Magazine article The Spectator

Enemies Within

Magazine article The Spectator

Enemies Within

Article excerpt

Even in 1940, at its finest hour Britain was not united on the side of good against evil

The Americans have 1776, the French have 1789 and we have 1940. The date is not official for us the way it is for them; it marks no formal founding of a nation or republic. But the events of that year - specifically, Britain's lonely stand against the Nazi menace - have acquired the status of a creation myth, the heroic and finest hour in which modern Britain was born.

Our children study the second world war in school and when we vote for our Greatest Briton we choose the hero of 1940, Winston Churchill. When David Cameron deployed his quasi-veto in Brussels in December, the headline-writers and cartoonists instantly reached for 1940 and the image of the solitary Tommy: 'Very well, alone.' Meanwhile, an unlikely Twitter sensation, with more than 200,000 followers, is Real Time WWII, providing 140-character updates of what happened on this day and at this hour in 1940.

It's not hard to fathom this centrality of the war, and particularly 1940, in our collective memory. It was, we tell ourselves, the moment - perhaps the last - when Britain stood unambiguously for good against evil.

Others surrendered, others dithered, but we fought, even at a great and enduring cost in blood and treasure, for what was right.

That is the national, founding narrative of modern Britain. The United States has a version of it too, even if it does not enjoy quite the same mythic status. In this Saving Private Ryan picture of America, the US was the lead force on the side of justice, represented by a 'greatest generation' which played the crucial role in defeating Hitler. It was all but a matter of manifest destiny: where else could America be but on the side of freedom against tyranny?

Yet now the events of 1940 are coming in for re-examination, both in fiction and in the cinema. I'm not impartial on this: my new novel, Pantheon, published under the pseudonym Sam Bourne, is set in 1940 and, drawing on some forgotten parts of the historical record, shows that our memory of that period is not as complete as we like to think.

Of course we know already that there were British voices opposed to military confrontation with Hitler's Germany; central to the heroism of Churchill was his prescience in seeing the Nazi threat when others did not.

But the popular-culture version of this history holds that by the time war broke out in September 1939, the appeasers had melted away and the country was united.

The truth is not so neat. A secretive organisation known as the Right Club, founded by the Scottish Conservative MP Archibald Maule Ramsay, was functioning well into the first year of conflict. Its membership list, contained inside a locked red-leather ledger, included MPs, peers and military brass as well as a smattering of aristocracy. When the club dined at the Russian Tea Room in Kensington, the fifth Duke of Wellington was in the chair. Close by was Lord Redesdale, father of the Mitford girls, including Diana (wife of Oswald Mosley) and the Hitler-worshipping Unity. Also on hand was Lord Lymington, who dreamed of an agrarian England populated by fair-skinned men and flaxen-haired maidens, living on an exclusively organic diet.

Listed too in the 'red book' - now housed at London's Weiner Library - alongside hardcore fascists such as Arnold Leese and the co-founder of the future National Front, A.K.Chesterton, was one Captain George Henry Drummond. Guests at Drummond's parties at Pitsford Hall were expected to comply with an unusual dress code: Nazi uniform. All the better for admiring the hall's swimming pool, the floor of which was decorated with a swastika.

Viewed today, the Right Club and its affiliates - among them the Anglo-German Fellowship, the Imperial Fascist League, the Nordic League, the White Knights of Britain and the English Mistery - seem a mere lunatic fringe. Its badge, featuring an eagle killing a snake alongside the initials P. …

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