The Right Honourable Arnold Hiller, M.P
By Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In Part 1 of this series we traced Arnold Hiller’s early years from his childhood in London’s Highgate district to his service in the Royal Army during World War I and from there to his climb up the British political ladder to the prime minister’s office. In this segment we’ll look at how he squashed perceived threats to his rule and forged an alliance with his political idol Benito Mussolini.
On April 17th, 1932, Arnold Hiller went on the BBC to make what he called "an address on a topic of the gravest national import". There wasn’t much doubt as to what the topic would be; for days there had been little talk of anything but the teachers’ strike. Even the worldwide Depression had taken a back seat to the wave of protest that had swept through the British educational system, and the masses were on tenterhooks waiting to see how the prime minister would respond to this challenge to his authority.
That response came less than two minutes into Hiller’s speech; in a tone sounding like that of a prophet proclaiming the end of the world, the prime minister announced that any primary or secondary school teacher who remained on the picket lines after 12 noon on April 19th would be summarily dismissed from their posts without pay. That threat came like a punch to the solar plexus for the strikers; they’d gone into the walkout confident that Hiller would capitulate under pressure, and instead he had struck back in the most ruthless way possible short of physical violence.
The next 24 hours were fraught with raucous debate among the strikers as they struggled to reach a consensus about what would be the proper response to the prime minister’s ultimatum. Some brave souls chose to stick it out, deeming political freedom more important than job security; the vast majority of the strikers, however, lost their nerve in the face of Hiller’s threat and ended up returning to work on the morning of April 19 less than an hour before his deadline for ending the walkout was scheduled to expire. From that day on until the BNSP regime collapsed in the final months of the Second World War, there would be no further mass uprisings to challenge Hiller’s authority.
Hiller basked in the glow of having survived the first major test of his regime, little realizing that the second test was just around the corner...
Since becoming Minister of Defence, Ernest Rome had harbored
grandiose visions of incorporating the SA into the Royal Army; that idea didn’t
sit well with the British military establishment, who considered the
The solution to that dilemma came by way of the notorious gossip magazine News of the World; in late January of 1933 the tabloid broke a story which revealed proof that Rome had been a closet homosexual since at least his mid-teens. Furthermore, according to an SA source who spoke on condition of anonymity, Rome had staffed a number of key SA positions with homosexuals and was even secretly carrying on an affair with one of his aides. For Hiller, who viewed homosexuality as a moral abomination, this was a sin of the most unforgivable kind, and it shattered his longtime friendship with Rome.
Two days after the story was printed an enraged Hiller forced Rome to resign as defense minister and ordered the SA disbanded altogether. The disgrace that had suddenly fallen upon him as a result of NOTW’s revelations was too much to bear, and on February 2nd, 1933 the ex- Minister of Defence shot himself in his apartment. His top deputies were arrested on a host of charges, some of them trumped up at Henry Hamill’s behest to keep them in jail as long as possible. In the months ahead, hundreds of former SA members were drummed out of the Royal Army; armored warfare specialist J.F.C. Fuller, a man who’d supported the BNSP for years but detested Rome, was appointed to replace Rome as Minister of Defence.
With the SA effectively dead, Henry Hamill was presented with an extraordinary opportunity. Since the mid-1920s he’d harbored grandiose visions of transforming the SS from a mere bodyguard service into a bona fide fifth branch of the British armed forces; Rome, however, had always stood in the way of that transformation. With him out of the picture, Hamill was now free to begin making his dream into a reality.
Arnold Hiller had long been a staunch admirer of Benito Mussolini; in fact, much of the BNSP’s ideology had been adopted from Mussolini’s Fascists in the early 1920s.1 So it was inevitable that on his first trip abroad as prime minister, he would visit Italy. He arrived in Rome on June 7th, 1933 amid great pomp; Mussolini admired Hiller just as much as Hiller admired him and was quite keen to make a good first impression on his guest.
At Mussolini’s palatial office in the heart of Rome, Hiller sketched out a proposal for a diplomatic and military alliance between Italy and Britain which he called "the Rome-London axis". As Hiller saw it, such an alliance would not only offer a bulwark against the Soviets but would also provide a counterweight to the Franco-Spanish alliance that had been established shortly after Hiller became prime minister. This was an offer too good for the Duce to pass up; with the Royal Navy’s might to back him up, he’d have an easier time defending his country’s interests in the Mediterranean against French or Spanish encroachment.
By the time Hiller left for home on June 10th, he had obtained from Mussolini a signed statement formally declaring a military and trade pact between Italy and Britain; Mussolini told his supporters that the new agreement marked the beginning of "an unshakable friendship between the world’s two greatest seafaring nations". However, his son-in-law and foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, couldn’t help feeling a sense of foreboding about the new coalition-- he’d been in London on diplomatic business when the Ernest Rome scandal first broke, and he was concerned that Hiller’s swift and bitter falling-out with the late SA leader could all too easily repeat itself with the Duce under the wrong circumstances.
A month after the Hiller-Mussolini summit, fate handed the British prime minister a golden opportunity to increase his political power. London’s National Gallery, one of Britain’s great cultural centers, was the scene of a fire that started under mysterious circumstances and gutted most of the building. Though there was little in the way of concrete evidence to identify who or what had set off the blaze, Scotland Yard superintendent Ronald Hatcher immediately blamed it on a Communist arson plot and ordered the arrest of the plot’s alleged mastermind, a Dutch immigrant named Marianus van der Lubbe.
Van der Lubbe was indicted for the alleged arson on August 1st in spite of evidence which was, at best, circumstantial; several known leftist troublemakers were put on the dock with the Dutchman even through they’d never met the man in order to reinforce Hatcher’s claim that the fire was the result of a Marxist conspiracy. Van der Lubbe, whose intellect was somewhat impaired, may have failed to comprehend what was happening to him-- but author H.G. Wells, by then known at home and abroad to be one of Hiller’s sternest foes, saw all too well what the BNSP was up to and spoke out every chance he got against van der Lubbe’s prosecution.
Fellow Hiller critic and philosopher Bertrand Russell joined Wells and Winston Churchill in organizing what they called the British Freedom Committee, an organization dedicated to counteracting the BNSP’s increasingly repressive policies. The committee’s membership encompassed a diverse range of classes, ideologies, and ages: it brought together such odd bedfellows as Marxist author Kingsley Amis and former RAF general Sir Hugh Trenchard.2 But whatever their outward differences, the men and women of the committee shared one common trait: a determination to halt and, if possible, reverse the trend of authoritarianism which had been a fact of life in Britain since Hiller became prime minister.
Novelist and woman’s rights advocate Virginia Woolf set the tone for the committee when she drafted its first public press statement. "We cannot and will not tolerate Prime Minister Hiller’s blatant attempts to insinuate totalitarian ideas or practices into the fabric of our society." she told a packed room of print and radio correspondents at the committee’s makeshift East End headquarters. "If it takes us the next hundred years, we will take political power from the usurpers of the BNSP and give it back to the people of Britain."3
To Hiller, the committee’s very existence was a blatant insult to everything he held dear, and he was bound and determined to make its members pay for that insult. On August 18th, two days after the British Freedom Committee was formed, Hiller went before the House of Commons and urged them to pass a series of emergency decrees that would grant the police broader search powers to combat what he denounced as "a vast left-wing conspiracy"4 aimed at undermining traditional British society. He described the National Gallery fire as the beginning of a broader Marxist insurrection meant to transform Britain into a Soviet puppet state and the Freedom Committee as the most visible arm of that sedition.5
Some in the House of Commons were openly skeptical of the prime minister’s claims; at least one socialist MP flat-out laughed at them. But the majority of MPs made no protest whatsoever, either because they feared Hiller or they shared his belief that Britain was under threat of Communist subversion. Hiller’s proposed decrees-- known collectively as the Enabling Acts --were enacted into law five days later.
In October, van der Lubbe was convicted of arson and conspiracy to overthrow the government and was sentenced to death by hanging. Seeking to rally public opinion against this verdict, Winston Churchill braved the ire of the BNSP and broadcast a radio appeal to his fellow Englishmen to protest what he called a "show trial". Hiller’s response was to denounce Churchill as a traitor and make veiled warnings that the ex-Lord of the Admiralty might be arrested under the provisions of the Enabling Acts if he spoke out against the BNSP again. These were not idle threats-- on the very day that the courts rendered their judgement against van der Lubbe, Walter Albright died in police custody after days of brutal interrogation on spurious charges of conspiracy to incite riots in London and Dover.
Churchill, however, had never been one to back down from a fight, as anyone familiar with his involvement with the Gallipoli landings in World War I could attest. In an editorial for the New Statesman, one of the dwindling number of publications in Britain still willing to openly criticize the Hiller government, Churchill stated flat out that he relished the idea of a battle of wills with the prime minister and would not rest until Hiller had been voted out of office.
While it didn’t quite approach the totalitarianism of the Ludendorff regime that had seized power in Germany in the late 1920s, Hiller’s government did in many aspects exhibit a highly autocratic nature. In contrast to the consensus-building style of his predecessors(and his successors for that matter), the BNSP leader operated on what would be identified in modern terms as a "cult of personality", relying on the sheer force of his rhetorical talents and his personal magnetism to carry the day in the halls of Parliament.
Through the SS and the Enabling Acts, he kept a fairly tight leash on dissenters6; through his harsh verbal attacks on unconventional ideas and lifestyles, he reinforced conservative tendencies in the behavior and thought of his fellow Englishmen; his arms buildup kept potential foreign enemies on notice that if they took up arms against Britain, Britain would not hesitate to take up arms against them. Even his most staunch allies admitted in private that the prime minister could be rather intimidating when he put his mind to it.
However, one young woman was not so intimidated by him: Eve Brown, a Home Office secretary who Hiller first met a week after the National Gallery fire. Brown found the prime minister intensely fascinating and also viewed him as a potential aid to her ambitions of a career in fashion photography. By the time Winston Churchill made his broadcast calling for the British masses to protest the van der Lubbe verdict, Brown was making discreet visits to 10 Downing Street at least once a week. Although he’d never shown much interest in the opposite sex before, Hiller took a liking to Brown and began confiding things to her that he hadn’t even told his closest BNSP comrades...
To Be Continued
1 Albeit in somewhat toned-down form; plans to adopt the Fascists’ raised-arm salute were scrapped after Randolph Heston complained that it looked "ridiculous" when it was performed by BNSP members. 2 Trenchard had been cashiered a year earlier for giving an interview to the London Times in which he criticized Hiller’s decision to abandon the London Naval Treaty.
3 From the British Freedom Committee’s founding charter, a.k.a. the Woolf-Russell Manifesto after Woolf and co-author Bertrand Russell.
4 Quoted from the transcript of Hiller’s Commons speech as printed in the August 19th,1932 London Times.
5 That view would have come as a surprise to Kingsley Amis, who in private moments could often be heard complaining that the committee’s great flaw was just the opposite-- it was too conservative.
6 Churchill being a rather conspicuous exception to this.