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Friday, 30 June 2017

Britain Leads the World in Emergency Phone Service

The long agony of Léon Blum’s Front Populaire government came to an end when the Senate refused it drastic powers to tackle France’s near-permanent financial crisis. The determined opposition of France’s great political veteran Joseph Caillaux was the main force behind the defeat but in reality Blum was caught between ever-more distant and treacherous support from the Communists and his far from radical allies of the Radical Party. Blum was replaced as prime minister by Camille Chautemps of the Radicals, still under the Front Populaire banner but essentially centrist. After threatening the abandonment of a fixed Franc parity to gold, his new finance minister Georges Bonnet won approval for a package of revenue raising measures after epic struggles both within the collation and in parliament. The Chautemps government did not look any more secure than its predecessor.

Just as worker support for the prolonged and bitter strike in the US steel industry appeared to be softening, militants on the workers’ side committed a spectacular act of sabotage. The water supply to the Johnstown Mill was dynamited forcing the mill which had just reopened to shut again leaving 6,000 workers idle. The attack prompted President Roosevelt to declare publicly “a plague on both your houses” but this was taken as a criticism on the unions rather than the employers.

The spread of automatic telephone exchanges in London brought a lasting innovation in the telephone service. After extensive experiments the Post Office introduced the 999 number as a way of accessing the emergency services immediately. The call would still pass through the normal manned telephone exchange but the human operator would be instantly alerted that it required urgent attention. When this was announced in the House of Commons one MP provoked great merriment by suggesting that a lady trapped in a house with a burglar might be hard put to remember this number. The standardized, national emergency number was only introduced decades later elsewhere in the world.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Mussolini Denounces British Press as Whisky Swilling Hyenas

Writing in the Popolo d’Italia Mussolini launched a furious attack on the way that the British press had reported the Battle of Brihuega in March. Quite why he should have chosen this moment is obscure, but clearly it had rankled that the defeat of Italian forces should have been reported at all. A Nationalist offensive against Madrid had begun well but had been forced to retreat by a republic counter-attack that included the International Brigade. It was a severe, but far from decisive, setback. Mussolini conjured up an erroneous retreat order to a single battalion as the origin of the report. He contrasted British accounts of the battle with reports of Italian participation (as Britain’s ally) in the First World War; “These hyenas in human form threw themselves on the pure blood of Italian youth as if it had been whisky, losing all trace of shame…”

As propaganda it merely served to remind the world of the large-scale presence of Italian troops in Spain at the very moment that Italy was presenting the (rather more successful) offensive in the North as a purely Spanish affair. The remaining Republican (and Basque) forces had been penned up in Bilbao. The defensive “Iron ring” of static hilltop positions had been broken by a combination of nationalist armour and bombing. The Republicans withdrew leaving the city to fall with little fighting.

The tense atmosphere created by the bitter strike in the US steel industry was fuelled by the release of film footage from earlier in the year showing the Chicago police opening fire without warning on a small procession of strikers. A number were killed. This helped swing sentiment against the employers. President Roosevelt appointed a committee of mediation to try to solve the dispute although it had no immediate effect. There was violence on the picket line around the Johnstown steel mill in Pennsylvania. Two pickets were stabbed and non-strikers sought permission to carry firearms.

Friday, 16 June 2017

New style of Governmnent in London, old muddle drags on in India

Neville Chamberlain the new British Prime Minister was clearly setting his mark on policy. His Physical Training Bill received an unopposed second reading in the Commons. The poor physical condition of British working class men had oppressed him since his days as Health Minister and he had long nourished the idea that state-sponsored PT was the solution. He also gave evidence of another enthusiasm which turned out less happily and which has rather blighted his reputation in history: the belief that constructive dialogue with Nazi Germany was the correct way to avoid war. The German Foreign Minister Baron von Neurath was invited to London by way of demonstration that the British government did not see that conversation with a dictator state necessarily produced some evil result. The Germans were gratified but surprised and stumped for an immediate goal; the best they came up with was the impossible notion of a four or five power group that would in practice take over from the League of Nations. In the event von Neurath never came. Unusually, he combined enthusiasm for the Nazi regime with being a representative of the doomed conservative aristocratic professional diplomats for the German ministry of foreign affairs but his star was already waning and it would have been ludicrous to imagine that his eventual successor, von Ribbentrop, would somehow achieve more as an invited minister than in his previous spontaneous visits or his lamentable spell as ambassador. It was not to be the last time that Chamberlain displayed his shaky grasp on the realities of how German foreign policy was shaped..

The British Imperial government’s attempts to lure the Congress Party into participating in the local assemblies set up under the India Act degenerated into near farce. Unsurprisingly Congress had spotted that giving London appointed and invariably white governors the power to dismiss governments founded on these assemblies meant that they had little real power. In a pretty piece of formalism one Governor did refuse an expression of thanks from an academy of science on the grounds that only the local Government deserved the thanks. Other officials insisted that Governors wouldn’t really use the powers to dismiss governments. The Viceroy was widely criticized for remaining silent on the topic but it is hard to imagine what he might have added to the non-debate.

Predictably enough the fall from grace of Marshal Tuchachevsky in the Soviet Union was played out in a court martial which sentenced him and seven other generals to be shot by firing squad for espionage on behalf of a “foreign power” clearly Germany. The court martial was held in camera so the substance of the evidence presented against them is unknown and a remarkable number of people are still today willing to believe that there was some truth in the allegations. Stalin denounced the generals as the “contemptible scum of society”. It was the start of the massive blood-letting that deprived the Red Army of much of its leadership in the Second World War. 

Friday, 9 June 2017

Denouement to the Love Affair of the Century

What had been billed as the “greatest love affair of the twentieth Century” culminated in marriage but, at least in terms of scale, it would not be the marriage of the century. The journalists lurking outside the venue vastly outnumbered the dozen or so guests brave the disapproval of Britain’s powers-that-be to attend the wedding of the ex-King. Randolph Churchill flitted between the two camps. Even the Anglican clergyman officiating at the religious ceremony had defied the instructions of his bishop to do so. Otherwise no expense had been spared: the celebrated organist Marcel Dupré had been engaged to play at the ceremony the inherent design of the Skinner organ at the Chateau de Candé meant that anyone who was mildly competent could play it just as well.[1] The bride was famous around the globe but went by a barely familiar name. The future Duchess of Windsor had adopted her maiden name for a few days adding a touch of the surreal as though becoming once again Wallis Warfield would eclipse the name Mrs. Wallis Simpson under which she had attained her status and by which she will still be known.

The harassed waiters of the cafés of nearby Monts struggling to cope with the influx of the world’s press might have drawn some comfort from the fact that Léon Blum’s Front Populaire government had struck a major blow to improve their status and self-worth in one of its final legislative acts. By a very narrow margin the Assembly approved a law banning tipping as a subversion of human dignity. Thus was ushered in the practice of a set service charge added to every bill.

Labour affairs were progressing rather less smoothly in the United Sates, where the steel strike escalated once again. One of the three companies targeted publicly announced that machine guns were being taken into one of the plants affected, naturally purely for “protective” reasons. Shots were being exchanged, some fatally. Strikers invaded the town of Lansing in a display of force which left the police powerless. The union appealed to the President to mediate.

[1] The keys act as switches playing the note in an entirely uniform manner. There is no scope for artistry in the keying.

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Old Order Makes Way for a Decidedly Familiar New Order

With the new King safely crowned, Stanley Baldwin formally resigned as Prime Minister. The Coronation date had long been flagged as a watershed in political leadership even when Edward VIII was still King. His younger brother had inherited his diary as well as his crown. It had been a rather bumpier ride than expected but the ex-King’s quiescence in the run up to the ceremony suggested that the risks were dwindling and the country would be ripe for what Baldwin’s successor, Neville Chamberlain, privately labelled “a new kind of P.M.” Chamberlain was manifestly committed to a far more activist approach to policy than the laid-back and largely reactive Baldwin but this was not apparent in his choice of Cabinet. Chamberlain’s ministers were barely changed from the previous crop. Two of Chamberlain’s close allies were promoted to fill gaps: Sir John Simon as Chancellor of the Exchequer, with Sir Samuel Hoare stepping into his shoes at the Home Office.

Putting Simon into nominal charge of the country’s finances gave a fair indication that Chamberlain would keep the firm grip on the area that he had established as a long serving Chancellor. Simon was a distinguished lawyer but largely inexperienced in finance; he was almost devoid of positive policy ideas anyway. His first task in his first days was to carry the can for a smart U-turn by Chamberlain on his ill-judged scheme to fund rearmament by the National Defence Contribution, an over-complex and inequitable tax on corporate profits, which had been very poorly received when it was announced. Almost Chamberlain’s first act as PM was to strangle his own infant; the NDC was dropped in favour of a simpler corporate tax.

Parliament finally passed A. P. Herbert’s private member’s bill reforming the divorce law. It went through with a healthy majority, assisted by the government’s barely concealed albeit tacit approval. It faced a minimum of moralistic outpourings from the old guard, who were in reality opposed to divorce full stop and sorry to see a dauntingly complex and appealing procedure – effectively a deterrent to divorce – be removed from the statute book. It was al rather different to the agonies over the acceptability or otherwise of  a divorced woman hat had marked the abdication crisis. Herbert’s bill also removed the six month gap between the two stages of the divorce procedure which had caused such complications: Edward VIII had left his throne to marry a woman who was still legally married to someone else with no guarantee that she would eventually be free.