The King and Country debate

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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 widely reported and discussed debates conducted at the Oxford Union.

Background to the debate[edit]

Prior to the debate, a similar motion had been proposed by at the Cambridge Union by Arthur Ponsonby in March 1927. Ponsonby's motion was "That lasting peace can only be secured by the people of England adopting an uncompromising attitude of pacifism".[2] The motion was passed by 213 votes to 138 and attracted no public attention.[2][3]

The Oxford Union 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. Digby found some difficult obtaining a noted speaker to support the motion: Norman Angell, Bertrand Russell, Beverley Nichols and John Strachey were all unable to attend.[3] Finally, philosopher C. E. M. Joad agreed to come and support the motion. Joad and David Maurice Graham of Balliol, the Union's Librarian at the time and the original drafter of the motion, argued in favour at the debate.[3] The teller for the Ayes was Max Beloff and for the Noes R. G. Thomas.[4] The President of the Union at the time was Frank Hardie.[5]

The debate[edit]

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.[3]

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.[6] 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.[5]


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".[7]

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".[3] 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."[8]

Part of the controversy was due to the fact that some newspapers falsely claimed that the supporters of the motion had insulted King George V (in fact,the British monarchy was barely mentioned in the debate) or the British soldiers who had been killed in the First World War.[3][9]

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."[5]

An anonymous critic sent the Oxford Union a box containing 275 white feathers, one for each vote for the resolution.[10] A second box followed, and Hardie announced that each member who had voted 'aye' could have two feathers.[5]

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.[11]

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.[3] J.A. Spender and James Louis Garvin took issue with the resolution which, in their view, neglected the issue of war prevention.[3]

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.[12] 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.[13]

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.[5][14]

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.[15]

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."[5] He was proved right: when the Second World War broke out in September 1939 the War Office organised a recruiting board at Oxford which invited undergraduates and resident postgraduates under 25 to enlist: 2,632 out of a potential 3,000 volunteered.[16] McCallum recalled at the outbreak of war two students, "men of light and leading in their college and with a good academic record", 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 Chamberlain, not Halifax, has asked us to".[17]

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."[5]

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.[5]

Foreign reaction[edit]

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

I remember very vividly, a few months after the famous pacifist resolution at the Oxford Union visiting Germany and having a talk with a prominent leader of the young Nazis. He was asking about this pacifist motion and I tried to explain it to him. There was an ugly gleam in his eye when he said, "The fact is that you English are soft". Then I realized that the world enemies of peace might be the pacifists.[18]

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."[19] 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".[20] 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.[20]

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."[3] Shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939, the Völkischer Beobachter was still "insisting that the Oxford debate was insignificant".[3]

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."[21]


  1. ^ Smith, Cameron (1989). Unfinished Journey: The Lewis Family. Toronto: Summerhill Press. pp. 180–181. ISBN 0-929091-04-3. 
  2. ^ a b Parkinson, Stephen (2009). Arena Of Ambition: a history of the Cambridge Union. Thriplow: Icon. p. 44. ISBN 9781848310612. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ceadel, Martin (1979). "The King and Country Debate, 1933: Student Politics, Pacifism and the Dictators". The Historical Journal 22 (2): 397–422. doi:10.1017/s0018246x00016885. 
  4. ^ Morris 2002, p. 374
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ The Isis (Oxford: Holywell Press). 15 February 1933. p. 7.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ McCallum 1944, pp. 177–80
  8. ^ Morris 2002, pp. 374–5
  9. ^ Oxford Magazine. 9 March 1933. pp. 538–9.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. ^ Cohen 1997, pp. 79–80
  11. ^ Gilbert, Martin (1990). Prophet of Truth. Winston S. Churchill. 1922-1939. Minerva. p. 456. 
  12. ^ Cohen 1997, p. 80
  13. ^ Thornton, A. P. (1966). The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies. London: Macmillan. p. 202. 
  14. ^ Morris 2002, p. 275
  15. ^ Smith, Lyn (2009). Voices against War : A Century of Protest. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing. pp. 79–94. ISBN 184596456X. 
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ McCallum 1944, pp. 179
  18. ^ Hogg, Quintin (1945). The Left was Never Right. Faber and Faber. p. 50. 
  19. ^ Fermor, Patrick Leigh (1977). A Time of Gifts. John Murray. pp. 115–116. , where the debate is erroneously dated to 'the summer before'!
  20. ^ a b Churchill 1986, p. 150
  21. ^ Churchill 1986, p. 77