Sir John Simon, 1931-35
Liberal National, in the National Government under Baldwin
Having been a rival, and something close to an enemy of Lloyd George, in June 1931 Simon and 30 other Simonites became the Liberal National group. When, in 1932, the Samuelite Liberals withdrew from the National Government over tariffs, the breach became permanent. In many ways he owed his position to the Foreign Office to that fact, and the consequent need to ensure that a safely pliable Liberal held one of the great offices, thus giving the government its misleading National character. The problem was that he and the office were not really suited, and he made a weak, indecisive and plain bad foreign secretary. As such, increasingly as time went on, Eden acted as his minder.
To be fair, he faced a rapidly worsening international outlook which, arguably, he could do little about. On coming to office, he was faced with the Manchuria Crisis and the World Disarmament Conference, close to breakdown from the start. Then, 1933 saw Hitler come to power. If Simon failed to read Hitler for what he really was, so did most people. He found Hitler distasteful, and Hitler’s anti-Semitism genuinely appalling. However, he can hardly be blamed for an immediate failure to recognise that Hitler was not just another right wing authoritarian bent on revising Versailles: the nature of the Nazi regime meant that the signals emerging from Berlin were contradictory and confusing. Furthermore, Britain’s pitiful army gave it little military clout, and defence policy was very much led by Chamberlain at the Treasury, though Chamberlain and Simon grew close politically. Both Simon and the Foreign Office quickly see Hitler as the main threat to the stability of Europe and Britain’s security: it’s just that they could do little about it other than buy time and seek to appease him.
The great white hope was Mussolini. In 1934, he moved Italian troops to the Austrian border, stopping Hitler from pushing for Anschluss. The following year saw the meetings at Stresa, in Italy, the gave birth to the ill-fated Stresa Front: it seemed as if the three guarantors of the Locarno treaties were looking to stand together top contain Hitler’s Germany. It was not to be.
Simon did not help. He was equivocal about Stresa at best. This is best illustrated by the fact that Britain was simultaneously seeking bilateral talks with Germany over an air pact: a de facto abandonment of the military clauses of Versailles. Hitler played along, and the talks culminated in the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, signed without consulting the French on the 120th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, shortly after Simon had left the Foreign Office. Since Austen Chamberlain’s attempt to get cabinet to agree to an Anglo-French pact in 1925, Britain’s unwillingness to commit itself to any arrangements to defend France were increasingly plain: the 1935 agreement with Germany made that reluctance ever more plain, and Anglo-French relations suffered accordingly.
Meanwhile, at Stresa, an ailing MacDonald had managed to give Mussolini the impression that Britain was not going to react to Italian aggression in Abyssinia. Strategically, Britain was not much interested. Politically, it was different. When Mussolini threatened Abyssinia, a crisis loomed. Simon formed the opinion, taken up by his successor, that the Anglo-Italian relationship was more important than the independence of a member of the League of Nations, and proposed a deal giving Italy much of what they wanted. By the time Italy invaded, Simon had been moved.
Simon was one of only three men to have held all three of the great offices of state other than prime minister. He remains one of nine men to have been both foreign secretary and chancellor since 1906. As foreign secretary, Simon gives the lie to Enoch Powell’s dictum that all political careers end in failure: in Simon’s case, his political career continued and even prospered whilst certainly wanting of success. He left Hoare another fine mess, when returning to the Home Office in 1935, as Baldwin succeeded MacDonald as prime minister in 1935, and then to the Exchequer when Chamberlain replaced Baldwin in 1937. As one of Chamberlain’s inner circle, he would be closely involved with the Sudeten crisis and the process that led to Munich. Thus, for that reason and as foreign secretary, if they were The Guilty Men Simon was certainly prominent among them.
Here is Simon, as leader of the Liberal Nationals, calling for people to vote National in the 1931 general election: