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Friday, 31 March 2017

Obsolescent Big Guns, Judicial Suppleness and Wooden Titans

The latest developments on the dying question of limiting naval armament sent the sound of multiple stable doors being shut on horses that had long bolted. With touching respect for diplomatic niceties Japan informed Britain that it could not accept limiting the size of guns on battleships to 14 inch calibre. Japan claimed that this proposal was a manoeuvre to leave her in a position of permanent inferiority to Britain, which was mildly confusing as the Imperial Japanese Navy already boasted two ships mounting 16 inch guns. Admittedly the US Navy could boast three such vessels. Not only was naval arms limitation receding into the mists of past hops and ideals as the Far East slipped inexorably towards war, but the debate on gun sizes belonged to an earlier age of naval weaponry. When war eventually came in 1941, the aircraft carrier and land-based aircraft were to be the decisive factors.

The US Supreme Court ruled in favour of the constitutionality of the Railway Labour Relations Act which guaranteed collective bargaining in the industry on the Frazier-Lemke Act, which imposed a three year moratorium on the foreclosure of farm mortgages. It also reversed its decision of the previous year on the question of whether States could impose minimum wages for women workers. All these decisions left the Supreme Court looking less like a determined opponent of President Roosevelt’s generally liberal policies. In turn it weakened the urgency of FDR’s “Court-packing” scheme, which had appeared to be a response the Court’s obstruction. It is one of history’s more intriguing questions whether the Court’s decisions were motivated solely by considerations of Law, or whether an element of political calculation was involved.

The Catholic Church fought a doomed rear-guard action against a move by the Nazi government to curtail confessional, in practice Catholic, schools. The Pope went so far as to issue and Encyclical accusing the government of breaching the Concordat between Church and State. As the government could simply ban the circulation of the Encyclical (accusing the church of breaking its oath to the state along the way), it was simply ignored. Much greater importance was attached to the reconciliation to the regime of Field-Marshal Ludendorff. He had drifted to the fringes of public and sanity, but he still counted as the disciple of the late Field-Marshal Hindenburg who was still revered. The foundation myth of the Nazi state rested on the betrayal of the military rulers of Imperial Germany by civilian politicians, so their despotism and incompetence was ignored.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Front Populaire in a Cleft Stick

France under the Front Populaire was not looking any more stable. The industrial suburb of Clichy near Paris was convulsed by major rioting, which left five people dead. The demonstrations had been sparked by a provocative public meeting, organized by the Parti Social Français, a very thinly disguised rebranding of Colonel de la Rocque’s now banned far right Croix du Feu movement. The Communist Party had been able to win some easy kudos by calling for the meeting to be banned (Clichy was a Communist municipality) by the government, which chose the lesser evil of refusing this at the near-inevitable cost of the disturbances that did occur. A ban would almost certainly have triggered far right demonstrations and the accusation that the government was curtailing free speech at the behest of the Communists.

The Duke of Windsor was able to look forward to the joys of marriage with greater confidence, as one of the threats to the project for which he had renounced the throne disappeared. The Divorce Court formally dismissed the intervention brought in Mrs. Simpson’s divorce suit by an elderly legal clerk, Francis Stephenson. Even though Stephenson had not pursued the action, this had triggered an investigation by the King’s Proctor, which had hung like a sword of Damocles over her and the Duke. Under a quirk of the then current divorce law his action remained on file until it was formally dismissed. It could have left Mrs. Simpson imprisoned in her marriage to Ernest and the King unable to marry her, meaning he would have abdicated for nothing. Given the extent of public concern that Mrs. Simpson’s decree nisi had been granted irregularly, considerable attention was paid to the recitation in Court of the failure by the King’s Proctor to find any evidence to support such allegations. Mrs. Simpson and the Duke were not, though, home and dry even though the major threat had disappeared. Her divorce had still to be made absolute, which could not occur until late April.

The US suffered one of its worst disasters when a natural gas explosion destroyed a school in New London, Texas killing some 300 children. As was common practice in the area, the school heated itself by tapping oil pipelines illicitly and drawing off gas. As gas was then considered merely a waste product by the oil companies, this was generally condoned although its irregular character did not make for high standards of safety. Natural gas is odourless so leaks built up unnoticed in a basement void that ran the length of the school until the explosion was triggered, apparently by an electric spark. Adding an artificial smell to natural gas was one of the consequences of the tragdedy.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Last of the Chamberlains

The sudden death of Sir Austen Chamberlain removed one of the towering figures from Britain’s interwar politics. His achievement in negotiating the Treaty of Locarno, which by some standards brought a realistic and durable peace to Europe after the unhappy contingencies of the Treaty of Versailles, had brought him the unique double accolade of the Nobel Peace Prize and Britain’s highest order of chivalry, a Knighthood of the Garter. In recent years he had migrated to the fringes of influence, but still sat as an MP and criticized the government’s foreign policy tellingly, albeit ineffectually. His death was all the more poignant as his half-brother Neville was about to rise to the Premiership, a prize that had eluded both Austen and their father Joseph. The announcement days before that Stanley Baldwin was about to step down – as had been widely expected – after the Coronation meant that it would be only a few weeks before the final seal would be set on his promotion. Neville had not formally been designated as successor – this would have presumed on Royal prerogative amongst other things – but few doubted that he would take over.

A meeting of India’s Congress Party ended in a victory for the more moderate and realistic elements, led by Ghandi. Congress would accept a apart in governing states where it held a majority in the regional assemblies set up the very tentative self-rule reforms instituted the previous year. The Party demanded a proviso that Provincial Governors would not exercise their “special powers” provided that the state governments acted “within the Constitution.” In practice would enormously dilute the de facto veto powers retained by the colonial authorities under the reform.

Sir John Reith, Director General of the BBC, adroitly defended his corporation from accusations of political bias in front of a committee of Conservative MPs. He insisted that reports of the Spanish Civil War drew on multiple agency copy and was factually reliable. Consciously or unconsciously, the MPs were betraying an instinctive sympathy for the Francoist forces. Reith did take on board criticism of coverage given to the leaders of unofficial strikes. The Conservative suspicion of left wing bias at the BBC is perennial issue, but Reith’s rejection of a suggestion that news broadcasts be made more “snappy” shows that his sombre ethos had a good many more years left in charge.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Men of Faux Steel, Man of Flannel

Joachim von Ribbentrop nailed his political colours firmly to the mast. Formally he was still Germany’s ambassador to Great Britain, but in practice was behaving ever more like Germany’s foreign minister, a post that he would soon occupy de jure. The abdication and departure into effective exile of Edward VIII had removed his one qualification – to put it at its kindest – for the post in London. He had long harboured the delusion that the pro-German sentiment he detected in Edward provided the foundations of a serious rapprochement between the two countries. Ribbentrop’s speech at the Leipzig Trade Fair trotted out all the clichés of recent Nazi utterance on foreign policy, notably the need to rebuild Germany’s prosperity by restoring the colonial empire, of which Britain had deprived her. Germany belonged amongst the “haves” and not the “have nots”. Autarky  gave an economic string to her bow that allowed her to dispense with other nations.

The American steel industry blinked not once but twice in the face of trade union pressure. It was a major triumph for John L. Lewis’s CIO, all the more striking coming as it did after the punishing  rear-guard actions fought by the automobile makers against the CIO’s ambitions. Not only did USC, the industry leader, finally bow to accepting workers being represented by an “outside” (uncontrolled) union, but the smaller “independents” conceded pay rises and a 40 hour week. It might be argued that the latter concession opened government contracts to them under the Walsh-Healey Act and that, given the scale of naval rearmament due, was a wise commercial decision, but it was clear that there was a high price to industrial peace.

Britain’s inimitable Transport Minister, Leslie Hore-Belisha, was having to open his mouth ever wider to suck in the precious oxygen of publicity. He floated the idea, apparently, of banning all car-parking on public roads. The private sector would make good the loss of facility by providing commercial car parks. He also announced a campaign for the improvement of quality of life by barring the use of car horns at night as well as persuading manufacturers to produce quieter vehicles. When he reverted to the topic a couple of days later in the House of commons, it was clear that he had been taken aside and had a few of the facts of life explained to him.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Royalty Visits a Delinquent Brother and a Cunning Cat

Matters Royal were much in evidence. Parliament was treated to the latest cost estimates for the Coronation ceremonies. They were nudging towards £250,000 but would give seating for an extra spectators, although using steel rather than wood as at previous events made a big difference. In a blow to the new medium, it had been decided not to televise the proceedings. On a slightly more sombre note, the Duke of Kent became the first member of the Royal family to visit the Duke of Windsor in his Austrian exile. Connoisseurs of Royal incanabula could have noted that Kent was not accompanied by his wife. By suspicious coincidence, newspaper reports of Kent’s visit were juxtaposed with ones recounting a visit to the pantomime at the Lyceum by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The show was Puss In Boots, a tale with a rather confused morality, but a clear message that an intelligent feline can outsmart a King.

Senator Borah of Idaho responded to President Roosevelt’s scheme to reduce the extent that the Supreme Court might curb the executive with a plan to reform the Constitution in a way that would bolster the power of the states against Washington. Whilst Borah was a progressive Republican who supported much of FDR’s work, he was violently opposed to the proposed change in the Supreme Court. Borah’s move gave an indication of the scale of difficulties FDR would face if he persisted.

Léon Blum’s Front Populaire government in France scored another arid parliamentary victory in a vote of confidence. Arid, because the parliamentary arithmetic was such that defeat was never at all likely. The debate itself gave Pierre Flandin, Blum’s predecessor a marvellous opportunity to flay him and his policies, notably the cut in government salaries that left teachers paid less than the workmen on the Paris exhibition. Blum reasserted his government’s commitment to price controls, but it could not escape opposition accusations of the cost of its economic policies.