Sir John Simon

David Dutton asks whether Simon was the 'Worst Foreign Secretary since Ethelred the Unready'.

Sir John Simon
Sir John Simon

Only one British politician has ever held each of the four great ministerial offices beneath the premiership - the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Lord Chancellorship. Yet the name of that politician scarcely resonates through the pages of twentieth-century British history. Unlike most of his political contemporaries John Simon was genuinely a self-made man. The son of a humble congregationalist minister, he was born in a terraced house in Manchester in 1873. Entering parliament as a Liberal in 1906 he rose rapidly on the strength of his impressive intellect. By the outbreak of the First World War he was already a cabinet minister and also a leading barrister. But the war, after first seeing his elevation to the Home Office, brought an abrupt halt to his seemingly inexorable advance. Simon resigned from the government in January 1916, objecting in principle to the introduction of conscription, not because he opposed the war effort but because he stood by the Liberal principle that it was for the individual to decide for himself whether or not he fought, and quite possibly died, for his country.

Thereafter, Simon's career appeared to be one of the many casualties of the continuous decline in the fortunes of the Liberal party. Firmly linked to the Asquithian wing of the party, Simon never reconciled himself to the leadership of David Lloyd George. Their ongoing feud was not the least important factor in the party's disintegration during the 1920s. At times in this decade it seemed possible that Simon would abandon Westminster politics altogether, though the government was happy to make use of his services to head the Statutory Commission on Indian constitutional development (1927-30) and also an inquiry into the R101 airship disaster (1930-1). Only the unique crisis of 1931 gave Simon the opportunity to resurrect his political career. At the head of the so-called Liberal National group which broke away, definitively as it turned out, from the mainstream party in June 1931, he took office as Foreign Secretary in the National Government after the General Election that autumn. In June 1935 he moved to the Home Office, where he had to deal with public order problems relating to the British fascist movement while playing an important behind-the-scenes role in relation to the Abdication Crisis of 1936.

When Neville Chamberlain formed his government in May 1937 Simon moved to the Exchequer and remained there until the National Government came to its dramatic end three years later. But the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not dispense with Simon's services. He was now transferred to the Woolsack, serving throughout the rest of the war as Lord Chancellor, the position for which his forensic legal skills perhaps best fitted him. Only in July 1945, therefore, 35 years after it had begun, did Simon's ministerial career come to an end - and he even nourished unfulfilled hopes of returning to the Woolsack when Churchill formed his peacetime administration in 1951.

Guilty Man?

Yet, notwithstanding an array of appointments which many might describe as glittering, there remains an aura of disappointment, even failure, about Simon's career. It was, above all else, his time at the Foreign Office which determined the judgement of history, posing an extreme challenge for anyone seeking to rehabilitate him. Not for nothing does Simon's name figure in second place, behind only that of Chamberlain, in the cast-list of Guilty Men, the enormously influential political tract published in 1940, which did so much to fix popular perceptions of the 1930s and to damage - almost beyond recovery - the reputations of those who had held high office in that decade.

As regards his Foreign Secretaryship critics have vied with one another in hyperboles of condemnation. His appointment was, according to Harold Macmillan, ‘disastrous’. The historian C.L. Mowat judged it ‘unexpected and unfortunate’. Others believed Simon was ‘a complete misfit’, ‘wholly unsuited’ and ‘miscast by temperament and training’ for his post. As Foreign Secretary he proved, in the judgement of Sir Charles Petrie, ‘surely the worst of modern times’ or, suggested another, ‘since Ethelred the Unready’. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this wild phrase is less its historical validity than the fact that 20 years later two well-known Labour politicians were still keen to lay competing claims to its parentage. Michael Foot, the last surviving member of the trio of journalists who penned Guilty Men, later wrote that the comparison of Simon with Ethelred was unfair - but unfair to the latter who, whatever his failings, ‘never quite deserved his nickname’.

Thus, doing down Sir John Simon has become something of a sport. His Foreign Secretaryship is seen to have set the tone for perhaps the least auspicious decade in the whole history of British foreign policy from which few ministerial reputations escaped unscathed. He seemed to epitomise the shortcomings and failures of the National Government as a whole. Winston Churchill's son Randolph, no doubt viewing the period through the eyes of his illustrious father, judged that ‘Simon's advent to the Foreign Office was to commence a disastrous era in which, under successive Foreign Secretaries, ... British power and influence steadily declined and Britain was fatuously conducted towards the Second World War.’ Must we then conclude that Simon's political reputation is beyond salvation?

Political Context

It has become a truism to say that the options open to British statesmen in the 1930s were extremely limited. But this was certainly the case with Simon and, if his period as Foreign Secretary is to be truly understood, its context - both domestic and international - must be borne in mind. At home this involved the unusual situation created by the existence of a National Government; abroad it meant an environment which was being transformed by the prevailing world economic crisis whose deepest impact almost coincided with the period of Simon's ministry.

Inside the National Government Simon's position was never strong. In essence he had been rewarded in recognition of the three dozen Liberal National MPs who gave their backing to the government. But so far as many Conservative MPs were concerned, he was the weakest link in the upper reaches of the cabinet and an easy butt for the criticisms of those Tories who could not understand why their own party - which had an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons - had to share office with non-Conservatives such as he. More importantly, Simon found himself in a cabinet in which other senior ministers, notably the Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and the Chancellor Neville Chamberlain, were keen to exert their influence over the direction of British foreign policy. Simon, nervous perhaps that his services might be dispensed with altogether, never asserted his influence inside the government as much as his senior office and formidable intellect might have permitted, thereby incurring the criticism of his civil servants and junior ministers that he was failing to stand up for their departmental interests. Moreover, the National Government owed its very existence to the impact of the world economic crisis and its leading members never forgot their primary duty in this respect. Probably not until the very end of the decade was it accepted that foreign and defence policy should have priority over domestic economic interests. One serious consequence of this thinking was the comparative neglect during Simon's period in office of Britain's armed forces - with obvious implications for the sort of foreign policy which the country was able to pursue. It is not without significance that in 1932 Chamberlain as Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced the lowest arms estimates of the whole inter-war period.

The International Context 

These years also saw great changes in the international arena. During Simon's Foreign Secretaryship there occurred the single most important development of the whole inter-war era. On 30 January 1933 Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor. Thereafter international relations entered a completely new phase, posing problems which would certainly have tested to the full any of Simon's recent predecessors as Foreign Secretary, and which proved too much for his immediate successors. The gravest mistakes were made by those who failed to understand that Hitler's assumption of power fundamentally transformed the nature of European politics, and it has to be admitted that there is little evidence to suggest that Simon recognised in Hitler a unique phenomenon who could not be dealt with according to traditional diplomatic practice. Simon's culpability in this respect cannot be ignored. But such criticism is easy to make from a post-1945 perspective and in Simon's defence it may be said that the evil of Hitler and his regime emerged as a cumulative revelation and that those who had responsibility for dealing with the Führer in the first years of the Third Reich are more easily exonerated for their misjudgements and short-sightedness than are the men who succeeded them later in the decade. By then far more evidence had become available of the true nature of National Socialism.

One of the legacies of the First World War, and of the commitment to the spirit of the New Diplomacy with which it ended, was a greater readiness than in the past on the part of British foreign policy-makers to listen to the will of public opinion. The supreme desire of the British people, for ever scarred by the experience of 1914-18, was to avoid involvement in another conflict, possibly more bloody than the last. Voters looked to their politicians for patient efforts to remove any grievances which might give scope for renewed aggression. The experience of 1914 seemed to suggest that peace and security lay in disarmament rather than in the building up of national defences. In time it would become clear that this was not an appropriate response to the aggression of Hitler and Mussolini. But that revelation came only slowly as the true nature of their international ambitions was revealed. In the early 1930s the country's pacific sentiment was a factor which no democratic politician such as Simon could afford to ignore. It further complicated the narrow parameters within which he had to operate.

Simon as Foreign Secretary 

Simon's period at the Foreign Office Secretary encompassed a range of difficult issues in Europe and beyond. But it was above all his handling of the Far Eastern crisis of 1931-3 that fatally tarnished his reputation. This problem was waiting to confront the new minister when he took office. In mid-September 1931 the Japanese army had seized the city of Mukden in the Chinese province of Manchuria. By the close of the crisis Simon's standing had been fatally compromised. In brief, he is seen to hold primary responsibility for a British policy which betrayed the League of Nations, acquiesced in blatant aggression against a sovereign state and set in train a pattern of concession to the bullies of the international arena which was not finally reversed for nearly a decade. In other words Simon initiated the policy of appeasement. Harold Laski, the socialist intellectual, was among those who argued that Simon had ‘done more than any man since 1918 to destroy the prestige of the League by his scarcely concealed support of Japan in her rake's progress of imperialistic crime’.

In the years that followed, and particularly for those on the political left, the Far Eastern crisis took on the emotive appearance of the decisive turning-point in the whole history of the 1930s, when the cause of world peace was lost, or rather tragically betrayed. Simon, pursuing a wholly cynical and short-sighted policy, was the villain of the piece. Japan's attack quickly took on a significance which few had attributed to it at the time. By 1938 it was being described as ‘the first important act of aggression in the post-war world. If it had been stopped by a united League of Nations it could have had no successor.’

Yet much of the case against Simon amounts to being wise after the event. Only retrospectively did the Manchurian episode come to be seen as an act of naked aggression. In late 1931 Japan was widely seen to have a strong case against China. Even leading figures within the League of Nations Union were doubtful whether Japan's actions represented a straightforward case of military aggression. Japan had treaty rights in the area and, with Chinese authority in decline, could be seen to be acting to protect her interests from political chaos. Furthermore, as recently as 1927, the British government had sent troops to Shanghai to safeguard British interests, thereby offering a precedent for what Japan was now doing.

What factors, then, governed Simon's response to the Far-Eastern crisis? With the security of her Empire and important Chinese trading interests - though not in Manchuria itself - to think about, Britain had much at stake. But the crisis occurred at a time when the power of European states generally, Britain included, was in decline in the area. In the circumstances Simon had little choice but to keep Britain out not only of war but even the danger of war. The country did not have sufficient interests in the political future of Manchuria itself to run grave risks on its behalf and, whatever they said in later years, few people in 1931 itself saw the future of world peace enshrined in the fate of this outlying province of the Chinese Empire. Economic sanctions also posed too high a risk since no one could guarantee that they would not lead to war.

Did Simon, in his handling of the crisis, betray the League of Nations? The problem was that, in the context of the Far East, the League effectively meant Great Britain. If coercive action had been decided upon, Britain would have had to bear the brunt of the burden. Simon was in a ‘no-win’ situation. As the crisis progressed it annoyed him that the strongest clamour for action against Japan came from countries which could render little or no assistance to the League in the event of more serious trouble developing in the Far East. The minor powers in the League Assembly could enjoy the luxury of denouncing aggression with righteous indignation, while knowing full well that they would not be called upon to resist it themselves.

By March 1933 Britain's policy towards the Far Eastern crisis was widely condemned as an abject failure. Japan had been alienated, but China's territorial integrity had not been restored. Manchuria had been transformed into the puppet state of Manchukuo. The League had incurred a major - perhaps a fatal - setback. Only in the sense that it had avoided getting Britain into war with Japan, with all the consequences this might have entailed for her vast economic interests in the Far East, may Simon's policies be deemed to have succeeded. Yet this element of success should not be underestimated. It was always the central aim of his diplomacy. League enthusiasts, particularly when they came to pass judgement with the enormous benefit of hindsight, never seemed to appreciate the constraints within which Simon had had to operate.

The common complaint that Simon somehow prevented the League from taking action over Manchuria is quite simply unfounded. Nor is there any substance in the idea that he thwarted positive American action. The American President, Herbert Hoover, had actually ruled out the imposition of sanctions by the United States - either economic or military - before Simon even took over as Foreign Secretary. Simon may not always have handled Anglo-American relations very effectively, some misunderstandings resulting from transatlantic phone calls on a poor line. But none of this merited the degree of criticism to which the British Foreign Secretary was later subjected in the writings of American politicians and historians.

Much of the criticism of Simon's handling of the Far-Eastern crisis was unnecessarily personalised. He was someone whom men found it difficult to like. Lord Halifax, a colleague in government over many years, later recorded:

He is a very friendly creature, but a very odd one, with a curious incapacity for exciting affection. I still adhere to the judgement that I formed some years ago about him, which is that he is constantly trying to secure the friendship of other people on terms more favourable to himself than to them.

Thus it was easy for Simon to become a convenient scapegoat for the absence of any tangible success in Britain's handling of the Manchurian episode. This resulted in severe damage to his standing as a domestic politician, to his position among the powers of the League and to his relations with the United States. All of this had implications for his subsequent ability to guide British foreign policy in other parts of the globe. But it should be stressed that Simon's Manchurian policy grew out of the expert evaluations made by his own civil servants, that it was backed by the cabinet, and that it enjoyed the contemporary support of the majority of the British people. A politician with a surer touch than Simon might have been more successful in the presentation of his policy, but that is a rather different matter.

The Verdict 

By the time that Simon left the Foreign Office in June 1935 he was widely regarded as an abject failure. Indeed, many were surprised that he managed to keep his place in the cabinet - a development which was generally attributed to a determination to maintain the government's ‘National’ credentials. In addition to the Manchurian episode, the situation in Europe was looking increasingly threatening. Simon had spent many tedious and ultimately futile hours trying to negotiate a Europe-wide agreement on disarmament. Hitler had revealed that, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, German rearmament was now well advanced and negotiations were in progress towards an Anglo-German Naval Agreement by which Britain would formally accept that rearmament. Meanwhile the Italian dictator, Mussolini, was embarking upon his aggression in Abyssinia. In later years it became easy to suggest that steps should have been taken during Simon's tenure of the Foreign Office to stop the dictators in their tracks and thereby avert the catastrophe of a second world war. But such arguments took little account of Britain's inherent weakness in the early 1930s and the array of constraints within which Simon had to operate. Simon was by no means a great Foreign Secretary. But it is doubtful whether any politician could have won that accolade in the circumstances of the time. Simon may not merit historical praise, but he certainly deserves a more sympathetic understanding than has usually been given him.

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