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Reference group
Cliveden set (act. 1937–1939) was the name given to a group centred around Waldorf Astor, second Viscount Astor, and his wife, Nancy Astor, Lady Astor, owners of Cliveden, a country house set on the River Thames near Taplow, Buckinghamshire (and of 4 St James's Square, London), who advocated the ‘appeasement’ of Nazi Germany and supposedly conspired to ensure that British foreign policy conformed to their beliefs. Accounts of the membership of the group varied, but those most frequently identified as members, besides the Astors, were Philip Kerr, eleventh marquess of Lothian, Liberal politician; James Louis Garvin, editor of The Observer (owned by Waldorf Astor); Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times (part-owned by Waldorf Astor's brother, John Jacob Astor), and his deputy, Robert Barrington-Ward; and Edward Wood, first earl of Halifax, lord privy seal, lord president of the council, and finally foreign secretary in the National Government. Others alleged at various times to be members of the group included Robert Brand, later first Baron Brand, banker; Lionel Curtis, historian and imperial propagandist; Thomas Jones, former deputy secretary to the cabinet, and a close associate of Lloyd George; Sir Nevile Henderson, ambassador to Germany; Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, seventh marquess of Londonderry, politician and former secretary of state for air; Sir John Simon, later Viscount Simon, chancellor of the exchequer in Neville Chamberlain's government; Sir Samuel Hoare, later Viscount Templewood, home secretary in the same government; Montagu Norman, later Baron Norman, governor of the Bank of England; Sir Josiah Stamp, who became first Baron Stamp in 1938, economic adviser to the National Government; Henri Deterding, former managing director of Royal Dutch-Shell and a major shareholder in the company; and Harry McGowan, first Baron McGowan, chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries.

The Cliveden set first burst into national prominence in November 1937 as a result of an article in The Week, a cyclostyled news-sheet with a small but influential readership, by its editor, Claud Cockburn. Cockburn, a left-wing journalist who, unusually for the time, had long been convinced that a policy of appeasement towards Germany would in fact make war more likely, had been mounting attacks on the Astors and their friends for more than a year. In the summer of 1936, for example, he had published a series of articles purporting to demonstrate the ‘extraordinary position of concentrated political power’ wielded by the Astors and their associates, and describing them as ‘one of the most important supports of German influence here’ (P. Cockburn, 187–9). These articles were largely ignored, both by the Astors and more widely. By the autumn of 1937, however, unease with (though not yet outright opposition to) the policy of appeasement had grown much more widespread. On 17 November 1937, just as Lord Halifax was arriving in Germany, ostensibly to attend an international hunting exhibition organized by Goering in Berlin, Cockburn revealed the ‘sensational’ news that Halifax would be presenting Hitler with a ‘deal’, whereby Germany would be given a ‘free hand’ in central Europe in return for leaving Britain in undisturbed possession of its empire (including the League of Nations mandates forfeited by Germany at the treaty of Versailles). This proposal, Cockburn reported, had been knocked ‘into usable diplomatic shape’ at Cliveden on 23–4 October by ‘that little knot of expatriate Americans and “super-nationally” minded Englishmen’ who for years had ‘exercised so powerful an influence on the course of “British” policy’ (Rose, 174).

Cockburn's story was repeated almost verbatim in the Reynolds News on 28 November 1937 (which first used the term ‘the Cliveden set’), and from that point on the supposed influence of the Astors and their associates was an important element in press coverage of Britain's foreign policy as its political leaders struggled to respond to the demands of a resurgent and aggressive Germany. The Cliveden set was held responsible for the events leading to Anthony Eden's resignation in January 1938, the feeble response to Hitler's annexation of Austria in March of that year, and indeed every perceived failure of British policy up to and including the Munich agreement of September 1938. In this process Cockburn himself made much of the running—fed stories in particular by Sir Robert Vansittart, another long-term opponent of appeasement who had been ‘kicked upstairs’ to become chief diplomatic adviser to the government in January 1938. David Low graphically portrayed Nancy Astor, Garvin, Dawson, and Lothian as the Shiver Sisters, dancing to Goebbels's tune, in the Evening Standard. Nor did the vilification stop at the shores of Britain: as Norman Rose later commented, ‘from Vancouver to Tokyo, via New York and Berlin, the presumed machinations of “The Cliveden Set” titillated vast audiences’ (Rose, 179).

The vilification was in some cases unfair. Waldorf Astor was by no means as pro-German as his wife; indeed, on the one occasion he met Hitler, he threw the latter into a ‘convulsion’ by asserting that Anglo-German relations could never improve as long as Hitler continued to persecute the Jews (Rose, 152). Brand (Nancy Astor's brother-in-law) was both in public and in private one of the most consistent and perceptive opponents of appeasement. Others identified as being on the outer fringes of the Cliveden group were either ambivalent about the policy (like Curtis) or not in fact part of the Cliveden circle at all (like Londonderry, whose wife, Edith, was Nancy Astor's chief rival as a society hostess). Nevertheless there is a great deal of truth in the assertion that certain core members of the group—Nancy Astor, Lothian, Garvin, Dawson, Barrington-Ward, and Halifax—were blind to the dangers posed by Germany, or at least to the dangers of a policy of negotiation with Germany, and prominent in advocating the removal of German grievances as the prelude to a better Anglo-German understanding. The reasons, or mix of reasons, varied from individual to individual. For Nancy Astor the wellsprings appear to have been largely visceral—Francophobia (linked to anti-Catholicism), anti-communism, and an element of antisemitism. Lothian had been deeply scarred by the loss of his younger brother during the First World War, wished to prevent another war, and felt a personal responsibility to remove the punitive clauses of the treaty of Versailles, many of which he had written himself. Both he and Dawson were particularly concerned that another war could break up the empire, while both Lothian and Garvin were anxious to ensure that any British commitments would have full American backing. Garvin (who was at times at odds with Waldorf Astor over the policy of The Observer) was particularly aware of the weakness of Britain's position, and from 1933 onwards campaigned for rearmament. Among all the members of the Cliveden group it was believed that France's policy towards Germany since the last war had been counter-productive; that removing Germany's grievances would undermine Hitler's support; that the League of Nations had proved itself a broken reed; and that Britain had no essential interests in, and could do little to prevent increasing German dominance over, central and eastern Europe.

Cockburn was right, therefore, in identifying key members of the Cliveden set as wedded to a policy of appeasement. Where his notion of a Cliveden set was notably weak, however, was in suggesting that its members consciously co-ordinated their activities in order to influence British policy. Barrington-Ward never visited Cliveden during this period. Other key members of the group did frequently stay there—but so did an assortment of journalists, politicians, social workers, Christian Scientists, notables from Nancy Astor's Plymouth constituency, and stars of stage and screen. As George Bernard Shaw (a frequent visitor) remarked, ‘I could prove that Cliveden is a nest of Bolshevism, or indeed of any other bee in the world's bonnet’ (Rose, 181). Moreover, the specific allegations of conspiracy frequently failed to add up. The group gathered at Cliveden on 23–4 October 1937, for instance, included not Halifax but Eden. In January 1938, when the Cliveden set was alleged to have conspired to topple Eden, the Astors were in fact in America, and Lothian was in India. Even wider of the mark was Cockburn's suggestion that the Cliveden set exercised an exorbitant influence over British foreign policy. The Times and The Observer were important newspapers, and the Astors had some powerful friends, but they were hardly in a position to dictate British policy. More to the point, Neville Chamberlain needed little encouragement in pursuing a policy to which he was himself fully committed, and which had the support of a majority of the Conservative Party and of parliament, large sections of the press, and (to the extent that this can be measured) a majority of public opinion. Members of the Cliveden set were perhaps notable for the enthusiasm with which they urged appeasement; but their views were by no means unusual.

The members of the Cliveden set reacted to their predicament with a mixture of amusement and outrage. Doorstepped by a young photographer outside 4 St James's Square who demanded ‘Who are you?’, Dawson gamely replied ‘Ribbentrop’ (Rose, 180). Nancy Astor was less sanguine, declaring ‘this mischievous rubbish’ to be the result of ‘a false and stupid story published in a Communist rag’ (Rose, 181). Nevertheless the mud stuck. At a time when British opinion was beginning to reconsider the wisdom of a policy which had led Hitler merely to increase his demands, it was politically convenient to portray appeasement as conspiratorial and unpatriotic. Members of the Cliveden set shared in this reassessment—Lothian was soon calling for a ‘grand alliance against aggression’, while Nancy Astor was one of thirty-three Conservative rebels who eventually brought down Chamberlain's government—but the Cliveden tag was not easily shrugged off. It followed Lothian and Halifax to America (where they were successive wartime ambassadors), clouded the journalistic reputations of Garvin, Dawson, and Barrington-Ward, and brought an effective end to Nancy Astor's political career.

In the fevered atmosphere of blame and recrimination (both apportioning and avoiding) which marked wartime and post-war assessments of inter-war British policy towards Germany, the notion of a Cliveden set took on a new lease of life. Indeed, it long survived in many popular accounts of the period, as well as in conspiracy theories, such as those derived from the work of Carroll Quigley (1910–1977), which suggested a more active collusion. Nevertheless, from at least the 1970s, most historians have tended to view the notion with scepticism, as a clever invention by Cockburn, spurred on by Vansittart—a move in the political game, not a useful tool for analysing the real support for appeasement. Indeed, ironically (given that Cockburn's allegation centred on the influence exercised by The Times and The Observer), many have come to see it as a good example of the distorting power of the media.

Alex May


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