THE LEFT WASN'T RIGHT
Sixty years after the Commons debated myth that Labour stood up to Hitler
'A VOTE for the Tories is a Vote for War', declared the Labour party's 1935 general election propaganda. Accompany- ing this striking example of the art of nega- tive campaigning was a poster of a baby sporting a gas mask. The main target for abuse was not the Conservatives' leader, Stanley Baldwin, or even the maverick warrior of the back benches, Winston Churchill. Instead, Labour had singled out for the most opprobrium — Neville Cham- berlain.
According to Labour's Herbert Morri- son, Chamberlain, at that time chancellor of the exchequer, was a warmonger, deter- mined to spend profligately 'on the means of death, but not on the means of life'. Developing the personalised insult, he even maintained that Chamberlain had the face of a death's-head moth. Given this line of attack, it is surprising that by 1940 the Labour charge against Chamberlain was that he was an appeaser who had failed to prepare Britain for an inevitable war with Germany. Henceforth he would always be remembered in left-wing demonology as the 'Man of Munich'.
The Commons debate on the Munich pact ended 60 years ago this week. Before the jury of history, Labour's case for the prosecution has generally held favour: found this really ancient pair of combat trousers.' Chamberlain was the politician who had shaken Hitler's hand and squandered Britain's honour by betraying Czechoslo- vakia. But there is something generally overlooked: what Labour proposed to do instead.
The agreement that Chamberlain reached with Hitler on 29 September 1938 ceded the Sudetenland — the German- speaking areas of Czechoslovakia — to the Nazi Reich. What might normally have been a simple issue of self-determination had been complicated by other considera- tions. By annexing the territory, Germany got her hands on the Czech fortification lines and many of the other advantages which had made the country defensible. These gains included the Skoda arma- ments factory, one of the largest manufac- turers of its type in the world. Consequently, the last remaining democra- cy east of the Rhine was placed at the mercy of its predatory German neighbour.
The concerns which this state of affairs engendered were overwhelmed in the spontaneous convulsion of relief that greeted Chamberlain on his return to Britain. Having threatened to march into Czechoslovak territory immediately, even at the risk of starting a European war, Hitler had been persuaded to annex the Sudetenland in stages and (under safe- guards never implemented) through international supervision. World war had been averted. Anxious mothers were among those who cheered Chamberlain as he appeared with a smiling royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The Archbishop of Canterbury declared that he thanked God for it all.
Chamberlain's moment of apparent tri- umph presented his Labour opponents with a dilemma. They did not want to appear to be seeking to snatch Armaged- don from the jaws of peaceful co-exis- tence. The main Labour-supporting newspaper, the Daily Herald, at first took a cautious line. Warning that the Munich terms were 'open to grave criticism', it conceded that they clearly involved 'a con- siderable advance' when compared to the manner in which Hitler's previous demands had been couched. Indeed, it was difficult to strike too strident a note of outrage in newspaper columns bordered by photographs of cheering crowds applaud- ing the respectable, upright, umbrella-car- lying prime minister.
Even the more starkly adorned New Statesman found its ability to criticise com- promised by the previous pronouncements of its editor, Kingsley Martin. Under the influence of John Maynard Keynes, at that time an enthusiast for appeasing Hitler, Martin had written an editorial a month before Chamberlain averted war at Munich. In the piece, he had argued that if the Czechs could not agree to it them- selves, 'the question of frontier revision, difficult though it is, should at once be taclded. The strategical value of the Bohemian frontier should not be made the occasion of a world war. We should not guarantee the status quo. It should be remembered that Czechoslovakia is now almost surrounded by enemies.'
This was certainly true. Hungary and Poland were actually aiding and abetting Hitler's theft, and were preparing to seize parts of the Czechoslovak state them- selves. Turning to those who might sup- port the beleaguered country, Martin observed that 'the USSR is a long way from Prague, and its help would necessari- ly be limited'. This, again, was an accurate reflection of reality. Stalin, an unlikely guarantor of the independence of the states of eastern Europe, was busy murder- ing a high proportion of his military high command, and the countries lying between Russia and Czechoslovakia were refusing to allow the Russian army to cross their territory. In any case, Martin continued, 'the USSR will not make any move unless France moves, and the French could do lit- tle to help the Czechs . . . Nothing we or anyone else could do would save Czechoslovakia from destruction.' This was an accurate precis of Chamberlain's thinking.
In Parliament, the Left gave Chamber- lain a harder time. He was attacked for his naivety. Certainly his comment about 'peace in our time', a throwaway line uttered in the midst of exhaustion and adulation, proved a hostage to fortune. In the Commons debate on its terms, Clement Attlee asserted that Munich had, in fact, only bought 'an armistice in a state of war'. Yet, having announced in 1934, 'I think we can generally say today that Hitler's dictatorship is gradually falling down', Attlee was ill-placed to play the prophet. In 1934, Labour had been led by George Lansbury, a pacifist who declared that he wanted to 'close every recruiting station, disband the army and dismiss the air force'. Under him, it even briefly became Labour policy to start a general strike in the event of Britain declaring war. Lansbury had been replaced as leader by Attlee in 1935, and was condemned to Spend his last five years on the back bench- es delivering homilies about the latent goodness to be untapped within the dicta- tors.
Yet, although it was generally recog- nised that Lansbury had rather lost the plot, Attlee's attitude did not suggest that he foresaw a future marked by a thousand bomber raids over the Ruhr. Following Hitler's introduction of conscription and announcement that he was building a Luft- waffe to dwarf the RAF, Attlee told the Commons on 11 March 1935 that 'from the danger of war one cannot protect one- self by weapons. One can achieve this only by moving forward into a new world of law and by disbanding national armies.' Inter- rupted by Tory heckling of 'Tell that to Hitler!' Attlee asked, 'Why does no one speak of France?' Even when adopting the resolution of the 1936 party conference which favoured arming commensurate with a threat posed by potential aggres- sors, Attlee maintained that this would not involve much in practice and that 'there can be no question of our supporting the government in its rearmament policy'. It had previously been the tradition for the opposition to abstain when the govern- ment introduced its annual defence esti- mates. Under Attlee, this attitude changed. Despite the wealth of evidence emerging of Hitler's warlike intent, Labour voted against every increase in British defence spending from 1935 to 1937 and against the Defence White Paper of 1938, the year of Munich.
In November 1936 — after Hitler had marched into the Rhineland — Attlee told the Commons how 'disturbed' he was that the minister for defence co-ordination 'obviously contemplated that this country might again indulge in mass warfare on the Continent'. This strategic analysis rather impaired his subsequent attempt to harangue Chamberlain for not threatening to attack Germany in the event of her marching into Czechoslovakia. The far Left was even more wide of the mark. Aneurin Bevan told the 1937 party confer- ence to press ahead with the campaign to disarm Britain, since `if the Labour move- ment was strong enough to deny arms to a capitalist government, that government would cease to exist and Labour would become the government'.
This was an extreme view, but the line from the party leadership was also deeply muddled. Between 1935 and 1938, Labour was far more preoccupied with condemn- ing Mussolini's invasion of the slave- owning state of Abyssinia and denouncing Franco's insurrection in the Spanish civil war than with worrying about Hitler's intentions in eastern Europe. In August 1938, with the Czech crisis approaching its denouement, the New Statesman was claiming that there was 'still a chance of retrieving the situation in Spain. In our view it is far more vital to British interests and to the preservation of democracy than the independence of Czechoslovakia.' Hugh Dalton was one of the few senior Labour MPs who recognised the absurdity of a party which shouted for 'Arms for Spain' but not for Britain.
Underlying this hostility to arms spend- ing was the aspiration that countries should not have the ability to strike indi- vidually, but only as part of an internation- al community. Attlee had even claimed to have abandoned 'all idea of nationalist loy- alty'. Labour had come to see the carnage of 1914-18 as the product of munitions industry profiteering and an alliance sys- tem which, in the name of the balance of power, had turned Europe into an armed camp. Subsequently, great faith was placed in the League of Nations, the Geneva forum forlornly established after the first world war to prevent a second one. The predecessor of the UN, the League promised to promote multilateral disarma- ment and collective security within a framework of international co-operation. Collective security committed members to flex their economic and, if need be, mili- tary muscle in aid of any other member who became the victim of aggression. The flaw ought to have been obvious. Without armed forces, collective security would be a velvet glove hiding the absence of an iron fist. It promised responsibility without power, the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages.
Hitler had dashed any possibility of Ger- man participation in arms limitation as early as 1933, when he walked out of both the League and the disarmament talks. Yet Labour continued to promote the idea that in being part of an international effort to defeat aggression there was no need for Britain or her partners to maintain signifi- cant armed forces. This bore no relation to reality. Strictly isolationist, the United States was not a member of the League of Nations. Furthermore, Japan and Ger- many had quit Geneva under a cloud, and Labour wanted nothing to do with Mus- solini's Italy. Besides Stalin's Soviet Union, which joined the League in 1934 and was to any peace-loving observer an ally of last resort, the only major member who could assist Britain in the responsibilities of maintaining continental peace was France. Yet, apart from the occasions when the Left was scraping together a minority in Paris, Labour did not much care for France either, holding her to be the moth- er of Germany's congenital sense of inse- curity. By 1938, Labour had achieved an unlikely feat — a policy of international- ism underwritten by a dislike of every major foreign nation.
The reality of a dysfunctional League of Nations was that there could be no collec- tive security for Europe without French and British rearmament. It was a point grasped by Churchill, who saw that collec- tive security had become merely a rebranded title for the same alliance sys- tern which had tried to stop Germany in 1914, and which should therefore be sup- ported accordingly. With Dalton, the trade union leaders Walter Citrine and Ernest Bevin came to share Churchill's analysis, but most of the parliamentary Labour party continued to oppose the necessary realpolitik of German encirclement. Mark- ing the end of the Commons debate on the Munich pact, on 7 October 1938, the Daily Herald maintained that there was a differ- ence between 'the policy of Conservative imperialists whose leader is Mr Winston Churchill' and the line adopted by the Labour leadership. The latter did 'not believe that the causes of war can be removed by imperialist bargains, but only by an honest readiness to examine all international grievances and to make every sacrifice for peace that equity and justice require. Nor does it believe that war can be averted by the building up of a system of power politics concerned only with the maintenance of the status quo. It believes the way to avert war is by collective resis- tance to aggression combined with collec- tive readiness to initiate such peaceful changes as justice demands!'
There was hardly a sentiment in this monument of contradiction which did not underline the inadequacy of Labour's opposition to appeasement. Managing a peaceful transition rather than preserving the status quo was exactly what Chamber- lain's diplomacy at Munich had been all about. Collective resistance and a system of power politics were one and the same. They were inoperable if the government paid any attention to Labour's repeated votes against rearmament. What the Left particularly objected to was that the peace- ful changes engineered at Munich had been carried out as 'imperialist bargains' — Labour's term for any summit meeting which did not benefit from the contribu- tion of Comrade Stalin. In all his lengthy condemnation of Chamberlain's 'betrayal' 'You're not splitting from us, we're splitting from you.' in the Commons debate on Munich, Attlee's bathetic conclusion was that 'this is not the time for four-power pacts, for new alliances, for power politics; this is the time for a new peace conference and an all-in peace conference . . . which will endeavour to deal with. . . the wrongs of the Versailles Treaty, the wrongs of minorities, to deal with the colonial ques- tion, to deal with the question of raw materials. . . . ' Such a solution could not have been better framed by Hitler himself.
On one essential point, Labour was right: Munich did not bring peace in its time. In March 1939, Hitler broke the pledges he had made to Chamberlain and invaded what remained of the Czech state. The following month, Chamberlain intro- duced a Military Training Bill, heralding the first steps towards conscription. Labour voted against the measure. Attlee made a particularly mealy-mouthed speech, maintaining that the voluntary principle should have been given longer to prove itself. The government having made a previous promise not to introduce con- scription in peacetime, Attlee even had the priggishness to attack Chamberlain for showing the sort of disregard for pledges which was threatening 'the peace of the world'. Not only did Labour vote against the principle of conscription, the party fought it at the committee stage, repeated- ly forcing divisions and holding up its pas- sage accordingly. In his memoirs, Attlee maintained disingenuously that this mis- take did not matter much since within a few months Britain was at war anyway and at liberty to press ahead with a more com- prehensive conscription effort.
With the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940 providing a dismal backdrop to what had gone wrong, a group of left-wing journal- ists led by Michael Foot wrote Guilty Men, a relentless assault on the government, its men and its measures. It became a classic text, rehashed by a generation of Labour candidates as a means of kicking the Tories. By the time the Dunkirk evacua- tion had taken place, Chamberlain had already been brought down. Despite his determination to crush the Fiihrer who had double-crossed him at Munich, the Labour front bench refused to serve under Chamberlain partly on the grounds that his past deeds could not inspire confidence. But if past actions determined fitness to continue in office, then ;there were few on the Labour benches who had any right to sit near the dispatch-box. Labour's com- mitment to intensifying the war effort was a volte-face, an eleventh-hour recognition that the world was too dangerous for the sort of foreign policy with an 'ethical dimension' so sanctimoniously espoused from the easy chairs of opposition.
Graham Stewart is the author of Burying Caesar: Churchill, Chamberlain and the Battle for the Tory Party, to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in April next year.