20th century had many examples of mistaken groupthink at the top of government. Perhaps the worst was in the late 1930s when most of the great and good favoured appeasement of growing Germany military power. The majority of the Britain’s key opinion-formers and decision-makers were opposed to rearmament until March 1939, when Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia showed that they had been wrong. A Westminster-Whitehall consensus was backed by the elite media, notably The Times newspaper and the BBC.
To assimilate parliament with the civil service as if they were a uniform governing class, and to bracket both with such purported champions of independent expression as The Times and the BBC, may seem to over-egg the historical record. Were our rulers so dull that they could not appreciate many sides to the argument and allow the occasional dissident? And are they still so today? Arguably, Establishment groupthink has been a problem in recent years with the debate on UK membership of the EU. It was certainly a problem in Britain’s relationship with Europe in the late 1930s. All of the Foreign Office ministers, the prime minister plus his key staff, The Times and the BBC misinterpreted people and events, and committed gross errors in policy appraisal.
During Lord Halifax’s fateful period as foreign secretary (February 1938-December 1940), his under-secretary was Richard (“Rab”) Butler. In his first year at the Foreign Office Butler was discreetly, but emphatically, pro-German. After Hitler’s annexation of Austria in March 1938 he prepared a plan which, in his own words, should influence the British press so that “our case” (that is, appeasement) should be “well-represented”. In Butler’s view, “correspondence columns” in the newspapers should be “well stacked with arguments written by our friends” and opposite viewpoints should be minimised, with “Winston’s campaign” in particular to be “watched”. (Churchill had been pressing for rearmament for nearly five years.)
In July 1938 Captain Fritz Weidemann, Hitler’s adjutant, visited Halifax in London. As Weidemann left, Halifax is reported to have said that he would like his efforts to conciliate Germany culminating in “the Führer entering London at the side of the King amid the acclamations of the English people”. The accuracy and status of this remark have been questioned, but there is no doubt about Halifax’s unequivocal support for the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, after his return from Munich in September. According to the memoirs of Sir Alexander Cadogan, then moving up the Foreign Office hierarchy, Halifax had capitulated “totally”.
Chamberlain was duped by Hitler, but the history books give less space to probably the most important individual influence on Chamberlain’s policy thinking. This was Sir Horace Wilson, permanent secretary to the Treasury from 1939 to 1942, who was constantly at Chamberlain’s side in the key months. Butler, writing as a contemporary, described Wilson’s power as “very great”; he “is the Burleigh of the present age… and ‘moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform’.”
From March 1939 most senior politicians and civil servants realised Hitler was implacable; appeasement had failed. But the shift in sentiment left Sir Horace behind. As late as July that year he approached Helmut Wohlthat, a minor German civil servant, who was in London for a whaling conference. Wilson presented a memorandum outlining a possible agreement between the UK and Germany, with a joint declaration to abstain from aggression and to seek economic cooperation. As Wohlthat left, he reported Wilson as saying “…he saw the possibility of a common foreign and trade policy for the two greatest European states”. Wohlthat was too junior to respond, but reported the exchange to his Nazi superiors.
n later life Wilson was forthright about his misjudgements. Unlike Butler, he did not peddle the lie that appeasement had been intended to give more time for rearmament. He admitted in 1962: “Our policy was never designed just to postpone war, or enable us to enter war more united. The aim of our appeasement was to avoid war altogether, for all time.” The truth was that he and many other major Whitehall figures had shared sympathies with Nazi Germany. They underplayed the seriousness of Hitler’s threat to European peace because they preferred fascism to communism.
Wilson was no stranger to the art of media manipulation and he had no compunction during the 1938 Munich negotiations in warning the BBC to exercise self-restraint. But by then the BBC had long been an accomplice of Establishment appeasers. Its first director-general, John Reith, decided in the late 1920s that balance would be achieved in political broadcasting by asking party leaders to appoint radio spokesman. By implication, when important politicians were out of favour with the party machines, they could be ignored.
Crucially, Churchill was not a member of the National governments of the 1930s, and he was widely despised when he started to warn of the dangers from a resurgent and remilitarised Germany. Churchill was allowed just one BBC broadcast on the need for rearmament (in 1934), and that was that. Reith, whose hatred of Churchill went back to the handling of the 1926 general strike, kept him off the airwaves. By contrast, the BBC kowtowed to Chamberlain and Halifax during the Munich crisis. Some historians have alleged that it not only tilted coverage in favour of the government’s pro-appeasement line, but also deliberately barred anti-fascist material from Labour and Popular Front MPs.
Does The Times emerge better than the BBC from the appeasement mess? In the 1930s it was seen as “the top people’s newspaper”. It enjoyed such prestige that it was often regarded, particularly abroad, as an official paper stating the government’s opinion. In the pivotal months of negotiation over Czechoslovakia between Britain and Germany this was not far from the truth. Chamberlain and Halifax were even closer to Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of The Times, than to anyone at the BBC, and they both guided Dawson towards an editorial line in favour of appeasement.
On 7 September 1938, Dawson wrote a leader suggesting the Czechoslovak government should give consideration to “the cession of that fringe of alien populations who are contiguous to the nation to which they are united by race”. This was interpreted in Europe’s capitals, including Berlin, as a hint from the top of the British government that Britain would not defend Czechoslovak territorial integrity. Arguably, by giving the impression of British perfidy and weakness, the leader made the war inevitable.
In the late 1930s, institutions that defined the Establishment were engaged in a disastrous policy. Even before the start of the Second World War the course of events had shown them to be wrong. The historical setting to the three years since the Brexit referendum of 2016 is not the same as the historical setting to the three years that followed Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland in March 1936. But the folly of the Establishment in the late 1930s may suggest – to members of today’s informed public, whether populist by inclination or not – that the Establishment doesn’t always have a monopoly of wisdom.
Tim Congdon is a monetary analyst and was an economic adviser to the Conservative government from 1979 to 1997.