Abdication of a King – what the workers and unions thought

If its any consolation to union activists in strikes, whose phones are regularly ‘bugged’ by the police and security services, recent revelations show that no less a person than King Edward VIII’s phone and telegrams were ‘intercepted’ in 1936 just before his anticipated Coronation.  No doubt it was done by some of our former members in the post and telecom unions, who had to do the job for the Home Secretary – a Cabinet decision!

In Edward’s case, the Home Secretary’s authorisation (on Cabinet and Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin instructions), showed a lack of trust in the monarch rare in British history. They are said to have been panicking over the King’s intention to marry an American divorcee, while trying to ‘hush up’ a Cape (South Africa) ‘Times’ scoop that he was about to abdicate. This revelation has just come from the release of secret files, all highly classified, which recently turned up in the Cabinet office basement (so much for the ’30 Year Rule’)!


This extraordinary action by the Conservative government of the day, (Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister), has still not been explained satisfactorily, in my view. Why were the Establishment so worried about the very popular young monarch’s private life? Enough to force his abdication apparently. I suppose people then were more strait-laced and scandalised by such ‘behaviour’. However, ‘worse things have happened at sea’, as they say, especially in the Royal Family of those days, even in the 1930s.


Edward Windsor, Prince of Wales, had been extremely popular, not least in the working class since he visited the miners in South Wales at the time of the General Strike in 1926, expressing sympathy with them. He was known as ”the Workers’ Prince” in some parts of the working class. Contrary to the impression given in the recent box-office hit, ‘The King’s Speech’, Churchill, (still ‘in the wilderness’), who spoke for some, wanted Edward to stay.


Yet, Sir Walter Citrine (as he had just become), TUC General Secretary, took the opposite view. Baldwin invited him and his wife, Doris, to Chequers in November 1936 to sound him out about feeling in the labour movement.  In his very readable and informative autobiography, ‘Men and Matters’ (1964), he devoted a number of pages to their discussion. Baldwin told him that he had just been to see Edward at his retreat in Fort Belvedere, Windsor, for a most painful interview. He had accosted the King to be about his intended marriage to Mrs Simpson, (who had just divorced her second American husband to marry him), and told him bluntly, ‘you will not get away with it’ i.e. and remain King! He left Edward ‘to consider his position’ and on 10th December, Edward announced his abdication. The intercepted telegram from the ‘Cape Times’ of 6th December, therefore caused the panic, as they had the story. The Home Office even hauled the London editor before the Home Secretary and suppressed it.


Citrine’s invitation to Chequers was clearly part of the same Cabinet effort to shape public opinion on a critical affair of State. Baldwin seems to have regarded such contacts as an antidote to his traditional sources of advice and opinion. The people who normally had the Prime Minister’s ear were the elite governing world of the country and Empire then – for example, ‘The Times’  or the politicians and upper classes in  ‘their long English country weekends’. He seems to have also respected Citrine’s judgement and they also had a chat about politics in general and especially about Citrine’s recent trip to the Soviet Union and book ‘I Search for Truth in Russia’, which he had read.  Imagine David Cameron calling Frances O’ Grady in today on such a sensitive matter!


To his enormous relief, Citrine reassured Baldwin that ‘he was undoubtedly interpreting the minds of people in the Labour movement.’  The Labour leader, Clem Attlee, had also been consulted, with a similar outcome. Interestingly, Citrine opined that though they were republican in sentiment, the unions preferred the limited constitutional monarchy Britain enjoyed to that of the alternatives then dominant on the continent. The forced abdication was firm evidence of its vitality!


Citrine, who was then very active on anti-fascist platforms, went on to persuade Churchill, who shared one with him at the Albert Hall, not to go public for the king against the government. The Windsors departed in 1937,  only to turn up in Berlin later that year at Hitler’s invitation! Perhaps this also had something to do with the Cabinet’s tough line? Certainly, the Windsors’ sympathies and many in the British upper classes, lay with Hitler’s fascist and anti-communist Germany (and Mussolini’s Italy), before he showed his true militaristic hand.  This would certainly have been known to Citrine, because as President of the International Federation of Trade Unions, he had seen first hand what the Nazis were doing to the German and Austrian trade union movement.


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