WW2 Relevance

|   19 November 2010

Does it matter who becomes King or Queen?

We have no say over who wears the crown. Does it matter?

Looking at the interview this week with Prince William and Kate Middleton I thought two things. The first was – what a perfectly nice young couple. The other was – this perfectly nice young couple will become King and Queen one day, and not one citizen of the United Kingdom will ever have had any say about it.

But does it matter? After all, many years ago, when I was taught the history of the British Constitution, I was told that the great advantage of an unelected Head of State was not so much the power they possessed as the ‘power they denied others’ as a result of their presence. Trouble is, a study of the relationship between one British monarch and the Nazis has made me think that my teachers were somewhat naive about the nature of power. In fact, it can matter a huge amount who is King or Queen.

It’s pretty well known that King Edward VIII – who was King for just one year in 1936 – wasn’t exactly averse to the Nazis. In 1937, after he had given up the throne in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, he visited Adolf Hitler at the Berghof in the Bavarian mountains. During the visit, King Edward – or the Duke of Windsor as he was now known – gave the Nazi salute and inspected an honour guard of SS troops. Hitler was hugely impressed. So much so that he later remarked to Albert Speer, his architect and armaments minister, that it had been a ‘severe blow’ to the Nazis that the Duke of Windsor was no longer King.

By the way, it isn’t that the Duke of Windsor was acting maliciously. He was just a deeply stupid man. I had a personal insight into his stupidity, some years ago, when I was given a personal tour of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s former house in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. I was shown round a number of rooms – which were still kept just as the Duke and Duchess had left them – by the butler who had served them for years. When I saw the Duke’s study I remarked to the butler that there seemed a huge number of ashtrays and cigarette lighters about the place. ‘Ah!’ said the butler, ‘the Duchess always said that a man must have a hobby. And given the character of the Duke, she suggested that the most suitable hobby for him was smoking.’

But to return to the history. Hitler, remember, wanted Britain to make peace with Germany in 1940. And this is where one of the great ‘What Ifs’ of the war lies. Because at the start of May 1940, when it was clear that Neville Chamberlain had lost the support of the House of Commons and a new Prime Minister was needed, the choice lay between Winston Churchill and Lord Halifax. Churchill – the arch anti-appeaser – would clearly never make peace with the Nazis. But as for Halifax – well, the situation was nothing like as clear cut. Obviously, he didn’t get the job of PM in 1940, but during the subsequent war cabinet meetings in late May 1940, Halifax – serving now as Foreign Secretary under Churchill’s Premiership – was in favour of trying to use Mussolini as an intermediary to see what terms Hitler might want in order to make peace.

But suppose the Duke of Windsor had not decided to give up the monarchy for Wallis Simpson and was still on the throne in May 1940 as King Edward VIII? He would then have been the person who would have asked either Churchill or Halifax to form a government. And since – given his previous actions – he would almost certainly have been one of those favouring peace with the Nazis in 1940, wouldn’t he then have used his not inconsiderable influence to try and persuade Halifax to become Prime Minister, instead of Churchill?

It’s just possible, isn’t it, that the sexual allure of Wallis Simpson saved this country from disaster.

4 Responses to “Does it matter who becomes King or Queen?”

  1. Frederick says:

    Dear Mr Rees
    I think the butler pulled your leg. His remark is almost word for word what Lady Bracknell retorts to Jack in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest [quoted below].


    Lady Bracknell. [Pencil and note-book in hand.] I feel bound to tell you that you are not down on my list of eligible young men, although I have the same list as the dear Duchess of Bolton has. We work together, in fact. However, I am quite ready to enter your name, should your answers be what a really affectionate mother requires. Do you smoke?

    Jack. Well, yes, I must admit I smoke.

    Lady Bracknell. I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.”

  2. laurence says:

    Very interesting! Or maybe the Duchess of Windsor decided to make the story come true in real life with her husband… There were certainly an awful lot of cigarette lighters and ashtrays in the that room…

  3. Catweazle says:

    Saved by Wallis Simpson – female and American – isn’t that going a bit far? If her political views were anti Nazi would that have meant that even if he had been king he would have done what she said?

  4. SteuryD says:

    George VI commands considerable interest, both as the reigning monarch during WW2 and because he so manifestly did not expect to be king. Not of least interest is his appointment of Churchill as PM. Apparently he did not like Churchill either and personally favored Halifax. On the other hand–according to Rab Butler–Halifax knew he was not up to the job and did not want it.

    An interesting piece of trivia. The Royal Navy customarily named the first battleship to be built during the reign of a monarch to be named after that monarch. Accordingly, the battleship laid down on 1 January 1937–just weeks after Edward had abdicated–should have been named King George VI. George, sensitive to the difficulty of the situation, demurred and asked that the ship be named after his father, George V. And so it was. The RN subtly honored George VI anyway: the third ship, laid down six months later, was named Duke of York, which was, of course, George’s title until he became king.

    It’s hard to imagine Edward commanding the popular affection that George eventually did during the war.