Friday, 20 January 2017

The Great Constitutional Crisis - and the VBCW

A short timeline of events in 1936/1937 that reduced Great Britain to another Civil War, and form the (alternative) historical background to Herefordshire 1938:

20 January 1936: King George V dies and Edward succeeds him as King.

August 1936: Mrs Wallis Simpson joins the King and other guests for a summer cruise along the Yugoslav, Greek and Turkish coasts. Photographs of the King and Mrs Simpson together are widely published in the American and Continental press, with much speculation about their relationship. Wallis’ American husband, Ernest Simpson, had moved out of their matrimonial home in July.

October 1936: Wallis Simpson installed in a house in Regents Park rented for her by the King.

20 October 1936: The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, confronts the King for the first time over his relationship with Mrs Simpson. The Prime Minister asks the King to conduct the affair more discreetly and to persuade Mrs Simpson to put off her impending divorce proceedings against her husband, but to no avail.

27 October 1936: The Simpsons' divorce case is heard at Ipswich Assizes and a decree nisi is granted. Six months must pass before the divorce becomes absolute; Wallis will then be free to remarry.

16 November 1936: The King sends for his Prime Minister. He tells Baldwin that he wishes to marry Mrs Simpson. Baldwin says that whoever the King married would have to become Queen, and the British public would not accept Mrs Simpson as such. If the King wished to marry Mrs Simpson, he would have to abdicate. If the King wished to remain on the Throne and marry Mrs Simpson against the advice of his ministers, the Government would be forced to resign. A constitutional crisis is about to erupt.

VBCW : King Edward VIII and Prime Minister Baldwin
25 November 1936: The King sends for his Prime Minister again. He wishes to explore with Baldwin the idea of a morganatic marriage to Wallis Simpson, in which he could still be King but she would not be Queen, merely his consort. This would require new legislation in both Britain and the Dominions. Although Baldwin immediately tells the King a morganatic marriage would not be acceptable, the King requests the Prime Minister to further explore the proposal.

27 November 1936: Baldwin raises the issue of a morganatic marriage in the Cabinet, which rejects it outright. It is also then rejected by the governments of the Dominions. The leaders of the Opposition parties in the House of Commons similarly inform Baldwin that they cannot support the King’s marriage to Mrs Simpson, whether morganatic or otherwise.

2 December 1936: Another royal audience for the Prime Minister. Baldwin tells the King that none of his Governments, domestic or Imperial, are willing to agree to a morganatic marriage, and that the King now has three choices: to finish his relationship with Mrs Simpson, to abdicate, or to marry against the advice of his ministers and precipitate the resignation of his Government.

3 December 1936: The story breaks in the British press. Wallis Simpson leaves for France in order to escape the resulting furore. The King tells Baldwin he wants to broadcast an appeal to the nation, putting his problem to them. He hopes this might sway public opinion in favour of his marrying and remaining King. Baldwin states that such a broadcast would be constitutionally impossible.

7 December 1936: The King summons Baldwin to a further audience at Buckingham Palace. Buoyed up by the support of “The King’s Party” of politicians and aristocrats, the King calls Baldwin’s bluff. The King informs Baldwin that he sees no reason to give up his affections for Mrs Simpson or the Throne, and thus would do neither. The Prime Minister tenders his resignation, which is accepted. The remaining Ministers within the Government surrender their seals of office that evening.

10th December 1936: After days of frantic political manoeuvring in which the Leader of the Opposition, the Labour Party’s Clement Attlee, and the Leader of the Liberal Party, Sir Archibald Sinclair, successively refuse the opportunity to form an alternative Government, the King turns to Winston Churchill. Churchill, an old adversary of Stanley Baldwin on the Conservative benches and a prominent member of “The King’s Party” in the preceding days, knows that he has the support of only about 40 members of his own party, and no hope of persuading Attlee or Sinclair to his side. Churchill recognises that any new Government will face inevitable and almost immediate defeat in the House of Commons, followed by a very difficult election campaign in which the Conservative Party will be at least badly divided, perhaps destroyed. The prospect of a Labour Government looms. With a heavy heart, Churchill tells the King that he cannot serve as his Prime Minister.

11th December 1936: In a move of breathtaking political audacity, but reflecting secret negotiations that have been going on for some time, the King sends for Sir Oswald Mosley, a former Member of Parliament and (Labour) minister, now Leader of the British Union of Fascists. The King appoints Sir Oswald as his new Prime Minister, notwithstanding that he is no longer an elected Member of Parliament and that the BUF has no elected representatives in the House of Commons. The constitutional convention that the King’s First Minister is a member of the House of Commons is ignored; the Speaker of the House of Commons is arrested upon a trumped-up charge. Surrounded by senior BUF officers, Mosley stalks into the Chamber waving “the King’s Commission” and delivers a powerful speech, ranting against “the old gang” and supporting the King. Wallis Simpson returns from France and is installed in the King’s week-end retreat at Fort Belvedere.

12th December 1936: Outraged by the King’s tactics and Mosley’s extremist politics, frustrated by the King’s refusal to dissolve Parliament and call an election, members of all sides in both the House of Commons and House of Lords walk out of Parliament behind Churchill and Attlee, sparking major protests against the King and Mosley across the country. The rump Parliament sits on, with those not taking their seats as a protest being recorded as merely absent, and the Mosleyite Government presiding over those representatives who were pro-monarchist or who felt it might still be possible to influence events through what remained of “the usual channels”. The country descends into serious disorder. The King subsequently makes a series of BBC broadcasts in an attempt to calm the public mood, including a famous “Christmas Message”, but these have only a temporary effect upon a populace watching their constitutional democracy, and the “traditional rights of Englishmen”, being destroyed.

VBCW. Churchill and Attlee walk out of Parliament in protest at the King's tactics. The pain of publicly opposing his Monarch is etched across Churchill's face.
February 1937: Faced with increasing civil unrest, the King grants approval for the raising of Auxiliary Constabularies, equipped and structured along military lines and financed by the War Office, who were “to assist and support the regular police authorities in disbanding militant organisations and restoring order”. Such an autocratic gesture is entirely counter-productive, sparking further protests even in previously quiet parts of the country.

12th May 1937: Edward VIII’s Coronation Day. Shots are fired at Edward VIII’s closed car as it turns into Parliament Square on the way to Westminster Abbey. Pandemonium ensues. In a panic, the Metropolitan Police Auxiliary (made up predominantly of BUF members and known as ‘Mosley’s Legion’) begin firing randomly into the crowd. The Guards Regiments lining the route fire on the Auxiliary, and as the King’s car roars off to safety, Parliament Square becomes a battleground. Senior officers restore order only slowly.

13th May 1937: Martial law is declared. Habeas corpus is suspended as Mosley rushes a “Defence of the Realm” Act through the rump Parliament. All major cities are brought under a curfew. On the basis of murky claims of an “Officer’s Plot” and that they had been the ones to open fire on their King, the Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards are disbanded. Baldwin is placed under house arrest. The Auxiliaries are given greater powers, and orders under the new “Defence Regulations” to hunt down and detain “enemies of the King”. The Archbishop of Canterbury abandons Lambeth Palace and flees to Canterbury Cathedral. As all the various factions within the opposition arm and fight back, Great Britain descends into its own “Very British Civil War”.

King Edward VIII and the Archbishop of Canterbury in less troubled times.
Notes: Passages in normal type reflect historical events. Passages in italics are based on the first VBCW Sourcebook, co-authored by Dr. Rob Jones, Steven Mortimore and Simon Douglas, and published by Solway Crafts and Miniatures. A little further “embroidery” has been added as appropriate, with only one change: the VBCW Sourcebook has Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson fleeing for their own safety to Madresfield Court, “a stately home near Worcester” in May 1937. As this would bring them uncomfortably close to Herefordshire at a very early stage of the VBCW, it has been thought that this was merely a “cover story” put about to confuse the King’s enemies. Being only too aware of the disastrous historical precedents set by Charles the First in an earlier Civil War (who left London and moved his court to Oxford), and buoyed up by the staunch support of Mosley and his Metropolitan Police Auxiliary, the King and Wallis actually remained in London at the start of the VBCW. On 3rd May 1937, Mrs Simpson's decree of divorce had been made absolute; exactly a month later, on 3rd June 1937, the King finally married Wallis in a "closed and gloomy" Westminster Abbey.

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