The Abdication of King Edward VIII
The abdication of Edward VIII was the most celebrated non-event of recent British history. It changed nothing. The political and social configurations in the country were unaltered; it had no effect upon the United Kingdom’s relations with other members of the Commonwealth; British foreign policy was unaffected; and scarcely any difference in the delicate balance of power between the political personalities of the day could be perceived when it was over. It did not even shake the institution of monarchy. The constitutional position of the Crown remained almost exactly where it was before Edward came to the throne.
These prosaic facts are usually overlooked by those who persist in regarding the abdication as a fairy tale—even if the tale has an unhappy ending. For them it is the story of Prince Charming who finds his Cinderella and offers her his hand in marriage. He rules over a kingdom beset by two dragons, Unemployment and Antiquated Industry, who eat up his subjects. The Prince should be able to draw his sword and slay the dragons, but he cannot summon up the strength to do so until he marries Cinderella. She is of the New World, the symbol of the new life of freedom from convention and from the restrictions of the court which weigh upon the Prince. Unfortunately the Kingdom has fallen under the spell of a mighty sorcerer, Essbee, who, aided by the Archwizard Cantuar, forbids the wedding and bemuses the Prince’s loyal subjects into believing that adherence to convention and rigid court etiquette will alone save them from the dragons. How can the sorcerer’s spells be broken? Surely the Prince can find some friends in his hour of need. Two friends appear called Winston and Max. They have been turned into toads by a wave of the sorcerer’s wand, Unpopularity, but the toads have a plan to overcome the sorcerer. If only the Prince will postpone his marriage until some time after the Crown is placed on his head by the Archwizard, all will be saved. He can then assert his rights under the ancient Act of Settlement and the sorcerer and all his crew will be powerless to prevent his sweeping them away. The gloomy cathedrals of the Archwizard will crumble into ruins and in their place will rise the temple of the smiling Winston Sarastro, who will have regained his natural shape. Max will organize free trade within the Prince’s far-flung dominions, the dragons will be slain, and the Prince will marry Cinderella. But the Prince is doomed. He loves his bride-to-be not wisely but too well. He cannot endure the thought that she must undergo trials and tribulations which Sarastro tells him the sorcerer will inevitably inflict upon her. He will not wait to marry her, and well though he knows the sorcerer’s might, he puts himself in his power. All is lost. The sorcerer waves his wand, and the Prince and Cinderella are changed into doves who fly away across the seas never to return.
MAX BEAVERBROOK was one of those who believed in the fairy tale. His short account is written with his characteristic verve and displays to the full his zest in describing the comings and goings in a political crisis, and the hour-to-hour machinations and counterplots. His instinct in this activity was unerring. He saw at once that when the King had formally asked the Cabinet to consider and consult the Dominions about the possibility of a morganatic marriage, the game was up. He even admitted his mistake in agreeing to the King’s private request to him to muzzle the British and foreign press when he realized that the King’s one hope of getting public opinion on his side was for a long and sustained press campaign. Unlike Churchill, who still in the last days thought that he could arrange for the decision to be delayed (and was howled down in the House of Commons for his pains), Beaverbrook knew that they had lost. “Our cock won’t fight,” he told Churchill: “I left him with the parting words, ‘No dice,’ but he simply would not believe my miserable news.” Yet at the same time Beaverbrook was capable of entertaining fantasies. He apparently believed that he could rally a party of “King’s men” and that the leader of the minute Liberal Party, Sir Archibald Sinclair, would be able to form an alternative Government if Baldwin’s Government resigned. For despite his years of embroilment in British politics, Beaverbrook never really understood how the system worked. For instance, he states several times that, although members of the Royal Family have to obtain the Sovereign’s permission to marry, the Sovereign himself is free with the single exception that under the Act of Settlement he cannot marry a Roman Catholic. This is true in constitutional law. But the British constitution is not circumscribed by law. It is in large part a matter of constitutional custom; and custom evolves over the centuries. It is doubtful whether Victoria could have married in opposition to the wishes of her ministers, and once the monarchy had had to adjust its status in the twentieth century to universal suffrage and a democratically elected Parliament, it was inevitable that every official act of the Sovereign, including his choice of wife, would have to be approved by his ministers. This Beaverbrook never understood. He attacks the King’s Private Secretary, Hardinge, for taking the side of the Government, and advising the King of the danger of the situation in which he would find himself if he persisted in his association with Mrs. Simpson. But the King’s Secretary is not a personal servant. He is the Sovereign’s Secretary and as such responsible to the institution of monarchy and not, as Burke might have put it, to the “temporary life-renter” of that institution.
Nor did Beaverbrook ever understand either the institution of Parliament and its relation to the monarchy. No party of “King’s men” could have formed in Parliament, because members of Parliament of all parties were far more jealous of Parliament’s privileges and rights against the Crown than they were interested in exploiting the situation from personal or party interest. Beaverbrook saw politics as a matter of personal rivalries and loyalties, personal embroilments and alliances. He was tempted to see it this way, partly by reason of his transatlantic temperament, and partly because he made his mark in politics during the First World War when party allegiance was relaxed and the alliances in Lloyd George’s Coalition governments were deceptive. But after Lloyd George’s fall party politics came back in an even more intense form than in the days before 1914. His book is a bitter polemic against Baldwin, and he cites the stages in which he opposed Baldwin’s policies and made him his enemy. Understandably enough he does not cite the most crushing defeat he suffered at Baldwin’s hands. In 1924 Beaverbrook, and the other leading press baron, Rothermere, decided to mount a press campaign calling for Baldwin’s resignation as leader of the Conservative party. They thought they could get rid of this nonentity with ease. But Baldwin was not a nonentity: he was an astute politician. He did not hit back: He gave an interview to a popular Sunday newspaper—which he promptly repudiated—expressing his contempt for the press barons. (“They are both men I would not have in my house.”) Seven years later when Beaverbrook was running independent Empire Free Trade candidates against the official Conservative candidates in elections, Baldwin spoke again condemning Beaverbrook’s methods of “direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths” in his papers and concluded: “What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” The telling phrase had been provided by Baldwin’s cousin, Rudyard Kipling, and Beaverbrook never could forget it, nor forgive his final defeat at Baldwin’s hands over the abdication.
BEAVERBROOK’S LIFE-LONG ENEMY was not merely Baldwin. It was the British Establishment. And it is the great merit of Brian Inglis’s excellent book, that it explores the social background to the crisis. He analyzes the King’s character and the café-society world of Mrs. Simpson, and sets them against the circle of Conservative ministers, courtiers, prelates, editors of respectable newspapers and journals, civil servants and go-betweens who rallied to support Baldwin—or “S.B.” as the Establishment familiarly called him. He then lets the story develop, week by week, and finally day by day, until Edward signed the instrument of abdication. His criticism of the controversy (including Beaverbrook’s account, which he demolishes) is admirable. For he sees perfectly clearly that Edward’s calamity was inevitable.
Anyone with sensibility must sympathize with the King in his dilemma. It is true that some of Prince Charming’s charm had been eroded by years of service in the role of royalty. He could be tactless, short-tempered, and opinionated—and his opinions were as embarrassing to the Left as to the Right. Like many upper-class Englishmen of his generation, bewildered by the failure of parliamentary democracy to cope with the economic and social problems of the times, he felt the attraction of the fascist dictators in their early days, and opposed Eden’s policy of sanctions against Mussolini in the Abyssinian war for fear of driving him into the arms of Hitler. It is true that when he came to the throne he had cut himself off from the rest of the Royal Family, politicians, and the Establishment and had no notion of the fact that if as King he were to exert an influence, he must work through them. But his anticipation of certain social changes was attractive—whether of informality in manner or clothes, or of the amusements, or of the mode of life including marriage which so many of his subjects adopted in post-war Britain. So was his distaste for the claustrophobic rituals of pre-1914 upper-class existence. The spectacle of such a man hunted down by officialdom and respectability, the pack led by a gang of second-rate and incredibly complacent and pompous politicians, must again enlist sympathy. A.J.P. Taylor, the editor of Beaverbrook’s book, says that Beaverbrook did not act out of respect for the monarchy but from the desire “to help a human being in distress harassed by the established order.” The hunt was repulsive and unscrupulous.
Repulsive but inevitable. Baldwin had one aim: to prevent the marriage which he believed rightly to be against the wishes of the vast majority of the King’s subjects and against the wishes of their political representatives in the United Kingdom and the Dominions; and, if he could not, to arrange the abdication with minimum scandal and efficiency, without damage to the institution of monarchy. Baldwin not only respected but understood the nature of this institution. In a well-known article on the British monarchy (which Brian Inglis ought to have read and cited) Edward Shils and Michael Young analyzed how the monarchy contains the moral consensus of the nation. Only intellectuals and priests demand that conduct should be guided by explicit moral rules. The ordinary man does not think in terms of abstract rules—he wants them embodied in some symbol which should be the central authority in society. In the early middle ages this was the Church. In the post-Renaissance world it became the monarchy. But because monarchy was absolutist it brought upon it the curses as well as the adoration of the people. When the British monarchy became powerless, hostility against the State—against bureaucracy, form-filling, the law of the land, class privilege—fell on the Government and on the State, and the Monarchy remained undefiled. As the influence of religion waned, the Durkheimian Sacred in society became more and more to be symbolized in the monarchy. Ordinary men and women wanted to identify themselves with it. The pageants, the processions, the rituals and, above all, the royal patronage of a multitude of institutions, and of a variety of individuals through the honors system, enable people to feel that the monarchy symbolizes the Good, this blessed plot, this realm, this England. They feel better for having been in contact with this symbol of the Sacred. They also feel able to identify the Royal Family with themselves. It is a fantasy family whose babies, teenage princes, debutante daughters, newlyweds, and great retired matriarchs, such as Queen Mary, provide patterns for all these types in ordinary family life: The difference seems merely to be that they live in a grander manner and live a more varied life.
THESE NOTIONS BALDWIN HAD in his bones. If the King was not prepared to abide by what he, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Editor of the Times, and the Establishment defined the Good and the Sacred to be, the King must go. The English ruling class have rarely been noted for respecting their sovereigns if the crunch comes. They cut off the head of one King, sacked another forty years later, despised the Hanoverian monarchs whom they imported, and during the past hundred years, while promoting the veneration of the institution, have seen to it that the Sovereign’s powers are symbolic and reinforce their own purposes. That was why Baldwin was so intent on avoiding the scandal of a confrontation. For one naturally so lazy and indecisive, Baldwin displayed extraordinary powers of concentration during the affair. He organized the court, the churches, and the politicians. The Opposition gave him no trouble because the Labour Party considered that they had been victimized by George V, whom they held in part responsible for the formation in 1931 of the National Government which had ruined their fortunes. Baldwin also fixed the press. One of the richly comical touches in Beaverbrook’s account is his indignation over the role of Dawson, the Editor of the Times. Beaverbrook had arranged the press gag: When he wanted to ungag the press to present the King’s case, he found Dawson preserving and exploiting the silence and doing on the King in an Establishment manner the kind of assassination job that Beaverbrook was accustomed to do in a populist manner in his own papers. Baldwin made use of Dawson, and Dawson in turn made use of the other editors—the lack of independence in the British press was lamentable. Once the King had officially asked Baldwin to examine the possibility of a morganatic marriage he was doomed. Baldwin had simply to put the screws on. This he did ruthlessly, and was right to be ruthless in order to prevent any possibility of delay or an appeal to the King’s popularity by romantics such as Churchill. He used every weapon in his politician’s armory, as he had every right to do, and his final speech in Parliament was a study in concealing certain facts and subtly distorting others. Like Comus he hurled his spells into the spongy air, to cheat the eye with blear illusion. (He had arrived at Fort Belvedere in the final stages when abdication was a certainty with a suitcase ready to stay the night in order to be able to state in public that he had sat up until the dawn wrestling with the King’s soul. This was too much for Edward, who sent him packing after dinner. But Baldwin got him to insert a sentence in his farewell broadcast to the effect that he and the King had always had friendly relations.) He was an easy victor.
But he was a victor without having to fight. There never was a conflict. The first half of Inglis’s book shows that the King had no chance of support in any responsible quarter. There were one or two demonstrations in London. But apart from these the only murmurs of discontent came from that shadowy body of opinion which used to exist in England and went by the name of the Immoral Front—intellectuals, socialites, and easy-going radicals, who used to tease the bien-pensants, and by their connections with the aristocracy and a few politicians occasionally won a minor triumph on some issue of censorship or freedom of thought. But, perhaps inevitably, as Inglis details the comings and goings and mounting excitement of the last weeks, and the hopes and fears of the protagonists, he unwittingly recreates the expectation that there could have been a different end to the story.
THAT WAS IMPOSSIBLE. There was no conflict because Edward was as staunch a constitutional monarchist as Baldwin. It never occurred to him not to consult the Prime Minister nor to maneuver and play politics. Had he done so the outcome might have been much less smooth: but he had no intention of being Shaw’s King Magnus. “I always thought I could get away with the morganatic marriage,” he said as he disembarked from the destroyer which had taken him to France. It is quite wrong to argue that Edward made a mistake by asking the Cabinet for advice on a matter on which he need not have called for advice. It seems never to have crossed his mind to act other than he did or to incur the faintest suspicion of acting unconstitutionally. When Baldwin refused to allow him to put his case to the nation in a broadcast, he accepted the decision without demur. In this he was helped by Mrs. Simpson, who, bewildered at first and misled by the King’s optimism, behaved with dignity and sensibility, insisting only, as Taylor puts it, on the American code of public morality that marriage is essential and divorce a harmless formality. The abdication is a non-event because Edward and Mrs. Simpson would allow none of the possible confrontations—political, social, or moral—to take place.
The sole consolation for those who found the affair tawdry and submerged in cant or slush came after Edward had left the country. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who had had to postpone a campaign which he had planned, entitled “Recall to Religion,” delivered a homily against Edward’s “craving for private happiness,” which “strange and sad he had sought in a manner inconsistent with Christian principles and within a social circle whose standards and ways of life are alien to all the best instincts and traditions of his people.” Remembering his long years of service, the Archbishop cried, “The pity of it, O the pity of it,” and commended Edward to the infinite mercy and protecting care of God. Everyone, even the Establishment, was nauseated, and a verse circulated in England:
My Lord Archbishop, what a scold you are
When your man is down, how very bold you are
O Christian charity, how scant you are
Oh, Auld Lang Swine, how full of Cantuar!
The next year Parliament passed A.P. Herbert’s private bill making divorce easier.