Facing Fascism: The Conservative Party and the European Dictators, 1935-1940

By N. J. Crowson | Go to book overview

5

The call for national service, 1937-91

The growing awareness of the challenge presented to Britain by the dictators had, as has been shown, a direct bearing upon the party’s support for defence and foreign policy. As will become apparent in this chapter, this was especially true for the national service debate. For some like Leo Amery and Roger Keyes, it was a cause long advocated. 2 From the government’s perspective it was something they had no wish to introduce. 3 However, during 1938 the question of the marshalling of manpower and resources became the central theme of the defence debate for many Conservative activists and parliamentarians. As 1938 drew to a close it was the issue for the party. Just as in the Edwardian period, activist support for compulsion was always more advanced than the leadership either wished to believe or acknowledge. 4


THE CHRONOLOGY OF DEBATE

Four phases emerge in the debate between 1935 and the introduction of conscription in April 1939. The initial phase ends with the German annexation of Austria in March 1938. As was shown in the previous chapter, the matter of national service was of limited importance, being restricted to a few long-term advocates. There was some debate about supply. More generally the preoccupation was with the pace and nature of the rearmament programme. This concern about rearmament does not diminish after the Anschluss—quite the contrary. Rather, national service was increasingly recognised as the missing component of the rearmament programme, and rapidly assumed considerable prominence. The period between March and September delineates the second phase. Support for some form of national service, and in particular a national register, was reaching a crescendo. In parallel was a widening distrust of Germany. Although the Munich settlement temporarily suspended the expansion in support for

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