Monday, September 29, 2008

The Munich Agreement - 70 years on

Whenever I attempt to explain to people what my thesis is about, I invariably make reference to Neville Chamberlain, not least because it makes it easy for non-historians to identify the period. And Chamberlain is, unfortunately in my opinion, best remembered for one single event in his entire political career - the signing of the Munich Agreement seventy years ago tonight.

(Strictly speaking the Agreement was signed in the early hours of the 30th September 1938, but was dated to the previous day.)

Now this is not the place to delve into the rest of Chamberlain's career; suffice it to say that an overall assessment cannot but come to a very different conclusion from the populist image of Chamberlain as just a weak man who did nothing but fly to Munich during his three years in Downing Street.

However the Munich Agreement itself has long been misrepresented. It is often forgotten just how incredibly popular it was in the UK. This wasn't just "high opinion poll approval", this was one of the moments where much of the nation poured out its gratitude. In my research I've seen, amongst other things, footage of Chamberlain's car journey from the airport to Downing Street after signing the agreement. On a rainy day people lined the streets in droves. Bar the weather the scene is very reminiscent of the last journey of Diana, Princess of Wales. I've also seen many letters of gratitude sent to Chamberlain, reports of football matches pausing to pay tribute to him and so much more. This was an agreement that the British public embraced.

And it was one that in many ways the British public had made inevitable. The harsh fact, often now forgotten, is that in 1938 there weren't many options available. For a long time the British public (and, I believe, the French public as well but let's stick to the British for now) had given numerous indications that they were reluctant to go to war. Especially not for the Treaty of Versailles, a settlement that had been emotionally rejected by numerous people, whether conservative, liberal or socialist. As the Iraq War has shown, it can be terribly difficult to take a country to war when a large proportion of the population is opposed. It is impossible to contemplate a total war in such circumstances. For all the criticism of the "piece of paper" that Chamberlain and Hitler signed, it mean that there was now something for Hitler to violate which would provoke a desire to go to war amongst the wider public in the way that a violation of the Treaty of Versailles did not.

Also often forgotten is that the British Empire was severely overstretched in the late 1930s and divided. Many troops were stationed in the Far East, where the rise of Japan was worrying. Military resources were weak and overstretched. A war on multiple fronts without allies was a war that could not be won. There was the further problem that the Dominions (aka the Commonwealth countries) would not enter the war. As it was in 1939 Ireland stayed neutral and South Africa only joined after serious political turmoil in both government and parliament. A war in 1938 would have seen even more of the Dominions declining to enter, potentially fragmenting the British Empire as a political force at a crucial time.

The French were seeking to escape their military alliance with Czechoslovakia and could not be counted on. Nor could the "Czechoslovakians" as there were very few such people. As the post war history of that country showed the state was a mix of minorities and it took first the expulsion of the German speaking minority and then the Velvet Divorce to create permanently viable states. People often talk of the people of Czechoslovakia who were prepared to defend themselves as "the Czechs". They are probably even more accurate than they may think - would the Slovakians have fought and died to prevent "millions of Germans from being German" any more than the French or British?

(And how many people remember that after the Munich Agreement "Czechoslovakia" was renamed "Czecho-Slovakia"? The latter form both reflected Slovak desires for equality in the name and is a derivation of the name in Slovak, whereas the unhyphenated is a derivation of the name in Czech. The later Hyphen War reflected a long standing issue.)

So what was the alternative? To take a divided country and Empire into a war for the cause of preventing millions of Germans from being German? To go to war for Vietnam-style domino arguments? To take a country to war when it was not prepared either militarily or domestically? A convincing show of force in 1938 was not as easy as the Agreement's detractors made out.

Indeed today there are parallels. After the Iraq War there are many in this country who are opposed to further military engagements, regardless of the level or genuineness of the threat. Military action would be deeply divisive and if public support for the action is essential it is doubtful that such action could take place. It is easy to scream "Appeasement" and "Munich" against any attempt at a peaceful settlement of any problem in the world, but is military action really a viable alternative?

Whose Shadow Chancellor?

And another thing...: Vince Cable is no-one’s Shadow Chancellor highlights the way that in recent years the Liberal Democrats have pretended to have a "Shadow Cabinet" and individual posts such as "Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer". As Tom Harris rightly points out there is no such thing as the "Liberal Democrat Shadow Cabinet" just as there is no such thing as the "Conservative Shadow Cabinet". It is the Official Opposition Shadow Cabinet, just as David Cameron is the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, which encompasses all the opposition parties.

I particularly like this comment:

Vince Cable is the Liberals’ Treasury or economic spokesman, but he’s certainly not anyone’s Shadow Chancellor. If he were, then that makes Bob Spink UKIP’s Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Transport Secretary and Leader of the UKIP Opposition. Which would be just as (but no more) silly.
There may have been many Anti-Popes throughout history but that didn't make any of them a Pope. Just as the Anti-Shadow Cabinet is not a Shadow Cabinet.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

President Lembit?

UnimpressedI can do anything... can't I?News has come through that Lembit Öpik has left the Liberal Democrat Frontbench Team to campaign full time for the position of President of the Liberal Democrats. (BBC News: Opik leaves Lib Dem front bench) He is in a fierce battle with Chandila Fernando and Baroness Scott. Tellingly several senior Welsh Lib Dems are not supporting their former leader. And there have been rumours, officially denied of course, of a plot by Vincent Cable and others to prevent a Lembit victory. (BBC News: 'Stop Opik' plot denied by Cable)

I don't know why they're bothering. People do not talk about the Curse of Lembit for nothing. It may have just failed to sink Nick Clegg but there's a whole trail of ex leaders and unsuccessful candidates who had Lembit's support and found they needed it like a hole in the head. Why does he think he can buck the trend himself?

Who wants to live in Fred West Towers?

No I don't think anyone would. But what about "Peter House" and "Painter House", named after "Peter the Painter", a revolutionary who led the anarchists involved in the Siege of Sidney Street. (Daily Mail: Council sparks anger after it names two tower blocks after leader of Sidney Street siege police killers)

Now the siege was nearly a century ago but that does not excuse the actions of the council in naming blocks after a terrorist. As one commenter on the story put it:
Sutcliffe Street, Brady Boulevard, Hindley and Huntley House or Fred West Way anyone ? For God's sake - get the loonies out of positions of power!
Or how about Osama Bin Laden House? Truly the Loony Left has returned with a vengeance.

But here are three names that should have been considered for the buildings and were not used:


These were the three policemen who were killed by the terrorists. All too often the police have to put their very lives on the line to protect the public. Such gallantry should be honoured, not terrorism.

Maths (or constitutional law) for learners

I've just seen BBC News: US rivals in economy crisis talks about the response of John McCain and Barack Obama to the growing financial crisis. Whilst McCain's response by suspending his campaign is an act of statesmanship, putting country about ambition, Obama's response of continuing to grub for votes is a sign that he is developing some of the worst features of Hillary Clinton.

Is the White House the place to learn?But what really caught my eyes was the following:

Americans needed to "hear from the person who in approximately 40 days will be responsible for dealing with this mess", Mr Obama told journalists.
The next President does not take office until the 20th of January. So either Obama can't count (it's 117 days) or has forgotten that the new President doesn't take office on election night (so much for his claims to be experienced because he once taught constitutional law).

At such a difficult time for the economy, does the US and the wider world really want a learner in office?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is this poll serious?!

A truthful poster for the Lib DemsUK Polling Report: Conservatives break 50%? has the latest figures from MORI and they are incredible:

Conservatives 52% +4
Labour 24% N/C
Lib Dems 12% -5

Yes the Liberal Democrats are polling less than a quarter of the Conservative share. According to an internal party group document Liberal Vision - The Cameron Effect (pdf) the Lib Dems are facing a huge drubbing at the next election and this poll could take them to their worst result since 1970.

Meanwhile Labour is flatlining, down to just the rock solid core vote. This is an even worse level than they got in 1931 (see When Labour was even more flappable).

But is this poll realistic? I've long wondered if the polling companies have taken on board that it is no longer considered embarrassing to admit voting Conservative, and potentially embarrassing to admit to voting Labour. So the poll may be badly weighted. Whilst it's nice to imagine the effect of these results, the next election will only be won through hard work and convincing the public. I don't think it's settled yet.

So who would I vote for in Ireland now?

As I wrote in my previous post With St. Patrick's Day looming, if I were a voter in the Republic of Ireland I would vote for the Progressive Democrats. It seems I would have to look for a new party soon. Since their drubbing at the last election the PDs have gone through a process of reappraisal, uncertainty and decline, and now the party's leader has announced that all the parliamentarians unanimously agree the party is no longer viable. (RTÉ News: PD conference to decide party's future)

The PDs have had an impact on Ireland out of all proportion to their electoral size. By promoting strong free market economics and low taxation they have a large share of the responsibility for turning Ireland into the economic powerhouse it is today. They have been prepared to challenge taboos - remember Mary Harney's famous comment that Ireland should be closer to Boston than Berlin? Or Michael McDowell's staunch attacks on Sinn Féin, going beyond what members of Fianna Fáil would say. The PDs can also claim another first in that the current Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats-Green government may well be the first centre right-liberal-green "Jamaica coalition" government in the world (even if the parties don't use the same colours as the relevant German ones). If the party does decide to disband it will be a pity for Ireland as a whole.

So if they go who would I vote for? The last time I looked Fine Gael was the next answer, but their coalitions with Labour could be too great a hurdle. Fianna Fáil scored lower than Labour but as one of the questions was whether I agreed with the statement "Charles Haughey was a good Taoiseach" the test may not have been the most refined. (Who would devise a British quiz with "Margaret Thatcher was a good Prime Minister" as one of the questions?) Fortunately as I'm not a voter there I don't need to decide, but it's an interesting one to ponder.

Conservative republicans

And the result of the Australian Liberal leadership election is in. Sydney Morning Herald: Malcolm Turnbull ousts Brendan Nelson as Liberal Party leader. Now whether or not this will prove to be the Australian Liberals' Iain Duncan Smith to Michael Howard moment remains to be seen.

Although Malcolm Turnbull was a Cabinet minister in the last Coalition government, he is best known in the UK as the lawyer in the Spycatcher trial and as the former chair of the Australian Republican Movement at the time of the Australian republic referendum, 1999. The latter point has led to some commenters on Conservativeinternational: Malcolm Turnbull is new leader of Australia's Liberals to question whether the Liberals can still be considered a sister party at all. This frankly says far more about blinkered opinions of what is and isn't "conservatism" than it does about the Australian Liberals.

At the end of the day modern conservatism around the world is not defined by attachment to some particular organ of government. Whilst most conservative parties differ on details due to differing national circumstances, most of them come down to common positions in terms of economics & taxation, the rule of law and a strong position on the world stage. There's no monarchy in that lot. Conservative politicians have committed acts of republicanism in the past, most notably when Stanley Baldwin forced Edward VIII's abdication (any choice or rejection of a head of state is republicanism) and I have no doubt that if this country does ever have a referendum on the subject we will see some Conservative party members at the forefront of a republic campaign. Malcolm Turnbull is no heretic in the international conservative family.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

And another one goes

Now David Cairns has quit. (BBC News: Minister quits in Brown protest) And Gordon Brown just claims it's not the time for an "internal debate". At a time when the world economy is in severe trouble the last thing this country needs is political instability caused by uncertainty over the future of the Prime Minister.

Monday, September 15, 2008

So what are the Labour leadership rules?

It's often the case that the leadership rules for a party go unnoticed until people start speculating about the weakness of the incumbent. And then they discover all manner of obscure clauses in the rules that can prove fatal. For example how many people knew that the "15% lead on the first ballot" requirement in the old Conservative rules referred to 15% of the total electorate rather than those voting (a modification made in 1975), which proved critical in 1990?

And now whilst Gordon Brown is running around sacking all and sundry for daring to suggest a leadership election might be the solution to his problems (BBC News: Whip sacked over leader bid call, Ex-minister seeks Labour contest and PM sacks critic Gardiner as envoy) it has come to light that the rules may not have been followed. A clause apparently requires nominations to be sought each year, but the nomination papers have not been sent out to all MPs automatically for years. This could lead to an interesting showdown at the next Labour National Executive Committee meeting.

But regardless of the outcome it seems too late for anyone to challenge Gordon Brown now. The only way he can resolve the ongoing leadership saga before it causes further damage to this country is to take matters into his own hands and initiate a leadership election himself.

But Gordon is not bold but Brown.

The leadership election is on!

My apologies for not blogging for a while but several other matters have consumed my time lately. But news caught my eye today of the imminent leadership election. After just a year in post, during which confidence in him has steadily eroded and many have looked to other leading figures who in the past declined to run for the leadership, he's finally taken the plunge to face his critics head on and called a leadership election to settle the matter.

So is Brendan Nelson going to keep his job? Will Peter Costello finally actually stand for the leadership after a record of not doing so that dwarfs David Miliband's? Or will it be Malcolm Turnbull?

What, you thought I was talking about another party's leadership problems? You seriously expected Gordon Brown to find his bottle? Or David Miliband to find a nomination form?!

For more details about the Liberal Party of Australia leadership election, 2008, see ABC News: Nelson calls leadership spill


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