‘Guilty Men’ at 80

Eighty years ago this month, Michael Foot, Frank Owen and Peter Howard published 'Guilty Men' – a blistering condemnation of ruling class appeasement of Nazi Germany which became a national sensation.

“Here then in three words is the story. Flesh against steel.”

Eighty years ago this month, Tribune announced the publication of a “half-crown book issued by Victor Gollancz which is political dynamite.” In spite of WH Smith and other leading booksellers and distributors refusing to handle it, Guilty Men sold 200,000 copies in the space of a few weeks – mainly through newsstands and street barrows. This book, Tribune said, “flays the whole Chamberlain Gang in a polemical style reminiscent of a more outspoken pamphleteering age.”

Shortly before, Michael Foot, the young assistant editor of the Evening Standard, his editor Frank Owen, a former Liberal MP, and Tory columnist Peter Howard had met on the roof of the Daily Express building where they all worked. They adopted the pseudonym ‘Cato’ as their proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, was not only a newly-appointed member of the Cabinet, but guarded the labours of his employees with great jealousy. In between working on Beaverbrook’s papers, the trio completed Guilty Men in the space of four days – with Foot taking on the bulk of the workload. It was not just an indictment of the policy of appeasement, Tribune said, but “the whole sordid story” for public consumption:

It will make you fiercely angry as you read. And it is anger that is needed to sweep these relics of appeasement, incompetence and muddle out of public life. Remember what Winston Churchill said on May 29, 1936: “The use of recriminating about the past is to enforce effective action at the present.”

Churchill had become Prime Minister in May 1940. He is uncritically quoted not only here in Tribune, but throughout Guilty Men. The Labour Left was prepared to support his new War Cabinet, which included two Labour figures: Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. Churchill had drawn a line under his past criticisms of his Tory colleagues, saying:

Let every man search his conscience and search his speeches, I frequently search mine. Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present we shall find we have lost the future.

In another appeal for unity, he put it more succinctly: “Let pre-war feuds die.” But the authors of Guilty Men were not so prepared to forgive and forget while so many appeasers remained in government. As Michael Foot put it in 2003: “Some of them were the very people – Chamberlain and co, Halifax and others, who’d been responsible for all the disasters of the previous government.”

Guilty Men opens with a description of the beaches of Dunkirk. Britain’s “unbeaten and unconquerable” army are

…now stumbling back, footsore, eyes red with weariness, sleepless for days, still pelted by all the metal which the German Reich could muster, stumbling back, aching in every limb towards one port, already half in flames, towards one pier which one bomb could blow to oblivion. Those sands were only thirty miles from England. But they were bare, naked, inviting for the Nazi bomber.

The 2017 Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk did not shy away from the horrors of the German bombardment, but it still is primarily a story of heroism. While recognising Britain’s “brave, daring men” in the services and the “heroes in jerseys and sweaters and old rubber boots” who flocked from “all the fishing ports of Britain,” Cato sternly tells us “heroism is not enough in this world of air-power and seventy-ton tanks.” The story of Dunkirk in Guilty Men is not one of military or civilian heroism, but one of political cowardice.

In the following chapters, each of the 15-strong cast is indicted for his role in Britain’s failure to recognise the Nazi threat and equip its military for war. All but two are Conservatives or Liberal Nationals, led by former Prime Ministers Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin. Others are more obscure, such as Sir Thomas Inskip, whose appointment as Minister of Defence, Cato says, led one “famous statesman” to observe in the “smoke-rooms of Westminster” that there had been “no similar appointment since the Roman Emperor Caligula made his horse a Consul.” The exceptions to this Tory parade are the turncoat Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and Sir Horace Wilson, who at the time remained Head of the Home Civil Service.

And though Guilty Men opens in Dunkirk, at the start of the second chapter we are told that the story really began at Crewe railway station. A chance meeting during the 1929 election campaign (of which there appears to be no historical record) concludes with MacDonald telling Baldwin: “Well, whatever happens we shall keep out the Welshman.” For Britain’s last liberal premier was still leading his party. “They kept Lloyd George out,” Cato narrates. “The national misfortune is that they kept themselves in. Our country had already endured a six-year stretch of Baldwin, MacDonald, Baldwin. It was now to suffer a further and longer span of MacDonald, MacDonald-Baldwin, and finally Baldwin-MacDonald.”

Cato was of course himself a cross-party collaboration, concocted just as secretly as any alleged meeting in Crewe on the roof of the Express building. The authors were content to support – if critically – Churchill’s new coalition government. It was not political alliances they objected to, it was this particular one, cooked up, in their view, deliberately to  protect dim-witted moderates from the scrutiny of statesmen like Lloyd George and Churchill. But in the eight decades since publication, Guilty Men has attracted as much scrutiny for its acquittals as it has for its indictments. Most notable is the omission of Beaverbrook, whose newspapers had supported appeasement until late in the day. Lloyd George had gone further, actively supporting Germany’s territorial demands for much of the 1930s, and even spoke of his admiration for Hitler.

Most controversial, however, is Guilty Men’s exoneration of Labour. The accusation that Labour wanted to fight Hitler while opposing rearmament “has enough truth in it to make it a whopping lie,” Cato charges. The book contends that while Labour “was certainly permeated with the severe drenchings of pacifism,” the party turned its back on disarmament after the rise of Hitler. From its 1935 conference onwards, “the Labour Party was officially pledged to armaments every whit as much as the Government.”

The Tory MP Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) begged to differ. His book The Left Was Never Right was published ahead of the 1945 election – responding not only to Guilty Men, but also to a number of books Gollancz had published in the same series. Hogg argued that Labour MPs continued to speak and vote against rearmament in the years leading up to the war.

And yet many of the quotations he deployed to crucify Labour MPs only exonerate them. In a debate on extending conscription in April 1939. Aneurin Bevan asked: “What argument have they to persuade the young men to fight except merely in another squalid attempt to defend themselves against a redistribution of the international swag?” It was a valid question. By then Chamberlain’s government had shown total disregard for upholding the treaties Britain had signed. “International swag” was about the only principle to which Britain’s leaders could still lay claim.

Indeed, Cato had skewered Chamberlain’s inconsistency in selling Czechoslovakia down the river while pledging that “His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all the support in their power.” Poland was led by “a degenerate crew of landowners and old soldiers” who had “joined with the Nazis in the plunder of Czechoslovakia.” Britain had rejected the proposal of an anti-Nazi pact, with Chancellor Sir John Simon stating this would mean “our foreign policy would depend, not on this country, this Parliament, and the Electors, but on a lot of foreign Governments.”

Unsurprisingly, for all his military credentials, Hogg revealed his main interest not to be fighting fascism, but rather defending imperialism. He quotes anti-Empire pronouncements from Clement Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps as if they are damning in their own right. He takes particular exception to Foot’s rhetorical description of Britain as an “insignificant island” in The Trial of Mussolini, which he wrote for the Gollancz series under the pseudonym ‘Cassius’ in 1943. He even refers to the still-occupied Manchuria by its Japanese name Manchukuo.

Guilty Men was the subject of a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary, in which it was compared to contemporary attempts to blame both Brexit and Covid-19 on leading present-day politicians. While recognising its strength as a polemic, the programme’s presenter Phil Tinline echoed many of the criticisms heard over the past eighty years. And he went on to argue that “the largest group of people that Guilty Men let off the hook was the public.” Voters had been just as keen to avoid another war as Tory ministers, he suggested.

Yet this was the very same argument deployed by Baldwin, and quoted in Guilty Men – which nonetheless mildly chides the voters for failing to see the contradiction between disarming and maintaining security. Baldwin took to the despatch box in 1936 to speak with, as he put it, “appalling candour,” and said that in spite of his worries over developments in Europe as early as 1933, he could not call for rearmament because nothing “would have made the loss of the election, from my point of view, more certain.”

The lesson of Guilty Men is surely that the buck stops with those in power – and that there is nothing new about the current attempts to outsource blame for a preventable crisis to the public. “Let the Guilty Men retire, of their own volition, and so make an essential contribution to the victory upon which we are all implacably resolved,” Cato concludes. Then, as now, it was a plea unlikely to succeed.