Article Published February 26th, 2020

“A week is a long time in politics” according to Harold Wilson, the first Labour Party prime minister to break 13 years of Conservative party rule. A year is an even longer time, and a very great deal can happen during that time, particularly to governments led by the Conservative Party. Conservative majorities are far from being a guarantee of stability, and even less of a guarantee for success.

Consider, as an example, a Conservative led coalition government, with both Liberal and some Labour support, whose leader was feted for having “avoided” a world war in 1938, by arriving back at Heston Airport, clutching a piece of paper, which was declared as offering “peace in our time”. On the journey back to Number 10 Downing Street, supporters were cheering, clapping, throwing flowers, and behaving in an untypically exuberant fashion. At that point in his career, Neville Chamberlain was arguably at the peak of his “power”. His policy of appeasement, currying favour with dictators, as a means of preventing, and if possible, avoiding a new European, and therefore probably a new world war, was considered by the press, most of his party, all of his government as being a huge success. Praise came from many directions, including the Royal Family. What more could he have wanted?

Yes, there was an annoying fringe of some 30 to 40 Conservative and some Labour MPs who were resolutely opposed to his appeasement policy. They had criticized the failure of the British government to oppose Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, thus effectively ending the notion of collective defence, and undermining the League of Nations efforts in this direction. They had criticized the government’s failure to oppose  the reoccupation of the Rhineland by Third Reich troops in 1936, and they had further bewailed the government’s failure to oppose the annexation of Austria in 1938 by Germany, promptly followed by further threatened interventions by Germany in the Sudetenland, all as a means of bringing ethnic Germans under the umbrella of the Reich. For the appeasers all of these events could be reasonably justified as correcting anomalies in the Treaty of Versailles, or in meeting “justifiable” requests for ethnic integration.

These same anti-appeasement troublemakers, combining forces with parts of the civil service (Foreign Office), and some military leaders, urged rearmament. Yet everyone knew, and opinion polls drove the point home, that the British public were strongly in favour of pacifism. Under no circumstances could there ever be a return to the conditions of the Great War. So wasn’t this the popular will and was it not therefore the “right” thing to do? Surely Britain really should not worry about a small far away country called Czechoslovakia, whose problems would not be worth the bones of a single British grenadier?

Just over one year later, in September 1939, Britain and France were at war with Germany. The entire appeasement policy was destroyed and lay in shreds. It was revealed as being an exercise in willful deception, both by the deceivers, and the deceived. Of course we could believe in the good word of the German leader and his acolytes. Of course they would never break their word. And if there were a final settlement with the dictators then a fine new era of peace and prosperity would break out over Europe.

Yes, Britain might have to sacrifice a colony or two. There might have to be some further “border adjustments” elsewhere in Europe, but surely everything would end in the best possible way?

In 2020, the promises made by the Brexiteer/ Leave faction bear great similarity to the delusions of the Appeasers. The current Conservative leadership is prepared to sacrifice the UK Union, writing off Northern Ireland, and ignoring the wishes of Scotland to remain in the European Union; abolish existing free trade arrangements with the EU, that may well lead to the imposition of tariffs, quotas and exclusion of the UK from any intra EU arrangements for service industries, including finance. Moreover, these steps in turn are likely to greatly damage and weaken Britain’s overall position in the world. The “Leave” government is prepared to dismiss concerns about splitting families, businesses and civic institutions that have grown together with the EU for the last 47 or so years, as if this is of no concern. It is prepared to take a wrecking ball to carefully crafted international supply chains that have brought considerable prosperity to this country. And all of this is being given up to satisfy the desires of English nationalists, seeking a by-gone, post-war Britain that simply no longer exists. The Conservatives, once freed from the constraints of coalition with the LibDems in 2015, conceded point after point to English nationalism, in order to avoid being outflanked by Brexiteer opinion, led by the Farage UKIP party – who only won a single seat in a general election. The Tories became the English nationalist party. Similarly, in the 1930s the Conservative party became convinced of the need to support pacifism and appeasement while uncritically accepting assurances from fascist governments, themselves intent on destroying democracy

As in pre-war appeasement times, a minority of Conservative MPs opposed to Brexit were criticized, declared to be traitors, and their own Conservative Party associations were ordered to expel them from their party, as many have been. This developed into a kind of a “night of the long knives”, minus the physical blood. What happened to the group opposing appeasement? Initially they too suffered. Anthony Eden resigned as foreign secretary (as did the present prime minister, albeit for other reasons). There were some other resignations. And yes, efforts were made to discredit them, and to try and get their local constituency associations to drop them, even for Churchill in his Epping constituency, now occupied by Ian Duncan Smith.  Yet, with the incompetent conduct of the war in 1939/40, at the very last minute Churchill, one of the troublemakers’ leaders, was voted in as Prime Minister, on Chamberlain’s recommendation, largely because there was no one else who could have, or wanted to take on, the poisoned chalice of Britain, post Dunkirk, trying to wage war on its own, even as France surrendered. And it should be recalled that in this dire situation, Britain too came within a whisker of following suit. Lord Halifax, a committed, but by this time less sure appeaser, turned down the job of PM. It was his for the taking. Had he done so, a British surrender would have been highly likely.

And what of the other anti-appeasement “troublemakers”? Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Alex Douglas Home, and Edward Heath were all part of this group. They all became prime ministers in their own right after the war. Their stand against appeasement was fully justified, and the world did indeed become safer for democracy. And one of them, with strong memories of the second world war in mind, then took the step of taking the UK into the EEC, as a means of ensuring that peace and democracy would indeed be cemented in to the new Federal/Confederal experiment that is the European Union.

Clearly there are differences between the appeasement period and the struggle around Brexit. There are though several points of similarity.   One of the important lessons is that the Conservative party has completely misjudged situations in the past, with very serious, near fatal effects on Britain’s body politic. Chamberlain had a majority of 200. It crumbled when faced with the reality of his betrayal by the dictators, and then his incompetent war leadership. Johnson has a majority of 80, made up in some part of core ex-Labour constituencies, many of which bear the scars of being “left behind”, through the imposition of policies developed and implemented by this same Conservative party. How is the leopard to change its spots? Through cautious tactical manoeuvring in Parliament perhaps? Decisions by Northern Ireland to seek a border poll referendum on the arrangements with the Republic of Ireland, probably leading to the eventual reunification of Ireland? Through deteriorating relations with Scotland, if the SNP wins another convincing majority at the next elections for Holyrood, and demands another referendum on Scottish independence?  

All of these potential “events” might help to shift support away from a Hard Brexit. Yet, to complete the parallel, it might require an external shock, the cumulative disruptive influence of trade barriers, barriers to the freedom of movement of labour, and loss of confidence by investors, that might finally persuade elected politicians to radically change their policy, realizing that the siren sounds of English nationalism are just that, and form no basis for running a modern, democratic state, even one with as defective an electoral system as that of the UK.

So continuing with the historical analogy, is our current situation something close to 1938? The 2019 election being the peak of Tory performance, before reality finally sets in? If so, would we then have to endure a year or more of bumbling incompetence, before the current government ends up brought down by its own internal contradictions? Or are we rather more urgently in a situation closer to 1939/40? As has been pointed out by the opposition, the issue of Brexit has not been “done” at all. On the contrary, the issues around Brexit are now just beginning. Real choices are being made, and there are powerful interests in this country, largely outside of parliament it has to be said, who are unconvinced about the benefits of withdrawal from the EU. While some can sidestep the more negative consequences by relocating outside of Britain, many others cannot, and may face rising prices, shortages of goods, and deteriorating competitiveness. This is Osborne’s Project Fear writ large ( a Conservative former Chancellor for those who might have forgotten).

History is an imperfect guide for both the present and the future. However, the similarities in the evolution of ideas within the Conservative party in 1938 and 2020 is striking. If a year in politics is a very long time, after 12 months the political landscape could look very different indeed from today[1].  


[1] For those interested in the 1930s, Tim Bouverie’s book “Appeasing Hitler” is essential reading.