Saturday, December 15, 2018

Not particularly exhilarated

‘I don’t feel particularly exhilarated - rather the reverse. Just as, during the election, when I was being mobbed in the market & found myself thinking ‘It was roses, roses all the way’, so now I can’t help being most impressed by the fortuitous & insubstantial nature of these political promotions.’ This is Sir Kenneth Younger, born 110 years go today, writing in a diary about his promotion to ministerial status in Clement Atlee’s government after the 1950 election. Although he served briefly as acting Foreign Secretary, and then, after the 1951 election, in the Shadow Cabinet, he had tired of party politics before the decade was finished, and stood down from his Parliamentary seat not long after turning 50.

Younger was born on 15 December 1908 into a Conservative family living in Gargunnock, Stirlingshire, Scotland - his grandfather having been a Conservative Party chairman. He was educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford; after reading for the Bar, he was called to the Inner Temple in 1932. In 1934, he married Elizabeth Stewart; they had two daughters and one son. During the war, however, he served in the Intelligence Corps in several capacities, rising to the rank of Major. After the war he was adopted as Labour candidate for Grimsby. Biographers suggest that he may have turned away from his Conservative background partly because of the Conservative-led appeasement policies in the 1930s and partly because of the Spanish Civil War. In the 1945 general election, Younger won his seat easily, and was appointed PPS by Philip Noel-Baker, Minister of State for Air in Clement Atlee’s government.

Younger was briefly involved with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, and with the British delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, but after a reshuffle by Atlee he became Parliamentary Secretary to the Home Office. Following the 1950 general election, he was promoted to Minister of State at the Foreign Office, deputy to Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. When Bevin fell ill, Younger took on the role of acting Foreign Secretary, at a time when the Korean War had started, the Communists had taken hold in China, and the European Coal and Steel Community was being created. Bevin resigned because of ill health in 1951, but Atlee deemed Younger insufficiently experienced to replace him. In any case, Atlee called a snap general election that year which he lost. From 1955, Younger was Shadow Home Secretary; but he was becoming disillusioned with party politics, and he resigned his seat in 1959.

Younger continued to serve in public life, though, as Director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and as chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform. He chaired the Advisory Council on the Penal System in 1966, the Committee of Inquiry on Privacy from 1970 to 1972, and Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham Area Health Authority for two years. He was appointed KBE in 1972; and he died in 1976. There is surprisingly little biographical information about Younger online other than at Wikipedia and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required).

Although there is no evidence that Younger was a diarist by nature (there is no mention of diaries, for example, within his National Archives entry), he did keep a detailed political diary for about 18 months in 1950-1951. This was edited by the historian Geoffrey Warner, and published by Routledge in 2005 (part of its ‘British politics and society’ series) as In the Midst of Events: The Foreign Office diaries and papers of Kenneth Younger February 1950-October 1951. The book can be previewed at Googlebooks, or the full text can be freely downloaded from EPDF. By the evidence of Warner’s book, Younger’s diary entries were usually rather long and often separated by a week or two. Warner’s approach to the diary is to embed extracts (always dated) into his own narrative, sometimes splitting them into several sections.

Here is part of the preface by Peter Catterall (the book series editor): ‘Kenneth Younger never quite attained the first-class political status which goes with Cabinet rank. However he was able, during the eighteen months or so covered by this edition of his diaries, to influence the conduct of British diplomacy, particularly during the lengthy illness that marked the closing stages of Ernest Bevin’s tenure as Foreign Secretary. In their course, as well, he proves an acute observer of the difficulties facing the Attlee government at that time, not least in the international arena. Naturally, the problem of confronting or containing the communist threat looms particularly large in his account. It is interesting to observe that Younger, after discussing the Schuman Plan for a European Coal and Steel Community and the British alternatives to it, soon notes that “The Korean situation has now knocked Schuman right into the background of public consciousness”. Other foreign policy problems are certainly mentioned, particularly the lengthy Abadan crisis in 1951, occasioned by the Iranian attempt to nationalise the British oil assets in their country. But the theme which dominates these pages is the Cold War and the question, made more acute by the Korean War, of how the western powers should respond to both the Soviet Union and China. [. . .]

The dispassionate flavour of Younger’s diaries partly derives from their method of composition. As Geoffrey Warner points out, in a sense they are not diaries at all, being written up only once every few weeks. These entries are reflective musings, rather than real-time accounts. This poses particular problems for their editor. A diary which offers a daily account can form a continuous, internally coherent narrative. One as discontinuous as this requires instead that the editor must, perforce, provide linking text in order to contextualise the original account. Doing so is a delicate task. The editor must avoid being overly intrusive, whilst also striving not to go to the opposite extreme and becoming merely dull. Warner admirably succeeds in this balancing act. Younger’s original entries are illuminated by appropriate commentaries and enlivened by a leavening of quotations from contemporary letters and documents, or from subsequent interviews. These very much add to the value of this text and the light it casts on the foreign-policy dilemmas of the period. Whilst the Cold War dominates the landscape, as Younger’s comments show, there was nevertheless a lively internal and inter-allied debate about how that Cold War should be handled. In the critical account it offers of Anglo-American relations in a crucial period, however, it is also an important contribution to the study of alliance diplomacy, and in particular to the understanding of this significant, if often fraught, partnership.’

Here are two extracts.

28 February 1950
‘The P.M. spent yesterday and to-day in forming his government. At 3 o’clock I was sent for and told that he wants me to be Minister of State [at the Foreign Office] in succession to Hector McNeill who is being promoted to the Scottish Office or some other cabinet post. I hadn’t expected promotion, and I hadn’t really wanted it, but I can’t help being gratified at having got it. I know Chuter is largely responsible, as he told me had recommended me for promotion. It appears that I am also well thought of by Ernest Bevin - why, is something of a mystery. It is a big promotion for me. My reaction is partly incredulity & partly nervousness. I hadn’t really thought of myself as getting above the general run of parliamentary secretaries so soon. I think I have done well at the Home Office, both administratively and in the House [of Commons], but it has all been on a rather pedestrian level. Reliability rather than brilliance must certainly be what recommends me to the P.M.

I don’t feel particularly exhilarated - rather the reverse. Just as, during the election, when I was being mobbed in the market & found myself thinking ‘It was roses, roses all the way’, so now I can’t help being most impressed by the fortuitous & insubstantial nature of these political promotions. However it is a grand job, & will extend me to the full. I can only do my best & hope that things will go all right. It is not at all clear how much I will have to go abroad, but now that we have this tiny majority, I may not be able to go so much. . .’

5 August 1950
Parliament rose a week ago. Ernie Bevin is due back in the office on Monday and I am due to leave for three weeks’ holiday on the same day. I am hoping not to have to put my feet inside the office from now to 1st September. That probably ends the long period during which I have in effect been continuously ‘in charge of the office’, and as continuously overworked. It has been a great experience and on the whole I have come through it with reasonable credit. I do not think I have made many glaring mistakes and I think I have taken as much of the burden off Ernie [Bevin] and the P.M. as was practicable. Obviously with matters like Korea & the Schuman Plan, many of the decisions could only be taken by senior ministers acting together if not by the whole cabinet. I am not able to sway the cabinet as Ernie might, & I would have been wrong to try. All I could do was to know my stuff, put my points clearly & persistently & rely on the P.M. to handle the Cabinet if necessary. In point of fact there has been surprisingly little disagreement over most of the issues of recent weeks. . .

I shall not trouble to write much about the substance of the work I have been doing. Much of it has related to Korea, which is a matter of history. With most of the decisions being taken in Washington, & with the Security Council sitting in New York [,] there has been a daily rush to clear and send out urgent instructions almost every day. Often we have had to face situations caused by the hamhandedness & excitability of the Americans who are, understandably, in an emotional and difficult state. At the present time they are engaged in a desperate effort to stabilise a front which is little more than a bridgehead around Pusan.

It is not sure that they will succeed and their prestige is of course very much involved. In consequence they are not inclined to pay much attention to the longer-term issues arising from their lack of policy in the Far East, and we are fighting a constant battle to prevent them from deliberately courting trouble with China, over Formosa and other matters.

Underneath what often seem petty disagreements and misunderstandings there is I think an important difference of viewpoint between us. The Americans, with only a few exceptions[,] seem to have decided that a war with ‘the communists’ is virtually inevitable & likely to occur relatively soon, say within 3-5 years. They regard all communists alike, no matter what their nationality[,] and assume that they are all dancing to Moscow’s tune & are bound to do so in future. It follows from this that the main problem is how to win the war when it comes, & there is no room for any subtleties in dealing with the Chinese. They are enemies & must be recognised as such.

We on the other hand, despite growing pessimism, still give first place to the effort to prevent war. We do not accept it as inevitable, & we are therefore unwilling to prepare uninhibitedly for an early war if by so doing we make war more likely or seriously impair our ability to raise our own & other living standards over a longer period of years. I do not suppose the Americans would admit to the point of view I have mentioned. They may not even be conscious of it. But most of their soldiers act on it & it is only upon that assumption that US political behaviour makes any sense at all. This applies particularly in their attitude to China. They are simply not interested in our view that China, if properly handled, could in the long run be separated from Moscow. Because such a development does not seem likely to happen quickly, the Americans discount it. There will, they argue, be a war anyway before anything useful can happen.

All this is very dangerous. We now have the two great powers both apparently believing, for different reasons, that a major war is bound to come, & that in itself makes war much more likely.

When I left the office today William Strang said ‘I do not suppose things will have changed much by the time you get back.’ I can certainly see no prospect of a change for the better. The most likely changes, if there are any at all, would be the defeat of the Americans in Korea & their complete evacuation (which is still a possibility) and a Chinese attempt to take Formosa, which the Americans would resist. Either of these events would lead to a serious deterioration of the whole Far Eastern position.

I made a vain attempt to get the Cabinet to discuss the consequences of a US-Chinese clash over Formosa, but Ernie wouldn’t have it. He was afraid of some decision which might tie his hands when the time came. My view is that by backing the Americans we would endanger everything that we have achieved in Asia by our forward policy in India, Burma etc. and that we might split the Commonwealth irretrievably into white and coloured. All the same, refusal to back the Americans would be a great shock to the worldwide alliance, the Atlantic Pact and the collective effort against Soviet communism. Faced with the choice, my own very reluctant view is that we would have to go with the Americans. Either way the prospects for world peace, let alone progress, would be immensely bleak.

Already unpleasant results of this are making themselves felt in the shape of increased arms production, and the prospect of having to renounce further progress on the economic & social front for some years. Such a situation may well put an end to social democratic parties in the west, including even the Labour Party. If our main effort is to be military, and everything else becomes almost stagnant, it is hard to see how our policy can differ from the Tories[’] except perhaps in ensuring somewhat greater equality of sacrifice. Moreover rearmament & large armed forces arouse enthusiasm among the Tories and nothing but despondency among us and our supporters. It is doubtful whether we can in such circumstances maintain national leadership for more than a limited period. If things get worse, coalition will loom up, official Labour & the Tories will get identified, and the communists and fellow travellers will get a big chance to take over the leadership of the opposition. I cannot foresee what I might do in such circumstances. I might easily find a coalition policy impossible, but whether I should find any more acceptable political resting place I do not know. I have a feeling that I should be obliged to rethink my basic position all over again in terms of the new situation.
I do not find much comfort in most of my colleagues on such subjects. Very few of them are, I think, interested in first principles at all. Their approach is pragmatic, and anyway they are mostly too busy to go in for political philosophy or ideological thinking. I have been too busy myself in recent months. Nye Bevan is, of course, an exception. I usually agree with him in Cabinet, though he occasionally goes off on a wild tangent. His position is none too strong just now & he is not a member of the inner circle who really decide things. If therefore there should be any spiritual crisis within the [Labour] movement or the government, Nye would probably take a line of his own and I should be very tempted to follow him.

I admire both the P.M. and Cripps in their different ways. Intellectually Cripps is really remarkable, & Attlee certainly has an authority which would surprise outside observers. It is true that he does not frame policy personally. He leaves that to Cripps, Morrison & Bevin. He is however a very good coordinator & executive, and his detachment from personal relationships makes him quite formidable within his well recognised limitations. I can’t say the rest of the Cabinet impresses me much. As a body the Cabinet shows little cohesion or basis of common thinking. Many members would be at least as happy in a Tory government, and happiest of all in a coalition. The younger members - Harold Wilson, Hector McNeil & Patrick Gordon Walker - are very competent in their jobs, but politically I don’t warm to any of them. The two latter are too obviously on the make. It appears that they have been grooming themselves to succeed Ernie if he has to pack up! It looks as though he will disappoint them for a while at least. Equally Herbert Morrison is waiting impatiently for Clem Attlee to go. At present I think he would be bound to succeed to [the] leadership, but I should be very sorry to see him there. He is a very astute politician but in my view lacks real stature. Although in many ways he is far abler than Clem, I do not think he has as broad or as elevated a conception of national & world affairs as Clem. As P.M. I believe he might let us down badly. . .’

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