Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Churchill Series - Aug. 8, 2008

(One of a weekday series of posts about the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

Like the three preceding posts, this one concerns the abdication crisis of 1936 caused by King Edward VIII's determination to marry the twice divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.

Below you'll find a section of the Wikipedia entry for the crisis. In general outline it appears accurate. It also gives you an idea of how complex and unpopular was Churchill's role in the crisis.

The Wikipedia section begins with a description of the three options that would have resolved the crisis. Option 1 was favored by the King but was never a likely outcome given the Government's and the Parliament's the fierce opposition to a royal marriage.

The options were that:

1. Edward and Mrs. Simpson marry and she become queen (a "royal marriage")

2. they marry and she not become queen but receive some courtesy title instead (a "morganatic marriage")

3. abdication for Edward and any potential heirs he might father, thus allowing him to make any marital decisions without further constitutional implications.

The second option had European precedents, including Edward's own great-grandfather, Duke Alexander of Württemberg, but no parallel in British constitutional history. The Commonwealth's prime ministers were consulted, and the majority agreed that there was "no alternative to course (3)".[44] Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons and South African Premier J. B. M. Hertzog opposed options 1 and 2. New Zealand Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage rejected option 1 but thought that option 2 "might be possible ... if some solution along these lines were found to be practicable" but "would be guided by the decision of the Home government".[45]

Irish Prime Minister Éamon de Valera claimed to be disinterested while also remarking that, as a Catholic country, Ireland did not recognize divorce. He supposed that if the British people would not accept Mrs. Simpson then abdication was the only possible solution.[46]

On 24 November, Baldwin consulted the three leading opposition politicians in Britain: Leader of the Opposition Clement Attlee, Liberal leader Archibald Sinclair, and Winston Churchill. Sinclair and Attlee agreed that options 1 and 2 were unacceptable and Churchill pledged to support the Government.[47]

In fact, Churchill did not support the Government. In July, Churchill had advised the King's legal counsel, Walter Turner Monckton, against the divorce but his advice was ignored.[48] As soon as the affair became public knowledge, Churchill started to pressure Baldwin and the King to delay any decisions until Parliament and the people had been consulted.[49]

In a private letter to Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of The Times newspaper, Churchill suggested that a delay would be beneficial because given time the King might fall out of love with Mrs. Simpson.[50]

Political support for the King was scattered, comprising politicians outside of the mainstream parties such as Churchill, Oswald Mosley and the Communists.[51] David Lloyd George also supported the King, though he disliked Mrs. Simpson. He was, however, unable to take any active role in the crisis because he was vacationing in Jamaica with his mistress.[52]

In early December, rumours circulated that the King's supporters would join together in a "King's Party" led by Churchill, but they were untrue. There was no concerted effort to form an organised movement, and Churchill had no intention of leading one.[53] Nevertheless, the rumours damaged the King and Churchill severely, as Members of Parliament were horrified at the idea of the King interfering in politics.[54]

The letters and diaries of working-class people and ex-servicemen generally demonstrate support for the King, while those from the middle and upper classes tend to express indignation and distaste.[55] The Times, The Morning Post, The Daily Herald and newspapers owned by Lord Kemsley, such as The Daily Telegraph, opposed the marriage. On the other hand, the Express and Mail newspapers, owned by Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere respectively, appeared to support a morganatic marriage.[56] The King estimated that the newspapers in favour had a circulation of 12.5 million, while those against had 8.5 million.[57]

Backed by Churchill and Beaverbrook, Edward now proposed to broadcast a speech indicating his desire to remain on the throne or to be recalled to it if forced to abdicate, while marrying Mrs. Simpson morganatically. In one section, Edward proposed to say:

Neither Mrs. Simpson nor I have ever sought to insist that she should be queen. All we desired was that our married happiness should carry with it a proper title and dignity for her, befitting my wife. Now that I have at last been able to take you into my confidence, I feel it is best to go away for a while, so that you may reflect calmly and quietly, but without undue delay, on what I have said.[58]

Baldwin and the Cabinet blocked the speech, saying it would shock many people as well as entail a grave breach of constitutional principles.[59] By convention, the Sovereign could and can only act with the advice and counsel of Ministers drawn from, or approved by, Parliament. In seeking the people's support against the Government, Edward was opting to oppose the binding advice of his ministers in all the Commonwealth states, and instead act as a private individual. The Cabinet felt that in proposing the speech Edward had revealed his disdainful attitude towards the constitutions of his realms, and threatened the political neutrality of the Crown.[60]

On 5 December, having in effect been told that he could not keep the throne and marry Mrs. Simpson, and having had his request to broadcast to the Empire to explain "his side of the story" blocked on constitutional grounds,[61] Edward chose the third option,[62] becoming the first monarch in modern British and Dominion history to abdicate voluntarily.