Within weeks of becoming Prime Minister in June 1935, Baldwin found his new administration facing an international crisis with potentially profound repercussions. A territorial dispute between Italy and Abyssinia was rapidly escalating towards war. It was quickly agreed that there was a ‘desirability of showing to public opinion in this country…that we have made a very substantial effort to avert a catastrophe’. 1 Over the coming weeks as the cabinet considered their options, each was evaluated for its given impact upon domestic opinion. At the back of ministerial minds was the realisation that at some point in the next eighteen months the government would be obliged to submit itself to the electorate in a general election. The instrument through which the Baldwin government hoped to resolve the crisis and thereby satisfy public opinion was the League of Nations. The possibility that Britain might be obliged to take collective action against Italy under the League of Nations’ covenant threatened to destroy the recently agreed Stresa Front. It had only been in March that Britain, Italy and France had agreed to guarantee the integrity of Austria with a treaty which it was hoped would deter any further German designs on the country. This chapter will move chronologically through the foreign policy crises of 1935-6. It will examine how Conservative attitudes evolved towards Italy and Germany, and evaluate the extent to which the various party factions succeeded in persuading the government of the viability of their particular approach.
For many Conservatives the failings of the League were widely accepted. They conceded that theoretically the principles of the League were right, but in practice it had been shown to be moribund.