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Speaking for England: Leo, Julian and John Amery — The Tragedy of a Political Family by David Faber

31 August 2007

More backlog, more Tories.

Speaking for England: Leo, Julian and John Amery — The Tragedy of a Political Family by David Faber

On 2 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared in a debate in the House of Commons that he was not going to declare war on Germany, even though the invasion of Poland the day before had made a clear statement about Hitler’s intentions towards Europe. Deputy Labour Party leader Arthur Greenwood rose to speak in reply, and initially announced that he would be speaking for the Labour Party in response to the prime minister’s statement. But before Greenword could say another word, a voice called out from the Conservative Party benches, ‘Speak for England, Arthur!‘ — and it would not be an exaggeration to say that that furious outburst from prominent Conservative MP Leo Amery marked the beginning of the end for Chamberlain’s government. Amery also provided the statement that marked the actual end of Neville Chamberlain’s premiership, when he finished his long and devastating critique of the government during the Norway Debate by quoting Oliver Cromwell’s famous words of dismissal to another Parliament, several centuries before:

You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

Leo Amery (1873-1955) spent much of his life devoted to politics, particularly the political causes of imperial preference — favourable tariffs for trade with the Dominions and colonies — and other aspects of the relationship between Britain and the Empire. He eventually became Secretary of State for India under Winston Churchill’s wartime government. But it was during his time as India Secretary that his political life was marked by a sudden and personally devastating event that caused quite a stir at the time. Amery’s elder son John, who had been living in France and had been unable to get back to England when the Germans invaded, went on German radio and made a series of virulently anticommunist and anti-Semitic radio broadcasts from Berlin. (Considering the fact that Leo Amery’s mother was a Jewish Hungarian and Leo had grown up surrounded by his mother’s Jewish friends and relatives, his son’s anti-Semitism was a particularly personal blow.) John Amery also gained permission to travel around occupied Europe in an attempt to recruit British prisoners-of-war to a ‘British Free Corps’ that would fight with the Nazis against the Red Army on the eastern front. When the war ended, John Amery was arrested and tried for high treason, actually plead guilty to the charge (on the premise that doing so would mitigate the pain of his family, since it was all too apparent that he wasn’t likely to win with a not-guilty plea), and was duly hanged in Wandsworth Prison in December 1945.

Speaking for England is primarily a biography of Leo Amery, and the bulk of the book is devoted to chronicling his youth, education, wartime activities, and the ups and downs of his political life. Amery was contemporary, friend, and occasional sparring partner to the vast majority of the British political elite from the first half of the twentieth century, and his turbulent relationship with Winston Churchill provides a wealth of anecdotes and historical analysis that at times is the driving force of the biography. It isn’t until the later chapters of the book that the focus partly shifts away from Leo Amery and onto his sons John and Julian — highlighting the sharp contrast between John the amoral and shiftless wastrel and Julian the polyglot World War II intelligence officer who later followed in his father’s footsteps to become an outspoken backbench Conservative MP.

David Faber has written a strong and moving biography in Speaking for England, one that reads more like a real story than a biography. There’s a fairly good balance of the political and the personal, as Faber seems to devote almost as much attention to Leo Amery’s fondness for mountaineering and other rugged outdoor sports as he does to the blow-by-blow accounts of interwar and wartime politics. Faber certainly doesn’t try to redeem John Amery as a person — not a easy thing to do at any rate, since the evidence points to the conclusion that John Amery was a thoroughly nasty piece of goods from his childhood days, a sociopath and a compulsive liar who probably would have been imprisoned long before his broadcasts had it not been for his father’s influence. I do wish that Faber had paid a bit more attention to Julian Amery’s later career after the war and after his brother’s death. Julian Amery was a fascinating character in his own right, making a right nuisance of himself from the backbenches over British involvement in Suez in 1956, and Faber barely breezes through that period. Considering how much of an impact Leo Amery had on his younger son’s political ambitions, it’s a shame that Julian’s story isn’t told to the fullest. That, I think, is really the only thing that mars what is otherwise a marvellous biography.

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One comment

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