Tuesday, February 27, 2024

It all affects us terribly

‘Anthony E[den] and Edward Wood are off to Geneva - and the farce begins again - talk, talk, talk - and all the time the nations are arming - and the Teuton faces the Slav as he did in 1914, and Fascism stands opposed to Communism. To us in this country it all seems so silly and unreal - and yet, whether we like it or not, it all affects us terribly.’ This is from the extensive diary kept by the Conservative politician Sir Cuthbert Headlam who died 60 years ago today. He held various relatively minor government positions in the 1920s and 1930s but he is remembered today for his diaries which are considered of historical importance.

Headlam was born in Barton upon Irwell, Lancashire, the third of five sons, the Headlams being a minor gentry family with roots in north Yorkshire. His father was the stipendiary magistrate of Manchester. He was educated at King’s School, Canterbury, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read history. He was a Clerk in the House of Lords between 1897 and 1924, becoming a barrister at the Inner Temple in 1906. He served in the Bedfordshire Yeomanry from 1910 to 1926, and was mentioned in despatches during the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, retiring as lieutenant colonel.

In 1924, Headlam was elected MP for Barnard Castle, losing the seat in 1929, regaining it in 1931, and losing it again in 1935. In 1940, standing as an Independent Conservative, he was voted MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North; he retained the seat until retiring from Parliament in 1951. During his periods as an MP, he held various government positions: Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty from 1926 to 1929; Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions from 1931 to 1932; and Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport from 1932 to 1934.

Headlam was also active in his local area, a Durham County Councillor from 1931 to 1939, and Justice of the Peace for the County of Durham. He was created a baronet in the 1935 Birthday Honours and appointed a Privy Counsellor in 1945. He died on 27 February 1964. For further information see either Wikipedia or the UK Parliament website.

Headlam was a keen and committed diarist. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required) has this assessment: ‘Headlam's historical significance lies in his extensive private diary. He kept this regularly from 1910 until 1951, and for the period of his political career it contains more than two and a half million words. [. . . He] wrote in a lucid prose style and shrewdly analysed both issues and personalities. When he was at the House of Commons he often recorded the gossip of the lobbies, the mood of his party, and the standing of its leaders. Headlam knew most of the rising Conservative figures of the 1930s and 1940s, and paid particular attention to three of his peers in the 1924 intake - Harold Macmillan, Oliver Stanley, and Anthony Eden.’

Headlam’s diaries were edited by Stuart Ball and published in two volumes: Parliament and Politics in the Age of Baldwin and MacDonald: The Headlam Diaries 1923-1935 (The Historians’ Press, 1992); Parliament and Politics in the Age of Churchill and Attlee: the Headlam Diaries 1935-1951 (Cambridge University Press, 1999). The latter can be digitally borrowed from Internet Archive or sampled at Googlebooks. Here is the opening of Ball’s introduction to this later volume.

‘For the period of his political career, from 1924 to 1951, Sir Cuthbert Headlam’s diary consists of more than two and a half million words. The diary is of value for more than just its scale and consistency. Whilst Headlam naturally wrote about his own affairs, he looked outwards as well as inwards. When he was at the House of Commons he would record the gossip of the lobbies, the mood of his party and the standing of its leaders. Headlam knew most of the rising figures in the Conservative Party of the 1930s and 1940s. and recorded his assessment of their characters and fortunes. He also used the diary to analyse the domestic and international situation, and to comment upon topical issues. It is these elements in the diary which are of wider historical significance, and which have been selected for inclusion in the published edition.’

Here are several extracts.

11 September 1936
‘Hitler’s claim to Colonies is very tiresome and the sooner our Government says definitely that we have no intention of surrendering any colonies, the better it will be. There is no earthly use in our giving them up to the Germans - even if we were in a position to do so. It would only make Hitler and co. more certain than ever that they could go on asking for more - a policy of Danegeld never has paid and never will. I don’t for a moment suppose that Hitler is doing more than trying it on - he has got to adopt an aggressive attitude to prove to his own people that he is a devil of a fellow and he has got away with [it] so often now that he thinks that he can go on on the same lines indefinitely.’ 

18 September 1936
‘Anthony E[den] and Edward Wood are off to Geneva - and the farce begins again - talk, talk, talk - and all the time the nations are arming - and the Teuton faces the Slav as he did in 1914, and Fascism stands opposed to Communism. To us in this country it all seems so silly and unreal - and yet, whether we like it or not, it all affects us terribly. We go on talking - some of us really believing that it is possible to find agreement between the contending influences that are perplexing and upsetting Europe today: others realizing the hopelessness of pacts for peace and collective security so long as no nation will abide by such guarantees: none of us bold enough to say that the time has come for us to admit that the League has failed and must be scrapped or recreated on new lines - and that really G.B. must trust to herself alone, and keep out of other people’s messes.’

20 September 1940
‘Things seem to have been quieter over London today - it is beginning to look as if the Luftwaffe had had about enough of the business - they have certainly got it in the neck. . . . Our airmen have had a gruelling time, but each day that passes the more magnificently they seem to carry on the fight. It is odd to see how so much we owe to so small a number of young men - here are millions of us doing nothing while the battle is being decided above our heads by a chosen band of warriors drawn from here, there and everywhere - upon them depends our safety and perhaps the independence of our country. They must be a superb body of men . . . one would like to know the difference in material strength of our R.A.F. and the Luftwaffe: some day presumably we shall know - and then, more than ever, I expect, we shall salute the gallant men who are now doing such untold services for their country.’

27 October 1941
‘It amuses me to see how the big boss Bevin is at last beginning to wake up to the fact that compulsion is the only way of getting people to do war work. His vain efforts to keep up trade union ideas during this national crisis would be amusing if the lag in production were not so great. It is now evident to most of us that things cannot be allowed to go on as they are, and Winston will be well-advised to hand Bevin to the wolves rather than allowing him to go on messing about much longer - I don’t fancy that his removal would upset anybody.’ 

8 December 1941
‘Apparently there was a summons to Parliament on the 12 (midnight) wireless . . . but mercifully not conveyed to me - so I missed hearing Winston’s speech today telling us that we were at war with Japan. This afternoon (or morning, I forget which) we all listened to Roosevelt announcing the villainies of Japan in the American Congress - he did the job remarkably well and only took eight minutes to do it; we heard him admirably. Clearly the Japanese must have caught the American navy napping - Roosevelt admits that a lot of damage has been done at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii - ‘an old battleship’ and a destroyer sunk, large numbers of aircraft destroyed, 3.000 casualties on Oahu Island, etc., etc.,. The Japanese are busy trying to land troops here, there and everywhere - Siam has already submitted to them - and presumably Burma will now be attacked. It is the old, old story - the enemy prepared, the Allies unprepared and no doubt we are in for a beastly time of it for a bit. Singapore has been bombed, also the Philippines and the American base on Guam Island has apparently been taken by Japan. In Russia things seem to be going well - the Germans have now decided not to take Moscow until the spring - the winter it seems is not a suitable time for military movement.

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