The Right Honourable Arnold Hiller, M.P
By Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first three parts of this series we traced Arnold Hillerís rise to power; his crushing of Ernest Romeís SA and the British teachersí strike; his establishment of an alliance with Italyís Benito Mussolini; and his successful 1936 campaign to invade and occupy Ireland. In this chapter weíll look at how that campaign damaged Britainís relations with the United States and France and laid the foundations not only for World War II but also the collapse of the British Empire.
After he first arrived in Washington to serve as Hillerís ambassador to the United States, James Riverton had developed a rapport with President Herbert Hoover that he thought he could use to steer US foreign policy onto a course favorable to the BNSP regimeís overseas interests. Franklin Rooseveltís election to the presidency changed that, however; although he shared Hooverís worries about Communism, Roosevelt was just as concerned about the authoritarian direction the British government was taking under Hiller.
His meeting with Riverton shortly after Hillerís armies completed their conquest of southern Ireland was a stark illustration of just how far US-British relations had soured in the five years since the BNSP leader first accepted the prime ministerís seals of office from the King. Roosevelt, in no uncertain terms, let Riverton know that Washington did not by any means approve of Hillerís takeover of the Irish Free State; indeed, at least once during the meeting he dropped a few vague hints that America might modify or even scrap altogether its policy of non-intervention in European affairs if British troops continued to occupy southern Ireland.
It was a badly shaken Riverton who returned to the British embassy in Washington that afternoon to draft his report to Hiller summarizing his meeting with Roosevelt; if London could not count on the backing of its most powerful overseas friend in its struggle to preserve the Empire, who could it count on?
It wasnít just the United States that was becoming more overtly hostile to the BNSP regime; in France, a socialist government had declared its vehement opposition to the invasion of Ireland and was building up its defenses along the Normandy and Biscay coasts in hopes of preventing possible attack on its own soil by British forces. Leon Blum, whoíd become prime minister two months before Hillerís Irish campaign began, denounced Hiller as "a tyrant worse than Ludendorff"1 and hinted that if the BNSP regime continued on its current course France might downgrade-- maybe even terminate completely --diplomatic and trade relations with its cross-Channel neighbor.
By New Yearís Day 1937 Anglo-French trade had dropped 75% and Blum was sending representatives to Madrid, Washington, and Moscow to start mutual defense pact talks with those governments. The Madrid mission came to nothing-- by the time it was sent, Spain was deep in the throes of a civil war instigated by right-wing fascist rebel militias some suspected of receiving covert aid from the Hiller- Mussolini alliance. The Washington talks, while encountering problems due to the isolationist sentiment that still held sway in many parts of American society, were somewhat more successful, producing a tacit arrangement with the Roosevelt administration for the sharing of naval intelligence data between the United States and France.
For a time the Moscow talks looked like Blumís best hope for forging an anti-Hiller front in Europe. Joseph Stalin was known to hate the British prime minister almost as much as Blum did and always welcomed the opportunity to expand Soviet influence abroad. There was, however, one unexpected development that upset the apple cart for Blum: shortly after the Anglo-German non-aggression pact was signed, Hiller had quietly initiated talks with the Kremlin for a similar treaty between Britain and the Soviet Union. Hiller had shrewdly played on Stalinís concerns over British policy towards Finland by offering to guarantee Britainís neutrality in any future Finnish-Soviet conflict.
Though Blumís envoy to Moscow tried valiantly to prevent Stalin from signing the non-aggression pact with Britain, his efforts would come to naught; after almost a month of fruitless negotiations, the envoy left Moscow on February 1st to return to Paris. Racked with despair at the failure of his mission, he committed suicide just two weeks after coming home.2
Across the Atlantic, Canadaís population was undergoing a slow but unmistakable sea change in its attitudes toward Britain. Until Hiller came to power, its people had-- with the notable exception of certain citizens of Quebec --prided themselves on being an integral part of the British Commonwealth. But as the authoritarian and fascist nature of Hillerís government became harder to ignore, support for the idea of full independence from Great Britain began to grow among Canadians, and by March of 1937 it was a sufficiently popular notion for it to inspire the creation of a Free Canada Party; the new movement wasted little time in starting a full-tilt campaign to convince the Canadian Senate to vote on the question of whether or not Canada should sever formal ties with the Commonwealth. The vote was finally taken in early May, and when it was over the Senate had by a solid majority approved a binding referendum declaring Canada free of all official links with Britain.
Similar movements sprang up in India, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. Of these, the Australian movement was the quickest to take root; this may have had something to do with the fact that then-prime minister and Labor Party leader John Curtin was one of the movementís key advocates. Curtin, like the party which he headed, had long backed the idea of making Australia an independent republic; on June 12th, 1937, with the full support of both houses of the Australian federal parliament, Curtin formally declared Australiaís independence from the British Commonwealth. The next day New Zealand prime minister Michael Joseph Savage issued a similar declaration of independence for his own nation, earning the New Zealand Labour Party chairman a loud ovation that lasted almost forty minutes.3
By contrast, pro-independence advocates in South Africa were faced with an uphill climb in their efforts to break away from London; not only was South African society riddled with a host of political and ethnic tensions, but there were many people who open admired Prime Minister Hiller and what he stood for. Throughout the summer and early fall of 1937, the country was the scene of dozens of riots as those who favored retaining ties with Great Britain clashed with backers of independence from the Commonwealth.
For months, the cross-Channel tension between London and Paris had been described by the international press as "a time bomb waiting to explode"4. On October 2nd, 1937 that bomb finally went off as a group of French gunboats intercepted a Royal Navy submarine that had been conducting espionage activities near the port of Le Havre; an exchange of angry words between the submarineís captain and the gunboats led to a short but terrible skirmish in which one of the patrol boats was sunk and the submarine moderately damaged.
When word of the confrontation reached London, the BNSP regime quickly sprang into action; despite considerable evidence that it had been the British sub which fired the first shot, Joseph Gable directed the BBC to announce that the French were responsible for the skirmish. Herman Geary and Eric Raye authorized the RAF and the Royal Navy respectively to attack French shore defenses along the Normandy coast while J.F.C. Fuller drafted campaign plans for an amphibious invasion of northern France.
The Second World War had begun...
To Be Continued
1Quoted from an interview in the May 13th, 1936 edition of the International Herald-Tribune.
2There was one small but important detail Stalin had neglected to mention during the negotiations: at the time Hiller approached him about a possible Anglo-Soviet nonaggression pact, his intelligence network had picked up hints that the Japanese Empire was preparing for an attack in the not-too-distant future against Soviet territories in Siberia in hopes of winning a long-standing border dispute between Japan and the USSR once and for all. His agreement with Hiller was, therefore, a tactical maneuver meant to protect his European flank while the Red Army braced itself for Japanís next move.
3Give or take a few seconds.
4From an editorial in the September 26th, 1937 Toronto Globe & Mail.