Philip Williamson is Emeritus Professor of History at Durham University and author of Stanley Baldwin: Conservative Leadership and National Values (1999).
Simon Heffer, ed., Henry “Chips” Channon, The Diaries: 1919–38, Hutchinson, 2021, 1,002 pages, £35. ISBN 978–1786331816
The publication of a new edition of the Channon diaries has attracted considerable attention, with extensive reviews in national newspapers and weekly journals. The reasons are evident. The first edition in 1967, edited by Robert Rhodes James, was a publishing sensation, immediately acclaimed for its revelations about high society, royalty, and parliamentary politics from the mid-1930s to the mid1950s. The sharp observations and lush gossip about a wide cast of both famous and previously obscure but evidently interesting people made the diaries attractive for all readers; acute commentaries and inside information provided vivid new evidence for the biographers of many individuals, and for historians of the abdication, appeasement, the Second World War, and Churchill’s Conservative party. It was also known that more—much more—was to come. Rhodes James explained that his volume contained “only a very truncated version” of the original text, and omitted “much material that must be forbidden fruit for present generations,” though, he declared, more from sensitivity towards living persons than because of anything really “scandalous.” Now, half a century later, we can read what was once forbidden. Simon Heffer is producing an edition of almost the whole text (the omissions, solely of material that lacks interest, are small and trivial) in what will be three very long volumes, including the wholly unpublished diaries for 1918, the 1920s, and from 1954 to 1958.
The extent and character of the truncation is now plain. Rhodes James himself did not read the original diaries, but selected from an already shortened and expurgated (the word is particularly apt) typescript. He could hardly assess how far a promiscuously bisexual socialite, dazzled by royalty, aristocracy, wealth, dinners, parties, and balls, and ever fascinated by (and eagerly speculating about) the intimate lives of those around him, was prepared to go in recording “scandalous” matters. After about 220 pages, the reader is unsurprised to find Channon proposing marriage to a daughter of the earl of Bradford while simultaneously steaming with unconsummated passion for Viscount Gage. Here, at least, there are certainly new sensations for reviewers and readers.
But how much of the new text has historical significance? One test for this volume is the abdication crisis, as Channon knew and entertained Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, and collected further material from other society figures and two of the king’s brothers. On all of this, the old and the new editions of the diaries are very similar. Heffer does, however, add eighteen pages of interesting memoranda written by Channon shortly after the episode, in which he persuasively concludes that a key to the crisis is that Edward had never wanted to be king. Channon had much wanted the king to stay, but his own diary indicates how out of touch he and Churchill were with prevailing opinion where it really mattered. Three weeks before the king’s affair became public knowledge, he noted, but failed to grasp the implications of, the accumulating private criticisms of the king’s affair among MPs.
Channon and his friends were plainly among the targets of Archbishop Lang’s notorious broadcast after the abdication—“a social circle whose standards and ways of life are alien to all the best instincts and traditions of the people.” He sent two letters of protest to Lambeth Palace.
Yet Channon’s diaries are proof positive of the archbishop’s accuracy. Aside from their accounts of the low life of high society, there is, for much of this volume, an almost complete absence of serious general concerns: no indication of the economic difficulties and social distress of the 1920s and 1930s, no comment on national or party policies, no indication even of the charitable and voluntary societies which many of his aristocratic and royal acquaintances supported and adorned.
When Channon became an MP—by the influence of his fabulously rich in-laws—this was for the sake of the status and the hope of a peerage. His interests were so focused on his friends and people of influence that he presented political issues almost entirely in terms of personalities. This, of course, is what makes the diaries so entertaining and, because loyalties and tensions between personalities are integral to politics, so useful for political historians. Once he had entered parliament, and above all once he had been appointed (purely for the usefulness of his wealth and social connections) as a ministerial assistant at the Foreign Office, his diaries become a rich account of parliamentary dramas, intrigues and the sort of private chatter that enlivens and greases high politics. Here the new edition contains many fresh details and acerbic remarks to decorate and complicate the now well-established understandings of the politics of appeasement.
Channon’s own position on this issue was characteristically bizarre. He was not just, to use his own terms, “pro-German,” but “pro-Nazi,” and an especially gullible guest in Berlin during the 1936 Olympics. He was much impressed by finding, from invitations to events hosted by Ribbentrop, Goering, and Goebbels, that “the regime are masters of party-giving.” Another of his less than impressive analyses of European relations was that those who liked men were pro-German, and those who liked women were pro-French. He was even more of an appeaser than Neville Chamberlain, whom he somehow managed to hero-worship. In 1937 he was critical of British rearmament, on which the policy of appeasement was predicated.
Churchill, being both an anti-appeaser and only an occasional presence in Channon’s rarefied social world, does not feature much in this volume. He is credited with a “terrific” parliamentary speech on the Spanish civil war in April 1937: “brilliant, convincing, unanswerable.” More frequent verdicts were that he was “always wrong”; “a devil” who “must never be trusted”; the “most dangerous man in Europe”; and this, during the Czechoslovakian crisis in September 1938: “Winston as PM would be worse than a war, and the two together would mean the destruction of civilization.” Channon’s diaries present a truly unique perspective, in more than one sense. It will be interesting, in the next volume, to have the full texts not only of his bracing accounts of wartime political incidents, but also of his adjustment to Chamberlain’s fall and Churchill’s rise.
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