That Cliveden Set
THE OTHER day a stockbroker said to me: "There are no brokers any more on the London Stock Exchange. There are only foreign secretaries. Nobody ever talks about shares. They just talk about Czechoslovakia."
In fairness it might be admitted that it is not only on the London Stock Exchange that foreign secretaries abound. The House of Commons is full of them, eager to impart at any cost and at any length their views upon the international situation.
But it does not end there. In the large and stimulating correspondence which I receive from Canada, I have detected the foreign-secretary virus. Especially in Saskatchewan and Alberta there are a number of letter writers who have a knowledge of European affairs which is not excelled, and indeed hardly equalled, by the British Foreign Office.
Some of these gentlemen writing to me do not ask that 1 should accept their own versions of things over here. It is true that they are quite certain and need no outside proof that Britain has become spineless, that Chamberlain is a boneless wonder, and that Eden was crucified because he was the only one who dared to stand up to the dictators. Nevertheless, to add verification and verisimilitude to a highly convincing narrative, they enclose articles from American magazines, written by oddly named experts in New York who know every secret of the British Cabinet and can explain exactly why the Prime Minister decided to sell the pass to Mussolini for a mess of spaghetti.
Of course the real triumph of these diplomatic sleuths of
course triumph diplomatic America was the discovery of the Cliveden set. I'p to that time there were certain things that baffled even these foreign secretaries whose thoughts are in Europe and whose bed-sitting rooms are in Brooklyn. But the Cliveden set explained everything. It was the key to the situation, the solution to the puzzle, the missing clue, the word of eight letters that finished the crossword puzzle.
Who am I to scoff? At what age does a man refuse to learn? I have read every word about the Cliveden set with avidity and, like the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria (and Oliver Twist), I have called for more.
Never has a story had a more perfect setting or satisfied so generously the adolescent appetite of the amateur detective that exists in all of us.
In case there are any readers of Maclean's who do not know what 1 am wanting about, let me recall the strange story as vividly recorded in the U.S.A. and reproduced in nearly every country in the world.
THE villain of the piece is Viscount Astor, the American-born British peer. The villainess is Nancy Astor. the sprightly Virginian gal who was the first woman to take her seat in the British Parliament and is now the Boadicea of British politics.
According to the American magazines, they are the modern Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, hardly aspiring to the throne, but more powerful than any king or queen. At the raising of one of Nancy’s eyelashes, a humble back bencher leaps into the Cabinet. At a frown of Lord Astor’s, he leaps back to obscurity once more like a motion picture put into reverse.
'1 he name of the Astors’ country house is called “Cliveden.” Just for your guidance, it is pronounced “Cleevden,” but that is no one’s fault. In spite of that I shall refuse to call my son Clive “Cleeve.”
American accounts of Cliveden differ. Taking a mean average, however, of the various descriptions which I have read, I put the Astors’ domestic staff at:
14 butlers 38 footmen 100 housemaids 12 cooks 200 gardeners 50 grooms 25 chauffeurs
Of course that is just their ordinary number, suitable for looking after the small, intimate week-end parties that determine the fate of Europe. If they had a real party, the number of servants of all categories would be doubled.
I have forgotten how many acres Cliveden occupies. I gather from my reading, though, that it skirts the Thames, touches the Severn and just stops short of the Clyde. In fact Cliveden is a country estate entirely surrounded by England.
Now what do you think the villainous Macbeths do with their country house? Do they bother with the neighbors or the vicar or the local M.P.? Not a bit. They are after bigger fish. Nothing short of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the German Ambassador will suit them and all arriving by different routes in limousines with drawn blinds.
A few moments later these nabobs are followed by Mr. Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of the Times, and Mr. J. L. Garvin, the editor of the Observer. They ride in cars with undrawn blinds because, being journalists, they are not known to the mob.
After dinner (which has been served by the fourteen butlers) they retire into the library, where Nancy pulls down the blinds and moves a bookcase against the door
to prevent any of the servants looking through the keyhole. The conspirators are completely alone except for the American reporters, who from their Brooklyn windows can see anything.
“Neville,” says Nancy, “you’ve got to give Anthony Eden the order of the boot.” “My dear,” says Lord Astor, “the same idea could be expressed in language more becoming the baronial surroundings which we enjoy because of our inherited American wealth.”
“Europe would breathe easier,” remarks the editor of the Times, “if Eden should catch a cold on his chest and have to take a long rest.” “Nothing matters but British friendship with Germany,” puts in the editor of the Observer. “British Imperialism and German Nazism cannot be divided even by a man so guileless and so pigheaded as Mr. Eden.”
Herr von Ribbentrop raises his hands in protest. “You must not think that wre dislike Mr. Eden,” he says. “He
just makes us sick.”
The Prime Minister has shrunk into his chair until he is indistinguishable from its pattern. He looks and feels like a worm. His eyes are bloodshot and his knees are trembling. I íe is in the presence of his masters and know s it.
“Eden’s not a bad fellow,” he mumbles apologetically. “I know he’s young and impatient but—”
"Neville!” Nancy’s voice shatters the air like a pistol shot.
“I’m sorry.” The Premier is now almost indistinguishable to the naked eye.
The conspirators confer for a moment. Lord Astor takes up the telephone, which connects with a private switchboard which has 280 lines and 100 operators.
“Get Lord Halifax on the phone,” snaps his lordship, “and ask him—I mean tell him—to come here at once.” Neville Chamberlain looks up with eyes more bloodshot than ever.
“I don’t want to seem inquisitive,” he stammers, “but is Halifax to be my new Foreign Secretary?”
The editor of the Times lights a cigarette. “It will be intelligently anticipated in tomorrow’s Times.”
“And confirmed in Sunday’s Observer,” remarks Mr. J. L. Garvin.
Herr von Ribbentrop crosses to Lady Astor and kisses both her hands. "You have done this, noble lady, for Germany, for the Fatherland. Hitler will never forget.”
“That's nothing,” says the lady from Virginia. “Let me know if Halifax gives you any trouble and I'll kick him out too. I suDpose you’re satisfied with Neville?”
Herr von Ribbentrop gazes into her eyes. “In your hands.” he whispers, “he is everything we admire in a British statesman.”
I apologize to those of my readers who may think that I have dwelt too long on the farcical nature of the articles which have filled so many pages of American journals that specialize in knowing everything.
Nevertheless, if the legend of the Cliveden set means anything at all-and if you allow for the exaggeration of burlesque—British politics are conducted in the manner that I have described.
Continued on page 35
Continued from page 12
And since a denial in itself means nothing, I propose to examine quite seriously the claims that Mr. Chamberlain is a pathetic, sycophantic pawn in the hands of the Astors and the rulers of Germany.
That it is a serious charge, no one will question. That it is a monstrous and indecent charge, I hope to prove by the application of common sense and normal deductions.
Let us assess the power of Viscount Astor and his wife. To begin with, they do not own the Times in any way. That is the first plank of the legend to disappear. It is true that the principal shareholder of the Times is Major Astor, a brother of Lord Astor, who is an M.P. and as modest as he is patriotic. The policy of the Times is completely in the hands of its editor, Mr. Geoffrey Dawson, who is an absolute martinet.
By the wish of Major Astor, the Times can never again be bought or sold, and a committee consisting of the Lord Chief Justice, the Archbishop of Canterbury and two or three others, will advise on its policy when the present controllers have passed away.
The only newspaper which Nancy and her husband own is the Observer, a very fine high-class Sunday journal with about 200,000 circulation. Unfortunately for the Astors. the Observer is being badly lelt behind by Lord Kemsley’s Sunday Times. The Sunday Times is no relation to the daily Times. It appeals to the same public, but it has no connection with the firm on the other side of the street with the same name.
It will, therefore, be seen that Lord and Lady Astor command only one newspaper, and cannot compare with the giants of Fleet Street such as Lord Kemsley, Lord Camrose, Lord Rothermere, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Southwood. In addition, their editor, Mr. J. E. Garvin, who was once a tremendous force in molding public opinion, has now become so obsessed with the superiority of dictatorships over democracy that he is passing into that twilight which mercifully enfolds writers who can no longer analyze but only pontificate.
However, let us admit that Lady Astor desires to pull the strings behind the scenes. Put it higher than that if you like. Supposing she is determined to have the say in the appointment of Cabinet Ministers and the adoption ot foreign policy? What are her weapons?
Her newspaper power is negligible. Her wealth is vast, but does anyone suggest that Mr. Chamberlain is for sale?
Her influence in the House of Commons is slight. She is popular for her many kind deeds, but no one takes her seriously as a debater. Everyone appreciates her vivacity and her unerring instinct in clothes, nor do they doubt her genuine solicitude for the jxx>r. In spite of all these things the I louse wishes that, since she was the first woman to take her seat in Parliament. she would remain in it for more than ten minutes at a time and not move about j as if the debating chamber were a Southern tea party.
There is. of course, her beautiful place in the country. But there are hundreds of beautiful places in England.
Does the answer lie then in D>rd Astor? What is he like, this Waldorf Astor of America who became a British peer? Lord Astor is g(x>d looking, with a beautiful speaking voice and a bearing that is both modest and dignified. He was in the House of Commons and a Minister when he succeeded to the title of his father, the first Viscount. It is said that Waldorf Astor wept with chagrin at having to go to j the 1 louse of Lords and thus abandon hope of a real political career. That is not an uncommon phenomenon in British life. British society seems to be divided into those trying to join the |*erage and those trying to escape it.
No. Lord Astor is not the type that aspires to rule behind the scenes. His interest in politics is intense, and he would have liked to have fought for the highest honors on the political battlefield, but he is neither an intriguer nor a dictator.
Therefore we must come back to Nancy. | I do not doubt that she is an intriguer, nor that she would love to be a dictator. She has the right to be called a political hostess, inasmuch as her guests and her 'n ter est s are largely political. That is not unusual. Politics get into the blood and dominate the minds of those inoculated with the germ.
Nor do I deny that Lord Halifax and Mr. Eden have both used the hospitality of the Astors for the purpose of having ! informal talks with representatives of foreign powers.
The Astors have made no secret of the fact that they believe that an understanding between Germany and Britain is . essential to world peace. I must confess | that I am of that opinion too.
Thus a German ambassador like Herr von Ribbentrop, feeling the hostility of the British nation which his tactless blunders did so much to create, finds a friendly refuge in the Astors’ circle, and a chance to discuss Anglo-German difficulties removed from the limitations of official formality.
I have no doubt that at such moments Lady Astor feels that she is directing destiny, whereas she is really being nothing more than an obliging hostess to those who find her pleasant and useful.
/^\NE MORE thing I must explain. The ^ Times is still regarded as the official mouthpiece of the Foreign Office. As a newspaper, it has the smallest, if the most valuable, circulation in London, and has nothing like the circulation of the Daily Telegraph. Nevertheless the Times is still used as a medium to forecast Government policy when the moment may not be quite ripe for a Ministerial announcement.
Therefore the editor, Geoffrey Dawson,
is also glad of frank informal talks with foreign representatives, which explain so much that cannot be published in the newspapers.
But nere is the joke. At the very moment that American journalists were putting out the story of the great proGerman plot by the Astors and the Times, Herr Hitler expelled the Times correspondent from Berlin “for his mendacious and unbearable attacks upon the Nazi regime.”
The Times expressed its opinion of the expulsion in words of cold and calculated contempt.
So much then for the plot to sell Britain to Hitler.
But where does Mr. Chamberlain come in? What is it that makes him cringe before the Astor frown and fawn before the Astor smile?
He has never denied that he desires an Anglo-German rapprochement, although he has never failed to show his determination to make Britain strong enough to meet any threat from Germany. He has warned Germany that if there is war in f-Curope, we shall be drawn in on the side of
her enemies. In the fateful week-end of May 21, he threw the full weight of Britain against the war dreams of Hitler’s extremists.
This is the abject surrender to Nazism wnich literary Brooklyn describes. This is the obeisance to the Astor decree.
If the Astors were consumed with a passionate hatred of Neville Chamberlain, in what way could they injure him? Mr. Garvin’s bow and arrow are their sole armaments, and the arrow is sadly blunted.
Ah! But what about working against him behind the scenes? What about getting brother Astor’s Times to open fire?
When the Tory Times tries to destroy a Tory Premier, the only thing tnat will disappear is the last fortress of influence possessed by that newspaper.
Well, there you are. I have told you the truth about the Cliveden set. And has it occurred to you that if the Astors were as powerful politically and journalistically as some people think, this would be my last article and my last Parliament?
Or is it only Mr. Chamberlain who cringes when Nancy cracks the whip?