Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha

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The Right Honourable
The Lord Hore-Belisha
PC
Wwwm1027.jpg
Front row L-R: W. G. Hall, Moshe Rosetti, Yosef Sprinzak, Alexander Knox Helm, Leslie Hore-Belisha, and Moshe Sharett in the Israeli Knesset, 1951
Minister of Transport
In office
29 June 1934 – 28 May 1937
Monarch George V
Edward VIII
George VI
Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald
Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by Hon. Oliver Stanley
Succeeded by Leslie Burgin
Secretary of State for War
In office
28 May 1937 – 5 January 1940
Monarch George VI
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain
Preceded by Duff Cooper
Succeeded by Hon. Oliver Stanley
Personal details
Born 7 September 1893 (1893-09-07)
Devonport, Plymouth, Devon
Died 16 February 1957 (1957-02-17)
Rheims, France
Nationality British
Political party Liberal Party
Liberal National
Spouse(s) Cynthia Elliot
(1916-1991)
Alma mater St John's College, Oxford

Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha /ˈhɔər bəˈlʃə/ PC (7 September 1893 – 16 February 1957) was a British Liberal, then National Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) and Cabinet Minister. He later joined the Conservative Party. He is remembered for his innovations in road transport and for being an alleged victim of antisemitism.

Background and education[edit]

Hore-Belisha was born Isaac Leslie Belisha allegedly in Devonport, Plymouth; his birth, however, was registered in Hampstead, in Q4, 1893.[1] He was the only son of the Jewish family of Jacob Isaac Belisha (birth not registered in England[1]), manager of an insurance company, and his wife, Elizabeth Miriam Miers (birth registered in St. Pancras, Q2, 1867[1]). His father died when he was less than one year old (registered in Fylde, Lancashire, Q2, 1894[1]). In Q1, 1912 in Kensington, his widowed mother married Sir Charles F. Adair Hore,[1] Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Pensions. Leslie Belisha then adopted the double-barrelled surname. The suggestion that he changed his name from Horeb-Elisha (to not appear Jewish) appears to be without foundation.

Hore-Belisha was educated at Clifton College where he was in Polack's house. He continued his studies in Paris and Heidelberg, before attending St John's College, Oxford, where he was President of the Oxford Union Society. During the First World War, he served in France, Flanders and Salonika and finished the war with the rank of Major. After the war he returned to Oxford and in 1923 qualified as a barrister.

Political career[edit]

In the 1922 general election, Hore-Belisha was an unsuccessful candidate for the Liberal Party in his birthplace constituency of Plymouth Devonport. However, thanks to the genius of his brilliant new political agent, Benjamin Musgrave, who came from Yorkshire, he won the seat in the general election the following year, and became known in Parliament as a flamboyant and brilliant speaker. He generally allied himself with right-wing Liberals critical of their party's support for the Labour minority governments, joining with Sir John Simon in becoming a 'Liberal National' upon the formation of the National Government in 1931. After the general election of that year, Hore-Belisha was appointed a junior minister at the Board of Trade.

He remained in government when the official Liberals withdrew in September 1932 over the issue of free trade, being promoted to Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Hore-Belisha showed considerable intelligence and drive in government, although his intense energy tended to alienate traditionalist elements who resented his status as an 'outsider'.

Transport minister, 1934-37[edit]

Hore-Belisha was appointed Minister of Transport in 1934 coming to public prominence at a time when motoring was becoming available to the masses. All UK speed limits for motor cars had controversially been removed by the Road Traffic Act 1930 during the previous (Labour) administration. 1934 was to see record GB road casualties with (7,343 deaths and 231,603 injuries) being recorded, with half of the casualties being pedestrians and three-quarters occurring in built-up areas. Hore-Belisha described this as 'mass murder'.[2] Shortly after being appointed, he was crossing Camden High Street when a sports car shot along the street without stopping, nearly causing him 'serious injury or worse.' He became involved in a public-relations exercise to demonstrate how to use the new ‘uncontrolled crossings’.[2]

Hore-Belisha's Road Traffic Act 1934 introduced a speed limit of 30 mph for motor cars in built-up areas. This was vigorously opposed by many, who saw the new regulations as a removal of 'an Englishman's freedom of the highway.' The earlier 20 mph speed limit had been abolished in 1930 because it was universally flouted. A large backlog of court cases had made the law unenforceable. In addition, The Automobile Association (AA) and the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) had frequently been successful in defending their members against evidence from primitive speed traps.[2]

Hore-Belisha rewrote the Highway Code and was responsible for the introduction of two innovations which led to a dramatic drop in road accidents: the driving test and the Belisha beacon, named after him by the public. On his retirement, he was made vice-president of the Pedestrians' Association and to this day the logo of the organisation includes a Belisha Beacon.[3]

Secretary of State for War, 1937-40[edit]

Having succeeded at the Ministry of Transport, in 1937 he was controversially appointed by Neville Chamberlain as Secretary of State for War replacing the popular Alfred Duff Cooper, who later resigned from the government over Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. There were voices within the Conservative majority that such a high-profile appointment should not have gone to a Liberal National, Hore-Belisha's Conservative colleagues labelled him a warmonger. Many took to nicknaming him "Horeb-Elisha" or "Horeb" as a pun on his race. (Horeb is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as the place where the golden calf was made and to which Elijah fled). Pressure mounted on Chamberlain to remove Hore-Belisha from the Cabinet at the earliest opportunity.

Convinced that war was looming, Hore-Belisha sought permission to introduce conscription in 1938 but was rebuffed by Chamberlain, who would not agree to increased defence spending. Senior Conservatives believed that Hore-Belisha was more concerned about the fate of Jewish people abroad than of Britain itself, such that he wanted Britain to wage war against Germany with the sole intention of protecting European Jews[citation needed]. Despite strong political and public opposition, in early 1939 he was finally allowed to introduce conscription.

Upon taking control of the armed forces, he sacked three prominent members of the Imperial General Staff. His attitude alienated seasoned campaigners such as Field Marshals John Dill and Lord Gort, the latter of whom, it was reported, could not bear to be in the same room with the Minister. Hore-Belisha's changes infuriated the military establishment and this sentiment was passed down to the lower ranks and the public at large. In the early months of World War II, a popular antisemitic song emerged to the tune of "Onward, Christian Soldiers". A version was recorded by Charlie and his Orchestra in Germany and was frequently played over propaganda broadcasts.

Onward Conscript Army,
You have naught to fear.
Isaac Hore-Belisha,
Will lead you from the rear.
Clad by Monty Burton,
Fed on Lyons pies;
Fight for Yiddish conquests,
While the Briton dies.
Onward conscript army,
Marching on to war.
Fight and die for Jewry,
As we did before.

Dismissal[edit]

Main article: Pillbox affair

In January 1940, the government caved-in to popular opinion and Hore-Belisha was dismissed from the War Office. Once again, he was accused of having dragged Britain into World War II in order to protect Jewish people on mainland Europe, and was considered a warmonger who did not have Britain's interests at heart. By 1940, his relations with Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, had deteriorated such that neither man had confidence in the other. Gort and other generals disliked Hore-Belisha's showmanship, but their main disagreements had stemmed from differences of opinion (the Pillbox affair) concerning the defence of France along the border with Belgium. Hore-Belisha was unpopular amongst his fellow ministers, with meetings of the War Cabinet said to be regularly tense and loud. As a result, Chamberlain agreed to replace him as Secretary of State for War.

Initially, he considered Hore-Belisha for the post of Minister of Information, but decided against this when the Foreign Office raised concerns about the effect of having a Jewish politician in this position given widespread feelings of antisemitism. Instead, the Prime Minister offered him the post of Presidency of the Board of Trade. Hore-Belisha refused this demotion and resigned from the government.

Due to the sensitive nature of the disagreements, many MPs and political commentators were bewildered as to why the dismissal had taken place, and Hore-Belisha's formal statement to the Commons left them little wiser. A common belief was that Hore-Belisha's bold reforms at the War Office had been opposed by the established military commanders, often caricatured as Colonel Blimps, and that they had forced his resignation. At least one historian has claimed that Hore-Belisha's dismissal was 'possibly fuelled by a desire to placate Hitler [by removing a Jew from the Cabinet] even once war had been declared',[4] or even due to pressure by George VI upon Chamberlain because of Hore-Belisha's previous support for Edward VIII during the abdication crisis, although the offer of alternative office and Hore-Belisha's original appointment argue against this latter motive.

Subsequent political career[edit]

Hore-Belisha attempted to rebuild his career under Winston Churchill but his re-appointment was blocked by a combination of his wounded intransigence and continued Conservative prejudice. He resigned from the Liberal Nationals in 1942, sitting as a 'National Independent' MP. In the Conservative 'Caretaker' government of 1945, he was briefly appointed Minister for National Insurance. In the 1945 general election, Hore-Belisha, still standing as a National Independent, was defeated in Devonport by the Labour candidate, Michael Foot. He thereupon peremptorily dismissed his faithful Political Agent, Mr Benjamin Musgrave and joined the Conservative Party. Later (in 1947) he was elected to Westminster City Council. He fought unsuccessfully in the Coventry South constituency in the 1950 general election. In 1954 he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Hore-Belisha, of Devonport in the County of Devon.[5]

Personal life[edit]

In April 1940, Time Magazine reported that Hore-Belisha had married French actress Jacqueline Delubac, but that was denied by Hore-Belisha.[6] In Q2, 1944, aged 51, in N.E. Surrey, he married[1] Cynthia Elliot, daughter of Gilbert Compton Elliot. They had no children. While leading a British parliamentary delegation to France in February 1957, he collapsed while making a speech at Rheims town hall, and died a few minutes later. The cause of death was given as a cerebral haemorrhage. The barony died with him as he had no children. Lady Hore-Belisha died in July 1991, aged 75.[7]

Fictional role[edit]

H.G. Wells in "The Shape of Things to Come", published in 1934, predicted a Second World War in which Britain would not participate but would vainly try to effect a peaceful compromise. In this vision, Hore-Belisha was mentioned as one of several prominent Britons delivering "brilliant pacific speeches" which "echo throughout Europe" but fail to end the war. [1] The other would-be peacemakers, in Wells' vision, included Duff Cooper, Ellen Wilkinson and Randolph Churchill.

Further reading[edit]

  • The Private Papers of Hore-Belisha by R J Minney, (Collins, 1960)
  • A Little Chit of a Fellow by Ian R Grimwood, (Book Guild, 2006)
  • Two War Ministers: A Reassessment of Duff Cooper and Hore-Belisha by J P Harris in War and Society, 6, 1: May 1988
  • Christopher Hollis, Oxford in the Twenties (1976)
  • War Diaries 1939-1945 Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke edited by Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman, (University of California Press, 1957, 1959, 2001) [ISBN=0-520-23301-8]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f http://www.freebmd.org.uk
  2. ^ a b c Gardiner, Juliet (1 February 2010). "How the Thirties saw Britain fall in love with the car... and become a nation of road hogs". The Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 2010-02-27. 
  3. ^ "The history of the Pedestrians Association". Living Streets. Retrieved 2010-02-27. 
  4. ^ Brown, Colin (2009). Whitehall: The Street that Shaped a Nation. Pocket Books. 
  5. ^ The London Gazette: no. 40078. p. 447. 19 January 1954.
  6. ^ Time magazine
  7. ^ thepeerage.com Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st and last Baron Hore-Belisha

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir Clement Kinloch-Cooke
Member of Parliament for Plymouth Devonport
19231945
Succeeded by
Michael Foot
Political offices
Preceded by
Walter Elliot
Financial Secretary to the Treasury
1932–1934
Succeeded by
Duff Cooper
Preceded by
Hon. Oliver Stanley
Minister of Transport
1934–1937
Succeeded by
Leslie Burgin
Preceded by
Duff Cooper
Secretary of State for War
1937–1940
Succeeded by
Hon. Oliver Stanley
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baron Hore-Belisha
1954–1957
Extinct