A declaration of intent by Franklin Reid Gannon, (author of The British Press and Germany 1936–1939) footnote1 reads, ‘It is one of the great ironies of the period, and perhaps the major conclusion of this study, that appeasement was in fact the product of a crisis of the liberal conscience. So much print—and newsprint—has been devoted to painting the distinction between the far-sighted Liberals of the Left who understood the real nature of the Nazi menace from the very beginning, and the reactionary conservatives of the Right who welcomed Hitler not only for himself alone but also for the check he promised to deliver to Bolshevist Russia. This view, though previously assaulted, has not yet been laid low; it is hoped that this study will contribute to its timely demise.’

To ‘lay low’ a ‘view’ may seem a quixotic undertaking. We may assume the writer to mean simply that he hopes to change an opinion. He is not alone with his hopes. The opinion he refers to has indeed been ‘previously assaulted’. By those who saw it as damaging to themselves, it was assaulted from the moment when appeasement ended in war. The assault was a sortie in defence of their reputations by and on behalf of political leaders struggling to maintain power and credibility. Their motives were simple and compelling. The assaults never quite ceased. They were often undertaken in the obituaries, inevitably frequent as the fifties and sixties passed, of those most involved during the thirties in making policies of which the results, seen in September 1939, were generally assessed as undesirable. These posthumous exercises were sporadic and sometimes apologetic in tone—the deceased had acted without positively evil intent; the aims of his policy had been less ignoble than its consequences had led the vulgar, the superficial and the uninformed to suppose; he had been frustrated by world forces beyond his control (Mod. version of Old English term ‘God’).

As historiographic counsel strove to apportion and re-apportion blame for the crack-up, students sympathized with the summing up of the magistrate in the court action following a multiple car-smash: All those concerned had been experienced drivers and cold sober; the lethal accident had occurred when all the vehicles were on their proper side of the road, and stationary.

More recently, at a point somewhere not precisely discernible along the line of the last three or four years, assaults, of the type welcomed by Gannon, began to be resumed with new vigour. Gannon’s own book has served as one of the rallying points. Many articles and lectures have been deployed around it. In the May issue of Encounter, ‘the recent publication by the Clarendon Press of Mr Frank Gannon’s thesis’ was seen as an encouraging reinforcement of the Cause by D. C. Watt Reader in International History in the University of London at the outset of a long and contentious, though poorly researched article on one element of the same general theme.

‘The Cause?’ What Cause? What are these layers low of, these contributors to the timely demise of, views actually on about? As just said, the people in charge of the car at the moment of the collision had clear and cogent reason for disclaiming responsibility, sharing out the blame between others on the road, and their own pesky back-seat drivers; Churchillians, anti-fascist liberals, bawling marxist pamphleteers, and a horde of enfranchized citizens who, unless the war went on for ever, would one day have a chance to get to the polls and record a verdict in accordance with the evidence. Neville Chamberlain wanted to remain Prime Minister, and did so. Lord Halifax, Samuel Hoare, and John Simon all wanted to remain in office, and did so, at least until the next pile-up in May 1940. Above all the Conservative Party could not afford to shrug off, without attempted rebuttal, the charges stridently uttered in such widely popular publications as Guilty Men, and impudently supported by quotations from their own public statements.

Not quite so clear, though, it seems, equally cogent, are the reasons for the current effort to re-open and re-state the case. Cui bono? What motivates this campaign; what causes the minds of these historiographers to leap so alike? And it is to be remarked that some of them write with a kind of nervously defensive anxiety, a shrill urgency ordinarily found in pamphleteering around some immediate political enterprise of great pith and moment.

It is easy, though not for that reason pointless or unnecessary, to relate this phenomenon to what is loosely but intelligibly described as the Right Backlash seen in action at very numerous points of the political and cultural scene during the three or four above-mentioned years. Signs of it were, of course, obvious in the birth and flamboyant infancy of the Heath administration. Everyone could see them, too, in the rise of Mary Whitehouse and all that that implied. By no accident, the paranoia of the Whitehouse adherents regarding Leftish influences supposedly permeating the bbc is to be observed in some of the itchy complaints from those who feel that to re-adjust the image of the Right in the thirties is an essential of Right propaganda in the seventies. Before the Nazis came to power, their propagandists understood how rewarding it was to demonstrate, in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary, that the Left had stealthily captured all the commanding heights of the media, including the history books. It is thought worth while to try to persuade people that tv in Britain is dominated by Reds. So why should not D. C. Watt, in Encounter refer to ‘that residual legatee of Victor Gollancz’ Left Book Club, Penguin Books’?