The international context of MacDonald and Baldwin’s Britain is important in assessing their competence.
At a time when dictatorships and fascist rulings were becoming more popular, and consequently more threatening to global peace, MacDonald was seen as a ‘spent force; whose lack of power left him incapable of opposing Hitler by the time he became aggressive,. Likewise, Baldwin was not a suitable politician to address the international threats. He did not show much interest in foreign affairs and preferred to ‘preside over’ rather than direct his cabinet.Foreign policy was seen as one of ‘drift’ because of the limited nature of Britain’s involvement overseas. The forming of alliances is a central facet of foreign policy, and Britain’s inability to form many strong connections was partly due to Baldwin’s and MacDonald’s poor judgement and decision-making skills.
No resolute or coherent strategy was followed throughout the inter-war period. Fascist takeovers such as the invasions of Abyssinia and Manchuria, weakened the League considerably, and Britain’s insubstantial reinforcement of the League’s power made future conflict more likely as the threat of the League was severely reduced.The Anglo-German naval Agreement, justified as a response to German conscription, gravely damaged Anglo-French relations and exposed the inconsistencies of British policy. Just after Britain had condemned German rearmament at the League, she had given German the right to build up to 35% of British capital ships and have submarine parity.The Manchurian crisis was even more delicate. Domestic economic weaknesses had resulted in large cutbacks in rearmament, a successful offer of resistance to Japan would have to have been reinforced by American support, however Anglo-US relations were strained as both were rivals in that area. Britain’s decision to act as a referee rather that an ally resulted mainly from self-interest, they could not afford to tie down troops away from home, especially at a time when global commitments were so prevalent.
Scattered colonies were given priority to maintain links, and tied down many troops and materials overseas. Britain was reliant on continuing good Anglo-Japanese relations in case of another world war. However this prudence seemed to have had no effect, as one consequence of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria was the Anti-Comintern Pact (1936), a direct alliance of German and Japanese governments.Despite already undermining the League, there were significant reasons for Britain’s refusal to intervene in the 1935 Abyssinian crisis. Italian support was needed for Britain to restrain Germany, and vice versa.
Mussolini refused to accept parts of Abyssinia, instead claiming he wanted it all. A compromise could not be established, the closest was the Hoare Laval pact which drew up what in the circumstances, was the fairest pact Abyssinia could have hoped for, however it was rejected by both countries and Hoare resigned. Ultimately Mussolini took over the entire country and Hailie Selassie fled.
The League’s failure to impose effective sanctions exposed it as weak and futile. Britain’s pursuing of two contradictory policies (Pressurize Italy to accept sanctions whilst seeking a compromise solution) failed, revealing the British government as seemingly incompetent.The Spanish Civil War was treated by Britain with similar ambivalent, non-interventionist policies, chiefly the ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ which accepted status quo with Mussolini in 1937, helped make forming any future anti-fascist alliance difficult. Russia consequently became increasingly distrustful of France and Britain because of their failure to prevent German and Italian support for the Spanish Nationalists. The League of Nations was revealed as weak and useless – a legitimate Spanish government had been overthrown. The mutual suspicions between Russia, France and Britain made a anti-fascist front even more unlikely.Although throughout the 1920’s, it was unclear how much of a threat Hitler was, by 1933, his elevation to Chancellor meant to most the dropping of German appeasement which had been previously justified as an attempt to support a democratic republic.
However from 1933-35, the government showed little enthusiasm for active appeasement, despite Nazi foreign policies showing a certain moral flexibility, the brutality of the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ or the lack of pacific motivation behind the introduction of conscription or existence of the Luftwaffe for example.The ‘drift’ has been accounted for by Baldwin and MacDonald’s conservative, half-hearted measures. However, radical interventionist foreign policy were severely limited by several other quarters.
The chiefs of staff – supported by the treasury – produced reports resulting in a 1933 ‘Defence Requirements Committee’ which put strict limitations on Britain’s freedom of action. Also, the growing importance of public opinion and recent freedom of press was significant as both supported appeasement and fuelled each other, making other angles of policies difficult for the government to justify.And so appeasement and equality was sought. Baldwin and MacDonald were both instrumental in pursuing international cooperation via disarmament talks and international finance. Failure on both of these fronts can not be attributed to lack of British endeavor, diplomatic conferences were scheduled but did not gain any results. Equality of arms was difficult to establish, especially between France & Italy and Germany. Germany’s objections to the fairness and ratios of arms were the main cause of failure for the disarmament program.
The same day fair British proposals were made, Germany withdrew from talks and later left the League. Their resistance to any plan rendered the Disarmament Conferences useless and marked another failure in British foreign policy.Another British attempt to create international peace was a monetary one. The 1931 collapse of the Gold Standard had resulted in serious currency fluctuations. The objective of creating a stable, worldwide financial system seemed a good way of reducing rivalry and future conflict.
In June 1933, 64 countries attended the ‘World Economic Conference’, however differing degrees of loyalty and dependence on the Gold Standard resulted in a clash of interest and cooperation ceased.Other than war, Britain had three possible responses to foreign aggression. Complete reliance on peace-keeping of League of Nations, collective security through a series of regional alliances or appeasement. The League was seriously undermined by Britain’s detached attitude and its consequent defeat in the Abyssinia and Manchuria crisis’s. Alliances were seen by the public as one of the main reasons for WW1, and with the governments increasing reliance of the public’s vote, they had to adopt a similar attitude in their policies. Also, alliances were uncoordinated and weak during the inter-war period, with double dealings (Naval Agreement) and surprising matches (Anti-Comintern Pact).
SO despite being marked out as the main causes of WW2 and Hitler’s ascension to Fuhrer, it seemed to be the only option left open to British politicians. Whether this is a result of an era of foreign ‘drift’ is debatable, however MacDonald and Baldwin’s refusal to face some League-weakening conflicts, and the undertaking passive German appeasement does seem to out-weigh their measured actions, such as the disarmament talks and attempts at forming allies. The overall outcome of almost twenty years of this compromising foreign policy was grim, Britain had few allies, and faced three dictators – whose strength had grown due to British conciliation and isolation – with no US aid or reinforcement of a now shattered League.