks upon protesters within the hall. The Times reported the next day ( June) on the methods used:

The Fascist meeting at Olympia last night suffered from continuous interruptions, and the interrupters suffered heavily at the hands of the blackshirted stewards, male and female. … It proceeded easily for the first ten minutes before the Socialists made their first move. 

… It was countered with … a uniformity of treatment which suggested a prescribed technique of violence. Stewards at once made for the offenders. If they resisted ejection the incident at once became an affair of fisticuffs and, if the victim remained standing in the end of his resistance, he was seized ju-jitsu fashion and dragged out. Quite a number were borne out limp bodies after the frays. …

… The speech was suspended at every display of force. When it resumed it improved with a brief homily on the need of Fascist methods to preserve free speech and on the British people having become accustomed to ‘red violence’ over a period of years.

It was a strangely mixed audience … people of middle-age who wore neither black shirt nor badge; people with a tired expression of eye and wrinkled brows; some of the people who bore the strain of war and the cost of peace. 

Olympia set the pattern for all of Mosley’s meetings. When the hall had filled the doors were locked and the speeches began. There was a spotlight worked from the platform and if any heckler interrupted, or even if anyone rose from their seat, they would be caught in the spotlight and as they stood there blinded and helpless a squad of ‘biff boys’ would move and give them a savage beating up in view of the audience, before turning the offender out of the hall. As René Cutforth commented, the audience simply sat there as if mesmerised by the thuggery taking place in front of them:

It was an age addicted to psychological explanations, but I never heard the nature of Mosley’s audiences satisfactorily explained. Who were these people who submitted themselves night after night to this exhibition of terrorism and tyranny? They looked middle-aged on the whole and seemed to be enveloped in general and political apathy, yet they kept on coming. Mosley was never short of an audience.

In 1936, about 330,000 Jewish people lived in Britain, less than one per cent of the total population. The East End of London was home to between a half and one-third of them, mostly concentrated into a densely-populated area centred on Brick Lane, so it was a particular target for Mosley and his thugs. He was stirring up racial antagonism in this impoverished area by blaming the Jews for the high rates of unemployment, rent increases and poor wages. During the Slump, it had suffered particularly badly and was a pocket of poverty as bad as anything in the distressed areas of South Wales and the North of England, full of slums, filth and futility. Mosley’s Fascists took full advantage of the general restlessness created by the hunger marches and demonstrations against the means test. They stepped up their parades until the East End felt it was being invaded almost every night. They always marched with a heavy guard of police, who seemed to be as much part of their parade as their own ‘biff boys’. The East End, with its large Jewish community, became the chief battleground of the opposing factions and parties. But there had been ‘skirmishes’ with the BUF at a number of regional rallies. On 12 July six blackshirts at one rally were knocked unconscious by men wielding iron bars. Mosley’s car window was shattered by a bullet as he drove away. At other meetings across the country, anti-Fascists pelted the rally-goers with bricks and stones. and many were injured. At a rally outside Leeds on 27 September, attended by thirty thousand people, Mosley was showered with missiles.

Many of the Jews living in the East End were second-generation, the children of parents who had been forced to flee the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the sanctuary of Britain. Most of the older generation spoke only Yiddish and lived in an enclosed community of crowded tenements, synagogues, baths and kosher butchers. They tended to work in the clothing and furniture trades. They were an obvious target for the Jew-baiters of the BUF, who regularly smashed the windows of Jewish grocery shops, chalked anti-Semitic graffiti on walls and shouted racist insults during street meetings and as they marched through Jewish areas, such as The Yids, the Yids, We’ve got to get rid of the Yids! In the summer of 1936, the more abusive the blackshirts became, the more the police appeared to protect them from their victims. In September there was particular anger in the East End over two incidents. Fascist thugs threw a Jewish boy through a plate-glass window, blinding him. Later, a further horror occurred when a Jewish girl was caught and strapped to an advertisement hoarding in the attitude of the crucifixion. Neither incident led to a prosecution.

Young Jews did not take these attacks with the forbearance of many of their parents and the official bodies that represented them. They wanted to fight back. Even though they were British-born and British-educated, young Jews felt alienated and stigmatised by the anti-Semitism that flourished in British society. Many became Communists, seeing the party as the most vigorous opponent of Fascism. Others joined the Labour Party, although it was much less active in the fight, contrary to the current mythology of a Labour Left riddled with anti-Semitism itself. Others formed their own self-defence groups or ‘street gangs’. At this time, the anti-Semitic outbursts of the Fascists were reaching a climax, and large numbers of people came onto their streets to protest against the BUF’s overtly racist abuse, and there were scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, ‘the United Front’.

‘The Battle of Cable Street’:

When the BUF announced that it would stage a mass march through East London to celebrate its fourth anniversary on Sunday 4 October, a coalition formed to confront Mosley. The battle lines were drawn up, leading to the riots in Stepney which became known, famously, as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ (see the photos below). The prospect of Mosley’s major demonstration, with all the inevitable resistance and ensuing violence, led many to call for it to be banned. Labour MPs and the mayors of London’s boroughs pleaded with the Home Secretary to halt the march. A petition of a hundred thousand signatures was presented to him, but to no avail.

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Mosley had planned the route of the provocative military march of his uniformed racists to go right through the heart of Whitechapel. The coalition of Communists,’ leftists’ and young Jewish activists set to work organising the opposition. The older generation in the Jewish community was dead-set against them. The Jewish Board of Deputies urged people to stay away. The Jewish Chronicle told readers in the East End to remain indoors and pull down the shutters. But their advice was ignored. The leaders of the Jewish community had lost control of their people. Labour too urged its members to keep off the streets; the Labour-supporting newspaper, The Daily Herald argued with typical pusillanimity that the best way to defeat Fascism was to ignore it. Even the Communist Party at first kept quiet. No official body wanted to be seen encouraging action that would inevitably lead to violence and law-breaking. For most, taking to the streets to stop Mosley’s march was a spontaneous expression of hatred of Fascism. Moseley was not the only public figure to completely underestimate the extent of the determined and deeply-felt opposition to his creed of hate and more than two hundred thousand Londoners, Jews and Gentiles, rallied under the Spanish anti-fascist slogan, They shall not pass! Spain was the constant refrain. For Charles Goodman, an East End Jew who was not a member of the CPGB, it was the motivating factor:

… it was not a question of a punch-up between the Jews and the fascists … in my case it meant the continuation of the struggle in Spain.

Those planning to take part in the counter-demonstration were by no means all Jews or Communists. The bleak turn of events abroad was a mobilising force for thousands with a left-liberal view of the world, whatever their ethnicity or party affiliation, and halting Mosley in the East End had a wider significance, as Harold Smith, an eighteen-year-old office worker and activist at the time, later recalled:

We were young, enthusiastic, Spain was on, Hitler was on the march, it was a British contribution to stop Fascism.

Two East End Communists, Joe Jacobs and Phil Piratin planned the unofficial fightback. A week before the demonstration, the latter arranged a meeting at his house in Stepney for a group of ‘Aryan-looking’ members of the CPGB, who would be able to pass themselves off as Fascists during the march and keep an eye out for any changes to the planned route of the march. In the early afternoon of 4 October a young medical student, Hugh Faulkner, dressed as a doctor and with an empty medical bag, joined the blackshirt demonstration at the Tower of London. He was allowed through the rows of police:

I found myself in the middle of the Fascists and caught sight of a member who worked in my hospital. On the spur of the moment I said “I’ve finally made up my mind. I want to come in with you”. He was such a clot he immediately accepted this … he was absolutely delighted and almost immediately showed me a duplicate sign of the route.

Armed with this latest intelligence, Faulkner ran off to telephone the plan of the march to Piratin and his fellow organisers. Meanwhile, vast crowds had assembled, ready to do battle with the Fascists. They had already built barricades while the blackshirts were being held up by police. The Cable Street riot was not a battle between the blackshirt supporters of Oswald Mosley and his opponents; it was a battle between the police and the anti-Fascists. When Harold Smith arrived at Gardiner’s  Corner at mid-day, where Piratin had placed trams to block the entrance to Commercial Road, he found a sea of people, ‘like the Cup Final’ he said. By then an estimated 310,000 people had turned up to stop the Fascists marching through. Although Communists under Phil Piratin had been the principal organisers of the opposition, it was not a Communist counter-demonstration. In 1936, the Party had only eleven thousand members. But the Party had been able to organise far greater support across a wide cross-section of British society. The police set to work to clear a path through the counter-demonstrators so that the blackshirts could gain access to Commercial Road, down which they had planned to march. They used a combination of brute force and mounted police charges. People everywhere were bleeding from head wounds inflicted by batons and staves. After several charges and forays, it became obvious to Sir Philip Game, the Police Commissioner, that there was no way that Mosley’s men and women could pass through to Commercial Road, ‘short of mayhem and murder’, so he decided on an alternative route, via Cable Street.

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Thanks to Hugh Faulkner’s intelligence, Piratin quickly became aware of the switch and ordered his ‘flying squads’. As its name suggests, it was close to the docks and lined with ships’ chandlers, lock-ups and warehouses. They were full of carts and heavy equipment which made perfect materials for barricades. As at Gardiner’s Corner, the mounted charges were unable to make headway, and the women in the tenement buildings began throwing everything they could lay their hands on down on the police, forcing them to retreat and, after taking shelter in the lock-ups, to surrender. The demonstrators took their helmets and truncheons and told them to ‘shove off!’ More than a hundred were wounded in the riot, and eighty-three anti-Fascists were arrested. The next day, many of them were sentenced, like Charlie Goodman, to four months’ hard labour. At about six in the evening, the news came through that the march through the East End had been cancelled on the orders of the Police Commissioner, after consulting with the Home Secretary. The demonstrators were elated, while there was despair among Mosley’s followers. They had waited with their ‘Leader’ for almost six hours, ‘kettled’ by the police in Royal Mint Street. The setback was significant, not simply because the march had been stopped, but because of the violence which it triggered.

For the left, by contrast, the Battle of Cable Street was a tremendous victory. The three thousand blackshirts did not pass, as the anti-Fascist demonstrators prevented the police from ushering Mosley’s ‘stormtroopers’ through the East End, a victory which proved a decisive blow from which the British fascists never recovered. It brought together, at least for the following year, a fractured movement that had long been divided on sectarian and ideological grounds on the major issues of the day. It also united people from different ethnic and religious groups and across classes. One of the leaders of the ‘resistance’ recalled that the most amazing thing was to see a silk-coated religious Orthodox Jew standing next to an Irish docker with a grappling iron. A number of men, like Frank Lesser, took such pride in having stopped the Fascist march that they were motivated to volunteer to fight Franco:

It seemed to me that the fight against Fascism had to be fought in England, it had to be fought, and I went to fight it a year later in Spain too. 

The Downing Street Declaration & the Public Order Act:

In the aftermath of the events on Cable Street, the Cabinet met on Wednesday 14 October, with the disturbances at the top of the agenda together with the marches and protests of the unemployed which were happening at the same time. It was not only the disciplined ‘Crusade’ of the men from Jarrow which concerned the ministers. Two other marches were heading through the capital at the same time. One of these was a three-pronged demonstration led by the NUWM against the means test. The prospect of more revolutionaries fighting on the streets of London with the police after the debacle of the previous week in Stepney was more than the politicians could stomach. Some form of action was needed, but it was unclear what the government could do to stop the marches. Stanley Baldwin had recovered enough from a two-month illness to chair the meeting and called on Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, to report on the situation in general and specifically on Cable Street.

Two days earlier, eight days after the riot, the steely-cold Sir John had produced a Memorandum for the Cabinet that showed the degree of concern that he and his colleagues felt. They had faced an almost complete breakdown of law and order on the streets of the capital. The police had been unable to control the demonstration, nor had the Fascists been able to march, as was their right. More clashes were likely as Communists, buoyed up by success, took to the streets again to prevent further Mosley rallies. and demonstrations. The stopping of the march at Cable Street was a blatant denial of free speech to the BUF, as well as a victory over the legitimate authorities. As Mosley complained:

We were prevented from doing what we had done before, marching through London where we had tremendous support and would certainly have won a parliamentary seat.

Then he told his colleagues that nothing should be done to prevent orderly bands of demonstrators marching where they planned. Perhaps surprisingly, however, those who had stopped the BUF in its tracks and beaten back the police were not the object of Simon’s wrath. Instead, he singled out Mosley and his blackshirts for their provocative behaviour and drew attention to their uniform. There was something essentially un-British about a political party dressing up and strutting around in military-style. The Home Secretary spoke of the intense resentment that it caused in the country at large, with the assumption of authority by a private army. That was bad enough, but what was worse was Mosley’s aping the anti-democratic régimes of Europe, where the wearing of black or brown uniforms led to the overthrow of popular liberties … Sir Oswald makes no secret of his desire to follow the German and Italian examples. Simon told the Cabinet that the men and women who dressed as blackshirts looked much smarter than when wearing their everyday clothes. He thought this added to the appeal of the Fascists among poorer people. There was only one solution: uniforms had to be banned.

He also suggested that, on the subject of ‘hunger marches’, action be taken to minimise the risk of violence and that the newspapers should be made aware of the futility of these marches. Baldwin agreed that selected journalists should be briefed so as to counter the favourable publicity given to the marchers and that no ministers would meet any deputations of marchers. Clearly, the ‘nightmare’ on Cable Street was, in part, what led the government to take its hard-line over the presentation of the Jarrow petition. However, the Labour Party conference’s decision not to back the Crusade made it easier for the government, and the ‘Downing Street Declaration’ echoed the speeches which questioned the desirability of getting ill-fed men to march.

Banning uniforms was just one of several measures needed to deal with the disturbances, Simon said. He also threw in a restriction of liberty. He told the Cabinet that the onward thrust of modernity had made the police’s job impossible. Thousands of people could now be summoned at short notice by radio and newspaper., they could travel quickly by public transport, and they could be harangued by demagogues using microphones and loudspeakers. These developments, combined with ‘the European crisis’ and the hysterical fear that an anti-Jew agitation might gain the mastery in this country, meant that the authorities had to have the right to be able to stop demonstrations in future if they feared they might lead to disorder. The Cabinet agreed.

Despite the limitations on freedom of speech, a bill went before Parliament less than a month later. But to the Cabinet’s frustration, the legislation giving the police powers to ban demonstrations was weeks away from enactment. The government restricted BUF activities by enacting The Public Order Act banning political uniforms and allowing the police to ban marches for three-month periods. A coalition of all sides of the Commons came together to stop Mosley, united in hatred of the blackshirt as a political tool, and in loathing of his politics. It was a thoroughly partial piece of legislation in the first instance. Its practical purpose may have been to prevent the recurrence of violence on the scale of the Battle of Cable Street, but its political effect was to cripple the BUF. Denied their uniforms, prevented from marching purely at the discretion of local police, their extra-parliamentary party went into sharp decline. Mosley had few friends at Westminster and he claimed that the British Government had surrendered to red terror.

This forced the BUF back to using more conventional and constitutional political methods. Electorally, they had some local success in the East End. Although the BUF gained support in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, the East End remained its heartland.  In the London County Council elections of March 1937, the BUF won twenty-three per cent of the vote in North-East Bethnal Green, nineteen per cent in Stepney (Limehouse in Clement Attlee’s constituency) and fourteen per cent in Shoreditch. Nonetheless, the fascists failed to win more widespread support. BUF membership (as far as we can tell) rose from seventeen thousand in early 1934 to between forty and fifty thousand by July, organised in four hundred branches. After dropping from that peak to five thousand within a year, it recovered to 15,500 during 1936, reaching 22,500 by the outbreak of war. More generally, the fascists were unable to win parliamentary seats, not even in East London, despite Mosley’s certain declarations that they would. The BUF had no doctrines except jingoism, a professed love of the British flag and the Royal Family, and hatred of Jews and Communists.

In any case, the voting system worked in favour of the two dominant parties. The Conservative Party remained attractive to the middle classes and the BUF was unable to compete with Labour and the trade unions for the support of the unemployed. As the economy improved in the 1930s, the attraction of a political alternative diminished. The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but the habit never became a public menace as it had been in Berlin in the Thirties where it was extremely easy for anyone to be caught up in some skirmish between Nazis and Communists and be beaten up or, quite often, never heard of again.

Below: A press picture from ‘The Daily Worker’  of a great united anti-fascist protest in Trafalgar Square in 1937. Mosley and his followers are seen giving the Nazi salute, their demonstration ringed by a great phalanx of anti-fascists, their clenched fists raised in the salute of the ‘United Front’. Interestingly, despite the hatred, each side nurtured for each other, a single line of policemen was all that separated the opponents and the protest passed without violence, Mosley’s speech being drowned out by the mass singing of ‘The Internationale’ and ‘The Red Flag’.  The demonstrators then kept up a continual barrage of anti-fascist slogans.  

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Below: A counter-rally organised by the BUF in Bermondsey in 1938. May Day was traditionally a Socialist festival. The Fascist salute, taken very seriously by the party, was regarded as richly comic by most of the public. 

A Popular Front – Parliamentary Politics & Protest:

In January 1937, the first issue of Tribune was published, its controlling board including Bevan, Cripps, Laski, H N Brailsford and Ellen Wilkinson. Later that month the United Campaign was launched at a great meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Stafford Cripps, James Maxton and Harry Pollitt appeared on the platform, and Nye Bevan, Tom Mann, Willie Gallacher and Fenner Brockway were among the principal signatories to the manifesto. As the non-interventionist right-wing fought back, the United Front packed meeting after meeting with thousands of Labour, ILP, Socialist League, Communist and trade union supporters, organising practical aid for their Spanish comrades with devoted intensity. Eventually, the Popular Front won wide acceptance, with David Lloyd George and Harry Pollitt sharing a platform and Clement Attlee visiting the remaining International Brigade soldiers in Spain.

From its outset, the Spanish Civil War had absorbed the attention of the international community. It served as a kind of litmus test for whether democracy would survive or Fascism would triumph. In 1938, the outcome of this ideological conflict was more unsure than ever. The official line of the powers, sanctioned by the League of Nations, remained one of non-intervention, a policy willfully ignored by Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. The extreme polarisation of political forces inside Spain, together with the active intervention of Italy and Germany on behalf of the insurgents and the Soviet Union supposedly championing the cause of the Left, turned the Spanish Civil War into the ideological cause célebre of the late 1930s. Conscious that the conflict accentuated the division of Europe into Left and Right, the National Labour MP, Harold Nicolson inclined towards a more robust anti-Franco line in the belief that the government had been ‘weak and confused over the Spanish question’. At a dinner party, he told Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that he wanted ‘the Reds to win’. The destruction of Guernica, the ancient Basque capital, on 26 April 1937 by bombers of the German Kondor Legion had reinforced his feelings. He wrote to his wife Vita …

… I do so loathe this war. I really feel that barbarism is creeping over the earth again and that mankind is going backward.

At the end of February 1938, Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary, ostensibly over Chamberlain’s precipitate and inept handling of Anglo-Italian relations. As a National Labour MP, there was nothing Harold Nicolson could do about the doleful events in Germany, but Eden’s resignation affected him deeply. He had loyally upheld Eden’s handling of British foreign policy, and did not want to become ‘one of Winston’s brigade’. But he had come to the unavoidable conclusion that ‘National Labour’ had ceased to exist as a separate entity. Nicolson was determined to defend Eden, whose resignation speech, muddled and indecisive, had not gone down well. The Foreign Secretary, he revealed to the restless MPs, had resigned not over ‘a little point of procedure’, but on ‘a great question of principle’. He lashed into Italy, …

… a country which has continuously, consistently, deliberately and without apology, violated every engagement into which she has ever entered … our great principles of policy … the rule of law , the theory of the League of Nations, the belief in the sanctity of treaties … butchered to make a Roman holiday.

His speech was warmly received by other critics of Chamberlain’s government, including Lloyd George and Churchill. Supporters of the government thought it damaging to ‘the cause of peace’. But Nicolson had no doubt that Chamberlain was blindly leading the country into a political and diplomatic minefield:

 … their policy is nothing less than the scrapping of the ideas which have been built up since the war and the reversion to the old pre-war policy of power politics and bargaining. This means: (1) that we shall have to buy the friendship of Italy and Germany by making sacrifices. (2) That this frienship will not be worth tuppence once is is bought. And (3) that in doing so we shall sacrifice the confidence of France, Russia, the United States and all the smaller countries.

For many, ‘Tricky Chamberlain’ no longer inspired trust, but nor did the National Labour Party that had behaved like worms and kissed the Chamberlain boot with a resounding smack. But the die-hard Tories were jubilant at having flushed out all the nonsensical notions of the past and having got back the good old Tory doctrines. Nicolson’s pessimism intensified when, on 12 March, German forces crossed into Austria and Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss. Although he still sat on the government benches, he emerged as a leading critic of the government’s foreign policy, claiming that we are going to let Germany become so powerful that she will begin to dictate to us. The Anschluss passed off to whispers of protest, but Spain remained a burning issue. Four days after Hitler’s coup, with Franco’s troops on the offensive, Nicolson spoke out forcefully on the issue. He began by expressing his ‘deepest sympathy’ with the Spanish government and his ‘deepest hatred’ for Franco. A Franco victory, he pointed out, would gravely menace Britain’s interests and security. A free Spain, he stressed, had traditionally been of immense strategic advantage to Britain.

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Above: A snapshot from a woman Labour Party member of another anti-fascist gathering at Belle Vue, Manchester, early in 1938, showing women Labour Party members, Margaret Whalley and Mary Eckersley, waiting to attend the United Front rally.

May Day 1938 was one of the largest since 1926 and the message was ‘Spain above all’. Herbert Morrison spoke from the Labour platform, reminding his audience of the heroic Spanish people and their fight against foreign invasion. Hammersmith Labour Party carried a banner announcing that it had collected five hundred pounds to send an ambulance to Spain and West London engineers paraded a motorcycle of the type they had sent. Everywhere in the procession were the tricolour flags of the Spanish Republic, and a red banner proclaimed, Spain’s fight is our fight. Tens of thousands assembled at the eight platforms in Hyde Park to hear speakers from every section of the labour movement call for arms for Spain and the end of the Chamberlain government. As the long column of marchers entered the park, the loudest cheers came for the wounded members of the International Brigade, closely followed by a group of women of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (pictured below), dressed in nurses’ uniforms, collecting to buy milk for Spanish children.

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Parliamentary Opposition to Appeasement:

In the view of Harold Nicolson, Neville Chamberlain was an ‘ironmonger’ who had no conception… of world politics and was quite unsuited to the task of concluding a successful negotiation with Hitler at Berchtesgaden in September 1938. It soon became apparent that Chamberlain, who didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetans were in the Reich or out of it, had brought back sn agreement that, in principle, ceded to Germany the Sudeten German areas, provided the cession be achieved peacefully. Anglo-French pressure mounted on the Czechs to accept this arrangement.  At one stage, ‘Baffy’ Dugdale, a National Labourite and member of the Executive of the League of Nations Union, rang up Harold to tell him that she had been sick twice in the night over England’s shame’, and had thrown up again after having read in The Times that the terms submitted to the Czechoslovak Government could not … be expected to make a strong ‘prima facie’ appeal to them. Thereupon, she had resigned from the Party. Nicolson himself penned a note of protest to ‘Buck’ De La Warr about National Labour’s refusal to speak out on the issue: He would consider his position.

Chamberlain returned empty-handed from the second round of talks held at Bad Godesberg on 22-23 September, but he was given a ‘blank cheque’ from public opinion for his peace efforts. Nicolson told Churchill that the international situation would bring about the end of the British Empire. They discussed tactics should Chamberlain decide to ‘rat again’. They agreed to press for a Coalition Government and the immediate application of war measures since war seemed imminent.  On 28 September, the House of Commons convened to hear the PM clarify the chain of events leading to the crisis. As he entered the Chamber he was greeted by shouts of applause from his supporters, many of whom rose in their seats and waved their order papers. The opposition remained seated and silent, as did Harold Nicolson, ostensibly a government supporter. The next day he addressed a meeting of the National Labour group in Manchester, hitting out at the Government and its advisors, which rallied the Chamberlainite supporters against him. Matters worsened when he voted against a resolution of the National Labour Executive pledging to support the PM, leading to accusations of ‘dishonourable behaviour’.

The high point of Nicolson’s parliamentary career was his attack on the government’s foreign policy after the Munich agreement. His stand was uncompromising and brought him much credit from the opposition. Hitler, he stated, had three aims: to swallow the Sudeten Germans; to destroy Czechoslovakia and to dominate Europe. We have given him all those three things, he stated. He would have given him the first of these three, as the Sudetenland was not worth a war. But by Chamberlain’s capitulation on this point, a deadly chain reaction had been set off that led, inexorably, to total surrender. He went on:

The essential thing, the thing which we ought to have resisted, the thing which we still ought to resist; the thing which I am afraid it is now too late to resist is the domination of Europe by Germany … this humiliating defeat, this terrible Munich retreat (is) one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occured in our history. … The tiger is showing his teeth, the cage door is open; the keeper is gone … we have given away the whole key to Europe. … Germany will have the whole of Europe in a stranglehold. …

… I know that that those of us who believe in the traditions of our policy … that the one great function of this country is to maintain moral standards in Europe, to maintain a settled pattern of international relations, not to make friends with people whose conduct is demonstrably evil … but to set up some sort of standard by which the smaller Powers can test what is godd in international conduct and what is not – I know that those who hold such beliefs are accused of possessing the Foreign Office mind. I thank God that I possess the Foreign Office mind.

There were other powerful anti-government speeches, by Churchill and Duff Cooper (the only cabinet member to resign), but they hardly dented the government’s huge majority. By 366 votes to 144, the House declared its confidence in the government’s appeasement policy. Thirty Conservative MPs abstained and thirteen remained in their seats. Nicolson, a National Labour ‘rebel’ was among them. The dominance of the National Government and the fragmentation of the Opposition, confirmed at the General Election of 1935, meant that the case of the rebels was not strengthened by their counter-proposals – increased rearmament, grand coalitions, a revivified League, or claiming the high moral ground. Without a proper Opposition, the Commons was barren of new ideas. Those preoccupied with making British foreign policy, tormented by the memories of the horrors of the Great War, were inclined, also on moral grounds, to satisfy Germany’s ‘legitimate grievances’, above all conscious of Britain’s defensive weaknesses and the French lack of will to fight. Also using the tiger metaphor, the Chiefs of Staff presented the Cabinet with a paper on 23 September that to attempt to take offensive action against Germany … would be to place ourselves in the position of a man who attacks a tiger before he has loaded his gun.

Winter of Discontent – Sit-in at the Ritz:

The fight against unemployment in Britain continued to the end of the decade. By the winter of 1938-39, the NUWM had changed their tactics from national marches and demonstrations to a series of localised stunts aimed at focusing attention to their demands for winter relief. Their three-point programme called for additional winter unemployment payments of two shillings and sixpence per adult and one shilling per child. They also demanded a national scheme of public works at trade union rates of pay and the opportunity to put their case directly to the ministers concerned. The picture below was taken on 20 December 1938, when two hundred unemployed men made their way to Oxford Street, crowded with Christmas shoppers. They stepped off the pavements and laid down in the roadway bringing the heavy traffic to an abrupt halt. The weather was bitterly cold and snow had been falling as the men covered themselves with posters calling for bread, work and winter relief. Two days later, a hundred men strolled into the Grill Room of the Ritz Hotel, seating themselves at the tables laid for dinner. They followed this by capturing the UAB offices and holding an officer prisoner, flying of a banner from the Monument in the City of London and chaining themselves to the railings of labour exchanges.

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However, in 1939, the threat of war overshadowed domestic problems. Opposition to the ‘appeasement’ policy after the Munich agreement was a lost cause. So too was the League of Nations Union, which was ‘practically dead’ and the National Labour Party was in no better shape. Nicolson devoted his energies to helping refugees from Franco’s Spain and co-operating with Eleanor Rathbone in her work with deprived children in Britain. He also joined the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror and helped the Zionist cause.

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For the Labour movement as a whole, the war strengthened the commitment of ‘no return to the thirties’ even before the thirties were properly over. As Harold Nicolson motored home from Westminster to Sissinghurst in Kent on 3 September, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist and shouted: it’s all the fault of the rich! Harold commented in his diary:

The Labour Party will be hard put to it to prevent this war degenerating into class warfare.

Sources:

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920 – 1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD Thesis.

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishing).

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Joanna Bourke (ed.), et.al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles (Publishers).

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September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

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On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

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There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

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above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

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Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

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above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

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above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

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above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

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After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

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Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

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On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

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Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

Posted September 8, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Axis Powers, Baltic States, BBC, Berlin, Britain, British history, Canada, Churchill, Communism, Compromise, Conquest, decolonisation, democracy, Economics, Education, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Ethnicity, Eugenics, Europe, Family, Genocide, George VI, Germany, Great War, History, Holocaust, Imperialism, Italy, Jews, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Paris, Poland, Population, Poverty, Russia, Seasons, Second World War, Security, Spanish Civil War, Statehood, terror, tyranny, Versailles, War Crimes, Warfare, World War One, World War Two

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