Tuesday, 2 August 2011

You don't have to be popular to pull people together

I was intrigued the other day to learn that a friend was preparing a PhD on a judgement by Lord  Halifax, British Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of the Second World War, on the Prime Minister of the time, Neville Chamberlain.

Halifax apparently said of Chamberlain that he had at least united the nation.

Neither of these men enjoys what one might call an untarnished reputation. In fact, they are probably the two figures most closely associated with the pre-War policy of appeasing Hitler, now generally regarded as at best an error, at worst an abject betrayal.

I’m always fascinated by researchers who focus on people who are unpopular or discredited – after all, my own research was on Maupertuis, who suffered from the paradox of being known, insofar as he was known at all, precisely for his obscurity: he had been rash enough to fall out with Voltaire who had lacerated him with his ridicule and destroyed his reputation.

Chamberlain with a disreputable acquaintance
At least my friend has more promising material to work with. After all, Chamberlain undoubtedly did unite the country. Perhaps not in any way he intended, but pretty thoroughly all the same.

One of my favourite moments in the long theatre that is the British House of Commons occurred on 2 Sepember 1939, just after quarter to eight in the evening. Darkness was beginning to fall, the lights beginning to come on.

At a more general level, lights were going out and darkness was flowing in over all of Europe. Just in case you’re slightly hazy about the exact sequence of events in that dramatic month, the previous day German forces had moved across the border into Poland. Planes were bombing Warsaw and other cities.

Chamberlain had given an indecisive statement to the House which made it far from clear whether Britain would honour its treaty obligations to come to the defence of Poland. He had been met with stony silence on both sides.

Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party, was recovering from surgery so his task to answer the Prime Minister, as leader of the opposition, devolved on his deputy Arthur Greenwood. Always timid, Greenwood rose in some trepidation, no doubt daunted by the drama of the occaion but determined to do his best in speaking for Labour.

And then he was called on to speak for much more.

A voice range out, not from among his own supporters behind him, but from the benches opposite. It was Leo Amery, former Tory Minister and staunch supporter of Churchill’s group that favoured war with Germany.

‘Speak for England, Arthur!’ Amery called on him, voicing the shame of so many at Chamberlain's apparent vacillation.

And Greenwood did. Haltingly, without great oratory, he said what needed to be said.

‘Every minute's delay now means the loss of life... imperilling the very foundations of our national honour...  The moment we look like weakening, at that moment dictatorship knows we are beaten. We are not beaten. We shall not be beaten. We cannot be beaten; but delay is dangerous, and I hope the Prime Minister... will be able to tell us when the House meets at noon to-morrow what the final decision is, and whether then our promises are in process of fulfilment... I cannot see Herr Hitler, in honesty, making any deal which he will not be prepared to betray... I believe that the die is cast, and we want to know in time.’

He was cheered for his pains.

It seems that Chamberlain had indeed managed to unite the country. A Conservative grandee, a nervous Labourite, the majority of the House of Commons. All brought together.

Against him.

Shame perhaps that Amery called on Greenwood to speak only for ‘England’. Still, that is most of Britain, when all’s said and done. And Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be given all the opportunity they could possibly want, and more, to share in the sufferings, and the triumphs, of the war to come.


It was on the following day, 3 September, that Chamberlain made the radio statement that has become probably the only speech of his that any of us remembers, and then only because it appears in so many films.

This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.’

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