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The ‘King and Country’ Debate, 1933: Student Politics, Pacifism and the Dictators

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

Martin Ceadel
Imperial College, University of London


On 9 February 1933 the Oxford Union debated and carried by 275 votes to 153 the motion ‘That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’. After a few days this became a major news story, first in Britain then also in the world press: the British embassies in Madrid and Santiago cabled the Foreign Office in alarm at the appearance of the story in the Spanish and Chilean press. The motion was taken up also by student debating societies all over Britain and overseas: in the United States, for example, any pledge to take no part in war came to be known as the ‘Oxford pledge’ or the ‘Oxford oath’. Since the debate, which took place ten days after Hitler had become chancellor of Germany, appeared to contrast British liberal, pacifist effeteness with fascist martial virility it was seized on in Germany and Italy. The Liberal M.P. Robert Bernays told the house of commons how he had been asked about the debate later in 1933 by a prominent Nazi youth leader: ‘There was an ugly gleam in his eye when he said: “The fact is that you English are soft.”’ And on 7 July 1934 Alfred Zimmern, professor of international relations at Oxford, wrote from Geneva to the former Union president responsible for the debate: ‘I hope you do penance every night and every morning for that ill-starred Resolution. It is still going on sowing dragons’ teeth. If the Germans have to be knocked out a second time it will be partly your fault.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1979

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1 Chancery to News department, 14 Feb. 1933 (P440/440/150), Sir H. Chilton to Sir John Simon, 21 02 1938 (P586/440/150), Public Record Office, F.O. 395/490. In both cases it was discovered that the story had originated in Le Matin's London office and had been transmitted by the Havas news agency. These are, however, the only references to the debate I have been able to find in the foreign office papers.

2 See Nelson, John K., The peace prophets: American pacifist thought 1919–41 (Chapel Hill, 1967), p. 37Google Scholar; Chatfield, CharlesFor peace and justice: pacifism in America 1914–41 (Knoxville, 1971), p. 260Google Scholar.

3 Hansard, 292 H. of C. Deb., cols. 2400–1 (30 July 1934).

4 Zimmern to Hardie, 7 July 1934, Hardie papers, in Dr Hardie's possession.

5 Gilbert Murray to Miss Buckton, 29 Jan. 1934 (copy), Murray papers, Bodleian library; Briant, Keith, Oxford Limited (London, 1937), p. 101Google Scholar; Rathbone, Eleanor, War can be averted (London, 1938), pp. 187–8Google Scholar.

6 Hansard, 132 H. of L. Deb., col. 335 (21 June 1944); for similar experiences see Fermor, Patrick Leigh, A time of gifts (London, 1977), pp. 115–16Google Scholar.

7 Churchill, Winston S., The Second World War, vol. 1, The gathering storm (London, 1948), pp. 66–7Google Scholar; see also p. 131.

8 By Dean Rusk, for example, interviewed by Charlton, Michael, Listener, 9 06 1977, p. 741Google Scholar. See also Jones, R. V., Most secret war: British scientific intelligence 1939–1945 (London, 1978), p. 10Google Scholar. There was also some reaction of this sort to my Radio 4 programme, ‘King and Country: that ill-starred resolution’ (producer, Christopher Graham), broadcast on 9 Feb. 1978; see, for example, Radio Times, 25 Feb. to 3 03 1978, p. 71Google Scholar; Listener, 9 03 1978, p. 307Google Scholar.

9 For example, Taylor, A. J. P., English history 1914–1945 (Oxford, 1965), p. 362Google Scholar; Thomson, David, England in the twentieth century (London, 1965), p. 156Google Scholar.

10 This, which will hereafter be referred to as the Hardie memorandum, was written soon after the event and a later copy, dated 3 Mar. 1955, was donated by Hardie to the Bodleian library in that year but has not been made publicly available. I am extremely grateful to Dr Hardie, not only for access to his papers, but also for discussing the whole affair with me, for commenting on this article in draft form, and for giving me a number of valuable insights into the history of the thirties.

11 I am indebted to the following who have answered my inquiries about their personal experience of the controversy: Mr David Graham, Mr Kenelm Digby, the Rt. Hon. Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone, Professor Max Beloff, Mr Brian Farrell, the Rt. Hon. Lord Longford, the Rt. Hon. Lord Boyd of Merton, the Rt. Hon. Michael Foot, the late Rt. Hon. Sir Dingle Foot, the late Mr Edgar Lustgarten, and Mr Philip Stockil (who covered the debate for Isis).

12 See ‘Extract from a letter sent by David Graham to Thompy (summer 1933)’ (Moral Re-Armament Archives, 3.19: 1.4), cited in Belden, David C., ‘The origins and development of the Oxford Group (Moral Re-Armament)’ (Oxford D.Phil, thesis, 1976), p. 404Google Scholar. ‘Thompy’ was the Rev. O. H. Thompson. Embarrassed by its association with the debate, the Oxford Group later blamed it on the (Marxist) October Club, despite the fact that Graham's letter explicitly denied that the communists were involved.

13 Hardie memorandum, Hardie papers.

14 Daily Telegraph, 21 Feb. 1933.

15 Daily Express, 14 Feb. 1933.

16 Angell to Hardie, 28 Jan. 1933, Hardie papers.

17 See his article, ‘In the next war I shall be a conscientious objector’, Good Housekeeping, 09 1932, pp. 16, 103, 106Google Scholar.

18 Spence to Hardie, 31 Jan. 1933, Hardie papers.

19 Joad to Hardie, 2 Feb. 1933, ibid. For Joad's, conviction see The Times, 13 and 19 04 1948Google Scholar.

20 In his Journey through the war mind (London, 1940), p. 98Google Scholar, Joad uses this phrase, ostensibly to describe ‘D’, a famous pacifist and ‘psychologist’, with whom he is debating the problem of the pacifist's response to the Second World War. As well as being given Joad's physical characteristics and several of his leisure interests, ‘D’ is made to quote verbatim, without acknowledgment, from Joad's previous writings. For a friend's anecdotes, see Martin, Kingsley, Editor: a second volume of autobiography 1931–1945 (London, 1968), pp. 135–9Google Scholar.

21 Woolf, Leonard, Downhill all the way: an autobiography of the years 1919–1939 (London, 1967), p. 82Google Scholar.

22 Joad, C. E. M., Under the fifth rib (London, 1932), p. 16Google Scholar. As an undergraduate Joad had made few paper speeches at the Union but was, in the words ofIsis, 8 11 1913, p. 7Google Scholar, ‘a well-known Private Business comedian’. He never obtained Union office, being defeated in contests for secretary (by Harold Macmillan) and for librarian.

23 See Ceadel, Martin, ‘Pacifism in Britain 1931–1939’ (Oxford D.Phil. thesis, 1976)Google Scholar, ch. VI.

24 See his pamphlet, , What fighting means (London, No More War Movement, 1932)Google Scholar.

25 Joad, C. E. M., The testament of Joad (London, 1937), pp. 296–7Google Scholar. He gave the Oxford resolution as one of the reasons for his continued exclusion from Oxford academic life.

26 The account of the debate which follows is compiled from the Oxford Mail, 10 Feb. 1933; Oxford Magazine, 16 02 1933, pp. 440–1Google Scholar; Cherwell, 18 02 1933, pp. 111–12Google Scholar; Isis, 15 02 1933, p. 7Google Scholar; from the Hardie memorandum; and from interviews. See also Hollis, Christopher, The Oxford Union (London, 1965), pp. 185–6Google Scholar.

27 Hardie memorandum, Hardie papers.

28 Strachey's biographer informs me that this is the wording he now believes authentic; see Holroyd, Michael, Lytton Strachey: a biography (one-vol. edn, London, 1971), pp. 628–9Google Scholar; cf. Holroyd, Michael, Lytton Strachey: a critical biography (2 vols, London, 19671968), 11, 179Google Scholar.

29 Joad, was probably referring to the motion ‘That military power is economically and socially futile’, proposed in 10 1913Google Scholar byAngell, Norman who won what Isis, 1 11 1913, p. 5Google Scholar, called a ‘rather astonishing’ victory by a margin of forty votes in a house of about 530.

30 Daily Express, 13 Feb. 1933.

31 Evening Standard, 13 Feb. 1933.

32 Hogg, Quintin, ‘Oxford does not speak for us’, Daily Express, 14 02 1933Google Scholar.

33 Daily Telegraph, 15 Feb. 1933.

34 Hardie memorandum, Hardie papers.

35 See Lieven's, letter, complaining of misrepresentation, in the Morning Post, 23 02 1933Google Scholar.

36 Standing committee minutes, 20 Feb. 1933, Oxford Union Society. A new version of the minutes for the 9 Feb. debate was stuck in to replace the torn-out pages; this slightly altered the wording of the motion, replacing ‘in’ by ‘under’. For access to these minutes I am grateful to Miss Victoria Schofield, secretary of the Union, Michaelmas term 1976, and Mr Raymond Walters, librarian-in-charge.

37 Oxford Mail, 18 Feb. 1933.

38 In a Manchester Guardian article on 29 May 1933 Hardie noted that by then 16 colleges in the U.K. had passed the Oxford motion, or variants of it, and a further four had rejected it. At two universities the authorities had prevented any such debate.

39 The Times, 18 Feb. 1933.

40 New Statesman, 25 02 1933, p. 219Google Scholar.

41 Observer, 26 Feb. 1933.

42 News Chronicle, 21 and 24 Feb. 1933.

43 Articles by Joad, in the Daily Herald, 20 02 1933Google Scholar, and the Sunday Referee, 5 Mar. 1933, were reprinted by the Friends Peace Committee in pamphlet form as The fight – for peace and The Oxford resolution respectively. See also his article in the Sunday Dispatch, 19 Feb. 1933.

44 News Chronicle, 23 Feb. 1933.

45 Manchester Guardian, 15 Feb. 1933.

46 New Statesman, 18 02 1933, p. 179Google Scholar.

47 The ex-editors were Derek Hudson and Tony Goldsmith; seeHudson, Derek, The forgotten king and other essays (London, 1960), p. 251Google Scholar.

48 At the time the identity of ‘Sixty-Four’ was neither confirmed nor denied by the Telegraph, although Toby O'Brien, a former union president working for that newspaper, told Hardie of his embarrassment at the (incorrect) assumption that it was he who had leaked the secret. O'Brien later publicly confirmed that Firth was the author of the letter in 1965 in a radio programme occasioned by the revival of the Oxford resolution as a ‘Queen and Country’ debate by the Oxford Union. See the transcript, B.B.C. Home Service ‘Ten O'Clock’ Programme, 19 May 1965; kindly shown to me by Dr Hardie who was also interviewed for the programme. For the 1965 debate, see Isis, 26 05 1965, p. 22Google Scholar.

49 MrDeedes, William, editor of the Daily Telegraph, has informed the author (in a letter of 15 12 1976)Google Scholar that the paper has no written record, nor anyone with personal knowledge, of this episode.

50 MacColl to Hardie, 26 and 28 Feb. 1933, Hardie papers. The same attention to detail marked MacColl's work thirty years later when he served as a parliamentary secretary in the ministry of housing and local government under Richard Crossman, who recognized his talent, while referring to him as ‘my prim, prissy, high Church expert on local government’.Crossman, Richard, The diaries of a cabinet minister, vol. 1, Minister of housing (London, 1975), pp. 48–9Google Scholar.

51 I am grateful to Lord Boyd of Merton for this recollection, in a letter to the author of 2 Feb. 1977.

52 Young, Kenneth (ed.), The diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, 1, 1915–1938)London, 1973 244Google Scholar.

53 Cherwell, 18 02 1933, p. 99Google Scholar.

54 Standing committee minutes, 27 Feb. 1933.

55 This account of the second debate is based on the Oxford Mail, 3 Mar. 1933; Isis, 8 03 1933, p. 7Google Scholar; Oxford Magazine, 9 03 1933, pp. 538–9Google Scholar; on the reports appearing in the national press on 3 Mar. 1933; and on interviews.

56 Cited by Pakenham, Lord, Born to believe: an autobiography (London, 1953), 6970Google Scholar.

57 At the start of Foot's, term as president of the Union Isis emphasized his ‘genuine pacifism and conscientious objection to arms’ (18 10 1933, p. 7)Google Scholar.

58 This account of Hardie's speech is based on his (unpublished) ‘Verbatim report of speech delivered in the Oxford Union on Thursday, March 2nd, 1933’, Hardie papers.

59 As Winston Churchill noted in a letter to the M.P. for Oxford University, Lord Hugh Cecil, on 11 03 1933: ‘He stood a hard test at the Oxford Union. Nothing is so piercing as the hostility of a thousand of your contemporaries, and he was by no means crushed under it.’ Cited in Gilbert, Martin, Winston S. Churchill vol. 1, 1922–1939 (London, 1976), p. 172Google Scholar.

60 2 Mar. 1933 debate minutes, Oxford Union Society.

61 The public business which was in theory supposed to follow the private business of the expunging resolution was also abandoned.

62 Daily Express, Morning Post, Daily Telegraph, 3 Mar. 1933.

63 Morning Post, 23 Feb. 1933.

64 For example, the passing by 213 votes to 138 in Mar. 1927 by the Cambridge Union of the motion ‘That lasting peace can only be secured by the people of England adopting an uncompromising attitude of pacifism’, proposed by England's leading absolute pacifist of the time, Arthur Ponsonby (see Granta, 11 Mar. 1927, p. 345); and the Oxford Union's motion ‘That pacifism is the only true form of patriotism’, which Frank Hardie and David Graham had proposed on 28 May 1931 and which was carried by 79 votes to 47 (see Isis, 3 06 1931, p. 11Google Scholar).

65 Ashley, M. P. and Saunders, C. T., Red Oxford: a history of the growth of socialism in the university of Oxford (Oxford, 2nd edn, 1933), 41Google Scholar See also Hardie, Frank, ‘Political tendencies at Oxford’, New Statesman, 18 02 1933, 181–2Google Scholar; and Karaka, D. F., The pulse of Oxford (London, 1933), 2141Google Scholar.

66 For a portrait of Cole in the twenties by one of his small group of undergraduate supporters, see Gaitskell, Hugh, ‘At Oxford in the 1920s’, in Briggs, Asa and Saville, John (eds.), Essays in labour history (London, rev. edn, 1967), 619Google Scholar. Undergraduate life in the twenties is evoked in numerous memoirs, but for a contemporary account see Greenidge, Terence, Degenerate Oxford? a critical study of modern university life (London, 1930)Google Scholar.

67 Briant, Oxford, p. 35.

68 See, for example, Isis, 8 02 1933, p. 1Google Scholar; Hanson, A. H., ‘Why I am a communist’, News Chronicle 6 04 1934Google Scholar; Briant, Oxford, p. 270.

69 New Statesman, 2 12 1933, p. 690Google Scholar. See also Hobhouse, Christopher, Oxford: as it was and as it is today (London, 1939), 103–4Google Scholar; Karaka, Pulse, p. xi. For similar developments outside Oxford, see Stansky, Peter and Abrahams, William, Journey to the frontier: Julian Bell and John Cornford: their lives and the 1930s (London, 1966), 204Google Scholar; and Lipset, Seymour Martin, Rebellion in the universities: a history of activism in America (London, 1972), pp. 178–9Google Scholar.

70 According to McCallum, R. B., in an anonymous editorial in the Oxford Magazine, 16 02 1933Google Scholar.

71 New Statesman, 18 02 1933, p. 181Google Scholar. See also Hardie's, essay, ‘Youth and polities’, in Johnson, Alan Campbell (ed.), Growing opinions: a symposium of British youth outlook (London, 1935), pp. 179–80Google Scholar.

72 Daily Telegraph, 13 Feb. 1933.

73 This point was made by Hirst, Francis W., the veteran Cobdenite who had attended the 2 March 1933 debate to oppose the expunging motion, in his The consequences of the war to Great Britain (London, 1934), p. 97Google Scholar. The words ‘in no circumstances’ were omitted when the Union redebated the motion in 1965, and none of the speakers then interpreted it as a strict pacifist motion.

74 For early arguments on these lines, see: the ‘member of the League of Nations Union’ quoted in the Oxford Mail, 13 Feb. 1933; Griffin's, Jonathan letter in the New Statesman, 25 02 1933, p. 219Google Scholar; Foot, Michael et al. , Young Oxford and war (London, 1934), pp. 31–2Google Scholar; Joad, C. E. M. (ed.), Manifesto: being the book of the Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals (London, 1934), p. 120Google Scholar.

75 See Howard, Michael, War and the liberal conscience (London, 1978), p. 91Google Scholar; SirPritchard, Neil (letter), The Times, 15 02 1978Google Scholar; Blair, P. E., ‘Air power and appeasement’, in Bossy, John and Jupp, Peter (eds.), Essays presented to Michael Roberts (Belfast, 1976), p. 173Google Scholar.

76 That Joad was ‘a pacifist in the full sense’, as were ‘many who voted with him’, was recognized by McCallum, R. B. in his influential book, Public opinion and the last peace (London, 1944), p. 179Google Scholar. However, McCallum had by then come to believe that ‘to many’ the motion ‘did not exclude a war for collective security’.

77YourKingAndCountryNeedYou’ was the heading of the government's recruiting appeal which appeared daily in The Times from 5 Aug. 1914. On 11 Aug. the same heading was used for a full-page appeal by Lord Kitchener for 100,000 men to sign on for three years or the duration of the war. It should be pointed out, however, that the caption on Alfred Leete's famous illustrated poster of Kitchener's pointing finger was simply ‘YourCountryNeedsYou’.

78 Housman to Sheppard, 6 Feb. 1933, in Housman, Laurence (ed.), What can we believe? Letters exchanged between Dick Sheppard and L.H. (London, 1939), p. 203Google Scholar.

79 For an analysis of changes in opinion, see Ceadel, ‘Pacifism’, chs. VII–IX.

80 Isis, 16 11 1938, p. 5Google Scholar.

81 Ibid. p. 1. However, the best of the floor speakers supporting the motion was, according to Isis, an anti-Chamberlain conservative: Edward Heath (Balliol).

82 I am grateful to the editor of the Mid-Devon Gazette (and, once again, to the editor of the Daily Telegraph); to Professor Erich von Richthofen, Department of Italian Studies, University of Toronto; and to the Privatarchiv Generalstabsoffiziere Deutscher Heere, in Bonn, and the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Freiburg im Breisgau.

83 Historians consulted, in collaboration with Christopher Graham of the B.B.C., include: Lord Bullock, David Dilks, T. W. Mason, A. J. P. Taylor, D. C. Watt, Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, Gunther Kloss, Denis Mack Smith, Jeremy Noakes, V. R. Berghahn, Heinrich Fraenkel, and Christopher Browning.

84 Federzoni, Luigi, Italia di ieri per la storia di domani (Milan, 1967), pp. 132–3Google Scholar; Castellani, Aldo, Microbes, men and monarchs (London, 1960), p. 128Google Scholar. For these references I am indebted to Smith, Denis Mack, Mussolini's Roman empire (London, 1976), p. 94Google Scholar.

85 Churchill, Second World War, 1, 131. For Lord Lloyd's contacts with Mussolini see Adam, Colin Forbes, Life of Lord Lloyd (London, 1948), pp. 257, 274Google Scholar.

86 Hansard, 132 H. of L. Deb. Col. 335 (21 June 1944).

87 Smith, Denis Mack, ‘Anti-British propaganda in fascist Italy’, in Inghilterra e Italia nel 'goo: atti del convegno di Lucca, ottobre 1972 (Florence, 1972), pp. 98–9Google Scholar.

88 Corriere della sera, 9 Nov. 1938.

89 See Gilbert, Churchill, v, 505, 742. Dacre Balsdon, who was a fellow of Exeter college at the time, has claimed that Winston Churchill had telephoned the proctors before the 2 Mar. 1933 debate to ‘threaten the vengeance of the law’ if Randolph were molested. I have been unable to discover any corroboration for this story, but Dr Balsdon has assured me it was ‘current in the university at the time’ (letter to the author, 19 Apr. 1977). See his Oxford now and then (London, 1970), p. 172Google Scholar.

90 Interview, 17 Oct. 1977. Sefton Delmer is unable to confirm or deny this story.

91 See, for example, Völkischer Beobachter, 1 Nov. 1933 (for Foreign Office interest in this article see F.O. 371/8963); Thost, Hans W., Als Nationalsozialist in England (Munich, 1939), p. 81Google Scholar.

92 According to theOxford Magazine, 12 03 1936, p. 479Google Scholar.