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date: 04 October 2022

Guilty menfree

(act. 1940)

Guilty menfree

(act. 1940)
  • D. J. Dutton

Guilty men (act. 1940), was the term applied in 1940 to a group of politicians and policy makers associated with British foreign and defence policy in the 1930s, and specifically with the concept of appeasement. It was coined by three journalists working for Beaverbrook newspapers, Michael Foot, Peter Howard, and Frank Owen, writing under the pseudonym Cato in their eponymous tract published in early July 1940. The original 'guilty men' consisted of fifteen individuals—three prime ministers, ten cabinet ministers, a chief whip, and a leading civil servant—but the term came over time to be used more generally to encompass all those who were thought to be exponents of appeasement.

Except in the sense that they worked closely together inside the National Government, the group can have had no prior conception of their collective identity—indeed one, Ramsay MacDonald, was dead before the term was first used. The original fifteen, recorded as a cast list at the front of Guilty Men, were Neville Chamberlain, Sir John Simon, Sir Samuel Hoare, MacDonald, Lord Baldwin, Lord Halifax [see Wood, Edward Frederick Lindley], Sir Kingsley Wood, Ernest Brown, David Margesson, Sir Horace Wilson, Sir Thomas Inskip, (Edward) Leslie Burgin, James Richard Stanhope, seventh Earl Stanhope (1880–1967), W. S. Morrison, and Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith.

The list was meant to imply a unity and pattern in British foreign policy during the 1930s, a concept that had already been articulated during the celebrated parliamentary debate on the Norwegian campaign in May 1940. According to this interpretation, a series of disastrous concessions, beginning with Britain's failure to resist the Japanese attack on China in 1931, had been made in the face of aggression, a process which led inexorably to the military disaster on the French coast in the spring of 1940. As the Liberal MP Geoffrey Mander put it in 1941, 'we now know that the pathway to the beaches of Dunkirk lay through the wastes of Manchuria' (G. Mander, We Were Not All Wrong, 1941, 27).

Membership of the 'guilty men' combined the obvious and the arbitrary. The authors appear to have drawn up their cast list in terms of diminishing culpability for the dire predicament in which Britain found itself at the time of the book's composition. Not surprisingly, therefore, Neville Chamberlain, whose premiership had witnessed the high point of appeasement and whose name would forever be associated with the notorious Munich agreement of September 1938, stood at its head. As Michael Foot noted many years later, 'pride of place as Guilty Man Number One must surely always be allotted to Neville Chamberlain' (Foot, Loyalists and Loners, 180). There followed in Simon and Hoare two former foreign secretaries whose errors earlier in the decade had been compounded by their prominence in Chamberlain's government and who had attracted particular hostility in the political crisis of May 1940. As prime ministers between the formation of the National Government and Chamberlain's assumption of power in May 1937, Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin stood condemned because they 'took over a great empire, supreme in arms and secure in liberty. They conducted it to the edge of national annihilation' (Cato, Guilty Men, 17). Halifax had become foreign secretary in February 1938 and retained that position in Churchill's coalition, but was widely believed to be a leading advocate of appeasement.

The remaining cabinet ministers represented, in Cato's opinion, inappropriate appointments to key positions at a time of national emergency. As air minister from May 1938 to April 1940 Kingsley Wood was held responsible for shortcomings in aircraft production. As minister of labour from June 1935 to May 1940 Ernest Brown had failed, even after the outbreak of war, fully to mobilize the British workforce. Lord Stanhope, first lord of the Admiralty from October 1938 until the outbreak of war, was held responsible for the sinking of the Royal Oak at Scapa Flow. The appointments of the relatively obscure Inskip to the Ministry for the Co-ordination of Defence (March 1936 – January 1939) and of Burgin to the Ministry of Supply (July 1939 – May 1940) were held up to ridicule, for such important posts merited figures of greater stature and ability. 'There had been no similar appointment [to Inskip's] since the Roman emperor Caligula made his horse a Consul' (Cato, Guilty Men, 74). Finally, as successive ministers of agriculture, Morrison and Dorman-Smith were blamed for inadequate food supplies. Outside the cabinet the timid ranks of the parliamentary Conservative Party were kept in line by the government's chief whip, David Margesson. In successfully quelling incipient signs of dissent he had destroyed the possibility of an alternative and wiser policy coming to the fore. Last but not least, Wilson, the government's chief industrial adviser and also a close confidant of Neville Chamberlain, was castigated as a sinister figure manipulating events behind the scene, the 'second most powerful figure in the public life of this country' (ibid., 85).

Lord Stamp, appointed by Chamberlain to the part-time post of adviser on economic co-ordination, was accorded one of Cato's brief chapters, but was omitted from the cast list, a sign perhaps of the haste with which the text was pieced together by the three authors before publication. Indeed of equal interest in some ways to those included are the names of those omitted from Cato's indictment. These include such leading appeasers as the former air minister Lord Londonderry, the junior Foreign Office minister R. A. Butler, and Chamberlain's trusted adviser Joseph Ball. Others such as Anthony Eden, Alfred Duff Cooper, Leslie Hore-Belisha, and Viscount Swinton, who had been closely associated with the foreign and defence policies of the National Government, were also spared by the fact of timely resignation or even dismissal from the cabinet. In part the construction of the list was determined by a political purpose on the part of Cato. Several of the 'guilty men' were still serving in Churchill's government at the time of the book's publication and it was the aim of the three authors, like Cato who had cleaned the sewers of Rome, to drive them from office: 'Let the Guilty Men retire, then, of their own volition, and so make an essential contribution to the victory upon which all are implacably resolved' (Cato, Guilty Men, 123).

Overall, the collective designation of the 'guilty men' is less significant as an accurate assessment of Britain's political leadership in the 1930s than as a lasting force in the subsequent historiography and popular perception of the era of appeasement. The book itself has few claims to historical scholarship. Even Michael Foot later admitted to its 'unrelenting crudity' and conceded that it had 'nothing to recommend it in a literary sense but red-hot topicality' (Cato, Guilty Men, vi). Its black and white depiction of complex issues showed no understanding of the terrible dilemmas which confronted the policy makers of the 1930s, dilemmas to which there were no right answers. Appeasement may not have been a wise policy, but it has now emerged as one that is eminently understandable. Facing a possible nightmare scenario of attack from three potential enemies—Germany, Italy, and Japan—in different parts of the globe, Britain, having few obvious allies, with its armed forces in a state of long-term neglect, and constrained by the pacifistic tendencies of a democracy still scarred by the First World War, had no easy course of action open to it. The foreign and defence policy of the National Government was shaped by a range of constraints and determinants rather than by the combination of incompetence and wilful deception portrayed by Cato.

It is now clear, moreover, that for many if not all of the 'guilty men' the designation was tantamount to character assassination. Neville Chamberlain may not have been the ideal prime minister of a country preparing for war, but he was no fool and was fully alert to the danger posed by Nazi Germany. Inskip—likened to Caligula's horse—was an able politician who at one time was spoken of as a possible future leader of the Conservative Party. His defence review of 1937–8 deserves credit for the reorientation of British air policy towards the defensive capability of the fighter plane and away from the supposed deterrent effect of the bomber. Horace Wilson was an able and committed public servant rather than the éminence grise of a conspiratorial regime. But Cato's success cannot be gainsaid. None of the fifteen 'guilty men' held ministerial office again after the end of the Second World War. Their reputations were largely destroyed. Stanley Baldwin, who had left office in 1937 in a mood of warmth and affection, lived out his final years against a background of hostility and contempt.

Indeed the concept of the 'guilty men' exercised a profound impact. The book 'enshrined the disillusion of a generation … and set the tone of debate for the study of appeasement for twenty years after the war' (Aster, 235). The idea of a group of culpably responsible individuals struck a chord with the British population in 1940, anxious to discover a simple explanation for the catastrophe which faced them. The book achieved spectacular sales, reminiscent of a 'pornographic classic', and reached an unusually wide audience (Foot, Bevan, 319). Endorsed in its interpretation in most key respects by the first volume of Winston Churchill's war memoirs, The Gathering Storm, published in 1948, the concept, suitably refined and embellished, went on to permeate the writings of later historians at least into the 1960s. It encouraged the quest for underlying links—most of them spurious—binding the architects of appeasement together. Thus A. L. Rowse explored the way in which the policy had been debated and developed in the common rooms of All Souls College, Oxford, while for Margaret George the unifying factor was the collective decadence of Britain's ruling class, the unworthy successors of those who had built the empire and enabled Britain to dominate the world. Nor is the notion of the 'guilty men' entirely buried to this day, particularly in terms of popular consciousness. For the man in the street, Neville Chamberlain remains 'guilty' in a sense that attaches to few other figures in British history.


  • S. Aster, ‘“Guilty men”: the case of Neville Chamberlain’, Paths to war: new essays on the origins of the Second World War, ed. R. Boyce and E. Robertson (1989)
  • D. Dutton, Neville Chamberlain (2001)
  • M. Foot, Loyalists and loners (1986)
  • S. Greenwood, ‘“Caligula's horse” revisited: Sir Thomas Inskip as minister for the co-ordination of defence, 1936–1939’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 17/2 (1994), 17–38
  • A. L. Rowse, All Souls and appeasement (1961)
  • M. George, The hollow men: an examination of British foreign policy between the years 1933 and 1939 (1965)
  • R. J. Caputi, Neville Chamberlain and appeasement (2000)
  • M. Foot, Aneurin Bevan: a biography, 1 (1962)
  • M. Gilbert and R. Gott, The appeasers (1963)