To oppose the Munich Agreement of 1938 was once considered something close to treason. The prime minister of the day had met an intimidating opponent and had extracted from him a pact that would save the world from war. Who could possibly object to that?
Winston Churchill, for one, was not on board. But he had a reputation as a bluffer and attention-seeker and could be dismissed as being out of step with the country. Then there was the Labour opposition, but their intransigence would surely cost them the next election.
In many ways more irritating for Neville Chamberlain’s National Government was an obstructive group of its own backbenchers. These men, disparagingly referred to by Chamberlain and his allies as ‘the Glamour Boys’, are the subject of this fascinating new history by Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda.
Consisting of figures such as Rob Bernays, Jack Macnamara, Harold Nicolson, and Ronnie Cartland (brother of Barbara), the ‘Glamour Boys’ came of sexual and political age in the 1920s, when homosexuality was outlawed but enjoyed a thriving underground existence, often in unusual places.
Macnamara, for one, found the Territorial Army, with its ‘gyms, boxing rings, and all-male bars’, almost the ideal place to be gay. The same was true of the House of Commons, with its large number of ‘bachelor’ MPs and with Horseguard’s Parade just minutes away by foot. Then there were cities such as Berlin, where the future parliamentarians embraced its ‘dynamic energy’.
But it was here that they were afforded an alarming early insight into the nature of National Socialism. Rubbing shoulders with SA leader Ernst Röhm, they learned a thing or two about the homoerotic side of Nazism. But when Röhm and several other gay Nazis were executed in the Night of Long Knives, something even more alarming became apparent: a lust for violence that could not be bargained with.
Gone were the days of swinging Berlin. In its place were new laws stating that ‘chronic homosexuals’ would have their ‘aberrations’ treated with chemical castration. A punishment, it is hard to forget, that was inflicted by Britain on one of its own war heroes long after 1945.
So this band of MPs clubbed together not just because of their so-called ‘bachelor’ status, but by the alarming chain of events in Europe: the Abyssinian Crisis, Hitler’s seizure of the Rhineland, and, ultimately, Munich. Although never a serious threat to Chamberlain’s rule, they continued to embarrass him. It was not their numbers that mattered, but their reputation.
In turn, the Prime Minister and his allies tried to destroy them with slurs and innuendo. Devised by Sir Joseph Ball, Chamberlain’s right-hand man, the nickname ‘Glamour Boys’ insinuated that they were both effeminate and selfish; and that only the limp-wristed and traitorous could oppose a diplomatic triumph for Britain. Nothing could have been more wrong.
This period of history has been exhaustively covered, but Bryant offers a refreshing approach, one in which figures like Churchill are moved aside in favour of some largely forgotten heroes.
Bernays, Nicolson, and Cartland were all brilliant men, and no armchair warriors, either. Having denounced Britain’s squalid dealings with dictatorship they then served (and often died) for their country when the war they had so long dreaded became a reality.
Review by Calum Henderson