Britain, from Armistice to Hungry Thirties

Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars

Simon Heffer, London: Hutchinson Heinemann, 2023, 960pps., £35

KEN BELL finds much of interest in an account of the interwar years, but wishes it was less Tory

Simon Heffer’s Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars is the final part of a three-volume work which takes the country from the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Heffer belongs to the Tory school of historiography, so the reader who expects a social historian’s account of poverty in south Wales is going to be disappointed. History for those of that school is made by statesmen who sit in magnificent drawing rooms where they decide the fate of nations over maps. Sing As We Go is a quintessential account written in that style.  

A sizeable chunk of Sing As We Go is taken up with a reappraisal of Neville Chamberlain, a man condemned in the popular mind as Hitler’s dupe. As Heffer makes clear, appeasement was a policy that began before Hitler even came to power, with the word itself being first honoured with a place in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1933. The British, ever the fans of balancing the great powers off against each other, had been siding quietly with Germany against France since the 1920s. So, appeasement until the Munich Agreement was the policy of a confident British state that did not want France to become too dominant in the years after the Great War. As Heffer writes it was not about “surrender, capitulation or humiliation by or of the appeaser.”

Leaving foreign policy aside, and to be fair to the statesmen of the era, for the first time in British history they had to engage in the “economic management” of the country. It is no wonder that they did not know how to manage a modern state and economy, as nobody had ever had to do that before. So as Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain was not ashamed to admit privately that he was “very frightened at the financial part,” which is pretty much the central aspect of any chancellor’s role. He certainly seemed to make a better fist of the office than Winston Churchill, who admitted that whilst he understood the words of the generals, the economists “all talk Persian.”

Neville Chamberlain (second from left) visiting Newcastle slums in 1925. Image: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

As Chancellor, Chamberlain helped grow the economy during the Great Depression by spending large sums on rearmament, a fact that was much criticised at the time and is often forgotten today. As Prime Minister the output increased, leading Stafford Cripps, that most cadaverous of vegetarians, to comment that “every possible effort” had to be made to stop military recruitment. He even went on to tell a group of future aircraft builders that they should “refuse to make armaments.” It is hard to believe that Cripps would later be appointed as Minister of Aircraft Production in the Churchill government. Such things can only happen in Britain. Nevertheless, Britain was better prepared for war in 1939 than she would otherwise have been had Chamberlain not spent so many millions on the armed forces throughout his time as Chancellor and then Prime Minister.

The economy by 1937 was booming, but not in the heavy industrial areas of south Wales, northern England and the Scottish central belt. Heffer refers in passing to the distress in such areas, but it is not really the concern of his school of historiography to consider people who live below the elite level, so Heffer asks us to concentrate on the economy as a whole where output and prosperity increased.

Heffer deals with the Irish War of Independence very well indeed, with an even-handedness that surprised me. He is no fan of Eamon de Valera, but few of today’s Irish historians are; the reappraisal of de Valera has been very harsh on the man and his record. That said, he is clearly impressed with Michael Collins, a man who was probably one of the finest guerrilla commanders of the twentieth century. It was Collins who ordered the killing of the ‘Cairo Gang’, a high-level squad of British counter intelligence officers, an action that was carried out with brutal efficiency one Sunday morning. Many were still in bed when the IRA squads burst in and killed them, some in front of their wives or mistresses.

Heffer makes much of the shock and outrage that this action had in the USA and does rather play down the fact that the killings destroyed the British counter-intelligence operation in Dublin. The countryside was largely controlled by the IRA, and the Sunday morning operation in Dublin meant the capital city was also largely controlled by Collins’ men. I suspect that General Collins was happy to take that outcome, and could live with a few outraged headlines from across the Atlantic.

Simon Heffer is on firmer ground when he considers the London negotiations between the British government and the Irish plenipotentiaries to end the war. We are back to the world that Heffer loves the most, that of statesmen in drawing rooms, passing the port and taking momentous decisions. We are given some interesting vignettes of the negotiations, with Collins, the guerrilla leader, complaining to the arch-imperialist Winston Churchill that the British had put a £5,000 reward on his head. Churchill showed Collins a £25 reward poster that the Boers had put on his head two decades earlier. “Collins laughed and the air cleared,” when Churchill pointed out the disparity between the rewards offered that was clearly in Collins’ favour.

The negotiations were conducted on both sides by men who acted in good faith and who wanted a settlement, so compromises were possible. The Irish agreed to take over the Royal Irish Constabulary, change the name and keep the officers. The British accepted that their paramilitary unit of former British officers known as the ‘Auxiliaries’ or ‘Black and Tans’, who mainly guarded fixed locations such as police stations, were a British problem and cost that was not to be charged to Ireland. The British quickly withdrew both units from Ireland, paid them their outstanding wages and discharged them from service.

This level of reasonableness leads us to the final third of the book which is concerned with Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler. Heffer makes clear that it is a failure of Chamberlain that he did not cotton onto Hitler’s nature sooner than he did. As Heffer points out, Chamberlain’s supreme self-confidence led him to believe “that he was right” in just about everything, and it took him until early 1939 before he was forced to conclude that Hitler was “half mad”. However, Chamberlain’s reputation will need more than this volume to repair it from the charge that he was Hitler’s stooge, but it is a fair start to the process. Few people realised just what a chancer Hitler was, but at least when that realisation finally dawned, Neville Chamberlain, more than any other, was the man who ensured that Britain had modernised armed forces that could enter the lists against the rearmed Germany.

Viewed overall, Sing As We Go is a solid account of how Neville Chamberlain and others struggled to come to terms with the Britain that emerged from the Great War as the country groped, almost blindly at times, towards the next one. The Britain of Victoria’s era would have dealt with Ireland as she dealt with the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to argue that historically the British treated the Indians and Catholic Irish as if both were dodgy natives who needed a firm hand. By 1921, the British seem to have been pleasantly surprised that Michael Collins and his men were not the dubious natives of the popular imagination, but actually reasonable chaps with reasonable demands. That changed attitude would stand the British in good stead a generation later when it came time to negotiate the end of the Raj.

Another portion of Chips

Chips and Honor Channon

Henry “Chips” Channon, Diaries Vol. 2, 1938-1943

Edited by Simon Heffer, Hutchinson, 1,120 Pages, £35

KEN BELL renews his acquaintance with the famous Tory diarist

The Conservative MP and socialite, Henry “Chips” Channon, was a brilliant writer with an acid wit who also had an amazing capacity to misunderstand the people and events of the days he lived through and chronicled.

His wife, Honor, an heiress to the Guinness fortune, had been having affairs since at least 1937 with various muscular European skiing instructors, and this volume begins with Chips devoting many words to his fears that the marriage was breaking up. He could not understand why, and tied himself in knots trying to make sense of Honor’s attitude. In 1940 when the Luftwaffe bombed a farm belonging to Honor, Chips was disgusted by the attitude of Frank Woodman, Honor’s land bailiff, towards her:

He is insolent, swaggers about, and treats her with scant respect. She allows herself to be so familiar with that sort of people.

To anyone reading Chips’ diary entry it is so blindingly obvious that Honor had become Frank Woodman’s lover. When eventually Honor told Chips that she wanted a divorce, he went into an engaging meltdown and then on almost the next page he listed the money that he would make after a divorce, starting with the £5,000 a year that will be paid to him by her for agreeing to it. (That is about £250,000 in today’s money, by the way.)

By that time Chips had met Peter Coates, the upper-class rent boy who was known by those in the know as ‘Petticoats’, and by the more waspish amongst them as ‘Mrs Chips’. The two stayed together until Chips’ death in 1958, but as Simon Heffer points out in his editor’s introduction, Chips spent about £1,000 on Coates between their first meeting in mid-1939 and the end of that year. This would be around £55,000 today, so Chips was clearly much taken with Petticoats.

Channon was no better at understanding the political events that also swirled around him. He had supported Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938, and was devastated at the decision by Germany in March of 1939 to recognize the breakaway state of Slovakia, and then to grab the Czech-speaking rump of Czechoslovakia. However, in Chips’ mind this seemed more like Hitler betraying Neville Chamberlain personally, and less like the mark of a reckless gambler who was always playing double or quits, which is what it was.

The Norway debate in 1940 which led to the downfall of Neville Chamberlain is a masterpiece of reportage, mixed with a complete failure to understand just what was actually going on. Chamberlain won the division by 80 votes, and for Chips that was more than enough. However, it obviously wasn’t when such large numbers of Tories had either voted against their own government or abstained. To Chips’ disgust, the man he hero-worshipped resigned and Steepledick (the mocking nickname that the anti-Churchill faction had for Winston Churchill) took office as Prime Minister. Simon Heffer, who is no bad hand at dry wit, explains that the steeple part of the jibe was a play on the first syllable of Churchill’s name before going on to remind us that the nickname never really took off.

Channon kept his junior government post until mid-1941, and his war entries have a lot of good information. For instance, on 20th June 1941, Channon mentioned to friends that the Germans were going to attack Russia on the 22nd, which they duly did. That information about the attack had reached down to such low levels in the government, and that Channon could mention it over dinner, suggests that knowledge of the attack was pretty widespread in London. Once the attack did commence, instead of looking at ways to aid Russia, Channon slipped into his old habit of not understanding what needed to be done; instead, he dedicated much wordage to what would happen if Germany succeeded in her war-aim. He was convinced that she would win, and that would be the end of the British Empire, and the likes of Chips and his circle.

These caveats aside, Chips wrote incredibly well in a gossiping, housewifely style. He met Lord Alfred Douglas, the infamous ‘Bosie’ who had done so much to destroy Oscar Wilde’s life and reports without comment that Bosie had denied ever being “Wilde’s catamite”. Then, his advice was sought by a constituent who was also the mother of an 18-year-old daughter who was being courted by an over-60s baronet. Chips advised the mother to encourage the match, presumably so that in a few short years the girl could become a merry widow. Finally, he got into the habit of giving lifts to people during the bombing raids and one working man gave him a shilling tip when he alighted from Chips’ car. For once, Chips was rendered speechless. Normally, Chips had an answer for everything, usually very cutting, as at Chamberlain’s funeral in 1940 when he asked a fellow mourner who had not supported Chamberlain if the man had sent a wreath. When told that he hadn’t, Chips remarked that of course, “Decent Judas Blossoms are out of season,” before strolling away to leave his victim seething.

As a war diary this volume is sadly lacking in many ways, but as an account of life during the war for Channon and people of his circle it is a valuable source of information and gossip. Sadly, once Chips was out of office, the social scene takes over almost completely, along with tedious yearnings for Peter Coates who was away with the army.

Regretfully, Simon Heffer made the editorial decision to censor one entry which refers to a still living person. There are only two people this could be – the first being Clarissa Eden, who is 101 and an unlikely candidate. The other is the present Queen, and in spite of Heffer’s protest that the entry “adds nothing to historical knowledge”, that really is for us to decide in a volume that is sold as unexpurgated. That objection aside, enough remains to make this work a worthy successor to the first volume and leaves the reader eagerly anticipating the third and final part, which is due in 2022.