Secretary of State for War, 1937-40
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, although it is also likely that Hore-Belisha's Jewish faith aroused anti-semitism amongst his Conservative colleagues, who labelled him a warmonger and a Bolshevik. Even those who were not strongly opposed to him took to nicknaming him "Horeb" or "Horeb-Elisha" 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.
With the knowledge 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. Undeterred, Hore-Belisha sought to reshape the armed forces with modernising programmes similar to those he had implemented at the Ministry of Transport, improving pay, pensions and promotion prospects for working-class soldiers, whose advancement could often be blocked by nepotism amongst the upper classes. He improved barrack room conditions, installing showers and recreation facilities and giving married soldiers the right to live with their families. In early 1939, he was finally allowed to introduce conscription to meet the threat of Nazi Germany.
As part of his modernisation of the British armed forces, he sacked three prominent members of the Imperial General Staff, replacing them with fresher minds. 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. In the early months of World War II, he banned a popular yet anti-semitic song which had been widely sung by the armed forces, to the tune of "Onward, Christian Soldiers":
Onward Christian Soldiers,
You have nought to fear.
Will lead you from the rear.
Clothed by Monty Burton,
fed on Lyons pies;
Die for Jewish freedom
As a Briton always dies.
In January 1940, Hore-Belisha was dismissed from the War Office in a shock move that many did not understand at the time. Once again, he was accused of having dragged Britain into the war 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 propaganda effect of having a Jewish politician in this position. Instead, the Prime Minister offered him the post of Presidency of the Board of Trade. Hore-Belisha refused this demotion and effectively 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. Others claimed that Hore-Belisha had been dismissed due to anti-semitism, or even due to pressure by the Royal Family 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.
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.
- 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
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