The Sandys Affair

Beverley Baxter September 1 1938


The Sandys Affair

Beverley Baxter September 1 1938


The Sandys Affair

Beverley Baxter

DO YOU believe in ghosts? Like all normal people, I do not—especially in the daytime. Once at three a.m. in a Scottish country house on the border of the Macbeth country I heard the sound of carriage wheels grinding on the driveway and the clop, clop of horses’ hoofs. The next day I mentioned this to my host, and was told that it was the ghost of an ancestor who was killed in a carriage accident. It appears that the ancestor had the uncomfortable habit of returning at quiet moments to complete the journey home that he failed to accomplish when alive.

My own opinion is that it was the milkman making his early rounds.

But last week I saw a whole collection of ghosts. Six hundred of us saw the same apparitions at the same moment.

The place was the House of Commons. A good-looking young M. P. named Duncan Sandys had just stood up to ask permission of the Speaker to make a statement.

When he had finished, there was a gasp and then a roar of anger from the whole House. Even in this Parliament of endless crises, I can hardly remember when the atmosphere was so tense.

And at that moment, the ghosts of Cromwell, Pym, Hampden and Lenthall entered and took their places around the Speaker’s chair, then stared defiantly at the ghost of Charles I, which had entered all on its own and walked right up to the Mace.

Perhaps at this stage I had better tell the amazing story which the French newspapers call “l'affaire Duncan Sandys” and which the English newspapers describe by many names. It is one of the strangest stories in the long history of the British Parliament.

A Persistent Young Man

FIRST I must introduce Mr. Duncan Sandys. He is always an object of interest to me, because when my constituency association at Wood Green was looking for a candidate three years ago, the selection narrowed down to Mr. Sandys and myself. We met on the field of battle in front of the local Conservative Executive, and it was only by the narrowest of margins that I won. Mr. Sandys had a great deal to offer. He was a bachelor, tall, slim, good-looking, educated at Eton, attached to the Foreign Office, and related to the right families. What is more, he had that pleasant English affliction of a private income, which meant that he could give his whole time to Parliament.

However, undiscouraged by his failure to secure Wood Green, he had himself adopted almost immediately afterward by another London constituency and, owing to a byelection, he entered Parliament some months before I did.

Almost at once young Sandys demonstrated that he was not going to be a nonentity. His particular obsession dealt with air-force defense and military matters generally. Again and again he flung questions at the Service Ministers which caused them annoyance and embarrassment. The House was not quite sure that it liked this persistent young man. That did not worry Sandys. He knew that he had penetrated the Ministerial armor, and he had no intention of withdrawing his sword.

Then a curious thing happened. In the by-election which Mr. Sandys had fought he was opposed by young Randolph Churchill, the son of the immortal Winston. One of Randolph’s hardest workers was his reddish-haired sister, who canvassed from door to door, spoke on the public platform, and warned the electorate not to vote for Duncan Sandys. She was even more vehement than her brother or her father.

In the course of the fight she and Mr. Sandys met. She is rather small and wistful and has, as I said before, reddish hair. She looked up at the tall, auburn-haired young man who had dared to oppose her brother. Frankly I was not

present at the meeting, so I do not know what happened, but a few weeks later the papers announced the engagement of Winston Churchill’s daughter to the conqueror of Winston Churchill’s son. Mr. Churchill himself made no statement and the wedding passed off quietly.

Thus did the young M. P. join one of the great political families of Westminster. No longer was he a lone wolf; no longer was he a solitary adventurer with only his strong right arm to wrest the prizes from life. He had become part of a dynasty.

Now, of all the Members of the House of Commons who torment the Government, Mr. Churchill is the chief. His position as a former Minister, his marvellous powers of oratory and his genius for politics make him practically the official opposition to the Government in spite of the fact that he is a Conservative. He, too, had fastened upon the question of national defense. Therefore we began to witness “the Old Pretender and the Prodigal Son-in-law’’ on the same quest. One day Winston would bring up his heavy artillery and rake the front bench from end to end.

When he had finished, young Duncan Sandys would poke his knife delicately between the ribs of the wounded Ministers.

There were murmurings among the Government supporters that Duncan Sandys was a thruster, a professional careerist, and that he was not quite playing the game. In fact, except for a certain circle of the younger Members of the House, Duncan Sandys began to earn definite unpopularity.

At this stage I must introduce my old friend, Mr. Leslie Hore-Belisha, Secretary of State for War and a man who is prepared at any moment to take on the Premiership of Great Britain or anything else.

Hore-Belisha was an editorial writer many years ago on the Dai'y Express when I was its editor. He was not a particularly good editorial writer, but he was grand company. We became close friends, and as he was a Member of the House of Commons I learned from him much of the fascinating pursuit of politics. In return, I endeavored to teach him some of the elements of journalism, without any conspicuous success.

As a Minister, Hore-Belisha has enjoyed many triumphs. When Minister of Transport, he created so many innovations that his name almost became part of our language. His instinct for publicity is worthy of Hollywood. Even Anthony Eden was not photographed more often than the Minister of Transport.

About a year ago, to the amazement of everybody and the indignation of the generals, Hore-Belisha was put in charge of the War Office. People scratched their heads. Many thought that to put a Jew at the head of His Majesty’s Army was not a happy idea. Others said that the War Office, with its traditions and entrenched privileges, would ignore him and he would be nothing more* than a cipher.

I dined with Belisha a few nights after his appointment. Already a remarkable change had come over his personality. He was inclined to bark like a major-general, had even come to look likeone, and carried himself erect and moved briskly. What an actor he would have made!

Then came one of the shocks of the century. HoreBelisha, the man who was to have cowered in the presence of the military des|*>ts, went one day to see Neville Chamberlain. They were closeted together for several hours. The next day Hore-Belisha announced the resignation of nearly all the principal generals at the War Office and the appointment of younger men in their places. It became known as the Belisha purge, but the country rejoiced. Here was a fearless man, and his popularity z(xjmed to the very skies.

Only one thing marred Belisha’s enjoyment of his new position—Churchill and Sandys began to hammer him almost at once.

One day Sandys encountered Hore-Belisha in the lobby, and said that he had heard of a serious shortage in the number of certain guns. Belisha assured him that it was not so, or that the report at any rate was exaggerated. Duncan Sandys said that he was glad to hear it and the conversation ended there. A few days later he sat down and wrote what is now an historic letter to the Secretary of State for War. to the effect that he had received information that the shortage of guns which he had discussed with the Minister was actually . . and he gave the figure. If Hore-Belisha denied the accuracy of that figure he would do nothing more about it. but unless it was denied he projx>sed to put down a question in the House.

There were hurried and furious consultations at the War Office. The information that Duncan Sandys had procured was accurate. That, however, was the least part of the crime. The information could only have been ascertained from a secret and highly confidential document which was known only to five or six of the military hierarchy. In other words, there was a leakage. The military secrets were no longer secrets.

And at this moment there began one of the most incredible dramas that has ever been staged at Westminster.

A Constitutional Issue

I FIND it difficult to understand Hore-Belisha’s attitude.

If you or I had been Minister for War in the same circumstances, we would have sent for Sandys and said to him: “My dear fellow, something very serious has happened. Continued on page 25

London Letter

Continued from page 17

I am not questioning the accuracy of your figures, but I must point out that they could only have come from a highly confidential document. Now I must ask you as a responsible M. P. to assist me in tracing this leakage, as otherwise our defenses are not safe.”

That would have passed the onus to the younger man, and the position of Duncan Sandys would have been both delicate and difficult. Instead, Hore-Belisha undoubtedly indulged in self-dramatization and sent the papers to the Prime Minister. Next morning he went to Downing Street to see Mr. Chamberlain about it. It is not quite clear what happened during the conversation. I have heard two versions of it, but perhaps it is just as well not to try to reveal what I cannot prove. It seems to me a great pity that Mr. Chamberlain was brought into it at all at that stage. The man with ten thousand worries should be spared any unnecessary addition to them. However, since his Minister for War had seen fit to raise the issue, the Prime Minister could not avoid it.

According to Hore-Belisha’s subsequent statement in the House, the Prime Minister advised him to get the Attorney General to talk to Duncan Sandys. I have difficulty in believing that. My own impression is that the Prime Minister said to HoreBelisha that he should talk the whole matter over with the Attorney General, in order to be advised as to his subsequent actions.

At any rate Hore-Belisha saw the Attorney General, and as a result that legal authority asked the young M. P. to come to see him.

The conversation was entirely friendly and courteous, a typical talk between a Minister and a private Member. The position of Duncan Sandys was awkward. It is true that he had acquired secret information, but he had at once placed it before the Prime Minister. Therefore, he could not understand what he had done to justify the introduction of the principal law

officer. Finally he said to the Attorney General: “What is my position in regard to the law?”

“Well,” said the Attorney General, “if j you ask me that, I must point out to you that, under the Official Secrets Act, anyj one refusing to divulge his source of information can be prosecuted and sent to | prison for two years. I must say that in | your case I think that the use of that procedure would be very unlikely.”

A little later on in the conversation, he assured Duncan Sandys that the Official Secrets Act would not be used against him.

Sandys went away apparently satisfied, j Undoubtedly, however, he visited his j father-in-law, Mr. Winston Churchill, and the old warrior took an entirely different view of the whole affair. In his opinion, the whole procedure was an outrage against the privileges of a Member of Parliament. With this new conception of it all, Duncan Sandys sent word to the Attorney General that he intended next day in the House of Commons to raise the question of privilege.

He did so. With that swift instinct for events which characterizes Westminster, the House was crowded. Slowly and amidst absolute quiet, Mr. Sandys told the details which I have given to you, and he described how, in pursuing his duties as an M.P., he had been confronted with the possibility of criminal action with the threat of a prison sentence behind it. In his own opinion this was a breach of privilege, and he asked for the Speaker’s guidance.

The House of Commons was deeply and even passionately stirred. A number of Liberals and Socialists rose and demanded that an M. P., providing he was acting according to his lights, should literally be above the law. These sentiments were loudly cheered. The more sober Members, including the Prime Minister, saw that we were handling a dangerous explosive. They knew that a decision taken today would be one thing, but that twenty years from now it might mean chaos. The Prime Minister temporarily quelled the tumult

by saying that on Thursday, that is, two days later, he would introduce a resolution to set up a committee of enquiry into the privileges of M. P.'s in special relation to Mr. Duncan Sandys’ case. And on Thursday the whole subject would be debated.

The following day we met at Westminster with only one subject in our minds —the constitutional issue which would be debated on the following day.

But we had reckoned without the military mind. At the end of question time on Wednesday. Mr. Duncan Sandys again rose to ask for the Speaker’s guidance. He explained that, in addition to being an M. P., he was a junior Territorial officer, and that he had received a telegram ordering him to report in uniform with sword to the military enquiry at the Horse Guards to give evidence into the leakage which had occurred. As an officer, he had received a military order. In his opinion, this was a gross breach of privilege. He

asked for the Speaker's ruling or protection.

The Army Rebuked

TT WAS at this juncture that the ghosts of the past swarmed into the Chamber. Nor was there any dissension among the living. Liberals, Socialists and Conservatives alike raised their voices in deepthroated anger.

Centuries ago, Charles I had entered this very Chamber with his soldiers and demanded the names of the five missing Members. Where a king had failed, did the army of 1938 think that its writ ran higher than that of Parliament?

The Speaker rose. I could not help looking at him and wondering what were his secret emotions. His name is Edward FitzRoy, a direct descendant of the Stuart kings. His ancestor had lost his head on the block because he had tried to overrule Parliament with the army. On this day, as Speaker ot the House of Commons, the

descendant of the Stuarts had to take his stand on the same issue.

He did not hesitate. In cold methodical terms, he agreed that Duncan Sandys had made out a prima facie case for a breach of privilege on the part of the Army authorities. In view of the fact that Parliament was about to debate that very issue, and in connection with Duncan Sandys’ case, the interference of the Army was intolerable.

Thus we saw the spectacle of the elected democratic Parliament of Great Britain declaring to a military officer that he need not obey the order of his military superiors.

The resolution to set up the committee of enquiry was passed without a division. The House resumed its normal temperature. The ghosts of Cromwell, Pym, Hampden, Lenthall and of Charles I left the Chamber, and went back to their tasks of haunting the cellars of history,