Sunday, 30 August 2009

The day war was declared

We are entering the period when the events surrounding the outbreak of WW2 are back in the public domain. The Imperial War Museum have just opened a new exhibition on the topic and last week Radio 4 Today programme carried an item on appeasement.

I was working in London last week so I took the opportunity of going to the Imperial War Museum (I.W.M).

(I should say at this point that the temptation to continue the posting on Kropotkin and food policy is strong. The I.W.M. has some excellent posters and books on the Dig for Victory Campaign-or as the Government called it the Grow More Campaign. I did search in vain for the Penguin war time book on running a Small Holding that draws on Kropotkin's work.)

This posting is on the outbreak of war. The wireless broadcast of Neville Chamberlain announcing to the nation that as the German Government had not responded to his note over Poland and that 'consequently we are at war' is playing as you enter the room. We are told that Alva Liddel-who was still reading the news when I was a lad-lent over the Chamberlain's shoulder to announced the broadcast and that he observed that the P.M. was a broken man.

In common with most folk on the day I went I was struck by the letter from Lord Halifax-the Tory Foreign Secretary and arch appeaser- to the German Government formally declaring War in which he write what to C21st eyes seems an odd sentence concluding something like : 'I have the honour to tell you we are at war'. Differently odd is a copy of Chamberlain's diary in which he notes war is declared on the wrong day.

Looking at the front pages of that days newspapers that were displayed around the wall my eye was drawn to the News Chronicle. The Liberal Leader's response to Chamberlain statement in the Commons is on the front page. Lloyd George's speech in the debate also makes it to the front page with slightly better 'billing' than Sinclair. The News Chronicle describes Sinclair as deputy leader of the opposition which is not a title that the Liberal Leader get nowadays. I have no idea if that was a common usage.
Sinclair was supportive of Chamberlain's move. In truth he was the one party leader who had resolutely stood again appeasement. Ian Hunter wrote an article in the Liberal History Journal which outlines Sinclair's opposition to Chamberlain's policy over responding to the dictators over Abyssinia and Munich. When I first joined the Liberal Part 40 years ago there were still members around who spoke proudly of their stand against appeasement. After the War everyone was anti appeasement but at the time of Munich the public overwhelmingly backed the policy and to stand out against it was to mark you out as an odd ball. It was a brave stance and one which though correct brought little political dividend.
I had assumed that the Labour Party would have been signed up to oppose the dictators but as Hunter's article make clear their party as a whole were less than united on the issue:

'The Liberals were also able to offer a policy in distinct contrast to the
refusal of Attlee and the Labour Party to face up to growing threats from
abroad. Between 1931 and 1937 Labour adopted what can only be described as a
policy of unilateral disarmament and isolation. The Labour Party Conference in
1932 unanimously passed a motion pledging the party to ‘take no part in war and
to resist it with the whole force of the Labour movement’.

In the key defence spending votes of the mid-1930s (the March 1935 debate on the Defence White Paper, the 1935 and 1936 army, navy and air estimates, and the 1937 Defence Loans Bill) the Labour Party consistently voted against building up the country’s military capabilities. As late as July 1937 the party abstained in the vote over the final appropriation for defence. This was not a proud record with which to face a Government increasingly committed to the policy of appeasement'
Interestingly when it became clear that Chamberlain had to go it was to Halifax that many Labour MPs looked. The King and Queen certainly thought he was far preferable to Churchill. The extent to which Halifax still supported appeasement even after the declaration is becoming clear as an article in The Telegraph last August shows.
Many politicians started out by admiring Hitler's programme-including Lloyd George-but by 1939 most had seen the error of their ways. Halifax was really very taken with Hitler and he told his friend and fellow Tory MP Chips Cannon that; "he liked all the Nazi leaders, even Goebbels, and he was much impressed, interested and amused by the visit. He thinks the regime absolutely fantastic"
He recorded himself that: "Although there was much in the Nazi system that profoundly offended British opinion, I was not blind to what he (Hitler) had done for Germany, and to the achievement from his point of view of keeping Communism out of his country." What impressed Halifax was that Hitler had banned the Communist Party and put its leaders in concentration camps!
I suspect that as we mark over 70th anniversaries of events in the WW2 there will be much to reflect on. Archibald Sinclair went on to me Churchill's Minister for Air and as such was responsible for the policy of bombing the civilian populations of cities like Dresden and Cologne. That was controversial then-with one Anglican Bishop openly condemning the policy. I wonder what we will make of it 70 years on.