894. Harrod to a limited number of Conservative MPs , [1-3] February 1939 [a]

[Circular letter [1] ]

[1-3] February 1939 [2]

Dear Sir,

I venture to draw your attention to the enclosed article which appeared in the Manchester Guardian. [3]

It appears to me that we have reached a point at which under the normal working of our democratic machinery the country would demand a change of government, first because the major part is not convinced that the government is pursuing the right foreign policy at this juncture when life and death issues are at stake, and secondly because of the manifest inefficiency of the government. Moreover as the months pass it becomes more and more plain that the government is not minded to make any serious effort to re-arm.

What obstructs this normal working is that the majority is still unwilling for a variety of reasons which I need not dwell upon to entrust the destinies of the country to the Labour Party. Moreover I believe that many Labour leaders would admit this.

This being so, and in view of the urgency of the situation, an electoral alliance between those elements which are agreed on foreign policy and in wishing to displace the present government seems the natural solution.

There are, however, serious difficulties. From the Labour point of view, the making of such a pact means entering upon very treacherous ground. Discontented conservatives may be repelled by the idea of an alliance with Labour.

To take the second point, there are some favourable factors. With a view to making a popular appeal, Labour has recently considerably whittled down its programme. I call attention in the enclosed article to an official pronouncement entitled Labour's Immediate Programme. [4] I believe there is a little of substance--as distinguished from phraseology--here which progressive conservatives need boggle at. It will not please those conservatives who are rigidly wedded to complete laisser-faire. But those who recognise that a great enlargement of state activity is destined to come willy-nilly will appreciate that Labour socialism of today differentiates itself in degree rather than in kind, and by the emphasis it places on the workers' interest and on limiting the scope for profit.

What is still more important is that in the coming phase all policy will be so overshadowed by the national peril, that a government really determined to make the country strong and at the same time determined to be democratic is not likely to find that the theoretic differences in approach to the problems of control afford many practical stumbling blocks.

The obstacles to co-operation in the minds of Labour leaders are strong, especially in view of the peculiar constitution and history of the Labour Party. But against this there are strong forces tending to make them relent from too rigid an attitude, namely (i) their knowledge of the unlikelihood that they will win an election unaided (ii) their intense dislike of the present government and (iii) a growing sense that the international emergency is of paramount importance.

My private opinion is that while in many labour quarters there is willingness to make sacrifices in order to defeat the government, there is doubt whether the outside elements with which they might co-operate are sufficiently strong to be worth courting at the cost of a grave sacrifice of principle and at the risk of producing an internal split.

For this reason I believe it to be of the first importance that discontented conservatives should get together into a group, which could enter into negotiations with Labour leaders. A group, however small, is better than a number of individuals each retaining his own reservations and opinions as to what is the best time for action. A group small in the outset might swiftly gain more adherents. And it is an indispensable precondition for getting Labour to begin to think about co-operation.

I believe furthermore that co-operation of this sort would be of far greater electoral importance than is measured by the number of seats held by the discontented conservatives. Once the co-operation became public there would be a wide stirring throughout the nation. The ordinary voter would feel that at last some real alternative to the present government was looming up. This would encourage many people to vote against the government, in all constituencies, who are now apathetic or who vote for the government because they see no alternative. It would make it seem respectable to vote labour, in cases of a straight fight between labour and an official conservative, and respectability is a very strong motive with the British voter. Moreover it would render possible something that is still lacking, namely, a nationwide appeal and statement of the anti-government case. Such support as remains for the government, which though dwindling may still represent the major part, is largely due to the fact that the government case still has the lion's share of publicity. It should be possible to alter this. I believe that with proper publicity and a great national campaign the next General Election could easily be won.

In the first instance the working of the group would be confidential. Of course here are dangers of leakage. But this would probably not be harmful, save, it must be admitted, for the loss of goodwill at conservative headquarters by the discontented conservatives. (But they are already losing goodwill and getting nothing substantial in return for it). Rumours and whispers that a defection was being planned could only have a salutary effect on the government in their conduct of affairs; and that might be quite important at a time when every week counts.

Finally may I say a word about an alternative, which I have no doubt you have in mind, a reconstructed government on a broader basis. I do not believe this can save the country. I believe that His Majesty's Opposition plays an indispensable part in our democratic system, that the continued slackness and gross inefficiency of the present government have been due to the absence of an alternative government from the opposition benches since 1931. In war the case is different, since the sanction for efficiency is defeat. But so long as peace lasts the only effective sanction in democracy is the danger that you may be replaced by the alternative government. A reconstructed conservative or national government, with the conservative party machine behind it, would, I am convinced, soon slip back into the same slack condition. The reconstructed government would leave the opposition still weaker and be therefore still more prone to that complacent irresponsibility which is the bane of the present government.

I therefore believe that the only way in which the country can be saved at this juncture is for the present government to be displaced, not reconstructed, and for a new government to be formed with the conservative party machine in opposition. These are hard words to address to you, a conservative. It is the price which has to be paid now for our having abandoned our normal constitutional functioning in 1931.

Perhaps I should add with regard to myself that I am an ex-liberal, who has done work both for the liberal and labour cases, and has at present no party attachment. I took some part in promoting the candidature of Mr. Lindsay as an Independent [c] Progressive at the recent Oxford By-election. [5]

I am addressing this letter to a limited number of conservative members of Parliament only. [6] , [7]

Yours truly,

R. F. Harrod

  1. 1. In file HP VI-501-502/1 a list of names is preserved, which seems to be a preliminary list of addressees of this circular letter. These are: [Rt. Hon. Robert Anthony] Eden; [Rt. Hon. Winston Leonard Spencer] Churchill (Churchill's copy has a postscript by Harrod: see note 6 to this letter); [Rt. Hon. Alfred] Duff-Cooper; [Viscount] Cranborne; [Rt. Hon. Viscount] Wolmer; J. P. L. <Remer> [b] , [Godfrey] Nicolson, [Richard Kidston] Law, Sir Sidney Herbert, Sir Roger [John Brownlow] Keyes, General [Edward Louis] Spears, [Maurice] H[arold]. Macmillan, Sir Derrick Gunston; H[hubert John]. Duggan; [Edwin] D[uncan]. Duncan-Sandys (Sandy's copy had a postscript: see note 6 to this letter); B[rendan]. Bracken; [Samuel] V[yvyan Trerice]. Adams; [Anthony Crommelin] Crossley; R[obert John Graham]. Boothby; A[braham]. M[ontagou]. Lyons; S[ydney] F[rank]. Markham; C[olin]. M[ark]. Patrick; J[ames]. Henderson Stewart. The replies of other Members of Parliament are preserved: Commander Robert Tatton Bower, Hon. Harold George Nicolson. The extant replies are summarized in note 7 to this letter.

    2. The copy Harrod had sent to Churchill (see note 6 to this letter) is dated 1 February, and the reply he received from Duff-Cooper indicates the same date. However, the copy sent to Duncan-Sandys is dated 3 February.

    3. Harrod's article "The Opposition. An Electoral Pact Needed. Foreign Policy. `Labour's Immediate Programme'" ( 1938:23 , press item 30 ), was reprinted for distribution. See note 1 to press item 30 for context.

    4. The Labour Party, Labour's Immediate Programme (1937). For Harrod's comments in the margin of the pamphlet see note 6 to press item 30 .

    5. On Harrod's campaign in the Oxford by-election see notes 1 and 6 to press item 28 .

    6. The copies sent to Churchill and Duncan-Sandys had the following postscript: "P.S. I drafted this letter before the Cripps affair. This appears to me to re-inforce the case for the formation of a group." (CHAR 2/357/108 and DSND 1/11).

    7. Harrod received a number of replies to his letter. Bob Boothby, E. L. Spears and H. Duggan simply thanked Harrod for it (letters dated 3 February 1939, in HP VI-517, 3 February 1939, in HP VI-524, and 6 March 1939, HP VI-518). Robert T. Bower expressed his distrust in Labour, and sent copy of a letter on "Party Allegiance" he had written to The Times, published on 10 January 1939 (3 February 1939, in HP VI-506a/2). Harold Nicolson doubted that Labour would consider the alliance with dissident conservatives worth the breach of principle involved, that the dissident Conservative would join the opposition group, and that the obvious leader of a revolt--Eden or Churchill--would be suitable (3 February 1939, in HP VI-512). Godfrey Nicholson argued that the government after all still commanded the confidence of the majority of the electors (especially of women), and doubted that "negative politics" could be successful because of the "conservativeness" of Conservatives. He thought that the only beneficial change in policy could come from a "palace revolt" within the ranks of the Conservative Party (3 February 1939, in HP VI-511). Duff-Cooper commented that the attitude of the Labour Party made Harrod's proposal impracticable, and concluded that the only hope lay in the conversion of the Prime Minister (4 February 1939, in HP VI-510). Churchill wrote that he was much interested in all Harrod was writing and doing (6 February 1939, in HP IV-207). Robert Arthur James Gascoyne-Cecil (Viscount Cranborne) doubted that Harrod's solution was a practicable one; he pointed out (on a line quite similar to that expressed by Bower) that dissident Conservatives did not support the government's foreign policy but on the other issues did not find themselves in disagreement with the government; he expresses his conviction that things were moving on their own along the way Eden was advocating, namely a stronger line in foreign affairs (7 February 1939, in HP VI-509). S. Herbert agreed with some of the views expressed by Harrod but could not swallow the whole (10 February 1939, in HP VI-520).

    1. a. TD, mimeograph, neither signed nor initialled, three pages on three leaves. Signed copy, addressed to the Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill, in CHAR 2/357/106-8 (Churchill Archives Centre, courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Churchill College, Cambridge, and the Keeper and staff of Churchill Archives Centre); copy sent to Duncan-Sandys in DSND 1/11; further copies in HP VI-501-502/7 and HP IV-302-304.

      b. The name in the list of Members of Parliament matching more closely Harrod's spelling seems to be Remer; however, the initials provided by Harrod do not match Remer's full name John Rumney.

      c. Ts: «Independant».

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