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Showing posts from May, 2016

Leon Blum Finds He's Riding A Tiger

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Sunday 31st May 1936



The National Congress of France's Socialist Party met in an atmosphere that called to mind the image of someone who had boarded what seemed to be a train to a pleasant and longed for destination, but found himself riding a hungry tiger. Translating the landslide win for the left wing parties into the general election into a workable government was proving to be rather more challenging than the scale of the victory might normally have allowed.
The Party leader and putative Prime Minister was careful to point out that it was not a socialist government because it contained bourgeois elements. Its programme was socialization (whatever that meant) rather than socialism. It was not a stance that appealed to a number in his own ranks including the leader of the revolutionary Federation of the Seine which called for the rout and then abolition of private capitalism. Massive strikes by industrial workers, often lead by the Communist CGT trade union, seemed to head in t…

Hitler Hijacks Jutland

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Saturday 30th May 1936


The Nazi regime picked the twentieth anniversary of the Battle of Jutland (the Battle of the Skaggerak in German) for one of its rare commemorations of a battle of the Great War. The battle had been indecisive with both sides claiming victory but the Royal Navy had suffered far higher casualties than the High Seas Fleet. One of the very junior Royal Navy officers was the King's second son, Prince Albert later King George VI, the only British sovereign to have seen combat since William IV in the eighteenth century. Hitler attended the inauguration of a memorial near the great naval base of Kiel to the German Imperial navy's 30,000 dead during the the war. It was an imposing structure 72 meters high which still stands to day, rededicated to all sailors who perished in conflict. 
Any claim that the event was merely one of commemoration was deeply compromised by a mock sea battle involving three of the Kriegsmarine's new class of warship, the pocket batt…

Dawn Of The Shadow Factory

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Friday 29th May 1936


The last day of the Parliamentary session before the recess gave MPs an opportunity to make their views felt on the things they felt that mattered, unconstrained by any formal structure of debate or the the need for a vote of any kind. The topic that featured most heavily was rearmament, more specifically criticism of the government's performance on the score. Yet again Sir Thomas Inskip found himself earning his recently awarded place in the Cabinet dearly.

Even a government supporter, Sir Edward Grigg, professed shock at Inskip's admission that "even" machine tools were in short supply. In reality this was a facet of the immense task of economic organization that proper rearmament in depth required. It is open to question how many MPs understood the significance of Inskip's announcements that two major car-makers had agreed to build airframes and that they and five of their competitors were planning the production of aero-engines together. T…

A Date For The Coronation And A Hidden Agenda

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Thursday 28th May 1936


Much though he detested the antique and draining ceremonies that surrounded Royalty, the King had a deep and undisclosed interest in the organization of his own Coronation. His dream was to marry Mrs. Simpson before he was crowned and, extraordinary as this might seem, may well have thought that she would be crowned as his Queen in the same ceremony. There was, though, the awkward matter of her still being married to someone else to dispose of. Under English divorce of the day, divorce was a process in two stages, a minimum of six months apart which imposed certain constraints. At that stage divorce proceedings had not even started.
British monarchs are usually crowned in the spring or summer, at least a year after their accession, which pointed to a date in the middle of the following year. May 12th 1937 was fixed as the day of the Coronation by the Privy Council. This left adequate albeit not lavish amounts of time to put in hand the other part of the King'…

Utter Scandal But For Initiates Only

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Wednesday 27th May 1936


The King gave the first formal dinner party of his reign at St. James's Palace. As such it was reported in The Times Court Circular, the indispensable guide to what the higher reaches of society were up to. If your name appeared as a Royal guest it was an unmistakable register that you were in the top bracket. Your character was unimpeachable and you could be admitted to Court. The Court Circular was read avidly and closely by anyone who was anyone.
The presence of the Prime Minister marked the event as a specially august gathering and most of the guests that night fitted very comfortably into that definition: a Royal cousin, courtiers, senior politicians, an admiral and a distinguished foreigner, Colonel Lindbergh.  But not all. Lady Cunard was certainly a peeress but her well-attended salon had a rackety reputation, underscored by her conspicuous adulterous affair with the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham. It was, however, the last name on the list which was…

France Faces Agony Of Sports Funding

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Tuesday 26th May 1936


The Communist Party had set out an extensive wish-list of measures in exchange for participating in the government that Leon Blum was in process of forming after the landslide win for left wing parties in the French general election. Unemployment, particularly amongst the young, was to be reduced by a programme of public works. The austerity measures introduced by Laval the previous year were to be reversed. FF1bn was to be spent on sport and athletics and the army was to be both democratized and modernized. The private finances of certain ministers notably Laval and Tardieu were to be put under investigation
Above all the new government should not be shy of deficit financing whatever the Bank of France might think. Financial policy was already a hot potato. One former finance minister was arguing for a controlled devaluation of the franc at the same time that leading Socialist and Communist newspapers, with a certain lack of economic coherence, were calling for …

Plane, Train And Ocean Liner

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Monday 25th May 1936


The Royal family turned out in force to visit the newly commissioned Cunard liner Queen Mary at her berth in Southampton prior to her maiden commercial voyage. The King, Queen Mary, the Duke and Duchess of York with Princess Elizabeth, the Duke and Duchess of Kent and the Duchess of Gloucester made up a remarkably complete contingent for what was was officially a private visit but given the symbolism of the liner's name it was a fitting tribute. Princess Elizabeth was especially taken with the ship's engines which she found more interesting than her childrens' nursery. The King had already visited the vessel during her fitting out in Glasgow and left an hour before the rest of the party.
The others of the family had travelled by the traditional means of a Royal train but the King flew from his private house Fort Belvedere in his personal Dragon Rapide aeroplane G-ADDD, painted in the colours of the Brigade of Guards in which he had served. It was the e…

Spain's Leisured Classes Spared Nothing

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Sunday 24th May 1936


The citizens of Madrid, especially those who had the time and money for leisure activities, must have felt that every man's hand was lifted against them. A series of strikes had paralyzed crucial sectors to the repose of madrilenos. Cafe waiters had downed trays, golf course greensmen had downed their mowers just as the grass began to grow vigorously, which had caused a horrifying surge in the numbers of balls lost on course.
Worst of all bullfighters withdrew their labour in protest at the incursion of doubtless inferior Mexican fighters onto the homeland of the sport. A handful of fighters had jumped the gun and struck earlier than had been planned which led to the cancellation of a major corrida even as spectators arrived at the arena. Medical examination revealed that the delinquents were fully fit to fight and they were arrested.

Public Given Chance To Judge The Royal Air Force

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Saturday 23rd May 1936

As part of a propaganda effort to persuade the British public that the Royal Air Force was not being left behind in the race towards rearmament in which Germany was claiming a lead for the Luftwaffe, Empire Air Day had been instituted in 1934. RAF stations across the country were open to the public and squadrons mounted flying displays. To the expert eye it was clear that the RAF still had a great deal to do in terms of modernizing its equipment. Almost all the aircraft in service were biplanes with fixed undercarriages and open cockpits, the same fundamental design features of the machines that the Royal Flying corps had been using twenty years before in the First World War. Modern monoplanes with enclosed cockpits and retracting undercarriages, notably the Hurricane and the Spitfire, were on their way but it would be two or three years before they became the standard equipment. Some technological advances could, though, be showcased and at one aerodrome visito…

Ghost Images On TV

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Friday 22nd May 1936


Fear gripped the hearts of the handful of pioneering television viewers in the London area when an article appeared in a learned journal setting out the existence of even more confusing layers in the ionosphere capable of hitherto unsuspected distortion of transmissions. The main culprit was the sinister, albeit prosaically named, D region which lurked far closer to the earth's surface than its better established colleagues.
It was believed to be capable of distorting the ultra short waves that were shortly to be transmitted from Alexandra Palace to offer a high definition service. Televiewers, as they were then called, might find themselves confronted by ghost images as the waves were reflected. Had they been privy to the inmost secrets of the defence establishment, they might have taken comfort from the fact that the underlying research conducted at Orfordness was to lead to the development of radar which was to protect them from the attentions of the Luftwa…

Rearmament By Boredom

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Friday 21st May 1936


The Commons defence debate made obvious Sir Thomas Inskip's strengths as Minister for the Coordination and, painfully, his weaknesses. In the few weeks since he had been appointed he had taken up two key issues: the position of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), the Royal Navy's air component, and the organization of food supplies in wartime. The former was a bitterly fought struggle over whether the FAA should remain part of the Royal Air Force or come under Navy control. It was finally settled (probably correctly)  in the Navy's favour three crucial years later after much more turmoil and threats of ministerial resignations. The fault lines it exposed ran so deep that only a heavyweight political decision could bring it to an end. Inskip did not carry enough clout to do so. 
Food supply was a vital point and the slew of other practical steps that Inskip was able to boast were important but they did not set pulses racing. The formation of a special sub-committe…

Minister Falls On His Sword Before Budget Leak Inquiry Reports

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Wednesday 20th May 1936


National Labour's Jimmy Thomas resigned as Dominions Secretary the day after the tribunal into the suspected leaks of Budget secrets had finished taking evidence and well ahead of its report. It was tantamount to an admission that its findings would not be favourable to him. The serious money had been made on insurance policies against a rise in income tax but the Budget had also increased the duty on tea. Thomas's hilarious shouts of "Tee's up" on the golf course with his cronies was the one piece of hard evidence that he'd disclosed anything.

His resignation letter gave the feeble grounds that the fact that his name had been "bandied about" made him unable to continue as a minister. More honestly, it claimed that he had served the government to promote political unity. His departure made it painfully clear that Baldwin's "National" government was in reality a Conservative government with support from a handful …

Mighty Metal Box Company Rides The Coat-tails Of A Small Welsh Dragon

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Wednesday 20th May 1936


The giant English packaging company, Metal Box Ltd., proudly displayed to journalists visiting its factory at Acton the company's new breakthrough product, the beer can. Beer cans, the management proudly explained, weighed less and took up less space than bottles and, of course, saved the book-keeping cost of tracking returns and the relevant deposits. Metal Box might not have got this far but for the cooperation of a small  brewery in Wales, which had given it direct proof that the beer-can was a commercially viable proposition.
The Felinfoel Brewery of Llanelli is the oldest brewery in Wales and was controlled by a family with interests in the tin-plate industry of the region which was still stricken by the Great Slump. This created the motivation to overcome the innate conservatism of beer-drinkers and pub-owners and to take the brave decision to start selling beer in cans the previous December. It paid off for Felinfoel which still brews today under the…

Fake Leopard Hunter, Real Italian Agent Provocateur

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Tuesday 19th May 1936


Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, treated the House of Commons to the tale of the Italian government's lunatic attempts to manufacture evidence supporting its claim that Britain had supplied the Abyssinian government with dum-dum bullets, soft-nosed bullets that expand on impact causing massive injuries. The allegation that the Abyssinians had used dum-dums was used as a pretext for the use of poison gas by Italian forces.
A man using the name of Colonel Lopez had visited a George Bate of Birmingham, a British arms firm, equipped with fake letters from the Bank of England and the Abyssinian government. Lopez was a British citizen of Polish origin. The Foreign Ofice knew he had ties to the Italian military attache in London. He claimed that he wanted to buy dum-dum bullets for use against the leopards terrorizing the countryside. Bate did supply some samples and, on Lopez's insistence, a covering letter address to the Abyssinian government. None of this…

Italians Expel A Powerful Voice Denouncing Their Misdeeds In Abyssinia

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Sunday 17th May 1936


The Italian authorities tightened their grip on Abyssinia following the proclamation of direct rule. The Italian commander General Badoglio proclaimed that his policy was to show "maximum generosity towards the peaceful and loyal population ad maximum severity towards the unruly." The latter was more in evidence. Since the occupation of Addis Ababa 1,500 Abyssinians had been arrested and many had been executed. According to Badoglio they had been convicted by military tribunal of capital crimes, which as of recently had included the possession of arms. Carrying weapons had long been a feature of a country still plagued by brigandry. The executions were conducted in batch shootings of 30-40.
The Italians acted to choke off news of their misdeeds. George Steer, The Times correspondent who had done much to bring Italian atrocities notably the use of poison gas to world attention, was expelled along with three other foreign journalists. He went on to cover t…

Murders Fuel Tension In Palestine

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Saturday 16th May 1936


The murder of three Jews at a cinema in Jerusalem by an unknown gunman who escaped fuelled tension in Palestine, which had been ruled by Britain notionally under a League of Nations mandate since 1919. Arab hostility to Jewish immigration and growing economic power had helped trigger organized protest had begun the previous month in the form of a general strike led by the Arab Higher Committee. It was soon followed by community violence on both sides.
The immediate British response was slow and, to begin with, purely military with a large increase in the army garrison. The British mandate was one of the least happy results of the Versailles conference. Beyond a nebulous idea of protecting the route to India it is hard to see what Britain thought it would get from the arrangement. It found itself trying to control a bitter ethnic conflict that was being fed by the influx of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

Authoritarianism Edges Out Fascism In Austria

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Friday May 15th 1936


Outright Fascism suffered a temporary eclipse in Austria when the Chancellor Schuschnigg completely eliminated Prince Ernst Stahremberg the leader of the para-military and pro-German Heimwehr from the government. They had had shared power uneasily since the murder of Chancellor Dollfuss in a bungled Nazi coup in 1934. The dissolution of the Heimwehr was announced and it was absorbed into the Fatherland Front led by Schuschnigg. As a sop to Fascist supporters two ministers who were publicly hostile to the movement were also removed.
Schuschnigg was every bit as authoritarian as Stahremberg but he was more closely affiliated to clericalist circles. He was also in favour of alliance with Italy rather than Germany. As Italy and Germany drew closer, the days of an independent Austria were numbered and neither man had much political future. Schuschnigg was imprisoned after the Anschluss in 1938 and Stahremberg went into exile.

Minister Fights For Political Life In Budget Leak Inquiry

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Thursday 14th May 1936



Jim Thomas gave evidence to the judicial inquiry into the suspicion that the increase in income tax in the Budget had been leaked, allowing large profits to be made on Lloyds insurance policies taken out very shortly before the increase was announced. He had resigned as a Cabinet minister when the allegations became widespread and denied vehemently having leaked the information and claimed that he had demanded that his name be cleared when he learned that his son had been involved in taking out the insurance policies.
Thomas could not, however, deny his close links to two of the chief beneficiaries, an old crony Alfred Bates and a Conservative MP, Sir Alfred Butt. Bates's testimony was especially damning. He had spent most of the Easter week-end just before the Budget with Thomas including luncheon at Brighton's Albion Hotel and numerous rounds of golf. Bates had also offered him the then fantastic sum of £20,000 (the average annual wage in Britain was £…

Labour Detects Government Support For Merchants Of Death

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Wednesday 13th May 1936


A pointed little exchange in the House of Commons shines a light on an aspect of politics and public opinion between the wars which encouraged appeasement. Commercial manufacture of weapons was widely regarded as an evil and as a force that actively promoted conflict. This is the premise of Graham Greene's popular novel A Gun for Sale. Weapons makers were suspected of having contributed to the outbreak and duration of World War One in their own interests. They were reviled for the economic power at home and their use of corruption abroad. Vicker's sinister salesman, Sir Basil Zaharoff, provided an unforgettable images of a "merchant of death." There was a broad spectrum of political opinion that was hostile to the weapons trade but it was concentrated on the left wing. The Communist Party cynically played up the combination of  instinctive anti-capitalism and visceral pacifism to its own ends. The political opponents of Fascism thus opposed re…

Mussolini Grinds The Faces Of The Democracies In Their Humiliation

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Tuesday May 12th 1936



Mussolini ground the faces of the democracies in his military triumph in Abyssinia. Formal notice was sent out that the whole country was now under Italian administration. There was no pretence whatever that the territory was anything other than a colony of Italy. It was the high point of Mussolini's new Roman Empire.
Just to emphasize the impotence of his opponents in the whole affair, Mussolini withdrew Italy from the League of Nations, which had tried feebly to protect Abyssinia. At no point in the crisis had there been any real thought of applying the ultimate sanction and expelling Italy from the League, but voluntary withdrawal made it painfully clear how futile even this threat would have been. Few expected Italy to remain outside the League permanently once this point had been made, but in reality the League had lost forever any significance it ever had .

Huge Shortfall In British Army Strength

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Monday May 11th 1936


The latest figures for recruitment by the Territorial Army, the British army's volunteer reserves, showed that the drive instituted by the Secretary for War, Duff Cooper, was beginning to have some effect. In April 5,610 men had joined compared to 3,735 the previous month. This was almost double the figure in April; 1935. The total strength of the TA was 125,744, the highest level since September 1934.
There was still a long way to go. The TA was 46,976 below strength, well over a quarter fewer than the target. The position was fractionally better in terms of officers where numbers were only 23% below the establishment. Most worrying of all the London air defence units which would supposedly protect the capital from obliteration by the Luftwaffe were severely under-strength. Compared to the hundreds of thousands of trained reservists that European powers could command Britain was hopelessly behind.

Novelist And Dodgy Accountant Stars At Airshow

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Sunday May 10th 1936


In the genteel guise of a garden party at the works of Fairey Aviation at Heath Row the members of the Royal Aeronautical Society showed off their peaceable wares. Perhaps they felt that people needed to be reminded of the fact that they did not only make warplanes.
The star of the show was the Airspeed Envoy small airliner. It was a monoplane with retracting under-carriage and thus well in advance in the better established de Havilland Dragon Rapide with which it competed. Airspeed, though, was a far less robust company founded by Nevil Shute, later better known as a novelist. He later featured the dubious practices surrounding company flotations in Ruined City. His autobiography Slide Rule is possibly the only frank account ever of wholesale accounting manipulation by a company boss who practiced it himself. He could justify hefty valuations applied to the aircraft in Airspeed's inventory with the sad fact that they would soon find ready buyers at high price…

Spanish Anarcho Syndicalists Expand Their Ambitions

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Saturday May 9th 1936


Spain was the country with the strongest anarcho-syndicalist movement of Europe in 1936. Anarcho-Syndicalism strove to put power into the hands of workers through direct action and not through a structured political movement. It aspired to the abolition of wages and capitalism. It was no more popular with traditional Communists, obedient to Moscow, or to the conservative, property-owning classes. 
At their congress held in Barcelona's vast bull-ring they contemplated alliance with the traditional U.G.T. union aligned with the Socialist Party. Catalonia was the heartland of anarcho-syndicalism and this contributed to region's peculiar combination of extreme politics and separatism. With 2m members the U.G.T. was far stronger but the Anarcho-Syndicalists wanted it to abandon any form of tolerance for capitalism. It was one of the myriad fractures that was soon to destroy Spanish society.

Fitting And Useful Monuments To King George V

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Friday May 8th 1936


The plans for the commemoration of the late George V preferred by his sons over the kind of grandiose scheme advanced by the Archbishop of Canterbury took a step forward. Funds from George V's Jubilee Trust were to be used to buy 600 acres of land across the country to be used a public playing fields. It was estimated that 25,000 young people would be able to make use of them.
£550,000 was raised by public subscription and local authorities contributed funding. The network was administered by the National Playing Fields Association to avoid duplication of effort and for the sake of efficiency. Ultimately a total of 471 schemes covering 4,300 acres were approved including a handful in British Imperial territories. They were to be called simply "King George's Fields" and to carry the King's heraldic symbol. They exist today, fulfilling their original goal.

Political Fear Sucks Gold From France

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Thursday May 7th 1936


Whilst the new administration was being formed the Sarraut government was still in charge and happy the unhappy task of dealing with the immediate consequences of the landslide for the Front Populaire on financial markets. In the week to 30th April (and so before the result of the second round) the outlow of gold from France had doubled on the previous week and it was expected to have risen again in the week after the poll.
Another incease in interest rates by the Bank of France had protected the franc. The most worrying sign for the real economy was the drastic shrinkage in the volume of bank current accounts - in practice the money supply - which had dropped to FF7bn from FF16bn eighteen months before, partly as a result of the government's fiercely deflationary policy.

Narrow Labour Win At Peckham By-Election

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Wednesday 6th May 1936



Labour scored victory in the Peckham by-election by the narrowest margin imaginable, 100 votes in a poll of about 26,000. The seat had fallen vacant on the death of the Admiral Lord Beatty, the dashing Royal Navy commander in the First World War, which elevated his son the sitting MP to the House of Lords.
The second Lord Beatty's endorsed Captain Harvey the national government candidate with the claim that a vote for the socialists was a vote for the Communists. It was not a helpful contribution to an acriminous campaign in which Harvey's programme of indoor meetings had been interrupted by "organized rowdyism." His gruelling and extensive canvas of the dreary urban wasteland of the south London constituency had featured modern touches like loud-speaker vans and music.

The Rabbit: Friend Of The Dictators

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Tuesday 5th May 1936



A meeting of all manner of poeple discussed the grave problem of the rabbit under the chairmanship of Sir Rowland Sperling, former ambassador to Finland and a landowner in Hampshire. Apart from representatives of the Univeristy of London Animal Welfare Society those present could be counted as hostile to the rabbit although the representatives of the Natural History Museum might, just, have been classed as neutral. Their attitude was as mysterious as their presence. 
Sir Rowland denounced the rabbit as a drag on agriculture in peacetime and a "gratuitous addition to the country's burdens in time of War." No one objected to the call to exterminate the rabbit although, predictably, there was no agreement as to the correct method. Sir Rowland decried the National Farmers' Union call for an import quota on foreign rabbits, which was to push up the price and incentivize folk to hunt them. Instead he wanted a draconian scheme of state regu…

Spectre Of The Marconi Scandal Stalks Budget Leak Inquiry

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Monday 4th May 1936



Neville Chamberlain bowed to the inevitable and announced that there would be a formal inquiry into the possbility that there had been a leakage of Budget secrets. The form chosen was a Tribunal under a judge with the power to call witnesses.
The Labour opposition and expressed disappointment that a Parliamentary Select Committee had not been chosen, which they explained by asserting that the honour of MPs and ministers were under discussion. Doubtless they hoped to haul a few of the latter over the coals. They may well have had an inkling that the minister who had most to fear from the inquiry was one of Labour ministers who had broken with most of the Party to support the National government and was thus a marked man in their eyes. The suggestion was squashed by reminding the House that it was a select Committee that had inquired into the Marconi Scandal in 1913 and singularly failed to establish the truth, becoming almost a by-word for cover-up in the process. I…

Landslide For Left Wing In France

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Sunday May 3rd 1936


The left wing Front Populaire had a landslide win in the second round of the French national elections. They took almost  two-thirds of the seats in the lower house with the bulk of the gains falling to the parties furthest on the left, the Socialists and the Communist Party. The way was clear for them to form a government under Leon Blum, the country's first socialist administration.
From the start the  Front Populaire government faced savage opposition despite the strength of its mandate.Blum was France's first Jewish Prime Minister and the wounds of the Dreyfus affair forty years before had not healed. Anti-Semitism was still a powerful force. The Communists accounted for less than a quarter of the Front's deputies but this did not prevent the new government as being portrayed as a tool of Moscow.

End Of An Empire In Abyssinia

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Saturday 2nd May 1936


The Italian invasion on Abyssinia reached its conclusion when Emperor Haile Selassie fled the capital Addis Ababa with his family to take refuge in the French colony of Djibouti, the first of the 1936 crop of ex-sovereigns. Faced with the overwhelming military superiority of the Italian army it had only been a matter of time until the Abyssinians were completely defeated on the field of battle. The half-hearted attempts by Britain and France to save Abyssinia had failed. They were left to discuss what was to be done with Haile Selassie. A Royal Navy cruiser H.M.S Entreprise took him away to Palestine to begin what was to be five years of exile. This left  Edward VIII as the only reigning Emperor on earth.
Before he left the city he had thrown the Royal palace open for his people to help themselves to his possessions. This helped trigger widespread rioting and the city's 1,000 British residents sought refuge in the grounds of the Legation four miles from the c…

Sabbatarians Battle Snippers

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Friday 1st May 1936



The Government had introduced a bill to regulate the opening of shops on Sundays, in practice to restrict it as far as possible. Traditional sabbatarianism was marching hand-in-hand with concern for shop workers. Predictably the bill faced an avalanche of attempts to introduce exemptions or to close loopholes. These included  an amendment to allow sea-side fish and shops to open and one to remove an exemption in favour of bakers' confeectionery products.
The question of whether hair-dressers should be allowed to accomodate people staying at private clubs as well as hotels tipped the debate into new levels of frantic attention to detail. The spectre was raised that the measure might extend itself to the more extensive (and mysterious) world of women's hairdressing. The notion that special clubs might be be formed to exploit the loop-hole - rather on the pattern of private drinking clubs - was found to be unconvincing but one brave MP persisted in warning tha…