Where do we stand on public opinion?

Posted by Helen Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Yesterday Tory Historian attended a wonderfully interesting meeting of the Conservative History Group on the subject of Chamberlain’s reputation. A write-up of that will follow as soon as it is practicable.

Central to our understanding of the crisis that took up the second half of 1938 is the double appreciation that despite the fact that Churchill wrote the history of the period, Chamberlain was probably right politically and from the point of view of defence matters; and that he had public opinion on his side.

This led me to an interesting comment made by Sir Robert Peel:

“No minister ever stood, or could stand, against public opinion.”
It is not so much public opinion that remains the problem more its expression by the media and other political interpreters. In Peel’s day there were still those immediate expressions of public opinion, the mob and the meeting. Over the last few decades both have largely disappeared. On the other hand, we now have the growing power of the blogosphere (still in its infancy in Britain) that might turn into another weapon of public opinion that circumvents its “interpreters”.

Helpfully, Sir Robert has also provided a definition of public opinion:
“Public opinion is a compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs.”
As the French so aptly say: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. One of the reasons that we have five year Parliaments is to provide Governments with some insulation against the vagaries of the electorate. However, we seem to have got into the four year habit, and perhaps diminish the chances of recovery from mid term lows. After all Margaret Thatcher was often badly behind in the race, but came through in the last year or so of her, admittedly, chosen term. Part of the skill of a British PM is to choose his or her moment to take a verdict.

    One of the more interesting facts about Nevill Chamberlain is that he resisted that temptation, possibly influenced by Halifax, but it is clear that he would have won in 1940, but for war.

    However, I have some doubts whether he comes out as well as you suppose over his policies. It may well have been right not to fight in 1938 (although if Britsih intelligence had been better, it was probably not a bad moment) but he was surely totally mistaken to fight for Poland. Logic suggests that, if you were not going to stay out of eastern European imbroglios altogether, better to fight for the Czechs. Better still, as Baldwin implied in 1936, not to get involved in the hope/expectation that Hitler and the Soviet Union would tangle. I think Neville knew that, but felt he had been pushed into a Polish guarantee by public opinion (or perhaps mor accurately by Halifax's consciousness of public opinion).

    Could not make last night, but will be interested to learn if anyone tackled this conundrum.

  3. One of the points that came up a bit at the meeting is that in 1938 Czechoslovakia was not really prepared to fight for itself in spite of its forces and resources. In particular the Slovaks looked more likely to seek independence than fight for the Czechs. With military reports all suggesting that the UK could not win a war in 1938, entering a conflict to save a state that wouldn't save itself seemed reckless in the extreme.

  4. Sir-C4' Says:
  5. Thank you both Mr. Dale and Tory Historian for a wonderfull meeting. It made the long journey to London worthwhile.

  6. Anonymous Says:
  7. I'm not sure about Peel's maxim. Plenty of ministers do things which they only have minority support for - what about Iraq, when 1 million people marched past Downing Street?

    What they have to decide is when public opinion is so against the policy that their re-election chances are threatened by the decision. Rarely does one policy provide a threat - people tend to vote on the basis of their overall impression of a party/ PM rather than single issues.

  8. Helen Says:
  9. Firstly, I must, regretfully, decline C4's thanks. I was there at the meeting but the organization had been done by Iain Dale.

    Secondly, John Wilkes, I am not sure the Iraqi war and the protests against it prove anything. 1 million, many of whom were not part of the British electorate, marching through London do not constitute a majority. If the war had really been as unpopular as journalists sometimes make out, the first of Sir Robert's maxims would have kicked in at election time.

  10. Anonymous Says:
  11. Ah, public opinion. There is no doubt that in the 1930s, there was a very strong mood of pacifism amongst the British people. The East Fulham by-election was one example of this. We were still completing war memorials on the Somme in the mid-thirties, and the experience of the trenches was still vivid to many.

    This background may explain Baldwin and Chamberlain's policy, but it does not excuse it. There was a fundamental misunderstanding of Hitler's character and intentions. Germany's revived military power represented a greater military threat to Britain and France than that of 1914. Standing up to the dictator at an earlier stage would not have been an act of altruism but one of sheer national interest and sound defence.

    I was brought up to believe that "Munich" is the dirtiest word in the English language. I still believe this.

  12. Helen Says:
  13. How do you feel about Yalta, Robert? No frissons of horror? Yet that, too, could be seen as rank treachery towards allies, including Poland. Was Stalin misunderstood. Of course, there are reasons and explanations, as there are with Munich.

  14. Anonymous Says:
  15. Yes TH, I don't think that the events at Yalta covered any of those participating in glory. A visit to Warsaw a few years ago allowed me to see at first hand the human consequences of the Big Three's decisions.

    There is a strong argument to say that as an exercise in geopolitics, Yalta was a success. The lines for the Cold War were drawn up, but at least it did not become a hot war.

    I agree that both Hitler and Stalin were misunderstood, but there is a difference between what was known about Hitler's true intentions by the time of Munich (the Anschluss, for example) and what was known of Stalin's true intentions at the time of Yalta (the "Iron Curtain" was not recognised until Churchill coined the phrase at Fulton in 1946, for example).

    This is why I have more difficulty in understanding the positions of Chamberlain and Daladier than I do those of Roosevelt or Churchill.

  16. Helen Says:
  17. Actually quite a lot was known about Stalin by 1944 but Churchill chose to ignore it or felt he had to do so. Roosevelt thought that he had more in common with Stalin than with the old imperialist Churchill. Besides, he was being advised by the likes of Alger Hiss.

    Are you suggesting that WWII unfolded because of Munich? Surely, the idea was to prevent war. Furthermore, as Robert Self points out in the latest Chamberlain biography, Hitler had not actually broken his word until March 1939.

  18. Anonymous Says:
  19. Munich led Hitler to believe that when things came to the brink, Britain and France had no stomach for war. I think that it made the events of March 1939 and the invasion of Poland inevitable.

    An interesting link that we can make between Munich and Yalta was that they both reflected public opinion at the material time. With Munich, it was antipathy to war, and with Yalta, it was a sense of goodwill towards our brave Russian allies.

    You are right about the by-passing of Churchill by an ailing Roosevelt. There is no doubt that Roosevelt made too many concessions to Stalin.

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