Happy (?) Appeasement Day
Today is Appeasement Day – not a day of celebration but a day to ponder. On this day in 1938, Neville Chamberlain arrived back in Britain with a piece of paper with Hitler’s name on it. Hitler, of course, despised Chamberlain and held both the prime minister and the piece of paper in equal contempt. He had no intention of sticking to this agreement which stated that the Sudetenland was to conclude Germany’s territorial ambitions in Europe. Some months later, Hitler simply occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and the Munich Agreement was exposed for the sorry sham that it was.
Now as soon as Chamberlain landed back in Britain he was met with a royal limousine which took him straight to Buckingham Palace. On this day in 1938, Chamberlain was given the extraordinary opportunity to appear on the balcony overlooking The Mall alongside the King to wave to the crowds showing just how much the King approved of appeasing Hitler.
Although not exactly pro-Nazi like his disastrous elder brother, Bertie-George was very very pro-appeasement. The duplicitous and lazy film The King’s Speech offers the entirely misleading suggestion that Bertie-George was an anti-Nazi friend of Churchill in the 1930s. He was no such thing. Even as late as May 1940, after you might think the policy of Appeasement had been thoroughly discredited, George was still trying to use his unelected and unrepresentative influence to get Lord Halifax made PM to replace Chamberlain – Halifax a man who pretty much kept a surrender document in his top pocket at all times ready for expeditious signing.
Parliament had yet to debate this agreement when King George VI decided to publicly celebrate it. In a shocking violation of whatever supposed invisible guidelines exist to restrain the monarchy, the King was effectively giving royal assent to a measure before MPs had voted on it or even discussed it, showing complete disregard for the sovereignty of parliament.
Now supporters of George VI say a number of things about this. They say that Appeasement was very “popular”. Some of them also say that Munich was OK and the King was right to support it because it gave Britain another year to “prepare”. Of course, Munich also gave Hitler another year to prepare, and Hitler (unlike Chamberlain) knew for certain that war was coming. Furthermore, in 1938, the Czech army was in pretty good shape and stood a fighting chance if supported. Also, there was no Ribbentrop/Molotov pact in place to doom Poland. And so on and so forth…
But such strategic responses are in a sense less important than the crucial constitutional question of a monarch using his very considerable powers of patronage to influence critical political events. While it’s true that a lot of people supported Appeasement, a lot of other people didn’t. It was a highly controversial policy that George VI was determined to wade into. The opposition Labour party opposed it in parliament, as did prominent dissenting Conservatives. Both Churchill and Attlee (among others) spoke eloquently in opposition to the idea of giving Hitler what he wanted in the hope that he plays nice in future. Britain’s pro-Appeasement monarch was not just “reflecting a public mood” he was directly intervening in one of Europe’s greatest crises.
George VI was able to do this for two reasons. The position of monarch was (and is) too ill defined and vague without any adequate statement of what can and can’t be done. Also, the culture of deference surrounding the monarchy prevented anyone around him from telling him “no you can’t do this” or, even more significantly, publicly criticising him once he’d done it. Monarchy is about giving someone immense resources and influence and surrounding them with people who will never challenge how these resources and influence will be used.
The Queen’s predecessor was an unelected (and unexpected) meddler in critical political decisions. We’ve learned that the present monarch likes politicians to take account of her views also. And the next in line to the throne (having been mentored by the disastrous Mountbatten) has made it abundantly clear that he feels his birth certificate gives him the authority push his pet causes and interests. Munich represents perhaps the very worst that can happen with an unaccountable hereditary head of state. But there’s nothing to protect us from similar Munichs in future.
September 30th is also the anniversary of parliament’s ratification of the abdication of Richard II in 1399. Of course, this parliamentary act did not represent the sovereignty of parliament over the monarchy as they were acting as a rubber stamp for Henry Bolinbroke. However, the occasion does provide an interesting precedent.