Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Conservative Cavalcade - 1

The Conservative party has played such a major part in public affairs during my lifetime that I need more than one post to have my say about them.

When I was little, there was a National Government, and its prime minister was Ramsay MacDonald. I didn’t understand, then, that this ‘national’ government was really an overwhelmingly Conservative one – or, indeed, that there was such a thing as His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Insofar as I became aware of political things, I just took ‘the government’ for granted.

I suppose the first incident that aroused my still childish interest was the abdication of King Edward VIII which, indeed, riveted the entire country. Royalty was still widely revered in those days, and the notion that our King should want to marry a common American woman, and a divorced one at that, shocked Britain to the core. By then, Stanley Baldwin was prime minister, widely regarded as a ‘safe pair of hands’, and temperamentally a social healer who was sometimes over-complacent. His skilful navigation of the switchover from the erring Edward to the model family monarch George VI won the plaudits of almost everyone except Winston Churchill and a handful of romantic ‘King’s men’.

The next big political event to invade my budding consciousness of the wider world beyond our family life was the Munich crisis. Baldwin’s successor, Neville Chamberlain, a prim, narrow-minded but basically decent man, dramatically flew for the first time in his life, not once but twice, to Germany in the space of a few days plead with Hitler to avert a European war. The dictator didn’t think much of this Victorian throwback, and is supposed to have said "If ever that silly old man comes interfering here again with his umbrella, I'll kick him downstairs and jump on his stomach in front of the photographers". Nonetheless, Chamberlain emerged from the lion’s den with what he optimistically announced was Hitler’s pledge of “peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time." But he must surely have known, as well as nearly everyone else did, that this was a hollow hope.

Nowadays, ‘appeasement’ has a bad name and Baldwin and Chamberlain are both execrated for their foolish complacency. But there was much support for their policies at the time; the senseless bloodbath of the 1914-18 trench warfare was only a few years behind, with its tragic loss of almost a whole generation of youth, and most British people were appalled at the thought of another war. Fortunately, though, Winston Churchill was sounding the alarm throughout the 1930s. But he and his small band of supporters were in a minority although I am glad to say my family believed - however reluctantly - that he was right.

Apart from renegade kings and upstart dictators, the National Government of the pre-war decade was a far better one in many respects than it has since been given credit for. When it came into office, the country was almost bankrupt and in the grip of a severe economic depression. This was partly the result of post-war exhaustion, and more immediately a consequence of the great 1929 Wall street crash which resulted from reckless speculation on the American stock market. While accelerating, though still inadequate, rearmament in the last years of peace helped, the National government had been laying the groundwork for economic recovery even earlier, with the abandonment of free trade and the introduction of tariff protection for Britain’s basic industries which, without this, would have been even worse equipped to fight the 1939-45 war. Unemployment was also a nagging problem about which more should and could have been done. But in retrospect, and for all their sins of omission, the ‘men of Munich’ have had an excessive amount of blame heaped upon them by political opponents and historians. Popularity plummets all too swiftly, and Baldwin – who had been hailed as a national saviour after the abdication – became even more unpopular than Chamberlain when the war erupted in earnest in the summer of 1940. He was reviled for not having warned the nation of its peril, and many rejoiced in mean fashion when his beautiful wrought iron ornamental gates at Bewdley [he was an ironmaster] were seized for scrap. His old age was lonely, and I felt pity for him when, as an undergraduate, I saw him glumly hobbling around the Senate House courtyard in procession as Chancellor of Cambridge University.

My own political consciousness only blossomed [if that is the right word!] during the war, when I was a schoolboy with a fascination for history and a keen awareness of the increasingly bitter global struggle. Winston Churchill’s government was a coalition of the three main political parties, and more genuinely ‘national’ than its predecessor had been, though the majority of MPs were still Conservative. During his long political career Churchill himself had been by turns a Conservative, a Liberal, and then a Conservative again. Because of his presumed ‘disloyalty’ during the 1930s, he was disliked and mistrusted by many Conservatives, both in and outside parliament, and only became prime minister on the insistence of the Labour Party, who refused to serve under his rival Lord Halifax.

Churchill’s heroic stance as the implacable British bulldog snarling at the Nazi foe and as the prime architect of Allied victory won the bulk of his party over so that many regarded him as their main asset. When he was unexpectedly defeated in the 1945 landslide general election which swept Labour not only into office but, for the first time, into power he was solidly supported by most Conservatives in his new and unfamiliar role as leader of the opposition. [Indeed, the stalwartly Tory mother of a college friend of mine refused to recognise this unpalatable turn of affairs, and made a point of always referring to Mr Churchill as “the prime minister” throughout the six years that he wasn’t!] During my university days and for some time afterwards I was a pretty strong Churchillian Conservative, because I believed that the Tories, more than Labour, stood for the freedom of the individual to live their personal lives as they chose – something I was perhaps wrong about.

I remained a Conservative until the Suez crisis of 1956, when it became painfully apparent that Churchill’s successor, Anthony Eden, had not only secretly colluded with France and Israel in attacking Egypt and attempting to seize the Suez Canal, but also had told a whole pack of lies to parliament and the country about the fiasco. At which point I ceased to be a Conservative [writing a pompous letter of resignation to my local MP], and have ever since had no particularly strong party allegiance, though inclining towards the Liberals [now LibDems] primarily because of their stance on civil liberty issues and voting reform.


Emmett said...

THIS Is the real stuff! If I had you here, I'd dragoon you for several hours on my monthly broadcast, /Mankato History This Month/! A stretch, but we should probably be able to get away with it....

zola a social thing said...

My grandfather told me never to be conservative and I have learnt the wisdom of his words.
My grandfather, an Oxford man, who played ice hockey sometimes.
Nowt changes me old.

anticant said...

My grandfather was a Conservative - I think he supported Joe Chamberlain over tariff reform. Being Conservative was taken for granted in those days by most of the professional classes, like being C of E and going to church occasionally. It was social and about class assumptions rather than being fervently political.

Jose said...

After reading this excellent - as couldn't be otherwise by Anticant's hand - resumé, there come to my mind a couple of impressions I was given to understand short after the end of WWII.

1. Hitler's secret hope was that the British sided with him in his campaigns.

2. The precarious financial situation Britain found herself in in the 1930s was solved by the mediation of Baron Rothschild, who afterwards in compensation requested, and got, Balfour to issue his famous declaration which gave the go-ahead for the formation of the State of Israel.

Have I been erroneously led?

anticant said...

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was a cynical fudge, because it promised the establishment of a “national home” [but not a state] for the Jewish people in Palestine with the proviso that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” – an obvious impossibility. Although Balfour’s letter was addressed to Lord Rothschild, the leading Zionist negotiator [over a period of some ten years] was Dr Chaim Weitzman, who was to become first president of the state of Israel.

That Balfour was perfectly well aware of the dishonest nature of the document is apparent from a Cabinet memorandum he wrote in1919 stating: “The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant is even more flagrant in the case of the independent nation of Palestine than in that of the independent nation of Syria. For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American Commission has been going through the forms of asking what they are. The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder importance than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion, that is right.”

It is quite clear from this that the British, and Balfour in particular, bear a heavy responsibility for the intractable nature of the Arab-Israeli Palestine conflict.

See the excellent Wikipedia article on the subject.

anticant said...

There was certainly a lot of support for Hitler among the British upper classes in the pre-Munich years, because they saw him as a bulwark against the spread of Bolshevism in Europe.

There is an excellent book on this: "Fellow Travellers of the Right" by Richard Griffiths.

Jose said...

I stand corrected, Anticant. My fault. Haste has never been a good counsellor and my memory played a trick on me.

Britain was in a very hard economic situation after First World War. Rothschild solved her problem and was entitled to receive something in exchange (I suppose he - or his financial system - was generously rewarded).

The Orthodox Jewry is contrary to the State of Israel because its tenets tell this State can only be established after the coming of the Messiah.

But this is a digression from the main theme in this article of yours. For which I offer my apologies.

anticant said...

I don't know about Rothschild. According to Wikipedia, Weizmann was an industrial chemist who invented a process vital for munitions manufacture, and when asked by the British government what payment he required he replied "only one thing. A national home for my people."