Saturday, 5 March 2011
LESLIE HORE-BELISHA, War Minister, and right, CAPT. MAULE-RAMSAY. who made sure MPs got the magazine attacking him.
part 1 Getting Rid of a Minister
There was an expectant air in the House of Commons on the morning of 16 January 1940. Leslie Hore-Belisha, forced to resign as Secretary of State for War because of what Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would only call "a strong prejudice" against him, was due to make a statement to the House.
Interest stretched far beyond Westminster. "The British people have a right to be told frankly and fully the reasons for the replacement in wartime of a virile and apparently successful War Minister," declared the Melbourne Argus on 8 January. Even The Times acknowledged public concern but said much would depend on what Hore-Belisha had to say.
In the event Hore-Belisha spoke of his efforts to reform and modernise the army, making it a career open to talent, so as to "bind all members of the nation more closely". He commented wryly: "It did not occur to me to consider that we were making the army too democratic to fight for democracy." This brought some cheers from Labour. But anyone hoping for a challenge to Chamberlain's government was disappointed.
"When Belisha made his resignation speech it fell far short of the challenging dramatic tone which the Mirror had hoped for," says Maurice Edelman in The Mirror: A Political History. "Belisha, despite his blandness in the face of antisemitism, was acutely sensitive to the danger that his Jewish origin might embarrass the government."
Misplaced loyalty to those less than loyal to him; misguided patriotism, with a war on? Nazi propagandists were delighted anyway, treating his departure as encouraging and as a faltering, ineffective, British attempt to remove "Jewish control". As for the British public, it had to accept being kept in the dark. Hore-Belisha faded eventually from view, his name to be remembered only by the traffic beacons he'd introduced when he was Minister of Transport.
The exact reasons Chamberlain got rid of his War Minister "have never been fully explained", said Dingle Foot in British Political Crises (William Kimber, 1976).
Late in 1939 the commanders of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France had told King George VI of their resentment against Hore-Belisha. The King discussed this with Chamberlain. On 8 January 1940 Chamberlain reported to the palace that he had dismissed Hore-Belisha, adding: "I said that as I had told him repeatedly before, there existed a strong prejudice against him for which I could not hold him altogether blameless."
"What was the prejudice?" asks Edelman. "It was the kind of prejudice that no one wanted to make explicit. It was, in fact, the prejudice of the established social and military order against a Jew of middle class and foreign descent, who sought publicity for his work, rejected the caste atitudes of his day and who, for short, was referred to by his critics as a 'cad'."
Perhaps Hore-Belisha's flair for publicity, so upsetting to the officers and gentlemen of the BEF with whom he dared to differ, gave Chamberlain the idea of making him Minister of Information. The Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan, confided to his diary on New Year's Day 1940: "H told me He --.-Belisha must be got out of the WO and will be offered Ministry of Information. This blinding - and exquisitely funny. I hadn't time to get my breath, but on thinking it over, came to the conclusion that Jew control of our propaganda would be a major disaster."1
"H" (Lord Halifax) and the Foreign Office blocked this appointment. Instead, Hore-Belisha was offered the Board of Trade. He polite declined, "because I could not feel the assurance that the consideration which had persuaded the Prime Minister to make the change would allow my energetic discharge in the national interest of the other office".
By this time, apparently, several junior ministers were clamouring for Hore-Belisha to go. But why did he go so quietly? What happened between Hore-Belisha's removal from office on 6 January and the speech which disappointed friends ten days later?
On 12 January 1940, the weekly magazine Truth appeared with the headline "Belisha no loss". It raked up the financial affairs of some companies in which he had been involved, back in 1928, which had collapsed with losses all round the following slump year. Although there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Hore-Belisha, he had lent his name, as an MP, to these flops. Truth made it sound far worse; and Tory MP and antisemite Captain Archibald Maule-Ramsay made sure every MT and peer received a copy.2
Hore-Belisha consulted such bigwigs asSirJohn Simon and Sir William Jowitt, with a view to taking action against Truth. These eminence-advised him that it would not be in the nations interest to take it to court. Later, Hore-Belisha was to say: "I must confess that in the light of subsequent events, had I been guided alone by my own personal feeling, I would have taken action."3
Founded by the radical, Henry Labouchere 1877, to expose corruption "without fear or favour", during the 1930s Truth had fallen into far from liberal hands. It acquired "the reputation of specialsing in a rather significant way in those scandals with which persons with Jewish names happened to be connected".4
An article in Truth in August 1938 spoke highly of Hitler as a "sensitive" artist, while the 24 September 1939 issue had Major JFC Fuller's column defending the Nazi concentration camps(mentioned in a Commons debate in 1941). Fuller, a well-known military historian, was also a keen Mosleyite.
How could a man in Hore-Belisha's position, twice a Minister of the Crown, a respected public figure, be thrown off balance by an attack in a little right-wing rag, allowing it to undermine his confidence and help finish his career? It was because he believed that there were some much more powerful forces behind the well-timed blow from Truth.
Cecil King, Hore-Belisha's supporter and confidante, said: "Finally, through the Conservative Central Office, they engineered a very bitter article in Truth which attacked his financial records as a director of companies in the 1928-9 boom, and inddentally described the Daily Mirror, for supporting him, as the 'Jew-infested sink of Fleet Street. As part of this campaign, Belisha said, Lady Astor was going around saying he had feathered his nest on army contracts. This campaign filled in the gap between Belisha's dismissal and the meeting of parliament."
Incidentally, as War Minister, Belisha did not d eal with army contracts, which came through the
Ministry of Supply, but who cared? Leslie Hore-Belisha had come against what would nowadays be called a Tory "dirty tricks" campaign.