Tuesday 12 July 2016

When Britain rejects 'sensible' advice and goes it alone

The Daily Express journalist Sefton Delmer arrived at Broadcasting House on the warm summer evening of 19 July 1940, to find the building camouflaged to avoid it being visible to German bombers during the Blitz.

He was in some excitement, having prepared the bones of his first broadcast in German – but also aware that Hitler was giving a speech in the Reichstag that evening that he would have to reply to. At 6pm, the BBC European Service staff gathered around the wireless to listen to it.

“It almost causes me pain,” said Hitler from the platform, “to think that I should have been selected by Providence to deal the final blow to the edifice which these men had already set tottering... Mr Churchill ought for once to believe me, when I prophesy that a great empire will be destroyed which it was never my intention to destroy or even to harm... In this hour, I feel it my duty before my conscience to appeal once more to reason and common sense in Britain ... I can see no reason why this war must go on.”

Hitler sat down to tumultuous applause. Delmer’s broadcast was due to go out in less than an hour. What they needed to do was to turn down the peace offer in such a way that their words could not be misunderstood. A simple no thank you wasn’t really enough.

Delmer drafted a reply that, after an initial pretence of deference to the German leader, built up to a crescendo of rudeness. “Herr Hitler, you have on occasion in the past consulted me as to the mood of the British public,” he wrote. “So permit me to render your Excellency this little service once again tonight. Let me tell you what we here in Britain think of this appeal of yours to what you are pleased to call our reason and common sense. Herr Hitler and Reichkanzler, we hurl it right back at you, right in your evil smelling teeth.”

Noel Newsome, the BBC’s European editor, read through the script and agreed. This was one of those occasions when it would only complicate matters to ask for permission. So it was just after 7.30pm, an hour later in Berlin, when Delmer went ahead and rejected Hitler’s peace offer without reference to higher authority.

In Berlin, the Rundfunk studios in Charlottenburg were crowded with officials and junior officers from the Nazi high command, listening to any clues from London about how the peace offer had been received.

Standing at the back, CBS correspondent William Shirer saw their faces fall when they heard the words. One of them turned to him as the closest to a representative of the British government that there was in the room. “Can you make it out?” he shouted. “Can you understand these British fools? To turn down peace now? They’re crazy!”

The atmosphere in the Foreign Office in London was similar. Many of the officials there strongly believed that Britain could not win the war, and that the peace offer should have been accepted at this late stage. Neither did most of the British establishment (I continue the story of the radio war in my book V for Victory). 

Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, had led a concerted attempt to organised a negotiated peace, following the fall of France. It seemed the sensible thing to do.

I tell this story because I have been predicting some kind of Brexit – though not this time, I admit – followed by a systematic attempt to privatise the social and public service system. Because that is what happened when Henry VIII cut his ties with supranational authority in Europe and dissolved the monasteries to gain the resources to do so.

I still think that is comparable, partly because it emphasises the other parallels between Brussels and Rome, Juncker and the Pope. Both play similar roles in the English psyche though the centuries.

In that respect, the riot at the ballot box by the sidelined has another parallel with the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, when the mad aristocrat Lord George Gordon – the Johnson of his day – led the rioters in a destructive rampage through the streets of London. You can get the flavour in Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge, and it isn’t flattering to the Leave camp.

But I told the story of Sefton Delmer’s final blow to Hitler’s peace effort because of a fascinating blog by the environmentalist Tom Burke, which opened my eyes to a much more recent historical parallel – that of 1940.

Things happened perhaps the other way around. There is little by way of parallels with the Nazis. But there are so many moments in English history when the nation rejects the sensible advice, and breaks their ties with apparently settled continental authority – and the last time was in 1940.

I already blogged elsewhere about the reaction of the British to losing their French allies at the same time (they were relieved).

But what happened then, and now, left the machinery of government with a problem. There was no plan and little idea what to do. It had to be cobbled together. For a while, those innovative people who could make things happen emerged in government, because they had to. Then and now, the decision left the nation in some peril – and especially for those who profited most from the status quo.

I write about this also because I’m fascinated by those political and economic watersheds. They have happened in our history every 35-40 years. Last time, it was 1979, and before that 1940 – and all the old certainties were turned upside down.

But, and here’s the point. We said goodbye to Europe in 1940 only to remake it around us again, broadcasting so effectively across the continent that 15 million Germans a day risked their lives to listen to London radio (see V for Victory again).

I have been wondering whether the same may happen again. That the European institutions are so intransigent when it comes to negotiating the terms of Brexit that we end up creating a parallel, but more flexible, community of nations around us.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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William Hobhouse said...

Not sure that advice from Hitler can be said to be sensible. And to compare Hitler's European vision to the current EU vision - if only by association - cannot be right.
Can you provide a more compelling modern example of how Britain has gone it alone in Europe and succeeded? Maybe the Iraq war? Or not being part of Schengen?

Oh, la, la said...

The Iraq war is success story for Britain?

David Boyle said...

I'm not of course trying to compare the EU with Hitler's occupation, or with Napoleon's domination of Europe, which might be another example. But I am saying that the situation in 1940 is not entirely different, when the establishment tended to feel it would be sensible to accept the situation in Europe as settled and to make peace - and when rejecting their advice meant a scramble for some new policy.

Oh, la, la said...

Brexit should be interesting.
Feels more like 1956 than 1940.

Barney said...

As a side issue, Hitler's greatest "crime" in the eyes of the world was in attempting to disempower the international bankers. Had he not done this, there probably wouldn't have been a second world war.

We forget, Poland was attacked from both sides, by Germany and by Russia, but the latter is seldom spoken about.