The League of Nations, pacifism and disarmament

In document The Origins of the Second World War in Europe - Bell (Page 133-136)

Belief in the League of Nations was the nearest thing to an ideology in Britain between the wars. The League of Nations Union, which existed to promote the League’s cause in the country, was under royal patronage, which was the sign of being wholly respectable and above party; its committee was drawn from all three parties; and it had just over 400,000 subscribers in 1931.13 It was allowed, and indeed encouraged, to pro-pagate its views in schools. On one occasion, in the so-called ‘Peace Ballot’, it organised a widespread canvass of public opinion in which the immense number of 11.5 million people expressed their support for the League.

They voted almost unanimously for continued British membership of the League and for general disarmament; nearly as heavily for the abolition of military aircraft and prohibiting the private manufacture of armaments;

and for economic sanctions against a country which insisted on attacking another. Military sanctions (the current euphemism for war) were less readily approved of; but 8 millions were still in favour of them, at least in principle.

In terms of party politics, Labour was by the end of the 1920s the most ardent supporter of the League, after (as in France) a period of hesitation as to whether it was not merely a League of victors and of capitalist states, and therefore to be shunned. The League came to be regarded as an import-ant step towards internationalism, and as a safeguard against any return to the alliance system which (it was believed) had led to war in 1914. As late as June 1936, when the Minister for War, Duff Cooper, made a speech in Paris about Franco-British friendship, the leader of the Labour Party,

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Clement Attlee, complained that the speech made no reference to the Covenant of the League of Nations – Labour was not prepared to accept, in any form, a military alliance with France. The League was also a natural focus for the remnants of the Liberals, embodying as it did, in new guise, the old Gladstonian ideals of mediation, arbitration, and the Concert of Europe.

What of the supposedly hard-headed realists of the Conservative Party?

Whole-hearted League enthusiasts were doubtless few in its ranks. Lord Robert Cecil, a highly individual Tory, did as much as any single man to found the League, and he remained devoted to it; but he was not charac-teristic of his party. Austen Chamberlain, the sober and respected Foreign Secretary of 1924–29, made a point of going to Geneva, but at least in part this was to keep an eye on Cecil. However, Stanley Baldwin, who had a shrewd eye for popularity, thought it best in 1935 to establish a Minister for League of Nations affairs; and Anthony Eden, who took this post, the brightest rising star in the Conservative Party, saw in the League a passport to public favour as well as sound international thinking. The League made much sense in terms of foreign policy, as a place where influence could be exercised and negotiations pursued; it was also reckoned to be an electoral asset which should on no account be thrown away. A Conservative Party official wrote to Baldwin on 1 August 1935 that they might lose the next election if the bulk of the Liberal vote went to Labour; and no political issue was more likely to influence the Liberal vote than ‘the question of peace and war and the future of the League of Nations’.14Besides which, there was always the possibility that the vision of collective security might actually materialise. In 1935, at the time of the Ethiopian crisis, Neville Chamberlain, who was far from being a Leagueomaniac, agreed that sanc-tions against Italy should be tried, in the hope that the League might yet be vindicated; and he believed that Britain should give a lead, and not let the issue go by default.

Here lay an important strand of thought – or rather of belief – which was shared across all parties. Between the wars it was an article of faith in Britain that the country had a special moral role as a leader in world affairs; and that other countries would naturally follow whatever direction the British chose. It was a remnant of the complete self-confidence of the Victorian era; and it remains mildly astonishing that in the Ethiopian crisis the fifty members of the League of Nations did indeed consent to be led by Britain – until, alas, they all fell into the ditch. The British retained as their heritage from the nineteenth century a rather specialised form of moral conscience and a remarkable faith in their own power of leadership. The

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two together gave a particular quality and tenacity to faith in the League of Nations. As late as April 1938 the deputy editor of The Times could write with confidence that ‘the British people is more League-minded than any in the world’; and he was probably right.15

In strict logic, support for the League was incompatible with absolute pacifism, because the Covenant of the League included the use of military sanctions against an aggressor. Naturally enough, strict logic was often defied, and pacifists usually supported the League, as offering the best chance of general peace. Pacifists in the absolute sense were in any case a small, though active, minority. The largest pacifist group of the 1930s, Canon Dick Sheppard’s Peace Pledge Union, began with 50,000 postcards accepting the uncompromising statement: ‘We renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will we support or sanction another.’ The maximum membership of the Union was reached after war had begun – 136,000 in April 1940.16These were impressive figures; and presumably the activist core was surrounded by a larger number of sympathisers. In a much more general sense, almost the whole population was united in the desire to promote peace and avoid any repetition of the events of 1914–18 and the as yet unfathomable dangers of aerial bombardment. Revulsion against war was as widespread and profound in Britain as in France, and it was nourished by a stream of war (or anti-war) literature by Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, and others.

Disarmament was the link that bound the League and revulsion against war together. ‘I give you my word there will be no great armaments’, Baldwin told the British electorate in 1935, even when appealing for a mandate for limited rearmament.17 Disarmament was one of the major principles of Labour foreign policy; and Arthur Henderson ended his political life as Chairman of the Geneva Disarmament Conference of 1932–34. The National government too, despite many accusations to the contrary, pursued the aim of a disarmament agreement throughout the conference, trying repeatedly to reconcile the positions of France and Germany – which in effect meant allowing German armaments to increase while seeking to diminish those of France. When this failed, the govern-ment went ahead with a separate Anglo-German Naval Agreegovern-ment in 1935, and sought persistently for an agreement to restrict air bombard-ment. Governments, of course, pursued disarmament for a variety of reasons, many of them to do with financial economy and political self-interest; but the degree of commitment to disarmament as a means of securing peace should not be underestimated, nor should the force of public opinion that was concentrated on this issue.

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In document The Origins of the Second World War in Europe - Bell (Page 133-136)