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Response to Review of The British People and the League of Nations; Democracy, Citizenship and Internationalism, c.1918-45 (12817)

First of all, let me thank Peter Yearwood, whose own work has made such an important contribution to the field, for taking the time to read my book on the League of Nations movement in Britain. The early sections of his review provide a very succinct and accurate account of some of the key findings of my research, which began life as a doctoral thesis. Before addressing some of his rather more critical comments on my account of this movement, I should perhaps explain how I came to the subject in the first place.

I freely confess that it was not out of any prior interest in the League itself, of whose history I knew little other than the standard textbook narrative of high hopes in the 1920s dashed by international crisis in the 1930s. Nor was it from a firm training in diplomatic or international history. I was (and remain) a historian of Britain – and of the British domestic social and political scene at that, rather than of British foreign policy. No, my interest in the League of Nations Union (LNU) stemmed from a fascination with an entirely different problem altogether: the impact on British society of the franchise extensions of 1918 and 1928, which transformed Britain from a limited, property-based franchise into a genuinely mass democracy in which the working classes and women formed a majority of the electorate. What were the consequences of this transformation for political life? How did it alter relations between the governing classes and the governed? How did it change the way ordinary voters participated in politics, or expressed themselves politically? How did it reconfigure the dynamics of associational life, from local political parties and organised religion to the proliferating ranks of ‘non-party’ organisations like the Women’s Institutes, Rotary International, the British Legion and the Boy Scouts? What relationship did it bear to the emergence of new communication technologies like the wireless, and increasingly professionalised modes of publicity, like advertising?

This is where the LNU presented itself to me as a potentially illuminating case study. One of the largest voluntary organisations of its time, the LNU was confronted head-on with the challenges of speaking to a mass democracy, of mobilising an electorate containing millions of new voters, and of getting its message about international cooperation across using multi-media platforms. I was intrigued to discover just how the LNU managed to recruit hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and to persuade millions of people to vote in its ‘Peace Ballot’ of 1934–5, when much of the secondary literature seemed to tell a story of mass political apathy, particularly in relation to foreign policy. There seemed to me to be a disconnect between the burgeoning ‘new political history’ which dealt with political identities and cultural representations, and the existing standard works on the evolution of inter-war foreign policy in which the LNU traditionally featured.

I describe my point of departure at such length because it goes some way, I think, to explaining the differences of outlook between myself and Peter Yearwood, who – from the standpoint of a diplomatic historian – takes issue with what he sees as the insufficient attention paid in the book to the substantive ‘issues’ confronting the League. I fully concede that those looking for a detailed re-examination of British foreign policy concerning the League – or the history of British involvement in the League itself – will not find it in my book. Yearwood belatedly recognises that I have tried to ‘ask different questions’ and pursue ‘different approaches’, but insists that the more familiar problems of explaining British policy at the highest levels must not be neglected.

My reply would be that diplomatic historians have dealt admirably with those problems in the recent literature, whereas no-one had bothered to ask the questions that pre-occupied me. Certainly Yearwood is right to suggest that as historians we should be working towards a synthesis of both perspectives in the future; but I hope I don’t speak out of turn when I say that, just as I might have failed to achieve this in The British People and the League of Nations, so has Peter Yearwood failed to do so in his own – excellent in its own terms – work on British League policy, which tells us very little about popular attitudes or mentalities. I wouldn’t pay Professor Yearwood the discourtesy of describing this omission as ‘shocking’, as I understand that his work has a different purpose. Surely we can recognise that we are each contributing in different ways to a broader and deeper understanding of the place of the League in British politics and society between the wars?

Just a few final remarks: I’m afraid that I disagree with Peter Yearwood’s suggestion that the book presents Conservative support for the League as merely ‘lip-service’ to public opinion. I do note the genuine liberal internationalist sympathies of Conservatives involved with the LNU, and I would urge readers to judge my analysis of the LNU’s response to popular militarism (and indeed, to popular imperialism, not referred to in the review) for themselves, which I think is rather more nuanced than the review suggests.

I confess that I was not aware of Lorna Lloyd’s book on the International Court; one is human, after all, and cannot read everything. Yearwood’s discussion of Lloyd’s analysis, however, rather reinforces the narrowly instrumentalist view that previous historians of the LNU have taken, that is, that it failed in the end to change government policy, and therefore it ‘failed’ absolutely, and there’s not much more to be said. As my book tries to show, there is a huge amount more to be said about the LNU as a presence in inter-war associational life and as an interlocutor in debates about the quality of British democracy, the meanings attached to ‘good citizenship’, and the educability of the mass electorate. I hope that other readers may find The British People and the League of Nations illuminating on these not – and I hope Peter Yearwood would agree – wholly insignificant historical problems.