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Cabinet Decisions on Foreign Policy: The British Experience
October 1938-June 1941
Christopher Hill
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002
£23.95, 360 pages. ISBN 0521894026.

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

Most readers interested in International Relations will be familiar with the remarkable series, ‘LSE Monographs in International Studies’: the novelty is that Cambridge University Press now reissue some of the major titles in paperback form, which of course makes them more financially accessible to students and scholars who like to build up a personal library. Among these reissues, one finds Hill’s monograph, ultimately derived from paths first explored for his D.Phil. thesis supervised by Alan Bullock and Max Beloff at Oxford1

The central objective of the book is to examine the balance of power inside the Cabinet in the light of the old debate between the supporters of Prime Ministerial preponderance and those of collective compromise. As a political scientist, Hill is in quest of the real, as opposed to the apparent, locus of power in the highly political process of policy-formation, and he uses the conventional tools of his trade, viz. case studies, without forgetting that one can thus easily lose sight of the important contextual matter that only a global, longue durée conspectus can provide. He therefore warns his reader that ‘an end-result of substantial generalisation cannot be guaranteed’ (p.6), and also that the book is not meant ‘to provide a full explanation of why British foreign policy followed the course that it did, or even a full picture of the British foreign policy process at the time’ (p.14).

The six cases which he has selected, and which form the substance of the book, are listed in Table 1:

1..The Polish Guarantee, March 1939
2..The prospect of a Soviet alliance, April-August 1939
3..Entry into war, 1-3 September 1939
4..Hitler’s ‘peace offensive’, October 1939
5..The crisis over fighting on alone, May-June 1940
6..Thinking about long-term war aims, August 1940-June 1941.

The central conclusion is that the outstanding characteristic of Cabinet decision-making in all six studies is its reliance on consensus. As Hill puts it: ‘It is striking that in none of the cases we have looked at has a decision been taken over a dissident minority. On all occasions action was delayed until it was established that almost the whole Cabinet subscribed to the relevant proposal’ (p.238). From this, several corollaries emerge.

First, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the importance of ‘Inner Cabinets’: even the solidarity between the much-maligned ‘clique of Guilty Men’2, viz. Chamberlain, Halifax, Simon and Hoare, the prime movers of the Munich policy, did not resist the shock of the evident failure of that policy after Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Secondly, even the commonly-held belief that Chamberlain and above all Churchill easily dominated their Cabinets must be nuanced. Hill does not belittle Churchill’s towering personality when he writes that ‘Churchill had the capacity to make the [foreign] war aims lobby take cover but not to make them give up their campaign’(p.227), he simply reminds the reader that even the most powerful Prime Minister is not a dictatorial potentate but the man at the top of the democratic pyramid and as such totally unable to silence opposition, or even debate, in time of national crisis, including ‘total’ war. The analogy with home affairs is striking, incidentally, because almost thirty years ago Paul Addison provided an equally magisterial demonstration of how Churchill was unable to resist the campaign for domestic war aims, i.e. social reform, in spite of his best efforts, with his image of the irresistible tide3. Thirdly—and perhaps most importantly—Hill argues that the popular image among political journalists of the Cabinet as a cock-pit where over-ambitious personalities aggressively pursue their self-centred agendas is not borne out by the evidence of his case studies, writing that

That the drive for consensus has figured so prominently points again to the inappropriateness of a model which postulates competitive power-seeking as a first priority within the Cabinet. Conscious exchanges of threats and sanctions were rare even during serious disputes, and a central concern was the dampening down of conflict (p.240).

This of course will be a surprising assertion for most readers, especially in view of Churchill’s reputation as a man who had no patience with contradictors, but this must not be taken to mean that there were no trials of strength inside the Cabinet—simply that, contrary to popular belief, they took place in subdued tones. The best illustration of Hill’s point is perhaps to be found in Chapter 6, ‘To continue alone? May-July 1940’, in which he examines once more the now well-documented debate between Halifax and Churchill on the pros and cons of suing for peace (or continuing the war, which comes to the same thing). The conflict is presented almost in terms of a game of chess, in which Churchill outmanoeuvred Halifax, forcing him to concede defeat because Halifax’s arguments were counter-productive in both men’s struggle to convince the other, undecided members of the Cabinet (Attlee, Chamberlain and Greenwood). It was not a matter of an overpowering Churchill crushing a feeble-minded Halifax: ‘While Halifax had nothing of Churchill’s charisma, he was not over-awed by his tempestuousness and theatricality—indeed he seems to have harboured a quiet contempt for it’ (p.160). Neither was it because of Churchill’s ‘strong moral line’ (p.165). It was a simple question of rational arguments, or to be more precise of who had the least irrational ones: Halifax had based his reasoning on ‘practical’ reasons—Hitler would offer acceptable peace terms, at least terms more acceptable than total defeat—and Churchill was able to turn the tables on him, ‘showing’ (as of course it could not be shown) that out-and-out war was more ‘practical’ than a compromise peace.

What Hill very convincingly demonstrates in this chapter is that inertia was on the side of the Prime Minister, since if nothing was done the war would continue until the country was actually vanquished, the onus of proof resting on Halifax to demonstrate that this was an ‘impractical’ policy—an uphill task since every day that passed without the country collapsing seemed to disprove the argument. Neither of them was of course in good faith in the Cabinet discussions (though of course, deep in their hearts they were convinced that these were only pious lies, in defence of a worthy cause)—as Hill puts it, ‘It is clear that Churchill’s argument was based at least as much on assertion as that of Halifax’(p.171). Events like the successful evacuation at Dunkirk early in June reinforced Churchill’s case for holding out while they weakened Halifax’s prophecies of doom, and German peace feelers later in June and in July came too late to sway the hesitant members of the Cabinet. Halifax gracefully conceded defeat by announcing on the BBC on 20 July, as an indirect reply to Hitler’s ‘peace speech’ of 19 July that ‘we shall not stop fighting until freedom is secure’—thereby embracing both Churchillian phraseology and the war aims of a now unambiguously Churchillian Cabinet. Thus a potentially explosive situation (in the ‘what if?’ fashion, we might ask what would have happened if Halifax had slammed the Cabinet’s door and broadcast in favour of peace negotiations) was very adroitly defused by the Prime Minister, not by strong-arm tactics, but by letting the contradictions of the alternative policy defended by his challenger expose themselves.

If it can readily be admitted that Hill very successfully makes his point here—and in the other five cases, which are equally convincing—the big question remains how far the six events selected are representative of habitual Cabinet proceedings, even if the field of study is limited to the process of foreign policy formation. Understandably, the author believes that they have a wider value and that ‘the evidence of actual Cabinet behaviour [in the six cases] should tell us something about the policy process at the end of the 1930s, and possibly also things which may be applied to other decades’ (p.227). Nobody would deny that his book tells us ‘something’ on the 1930s and ‘things’ on other decades (and this of course is far too modest a claim, since even the confirmed specialist will learn a lot in this magnificently-researched monograph)—the difficulty being the definition of these ‘things’, which could lead to endless argument. But after all, is it not the tautological characteristic of a stimulating book that it stimulates debate?

1 ‘The decision-making process in relation to British foreign policy, 1938-1941’. Nuffield College, 1979.

2 Cf. ‘Cato’ [=Michael Foot, Peter Howard, Frank Owen]: Guilty Men. Victory Books, N°1. London: Victor Gollancz, 1940 (With a new Preface by Michael Foot and an Introduction by John Stevenson: Penguin, 1998).

3 ‘Reconstruction, then, could not come about through Churchill. But gradually it flowed around and past him, like a tide cutting off an island from the shore’. Addison, Paul. The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975 (Reissue with a new postface: Pimlico Paperbacks, 1994): 126.


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