The birth of Federal Union


Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler at Munich, September 1938 (source Bundesarchiv)

By Charles Kimber

Federal Union was born in September 1938 at the time of ‘Munich’; by anger out of desperation.

‘Munich’ finally forced everyone to declare themselves. One side saw Chamberlain’s journeys and signature as a brave action, vindicating his policy of appeasement. We and our children should be eternally grateful; war had been averted. The other side saw it as a shameful surrender in a long line of surrenders. Antagonisms became passionate: long-time friends stopped speaking to each other, families became divided. And Hitler ranted on regardless.

Chamberlain’s policy of ‘appeasement’ was the product of a government dominated by a generation of men who had been too old to fight in 1914. They had thought to restore their own pre war Victorian values; the right to separate nationhood, and of each nation to decide its own foreign policy backed by its own armed forces to defend that independence. The individual sovereignty of each nation was held to be sacrosanct; it was the duty of its young male citizens to die for it if necessary. Any difference of interest between nations would be solved reasonably by diplomats from the parties involved.

The sons of that older generation had fought in the trenches. But those who had survived did not take over. They retired into themselves and the nightmares of what their forbears had called on them to do; and what they had seen and done. It was a generation which took little part in government, leaving it to the old men, now joined by the ‘profiteers who had done well out of the war’, to carry on. Those of them who did take part in government such as Eden and Macmillan, dismissed by Neville Chamberlain as the ‘Boys Brigade’, had been brought up in their fathers’ values. They could differ with their elders but could not find it in themselves to break with them. They could approve the idea of a League of Nations bound by a communal alliance, but not at the expense of diplomacy between individual states and the creation of alliances and counter alliances; these remained the order of the day. The umbilical cord proved too strong and proved lethal. The idea that the League of Nations should be a body, which could override one to one diplomacy between nations, and take action in its own name on behalf of them all, in the way that the Covenant of the newly created League seemed to make possible, was no part of their thinking. The League, in fact, had neither authority nor power to do so. Its constitution laid down that each member remained free to conduct its own diplomacy, backed if necessary by its own forces. It was an escape hatch for those who wanted to renege on collective action.

That generation was followed by one which had been too young to fight in 1914; but was just the right age to be called on now in 1939.

It was a generation which had been brought up with the writings of Norman Angell, H G Wells and Bertrand Russell and many others, together with a host of journals, as well as talk in the many branches of the League of Nations Union up and down the country. All identified ‘national sovereignty’ as the menace and the root from which wars developed. It had been brought up to regard ‘collective security’ under the Covenant of the League of Nations as a pledge that their fathers had not sacrificed their lives in vain; ‘Covenant’, with it’s biblical connotation, was an appropriate word. Though of age to fight it was a generation which was not experienced enough to take part in government – even Eden and Macmillan from the previous generation, were treated as no more than promising apprentices to be ignored or sidelined by their elders. The old men in control, however, found ‘collective security’ a useful vote winner; but privately held the idea in contempt. The young were naive enough to believe that they meant what they said.

The moment of truth came in 1935 when Mussolini began threatening to invade Abyssinia. In June eleven million people in Britain voted for sanctions against Italy if Mussolini carried out his threats – nine million of them for military sanctions. “Terribly mischievous” according to 66 year old Neville Chamberlain, already prime minister in waiting.

A paraphrase of Harold Macmillan’s account (Wind of Change) of what followed may be cited. On 11 September the British foreign secretary, Samuel Hoare made what he described as ‘a revivalist appeal to the Assembly of The League. At best, he said, it might start a new chapter of League recovery. The speech, however, had been minutely vetted by the Foreign Office and Neville Chamberlain. Nevertheless Hoare boldly proclaimed: “The League stands, and my country stands with it, for the collective maintenance of the Covenant in its entirety ….If the burden is to be borne, it must be borne collectively. On behalf of His Majesty’s government, I can say that in spite of these difficulties, that Government will be second to none in its intention to fulfil, within the measure of its capacity, the obligations which the Covenant lays upon it”. The following day two battle cruisers and a cruiser squadron arrived in Gibraltar, supporting his words.

The effect throughout the world, Macmillan recorded, was sensational. Belgium’s representative at the League, for example, reported: “the British have decided to stop Mussolini, even if it means using force”. In Britain, Macmillan wrote, the ‘response was immediate and impressive; the sense of national unity and pride was aroused’; ‘Once more we were going to take our right place in the world. America was neutral, Germany hostile; the democratic nations now looked to us, and we would not fail them. Britain was back in the lead’.

Mussolini called the old men’s bluff; went ahead and invaded Abyssinia. There was then a pause while Baldwin called a general election; it had the effect of giving the old men a breathing space to recover from their shock. Baldwin fought the election on a policy which included support for the League and of rearmament as support for collective security. In the meantime the diplomats and Neville Chamberlain among others, quietly got to work to undo the damage which, in their eyes, Hoare’s speech had done.

Having won the election on a policy of support for the League, however, the government, as Macmillan wrote, were in ‘honour bound, in spite of a sentence here or there of reservation, to stop Mussolini. When the House of Commons met in November, no one – inside or outside Parliament – doubted that this was their firm purpose’. The Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office thought otherwise. Within a fortnight the British Foreign Secretary, Samuel Hoare, stopped off in Paris on way to a holiday in Switzerland; the head of the Foreign Office just happened to be in Paris too; and the deal with Pierre Laval leaving Mussolini free to occupy almost all of Abyssinia, was agreed and signed without any consultation with London. Abyssinia was left with what the Times famously described as “a corridor for camels”, to reach the sea.

In his biography of Neville Chamberlain, written some quarter of a century later, Iain Macleod judged correctly. “Historically”, he wrote, “the Abyssinia crisis has often been presented as a side-show compared with the main drama of Germany’s advance to world conquest. In fact it was the turning point of the thirties. Hitler was not slow to act upon this evidence of our weakness”. Within a couple of months his troops occupied the Rhineland in violation of Versailles. Like Mussolini in Abyssinia, he was unopposed.

Hoare’s squalid betrayal of Abyssinia finally killed off the League of Nations; it had been shown to be terminally impotent without leadership. Britain had had its chance to take the lead and had funked it. Hoare and his elderly associates had successfully put an end to any future action in the name of the League. The deception that ‘collective security’ could be relied on to work, and the treachery which had ensured that it didn’t, had been uncovered. The memorial to the millions who had died in the 1914 war had been demolished without shame. The old men were seriously taken aback by the public reaction and discussed desperately where to lay the blame; finally they had to sacrifice Hoare and let Eden take his place.

But as 1936 went on all attention became concentrated on the gathering pace of events – the Rhineland occupation, Hitler’s and Mussolini’s participation in the Spanish Civil War on the side of a fellow dictator, and Britain’s non intervention, then the murder of Dollfuss and the occupation of Austria. Many of the young had already taken sides and had been so outraged that they had gone to Spain to fight against the dictators. But in general public opinion only began to feel the stirrings of fear; while remaining incredulous. Few were ready to think the unthinkable: that the dictators might have ideas beyond putting right what many felt had been wrong with the Peace Treaty of 1919. However useful they might be as a ‘bulwark against Communism’, the dictators might after all, be mad enough to be heading for a repeat of past horrors: a revenge war which would reassert their national pride. A divide in public opinion was beginning to open which would become a chasm at Munich. In the following year Neville Chamberlain, now Prime Minister, effectively took charge of relations with the Dictators, acting behind Eden’s back; and the divide inevitably widened.

It was against this background, not surprisingly since it was all their futures which were at stake, that very many of the young were debating among themselves the reasons for the failure of the League of Nations in which they had been encouraged by their elders to invest so much confidence. In 1935 two young men who had attended the same school and left Oxford only two years previously found themselves working for the same boss, One, Derek Rawnsley, soon left in order to start two businesses of his own; both to do with pictures. The other, Charles Kimber, stayed on in the press and political division of oil companies, aiming for a career in politics. They took to lunching together more or less weekly and were often joined by others. Inevitably the same question arose and a general agreement emerged that heads of states, each acting in the name of his state (echoes of l’etat c’est moi) could not be trusted to act collectively. The League itself should have had power to act; that to do so it needed forces under its own command; and should have consisted of elected members to authorise their use, rather than party political heads of state, each claiming to represent even those in opposition to him.

Munich was more than Rawnsley could stomach. He rang Kimber and said “Charles, we must do something. If you leave old Mudlitup, ( our nickname for our boss) you can have a room in my office in Gordon Square and we’ll start an organisation”. Kimber feeling no less strongly, at once resigned his job and transferred to Rawnsley’s offices at 44 Gordon Square. There, he set about writing a pamphlet which was to set out what the organisation should stand for. As he did so, the two were introduced to Patrick Ransome, a freelance journalist with a first class degree in international law. He told them that what they were proposing was a federation; and offered to come in with them.

The pamphlet was agreed between the three and duplicated. All three then sent copies to any of their friends who might be interested and an enthusiastic meeting of some sixty or seventy people endorsed what had been written. What is more they put up money to have it printed and distributed, Kimber then selected some 400 names from Who’s Who who had shown interest in international affairs, and posted the pamphlet under the title ‘Federal Union’ with a covering handwritten letter to each..

The response was astonishing; and he and Ransome (Rawnsley being preoccupied with his businesses) were kept busy interviewing those who had replied. Among them were some who offered personal help; and a meeting with those of them who had, was arranged. A ‘Panel of Advisers’ was recruited consisting of Lord Lothian, member of Milner’s “Kindergarten” in South Africa’s reconstruction after the Boer war and Lloyd George’s personal secretary at the Versailles Peace Conference; Lionel Curtis, also one of Lord Milner’s young men and founder of Chatham House (the Royal institute of International Affairs); Professor Barbara Wootton, Head of Social Studies at London University; Wickham Steed, ex-editor of the Times, and Kingsley Martin, current editor of the New Statesman, then a required weekly read for those politically involved.

They suggested a short ‘Statement of Beliefs’ which each of them undertook to circulate among the great and the good of their acquaintance for their signature. Any who signed it were expressing support for a supra national rather than an international body; but not as members of Federal Union, though their signatures could be used in propaganda for the organisation. The wording of the statement followed closely the wording of the official objects of the organisation. The list of well known public figures who had signed, when it appeared, was impressive. It was published as a leaflet, copies of which, it is believed, are to be found in the Federal Union archives at the LSE, together with much else.

In the meantime Gordon Square had been planting letters in the press, both national and local, and what started as a trickle soon developed into a flood of letters in response. A large proportion said that ‘this was just what they had been thinking’. A very substantial number enclosed money. In reply they were advised to do what the founders had done: arrange a meeting of likeminded friends and form a branch. Federal Union was on its way. First just one secretary, then a small staff supported by many young people who volunteered their help for free. A constitution was then agreed at a meeting of representatives of branches, providing for an elected General council and an Executive Committee.

It seems uncertain how many joined as paid up members. 14,000 is one figure, 60,000 another. There seems to be general agreement, however, that there were over 200 branches up and down the country. What is certain is that within eighteen months of posting that original pamphlet, Federal Union had become so well-known and had aroused so much interest, that a meeting in the old Queens Hall, home of Sir Henry Wood’s Promenade concerts (soon to be bombed out of existence) filled all its two to three thousand seats.

In the year before Hitler finally went to war, and during most of the following year while he was concentrating elsewhere, Britain ‘enjoyed’ the ‘phoney war’. Lord Lothian wrote a pamphlet ‘The Ending of Armageddon’ and gave it to Federal Union for distribution to its members. More and more branches were formed as membership and money from them increased. Federal Union never had one substantial backer. Other organisations were created, notably Sir Richard Acland’s New Commonwealth, backed by Edward Hulton’s Picture Post, and supportive of Federal Union. But as the months passed the call up began to bite; more and more members got called up for military service, membership – and contributions – began to fall.

On the outbreak of war, Sir William Beveridge fulfilled an undertaking that he had given Rawnsley who had been a student at University College while Beveridge was Master. Beveridge created a Federal Union Research Institute, with Ransome as secretary by recruiting a number of leading figures in their fields. He formed them into groups to discuss the effects of a European federation on their various fields and to get one from each group to write up its conclusions. Federal Union published the results in a series of ‘Federal Tracts’. Professors Lionel Robbins, Ivor Jennings, Barbara Wootton, Dr C E M Joad and Lord Lugard were among the authors.

The Institute survived the war and became the Federal Trust. The branches and the organisation as it had originated did not. When the bombs began to fall, Federal Union in that form, like all other voluntary organisations made up of local branches, was among the casualties. Rawnsley had been called up and was killed (accidentally); and Kimber resigned. R W G Mackay, later an MP, took over, but died prematurely. The post war Federal Union which John Pinder joined 51 years ago, inevitably, was a very different animal from the pre-war Federal Union, founded over sixty years ago, though it shares the name.

What, if anything, had Federal Union achieved? The great and the good may have been ready to sign that pre-war Statement of Beliefs without committing themselves to joining the organisation. It was an important contribution. But it would not have been noticed if Federal Union had not been there to initiate and publicise it. Federal Union had made enough noise to be able to claim, with some justification, to have brought the offer of union with France within the ‘art of the possible’, (at least at that desperate moment). But it also can claim to have put federation at the top of the agenda of such public discussion of ‘war aims’ as Churchill’s insistence on ‘unconditional surrender’ allowed.

“Europe must federate or perish”, said Clem Attlee in 1938. With opinion in Britain now divided across party lines, party loyalties seem too strong to allow those who want a genuine union to get together. Unless they do, Attlee will be proved right and Europe will remain a gaggle of little self-centred states, each exercising its precious ‘national sovereignty’ by deciding to surrender to the bribery, bullying, or flattery of an overwhelmingly powerful American Empire.

This article was contributed by Sir Charles Kimber, one of the original founders of Federal Union. The article expresses the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. First edition, November 2004.