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Unlike the 1938 appeasers, Tony Blair is leading Parliament, not being led

By Stephen Barton - posted Wednesday, 26 March 2003

I must confess that I have never been the greatest fan of Tony Blair. I thought his government had an unhealthy focus on spin rather than sound public policy. I did however admire his stance on Kosovo, like some latter-day Palmerston dispatching gunboats in defence of liberalism, although in this case protecting Muslims from Christians. And I admire his courage and conviction now.

Much has been made of the Labour Revolt, with many Labour Members voting against him, backing a motion that the case for war against Iraq is yet to be made, and now the resignation of Robin Cook and others. Even some Tories spoke against military action, demonstrating that the tradition of High Church Tory isolationism is alive and well, not yet eclipsed by interventionist liberal conservatism. Enoch Powell would be pleased if he were alive.

Revolts in the House of Commons are nothing new, with a large number of Members (most never likely to ascend to the dizzying heights of the frontbench), frustrated ambition, boredom and conviction, revolts are bound to occur at some stage. More so in governments with large majorities, as Margaret Thatcher found out on several occasions. With revolts in mind, it's worth reflecting on the parliamentary revolt of May 1940 and the lessons learned.


People naturally prefer peace to war, even as late as 1938 Winston Churchill's evocative words on Munich: "All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken Czechoslovakia recedes into darkness" were ignored. Chamberlain's peace in our time was too attractive not to believe in, particularly in the universities and in the streets. The reception Chamberlain received from the crowds when he stood on the balcony at Buckingham Palace shows that everybody loves peace and the slightest excuse to take to the streets on its behalf seems irresistible; dictators can be forgotten and ignored.

However, then as now, some MPs thought military action might be preferable to an uncertain peace. In Parliament opposition to appeasement began to grow, building around two groups of Tory MPs, one led by Churchill, the other by Anthony Eden. By 1939, Parliament, not Britain, was convinced that war would come. So much so that when Poland was invaded, Parliament forced Chamberlain to issue the ultimatum to Germany.

Indeed, the House had greeted Chamberlain with stony silence when he mentioned the possibility of diplomatic measures. In one of the most emotional moments of parliamentary history, Arthur Greenwood, Labour Party deputy leader, stood to speak, as Leo Amery called from the Tory benches "Speak for England, Arthur". Were Greenwood to speak for England, or Britain, the Dominions and Empire, he would have echoed Chamberlain. Amery's England was an idealised evocation of what England should be; in reality it was a pocket of parliamentarians. But Greenwood knew what he meant.

Chamberlain feared he might lose his majority if he failed to send the ultimatum. This is remarkable; the Tories held 432 seats and Labour 154. As AJP Taylor wrote: "The stir was mainly confined to Parliament. There were no great public meetings in the week before the outbreak of war, no mass marches demanding 'stand by Poland' It is impossible to tell whether members of Parliament represented the British people. At any rate, the MPs were resolute and the government trailed regretfully after the House of Commons." People never march for war.

The debates of the 8th and 9th of May 1940 destroyed Chamberlain's prime ministerial career. A succession of Tory grandees spoke for a more vigorous prosecution of the war effort, the most devastating broadside came from Leo Amery, quoting Cromwell to the Long Parliament, he said to Chamberlain: "You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go."

What lessons can we learn from the Parliament of 1940? On one level the events today seem like a flip side of the events of May 1940. However, Blair is leading Parliament, not Parliament leading him as it did Chamberlain.


Furthermore, Blair can also draw comfort because he, like the anti-appeasers and pro-Churchill faction, enjoys the support of the Leader of the Opposition; Blair may not be in step with his entire party, but a majority of Parliamentarians are behind him. It is tempting at this point to compare the anti-appeasers of the 1930s with the Labour rebels of February and March. The arguments of the former were based on a cold and sober realisation of the threats that faced liberal democracy, combined with a bloody-minded determination to face horrendous odds. The rebels of 2003 display a bloody-minded determination to criticise President Bush, blindly ignore threats and retreat into woolly arguments on international law and the importance of the United Nations.

In the 1930s the general populace had no desire for war, the scars of the Lost Generation were too recent. But Parliament pushed and cajoled, and shook a nation, indeed an empire and Commonwealth, awake to the reality that there were things worse than war. Blair is fulfilling that same function now.

In the 1930s those advocating military action were often isolated and unfashionable, even as late as 1938. Those supporting military action now are just as isolated and unfashionable. The anti-appeasers of the 1930s were characterised as Colonel Blimps by experts; today Bush and Blair are dangerous Christian ideologues. However, Blair can draw comfort that the Colonel Blimps were vindicated, and as Kissenger observed: "Most foreign policies that history has marked highly … have been originated by leaders who were opposed by experts."

The threat the West faces is far more opaque, thus easier to ignore but with dire consequences. Like the anti-appeasers, Blair knows it is not a question of popularity but one of leadership and this involves making hard decisions. Marching for peace, giving hope to a dictator and despair to his people, is easy, after all, what do you have to lose? Fortunately, unlike some of his colleagues and previous supporters, Blair has steadfastly refused to take this easy way. He seems to know that moral vanity is as cheap as it is dangerous. Australia, with Blair and Bush, is in good company.

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About the Author

Stephen Barton teaches politics at Edith Cowan University and has been a political staffer at both a state and federal level. The views expressed here are his own.

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