75 years ago, on the 7th and 8th of May 1940 the UK Prime Minister led a debate in the UK House of Commons on how Britain was faring 9 months into war with Germany. It wasn’t good.
Prior to his election to the office of Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain was a popular, accomplished and respected political leader serving in key public offices including 6 years as Chancellor of the Exchequer during a challenging time for global finance. Such was his esteem that his elevation to the highest office of the land in 1937 was not at all controversial. Indeed even by summer of 1939 he was polling at near 70% approval rates and his policy of appeasement was overwhelmingly popular.
His two political opponents – the “crazy bombast” Winston Churchill and the “invisible man” Clem Attlee, men who were subsequently voted the Greatest Briton of all time and Greatest Prime Minister of the 20th Century respectively – played second fiddle, as Chamberlain stood peerless in his political stature.
Within 5 months of the debate, Chamberlain was dead and his name sounds as a byword for political incompetence 75 years on.
Any teenage student of history will tell you that the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the resulting “Great Depression” had consequences on a political level, acting as a catalyst for the rise of European fascism and the Second World war.
The textbooks state that the environment created by the panic of the 1930s, especially in Germany, which perceived itself as one of the most rational and progressive liberal societies in the world, allowed those radical elements come to the fore as a simple fix to the situation.
German Election Results (Nazi Support)
- September 1930: 18.3%
- July 1932: 37.4%
- January 1933: (Hitler is appointed Chancellor)
- March 1933: 44%
- July 1933: All political Parties (other than Nazi Party) were banned.
Within 6 short months a minority extremist party had established a dictatorship.
Within 12 years over 60 million people had died as a consequence of the Nazi policies.
The mathematician John Nash developed a strategy known as game theory, which examines the behaviour of the rational in a various situations. The clearest example of this is the prisoner’s dilemma:
So what does this mean? It means that A+B should both keep quiet to minimise the sentences for both, but A, not knowing what B will do (and vice versa) will see the possibility of going free (and demonstrating self interest) so will blame B, hence B will do the same to A and the outcome is both will go to jail for a longer period than if they had kept quiet.
In business it is used to explain M&A and to develop corporate strategies.
Here are some political examples:
Game theory is compelling in identifying behaviours on a macro level.
Without seeking to justify the benefits of aggression, peace and the consequences of war, it gives us a framework for trying to understand rational behaviours of some, which may appear irrational to those of us on first analysis.
Most of us today as humans see National Socialism and Apartheid as the horrors of the 20th Century, the actions of those policies are all too obvious but can be explained rationally given what the ideologies of these groups as expressed.
There are two rational positions: mutual benefit or conquest. However if both countries revert to self-interest, the outcome is detrimental to both.
Hitler in power behaved in a logical way – certainly in his early strategies and his actions correlated to what he stated he was going to do, however unpalatable: to seek power for the majority, dispose of the minority and to seek war when the other powers were too weak to be able to respond to advance Nazi interest.
Within the first six months of governance (even without a 50% mandate) the Nazi Party banned all opposition, as with no opposition they could govern unfettered, as we note above – maximum outcome for Nazis, total defeat for opposition.
This outcome paved the way for Nazi thinking which is key as it is the template for behaviour of the state that acts in a position of exclusive benefit.
- By acting first to end internal opposition, there is no possible dissent: Victory to Nazis.
- Chamberlain, who held the position of appeasement, believed that both sides hoped for peace, which was a view that a great majority of Britons in Summer 1939 agreed with: Victory to Nazis.
- Germany was too strong and Poland was too weak and unprepared to fight back against Germany so to move to total war. Moreover Austria and Vichy France would welcome German control: Victory to Nazis.
What Does This Mean For Us Today?
There are several lessons we can learn from our history.
- There is a default position in modern political thinking of mutual cooperation and interdependence, which stems from the post-war consensus.
- When this is not universal, either by leadership or policy failure, extremist elements take control of power, govern without constraint seeking an advantage.
- It Party A holds position 1 and Party B holds position 2 this poses a challenge to the strategies of Party A and what they do about it.
The Chamberlain analysis highlights that popularity is not leadership and while popularity may win elections, it doesn’t translate to effective strategic governance in certain situations.
When the individual strategies change from mutual cooperation, it is easy to see that adopting the policy of appeasement, agreement and cooperation to try and bring the other party back into the fold is by far the most palatable.
However if that party does not seek mutual benefit, the outcomes will be them taking the other rational position, which is self-interest, which will at some point lead to conflict. The only effective strategy is to neuter the powers of the opponent and minimise the damage of the inevitable outcome.
At the Conduct of The War Debate, which is better known as The Norway Debate, the message was this: Britain was too late.
Chamberlain had known since September 1939 that Hitler was a liar, he didn’t honour his agreement at Munich. However the failure was compounded as Britain could not contain the power of the Nazi threat. The blame belonged to Chamberlain. Despite his noble aspirations, the Nazis weren’t playing his game and his tools of strategic analysis failed to see where this would lead.
At this juncture, the world again is a complicated place either as a result of political vacuums, economic crises or resurgent military powers. One only has to look at the grids above and place any number of conflicts appearing in our daily news in those grids, yet western political leadership is pretending that nothing has changed. It is clear that there is an effective policy of appeasement in place and I am startled by the signs from history.
Iran’s track record and the ideology of its leaders make it an impossible candidate to join the family of progressive nations without reform. For those progressive nations to allow it to even the capability to produce the world’s most powerful weapons would be a grave error.
By not challenging the rising, aggressive and barbaric strands of politics that are being funded and supported by ideologically motived entities working against freedom, equality and tolerance, before these become a clear and present danger, we will be committing a mistake on a monumental and generational scale.
I know this, Benjamin Netanyahu knows this, and based on his life experiences and mistakes leaving him a broken man, even Neville Chamberlain would now know this.