The Corner

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The King’s Speech and History


Writing in Slate on The King’s Speech (which, full disclosure, I have yet to see), Christopher Hitchens takes issue with the way that the film appears to downplay the foolishness of Churchill’s support for Edward VIII:

In point of fact, Churchill was—for as long as he dared—a consistent friend of conceited, spoiled, Hitler-sympathizing Edward VIII. And he allowed his romantic attachment to this gargoyle to do great damage to the very dearly bought coalition of forces that was evolving to oppose Nazism and appeasement. Churchill probably has no more hagiographic chronicler than William Manchester, but if you look up the relevant pages of The Last Lion, you will find that the historian virtually gives up on his hero for an entire chapter. By dint of swallowing his differences with some senior left and liberal politicians, Churchill had helped build a lobby, with strong grass-roots support, against Neville Chamberlain’s collusion with European fascism. The group had the resonant name of Arms and the Covenant. Yet, as the crisis deepened in 1936, Churchill diverted himself from this essential work—to the horror of his colleagues—in order to involve himself in keeping a pro-Nazi playboy on the throne.

There’s a lot to that. Edward the Abdicator was a thoroughly noxious individual, and Churchill’s support of him was, to use too gentle an adjective, misguided. Nevertheless Mr. Hitchens is not giving the full story. When he writes about Neville Chamberlain’s “collusion” with European fascism, he manages not to mention the fact that at the time of the abdication crisis, Chamberlain (a) was not yet prime minister and (b) was actually an advocate of rearmament. Rearmament and appeasement were not inconsistent policies, as the disgrace of Munich was later to show, but that act of collusion (if that’s the word) was still some way in the future. By contrast, in the mid-1930s large sections of the Labour Party remained entranced by pacifism, an embrace of idiocy that reached some sort of nadir when the party’s former leader went off to reason with Hitler in 1937, an inconvenient history that the British left has consigned to the memory hole since 1940. It’s just so much easier to pin all the blame on those wicked Tories . . .