On February 9th 1933 The Oxford Union held one of its weekly debates. It was destined to become the most famous one ever held. The result sent a strong political message around the world which was an influence on the international politics of a generation.
The debateâ€™s motion was â€œThis House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Countryâ€. The motion was merely provocative, in best student traditions. The result was sensational. 275 voted for it, and only 153 voted against it.
The 1930s were dark years, the years of evil dictators, years of aggression by Italy,Germany and Japan. They were years of the vicious struggle between the two appalling creeds which disfigured so much of the twentieth century â€“ communism and fascism.
In 1931 Japan showed how impotent the League of Nations was by invading Manchuria. In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia. In 1936 Germany remilitarised the Rhineland, and Germany and Italy intervened in the Spanish civil war. In 1938 Germany took Austria and began pressing for the Sudetenland. The West took no action to stop these flagrant violations of international law and peace.
Early in the decade the attitude of Oxford students sent a strong message to these dictators that pacifism was rife in the west, and that the young of the UK would do all they could to appease the strong nations that were prepared to fight. The message from the Union was backed up at the ballot box. In October 1933 in the Fulham by election the Conservative candidate lost a safe seat to Labour because he stood on a platform of rearmament. A 14,521 majority for the Conservatives became a 4,840 Labour majority. The Conservative leader Baldwin got the messages from these events and won the 1935 General Election on a platform of resisting Churchill and the other advocates of rearmament.
It is important to understand why both Oxford students and the wider public were in such a mood in the early 1930s. The Great War of 1914-18 cast an understandably long shadow. Whilst we all admire and respect the heroism and suffering of so many of our grandparents and great grand parents in the trenches of that conflict, we can understand the anger so many felt at the huge loss of life, the years of slaughter, and the feeling that they were lions led by donkeys. The young junior officers had shown great bravery and leadership, suffering with their troops, but the senior officers and the politicians, led by the Liberal government, had seemed unfeeling towards the slaughter. At best they had proved unable to find a way of bringing the war to a successful conclusion without so many battles where the death rate was obscene. It was difficult for many to see why the UK had to plunge itself in to these continental wars at all when the UKâ€™s interests lay elsewhere in India, in Asia and in the Americas.There is no wonder that the public yearned for a long period of peace. They wanted to believe that the Great war had indeed been the war to end wars.
The politicians who picked up this mood worked on the proposition that if they treated the dictators as reasonable people, understanding their grievances from the Versailles settlement and elsewhere, they could keep the country from war. They could also stay elected. The appeasers were right in their judgement on domestic politics, but like the students at the Union they were bad judges of the dictators.
The sad truth turned out to be that the dictators were not reasonable people with a justified grievance, but international thugs and war criminals crazed by power. The resolution by the Oxford Union was not taken as student protest, or ignored as most Union debates are by the adult world. It was taken as an important indicator that the west in general, and the UK in particular, was decadent and lacking in resolve. The dictators decided to grab territory whilst conditions were so favourable. The appeasers in the UK were politicians desperate to deliver peace to their voters, but as we now know their judgement was sadly awry. Our fathers and grandfathers paid a heavy price when they had to go to war in 1939, to deal with dictators who had been permitted to get away with too much and had been allowed to get into a far stronger position than they enjoyed in 1933.
The final irony was that most of the 275 who vowed they would not fight for King and country in 1933 were conscripted into the services seven years later, to fight in the biggest war of all.