Britain in the Thirties

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The Dirty Thirties
World War II

Haunting the Home of History
photo by

10 Downing Street
photo by
G. Wilson

Milling Members of Britain's National Government in the backyard of Downing Street in 1931

Prime Minister
James Ramsay MacDonald
leads the way down the steps of the garden
No. 10 Downing Street.
Behind him are. J.H. Thomas, Lord Reading,
Stanley Baldwin,
Philip Snowden (with cane) and top right to left: Lord Sankey, Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister, Sir Samuel Hoare,
Neville Chamberlain
and Sir Herbert Samuel


Two Haunted by History
Stanley Baldwin {6th step on the right)
Neville Chamberlain (top second left)

Bobbies man the barricade.
photo by
G. Wilson

Judging from the plethora of political publications about this period, there is seemingly limitless interest among historians and the general public in history relating to British foreign policy in the 1930s. The era is everlastingly associated with the failed policy of appeasement. During this fascinating and ultimately fateful epoch for Britain and the world, three men presided over the politics and the providence of that country.

James Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, are the right honourable

"three mediocrties,"
who led Britain through the direful decade of the 30s.

"There could have been no greater misfortune for England in the 30's, than that the period of inactivity was superintended" by MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain. "They were as much strangers to all tradition of English pride as though they were alien in blood."[*]

Of this trio of leaden legislators, MacDonald was thought to have been the least consequential.

James Ramsay MacDonald PC, FRS
(12 October 1866 - 9 November 1937) PM (1924; 1925-35)

James Ramsay MacDonald, tall, handsome with piercing brown eyes and wavy grey hair, combined with a deep, melodious voice made more eloquent with rolling Scottish "r"s, fascinated his followers who believed him, "a second coming among them."

The Lad from Lossiemouth was taken with his looks and the ladies to boot. Notoriously susceptible to the charms of duchesses, Ramsay eagerly submitted to their blue-blooded embrace. He had the bearing of an aristocrat and did nothing to dispel the rumour his father was a marquis, when, in fact. he was a ploughman, who sired his son with a Scottish servant girl.

Lossiemouth Harbour

MacDonald, a vigorous opponent of war and a died-in-the wool believer in disarmament, spoke loudly in opposition to the stationery trenches, the barbed wire and the massive bombardments of World War I. His pacificism regarding the war to end all wars resulted in him being vilified as a traitor and vicious verbal attacks on him became so bad, he "talked of suicide".

Ramsay found calm and contentment hill-walking, a highly savoured solitary pursuit that gave him no end of peace and pleasure.

An early morning walk in St. James's Park with his son Alister and his daughter, Sheila and her pet, Scottie, in October 1933.

"If friends fail", he said, "the hill road never does."

Toughened by times that included living for a period on water and oatmeal sent by his mother from Scotland, Ramsay placed his faith in the future of social reform. He led in creating the Labour Party, but did little with it. Wearing his red tie, he sang with gusto Labour's lyric, The Red Flag, while privately savaging the song he regarded as, "the funeral dirge of our movement." His socialist cohorts admired his political gifts, political flair, intellectual power and "nervous electric energy," but were impatient with him as a leader. He pledged to deal with unemployment but did little more more than set up committees and launch inquiries, all while unemployment almost doubled.

No Cure for The Curse of Unemployment

Descrbed as "brilliant, vain and jealous", Ramsay was less a socialist than a decorative figure with aristocratic tastes. He admitted as much when he commented, "If God were to come to me and say, Ramsay, would you rather be a country gentlemen than a Prime Minister?" I should reply, "Please God, a country gentleman."

Following the election of 1923, this son of a ploughman and Scots farm girl became the first Socialist Prime Minister, thanks to the minority Liberal Party's marriage to the Labour Party.

Labour Triumphs

The weird wedding of these two parties resulting in the election of Britain's Socialist regime revolted all reasonable men. Churchill, fearing a socialist revolution would follow, led the lamantations, declaring the enthronement of a Socialist Government, a serious national misfortune. Winston decried the party's existence, declaring, "It had grown from a handful of Socialist freaks and a band of sturdy old trade unionists into the foundation of a Government which at this moment is ruling the land." Others were equally dismayed, many declaring it a national disaster. Not least of all the naysayers regarding the worrisome winners endorsed by the public was King George V. The sovereign was scandalized and declared he did not care whether a man was a Liberal, Radical or Tory, but Socialists were beyond the pale.

George V

However, the electors had spoken and James Ramsay MacDonald was duly summoned by George V to Buckingham Palace where on 6 December, 1923 he kissed hands with the monarch. The King's diary entry for that day reflected his consternation. "I wonder what dear Grandmamma (Queen Victoria) would have thought of a Labour Government." MacDonald recognized the king's concern after kissing hands when he recorded, "I fear he is apprehensive."

Ramsay after emerging from Buckingham Palace.

After the King's meeting with the members of the first Labour governemt. MacDonald commented, "None of us felt the least embarrassed with such a kindly host. We all made friends at once and he gave us lucid instructions about our duties, not without a touch of humour."

Notwithstanding the sovereign's consternation regarding a Socialist government, King George did his duty as a constitutional monarch and seized every opportunity to demonstrate his trust in the party and the person of its leader, both in public and in private. He and MacDonald, in fact. became close friends.

By 1924 Britain had a prime minister who had been vilified for his anti-war stance and dozens of MPs who had campaigned vigorously against the war. MacDonald shocked a great many citizens, when he criticized "the pompous folly of standing aloof from the Russians," and opened relations with the new Soviet Republic. No gratitude came from the Communists, who declared him a traitor to the working class and Moscow ordered Communists to support MacDonald, "like a rope supports a hanging man." Ramsay's first government lasted nine months (22 January 1924 - 4 November 1924) and was replaced by the Conservatives.

Pledging to end "misery, hunger and starvation within three weeks of coming into office," Ramsay became prime minister again, when the Conservatives were defeated and Labour came to power in June 1929.

The promises preached by politicians brought even tougher times.

As nearly 8.5 million people voted for MacDonald, Winston watched the election results come in with a large whiskey and soda in hand. As Labour continued to lead, his face got redder and redder and he bowed his head like a bull about to charge and smash the machine to pieces. His comments to the staff, "were quite unprintable." Labour, the party he despised more than any other, had won. He feared for the future of the country and the Empire.

By 1932 hunger marchers were being manhandled by the police.

Ramsay, a radical idealist regarding Britain's foreign policy cautioned, "We must keep out of troubles in Central Europe at all costs." British leaders remained spectators rather than participants when the League system was challenged by Japan, Germany and Italy. According to Chuchill, few could pretend the "results were satisfactory" under MacDonald. "He has brought us nearer to war and has made us weaker, poorer and more defenceless." MacDonald's prime preoccupation was disarmament in the face of tensions left untended among the major powers. This perpetuated arming. "Measuring swords around the table at Geneva," warned Winston, "simply stirs the deepest suspicions and anxieties among the major powers." He worried that MacDonald's platitudinous preachings on the blessings of peace were being welcomed by well-meaning, but ill-informed majorities.

MacDonald's measure of meting out hostility increased in direct proportion to criticism directed against him. Churchill was one of the major sources of jeers and sneers and MacDonald detested him. One of the most hurtful came in the House of Commons. Churchill said MacDonald's skill in falling without hurting himself reminded him of the Boneless Wonder, an act his parents considered too revolting for him to see when he and they visited an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities - the Boneless Wonder. He criticized Ramsay's foreign policy of simply preaching peace at a time when other nations were improving upon their military might.

MacDonald set a precedent by having the first woman in his cabinet and he was the first British Prime Minister to visit the United States of America. On his return to England, he encountered a great many problems for the timing of his tasks as head of government could not have been tougher. The Great Depression had descended on the world and presented politicians with crises calling for tough decisions. Disagreements over how best to deal with the depressing problems were widespread and intense. The fractious parliament proved painfully difficult and the frustrated MacDonald's threat to resign on 24 August 1931, plunged the country into dangerous instability.

A small crowd peers through gates of Downing Street closed during the political crisis..

A very concerned King summoned party leaders to Buckingham Palace to "save the pound." He asked MacDonald to remain as prime minister and Ramsay assented if he could form a Coalition government with the Conservatives. They agreed and a National Government was formed under MacDonald. An election followed which they survived, but MacDonald lost the support of the Labour constituent. Unemployment had risen dramatically with a world-wide economic depression underway and the government lacked the funds to pay benefits, so Labour suffered. A majority of senior Socialist members opposed the Conservative and Liberal policies, which MacDonald said he had to endorse, "for the common good." His plaintive pleading fell on deaf ears, he was accused of "betrayal" by the dissident Labour leaders and was expelled from the Socialist Party. Memories of his 'traitorious tendacies' were long and lasting and the British left has always seen in him the embodiment of treachery.

MacDonald remained Prime Minister of the National Government from 1931 to 1935. During the course of much of this four-year period, the dominant feeling was "never again." MacDonald's interventions in foreign affairs were fixated on peace at almost any price and he preached disarmament. Others did too as witnessed by a large confernece called to discuss peace and safety and how to achieve it. The answer was a solution to the arms race, but the devil was in the details. Tragically for the world, the conference broke down and some celebrated its failure by spending billions on bullets.

Largest Disarmament Conference opened in Geneva in April 1932.

Meanwhile a short distance across this notoriously narrow, much-travelled waterway, Hitler's havoc was in the making.

Barrior and bridge to the rest of the world - English Channel
photo by
G. Wilson .

White Cliffs of Dover
photo by
G. Wilson .

Hitler's election as leader of Germany in 1933 heralded a warring spirit in Germany and a massive re-armament movement. France was being badgered by MacDonald to reduce its large army by a half, even as Nazis,proclaimed their military might and menace, goose-stepping through the streets to drums and trumpets and wildly waving luridly-coloured swastika symbols, Britain emphasized disarmament while a very worried Winston declared, "Thank God for the French army." That force, unfortunately, failed in the face of the fighting to come.

Danger threatens Dover
photo by
G. Wilson .

Pacifists Demonstrate in London in 1935

In 1919 at Versailles, the big three, President Woodrow Wilson, Prime Minster Lloyd George and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, met to put the world back together again, the British delegation required five hotels to accommodate them. The American staff totalled 1300 at a cost of $1.5 million. A wit at the time commented that the leaders at Versailles, "after the war to end wars, seemed to have sucessfully made a peace to end peace."

Versailles Peace Conference 1919

In 1933, one of those years when in the words of Byron, "the Fates change horses making history change its tune," Hitler became der Fuhrer and tensions rose on the international scene. MacDonald said he hoped to settle the Versailles reparations rages and come to terms with Germany. Churchill cautioned that Hitler wanted far more than just to remedy the injustices of Versailles, but MacDonald and others failed to see the wisdom of Winston's warning. The leadership then so badly needed was lacking, as MacDonald governed ever more uncertainly and uneasily.

Versailles Peace Conference 1919

MacDonald at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

MacDonald was as proud of his intellect as he was of his appearance and he found it hard to admit there was anything he did not know. Although he had climbed the greasy pole, his birth was always a serious social stigma and a wound to his psyche. It tended to make him hypersensitive to any criticism and very insecure. On receiving a copy of Churchill's latest book lauding 'My Early Life', MacDonald admitted as much when he wrote from Downing Street to thank Winston. He would reciprocate, he said, if he ever wrote a book about himself, but he doubted this would happen because, "You are an interesting cuss and I am a dull dog."

Increasingly worried about the passing scene, Churchill attacked MacDonald's government on disarmament in a debate in the House of Commons on 12 November 1936. It was, he said, "decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. So we go on, preparing more months and years - precious, perhaps vital, to the greatness of Britain - for the locusts to eat."

During this period MacDonald's physical powers began to fade and his health rapidly deteriorated. He became increasingly ineffective, functioning more as a figurehead with the real power being Stanley Baldwin's. Ramsay presided over his last cabinet on 7 June 1935. MacDonald went to see George V to tell him he was resigning as head of the National Government. The King said: "I wonder how you have stood it - especially the loss of your friends and their beastly behaviour. You have been the Prime Minister I have liked best; you have so many qualities, you have kept up the dignity of the office without using it to give you dignity." The following year, Ramsay had a total mental and physical collapse and departed with his daughter Sheila on an ocean cruise. At the age of 71, he died on the Atlantic of heart failure on 9 November 1937. He is buried at Spynie Churchyard Lossiemouth, Moray, Scotland.

Stanley Baldwin became prime minister in name as well as in fact. Described as "the cabin boy" by the abler Tories at the time Lloyd George was PM, he became the dominant figure in British politics for the next fifteen years.

Debonair Stanley Baldwin

Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947)
PM (1923-1924) (1924-1929) and (1935-1937)

Baldwin was a kindly man of little force, the pipe-smoking politician whose claim became, "you can trust me by now." He appeared a solid, modest, calm, cautious character with, someone said, his "passion frozen into obedience." A countryman and an amiable politician, he appeared to be a frank, practical businessman, but beneath the placid surface, he was nervous, but certainly not lacking in ambition or self-regard.

Pipe-smoking Calm, Cool and Collected Stanley

In October 1935 Baldwin called a general election. Neville Chamberlain advised Baldwin to make rearmament the leading issue in the election campaign against Labour, saying that if a rearmament programme were not announced until after the election, his government would be seen as having deceived the people. Baldwin disagreed and did not make rearmament the central issue in the election. He gave little attention to foreign affairs and would have preferred isolation. He was not interested in, but said he would support, the League of Nations, modernize Britain's defences and remedy deficiencies, but promised, "I give you my word that there will be no great armaments".

Later when criticized, he said, "I asked myself what chance was there within the next year or two of that feeling being so changed, that the country would give a mandate for rearmament. Supposing I had gone to the country and said that Germany was rearming and we must rearm, does anybody think that this pacific democracy would have rallied to that cry at that moment! I cannot think of anything that would have made the loss of the election from my point of view more certain."

When Churchill learned of this, he said, "I have never heard such a squalid confession from a public man as Baldwin offered us yesterday."

In 1935 in an attempt to break Baldwin's inertia - he dozed and yawned at Cabinet discussions of foreign policy, he was told Hitler "beemed" at the thought of a face to face meeting with him. Baldwin disliked planes and travelling by boat. Intrigue abroad held no interest for him, domestic matters being far more to his liking. He proposed instead that Hitler come to England where the two could have a "mountainous rendezvous," perhaps in the Lake District. He really "was no more concerned with this fellow Hitler than he was with the rest of Europe." In Winston's biting words, "He knew little and disliked what he knew. " The meeting never took place.

Unemployed throngs in Trafalgar Square 1934

While Baldwin maintained stable government, he drifted during his last years in office, failing to curb unemployment and to do more militarily to prepare the country for the times that lay ahead. His response: "It is to moralize the world we all desire." The economy was well on its way by 1936, but Baldwin feared gambling with it by spending significantly on the military. He did not know what to believe and lamented that as far as British Intelligence was concerned, Germany was "a dark Continent." To a few that peril was more apparent.

Baldwin's reputation rallied late in 1936 at the time of the abdication crisis whose handling was tactful and successful.

Like his grandfather, Edward VII, the Prince had a reputation as a gay blade. He had a long history of restlessness and idle activity, all of which was cleverly concealed from the public by a respectfully fawning court and an adoring and obedient press. Edward was something of a dandy, who preferred plaid suits, two-toned shoes and boaters and tied his cravat in what became known as the Windsor knot. He was educated at a naval academy, where his size resulted in the nickname, "Sardine." He also attended Magdalen College, Oxford, which was known less for producing academics than "Rolls-Royce minds." He was not expected to graduate. Rather than lessons, he liked playing polo, tap dancing, strumming the ukulele, night-clubbing, yachting and young women.

Edward's visit to the United State resulted in his meeting with Bessie Wallace Warfield Spencer Simpson, the daughter of a Baltimore clerk "of good family but small means." Divorced, she had remarried Ernest Simpson.

Bessie Wallace Warfield Simpson

The affair with the Prince of Wales had been slow to ignite. The Simpsons met Edward in England first at a weekend house party in 1934 hosted by Edward’s mistress, the married socialite Thelma, Viscount Furness, who he seemed in no haste to ditch. She had to go away for a while and invited Wallis to look after her lover (the Little Man), a task that Wallis did rather too well. Her affair with him had begun.

British newspapers air brushed Wallis out of all photos with the King and foreign newspapers which gloried in the romantic hijinks of Edward were banned from Britain or mutilated on arrival. Lord Beaverbrook, powerful owner of the Daily Express, arranged an informal "gentleman's agreement" among newspaper editors, who knew their place in a deferential society. Canadians and Americans were amazed at Fleet Street's "habit of suppressing or playing down the unpalatable." They did not understand that an authoritarian ruling class and an Olympian Civil Service always saw universal suffrage as a threat to their monopoly.

Over the course of that year, the Simpsons were gradually absorbed into Edward’s social life, spending frequent weekends with him at Fort Belvedere, his 18th-century home in the grounds of Windsor Great Park. Mr. Simpson, who adored royalty, was more than willing to accommodate his wife's ways with Edward. Before long, the Prince was responding to Wallis’s flirtatiousness and sparkling repartee. As her old schoolfriend Mary Kirk recalled in her diary, she always had a challenging line for the prince. In the early days, she used to say to him,"You’re just a heartbreak to any woman because you can never marry her."’

Wallace flirting with Edward

One meeting with the prince led to another and before long, Wallace was in wonderland, seen glittering in rubies and emeralds regularly at the theatre, where she arranged his tie and told him not to smoke between acts. It is said Edward liked to be bossed and she accommodated him. "He was made for domination and she to dominate."

Wallace and Edward

Edward and Wallace Out and about

A Sovereign Unseated

George V met her, was not amused. On his dying bed, George V forecast of his desultory son, whom he had mercilessly bullied all of his life, "After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in twelve months." He was almost bang on.

On 20 January 1936, "Death came peacefully to the King at 11:55 p.m. tonight." Suddenly, too, for Lord Dawson of Penn, the King's physician, hastened the King's end by giving him a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine, both to prevent further strain on the family and so that the King's death at 11:55 pm could be announced in the morning edition of The Times newspaper rather than "less appropriate ... evening journals."

The 71-year old King is dead; long live the 32-year old King. George V was succeeded by his 41-year old son, who became Edward VIII, the 38th monarch to reign since 1066.

In 1927 Edward came to Canada to take part in the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation. His duties included the inauguration of the International Peace Bridge across the Niagara River. He met at its middle with the Vice President Charles Dawes and Al Smith, Governor of New York State, where Edward shook hands with Dawes and cut a wide silken cord.

Edward and Baldwin following Bridge inauguration

Edward wrote later that this trip "was made noteworthy for me for bringing me for the first time into intimate coantact with the political leader who was destined to oppose me in 1936." He found Baldwin to be a fluent conversationalist with impressive erudition. He later detected traces of arrogance and Baldwin's "embodiment of old John Bull. In my hour of Sovereignty, I was to rediscover that side of him."

Baldwin felt he could tolerate Mrs. Simpson as 'a respectable whore', behind the throne but not as 'Queen Wally'. The King's ministers and Edward's own family found this twice-divorced [she subsequently divorced Simpson] woman with the dubious past completely unacceptable as queen. Rumours and innuendo about her circulated in society. It was believed she was pursuing Edward solely for his money and not the man, but some simply rejected her because she was American. She was dubbed the "Yankee Harlot" and it was feared her life was in danger. Even Baldwin, who suggested Edward keep Wallis as a mistress but not marry, thought there was a real danger of her being attacked.

Canada's Prime Minsiter Mackenzie King and the Canadian public generally opposed any plan to make Mrs. Simpson Queen of England.

Mackenzie King and Stanley Baldwin

The 'King conundrum' so completely preoccupied Baldwin, he asked his Foreign Minister, Anthony Eden, not to bother him with foreign affairs during the time when Hitler and Mussolini were menacing Europe with their madness.

Alone among leaders, Winston Churchill supported his sovereign and counselled the King to take shelter in Fort Belvedere, and fight for the love of his life.


Churchill urged him above all to remain on the throne and when he rose in the House of Commons to speak support this position, he was met with a wall of angry opposition that stunned him. Devastated by this overriding ridicule and rejection by the Members, Winston believed it might mean the end of his career in politics. Winnie explained Winston's irrational support for his sovereign by saying he was one of the last to believe in the divine right of kings. It was Winston's words that polished the address used by Edward when he spoke to the nation and the world on 11 December 1936. Edward's endorsement of Hitler hastened his downfall and he ended life a completely discredited duke. He died in Paris on 28 May 1972. His Duchess died there 24 April 1986.

Churchill's support of Edward in his quest to make a queen of Mrs. Simpson as one more example of Winston's wild and worrisome character - a loose cannon supporting lost causes. hen Churchill bitterly opposed the Government of India Bill in 1935 granting dominion status to India. He foretold of the Hindu-Muslim blood bath that did occur. Gandhi's response: "It's our blood." Churchill also desperately wished to retain the Jewel in the Crown, fearing its loss would be the beginning of the end of the Britain's imperial renown. He was offensive towards Indians generally and especially Gandhi, whom he compared to Hitler and called a fakir. When Baldwin was asked what kept Churchill out of any cabinet office and alienated him from the party, he answered with one word: "India." Winston's contrary causes resulted in his, "wilderness years", when he played no part in government. His astute perceptions of the international dangers faced by the country were regularly written off as more of Winston's warnings that were "cracked and tinny, like a record played on an Edwardian phonograph."

Crowds gathered daily at Whitehall to await word, some of whom demonstrated against the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury for opposing the marriage.

Bessie and Edward .

Baldwin was determined to ensure that while the King might reign, the prime minister ruled and he decided to deal quickly with this crisis for the country and the Empire. He met with Edward on 21 October at Fort Belvedere and informed the King that neither Britain nor the Dominions would tolerate a morganatic marriage. Edward declared, "She is the only woman in the world for me and I cannot live without her. I have looked at it from all sides. I am going to marry Mrs. Simpson and I am prepared to go."

Instrument of Abdication

It is said Wallace was aware that history would view her as the woman who forced a king to give up his throne. Private correspondence recently released indicates she was willing to disappear from the King’s life. On 10 December 1936 Edward abdicated, referring in his brief broadcast to "the woman I love." Wallace, while in France, listened to her lover, apparently with her hands over her eyes, "trying to hide my tears" of rage, fear, pity and perplexity.

Edward VIII becomes Duke of Windsor

Baldwin waa panned by the public who supported Edward,wherever he went. "God save the King from Bald-win! Flog Baldwin! Flog him! We want Edward!" He said the jeering never jarred him.

Baldwin "NO!" Edward "YES!"

Edward weds Wallace

Stanley Baldwin retired following the coronation of George VI, who promptly created him 1st Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, Knight of the Garter and Privy Councillor. .

The bridge at Bewdley \

Bewdley Town

Desptite the jarring jeering, it was noted at the time, "No man has ever left in such a blaze of affection."

When Baldwin retired in 1937, he received a great deal of praise, but the lauding of his lordship did not last. The onset of the Second World War changed his image by the public perception was that he had failed to do more to prepare his country for the crises that came. His unpopularity was clearly illustrated in 1942, when Lord Beaverbrook, armaments minister, asked local authorities to survey their areas for iron and steel railings and gates needed to be melted down for miltitary use. Owners could appeal for exemption based on grounds of artistic or historic merit. Baldwin supported by an architect did so, but his request created controversy. Churchill, minduful of the man's service ordered, "Lay off Baldwin's gates."

Well aware of the public's contempt for Baldwin, a Conservative member cryptically commented, "It is very necessary to leave Lord Baldwin his gates in order to protect him from the just indignation of the mob." It was feared if Baldwin's gates were not removed by the proper authorities, "those without authority might". Contrary to Churchill's wishes, before any other gates were gone, Baldwin's were largely removed, leaving only the main entrance. Widespread negative public reaction against Baldwin was reflected in the following article in the Daily Mirror.

"Here was the country in deadly peril with half the Empire swinging in the wind like a busted barn door hanging on one hinge. Here was Old England half smothered in a shroud crying for steel to cut her way out and right in the heart of beautiful Worcestershire was a one-time Prime Minister, refusing to give up the gates of his estate to make guns for our defence and his. Here was an old stupid politician who had tricked the nation into complacency about rearmament for fear of losing an election. Here is the very shrine of stupidity...This National Park of Failure." This angry outburst was widely supported and Baldwin kept his head low and largely left public appearances to others.

Baldwin suffered with arthritis and needed a cane to limped to his lone final public appearance in London on 2 October 1947: the unveiling in Old Palace Yard, Westminster of a statue of King George V.

Statue of George V

Some in the crowd recognized the old PM and cheered him. Perhaps a little daunted and certainly very deaf, Baldwin inquired plaintively, "Are they booing me?" He died 14 December 1947 and joined the jaundiced King John for internment in Worcester Cathedral.

Worcester Cathedral

A simple stone beneath the west window marking the burial place of the ashes of Stanley Baldwin.

West Window of Worcester Cathedral

Stanley and Neville

As Baldwin's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain was said to have steered the British economy out of the worst dangers of the international depression and was seen by many as the only possible successor to Stanley Baldwin

Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940)
PM from 28 May 1937 to 10 June 1940

Neville, now Prime Minister, Returning from Buckingham Palace

Chamberlain's appointment as Prime Minister was widely credited with bringing a new dynamism to the government. Unfortunately, as he rose through the ranks of governmental hierarchy, he was said to have moved increasingly from his comfort zone in the realm of social reform into primary politics where his inexperience showed. He was considered almost as idle in office as Baldwin. It was said of the one-time mayor of Birmingham, that with his municipal mind, he saw the world through a drain pipe.

Referred to in the House of Commons as "the coroner," he always dressed in black with winged collar, frock coat, tall, silk hat, the only hint of colour being a heavy gold chain across his waistcoat joined to a Masonic relic fob. He had a sardonic look which some called contemptuous and spoke with a harsh, rasping voice. In the House he took no trouble to make himself agreeable, even to his supporters, let alone the opposition. He failed to understand that politics was more than intellect. It was a test, too, of character and personality, the very characteristics he so disliked in his constant critic, Winston Churchill. Of "the devil Winston", who was fearless, energetic, insatiably curious, had oodles of self-confidence and could, when required, be a great actor, Neville said simply,"The worst of having a genius for a colleague is he is always flying after some new game, which diverts him from the more humdrum, but more practical political paths."

Chamberlain pursued an independent foreign policy, embarking on a personal policy of 'appeasing' the dictators.. He was too stubborn to seek the aid of expert advice and he developed an almost blind confidence in his own judgement and his ability to save the world from the disaster of another great war. Though often discontented with his methods, the Cabinet never questioned his policies. Preferring Nazism to Communism, he dealt with dictators "as if they were foreign businessmen with whom he was doing some deal." He had no conception there could be such a man as Hitler, absolutely ruthless and quite regardless of any promise or pledged word. Chamberlain really believed he could finesse the Fuhrer and for a time, his efforts garnered him the gratitude and generous praise of a war-weary nation, whose horrific losses in WW I - a million British and Empire troops - were fresh in memory. Hopes were buoyed that a second war with Germany had been avoided by the fellow with the umbrella.

Chamberlain was a very private individual, who concealled his true personality behind an outwardly cold, detached, public façade. He revealled his true personna only through correspondence to his spinster sisters, Hilda and Ida. His extended series of letters to them numbering nearly 1200 contained almost two million words and spanned the period between 1915 and his death in 1940. Unlike most leaders, he kept no diary and the letters are most valuable in revealing the man and his inner thoughts.

Returning from Munich at the end of September 1938, Neville preened at the public praise.

A self-satisfied, but sadly deluded " foggy-brained pacifist," Neville Chamberlain holds aloft the paper, he proudly proclaimed to mean, "Peace in our time."

When Mussolini asked about its meaning, Hitler replied,"It is but a scrap of paper." .

Churchill responded to Neville's peace promise. "We have sustained a defeat without a war. Do not suppose this is the end. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we rise again and take our stand for freedom as in olden times."

Neville derided Churchill for his lack of judgement, all the while glorying in the adoration and adulation of his sisters in whose estimation, Munich was the success of the century. The agreement reached at Munich brought the paeans of praise to an almost intolerable pitch.

"You have accomplished the impossible, you have indeed snatched victory from the jaws of death. We lift up our hearts in thankfulness for you, for your character, trained & disciplined all through your life so that the great emergency found you armed at all points. It is to Neville's superhuman courage & resource, judgment & firmness that we owe this reprieve, wrote Ida. "Millions bless your name today", insisted Hilda, "and your happy sisters are uplifted beyond words, by the thought of all that you have been able to do! You have accomplished the impossible, you have indeed snatched victory from the jaws of death. We lift up our hearts in thankfulness for you," Little wonder Neville considered his Munich meetings diplomatic master strokes. It has been suggested that he might have been less certain of his success, if the praise from the two he most loved and admired had been a little less laudatory and more marginally critical.

From the heights of popular acclaim in September 1938, there was only one direction in which Neville's reputation could travel and this it certainly did in the last months of his life, when he did not know it at the time, but he was to die of cancer of the colon. By the time of Neville's death in November 1940, he was in many minds already the principal "Guilty Man", an unenviable status from which he has yet fully to escape.

Churchill recognized in this man, whom he regularly criticized, his deep and determined dedication to peace and this understanding is reflected in his most impressive eulogyy to Neville in the House of Commons. The following extract is often quoted.

"Since we last met, the House has suffered a very grievous loss in the death of one of its most distinguished Members. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour."

Baldwin, along with Chamberlain and MacDonald, was held responsible for the United Kingdom's military unpreparedness on the eve of war in 1939. His defenders counter that the moderate Baldwin felt he could not start a program of aggressive re-armament without a national consensus on the matter. Certainly, pacifist appeasement was the dominant mainstream political view of the time in Britain, France, and the United States.

For Winston Churchill, however, that was no excuse. He focussed on their failings in speech after speach in the House of Commons. "We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude." Of the Western democracies, Winston said, "Thou are weighed in the balance and found wanting." Blame for the unbroken decade of retreat sat squarely on the shoulders of Baldwin, Chamberlain and MacDonald's Nationalist Government. "They never prevented Germany from disarming nor did they rearm ourselves in time." He firmly believed that Baldwin's conciliatory stance toward Hitler gave the German dictator the impression that Britain would not fight if attacked. The Fuhrer marched into and remilitarized the Rhineland, into Austria and into Czecholslovakia, while they watched and saw no reason to react.

Public opinion did contribute to a brief 'crisis of appeasement' in March 1939. However, the failure of appeasement itself lay elsewhere - in the international system and the shortcomings of a succession of British governments, most notably the Chamberlain government, which failed to rise above the strategic miscalculations and political prejudices of its predecessors.

Though known for his magnanimity toward political opponents including Neville Chamberlain, Churchill had none to spare for Baldwin. "I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill," Churchill said, when declining to send 80th birthday greetings to the retired prime minister in 1947, "but it would have been much better had he never lived."

There are revisionist historians who oppose the "guilty men" approach and argue that those who tag them with that terrible title are reading history backwards. How were they supposed to know Hitler's heinous intentions? He was just seeking to correct the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles and achieve justice for Germany. "Chamberlain," wrote revisionist historian, John Charmley, "saw no gains for Britain in another war and despite the pious assumptions of British historians, it is by no means clear that the results of the Second World War were commensurate with the sacrifices it entailed." Most simply believe Hitler and his gang were the ultimate evil and had to be eliminated no matter the cost.

[*] Rebecca West Black Lamb and Grey Falcon


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