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markk

markk

Currently reading

Uncle Tom's Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ann Douglas
Progress: 121/640 pages
Modern Europe, 1789-Present
Patricia Clavin, Asa Briggs
Progress: 333/478 pages

Reading progress update: I've read 71 out of 227 pages.

British Rearmament and the Treasury, 1932-1939 - G. C. Peden

So I'm reading George Peden's book on the Treasury's role in responding to the rising threat posed by Nazi Germany, and I come across this passage on page 70:

This failure to give the taxpayer timely warning of the sacrifices that might be required of the nation was no fault of the Treasury. From mid-1934 [Neville] Chamberlain spoke frequently, at least for a Chancellor of the Exchequer, of the need to fill gaps in the country's defenses, and in October 1935, just before the General Election, he quoted Adam Smith's dictum that 'defence is better than opulence' at the Conservative Party Conference. In planning the election campaign Chamberlain had urged [Prime Minister Stanley] Baldwin to meet pacifism squarely by taking 'the bold course of actually appealing to the country on a defence programme', but it was apparently not in Baldwin's nature to be bold.

Peden follows this upon the very next page by noting that the hopes of the head of the civil service that some of the increasing revenue could be spent on defense "received a blow from Baldwin's refusal to be outspoken about the country's danger," and I thought, "Damn! That's pretty cold-blooded." Peden makes it clear from the start of the book that he wants to exonerate the Treasury of any responsibility for Britain's failure to adequately prepare for war in the 1930s, and he certainly makes a good case that the mandarins running the department were hardly the reality-denying penny-pinchers subsequent accounts portrayed them as being. The problem is that blame has to be placed elsewhere, and in these two pages Peden makes it clear that he is throwing Baldwin under the bus for the dilatory nature of Britain's rearmament. As someone who believes that the proverbial buck stops at the top I can't fault him, but he does it in a way that's pretty harsh even given what followed.

 

I mention all this in part because this is what I think histories of Brexit are going to look like in about forty years time: book after book that are mainly exercises in absolving responsibility and shifting blame. I don't envy the poor historians who will have to sort through all of the finger-pointing for a crisis in which nobody has really distinguished themselves by their leadership.