Friday, May 07, 2010

The Norway Debate

(This post was written in advance because of everything else that's currently going on.)

Seventy years ago today began what is undoubtedly the most famous parliamentary debate of the twentieth century - the so-called Norway Debate. (Technically the debate was on the motion "That this House do now adjourn" and the title in Hansard is "Conduct of the War" but "the Norway Debate" is the title everyone remembers.)

Over two days the House of Commons engaged in a debate that began on the details of the recent failures of the Norway campaign but soon became a more general forum for discussing and attacking the way the way the war was being fought. Many a famous quote comes from that time, but the most famous of all was that of Leo Amery (right). Amery had a reputation as an incredibly boring speaker, perhaps on a par with Geoffrey Howe, so many MPs were undoubtedly relieved when his speech clashed with dinner. But like Howe fifty years later, Amery rose to the occasion, climaxing with these words:
I have quoted certain words of Oliver Cromwell. I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go."
(The full speech in Hansard.)

There were many other dramatic moments that day, ranging from Portsmouth North MP Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes making a speech in full uniform, with six rows of medals, to David Lloyd George making his final great speech in the House where he said to Churchill:

The right hon. Gentleman must not allow himself to be converted into an air-raid shelter to keep the splinters from hitting his colleagues.
(The full speech in Hansard.)

What is little known is that Lloyd George was seemingly inspired by a cartoon printed that day in the Daily Express likening the debate to that very scenario.

At the end of the debate a division was forced and no less than thirty-nine MPs voted against their own government. After a series of political manoeuvrings over the next two days Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister, to be succeeded by Winston Churchill.

Something I've not seen in easy circulation is the full list of government rebels so here it is:

Conservatives – 33

Liberal Nationals – 4

National Labour – 2

(The numbers of rebels varies accross sources, mainly because many writers have repeated contemporary errors. But this is the full list of rebels.)

For those who want to read the whole debate this is now possible thanks to Hansard 1803-2005:

There was also a shorter, and far less well-known, debate in the House of Lords on the same subject on May 8 1940.


Anonymous said...

Believe that two more goverment supporters should be added to your list of MPs who voted NO:


Austin Hopkinson - Mossley
Daniel Leopold Lipson - Cheltenham

Which raises the total number of goverment supporters who voted No at conclusion of No = 41

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

Neither took the government whip at the time. Lipson never took it and Hopkinson had resigned it about 18 months earier.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this.

I would also be interested in a list of Government abstainers and a list of Government Noes and abstainers from the Munich division. Can you provide or direct to an on-line source?

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

It's very difficult to obtain a clear list of abstainers because no-one drew one up at the time. What is clear though is that there weren't that many - the total number of MPs is not that much lower than the record for the Parliament and the wartime situation would have depressed it further. A few have tried to draw up a partial list based on who was speaking & voting on nearby days but it's not very precise.

For Munich there is a conventional list of the MPs who publicly abstained by staying sitting in the Commons but I'm not sure if it's online somewhere. It's in the back of Alan Clark's history of the party as a starting point.

Anonymous said...


Your MP by 'Gracchus' [1944] lists how government MPs seeking re-election in 1945 voted on Munich and Norway and lists 23 for Munich and 13 for Norway, members of the house at the relevant time, who did not vote for whatever reason.

Anonymous said...

Which historians are most renowned for their expertise and analysis of the Norway Debate?


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