World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

The King and Country debate

Article Id: WHEBN0014239228
Reproduction Date:

Title: The King and Country debate  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Oxford Union, Kenelm Hutchinson Digby, 1933 in the United Kingdom, Debates, 1933
Collection: 1933 in England, Debates, History of the University of Oxford, Oxford Union, Pacifism in the United Kingdom, Political Statements
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

The King and Country debate

The King and Country debate took place at the Oxford Union debating society of Oxford University in England on 9 February 1933. The motion, that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country, was carried by 275 votes to 153.[1] It is one of the most famous and notorious debates conducted at the Oxford Union.

The motion was proposed by Kenelm H. Digby of St John's College and opposed by K. R. F. Steel-Maitland of Balliol College. Among other speakers, Quintin Hogg argued against it, and C. E. M. Joad and David Maurice Graham of Balliol, the Union's Librarian at the time and the original drafter of the motion, argued in favour.[2] The teller for the Ayes was Max Beloff and for the Noes R. G. Thomas.[3]:374 The President of the Union at the time was Frank Hardie.[4]


  • The debate 1
  • Reaction 2
  • Foreign reaction 3
  • Bibliography 4

The debate

Digby addressed the packed chamber: "It is no mere coincidence that the only country fighting for the cause of peace, Soviet Russia, is the country that has rid itself of the war-mongering clique. The justification urged for the last war was that it was a war to end war. If that were untrue it was a dastardly lie; if it were true, what justification is there for opposition to this motion tonight?" Isis, a student magazine of the University of Oxford, reported that Digby had a "tub-thumping style of oratory which would be more appreciated in Hyde Park than in the Union".

Hogg argued that the policy that Digby advocated would cause, not prevent war. In his opinion, a powerful England was a factor for peace and a disarmed Britain would have no more influence for peace in Europe than she had in the Far East where Japan had invaded Manchuria.

Joad delivered what was described as a "tour de force of pacifist rhetoric". He claimed that the motion really meant "that this House will never commit murder on a huge scale whenever the Government decided it should do so", and argued that although limited wars might have been justified in the past, the scale of destruction now possible with modern weapons meant that war had become unthinkable. Joad also postulated that any invasion of Britain could be defeated by a Gandhian campaign of non-violence.[2]

All told, there were five opening speakers, nine others supporting the motion, and ten against. Future Oxford Union president, David Lewis, was the eighth of the nine speakers in support of the motion.[5] When the motion was put, President Frank Hardie declared it carried by 275 votes to 153. Digby went to shake hands with Hogg but his opponent refused to do so.[4]


A Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford at the time, R. B. McCallum, claimed that the "sensation created when this resolution was passed was tremendous. It received world-wide publicity.... Throughout England people, especially elderly people, were thoroughly shocked. Englishmen who were in India at the time have told me of the dismay they felt when they heard of it.... 'What is wrong with the younger generation?' was the general query".[6]

Initially, the debate gained little media attention, until the Daily Telegraph ran an article about the debate headlined "DISLOYALTY AT OXFORD: GESTURE TOWARDS THE REDS".[2] The Daily Express said of it: "There is no question but that the woozy-minded Communists, the practical jokers, and the sexual indeterminates of Oxford have scored a great success in the publicity that has followed this victory.... Even the plea of immaturity, or the irresistible passion of the undergraduate for posing, cannot excuse such a contemptible and indecent action as the passing of that resolution". The Manchester Guardian responded differently: "The obvious meaning of this resolution [is] youth's deep disgust with the way in which past wars for 'King and Country' have been made, and in which, they suspect, future wars may be made; disgust at the national hypocrisy which can fling over the timidities and follies of politicians, over base greeds and communal jealousies and jobbery, the cloak of an emotional symbol they did not deserve."[3]:374–75

A Daily Express reporter claimed to have found the Mayor of Oxford, Alderman C. H. Brown, and his wife sitting in front of the fire reading their bibles, with Brown claiming "I say that as mayor of a city that fathers a university of such foreign communistic sentiments, I am ashamed". Cambridge University was reported to have threatened to pull out of that year's Boat Race because of "incompatibility of temperament."[4]

An anonymous critic sent the Oxford Union a box containing 275 white feathers, one for each vote for the resolution.[7]:79-80 A second box followed, and Hardie announced that each member who had voted 'aye' could have two feathers.[4]

Winston Churchill condemned the motion in a speech on 17 February 1933 to the Anti-Socialist and Anti-Communist Union as "That abject, squalid, shameless avowal... It is a very disquieting and disgusting symptom":

My mind turns across the narrow waters of Channel and the North Sea, where great nations stand determined to defend their national glories or national existence with their lives. I think of Germany, with its splendid clear-eyed youths marching forward on all the roads of the Reich singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army; eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their fatherland. I think of Italy, with her ardent Fascisti, her renowned Chief, and stern sense of national duty. I think of France, anxious, peace-loving, pacifist to the core, but armed to the teeth and determined to survive as a great nation in the world. One can almost feel the curl of contempt upon the lips of the manhood of all these people when they read this message sent out by Oxford University in the name of young England.[8]

By contrast Joad, A. A. Milne and Francis W. Hirst all publicly defended the resolution. Hirst later argued in his book Consequences of the War to Great Britain (1934) that the resolution did not rule out wars of self-defence, only imperialist conflicts.[2] J.A. Spender and James Louis Garvin took issue with the resolution which, in their view, neglected the issue of war prevention.[2]

In March 1933 the "Oxford Pledge" or "Oxford Oath", as the resolution came to be called, was adopted by the University of Manchester and the University of Glasgow.[7]:80 However in the Dominions of the British Empire, the University of Melbourne, Toronto and Cape Town all passed motions affirming that they would fight for King and Country.[9]

Three weeks after it was passed, Randolph Churchill proposed a resolution at the Oxford Union to delete the "King and Country" motion from the Union's records but this was defeated by 750 votes to 138 in a rowdy debate, where Churchill was met by a barrage of hisses and stink bombs. A bodyguard of Oxford Conservatives and police escorted Churchill back to his hotel after the debate.[4][3]:275

Charles Kimber (who would later lead the peace group Federal Union), was present at the debate, and later argued the vote was a protest against nationalist wars, not war in general. Kimber noted that several of the motion's supporters later fought with the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War.[10]

Speaking after the debate, Digby said: "I believe that the motion was representative neither of the majority of the undergraduates of Oxford nor of the youth of this country. I am certain if war broke out tomorrow the students of the university would flock to the recruiting office as their fathers and uncles did."[4] He was proved right: when the

  •   (Total pages: 752)
  • McCallum, Ronald Buchanan (1944). Public opinion and the last peace (1944 ed.).   (Total pages: 214)
  1. ^ Smith, Cameron (1989). Unfinished Journey: The Lewis Family. Toronto: Summerhill Press. pp. 180–181.  
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Ceadel, Martin (1979). "The King and Country Debate, 1933: Student Politics, Pacifism and the Dictators". The Historical Journal 22 (2): 397–422.  
  3. ^ a b c  
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Round, Derek; Digby, Kenelm (2002). Barbed Wire Between Us: A Story of Love and War. Auckland: Random House. 
  5. ^  
  6. ^ McCallum 1944, pp. 177–80
  7. ^ a b Cohen, Robert (1997). When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929–41. Oxford University Press. 
  8. ^ Gilbert, Martin (1990). Prophet of Truth. Winston S. Churchill. 1922-1939. Minerva. p. 456. 
  9. ^ Thornton, A. P. (1966). The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies. London: Macmillan. p. 202. 
  10. ^ Smith, Lyn (2009). Voices against War : A Century of Protest. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing. pp. 79–94.  
  11. ^ Addison, Paul (1994). "Oxford and the Second World War". In Harrison, Brian. The History of the University of Oxford: The Twentieth-century. Volume 8. Oxford University Press. p. 167. 
  12. ^ McCallum 1944, pp. 179
  13. ^  
  14. ^  
  15. ^ a b Churchill 1986, p. 150
  16. ^ Churchill 1986, p. 77


Sir Winston Churchill would after the war write how Japan and Germany too took note of the Joad resolution which altered their way of thinking about Britain as a "decadent, degenerate ... and swayed many [of their] calculations."[16]

Martin Ceadel, reviewing the German coverage of the "King and Country Debate", notes that although it was widely covered in Germany, the Nazis did not seem to have made political capital out of it; "indeed, the London correspondent of the Völkischer Beobachter was in 1933 stressing rather the militarism of British youth."[2] Shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939, the Völkischer Beobachter was still "insisting that the Oxford debate was insignificant".[2]

The 18-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was walking across Europe in 1934, "dreaded" being asked in Germany about the resolution, and tried to explain it was "A kind of joke, really...I could detect a kindling glint of scornful pity and triumph in the surrounding eyes which declared quite plainly their certainty that, were I right, England was too far gone in degeneracy and frivolity to present a problem."[14] Benito Mussolini was particularly struck by the sentiment expressed by the undergraduates and became convinced that the Joad declaration proved that Britain was a "frightened, flabby old woman".[15] While considering whether to take British threats seriously while embarking on his Abyssinia adventure Mussolini often referred to the Joad declaration on why he didn't cave into British demands.[15]

In a speech in the House of Commons on 20 July 1934, the Liberal MP Robert Bernays described a visit he made to Germany:

Foreign reaction

Sixty years after the event, Digby mused "It was just a debate. I don't know what all the fuss was about. Frank Hardie had asked me to propose the motion and I agreed. That's all there was to it. But ever since the debate security intelligence organisations seem to have taken an interest in me." Certainly Digby's subsequent career in Sarawak and the UK suffered through his association with the debate.[4]

Telford Taylor, chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, wrote "the 'King and Country' debate was a colorful reflection of the British temper between the two great wars. Exhausted and disgusted by the prolonged bloodbath in Flanders Fields, wracked by internal economic strains and already tiring of the burdens of empire, neither the people nor their leaders were in any mood to embark on new crusades."[4]

[12], has asked us to".Halifax, not Chamberlain", visited him to say goodbye before leaving to join their units. Both of them had separately said that if they had to vote on the "King and Country" resolution then and there, they would do so. One of them said: "I am not going to fight for King and Country, and you will notice that no one, not men of light and leading in their college and with a good academic record McCallum recalled at the outbreak of war two students, "[11]

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from iCloud eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.