WHO today would be willing to fight for King and Country? With the parlous state Britain is in right now, I wouldn’t hazard a guess.
But when the question was famously put to the test 90 years ago today, the answer was resoundingly clear, triggering outrage and condemnation.
On February 9, 1933, the Oxford Union, the university’s student debating society, discussed the motion: ‘That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’. The motion was carried by 275 votes to 153.
The motion was proposed by Kenelm Digby, of St John’s College. He told the packed meeting: ‘It is no mere coincidence that the only country fighting for the cause of peace, Soviet Russia, is the country that has rid itself of the war-mongering clique. The justification urged for the last war was that it was a war to end war. If that were untrue, it was a dastardly lie; if it were true, what justification is there for opposition to this motion tonight?’
The most influential voice was probably that of philosopher Cyril Edward Mitchinson Joad, who had been invited to speak in favour. He argued that although limited wars might have been justified in the past, the scale of destruction now possible with modern weapons meant war had become unthinkable. He claimed any invasion of Britain could be defeated by a Gandhi-style campaign of non-violence.
Quintin Hogg, a trainee lawyer who had recently graduated from Oxford, vigorously opposed the motion. Hogg – a future Lord Chancellor as Lord Hailsham – argued that such thinking would cause war, not prevent it. A powerful England was a factor for peace and a disarmed Britain would have no more influence for peace in Europe than she had in the Far East, where Japan had invaded Manchuria.
The result of the debate initially attracted little attention. But two days later the storm broke when the Daily Telegraph published a letter about it headlined ‘Disloyalty at Oxford: Gesture towards the Reds’.
It was signed by someone using the nom de plume Sixty-Four, who wrote: ‘The motion must have been read with feelings of shame and disgust by thousands of Oxford men’ and it was ‘an outrage upon the memory of those who gave their lives in the Great War’. He continued: ‘Older generations of Oxford men have heard with increasing dismay of the Red tendencies at work there … and of the gathering strength of the communist cells in the colleges.’
In fact, the letter’s author was a Telegraph leader writer. The Daily Express joined in, saying scathingly: ‘There is no question but that the woozy-minded communists, the practical jokers, and the sexual indeterminates of Oxford have scored a great success in the publicity that has followed this victory … even the plea of immaturity, or the irresistible passion of the undergraduate for posing, cannot excuse such a contemptible and indecent action as the passing of that resolution.’
Winston Churchill, whose son Randolph attempted in vain to have the debate expunged from the Union’s records, called the resolution an ‘abject, squalid, shameless avowal’ by the ‘callow, ill-tutored youths’ of Oxford. He contrasted them with Germany’s ‘splendid, clear-eyed youth demanding to be conscripted into an army, burning to die for their fatherland’.
Liberal MP Robert Bernays told how on a visit to Germany he was asked about the debate by a prominent Nazi youth leader. ‘There was an ugly gleam in his eye when he said, “The fact is that you English are soft”. Then I realised that the world enemies of peace might be the pacifists.’
Not all the Press were outraged. The Manchester Guardian said: ‘The obvious meaning of this resolution is youth’s deep disgust with the way in which past wars for “King and Country” have been made, and in which, they suspect, future wars may be made; disgust at the national hypocrisy which can fling over the timidities and follies of politicians, over base greeds and communal jealousies and jobbery, the cloak of an emotional symbol they did not deserve.’
And the liberal journalist Francis W Hirst, editor of The Economist, argued in his book Consequences of the War to Great Britain (1934) that the resolution did not rule out wars of self-defence, only imperialist conflicts.
So did the ‘Oxford pledge’ encourage Britain’s potential enemies to think the country was becoming degenerate and cowardly, as was widely claimed? Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and the rulers of Japan are said to have taken heart from it, but it is harder to determine whether the Nazi leadership really saw it as something on which to predicate Germany’s military intentions.
We must remember that the motion was passed by a small group of the young elite, entitled and privileged, who presumably fancied themselves as budding intellectuals. Was what they were proposing perhaps influenced by simply trying to show how controversial and clever they were as debaters?
The debate took place against the background of a Britain still traumatised and disillusioned by the Great War and racked by economic depression, mass unemployment and poverty, while the spectres of fascism and Nazism stalked Europe. To many, Soviet communism seemed the only answer, although behind the façade of Stalin’s progressive socialist paradise, millions were being starved to death.
It must also be remembered that the ‘pledge’ went largely unremarked until the furore was stirred up by the Press, with politicians then jumping on the condemnatory bandwagon and other universities passing similar resolutions. Whether anyone who thought deeply about the resolution took it seriously as an indication of Britain’s genuine mindset is open to question, but it was a propaganda bonanza for both sides.
Perhaps more to the point is that when the Second World War broke out in September 1939, 2,632 out of a potential 3,000 Oxford undergraduates and postgraduates volunteered for the Forces.
In 1965 a motion that ‘this House would not fight for Queen and Country’ was debated by the Oxford Union and rejected by 493 votes to 466 – seen by some as reversing the infamous 1933 resolution. At the time, the president of the Union was left-wing firebrand Tariq Ali.
So who today would pledge to fight for King and Country? There will probably never again be a need for British citizens to take up arms on the scale of the two world wars, so the question is largely academic.
However, it seems unlikely that students at most of our terrifyingly woke-ridden universities would be rushing to the colours. Anyone even mentioning such an idea these days would probably be immediately deplatformed, cancelled, branded racist and fascist, and hounded out.
What about the wider public, the ordinary men and women of Britain? Would they answer the call? Or, in an age of selfishness, cynicism and indifference, engendered and epitomised by our craven politicians, are they heartily sick of both King (with his coronation reportedly to be based on themes of refugees, diversity and volunteering, followed by a choir of refugees, NHS staff and LGBTQ+ singers at Windsor Castle) and Country (no longer recognisable as such)?