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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.

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Britain Sixty Years Ago (VII): Between Two Worlds, 1958-63   Leave a comment

Notting Hill, 1958 and After: Pity the Poor Immigrant…?

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Just as in the time of the Blair-Brown administrations of a decade ago, sixty years ago it was not regarded as respectable to express concerns about immigration to Britain, much less to voice anti-immigrant feeling. At both ends of the fifty year period of general prosperity, the elite turned its eyes and ears away from the door-slamming and shunning, and escaped into well-meant, windy generalities about the brotherhood of man and fellow-citizens of the Crown, or more latterly vacuous epithets about celebrating a mythological multi-cultural Cool Britannia, a land at ease with itself.  Most of the hostility was at the level of street culture, mostly covert and casual but occasionally overtly aggressive and violent, organised or orchestrated by white gangs of ‘nigger-hunting’ Teddy boys and small groups of right-wing extremists. The main motivation seems to have been young male testosterone-led territory-marking.

 

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From Austerity to Affluence: Britain, 1945-64.

This all came to a head in 1958 with the Notting Hill riots, more an event which symbolised change than one of real, bloody slaughter. In reality, no-one was killed in the rampaging and, by the standards of later rioting, there was little physical damage to either people or property. The trouble actually started in the poor St Ann’s district of Nottingham and only spread to London’s Notting Hill a day later. On 18 August, the Times reported on the Nottingham fight between coloured and white people and how some Conservative MPs saw it as a red light warning of further troubles to come. They intended to renew their demand for control to be placed on immigration from the Commonwealth and the colonies when Parliament reassembled in October. Thirty of them had already signed a motion (never debated) during the previous session, which had expressed their disquiet over…

… the continuing influx of indigent immigrants from the Commonwealth and colonies, thousands of whom have immediately sought National Assistance.

Even before the outbreak of the riots at Notting Hill, Norman Pannell, Tory MP for the Kirkdale division of Liverpool and leader of this group, had tabled a similarly worded resolution on the agenda of their autumn Party Conference. Pannell had commented to the Times the previous day:

The Nottingham fighting is a manifestation of the evil results of the present policy and I feel that unless some restriction is imposed we shall create the colour-bar we all wish to avoid… The object of my representation is to get some control, not to bar all Commonwealth immigration, but to see that the immigrants shall not be a charge on public funds, and that they are deported when they are guilty of serious crimes.

Yet what happened at Notting Hill was a large and deeply unpleasant outbreak of anti-immigrant violence which ran for a total of six days, across two late summer weekends. It was no coincidence that Notting Hill was the area where the rioting happened as distinct from, say, Brixton, which also had a very large and visible black population by the mid-fifties. Notting Hill had the most open, well-known street culture for black people, with Soho on one side and the new BBC headquarters on the other. This sub-culture was also well-advertised and celebrated by hacks, broadcasters and novelists. Known for its gambling dens and drinking-clubs, it also had a resentful and impoverished white population and, more importantly, in the words of two historians of British immigration put it:

It had multi-occupied houses with families of different races on each floor. It had a large population of internal migrants, gypsies and Irish, many of them transient single men, packed into a honeycomb of rooms with communal kitchens, toilets and no bathrooms.

Into this honeycomb poured a crowd first of tens, and then of hundreds of white men, armed first with sticks, knives, iron railings and bicycle chains, and soon with petrol-bombs too. They were overwhelmingly young,  mostly from nearby areas of London, and looking for trouble. They began by picking on small groups of blacks caught out on the streets, beating them and chasing them. They then moved to black-occupied houses and began smashing windows. The crowds swelled out until they were estimated at more than seven hundred strong, whipped up by the occasional neo-fascist agitator, but much more directed by local whites. Racist songs and chants of ‘niggers out’, the smashing of windows – although some local whites protected and fought for their black neighbours – this was mob violence of a kind that Brits thought they had long left behind. They shrunk away again, however, at the sight of black men making a stand, and fighting back with petrol bombs. There were a hundred and forty arrests, mainly of white youths, and though far-right parties continued to organise in the area, there was no discernible electoral impact, or indeed any more serious trouble. The huge press coverage ensured, however, that Britain went through its first orgy of national naval-gazing about its liberalism and its immigration policy, while overseas racist régimes such as those of South Africa and Rhodesia mocked their hang-wringing British cousins.

After the riots, many black people did ‘go home’. Returns to the Caribbean soared to more than four thousand. There, West Indian governments expressed outrage at the riots and made it clear that there would be no action by them to restrict migration in order to appease lawless white thugs. The Commonwealth retained a loose association between Crown, obligation and common citizenship which felt real to politicians of both parties. Pressure to close the open border for Commonwealth citizens hardly increased in the Tory Party after the Notting Hill riots, though extra-parliamentary campaigns, such as the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, did spring up. Of course, given that the violence was directed against immigrants by whites, it would have been grossly unfair had the first reaction been to send people home. Labour was wholly against restricting immigration, arguing that it would be disastrous to our status within the Commonwealth. 

The Notting Hill Carnival, begun the following year, was an alternative response, celebrating black culture openly. For many black migrants, the riots marked the beginning of assertion and self-organisation. They were looked back on as a ‘racial Dunkirk’, the darkest moment after which the real fightback began. Even in the ‘darkest’ days of 1958, there was a lighter side to the popular street culture which those ‘journalists’ who dared or bothered to walk the same streets, discovered for themselves. An Irish informant told T R Fyvel, author of The Insecure Offenders (1961) that the excessive interest of Teddy Boys in their own and each other’s clothes and hair-styles revealed a basic effeminacy and nothing else:

If you look into the motive you will find it was largely jealousy… of the girls for being the centre of attention. They just couldn’t stand not having it all to themselves. If you had listened to these Teds as I did when they stood about in dance-halls, all you would hear about was clothes and style. One would say: “I paid seventeen guineas for this suit at so-and-so’s”, the other, “I paid this new Jew tailor nineteen guineas for mine.” They could talk literally for hours about styles and cut and prices, the way you usually only hear women talk. But even if they all weren’t effeminate, though I know some of them were, the main thing with these Teds was that they had to outshine the way the girls dressed by the way they themselves were dressed. The Teddy boy was always the person who had to stand out.

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Within the young British West Indian community, clothes and hair did not need to be of a certain cut or style at this time; it was the “patois” which had a special role as a token of identity. But it was not a simple role for newly arrived immigrants, as one Jamaican schoolgirl living in London explained the complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican Creole in Jamaica, but that made it almost obligatory in London:

It’s rather weird ‘cos when I was in Jamaica I wasn’t really allowed to speak it (Jamaican Creole) in front of my parents. I found it difficult in Britain at first. When I went to school I wanted to be like the others in order not to stand out. So I tried speaking the patois as well … You get sort of a mixed reception. Some people say, “You sound really nice, quite different.” Other people say, “You’re a foreigner, speak English. Don’t try to be like us, ‘cos you’re not like us.”

Despite this mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it, “after a year, I lost my British accent, and was accepted.” But this was not, strictly speaking, Jamaican English. For many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was of a stylised form that was not, as they heard it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians had arrived from all over the Caribbean. Another British West Indian schoolgirl, who was born in Britain, was teased for her patois when she visited the Caribbean for the first time:

 I haven’t lived in Jamaica, right? But what I found  when I went out there was that when I tried to speak Jamaican (Creole) they laughed at me. They said I’m trying to copy them and I don’t sound right and that. They want me to speak as I speak now.

The experience convinced her that “in London, the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ‘Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into Patois as well.” By the early 1980s, investigators found that there were white children in predominantly black schools who used the British West Indian patois in order to be acceptable to the majority of their friends:

I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast. 

On the other hand, the same schoolboy knew that the creole was something for a special set of circumstances:

But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.

The unconscious racism of such comments points to the predicament faced by British black people. Not fully accepted, for all the rhetoric, by the established white community, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British, even by the 1980s. This was the poignant outcome of what British black writer Caryl Phillips called, The Final Passage. Phillips came to Britain in the late 1950s himself, and was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:

The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic schizophrenia – you have an identity crisis that mirrors the larger cultural confusion. 

His novel, The Final Passage, is narrated in Standard English, but the speech of the characters is obviously a rendering of nation language:

I don’t care what anyone tell you, going to England be good for it going raise your mind. For a West Indian boy like you just being there is an education, for you going see what England do for sheself … it’s a college for the West Indian.

The lesson of this college for the West Indian is, as Phillips put it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well.

The new ‘youth’ styles of late-fifties Britain, expressing themselves partly, as almost everything else in the period did, in terms of consumption patterns, also indicated subtle shifts in attitude and outlook: but no-one changed their life-chances by becoming a Teddy Boy or Mod. It can’t be said that adult members of the official culture displayed much sympathy into either of the ‘dreams’, of freedom or recognition, that Ray Gosling gave voice to in the following extracts, first of all from the BBC Programme, It’s My Life, and secondly from his article Dream Boy, which appeared in the New Left Review of May/June 1960:

I remember coming out of the Elephant & Castle, the big theatre at the corner, the Trocadero, and it was after seeing the Bill Haley film, ‘Rock Around the Clock’, and we all went down the Old Kent Road, and at the end… all the fire engines were there, and they got their hoses all ready, and it was a… terrible big thing. You felt you were it. Not only because you were young, but you felt the rest of your lives would be, well, ordered by you and not ordered by other people. We felt we could do anything we bloody well wanted, … anything at all, nothing could stop you. You were the guv’ner – you were the king. The world was free – the world was open.

The dreamland is always, like the win on the pools, just around the corner. The man with the big cigar from up West who discovers The Boy, and buys him up, never arrives … The haze that surrounds the life of The Boy is a fog of fear, and not the mist about to rise on a dazzling dawn of success. He lives in Birmingham, not Hollywood, a dead Empire in a sunset world, yet still hopes that somehow, an Eden will pull off the trick, Super Mac will open those golden gates, and here along the M1 the orange trees of California will begin to blossom … And so this boy with everyone and everything against him, plays out his own private drama to the fuggy street, with his god on a chain round his neck, his girl clinging to his arm. Against all of them: in search of the heaven he sees on the glossy page, the screen, and the hoarding.

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When the BBC Radio Any Questions panel was asked to comment on the events surrounding the showing of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, Mary Stocks remarked that young people were merely exhibiting a sort of unexpended animal spirits; Lord Boothby, the newspaper proprietor and Conservative politician, expressed the view that he’d rather they all wet off to Cairo and started teddy-boying around there, while Jeremy Thorpe, the future Liberal Party leader, said that Jazz to me comes from the jungle and this is jungle music taken to its logical conclusion. This is musical Mau-Mau.

Meanwhile, back in ‘darkest’ Notting Hill, not long after the riots, the intrepid reporter, T R Fyvel, was being enlightened by a youth leader about the increased use of ‘the gramophone’. Re-invented as ‘the record-player’, they were far cheaper than ever before, and cheap vinyl records were mass-produced for the first time, adding to the international popularity of performers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bill Hayley and the Comets, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Although cheap, they were beyond the pockets of most individual teenagers or their families, for whom the TV was still a greater priority, so youth clubs like that run by Fyvel’s informant became a means of ‘putting a roof over the street’ under which young people could share the listening experience:  

Record-players are the thing these days among the boys. You just don’t find a house without one; they’re just about taking the place of the telly, expensive ones, too. Television seems to mean little to the youngsters these days – the only thing they bother to watch is boxing and football – but it’s remarkable how well they know the records. Even little girls at the club will ask if we’ve got the latest hit, “Babyface” or something. Tunes are the one subject where you can be sure of getting them to talk.   

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However, for some young Britons, epitomised by Jimmy Porter, the character in Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, it was pretty dreary living in the American age, unless you’re an American, of course. The cold, statistical reality was that the number of British youths in the age-group seventeen to twenty-one convicted for violence against the person had risen to 2,051 in 1958, from 745 in 1954. By 1958 this new development was also apparent to the legal authorities. For example, in London and the Home Counties one magistrate after the other made comment on the fact that the criminal minority among young people had become noticeably much larger and more criminal. This increase in crime statistics was most alarming in the smaller towns and rural areas in the Home Counties. Noting that crime in Berkshire had risen by a third in the course of two years, the Chief Constable of that still largely rural county said, on 9th April 1958, that the average age of those responsible for burglary and other breaking-in offences was under twenty. In neighbouring Buckinghamshire, the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, Lord Birkett remarked:

There are thirty-six prisoners and of these there are no less than twenty-two who are twenty-one and under: among these, one is nineteen, two are eighteen, seven are seventeen, and five are only sixteen. Everyone reviews such a state of affairs with a profound taste of dissatisfaction, in these days when so much is done for the care and protection of the young.

It’s difficult to isolate specific causes of these social trends, but one general cause may have been that there were no good ’causes’ left for most young working-class people to fight for. John Osborne, the controversial playwright, expressed this sense of aimlessness through one of his characters, Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger:

I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave courses left. If the big bang comes, and we all get killed off, it won’t be in aid of the old-fashioned grand design. It’ll just be for the Brave-New-nothing- very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.

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Another cause of the increase in street-level violence and crime was the social alienation fuelled by the new vogue for high-rise flats, about which I have written in another post in this series. But, as the title of Osborne’s play reminds us, the fifties did see the rise of the Angry Young Men, and women, and led to the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  When the first ragged ranks of ‘CND’ swung into view on the first day of their march from London to Aldermaston in Berkshire, one Londoner, observing, commented to a radio reporter:

This must be a bunch of bloody psychotics, trying to extrovert their own psychic difficulties, you know, to neither end nor purpose. It’s like a bunch of tiny dogs yapping at the back door to the big house – it will accomplish sweet nothing.

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René Cutforth, the distinguished radio commentator and journalist, however, thought that the marchers might just be the only people left alive. Certainly, the shadow of what Jimmy Porter had called ‘the big bang’ lengthened across the whole face of ‘affluent Britain’ throughout this whole thirty-year period from the late fifties onward, and nothing the bunch of bloody psychotics, including myself, did could raise it an inch. Yet the ‘extra-parliamentary politics’ which so changed the face of political life in the western world in the succeeding decades, and which so powerfully crystallised the popular mood of protest and dissent against the enforced calm of ‘prosperous Britain’, had its beginnings here: it was fired in this highly respectable and law-abiding crucible. 

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The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the fifties prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. Only after Macmillan’s 1959 general election victory did pressure really begin to build up for some kind of restriction on immigration to Britain. Opinion polls began to show increasing hostility to the open-door policy. Perhaps just as important, both the Ministry of Labour and the Home Office wanted a change to help deal with the new threat of unemployment. This was a case of the political class being pushed reluctantly into something which offended the notion of their place in the world, the father-figures of a global Commonwealth. One study of immigration points out that what was truly remarkable was the passive acceptance by politicians and bureaucrats of Britain’s transformation into a multicultural society:

Immigration was restricted a full four years after all measures of the public mood indicated clear hostility to a black presence in Britain, and even then it was only done with hesitation. 

However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe and events such as the Notting Hill race riots in 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British citizenship. When, in 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act finally passed into law, it was notably liberal, at least by later standards, assuming the arrival of up to forty thousand legal immigrants a year with the complete right of entry for their dependents.

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Even so, it had only gone through after a ferocious parliamentary battle, with the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell making an emotional appeal and passionate attacks on a measure which was still privately opposed by some of the Tory ministers opposite him. One particularly contentious issue was that the Republic of Ireland was allowed a completely open border with Britain, which exists to this day. This may have seemed only practical politics given the huge number of Irish people living and working in Britain, but it offended in two ways. By discriminating in favour of a country which had been neutral in the war with Hitler and declared itself a republic, but against Commonwealth countries which had stood with Britain, it infuriated many British patriots. Secondly, by giving Irish people a better deal than Indians or West Indians it seemed frankly racialist.

Although the 1962 Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect. The new law created a quota system which gave preference to skilled workers and those with firm promises of employment. In order to beat it, a huge new influx of people migrated to Britain in 1961, the biggest group from the Caribbean, but also almost fifty thousand from India and Pakistan and twenty thousand Hong Kong Chinese. Fearful of losing the right of free entry, in the eighteen months before the restrictions were introduced, the volume of newcomers equalled the total for the previous five years. One historian of immigration puts the paradox well: in the three-year period from 1960 to 1963, despite the intense hostility to immigration, …

… more migrants had arrived in Britain than had disembarked in the whole of the twentieth century up to that point. The country would never be the same again.

Back to the Future: A New Relationship with Europe?

After the Treaty of Rome took effect at the beginning of 1958, French attitudes towards future British membership of the European Economic Community hardened. General de Gaulle, who had felt humiliated by Churchill during the war, returned as President of France, too late to stop the new European system, which he had opposed on the basis of his ‘nation-statism’, from taking shape. He, therefore, determined that it should be dominated by France and made to serve French national interests. Macmillan, always a keen European, became worried. Various British plots intended to limit the six founders and hamper their project had failed. London had tried to rival the new Common Market with a group of the ‘excluded’ countries; Britain, Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, calling it the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

‘The Seven’ as they called themselves, were nevertheless smaller in population than ‘the Six’ and were also more geographically scattered and far less united. Roy Jenkins, future Home Secretary and ardent pro-European, described EFTA as a foolish attempt to organise a weak periphery against a strong core. By 1959 Macmillan was worrying that,

… for the first time since the Napoleonic era, the major continental powers are united in a positive economic grouping, with considerable political aspects …

… which might cut Britain out of Europe’s main markets and decisions. In his diaries, he wrote of his alarm at the prospect of a boastful, powerful ‘Empire of Charlemagne’ – now under French, but bound to come under German control. There was much self-deception about the possible deal that could be struck, which would need to combine the sovereignty of the British Parliament and the interests of farmers throughout the Commonwealth with the protectionist system of the EEC. Macmillan was willing to sacrifice sovereignty if a deal could be reached. He might have seemed as safely steeped in tradition as country houses, but he had nothing like the reverence for the House of Commons felt by Enoch Powell or Hugh Gaitskell. But Gaitskell and the Labour Party had seriously underrated Macmillan from the outset of his premiership. In his Memoirs (1964), the Earl of Kilmuir wrote of him:

His calm confidence, courtesy and sharpness in debate, his quick-wittedness under pressure, and, above all, his superb professionalism, unnerved and disconcerted his opponents until he secured a quite astonishing psychological superiority in the Commons. Gaitskell never quite succeeded in getting Macmillan’s measure, and his ponderous tactics gave the Prime Minister a series of opportunities which he did not miss…

He imparted confidence to his colleagues and the Party in Parliament, and their confidence spread to the constituencies. It was a remarkable example of how a political revival must start from the top. 

… Macmillan’s refusal to have an ‘inner Cabinet’ of a few intimate friends was a source of strength and not of weakness. Imperturbable, hard-working, approachable, and courageous; he exercised a personal domination over his colleagues not seen in British politics since Churchill’s wartime administration. If it is alleged that Macmillan was singularly lucky after 1958, no man deserved it more. He led the country out of the bitter-black aftermath of Suez, gave them the unflurried leadership for which they craved, and proved himself a worthy successor to Churchill.

In the early sixties, the battle over Britain’s sovereignty, which was to dominate its internal politics for the next sixty years, was postponed because British entry was ruthlessly and publicly blocked. President De Gaulle was due to come to Britain for talks and told the Prime Minister that, rather than visit Downing Street, he would prefer to come to his private home, Birch Grove in Sussex. The two men had worked closely together during the war in North Africa and De Gaulle was grateful to Macmillan personally for his support when, as leader of the Free French, Roosevelt and Churchill had wanted to kick him out of the French government-in-exile which was being formed in advance of liberation. However, De Gaulle had also left North Africa more than ever convinced of the danger to France of a coming Anglo-American alliance which would soon try to dominate the world.

Following a series of domestic disputes at Birch Grove, the two men exchanged blunt views. Macmillan argued that European civilization was threatened from all sides and that if Britain was not allowed to join the Common Market, he would have to review everything, including keeping British troops in Germany. If De Gaulle wanted an “empire of Charlemagne” it would be on its own. The French President replied that he didn’t want Britain to bring in its “great escort” of Commonwealth countries – the Canadians and Australians were no longer Europeans; Indian and African countries had no place in the European system, and he feared Europe being “drowned in the Atlantic”. In short, he simply did not believe that Britain would ditch its old empire; and if it did, he thought it would be a Trojan horse for the Americans.

These seem like formidable objections, points of principle that should have been as a clear warning. Yet the detailed and exhaustive talks about British entry dragged on despite them. Edward Heath made sixty-three visits to Brussels, Paris and other capitals, covering fifty thousand miles as he haggled and argued. By then Macmillan was a fast-fading figure. A natural intriguer who had risen to power on the bloodied back of Eden, he was obsessed by possible political coups against him, and increasingly worried about the state of the economy. He was failing in Europe and looked old when seen alongside the young President Kennedy. Even a master illusionist like Macmillan had to face political reality.

The illusion with the most profound consequences was the economic one. In his 1958 book, The Affluent Society, J K Galbraith intended to sketch an outline of a developed society which had in large part solved the problem of production and would concentrate its energies on the challenges of distribution and redistribution. The class struggle was obsolete, so also were the ideologies which sought to justify it. Politics would no longer involve large general choices but disagreement over more limited and piecemeal issues. Uncritical transference of Galbraith’s thesis into the British context helped obscure the fact that Britain had not, in fact, solved its economic problems. The optimism of the early 1950s was perfectly understandable, but this miracle was built on temporary and fortuitous circumstances.

From 1955, Britain was bedevilled by a series of sterling crises which gradually forced upon the attention of politicians problems they wished to avoid. In 1955, when, as a result of a Government-assisted boom in industrial development, demand began to run ahead of capacity and the economy became over-strained, R. A. Butler, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, deliberately pushed up by raising purchase tax on a wide range of goods, and at the same time a number of measures were taken to discourage capital investment. Butler’s policy was followed by his two successors at the Treasury and only reversed at the onset of the recession in 1958. By then, the policy had eventually succeeded in slowing down the pace of wage increases, one of the major factors behind the 1955 inflation. But it took nearly three years to do so, at the cost of a virtually complete standstill and a number of financial crises and major industrial disputes.

One particularly unfortunate aspect of this period was the Government’s attempts to restrict investment in the public sector, an attempt which was largely unsuccessful because of the long-term nature of most of the projects involved, which made it quite impossible to turn them on and off like a tap to meet the short-term fluctuations in the economy.  If, by the time he made his famous election speech in 1959, Macmillan’s illusion of continuing affluence was already unsupported by the economic evidence, by the time he gave his interview to the Daily Mail in 1961, the claim that… We’ve got it good: Let’s keep it good was well past its ‘sell-by date’. As Sked and Cook (1979) pointed out in their reflections on the ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’, the Tories had, in fact, done very little in their fiscal policies from 1951-64, to pay attention to Britain’s sluggish economic growth or the problems created by the country’s superficial prosperity:

  … the Government sat back and did nothing in the belief that there was nothing to do, and for most of the time their energy was devoted  to maintaining Britain as a world power whatever the cost to the economy … 

Moreover, Tory economic complacency ensured that the necessary economic growth would never be generated. Not enough money was channelled into key industries; stop-go policies undermined the confidence of industry to invest in the long-term, and too much money was spent on defence…

With the economic crises of the early 1960s … it began to be apparent that Tory affluence would soon come to an end. The scandals of the Macmillan era merely served to reinforce the impression that a watershed had been reached in the country’s history and foreign affairs seemed to reach another lesson…  

In 1962 US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain has lost an empire: she has not yet found a role. The failure to rethink her world role was as evident in diplomacy as in economics. Macmillan foresaw and expedited the final liquidation of Empire, but he had few ideas about what to put in its place. The special relationship with the United States was to remain the cornerstone of British policy. But without the Empire, the relationship was bound to become one of master and servant. These illusions blinded Macmillan to the far-reaching changes occurring in Europe.

After a further unpopular budget in the spring of 1962, Macmillan drafted an alternative policy based on more planning and decided to sack his Chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd. The news was leaked to the papers, and over a brutal and panicky twenty-four hours in July, Macmillan expanded the circle of his sackings more widely, in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Macmillan called in and dismissed a third of his cabinet ministers from their jobs without notice. Macmillan’s own official biographer described it as an act of carnage unprecedented in British political history. However, compared with more recent cabinet ‘re-shuffles’ which happen with far greater frequency, many of those sacked then deserved to lose their jobs.

In November, Macmillan returned to his arguments with De Gaulle. This time, he went to France, to the grand chateau of Rambouillet, south of Paris, a venue used by French Presidents for summits as well as for holidays. After a round of pheasant-shooting, de Gaulle expressed his objections to British EEC membership even more aggressively. If Britain wanted to choose Europe, it would have to cut its special ties with the United States. At one point, Macmillan broke down in tears of frustration at the General’s intransigence, leading de Gaulle to comment later to his cabinet:

This poor man , to whom I had nothing to give, seemed so sad, so beaten that I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and say to him, as in the Edith Piaf song, “Ne pleurez pas, milord”.

Cruel or not, it was a significant moment for Macmillan, for the Tories and for Britain. When, a few months later, in early 1963, De Gaulle’s “Non” was abruptly announced in a Paris press conference, it caused huge offence in Britain. A visit to Paris by Princess Margaret was cancelled. At the England-France rugby international at Twickenham a few days later, England won six-five. The captain of the English team had assured Ted Heath, the failed negotiator, that he had had a word with the team before the game, telling them…

… this was an all-important game. Everyone knew what I meant and produced the necessary …

Macmillan himself bitterly recorded in his diary that the French always betray you in the end. 

 

Sources:

Theo Baker (ed., 1978), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Educational.

Asa Briggs, Joanna Bourke et. al. (eds., 2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran & Robert MacNeil (1986), The Story of English. Harmonsworth: Penguin Books.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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