WHAT IS THE BRITISH POINT OF VIEW?
AN ADDRESS BY LIEUT.-COLONEL JAMES MESS
Chairman: The President, Mr. J. P. Pratt, K.C. January 12, 1939.
THE PRESIDENT: Gentlemen, at the first meeting in 1939 we are privileged to have as guest at our head table, Mr. Abdullah Usuf Ali, a citizen of our sister Dominion of India. (Applause) I welcome to the head table also most cordially Mr. Victor Smith, President of the Canadian Club of this City, and I also extend a cordial welcome to those members of his Club who are here to hear one of their Past Presidents speak to The Empire Club. (Applause)
Our speaker, Lieutenant-Colonel James Mess, is a very modest man. You have seen the information regarding him which appears on the card, and in conversation with him today it has been impossible for me to supplement that information by one single word. He was born in Scotland--a good start--and after having adopted Canada as his land for the future he practised his profession of engineering until the outbreak of war, when he went overseas. Following a very brilliant career, he returned to Canada. Since that time he has continued the practice of his profession. He has had to make numerous trips overseas where he has had ample opportunity of gaining impressions and gaining information which permits him to speak to us with authority today upon the subject which he has chosen.
You will notice the subject, "What is the British Point of View?" gives him ample scope, and I have told Colonel Mess that he has the full freedom of speech in this room to tell us what is the British point of view. I have much pleasure in introducing to you Lieutenant Colonel James Mess. Colonel Mess. (Applause)
COLONEL JAMES MESS: Thank you, Mr. President and Gentlemen.
Perhaps the title of my address is ill-chosen. It either presupposes my ability to furnish you with an answer, or your readiness to define. The best to be hoped for is that my words to follow will assist us both in reaching conclusions and in interpreting news of international importance without too much criticism of the actions of our Mother Country. Our independent Canadian spirit demands we criticize. Let us do so intelligently. I flatter myself that I have the average intelligence and that my problem is similar to yours, namely, how can I translate the international situation from the broadcasts of paid commentators, articles by foreign correspondents, however unbiased, or through listening to public criticisms, criticisms in the most part engendered by prejudice rather than by appreciation of motivating ideas.
Most of us are familiar with that very interesting picture, "Lloyd's of London," reminding us of how the privileged few, through the services of carrier pigeons, secured news of world events ahead of the common people. Today an event of international importance is known to the whole world in a matter of moments. A man may be shot in the streets of Prague one day and we have a photograph of the incident in our next morning's paper. Speed of communications has far outrun our ability of absorption. We are quite bewildered.
Primarily, at this time, our thoughts turn to the probability of war. What will Hitler do, and Mussolini? What is Britain's plan? Has she one? Will she ever be prepared? Are we losing prestige? A hundred and one questions which we cannot attempt to answer without a point of view to help us. We must not only have a point of view, but we must acknowledge the change in conditions during the last twenty-five years. Before the Great War a slight insult from a foreigner would be just cause for an embarrassing international situation, probably leading to war, but I suggest a war of definite location with only minor effect on our homes and families. The years 1914-1918 left us with such a tragic picture that our desire to knock the proverbial chip off someone's shoulder is much tempered, not through fear of our own safety but through the knowledge that such action might involve the whole world with definite menace to those nearest and dearest to us. Developments in speed of transportation have placed our foes, imaginary or otherwise, on our front lawn, or in our backyard. These changed conditions must. be thoroughly appreciated in the talk which I now hope to give you.
On what foundation can we establish our conclusions, right or wrong? What are we going to do about the British point of view if we don't know what the British point of view is? A point of view which has baffled friends and foes alike for time eternal.
First of all I claim we are Britishers. Anyone who doubts or questions that parentage might well ponder over the heavy burden now being carried by those little islands across the sea, partly on our behalf, a burden which sometimes seems well nigh intolerable. As Britishers we have certain characteristics. Do these characteristics not furnish the formula for the British point of view?
I am always impressed, on my many visits to the States, by their appreciation of what they consider the British sense of justice. This appreciation is partly one of relativity and partly, since prohibition, perhaps one of envy. They seem to feel that a Britisher is beyond breaking the law, and always stands up for what is right. I take no issue with that verdict, but suggest a partial reservation. Is the Britisher's attitude not more one of inevitability, rather than one of right or wrong? We can think of many instances of this inevitability picture, particularly throughout our war experiences and since, though, unfortunately, we have to look on them as surmises, as no proof is publicly available.
I wonder if the British Government was not much relieved through the inadvertent sinking of the German battleships at Scapa Flow, while awaiting distribution among the Allies, under the terms of the Versailles Treaty? Could equitable distribution have been made? What a coincidence! Great Britain has been many times criticized for her lack of interest in the Japanese-Chinese war now raging. Would Japan not have been a greater menace before this war to international peace than she can possibly be now? Was civil war inevitable? Would China, even to a minor degree, have solved her banditry problem? Will Chinese markets not be more settled for British interests after peace comes? Were all these questions of right or wrong, or of inevitability?
And what of the war debts? What might have been the world economic position today had Great Britain's suggestion for the cancellation of war debts been generally accepted? Right or wrong? No--inevitability.
My next characteristic, I hope, will not be misinterpreted. How many of us are prepared to make fools of ourselves, or as we say, be made the goat for the sake of our objective? How many of our political leaders today, to use an American term, will "take the rap" with the full thought and intent that their final objective is for the benefit of their country? I claim that this willingness to be made the goat is the difference between the politician and the statesman. The statesman stays with his convictions, regardless of loss of prestige, temporary or otherwise. The politician has a flexible mind which can be bent to suit the situation for the protection of his own political fortunes. Every statesman in Britain is apparently prepared to be made the goat.
You have heard discussed frequently that terrible blunder of the Hoare-Laval pact. While Mr. Baldwin took full responsibility for that very difficult situation, what is the present status of the statesmen then involved? A blunder? I don't think so. Were we not successful in securing the co-operation of the small nations in the Mediterranean pact through this so-called blunder?
Let us take Mr. Chamberlain's recent flight to Munich. Let us not look with favour or disfavour on his actions, but appreciate this as an excellent example of being made the goat, if necessary.
And then we have the well-known proverb, "Time Cures All." I know of no nation in the world with a greater appreciation of the value of time than the British. We and our friends to the south of us frequently brag of our accomplishments between the hours of eight and six. I venture to suggest that the Britisher accomplishes more between the hours of ten and four. To cram as much as we can into a twenty-four hour day is not necessarily a knowledge of the value of time. He is prepared to wait. He knows that when people have time to think, they sometimes lose their animosity and--well, he was not such a bad fellow after all.
We have our present indications of the value of time in the breathing space which Mr. Chamberlain is asking for under the present conditions. We perhaps can criticize the reasons for that breathing space, but no one seems to deny the necessity.
To return also to the question of the sinking of the German battleships. Was that not an indication of the value of time?
I know of no nation more ready to cut off the festered finger to save the hand. A situation requiring drastic treatment is handled immediately, as evidenced by Britain's acceptance of the present war budget, and of the enormous increase in taxes, however coated with the sugar called National Defence Contribution.
But we must admit the value of time element may have many disadvantages. I personally have suffered from bombarding the doors of business and Governmental institutions, worrying against the aggravated and unexplained delays. Who has not?
My fourth characteristic perhaps hardly needs suggestion. It is that there are two sides to every question. Perhaps this can be construed as Britain's sense of justice. At least it is necessary in the correct evaluation of any problem.
Then we have the long term view. It seems that a British statesman seldom thinks in terms of less than a generation. Perhaps that is why many of us are prone to criticize the actions of the moment rather than their effect on the future. How much was Britain criticized for her generosity to the Boers? Think of the results today. Think of Mr. Hore-Belisha's problem, the reorganization of the army, a job for which perhaps he was particularly fitted, though it may ultimately mean his downfall. Senior, experienced officers, relieved without apparent reason. Was it not his intent that officers creating the present Defence and Offence schemes should be those who would carry them out in the event of a war within the period of the next ten or fifteen years. A long term view? Perhaps.
Again, we come to war debts. Most of you are familiar with the Britishers' long term view of financial manipulation. Perhaps some of the younger nations have on occasions thrown monkey wrenches into the works, but most assuredly London has retrieved her position as the financial centre of the world.
My sixth characteristic--Faith. Some may interpret this as arrogance, but at least it is faith in the ultimate, whatever comes in between.
Then, we have "a sense of humour," from the lowest to the highest. I was walking along Piccadilly the other day and overheard one newsboy remark to another, "Hey, Bill, what did you do in the relief of 'yde Park?"
Immediately following the crisis, one well-known London newspaper called for interesting or amusing comments which had been overheard during those trying hours. One appealed to me particularly on account of its brevity and apparently unconscious depth of experience. Two charladies were talking and one said to the other: "Why doesn't this 'ere 'itler fellow get married and settle down?"
My last characteristic, though there are many more worthy of comment, is the Britisher's ability to forego rancour, and his belief that when a foe is vanquished he should not be trampled on. Coupled with this is his ability to fight, regardless of results, and return to friendship when reconciliation seems least possible.
I can think of so many instances which describe that characteristic. Perhaps the one best known to us is the Versailles Treaty. Was Britain whole-heartedly in accord with its terms? It has been said Germany deserved the punishment she got. How often can we afford today to punish the offender according to the crime? I venture to say that in no instance can we afford to punish a nation appropriately. Too many others are involved and the result may be the reverse of what was intended.
How often the statement has been made that had we been in Germany's place, worse would have happened to us. Perhaps that is true. Perhaps we would have been in revolt today instead of Germany. I make these remarks without prejudice, with a hope of clearer vision.
Many of you read the beautifully worded comments of Atticus, in a recent issue of The Financial Post, where he described an angry situation between Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Churchill during a debate in the House, where apparently a gulf had been created between these two men that was unbridgeable. Within three hours Mr. Chamberlain during debate remarked: "I cannot agree with my Right Honourable friend"--he paused and with a smile turned to Mr. Churchill--"if I may still call him so." Mr. Churchill, whose magnanimity is as great as his power of mischief, half rose to his feet, and murmured, with a bow of his head, "If I am not unworthy, Sir." (Applause)
May I sum up the foregoing by asking you to accept this homemade formula for the British point of view: Determine what is inevitable; pursue without rancour at whatever personal sacrifice necessary, with all justice possible, and regardless of ridicule or criticism, confident in the ultimate results.
Where is all this leading us? Primarily we are Britishers and if, as Britishers, we can accept the British point of view or at least construe our thoughts along British lines, surely we can be of much greater value. The British characteristics are bound to be the basis on which the British point of view is formed and cannot we, if we can absorb this, even to the smallest degree, be of value in supporting her statesmen, giving her support without in any way relinquishing our right to criticize? Surely we can criticize more intelligently and yet retain our independence.
No people in the world criticize their Government more than the British. Can you imagine any man receiving more adulation than came to Mr. Chamberlain after his flight to Munich? Could anyone be criticized so severely by many today than that same gentleman? Let us not look on his action with criticism or approval, but look on them as an excellent example of the British point of view. Here is a man of inflexible nature, bearing a burden probably ill prepared for him by his predecessors, sizing up a situation with cold-blooded efficiency, treading a determined path of peace; if not peace, victory. The head of a well-known London publishing house, in sizing up the situation to me, while deploring all this criticism, asked me point blank, "How easy would you find it to play poker with your own money as against calling a bluff with a million lives?" I think perhaps that helps to size up that particular situation.
Let us not forget, while we are studying characteristics, the following conditions: How often have you been asked, "How can the Germans be content to live under the strict Nazi regime, as we know it, with complete repression of ideas and opinions, and strict regimentation? How can the Italians be reconciled to their controlled life and lack of freedom under Mussolini?" Is it not a question of how bad conditions were before, not how bad they are now? My frequent visits to Germany since the war demand that I indicate to you the enormous improvements in that country, while still deploring some of the methods used, conditions which to properly evaluate we must consider in the light of the German point of view as against our own, and the geographical locations of Germany and Italy as against ours. We must think of the underlying reasons and ideas for the formation of these dictatorships before we criticize bluntly, without knowledge.
Many say, how can we possibly co-operate with a madman? Hitler is no madman. And I cannot recall a single instance during my conversations in London when any thinking man was prepared to make such an implication. They all give credit for his marvellous political strategy and timing, and the results obtained through bluff or otherwise. One cannot underestimate one's opponent or relieve the situation by belittling his prowess. Word of mouth may not be the same as actions, as time has shown in this instance, and however much we deplore the methods, the results have been astounding. Future results must be considered in the light of their enormity and nothing must be taken for granted. Time itself will probably alter Germany's internal picture.
Unpreparedness! That is the whole story today. Admiral Keyes, some months ago, made no reservation about intimating the weakness of the army and the navy. Surely Mr. Daladier had no delusions about the possible effect of strikes on the French armament production, and did Russia support whole-heartedly her original pledge to Czecho-Slovakia? The Czech situation looks very much to me like an excellent example of there being two sides to every question. Would you have been prepared to call a bluff under all those conditions?
How many businessmen, and I find few in London, had made preparations for the last crisis? Yet those same gentlemen were prepared to criticize their Government for being so unprepared.
Unpreparedness! One is shocked to see the unfinished bomb shelters in the beautiful parks of London, left as they were within a moment of the crisis being over. What a peculiar opposite to the fevered heat of armament and aircraft production now under way, however late. Word comes to us from all sides of new ideas against invasion, ideas not mentioned or heard of months ago. One leaves London with a very definite impression of a determined public picture of unpreparedness and a growing strength within, supporting Mr. Chamberlain's viewpoint: Victory, if no peace.
I can remember some words of Herr Hitler's quite a while ago when he stated that Germany as a vanquished nation or a vacuum would be infinitely more dangerous than as a re-established country. I find that to be one of the outstanding views of many of our statesmen, though everyone is willing to admit that the pendulum may over-swing with somewhat disastrous results.
It is at this stage of my address that I would like to run amuck. Unfortunately, in the last twenty-four hours we have had a sufficient number of people doing this, both from the Old Country and to the south of us. To make any prognostication of the future would be impertinent, but opinion, as I gathered it, definitely points to a crisis this coming spring and a more severe crisis early in 1940.
What can we Canadians-Britishers-do but prepare for this crisis, put our houses and our businesses in order and realize the necessity for a very closely-knit Empire, ready for whatever the future may hold.
If you will permit me in closing, I should like to read an extract from Beverley Baxter's book, "Westminster Watchtower":
"You have heard that British prestige has been trampled in the mud, and that the British flag is held in contempt by nations glorying in their own strength. Nor do I deny the humiliations that have aroused the deepest resentment in all of us who have British blood in our veins. Yet, when I travelled across Europe shortly after the events of that fateful week end, I found the name of Britain held in such esteem and in such honour in one country after another that I was moved to a pride of citizenship I could not have expressed in words.
"Nor was it, as might be thought, merely because Britain had shown such unexpected resolution over Czecho-Slovakia. I found instead a feeling of respect and gratitude that there was one great nation which had the strength of a giant but would not use it as a tyrant, a nation where people were free to come and go, a nation which hated war and would endure to the uttermost for peace, a nation where freedom was master and the State existed to ensure the rights of the individual. "In Germany and Austria I encountered this deep respect as well as in Roumania and Czecho-Slovakia. 'England can come with a corporal's guard,' said a minister of one of the Balkan countries, 'and all Europe will follow her.'
"My friends who have been to Spain tell me the same thing. Both sides say that Britain has not tried to advantage herself or injure Spain because of her civil war. They say that they will remember that in the years to come.
"Perhaps it was this knowledge that caused a strange and moving scene in the House of Commons in the closing days of the last session. We had met for the last Foreign Affairs debate. It was opened by the Opposition Liberal, Sir Archibald Sinclair, who trained his guns on the Government Front Bench where Mr. Chamberlain sat with his colleagues, tired but imperturbable, waiting for the shells to explode.
"For twenty minutes the bombardment went on when, suddenly, Sinclair stopped. Leaning forward and speaking with a strange gentleness, he said:
" 'I am sure the thought uppermost in the mind of the Prime Minister--whose courage and industry in shouldering this heavy burden of responsibility we all admire, however much we dissent from his policy-is the preservation of peace.'
"The mere words do scant justice to the sincerity and kindliness of Sinclair's manner. Chamberlain looked up startled, then suddenly covered his face with his hands. Sinclair said some stumbling words as if to ease the situation, but the eyes of the whole House were on the Prime Minister. For a full minute he sat there with his face buried in his hands. When he at last straightened himself up and looked across the floor of the House, there were still tears in his eyes.
"Half an hour later he rose to make his poorest speech of the session. Kindness had broken down the defences which had withstood all ridicule. For so many months he had borne the weight of supreme responsibility and endured alike the humiliation of events and the sneers of his critics, yet never once had asked for patience or for pity.
"Then one of his opponents, in a moment of generosity, had revealed the simple humanity of the man who was supposed to be without emotion."
THE PRESIDENT: Mr. Victor Smith, the President of the Canadian Club, has kindly agreed to express our thanks.
MR. V. R. SMITH: Mr. President and Members of The Empire Club of Canada: Before thanking Colonel Mess, may I first say "thank you" to you, The Empire Club, and to your President for the courtesy which you have paid me and The Canadian Club in inviting me to be a guest at your head table today, and finally, to voice your thanks to a Past President of The Canadian Club for his very timely address.
It is the part of prudence on the part of us all, whether we believe we shall be able to avoid war or not, to take stock of ourselves, because it seems if we must face the ordeal of war once again, we must show that we are British and that we intend to remain part of the British Empire. But whether we are so fortunate as to be citizens of that Empire or of one of the other great democracies, we must remember that if the reign of law and order which has been maintained by the British for hundreds of years is to be broken down we face chaos and the rule of the jungle.
It is therefore very fitting that we should listen to speeches such as you have given us today, Colonel Mess, reviewing the characteristics of the British, so sturdy that they have stood the test of time in building up an international reign of law and enabling them to be the leaders of international law and order. Those sturdy characteristics which have enabled the British to do this and what they are doing day by day and our responsibility to the British in their difficulties at the present time are things that we shall ponder over as a result of the questions that you have raised today.
We thank you, Colonel Mess, for the very timely and illuminating review of British characteristics and their responsibility at this time, which we have all listened to with interest and close attention. Thank you very much. (Applause)