Remaking Britain's Cabinet

Beverley Baxter March 15 1939


Remaking Britain's Cabinet

Beverley Baxter March 15 1939


Remaking Britain's Cabinet

Beverley Baxter

STRANGE THINGS are taking place over here in politics. Like most important developments in Britain, they just happen. They are duly dealt with, and it is not until after it all is over that the country realizes that a minor revolution has been accomplished.

For some time most of the newspapers have been telling Mr. Chamberlain to reshuffle his Cabinet. There is a fine, peremptory meaningless sound about “reshuffling” a Cabinet. It also suggests shaking the dice.

Perhaps the Prime Minister tried it like a game before going to bed. For instance, he could write out the principal Cabinet posts and their occupants as they now standor rather as they stood when the newspapers were doing their clamoring thus:

Home Secretary Chancellor of the Exchequer President of the Board of Trade

War Minister Defense Minister Colonial Secretary Minister of Agriculture

Sir Samuel l loare Sir John Simon

Oliver Stanley llore-Belisha Sir Thomas Inskip Malcolm MacDonald W. S. Morrison

Having done this, the Prime Minister would put all the names in a hat and shake them. Blindfolded, so as not to cheat himself, he would take the slips out. one by one, and place them on the table in sequence. He would then get something like this:

Flome Secretary Chancellor of the Exchequer President of the Board of Trade

Sir John Simon Oliver Stanley

War Minister Defense Minister Colonial Secretary Minister of Agriculture

Hore-Belisha Malcolm MacDonald Sir Samuel I loare Sir Thomas Inskip W. S. Morrison

Noticing that Mr. Morrison is still at the Board of Agriculture, he would exchange him with Malcolm MacDonald, since the son of Ramsay MacDonald would hardly be Britain’s idea of Mars.

Perhaps he would shuffle them once more. And again.

Even so he would be bound to scratch his head and ruminate, “Well, I’ve shuffled them until they must be giddy, but whatever I do they look like the same old gang to me.

I can’t see the newspapers cheering their heads off just because half a dozen fellows do musical chairs, especially as there are always thesamenumberof chairsasplayers.”

As we used to say in our French lessons, “The more it alters the more it is the same.”

The two fronts on which the Prime Minister was being attacked were Agriculture and Co-ordination of Defense—which includes co-ordination of attack. For the first time, the farmers were seriously threatening to break away from the Conservative Party. Hitherto a British agricultural constituency was a safe Tory seat, with an occasional exception when a Liberal got in.

But Socialism has never taken root in the country districts.

The truth is that both Capitalism (as represented by the Tories) and Socialism would prefer British agriculture to remain undernourished and undersized. Nor are their reasons lacking in logic.

The industrialist wants to keep the cost of living down so he can maintain wages at a level which makes it possible for him to compete with his manufactured goods in foreign markets. Therefore he wants his workers to be able to buy their food at the lowest world price.

The bankers want heavy food imports for other reasons. Having invested heavily abroad in building up undeveloped territories, the interest on the loans can only be maintained by the borrowers exporting their foodstuffs to Britain.

I am well aware that there is a school of thought which regards anything that capitalists do as being selfish, sinister and sinful. Well, there are some pretty tough citizens in finance, but on the whole they are fairly sound and by no means unpatriotic. In spite of all the sloppy emotionalism of today, I refuse to believe that lack of money is a mark of virtue and that possession of it bespeaks the bar sinister.

But I apologize. For the moment I was drawn away by a Red herring.

Oddly enough, the British Labor Party also wants untaxed food purchased at the lowest world price. The reason is simple. They wish the workers to have as much and as good food as possible which means free imix>rts.

On the other hand, Organized Labor would fight to the limit against a free market in labor. “Bring in foreign foodstuffs free,” they say, “but keep foreign labor out.”

"Farmer . . . the Milch Cow"

IN OTHER words, the British farmer is the milch cow of the nation. He has to pay his men at union rates, lie has to buy his supplies and machinery in a market where the manufacturer is protected, and, broadly speaking, he has to sell his produce in a market ojxm to the whole world.

Admittedly he has been helped from time to time. If a bonus of four shillings an acre was needed to keep him from bankruptcy, he would probably get two shillings from the Government. Quotas would keep some imports down, and there were even tariffs in certain sections, but on balance his lot was a desperate one.

Poor W. S. (“Shakespeare”) Morrison, who would have

been earning £.10.000 a year by now at the bar if he had not lost his heart to politics, tried all sorts of devices. I le created milk boards, potato boards; he restricted production, organized selling, and grew more unpopular all the time. The poor farmer hardly knew

whether a cabbage was a vegetable or an infringement of

the law.

So one night Mr. Morrison was howled down for two hours when he addressed a mass meeting of agriculturists.

“I shall not resign!” he bellowed in his magnificent Scottish baritone.

“We’ll see about that !” roared the farmers in reply.

You observe Mr. Chamberlain’s dilemma? Supposing he did reshuffle his Cabinet and sent another lawyer to the Board of Agriculture, what good would that do?

But there was a further aspect of it all. A Prime Minister is the leader of his party. In promoting or appointing men to office, he is not like a man who owns a business. His position in fact is entirely due to the willingness of his supixMters to keep him there. And he must take into account faithful work over many years by M.P.'s who sup|x>rt the Government. I le also has to remember that there are junior Ministers and under-secretaries who have done hard and underpaid service, and are aching in every bone to be promoted to Cabinet rank.

He was determined that Morrison must be relieved of Agriculture, but where would IK* find his successor? Among those whom I have described or among the untried material?

“I know what I shall do.” said Chamberlain. “I shall break all precedent and put a farmer in charge of Agriculture.”

Farmer Dorman-Smith

HIS selection did not fall exactly utxm the cartoonist’s idea of a British farmer in corduroy breeches, a round belly, a hearty smile and a straw in his mouth. Nevertheless he sent for young Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith. who is a farmer as well as an M.P.

Dorman-Smith came into Parliament at the same time as myself, in 1935. We used to sit together sometimes, and praise or criticize the sixth form boys on the front bench. I le seldom sjx)ke and then not particularly well, being somewhat young and diffident.

He always dressed extremely well, in fact as only an Englishman can dress, and he was definitely good-looking. Two years ago he became President of the Farmers’ Union, which left him in the strange position of sup|x>rting the Government while having to criticize it.

'Then he went to Australia, representing British Agriculture at some conference there, and on the way home he journeyed across Canada, speaking to the natives in Toronto and other centres.

He was full of vigor and the Empire when he came back. He told me that either the Canadians or Australians (I forget which) were the finest people on God’s earth. Altogether he was a new man, although still extremely well dressed and quite modest.

To the surprise of the 1 louse, he had also turned up in the I Ionors List and was made a knight. The lad was working fast. But the fates were by no means finished with him.

“Dorman-Smith,” said Chamberlain, “I want you to join the Cabinet as Minister of Agriculture.”

A knighthood, then the Cabinet in his first three years as an M.P.! There is no holding down the Smith family, no matter how they prefix the grand old name.

Yet he did not reach out with both hands for the portfolio. He wanted assurances that Cinderella would not be kept any longer in the kitchen while her big sisters, Industry and Organized I^abor, went to the economic ball. The Prime Minister gave him the assurances he asked.

Today he made his first speech as a Minister. How did he do? I don’t know for I wasn’t there. For some reason I have acquired a mild form of flu and am writing this in bed. However, I shall add a paragraph at the end about his performance when I have telephoned one or two of my spies at Westminster.

But even that does not end DormanSmith’s rapid rise to greatness. As the Cabinet is traditionally a committee of the Privy Council, the new Minister will become a Privy Councillor so that he will be “The Right Honorable Sir Reginald” and will wear a terrific gold-braided uniform and a cocked hat at State functions. Which shows what can happen to a farmer in Britain.

An Admiral to Defense

THE appointment of Dorman-Smith gave Mr. Chamberlain an idea. If a farmer was the man to end the revolt of the farmers, why not a defense expert to stop the outcry of those who contended that our co-ordination for defense and supply was not up to the mark.

As you will have noticed from the beginning of this article, the Co-ordinating Minister was Sir Thomas Inskip. No finer man sits in the Cabinet than the cricketplaying, deeply religious and courageous John Bull who rejoices in the name of Inskip. He was a solicitor and a man of such fine character that any widow would have gladly entrusted all her savings to his care. When he became Solicitor General, it was one of his tasks to help break the miners’ strike in South Wales. Years afterward it was discovered, quite by accident, that he was maintaining anonymously a number of poor families in Wales during this unhappy business. As Solicitor General, of course, he was overpaid, because in British polities there is an assumption that the best lawyers will not givetheir services except at a high price. It may be unfair to the legal profession, but that is how it works out. Therefore I would say that his earnings in that office were between £15,(XX) and £16,OCX) a year.

Then came the outcry two or three years ago for a super-Minister to organize supply and material to all the fighting services, and to co-ordinate tactics. This means that he would have to reconcile the points of view of admirals, generals and air marshals, as well as to act as liaison between them, the Treasury and the manufacturers to say nothing of dealing with exports, trade unions, and all the rest of the intricate machinery of production.

Winston Churchill hoped for the job. For some time the newspapers speculated

until the names of all our supermen were exhausted. Then Premier Baldwin made the announcement. The choice had fallen on Sir Thomas Inskip. The news was conveyed to Winston Churchill. “It must be a typist’s error,” said Winston.

Just why Mr. Baldwin thought Sir Thomas was the man for the job will always remain one of the historic mysteries. Not that Inskip lacked ability or enterprise, but he simply had no basic experience to justify the appointment and there was not time for him to acquire it. I lis name was received with a considerable outburst of criticism, and not unnaturally, but no one bothered to point out that by the acceptance of the post he had voluntarily reduced his income by £10,000 a year. Therefore British life was dignified by his personal sacrifice, while British security was jeopardized by his unsuitability for the post.

He worked very hard indeed, and stood up to bombardments in the House which would have terrified most of his generals and admirals. It is said, however, that the smile of relief on his face was something beautiful to see when last week Mr. Chamberlain asked him if he would mind going to the Dominions Office instead.

“I have decided to ask Chatfield to take on your job,” said the Prime Minister.

Admiral Lord Chatfield ! Truly a name to conjure with ! Not only had Chatfield succeeded Earl Beatty as First Sea Lord, but he was a partner with Beatty in the latter’s historic order at the Battle of Jutland. Two British battleships had been blown up and a British cruiser had just been sunk.

“There seems something wrong with our —ships today, Chatfield.” snapped Beatty. “Steer two points nearer the enemy.”

I love that story, which has the merit of being true as well as thrilling. It has the historic braggadocio of all our great sea dogs from Drake and Nelson downward.

In this manner did Mr. Chamberlain remake his Cabinet instead of reshuffling it. Instead of promoting junior Ministers or rewarding party services, he chose men without any ministerial experience to hold the two fortresses which were being most heavily attacked by the newspapers and public opinion.


My spies say that Dorman-Smith did very well indeed in his first ministerial speech. He was quite sure of himself and drew a full House.

Up the Smiths.