It all seems very familiar. In the aftermath of a global financial shock, politicians found that the way they liked to communicate – expansive, optimistic rhetoric about democratic possibilities – no longer sounded convincing. Belt-tightening was needed. A Labour government which had already boxed itself into the language of prudence was removed as politicians plotted to find a way of combining austerity with authority. It turned out that this required the experiment of a coalition – all sensible men together, exuding subdued public-school rectitude. The left, shut out, found comfort in talking to itself about socialism, pacifism, and pledging solidarity with divisive foreign regimes. Then, almost from nowhere, a crisis of foreign policy emerged which dominated the whole second half of the decade. This was a truly epic crisis because the government was completely unprepared for it and there were no good available solutions. In trying to confront these two insurmountable problems, the governing class tied itself so repeatedly and inextricably in knots as to consign itself to the contempt of future generations.
Foreign policy hasn’t often dominated British politics. It did, however, in the years after 1935, when the question arose as to how Britain should respond to the aggression of the German, Italian and Japanese dictators. Since 1931, Britain had been run by a ‘National Government’, a Conservative- dominated coalition strengthened by small groups of defecting Labour and Liberal MPs. This alliance came to power as a result of pressure from the Treasury and the Bank of England for dramatic cuts to public spending, pressure that most members of the minority Labour government elected in 1929 refused to accept, resigning instead. The Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, remained in the job until 1935, when he was replaced by Stanley Baldwin, who retired in 1937 and was succeeded by his chancellor of the exchequer, Neville Chamberlain. Soon after Hitler came to power in 1933 it became clear that he would join Hirohito’s Japan and Mussolini’s Italy in a policy of restless territorial ambition. In 1934 the chiefs of staff warned that Britain could not fight these three powers simultaneously and would have to make difficult defence choices. In 1935 a cautious rearmament programme began, but so did the appeasement of Mussolini’s aggression towards Abyssinia. Public opinion accepted Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, but there was more opposition when in 1938 he united Austria with Germany and started to express an interest in the Sudeten Germans of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain responded by expanding rearmament but also with intense diplomacy, culminating in the famous talks with Hitler at Bad Godesberg and Munich in September 1938 which acquiesced in the partition of Czechoslovakia. When Hitler broke his word and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Britain – and France – gave the guarantee to Poland that led to war six months later.
My aim here is not to review these much discussed policy details but to consider the relationship between this foreign policy crisis and domestic democratic politics. That is the main concern of Robert Crowcroft’s new book, but there may also be broader lessons, of relevance to Britain’s present predicament. A core assumption of those who write about the ‘appeasement’ crisis has always been that it does indeed hold broader lessons. Unfortunately, they disagree profoundly about what these lessons are.
There have been at least three opposing approaches to interpreting Britain’s foreign policy in the 1930s. The first and still the most familiar is the moralistic view that there were ‘guilty men’ who were wrong and foolish, and there was a national saviour, Churchill, who was right and heroic. On this reading, appeasement of aggressive foreigners was (and probably always is) a bad call, and implies moral failings in those who made it. The guilty included not just Chamberlain but also a whole generation of self-serving men whose unpatriotic notion of Britain’s world role reflected a general political grubbiness. These men were mostly Conservatives, so this was a very serviceable myth for the left, but also for the new, postwar right, some of whom hoped to recapture what Boris Johnson calls ‘the Churchill factor’.
From the 1960s onwards many ‘revisionist’ historians sought to dismantle this myth. They combed through newly available archives and explicated the logic of the civil servants who had written neat papers explaining why policy was as it was. These historians were clear that the assumptions that underpinned appeasement were rational: the pace and focus of rearmament was sensible; the economic constraints were real, especially as Britain was ‘in decline’; the United States threatened Britain’s imperial power. Politicians, therefore, had almost no room for manoeuvre.
Finally, there is the school to which Crowcroft’s book belongs, a self-proclaimed Tory school which emphasises the primacy of politics. The Tory school argues that political pressures obstructed the most rational policy, which was for Britain to avoid war with Hitler, and allow him to exhaust his resources fighting Russia over eastern Europe. Crowcroft is the third historian to write about the appeasement crisis explicitly in this vein, following Maurice Cowling (The Impact of Hitler, 1975) and John Charmley (Chamberlain and the Lost Peace, 1989). Crowcroft presents himself as a disciple of Cowling and The End Is Nigh is a racier, more simplistic and more emotive version of Cowling’s book. Cowling was less hostile to the revisionists than to the moralists. The constraints of economics and empire on policy-making seemed to him real but ultimately unimportant. He argued that Chamberlain prided himself on his efficient management of the apparatus of state, and expanded rearmament even while pursuing diplomacy with Hitler. When Chamberlain tried to limit arms spending it wasn’t because he feared national bankruptcy but because he didn’t want to scupper dialogue. As one would expect of Joseph Chamberlain’s son, the empire and British international economic interests loomed large with him in principle, but they had little impact on most of the day-to-day decisions taken in 1938-39. These arguments were all consistent with Cowling’s fundamental methodological aim, which was to scorn accounts which reduced political decision-making to the pursuit of simple policy principles or theoretical ‘strategies’. Cowling maintained that politicians never have the luxury of choosing between consistent binary alternatives of that sort. Though they undoubtedly have general policy aspirations, they also have to take a multitude of other considerations into account at every stage. In particular, in Britain, they are constrained by party discipline and party competition for advantage. Cowling’s mantra, in short, was that in the study of the past, there is only history, not theory; in the study of political history, there is only politics; in fighting the battle for power in Britain, there is only party.
This emphasis on the primacy of politics has, to say the least, not been popular with writers on foreign policy in general. Most accounts still present it as a rational and self-contained process. The focus is on the dialogue between states as expressed in the gambits of diplomatic representatives, as if domestic politics can be sidelined. Moreover, international relations theory likes to present foreign policy as a choice between theoretically coherent state strategies. This approach is attractive for authors who seek to understand the past without the benefit of a historical education. It may even be a plausible way of covering more routine foreign policy discussions. But at other times – the 1930s, and the last four years – foreign policy issues generate major political avalanches, as a result of the unpredictable interplay of national strategy, public opinion, party interest and political accident. For historians to hand over such topics to dull diplomatists is depressing. The crab-like British approach to the European Economic Community in the dozen years after 1961, for instance, cries out for a holistic analysis it has not yet received from historians, one that prioritises politics but recognises the impact of economics and cultural identities as well.
In seeking to understand how British democratic politics interacted with the foreign policy crisis of the 1930s, we need to pay particular attention to two elements: the way in which domestic political pressures derailed an apparently coherent policy approach to Europe, and the particular role of party competition in driving that process. These questions remain salient. Each of the ‘Tory’ political accounts – Cowling’s, Charmley’s and now Crowcroft’s – touches on them, and so a comparison helps to reveal what is distinctive about the latest of these.
All three authors argue that it was political pressure that bounced the Chamberlain government out of the sensible policy with which it began, prioritising the defence of the empire while avoiding war and any commitments to Central Europe. Cowling stressed that a vigorous and self-confident Chamberlain dominated politics in 1937 and 1938, and that his policy was muscular and intelligent diplomacy, not appeasement. Until Munich, no domestic opponents, and certainly not Churchill, could criticise it effectively. Crowcroft, by contrast, has little time for Chamberlain, and blames his vanity and desire to be at the centre of affairs for the drift towards a meddling policy. His predecessor, Baldwin, though not perfect, had a more sensible – because much less heroic and active – approach to foreign policy. Crowcroft also elevates the argument that Britain should not have gone to war to a more emotional pitch than his predecessors, suggesting that the conflict was an ‘utter catastrophe’, an apocalypse that destroyed British global power. (In case we don’t know what apocalypse looks like, he reproduces a copy of John Martin’s 1822 painting of the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum.) Charmley, meanwhile, located Chamberlain’s original stance in a longer tradition of Tory foreign policy – about which he has written several other accounts – which shied away from expensive and moralistic intervention in European affairs. Its main proponents were a series of 19th-century Conservative prime ministers – the Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Aberdeen and, especially, the 14th Earl of Derby, together with his son, who resigned as foreign secretary in protest at Disraeli’s active policy during the Eastern Crisis of 1878. Because of Liberal predominance, none of the five brief Tory governments that Wellington and the elder Derby headed between 1828 and 1868 had a reliable majority in the House of Commons, so they needed to avoid controversial and costly foreign policy initiatives of the sort that a government confident of parliamentary and popular support might have attempted.
In fact, the Tory Little Englander view was never that England stood alone. It assumed the existence of a Concert of Europe run by leading Continental statesmen which would preserve European stability, so that Britain’s main task was to avoid disrupting it. The Tory approach was opposed by Lord Palmerston, the driver of the Liberal Party’s foreign policy from 1830 to 1865, who could not resist associating British policy with various progressive and national causes that threatened to disrupt or at least annoy the conservative-minded Concert. Paul Schroeder, the foremost historian of European 19th-century politics, portrays the Concert as a great Austrian creation. He implies that one of its functions was to cope with Britain’s moody adolescent behaviour after 1815 – mainly Palmerston’s cocky truculence, but also the likelihood that the insular Tories might not get out of bed in time to help with a crisis.
The problem for Chamberlain in the 1930s was that, even if he might have liked to continue with the Tory rejection of European commitments, there was no one left on the Continent, or indeed in the world, to play the stabilising role of the Austrian chancellor Metternich. Chamberlain felt he had to step into the void, not because of vanity, but because the British had been great beneficiaries of European stability in the past. He was therefore forced to operate as both a Continental and a traditional Tory statesman. It is hardly surprising that the resulting balancing act did not convince Hitler (or the Central Europeans) that Britain could lead a process which would restrain his policy of expansion.
Nor was it surprising that in attempting to do so Chamberlain laid himself open to attack at home. He could be criticised for trying to meddle in Europe, but it was telling that the major contemporary criticism of him was actually that he had not meddled successfully enough: that an insular and amoral policy was unbecoming and humiliating. The default position in the public mind quickly came to be that peace should be within reach and that Britain, being a great power, had a responsibility to secure it. Therefore if peace seemed to be slipping away, this must be because of government failure. Many on the left, looking around for a reason, blamed Chamberlain’s lack of commitment to the League of Nations and the concept of ‘collective security’, despite the fact that most other powers had lost faith in the League, so that collective security meant Britain committing to defend Central Europe in the hope others might follow. Crowcroft repeatedly dismisses this critique as pious rhetoric, or ‘liberal woolliness’, but it was no more pious or rhetorical than Palmerston’s attacks on Metternich’s Concert for supporting autocrats. The real issue was what Britain should do about Hitler. Tory backbenchers who had no time for the League also criticised Chamberlain for failing to supply suitably patriotic leadership. It became common to situate Hitler in a prewar tradition of German expansionism: popular memories of opposing German aggrandisement melded with older ones of resisting Napoleonic and Russian aggression. Right and left joined forces to argue that abandoning the Central Europeans to dictatorship would be a novel and dishonourable move. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the future of the government, and its fortunes at the next election (due in 1940), seemed to dictate a shift in policy. The defence of British honour required the guarantee to Poland. As Cowling, Charmley and many others have pointed out, this was doubly ‘irrational’ since Britain could not actually defend Poland, and the defence of Poland had never previously been a British interest.
Crowcroft follows Cowling in trying to argue that what derailed Chamberlain was ‘high politics’ – the pressure exerted by the Labour Party, and the electoral calculations of the cabinet. But this is surely an inadequate account of the role played by a popular disquiet which combined feelings of honour, responsibility, and liberal-minded hostility to dictators. This popular disquiet is familiar to any historian of the 19th century, both in substance and in its mode of expression, and was channelled through the press and receptive MPs in the Commons. Palmerston built his career on riding this pressure. His constant refrain was that it was ignoble and irresponsible of Little Englander Tories not to defend peoples and liberal causes in Europe oppressed by the leading autocratic powers, at that point Russia and Austria. Palmerston’s harnessing of popular sentiment was self-interested, but it had another motive too, of facilitating effective politics. He argued that the Tories were not only betraying Britain’s duties in Europe but also failing to respond to and engage with popular sympathies. Distrusting the people, they lacked the courage to manage a participatory political community. He ridiculed Metternich’s notion of an unchanging European settlement imposed by the elite; British politics was a higher art because it was dynamic and inclusive rather than static. Disraeli borrowed the same stance. In fact the only historical function of the Tory school of foreign policy was to secure the lasting fame of Palmerston and Disraeli for opposing it successfully.
Again and again, the politicisation of foreign policy, partly from below, has undermined a supposedly ‘rational’ elite policy – the policy of Aberdeen and Derby towards Russia in 1853 and 1877, for example. Cautious acquiescence in the bullying of small nations by European superstates has usually been thought grubbily inconsistent with Britain’s duty and values. The story of 1938-39 repeated the pattern of a century of European crises: once again there was a widespread popular demand that national destiny required some sort of ‘action’, irrespective of arguments about the cost and difficulty. What drove this demand wasn’t a particular concern for the Greeks, or the Circassians, or the Hungarians, or the Turks, or the Italians, or the Bulgarians, or the Belgians, or the Czechs, or the Poles. It did not matter that these were all faraway countries of which people knew little and cared less. In each case, by threatening them, aggressive, over-mighty foreigners threatened to create a Europe that would humiliate British notions of liberal honour.
Clearly it would be inappropriate to compare what was at stake then to what is at stake now. But, as has been said many times, the Brexiteer cause gains a great deal of traction from folk memories of the Second World War, and more distant memories of the previous wars that themselves inspired 1940s patriotism. Little is gained by scolding its adherents for ‘irrationality’. Discussions of this sort take place largely on a non-rational plane, and its historical roots are as ‘genuine’ as those of most political arguments. Arguments about whether Brexit makes sense in economic terms don’t cut through in the same way because they get bogged down in detailed claim and counterclaim. On the whole, Brexit, as Tom Crewe pointed out (LRB, 10 October), has led to the evacuation of ‘real’ politics, the politics of economic and social interest, just as in the decade after 1935. How long will this last? One might hope that we are nearing 1945. But the fear is that we may hardly have got to 1940.
It can prove impossible to revert to political normality after a major crisis of foreign policy, because such a crisis can easily destroy the basis of political stability: the party system. The central argument of Cowling’s Impact of Hitler was that politicians’ calculations about party drove the main stages of the appeasement crisis. Thus Viscount Halifax, the foreign secretary, twice forced Chamberlain and the cabinet to stand up to Hitler over Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939 because otherwise, he argued, the government and the Conservative Party would suffer a disastrous loss of popular support. Halifax’s concern reflected the fact that after Munich the Labour Party had finally found a popular political strategy. Ultimately, the price of Churchill overthrowing Chamberlain in 1940 was a combination with Labour that recast the party system to Labour’s advantage and destroyed Conservative interwar hegemony. Cowling’s point was that this was all a natural consequence of politicians thrashing around for political stability at a time when international chaos made the stakes exceedingly high. The political historian’s function was to analyse this process without emotion, on the basis that in politics there is no contradiction between expediency and principle. Crowcroft, unfortunately, does not seem to understand this subtlety. For him there is either strategy or politics, either disinterested appraisal or self-interest, either realism or moralism, and he seeks notoriety by claiming that politicians acted as careerists while Rome burned (or Pompeii was engulfed). He calls himself a cynic, but he is as great a moralist as the writers who ranted about ‘guilty men’ in 1940.
Cowling showed that politicians could not avoid viewing foreign policy through the prism of party, and that the magnitude of the 1930s crisis redefined the party system in a way none of them anticipated. In 1975, this claim was ridiculed by reviewers unwilling to believe that a foreign policy crisis could be infected by such ignoble motives. It might seem less ridiculous now. The Brexit crisis has always been largely about the future of the Conservative Party. But the longer it has gone on, the more it has also come to be about party realignment generally: there is a struggle for supremacy not only within Labour but between Labour and the Liberal Democrats (including their recent recruits, who failed in their own attempt to create a new force). This has prompted jibes from all sides that their opponents in other parties (and inside their own) are putting ‘party before country’. This is a bogus cry, another partisan weapon. No one is behaving ‘unpatriotically’. Everyone is casting around for a way of combining patriotism in policy with an electoral majority, because a majority doesn’t just bring power but also makes possible effective politics, which is another way of defining patriotism. If parties do not project unity, command and resolution, politics becomes chaos. It is precisely because major foreign policy issues are more important than the fortunes of individual politicians that those politicians must fight for a foreign policy strategy that will unify their party and convince voters. There is already national crisis: party instability makes it interminable and insoluble.
In other words, we should resist the instinct to see party as the ‘problem’ in politics, when it has to be the solution. Party has always been the basic tool of British democracy, because when it functions well it is the key to the preservation of political stability. The great paradox of party is that while superficially it often seems distastefully tribal, it is the only reliable way of keeping in check inevitable popular discontent with the political class. It forces egotistic MPs to accept a discipline without which parliaments have always been unmanageable; it thus avoids the ever present risk that political institutions seem self- regarding and navel-gazing rather than efficient and purposeful. It forces party members to work together and to compromise in the pursuit of a common programme. The competition for votes ensures that parties try to remain broad churches rather than narrow sects, and ensures an organised process for replacing governments whose programmes have developed too many shortcomings, whose brushes with reality have become too constraining, and whose compromises have appeared too tawdry to too many voters. Elections allow controlled expressions of discontent, while in almost all cases the energy infused by the search for a fresh parliamentary majority supplies enough novelty, focus and purpose to make a new government look efficient for a while. It is the unheroic imperfection of the party system that makes it invaluable and normally invulnerable to anti-democratic demands for something purer and more disciplined. It was the unusual weakness of the traditional party system in the 1930s that briefly allowed extremist parties to pose a threat.
So what are the prospects for the party system? For a long time it seemed impossible for the Conservatives to reconcile their Brexit divisions. Johnson’s ‘True Believer’ credentials seem at first sight to have rallied the Brexiteers and papered over the cracks, but at the cost of jeopardising the Union with Northern Ireland, and, more insidiously, of ignoring the steady stream of announcements from current MPs – mostly from the anti-no-deal wing of the party, and disproportionately from women – that they cannot stomach standing for re-election (this isn’t counting those others who have had the whip removed). The party faces at least three further perils. First, even if it wins the general election and passes a Withdrawal Agreement, it will have enormous trouble agreeing a free trade agreement with the EU during the relatively short transition period. Economic pressures will favour an agreement as close as possible to the single market and customs union. Political pressures will dictate something that looks far more like a ‘clean break’. This is not so much because of the threat of Farage qua Farage, but because it transpires that delivering Brexit, for a popular audience, means delivering something that looks demonstrably different from the status quo. The irony here is that if the Conservative Party ends up being associated with a divisive hard Brexit, the whole referendum strategy will have backfired. Second, the problem of the Union will most probably emerge centre-stage, because of the need to define the future of Northern Ireland, and because of the impact of a possible hard Brexit on Scottish politics. Third, a vote for Leave is a one-off declaration: it may retain its valence while foreign policy issues dominate politics, but will it continue to supply an electorally viable constituency for the party in the long term, once more material issues return to the fore? In that event, the Conservatives’ priority will have to be recovering their old reputation for economic competence.
Despite all this, the Conservatives are the favourites in this election campaign, but only if their promise to ‘get Brexit done’ remains plausible, and the opposition parties remain divided. At the moment Labour and the Liberal Democrats are locked in a crazy and desperate Depression-era dance marathon with no sign that the music will ever stop. If people decide to vote in line with their Remain sympathies, this may benefit the Lib Dems, but they are at a structural disadvantage compared to Labour in most constituencies, and lack its historic ability to appeal on other grounds to many Leave voters. (In fact, they probably also don’t appeal to some types of ex-Conservative Remain voter.) Labour would like to move beyond Brexit to domestic issues, but risks looking evasive and incoherent on Brexit, while the Lib Dems can help the Conservatives to spread alarm at what Corbynism beyond Brexit would look like. It’s difficult to see a neat or swift end to this conflict; it’s likely to take more than one election to resolve. If it continues, will Remain – or Rejoin – persist as a potent political identity, or eventually lose traction? Will Labour be able to return politics to ‘normality’ – especially if it manages to neutralise or turn to advantage its ‘Corbynite’ image? Or will the later stages of Brexit create new tensions, over the extension of transitional arrangements, over the Union, or over the relationship with Trump’s United States? Will parliaments remain hung and create a constitutional crisis, bringing into question the electoral system, prompting a movement in favour of proportional representation or something else? The problem is that unless Brexit is quickly left behind, it is difficult to see how the future does not involve further damage to the existing party system. This might lead to its effective reconstruction, in a way that is currently not obvious, but it might generate serious anger and contempt at the failure of the political class. In that case, all bets are off.