D'Agostino on Pearce, 'The Golden Talking-Shop: The Oxford Union Debates Empire, World War, Revolution, and Women'

Edward Pearce
Anthony D'Agostino

Edward Pearce. The Golden Talking-Shop: The Oxford Union Debates Empire, World War, Revolution, and Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. xiv + 674 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-871723-2.

Reviewed by Anthony D'Agostino (San Francisco State University) Published on H-Diplo (July, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51537

No sooner had Adolf Hitler come to power in Germany at the end of January 1933 than the world learned of the Oxford Union passing a resolution by 274 votes to 153 that “the House will in no circumstance fight for King and Country” (p. 389). This pacifist statement is the only mention of the Oxford Union that appears in accounts of the origins of World War II, where it is usually taken as representative of elite opinion and its tropism for the policy of appeasement. To be sure, the vote could only be meaningful when contrasted with an assumed boyish patriotism among the leaders of the nation, ever ready to report to the colors, “the whole University marching with rifle down the High,” in the words of the commander of Oxford officer training (p. 169). Pacifism among the sons of hunting and shooting men presented quite a different and shocking picture to the rest of the world.

The debaters would change their minds by 1938, rounding on the Munich pact and girding for some kind of a stand against Fascism. This shift is sometimes given to mean, wrongly I think, that the King and Country vote of 1933 was taken too seriously. Perhaps one should say instead that it was a low point from which a turn began from anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiments to anti-Fascist ones, a spiritual transition moved along by the Spanish Civil War and its impact on the minds of British youth.

Tracing the intellectual history of this or related questions is not the job of this volume. Instead it is a series of fragmentary transcripts of debates from bound volumes of the Oxford Magazine published between 1895 and 1956, some speakers quoted at length, others only briefly, some just paraphrased by editors who comment freely on style and substance. A debate rendered in this way can become just an ensemble of quotations or series of summaries. Even so, it does give us a kind of intellectual history. The whole package is assembled with skill by journalist and historian Edward Pearce, who wraps it in a splendid engaging essay on the political and social background of the debates, which amounts to an appraisal of the British elite sensibility from the Boer War to Suez. Pearce also adds his own comments to those of the editors of the transcripts and leaves us in no doubt about his take on most of the issues. He warns in advance that, even if we get to observe in action Hillaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Philip Guedalla, Evelyn Waugh, Barbara Ward, Anthony Wedgewood-Benn, and others, alongside luminaries like David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, we should not expect a compendium of wit, although that was clearly the end toward which all the players were striving. Some contributions wear better than others and some not so well at all. So it is not Can You Top This? Instead it is a fascinating display of opinions and prejudices on the earth-shaking issues of the era of the world wars, a glimpse through the window on political and philosophical rumblings among the officer training corps of modern history’s greatest colonial empire in the period of its greatest trials.

The debaters take on subjects large and small, grave and fanciful. They do not all denounce the Levant, the Proletariat, the Bolshevik. In fact, many of them have a perfectly reasonable attitude toward trade unions, the feelings of the men, the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, the welfare state in general, and even the New Deal—not, however, toward women and the woman question. Too early for that. Philosopher A. J. Ayer asks the opinion of the House on the question “What is Happiness?” There is an inadequate response. A motion is offered that “The House Should View Nothing with Alarm” (pp. 358, 396). After due consideration, it is rejected.

The center of gravity in the discussions is the empire and its foreign policy choices. Here Pearce takes a view that might be called Salisburyan. By that I refer to a certain reading of the views of Lord Salisbury, realist-minded executor of British policy in the 1880s, when he and Otto Von Bismarck set the tone with their diplomacy of Anglo-German condominium. Salisbury was in power again at the end of the 1890s, when he entertained the possibility that Britain might go it alone in splendid isolation. Pearce thinks it a grave mistake for Britain to have been pulled into the Great War, and after the war, a mistake to have gone along with the French against Germany, that is, before Hitler made it necessary to do so. Also a mistake, in the reverse direction, not to have thrown in with the French against Germany, for example, on the Rhineland in 1936. He thinks appeasement might have been a good idea, but before 1914. This amounts to saying that the British could have maintained a balance of power in the time of the world wars on strictly continental terms, without Russia or the United States. I do not think this view of things really holds up. The debates offer perspectives on these matters, although they cannot be said to pursue any consistent line of thought.

Pearce introduces the discussion on the alignments leading to British commitment to war against Germany in 1914 by endorsing the historically persistent criticism of the Triple Entente and its proponents, Sir Edward Grey, Arthur Nicolson, and Foreign Office adviser Eyre Crowe. Here he follows Christopher Clark’s expansive and powerful study, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2013). It was one of fourteen books on the outbreak of the Great War that I counted in a Whitehall bookstore in 2014 and certainly the one that has received the most attention. It makes, or remakes, the case against the anti-German policy line. Harvard historian Sidney B. Fay argued something similar in 1920. The first generation of Great War revisionist historians, led by Harry Elmer Barnes and William L. Langer, followed by attacking the War Guilt Clause of the Versailles Peace, focusing attention instead on French decisions, the Russian mobilization, and the follies of Grey’s policy.

Pearce thinks that British policy was too Pan-Slav and anti-German, and that the House did not appreciate the drift toward war. Grey’s line balancing Germany began with the diplomatic revolution of Lord Landsdowne as foreign secretary after the Boer War, a policy that brought Britain out of splendid isolation and into the Triple Entente. On the reversal of alliances, which took Britain from a perceived role as junior partner in the Triple Alliance to its adversary, the Oxford debates were confused and inconsistent. At the time of the Boer War, opinion seemed in fact stridently militant on all azimuths. In 1903, with the Russo-Japanese War looming, the House did not at all regret the alliance with Japan, one member in fact citing a profound confluence of British and Japanese interests. Later in the year the debaters even welcomed the prospect of an entente with France. Yet by 1904 they turned on Landsdowne himself, who gave an impassioned defense of his policy in person. They cited the disadvantages of yielding Morocco to the French as part of the entente’s price. In 1911 they condemned emphatically the policy of the Triple Alliance—Germany, Austria, and for the moment, Italy. But how to balance it? In May 1914 a Cambridge guest complained that Britain’s enmeshment in the Triple Entente cannot balance the Triple Alliance and renders rapprochement with Germany impossible. This is the sentiment that Pearce prefers; he regrets that it is not general.

After victory in the war, with its demoralizing cost (but not for the empire), you might think that the House would have pivoted toward sentiments critical of the Versailles Peace, such as those expressed in Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). This might entail some revisionist history on German war guilt. Pearce offers the opinion that the authors of the “mined and toxic peace” of Versailles were as guilty as the appeasers for World War II (p. 281). Nevertheless, the House could not but approve of the way the peace had turned out, even while the debaters still rounded on the French. Perhaps there was disillusionment with the French cause (and that of Churchill) in the intervention in Soviet Russia. One debater called the interventionists there “an involuntary band of Scarlet Pimpernels” (p. 269). Even so, the House in 1919 wanted to persist in Russia even if that meant supporting Admiral Alexander Kolchak. At any rate, the House rejected the proposition that the French might be considered as guilty as the Germans for the outbreak of war, and even applauded a speech to the effect that Germany desired and planned it.

So the House was not revisionist on the question of German war guilt. Yet it was anti-French. It disapproved of the intervention of the French under Raymond Poincaré in the Ruhr in 1923, of his efforts to break up Germany by sponsoring the Rhenish separatists. There was a distinct sense that Britain must be opposed to the French hegemony over the continent and must consider German recovery rather than French security as the main British interest. Moreover, even after the advent of Hitler to power and the German alliance with Poland in 1934, there was no support and a great deal of explicit hostility toward a Franco-Soviet alliance. Perhaps we should interpret this as directly related to the King and Country resolution of 1933. But it may indicate that the orientation toward pacifism and later appeasement was perfectly consonant with a desire for a policy of balance of power, that is, a policy of British balancing French power, a desire that was painfully evident to French leaders almost from the moment the Great War ended and that persisted right up to the moment when it became evident that getting one’s way over France would entail war and a German defeat of France. When was that realization? Was it the German invasion of the Rhineland in 1936? Was it Munich? Was it the German march into Prague in March 1939?

A British attempt to balance German power in those years would have had to step back from years of denunciation of French hegemony. But it would have to go the next step, to recognize that the days of a European balance of power were finished; an Anglo-French alliance would not be sufficient to balance Germany. Pearce thinks it would. Suppose, however, that it is not right, as I think it is not. That means you have to have Soviet Russia, and probably also the United States, to carry out a proper policy of balance. There is very little in the Oxford debates suggesting any intellectual reckoning with this necessarily depressing prospect, which had to seem to the appeasers a portent of the end of empire. Supporting balance, one would have had to say that it was not an easy choice, really only a better one than living with (and fighting for) Nazi Germany. One reads the Oxford debates without seeing anything much about Soviet Russia as a force for balance and not much more about the United States. Rather the opposite. Harold Nicolson MP, arguing in April 1940, addressing this very point in the odd form of a discussion about the presumed impossibility of neutrality (which cannot but mean US neutrality), warned that the United States would disappoint. It is “Ophelia, rather than Pallas Athene” (p. 443). Rather the reverse: not Ophelia, but Pallas Athene.

After its great triumph in World War II, the House grappled inconsistently with the new facts of life. It rejected Churchill’s proposal of an Anglo-American alliance in the Fulton, Missouri, speech. Yet it endorsed the Truman Doctrine against the alternative offered by Henry Wallace. It swallowed the embarrassment of Suez. Although the debates stopped there, Pearce reports sadly that later, in 1968, Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart, attempting to apologize for the Prime Minister Harold Wilson government’s failure to denounce the US war in Vietnam, was drowned out by chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” (p. 583). The House debaters ended up sounding much like their US counterparts in Students for a Democratic Society, despite their seeming difference.

With this volume, Pearce provides an interesting and entertaining glimpse into some lively debates on portentious themes, to be read with profit and enjoyment.

Citation: Anthony D'Agostino. Review of Pearce, Edward, The Golden Talking-Shop: The Oxford Union Debates Empire, World War, Revolution, and Women. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51537

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