May 2006 Journal

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A tale of two secretaries

The death of John Profumo, who had to resign as Secretary of State for War in 1963 after lying to the House of Commons about his affair with the call-girl Christine Keeler, reminds us of more than the most spectacular sex-and-politics scandal in modern Britain. Another Secretary of State for War who was forced to resign under unusual circumstances was Leslie Hore-Belisha, minister in Neville Chamberlain's government until his abrupt dismissal in January 1940.

Hore-Belisha was one of the few Jews to achieve high political office in Britain before 1945. Born in Plymouth in 1893, he was elected Liberal MP for Plymouth Devonport in 1923. A qualified barrister, he was a brilliant speaker and a flamboyant personality who stood on the right wing of the Liberal Party; he was among the National Liberals who supported Ramsay MacDonald's National Government in 1931, in coalition with the Conservatives and a rump of Labour right-wingers. He held junior office after the 1931 general election and chose to remain in the government when his fellow Liberals withdrew from it in 1932; for this he was promoted to Financial Secretary at the Treasury, then in 1934 to the post of Minister of Transport, where his drive and energy became apparent.

The measures he introduced, which included the driving test and a modernised Highway Code, shaped the emerging face of mass motoring in Britain. The Belisha Beacon, which flashed its warning light beside zebra crossings well into the post-war period, was named after him. In 1937 Chamberlain appointed him Secretary of State for War, a remarkable appointment as Hore-Belisha was a National Liberal, not a Conservative, and a Jew. He adopted a modernising agenda, improving conditions in the armed forces and not hesitating to take on the more hidebound elements in the military establishment.

This earned him enemies within the forces, while he also came under attack from antisemitic elements in the Conservative Party. One of his principal critics, Captain Archibald Ramsay MP, claimed that Hore-Belisha was leading Britain into a war with 'our blood-brothers of the Nordic race' in order to make way for a Bolshevised Europe - echoing Nazi fantasies of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy against Germany.

Undeterred, Hore-Belisha pressed for the introduction of conscription in 1938, in face of the threat from Nazi Germany, but Chamberlain, unwilling to increase defence expenditure, refused. Conscription was eventually introduced in early 1939.

When war broke out, Hore-Belisha's relations with Lord Gort, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France, rapidly deteriorated. Chamberlain decided to remove the war minister from his post in January 1940. The reasons behind this remain obscure. Certainly, antisemitic prejudice was at work. But if Chamberlain had been influenced by such views, he would never have appointed Hore-Belisha in the first place. It seems likely that Hore-Belisha's intense energy, love of publicity and independence of mind had lost him friends, and that, as a National Liberal, he lacked support in a Tory-dominated government. He was thus something of a political outsider, as well as racially suspect in some right-wing quarters. Chamberlain proposed moving him to the Ministry of Information, but the Foreign Office, apprehensive about foreign reactions to a Jew in such a position, objected.

Hore-Belisha's political career never recovered. He was prominent in the parliamentary opposition to Churchill, forming an unlikely alliance with Labour left-wingers Aneurin Bevan and Emanuel Shinwell as one of the principal figures behind the motion of no confidence in Churchill that was debated in July 1942, a low point in the war following the fall of Tobruk to Rommel's forces. Though it failed, it was the most serious parliamentary challenge to Churchill during the wartime period. In the Labour landslide of July 1945, Hore-Belisha lost his seat to Michael Foot. His attempts to secure re-election as a Tory failed. He was subsequently elevated to the peerage, and died in 1957, leaving the enigma of his resignation unresolved.
Anthony Grenville

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