It is often tempting, when looking at the first half of the twentieth century, to assume the inevitability of the transition to democracy and, with that, the inevitability of the survival of a constitutional monarchy. If we were to accept that presumption, the abdication crisis becomes little more than a dramatic footnote. However, if we see democracy and constitutional monarchy as at least potentially more fragile, the abdication crisis might be seen as the last of three great crises that threatened it before birth, or in childhood. Moreover, in the first two (the House of Lords crisis of 1909-11 and the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14) the monarch played an important role in trying to stabilise the ship; in 1936, it was the king destabilising it. Furthermore, the abdication crisis took place in dangerous times: one in which a democracy was only newly established, in which for many on the right a dictatorship or a modernised royal autocracy looked preferable (Mussolini was admired by many, Hitler by some). In that was the case, we might also see the abdication crisis as one of Baldwin’s finest moments, in which an unreliable and potentially ‘fifth columnist’ king was forced out, the constitution preserved and the national unity with it. In recent years, Baldwin’s historical stock has risen. Whereas the most famous of all the ‘king’s men’, Churchill, might have thought it better had Baldwin never lived, Philip Williamson now sees Baldwin as the creator of the very national harmony that enabled Churchill to lead a united nation in the dark days of 1940. If we accept that view has at least some truth, then perhaps the abdication crisis matters more than we have often supposed. If that was so, then Baldwin’s role in 1936 matters all the more.
The First World War saw monarchies coming to often messy ends all across Europe. In that context, the British monarchy sought to both modernise itself and to engage with the people, just as democracy was newly established. In truth it had been doing just that before the war: Edward VII had, in contrast to Queen Victoria, been avowedly neutral in politics, whatever his own sentiments and George V followed that course, wisely. Twice, early in his reign, he had been embroiled in constitutional crises over the House of Lords and Home Rule; in 1917, he refused to accept the idea that Britain should welcome the deposed Tsar, for fear of the political waves that might cause. He also overcame his fear of the Labour party, and trade unions. When Ramsay MacDonald became prime minister in 1924, the king made a genuine effort to win Labour over: senior Labour party figures were even invited to royal weddings. Thus, perhaps unsurprisingly, the strongest criticisms of George V came from the right, not the left, from those who saw this engagement with Labour as pandering to socialism and the democracy some on the right despised. The historian, Sir Charles Petrie, praised Victor Emmanuel III of Italy for creating a Fascist government and bringing Italian democracy to a speedy death; by implication, why had our monarchy not followed suit? Some of Baldwin’s opponents openly looked to the restoration of monarchical rule as an alternative to the democracy they so despised, looking to a strong and interventionist king. By contrast, when the king did intervene decisively in politics, it was to persuade Baldwin of the virtues of a national government in 1931. George V may have been, in the words of Ross McKibbin, a ’punctilious mediocrity’, but he was a strictly constitutional one who played a significant role in bedding in Britain’s new democracy. As such, the principle of a strictly constitutional monarchy was part of the glue holding the new democracy together and to the ancient state it was wedded to; a threat to the one might be held to be a threat to the other. The crown had its place and its duty too.
George V was also king in the new age of mass communications: the monarchy had to be heard as well as seen. Thus, in 1932, the first Christmas broadcast was made (written by Kipling). George V, it turned out, did radio rather well.
The cinema newsreels were less friendly to him. But that didn’t matter: the Prince of Wales looked every inch the part. He was the twentieth century’s first royal star. His picture became a commonplace on boxes of chocolates or on mantelpieces; pubs, like the Prince of Wales on North Shields Fish Quay would be named after him in 1927, his image on the pub sign itself.
1n 1919, he embarked upon a smash hit tour of the empire. At home, not being king, he was used with an avowedly political purpose: to try and defuse the issue of unemployment, visiting coal miners and labour exchanges, reading from carefully prepared scripts. In doing so, he alienated some on the left: those scripts tended to emphasise charitable provision and voluntary work. On such tours he came to realise how popular he was with working people; that popularity, along with a modicum of natural human sympathy also led him to make some off the cuff remarks sympathising with their plight, raising eyebrows in government circles. Nonetheless, the Prince of Wales seemed an asset to the royals and was expected to become the epitome of a modern monarch when the time came. It would take serious mistakes on his part to bring the house crashing down. Edward VIII obliged. It might be thought that he had more than one Achilles heel, but that tendency to shoot from the political hip was certainly one. Another was personal. His relationship with his father was notoriously awful (something he shared with his siblings: David is pictured with his younger sibling Bertie below).
‘I had a wretched childhood’, he famously said. The note of self-pity was characteristic, but it was also true. In part as a reaction to his father, he rebelled, most notably by not fulfilling family or national expectations by marrying. To first have sex with a French prostitute, and then a string of affairs with older married women whose discretion could be relied upon was conventional enough for a royal. However, one of those did last for sixteen years. He was Mrs Dudley Ward’s ‘little boy’, she was his ‘beloved little Mummie’. The prince was, perhaps, looking for a mother figure. When he finally found the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, it seemed he had found one. In short, David had flaws in his character that would, once king, be at the very least problematic.
He would find himself face-to-face with a prime minister at the peak of his powers: in 1936, Baldwin’s political position was pretty much unassailable. He dominated the Conservative party, and the Conservatives dominated the British right, and with that British politics. He had engineered the biggest landslide of the 20th century in 1931, and followed it with another in 1935. His successor, Chamberlain, was not in doubt, but neither was Baldwin’s authority. Those who had opposed him had been crushed. Churchill was an outcast on the backbenches; Beaverbrook and Rothermere fulminated, or dallied with Fascism in the latter case. The right that despised democracy fulminated over dinner parties or in their country houses, went to Italy or Germany and fawned, or dallied with Mosley. Had the abdication crisis arisen in other times, with a weak or vulnerable prime minister, or a weak or divided government, matters might have been different. Similarly, if there had been no viable alternative to Edward VIII, the crisis would have been much more dangerous and prolonged. In many ways, his brother might once have appeared deeply unpromising material: he was painfully shy, had a stammer and was, frankly, a bit dim (he came bottom of his class of 98 at the Royal Naval College). However, he had a good mentor in Louis Greig and he married very well. From her very first Daily Express interview, Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon exuded star quality. A million people attended their wedding procession. He had his now famous speech therapy at her behest (a ten week course in 1925). He developed the persona of the stolid, reliable family man, with a glamorous wife at this side: he quietly impressed Australia, she wowed it. The king came to see Albert (Bertie) as his favoured successor, hoping the Prince of Wales would never marry and that ‘nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne’. And after upheavals of the glamorous but wayward Edward VIII, the rather dull but reliable George VI (as he was crowned, emphasising the continuity with his father) offered safer waters. Baldwin’s crowning achievement, as Philip Williamson argues, was the establishment of a stable, peaceful democracy: Edward VIII might be held to be a potential threat to that and his brother offered Baldwin a safer and viable alternative.
In any case, to Baldwin, like many, the idea of the marriage to Mrs Simpson was unacceptable per se: divorce was still socially questionable at least, so a soon to be twice-divorced American (when the notion that British monarchs could marry suitable British women and not foreign princesses had only been adopted since the war) was beyond the pale. However, it is tempting to aver that a solution may have been more avidly sought were it not for the increasingly wayward political views that had been espoused by the Prince of Wales and which then continued to be heard, much more dangerously, as king. He was known to favour a state health system over voluntary hospitals. His tours to depressed areas became more politically charged and were far more significant once that he was king. Just as the Wallis Simpson issue was coming to the fore in 1936, the king visited Dowlais steel works in South Wales, saying that ‘something must be done’ and that he would play his part in that process.
Ramsay MacDonald noted in his diary that the king needed to be ‘watched constitutionally’. Even this was not enough to move Baldwin to turn against him. Instead, it was Germany that really worried them. That the prince, now king, was virulently anti-communist, pretty hostile to France and broadly sympathetic to Germany. That was not a problem in the early 1930s: so were much of the government. It was the fact that he said it, the way he said it, who he said it to and what he chucked in for good measure that was the problem; that, and what the responses were. In careless remarks to indiscreet German diplomats he expressed sympathy for the Nazi dictatorship, ‘we might want one in England soon’, implying a dangerous impatience with Baldwinite constitutionalism. A German observer noted: ‘You have such a splendid king, why don’t you let him out of his cage?’ Before he became king, the government had fears that he might wish to break out of the constitutional constraints his father had so carefully kept to. This fear was made worse by those on the right who longed for him to do that very thing: Lady Lucy Houston, in the Saturday Review, called on the prince, when king, to become a ‘benevolent dictator’. The allegations of full-blown Fascism or even Nazism have never entirely stuck, but they stuck enough did to arouse serious concerns. These concerns would seem well founded given his subsequent visits to Hitler and his modified Nazi salute; David Eccles, later in Macmillian’s cabinet, was charged with watching over him in Lisbon early in the war and described him as ‘pretty fifth column’.
In that sense, Edward VIII worried the Baldwinite establishment and Wallis Simpson therefore offered them an opportunity as well as a threat.
Edward gave them that opportunity on a plate, however. Famously, George V had predicted that ‘After I am gone the boy will ruin himself in twelve months’. It took him ten. The crown seemed to give him a new freedom, which he embraced in characteristically cavalier fashion. The couple spent the summer on a Dalmatian cruise: the world’s press and cinema newsreels lapped it up.
Mrs Simpson appeared in the court circular; she hosted the annual royal retreat to Balmoral (saying ‘the tartan’s gotta go’). By late October, when New York papers were predicting KING TO MARRY WALLY, her divorce petition was due to heard in Ipswich crown court.
Though the British press censored itself for now, in the modern age the story couldn’t stay under the radar forever. Eventually, Ellen Wilkinson made a veiled reference in the Commons, and the provincial press printed the story. In that atmosphere, the Baldwinite establishment did more than just react: they fermented a crisis, whether out of design, panic or snobbery. The leaderships of both parties rejected a morganatic marriage, the most obvious compromise, out of hand. Convinced that she was a Nazi supporter, intelligence services put Wallis Simpson’s London home under surveillance. In the way of intelligence services throughout history, they compiled their own dodgy dossier suggesting that special sexual techniques picked up in Shanghai gave her a hold over the king; the FBI suggested she had slept with the avowedly Nazi German ambassador Ribbentrop. It was not just that a crisis within the gilded elite of the British establishment, however. Public opinion was overwhelmingly and often excitably for the king: there were letters pouring into the popular papers, crowds carrying placards for the king (‘Flog Baldwin’) gathered near Downing Street. Worse still for Baldwin were those lining up to support the king, notably Mosley’s BUF, Churchill and Beaverbrook: it offered some red meat to his right wing enemies, red meat they were desperate for. The issue threatened serious political damage for Baldwin: speed, therefore, was of the essence.
In many ways, Baldwin was at his best in a crisis. Now, he used all the political skills he had shown against the General Strike and the Empire Crusade, or in 1931. He used the resources of the church, The Times and the Daily Telegraph, the leader of the opposition, the cabinet, his control of (most of) his overwhelming majority and most of all his political nous to wear the king down. By cutting off the possibility of the morganatic route, he forced Edward into a corner: it was the throne or Mrs Simpson, he could not have both. Baldwin judged his man well, saw the strain of self-pity and a brittle weakness: the king broke, and broke easily. ‘Our cock won’t fight’, as Beaverbrook put it. It was a political tour de force. The speed was also important to its success. When the king famously made his abdication speech, he aroused much sympathy, but surprisingly little sense of loss. This was in part thanks to his supporters (Churchill gave one of his most embarrassing Commons performances in trying to defend him), in part thanks to the way in which the brutal speed of the king’s downfall made him appear weak: perhaps simply not want the throne that much.
The unthreatening brother waited in the wings. Edward was, as John Charmley would have it, ‘scalped by Baldwin’.
That the abdication crisis did not lead to a more fundamental political and constitutional crisis owes most to the sure-footedness of Stanley Baldwin. Though uncertain at first, once the crisis became serious Baldwin used all the immense authority he had built up in the 1930s and his considerable political gifts to force an abdication. At the root, Baldwin did this because he believed the king was a threat to his political legacy: a stable, peaceful constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. And he was right. Edward VIII was brittle, self-pitying and had insufficient regard for the recently established constitutional norms he was meant to uphold. In a world where democracy was on the retreat and right wing strongmen were on the oh so dangerous rise, Edward was a danger to the monarchy: a danger because of the support he could have won (and indeed, who some of those supporters were), a danger to the conduct of foreign policy at the time of the Abyssinia Crisis, the Spanish Civil War and, most of all, the rise of Nazi Germany. Whilst Edward was confined to the gilded prison of the governorship of the Bahamas, the unpromising Bertie and his lovely wife helped hold a nation together in the face of Britain’s darkest hour. The abdication crisis was one of Baldwin’s finest.