"In a savage and subtle critique of historical self-regard, Robert Crowcroft brilliantly sums up the problem with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy"
In a savage and subtle critique of historical self-regard, Robert Crowcroft brilliantly sums up the problem with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. Above all else, its failure was to be “expansive yet hesitant”. The End is Nigh charts both the dissolution of British world power and the part Westminster politics played in that. Very few people, including the people, come out of it very well. Baldwin, whom Crowcroft clearly sees as the effective father of the current British settlement, does. And Chamberlain is duly faulted for lacking his predecessor’s transcendent gifts. But everyone else, Churchill included, is seen for the politicians they are.
Churchill’s road to seeing the political utility in being an anti-appeaser started in India. At one point during his opposition to the passage of the India Bill through parliament, Churchill told Baldwin: “I care about [India] more than anything else in public life.” Which almost certainly he meant for at least as long as the Act took to come into law. All that came next in his struggle against appeasement, and exclusion from the cabinet, was already here.
In fighting to get back into the front rank from which his failures had excluded him, the turncoat adventurer found his allies among the people who had loathed him longest and hardest: the diehards. The case for what first Irwin — Lord Halifax — as Viceroy, then Sam Hoare as India Secretary tried to do with Indian federalism is that it was a supple effort to maintain British supremacy. The case against was that it was a series of self-deluding surrenders. Thanks to Churchill’s leadership, it became the bitterest fight inside the Tory Party since free trade versus protectionism.
The appeasers were the same men: Halifax and Hoare, and behind them Baldwin and Chamberlain — from Gandhi to Grandi, as it were. Churchill, Leo Amery and lesser brains fought back. Mass meetings, extra-parliamentary leagues, internecine press warfare, parties within parties, paraded arrays of past greats culled from public service to shill for each side: nothing else between the wars matched the rancour of the India Bill inside and outside parliament.
British foreign policy in a democratic age was, as Crowcroft convincingly demonstrates, a matter of insincere slogans misapplied as much as they were misunderstood, being “rhetorical liberal posturing [and] dangerous posturing at that”. The failure of the League of Nations everywhere except in the public imagination crippled British statecraft. Yet the politicians, from Eden to the Labour Party, who most effectively insinuated themselves into its fantastical folds, did least to protect British power, still less to avoid the war which Peace Pledgers so loathed. Not much in the last century did Britain more peacetime harm than that fraudulent plebiscite, the Peace Ballot, conducted by cranks and sustained by fanatics. These, however, were the platitudes that politicians from Baldwin downwards prudently deferred to.
At every turn the pieties of peace turned in on themselves. Neither government nor public would defend what had been won in the Great War. A sentimental fit soon saw Germany as having been treated harshly, as opposed to having escaped anything like condign punishment, going unpartitioned and unoccupied, as she so successfully would be after the Second World War.
This then was the core interwar problem: there were multiple ways to abandon the Versailles settlement the British would not stand by, and the French could not stand up for, but in the form appeasement took we blundered into the worst one possible. Which led to war, Nazi victories, Soviet triumph and the end of British power.
The electoral needs of the National Government in 1935 took Britain, and her alone, to needless confrontation with Italy over Abyssinia in pursuit of domestic British pro-League sentiment. Mussolini’s absurd invasion of the slave-owning League member was entirely at British discretion. Not a troop got there but through the Suez Canal. Not an Italian ship sailed save at the pleasure of the Royal Navy. To appease League-minded voters, Britain came to the brink of war with a country whose previous démarche was with Hitler, over Austria, whose independence Mussolini saw as a key national interest. Finding a more worthless, counterproductive policy took real persistence, but tragically Chamberlain, who decried this one, managed it.
Having failed over India and the Abdication, Churchill, the iron chancellor of the Ten Year Rule, now adopted defence. “Arms and the covenant” [of the League] was his cry, and he travelled with sincere believers in both causes in pursuit of a return to the cabinet. Again, his early allies were Tory diehards like Henry Page-Croft — rock-ribbed imperialists who had nothing but contempt for League inanity.
To attack the National Government, Churchill and his supporters necessarily had to do so on the grounds of its failure to intervene. In response, Eden, Chamberlain and Halifax intervened. Doing so in eastern and central Europe was historically distinctive. Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London, and a perceptive observer as corruptors and cowards so often are, wondered why. His conclusion: both higher electioneering and Chamberlain being seized of a sense of mission. Certainly no strategic rationale informed it.
Time after time, appeasement saw Britain engage in diplomatic confrontation over areas and issues it was not committed to being part of the status quo. Halifax, repulsed by German methods, bounced Chamberlain over Munich and the disastrous, infeasible Polish guarantee. Doing so did Stalin’s work for him. Once Germany escaped the bind Britain put her in by contracting the alliance with Russia only really she could, Britain got the war the Soviets deserved.
The “prestige fallacy” then and since held that if we had not fought, we would have [insert phantoms here]. In truth, had we welched on our commitment to Poland no more would have come of that than came from our failure to fight over the rump Czech state being invaded. Or with Russia once they too defiled the Poles. In short, as Crowcroft concludes, Britain risked her power to save Stalin his.
Here the revisionists are revised: the indictment of Chamberlain is that he knew what ought not to be done but did it anyway. It will not alter the authorised version of our heroic struggle, but this echo of Maurice Cowling deserves to be heard wherever sceptics listen.