Epitaph for a Liar

Michael Foot's influential distortion of British history left Goebbels for dead.

By 3.8.10

British Labour politician Michael Foot, who has died aged 96, deserves a place in history, apart from bringing the Labour Party to disaster when leader: he was not only the biggest liar since Goebbels, but a good deal more effective.

He was the principal author, under the pen-name "Cato," of the World War II book Guilty Men, which created the enduring myth that the British Tories had been solely responsible for Britain blundering into the War disarmed, and the ill-equipped British Army being driven into the sea at Dunkirk.

There is no doubt Guilty Men is a brilliant piece of writing: fast-paced, taut and vivid with a sense of impending doom, its recounting of British politics in the 1930s captured perfectly Churchill's quote: "Death is in charge of the clattering train."

The first edition was published shortly after Dunkirk. The first chapter "the doomed army," a vivid picture of the Dunkirk beaches, describes British soldiers with Bren-guns fighting hopelessly against Panzers and Stukas: "flesh against steel …. this is the story of an army doomed before it took the field." The Home Secretary, by coincidence also a Labour politician, made apparently unlimited amounts of paper available for its printing in the middle of the war, despite paper being severely rationed, and it went through edition after edition. There is no doubt that it played a major part in the Conservative defeat of 1945 and the subsequent installation of a socialist Labour government with all the disasters that followed. Few if any other books can claim such influence. Cleverly, while damning the old guard of pre-war Tories, it praised Churchill, thus ensuring at least some acceptance in patriotic Conservative circles.

Like all the best liars, Foot based his work on a half-truth. Apart from the fact that appeasement of a man like Hitler, bent on war more-or-less for its own sake, would never work, it is true that is many ways Britain's pre-war rearmament was grossly inadequate. As George Orwell put it: "[In] 1940 we nearly perished for lack of a large, efficient army, which we could only have had if we had introduced conscription at least three years earlier." (Whether Britain could have afforded more rearmament is another matter.)

But Orwell prefaced this with another point: "As late as 1939, the Labour Party voted against conscription, a step which probably played its part in bringing about the Russo-German pact and certainly had a disastrous effect on morale in France."

What Foot was at great pains not to mention, and which no one reading his book could possibly have guessed from it, was that, inadequate as the Conservatives' rearmament was during the 1930s, the rearmament that was achieved was undertaken in the face of opposition from the Labour Party virtually every step of the way. Labour voted against every estimate for land, sea and air until 1937, when it became patriotic enough to actually abstain. On 11 March, 1936, British Labour leader Clement Attlee protested in Parliament against a modest increase in rearmament and advocated "disbanding the national armies." Hitler introduced conscription for Nazi Germany five days later, contrary to the Versailles Treaty and ten days later told the British Foreign Secretary that Germany, which was supposed never again to have an Air Force, had reached parity with Britain in air power. In the same year Germany launched its third new pocket-batttleship -- ships in breach of the Versailles Treaty and specialized for commerce-raiding, whose only real target could be Britain's maritime trade.

Labour continually attacked the Conservative Governments of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain not for appeasement but for war-mongering and for spending too much on rearmament. Various Labour leaders, including Attlee, at various times wanted the British armed forces disbanded or placed under League of Nations control. In June, 1933, at the East Fulham by-election, Labour Leader George Lansbury sent a message to the candidate: "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!'" Attlee, his successor, told the House of Commons on 21 December, 1933: "we are unalterably opposed to anything in the nature of re-armament."

Shortly after the Nazi re-occupation and remilitarization of the Rhineland, the first, and crucial, major test of the Western democracies' resolution, Labour front-bencher Sir Staffod Cripps proclaimed: "Every possible effort should be made to stop recruiting for the armed services." A Labour MP, Geoffrey Mander, claimed, in what was with perhaps unconscious irony titled a "Victory Book," We Were Not All Wrong (Victor Gollancz, London, 1941):

[O]n 8 March, 1934, we find Mr. Attlee saying: "Is what is meant an air defence for this country against some possible attack, or is it meant as a contribution to collective security under the League of Nations? We believe it is not too late for the Government in their policy to say that the Air Force which we have is our contribution to the force that shall support the rule of law in the world."

The same clear realistic view of defence [sic. This is not intended ironically or sarcastically] is once more spelt out by Mr. Attlee on 13 July, 1934: "We have stated quite clearly our position, which is that we do not believe in individual defence. We believe only in collective defence, and for the use of armed forces by the League for League purposes and for peace."

As late as 26-27 April, 1939, when Hitler had swallowed the post-Munich remnant of Czechoslovakia and was plainly bent on a general war, Attlee and the Labour Party attacked plans for the emergency and temporary introduction of conscription, Attlee claiming in Parliament it was "further evidence that the Government's conduct of affairs throughout these critical times does nor merit the confidence of this House."

The French socialist leader Leon Blum, writing in Le Populaire of 28 April, 1939, said he was shocked at the contradiction between British Labour's verbal anti-Fascism and its continued opposition to conscription, which it maintained up to the outbreak of war. Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs of World War II on the impression which the lack of a sizeable British Army made on the Soviet Union at the crucial time leading up to the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939, which removed the last Nazi inhibitions against war, as told to him later by Stalin himself:

At the Kremlin in August 1942 Stalin, in the early hours of the morning, gave me one aspect of the Soviet position. "We formed the impression," said Stalin, "that the British and French Governments were not resolved to go to war if Poland were attacked, but that they hoped the diplomatic line-up of Britain, France and Russia would deter Hitler. We were sure it would not." [Stalin said he had asked a British diplomat before the war,] "How many divisions will France send against Germany on mobilisation?" The answer was, "About a hundred." He then asked, "How many will England send?" The answer was, "Two, and two more later." "Ah, two, and two more later," Stalin had repeated. "Do you know," he had asked, "how many divisions we shall have to put on the Russian front if we go to war with Germany." There was a pause. "More than three hundred." I was not told with whom this conversation took place or its date. It must be recognised that this was solid ground…"

Even during the Battle of Britain trade unions affiliated with the Labour Party were striking at aircraft factories. On 21 May, 1940 the labor force at the Blantyre Colliery near Glasgow stopped work over a disagreement between machine-men as to which employee should take over the cutting work of a section. A few days later there was a strike at the Roe (later Avro) aircraft works at Manchester over the dismissal of an employee who had falsified the record of his arrival times. From 6 to 24 August, 1940, during the Battle of Britain, the De Havilland aircraft factory at Edgeware lost 4,426 working days from a strike because of the transfer of four capstan-fitters from the firm to other work of national importance. There were, according to historian Andrew Roberts, who wrote drawing on official sources, "myriad" strikes at Scottish mines over trivial matters, and strikes in the same year in ship-building yards at Hartlepool, Plymouth and South Shields. There was no hint of any of this in Foot's book.

A particular target for Foot's sneers was Sir Thomas Inskip, the Conservatives' Minister for Defence Co-ordination. Actually it was Inskip, a lawyer and former intelligence officer, who as much as almost anyone saved Britain, ensuring the Air Force received a large share of what defense money was available for modern fighters like the Spitfire and Hurricane and chains of radar warning stations. These did not appear by magic at the Battle of Britain in 1940 -- they were the result of pre-war planning and the right allocation of priorities.

Foot in the same book also sneered at the Polish Army -- "that vast herd of horses" -- for cowardice, only good for fleeing, a charge which at least had the merit of originality. The Russian invasion of Poland in 1939 was not so much as mentioned.

Foot's later career, including an inglorious spell as leader of the Labour Party (Margaret Thatcher wiped the floor with him) was not marked by any great achievement. He had done his great work in 1940.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.