Chapter II: Two Weeks In Politics
The Christmas election campaign of 1935, called after Baldwin lost a motion of no confidence, was noticeable for two things; firstly the dominance of foreign affairs, not the economy, as the key issue for the electorate and secondly the emergence of one of British politics 'Big Beasts' from the political wilderness.
Stanley Baldwin, discredited both in the country and in his own party, stood down as party leader after setting the date for the election and then announced his retirement from politics. With little time to decide the grandees of the Conservative party hurriedly appointed Neville Chamberlain, generally considered Baldwin's political heir apparent, as the interim leader. Despite the change of leadership the party still expected to pay a heavy electoral price for Baldwin's failings and early polling indicated they were indeed heading for a crushing defeat.
Neville Chamberlain, handed the poisoned chalice of Conservative leader after Baldwin's retirement from politics.
It was only days after the election date had been announced that overseas issues began to dominate ahead of the economy. The trend started with the Daily Telegraph thunderous accusation that the mustard gas used in Abyssinia had been shipped through the Suez Canal with no effort made by the government to check the shipments, even after the horrors of Abyssinia were known. It also described the actions of the National government as 'Craven and cowardly, claiming neutrality and non-interference while actually plotting the betrayal of Abyssinian and British honour.' The trend was soon picked up by other papers, the day after the Daily Express ran as it's headline "Decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute" above a picture of the outgoing national government. The lead editorial was a damning indictment of the policy of 'appeasement' and a demand for strong leadership to face the threats in Europe and abroad. Within days even The Times, which had been a bastion for the policy of appeasement, was drawn into calling for strong leadership and a program of 'limited' rearmament.
Lord Beaverbrook, his papers expressed and shaped the new mood of the nation.
The change in the political landscape of the country was best summed up the young Conservative member for Stockton-on-Tees. During an interview with the Yorkshire Post about the key issues of the campaign his assessment "The wind of change is blowing through this country. Whether we like it or not, the end of appeasement and rearmament are political facts." was leaped on by commentators and the interview syndicated across the country. Indeed the December 1935 election is still referred to by some as "The winds of change election" marking, as it did, a seismic shift in the political landscape of the country. It also launched the originator of the phrase, Harold Macmillan, onto the national stage.
Of the three main parties the National Liberals were best positioned to adapt to the new mood of the nations. Although part of the National Government the action of their leader, Sir John Simon, in withdrawing from the negotiations for the aborted Anglo-German Naval Agreement was used to show their non-appeasement credentials.
The Labour party, while seemingly well placed to capitalise on the failings of the National Government carried a massive liability. It's name was George Lansbury and the problem was his widely known pro-appeasement anti-rearmament views. In particular the line from his speech during the 1933 East Fulham by-election "I would close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world ‘do your worst’." was quoted by every paper and rival party at any opportunity. He had only narrowly survived as leader at the 1935 Labour conference, staying power at the behest of a cabal of Labour MPs fearful of who might be elected by the membership, and the powerful union block votes, in his place. However with an election on the damage of changing leader was judged greater than the liability of Lansbury’s views.
George Landsbury, pacifist, appeaser and electoral liability.
The problems of the other parties however paled to insignificance compared to the problem the Conservative party leadership was facing. All the leading ministerial talents of the party were tainted with the actions of the national government and none of the backbenchers were well known enough, or talented enough, to lead the party to victory. All except one. A man who had been pushing for re-armament for years, who had warned against appeasing dictators and who was currently touring the country gaining support for his views. If the party wished to avoid a virtual wipe-out at the polls this man was their only hope.
Thus on December 12th, barely two weeks before the election, the interim leader Neville Chamberlain, widely regarded as one of the party’s greatest liabilities due to his close personal association with appeasement, was replaced as Conservative leader by the member for Epping. The Right Honourable Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.
Winston Churchill, the man the Conservative party pinned it's hopes on.
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