Hooked Trout

Geoffrey Best

  • Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain’s Road to War by Ian Kershaw
    Allen Lane, 488 pp, £20.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 7139 9717 6

Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the seventh Marquess of Londonderry, who died in 1949, will not be moved up the scale of historical significance even by so accomplished a book as this. Its author is unlikely to be disappointed. Ian Kershaw’s purpose has not been to write a full biography, or to rehabilitate a politician he considers to have been unjustly neglected. Instead, by examining in great detail one specimen of a particular species, he has made another foray into a well-marked historical problem: why did certain sensible and decent persons in 1930s Britain persist in thinking the best of Hitler well after others, not evidently more sensible or decent, had come to think the worst?

Of that miscellaneous assemblage of misguided men and women, Londonderry was one of the most conspicuous and respectable. He was a true-blue Conservative. He had nothing to do with Oswald Mosley and the British Fascists. He would rather have been seen dead than dressed in blackshirt and jackboots; Savile Row suits for town and tweedy plus-fours for the country remained his line. He was not much of a joiner. He did sign up with the ‘self-consciously elitist’ and purportedly non-political Anglo-German Fellowship in 1935, but, Kershaw writes, he was not one of its more active members. He had no connection with any of the pro-German groupuscules fired by rabid anti-semitism or inspired by Völkisch crankiness that figure on the fringes of Richard Griffiths’s Fellow Travellers of the Right (1980), a book to which Kershaw pays just tribute. A peer of his standing did not consort with plebs and outsiders.

He was the most respectable, and because of his coalmines in County Durham the richest, of the curious assortment of peers, mostly backwoodsmen, who thought the road to peace in the later 1930s lay through Berlin. It was part of his trouble that he had too high an estimation of himself. He could never forget his descent from Lord Castlereagh, the great foreign secretary of the post-Napoleonic years and the exemplary peacemaker at Vienna in 1814. His case was exactly the opposite of Hilaire Belloc’s fictional peer, whose ducal grand-sire berated him: ‘We had intended you to be/ The next prime minister but three.’ Poor Lord Lundy absolutely did not wish to become prime minister. Lord Londonderry did; or to be viceroy of India or, failing that, foreign secretary. The governor generalship of Canada, which he could have had, he scorned. As things were, he never made it higher than minister for air.

He would not have got even that far but for his classy connections. His cousin Winston Churchill jobbed him into a couple of junior ministerial posts between 1919 and 1921. His return ten years later to national politics and a seat in the cabinet is explicable only as the fruit of his wife’s flirty relationship with Ramsay MacDonald. How much of that was heartfelt and how much put on, is impossible to tell. The prime minister was capable of writing to her: ‘My Dear, You were very beautiful and I loved you. The dress dazzling in brilliance and glorious in colour and line, was you, and my dear, you were the dress’; she was capable of writing to him: ‘I feel so distressed about you and so is Charley . . . all our prayers and thoughts – and lots and lots of love and all good wishes, you dearest dear brave creature.’

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