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  • The King and Country Debate: Oxford 1933 December 2, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    king and country

    It is remembered as ‘the King and Country Debate’, the most famous student debate in history. 9 February 1933 Oxford Union (the students of Oxford University in contentious mode) undertook to discuss the proposal ‘that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’. The expectations were that the proposal would be brushed away but in a surprise result the Union voted 275 to 153 for the motion. If this was all then we would have a small and frankly boring footnote in the history of Britain’s second university. (Beach was educated in a better place to the east). However, two far more significant events followed on from this vote. First, Britain’s Conservatives reacted furiously to the result: letters and articles appeared in the right’s newspapers including the memorable headline ‘Disloyalty at Oxford: Gesture towards the Reds’ in The Telegraph. Second, and more significantly, the news, produced by British Conservatives (rather than by the Union), was published abroad in the New and the Old World. Germans, Americans, Chileans and many others marvelled at this proof of British decline and spinelessness: a bit of private British navel-gazing had turned into a public relations disaster. In the 1930s, with the likes of Hitler and Mussolini on the Continent, it was not, of course, advantageous to have neighbours who believed that your young would not be prepared to fight for their country.

    The first point to make is that the results of the debate was taken badly out of context, particularly when it started appearing in foreign newspapers. The Oxford Union was a nursery for Britain’s establishment. Its members debated points with the hope that they would soon be debating dreadnought expenses in the Commons or Lords. However, 9 February was not the real thing. Members might sometimes vote on the basis of the best performance rather than the best argument. On that fateful night the pro side had a particularly able outside speaker C.E.M. Joad, a leftist pacifist, ‘an English philosopher and popular educator’ (reach for your guns) with dubious morals, but a man who was unquestionably a brilliant orator. It was often said, in future years, that the debate had not been a pacifist vs patriotic but rather moderate vs militaristic. This is demonstrably wrong. Joad, after describing the death of a friend in the First World War, went on to describe how any future invaders should be greeted not by guns but by Gandhi style passive resistance. Try that with the SS, old chap…

    The second point to make is that whatever the context of the debate the result did matter. Martin Ceadel in a (very good) article from 1979 in the Historical Journal stated that the debate was an irritation for the British right, and there was lots of rather silly chest-hair ripping from the country’s Colonel Blimps, including an attempt by the insufferable Randolph Churchill (younger) to expunge the debate from the Union’s records. But, Ceadel went on, much more suspectly, to argue that the debate was not a huge issue abroad. Ceadel, certainly, demonstrates that the only evidence that we have for Hitler’s interest in the Oxford vote came from Churchill and a fake letter sent to The Times in 1965 from a man who had allegedly served in German’s High Command. However, there is firmer evidence of Mussolini’s interest: it was the kind of event that would satisfy the Duce’s prejudices. More strikingly there is lots of evidence from the streets of future friend and enemy states. Consider Patrick Leigh Fermor, a far more reliable narrator than Churchill, in his wonderful Time of Gifts (1977). PLF was, in 1934, just 18 and was walking across Europe. What’s fascinating is that the debate, which had been a small point in the German newspapers, continued to echo a year later.

    In all these conversations there was one opening I particularly dreaded: I was English? Yes. A student? Yes. At Oxford, no? No. At this point I knew what I was in for. The summer [sic] before, the Oxford Union had voted that ‘under no circumstances would they fight for King and Country.’ The stir it had made in England was nothing, I gathered, to the sensation in Germany. I didn’t know much about it. In my explanation—for I was always pressed for one—I depicted the whole thing as merely another act of defiance against the older generation. The very phrasing of the motion—‘fight for King and Country’—was an obsolete cliché from an old recruiting poster: no one, not even the fiercest patriot, would use it now to describe a deeply-felt sentiment. My interlocutors asked: ‘Why not?’ ‘Für König und Vaterland’ sounded different in German ears: it was a bugle-call that had lost none of its resonance. What exactly did I mean? The motion was probably ‘pour épater les bourgeois,’ I floundered. Here someone speaking a little French would try to help. ‘Um die Bürger zu erstaunen? Ach, so!’ A pause would follow. ‘A kind of joke, really,’ I went on. ‘Ein Scherz?’ they would ask. ‘Ein Spass? Ein Witz?’ I was surrounded by glaring eyeballs and teeth. Someone would shrug and let out a staccato laugh like three notches on a watchman’s rattle. I could detect a kindling glint of scornful pity and triumph in the surrounding eyes which declared quite plainly their certainty that, were I right, England was too far gone in degeneracy and frivolity to present a problem. But the distress I could detect on the face of a silent opponent of the régime was still harder to bear: it hinted that the will or the capacity to save civilization was lacking where it might have been hoped for.

    In 1934 the Liberal MP Robert Bernays described how a Nazi youth leader had asked him about the debate:

    There was an ugly gleam in his eye when he said ‘The fact is that you English are soft’.

    Compare this now with Lord Mottistone who in 1944 claimed, in the Lords:

    no one who was in Malta or in the Middle East will deny… that the young men at Oxford who passed that resolution very nearly decreed the downfall of Britain and her Empire.

    A young Jack Kennedy, in 1933, took the result as proof that Britain had become decadent: remember that Kennedy’s father, Joseph became in 1938, the most hostile American ambassador to Britain. It should be noted that frequently in American publications (even in academic publications) the vote of 1933 is described as an ‘oath’ not to fight for king and country, a nasty and probably unconscious distortion of what those young men in Oxford were talking about in a dull night in early February 1933.

    Other echoes of the vote: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    What lessons can be drawn from this peculiar episode? Perhaps the main one is that Britain is a difficult country to understand for non Britons,* a point that Churchill himself made frequently and well in his writings and that secondly Britons would do well to remember this when the world is or could be watching. Churchill was, incidentally, scathing of those Oxford students who had voted for peace calling them ‘foolish boys’. But in his beau geste universe he offered redemption: ‘Little did [they] dream that they were destined quite soon to conquer or fall gloriously in the ensuing war, and prove themselves the finest generation ever bred in Britain.’ This begs other questions. Were the Britons of Gold and Sword and of the Dunkirk perimeter really the equal of their fathers and grandfathers who had fought at the Somme and Ypres and had finally broken the back of the Kaiser’s army in 1918?  Also, it is surely worth making the point that in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, far fewer people killed and were killed fighting for ‘King and Country’ than for ‘liberté, égaliteé, fraternité’ and their ghastly bastard children from Mussolini’s faux-Roman Rome, to the citadels of Nazism, to Stalin’s torture chambers.

    *something true of course of most countries

    15 Sep 2016: Bruce T ‘A note, at the time this happened two great media inventions had just popped onto the scene, talking motion pictures and more importantly radio broadcasts. Your average continental, who likely used newspaper for wrapping parcels and fish, would have heard about the debates through broadcasts and talking films. You no longer had to be fairly literate to consume the news. The day of the mass media was upon us, a fact that the people around both Hitler and Mussolini understood well, but apparently hadn’t reached the debating societies of Oxford.’