Vernon Bartlett

Vernon Bartlett

Vernon Bartlett was born in Swanage on 30th April 1894. After being educated at Blundell's School, Tiverton, he worked as a journalist for the Daily Chronicle and Picture Post.

Bartlett wrote about Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany and warned against the appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain and the Conservative government. Bartlett was a harsh critic of the Munich Agreement and afterwards was approached by Richard Acland to stand as an anti-Chamberlain candidate at a by-election in Bridgwater. Bartlett agreed and in November, 1938, surprisingly won the previously safe Tory seat and became a member of the House of Commons.

During the Second World War Bartlett was appointed Assistant Director of Propaganda. One suggestion made by Bartlett was that German food distribution could be disrupted by getting the Royal Air Force to drop large numbers of forged ration cards. The idea was rejected by Neville Chamberlain who insisted that Britain must "fight fair".

On 28th May, 1940, the BBC started the North American Service. Bartlett was chosen to be the station's first speaker: "I am going to talk to you three times a week from a country that is fighting for its life. Inevitably I'm going to get called by that terrifying word propagandist. But of course I'm a propagandist. Passionately I want my ideas - our ideas - of freedom and justice to survive." Bartlett, who was director of the British Press Services, in 1941 was sent to the Soviet Union to arrange for a better exchange of information between the country and the British Commonwealth.

Bartlett was a founder member of the 1941 Committee. Other members included Edward G. Hulton, J. B. Priestley, Kingsley Martin, Richard Acland, Michael Foot, Peter Thorneycroft, Thomas Balogh, Richie Calder, Tom Winteringham, Vernon Bartlett, Violet Bonham Carter, Konni Zilliacus, Victor Gollancz, Storm Jameson and David Low. In December 1941 the committee published a report that called for public control of the railways, mines and docks and a national wages policy. A further report in May 1942 argued for works councils and the publication of "post-war plans for the provision of full and free education, employment and a civilized standard of living for everyone."

Later that year Bartlett, Richard Acland, J. B. Priestley and other members of the 1941 Committee established the socialist Common Wealth Party. The party advocated the three principles of Common Ownership, Vital Democracy and Morality in Politics. The party favoured public ownership of land and Acland gave away his Devon family estate of 19,000 acres (8,097 hectares) to the National Trust.

After the war Bartlett joined the Labour Party. However, he retired from politics at the 1950 General Election and decided to become a full-time journalist. As well as working for the Daily Chronicle he was staff reporter for the Manchester Guardian between 1954 and 1963. The author of several books, his autobiography, And Now, Tomorrow, was published in 1960.

Vernon Bartlet died on 18th January 1983.

Primary Sources

(1) Vernon Bartlett was in Godesberg working for the Daily Chronicle when Neville Chamberlain met Adolf Hitler on 22nd September 1938. He wrote about it in his book And Now, Tomorrow (1960)

The mood of the German officials when it was announced that the Prime Minister would not see the Chancellor again was one almost of panic. This meant either war or a Hitler surrender. The crowds that applauded Chamberlain as he drove along the Rhine consisted not so much of ardent nationalists, delighted that a foreign statesman had come to make obeisance to their Fuehrer, as of ordinary human beings who wanted to be kept out of war, Since history cannot - thank God - repeat itself, one cannot produce proof to support one's opinions, but I am firmly convinced that, had Chamberlain stood firm at Godesberg, Hitler would either have climbed down or would have begun war with far less support from his own people than he had a year later. The British forces, one is told, were scandalously unprepared, and were able to make good some of their defects during that year. But meanwhile the Western Allies lost the Czechoslovak Army - one of the best on the Continent - defending a country from which the German armies could be out-flanked. Was it not Bismarck who claimed that whoever controlled Bohemia controlled Europe?

(2) Vernon Bartlett, And Now, Tomorrow (1960)

Very late that night we learnt that agreement had been reached. But the people whom it principally concerned - the Czechoslovaks - had not been consulted. When it was all over, and the German journalists who had shown such alarm a week earlier were standing on the tables and toasting everybody in large glasses of beer, I watched the two Czech observers enter Mr. Chamberlain's room on the first floor of the Hotel Regina at 2 a.m. in order to learn the fate of their country. "Two days ago," I wrote in my dispatch, "the British and French governments were prepared to help Czechoslovakia if she were attacked; the same governments are now pledged to hold themselves responsible for the fulfilment of the plan for German occupation." It was clear to the Czechoslovak representatives, and surely to everybody else who was there except the British Prime Minister himself, that the independence of their country had been signed away by statesmen (the word should, perhaps, be printed in inverted commas) whose fear had stifled all sense of honour.

(3) Henry (Chips) Channon, diary entry (18th November, 1938)

I am dumbfounded by the news of the Bridgewater election, where Vernon Bartlett, standing as an Independent, has had a great victory over the Government candidate. This is the worst blow the Government has had since 1935. Of course, there are extenuating explanations, but they are meague comfort.

(4) Vernon Bartlett, Daily Chronicle (13th April, 1939)

Yesterday I spoke with Ambassadors, Ministers or high officials in eight Embassies or Legations, and in seven of them the great fear was expressed that the British government's prejudice against genuine co-operation with Russia was daily bringing war nearer.

(5) Vernon Bartlett, And Now, Tomorrow (1960)

There can surely be no other career both so flattering and so frustrating as that of a Member of Parliament. I left my constituency after my election with the feeling that I was nearly as important as people there believed me to be. My maiden speech received a whole column in The Times and, as far as I remember some mention in its leader column. Mr. Churchill was one of those who went out of his way to congratulate me. I had been less nervous than I had expected. I seemed to have my foot on the marble staircase that leads up to the Secretary of State's room on the first floor of the Foreign Office.

But a maiden speech is relatively easy, for the Speaker lets you know when he will call you, the tradition of the House is against any interruption, and the following two members are expected - though politically they may hate your guts - to say nice things about your effort. I should have enjoyed the House of Commons more if I had never made a second speech. For, during the second and subsequent speeches there is always the probability that some opponent will leap to his feet with an interruption. You are not compelled to give way, but it is unwise not to do so. His interruption may be irrelevant an idiotic, but it probably succeeds in breaking the thread of you thoughts. If it becomes obvious that it has done so, you may anticipate a whole series of interruptions the next time you catch the Speaker's eye. Even if they are not made, the anticipation of them reduces the confidence with which you face the most difficult audience in the world.

If you speak from a platform, the chances are that you are addressing an audience that has come partly or wholly in order to hear you. Its members may be hostile or critical, but at least they are likely to be attentive. Not so in the House of Commons This is what happens, and the procedure would seem to have been designed, purposely and probably wisely, to take the fire out of any debate.

For many years my special subject had been foreign affairs might, therefore, expect that, in a two-day debate on it, I should have an opportunity to say my piece. For two or three day before such a debate, I draft notes or, perhaps, write out the entire speech in the hope that, by so doing, I shall learn most of it by heart. As soon as the debate begins, I go round to the Speaker's chair to request that my name be included on the list of would-be participants and to ask what are my chances of being called. The first disappointment - Mr. Speaker shakes his head doubtfully. There are already five Privy Councillor down, and they take precedence over ordinary members. The Foreign Secretary wants an hour and a half, and his leading opponent will take at least an hour. There is one maiden speech and twenty members, each as convinced as I am that he has something of value to say, have already approached him. If wait patiently, there might be a chance when everybody have gone off to dinner.

(6) 1941 Vernon Bartlett was sent to the Soviet Union to arrange for a better exchange of information between the country and the British Commonwealth. He later wrote about his experiences in And Now, Tomorrow (1960)

Do we realise sufficiently in the Western democracies how remarkably the country in which Communism was first successful has drifted away from that doctrine, which it still encourages so vigorously in other countries? The Soviet Union now has class distinctions more rigid than any we know in the Parliamentary democracies; one would need to go back a long way in English history to discover a party or a class which had so nearly a monopoly of privilege and power as the Communist Party in the U.S.S.R. Back have come the epaulettes which were condemned so violently after the October Revolution. Back have come the distinctions of rank. The Soviet diplomats dress up in uniform on the slightest excuse or provocation, and Sir Winston Churchill is said to have caused deep offence in Moscow during the war by appearing there in the boiler suit he was so fond of wearing in London.

The revolutionaries of 1917, or those few of them who have escaped the numerous purges or death by natural causes, are no longer lean, hungry and idealistic students; they are for the most part pot-bellied old gentlemen with no other ambition than the conservative and almost universal one of clinging on to their jobs. No attempt in history to create a classless society has yet succeeded. Already the Russian attempt has failed; influenced to a considerable extent by what has happened in Russia, the United Kingdom may come closer to success in this respect than the Russians have done.

(7) Vernon Bartlett, And Now, Tomorrow (1960)

I like best to remember Mr Winston Churchill on the day after the House of Commons was bombed. As a journalist, I knew - as most M.P.s did not yet know - of this disaster, and I went down to Westminster to see what it looked like. The bomb had fallen almost directly above the Speaker's Chair, which was crushed under a steep hill of smoking rubble. A cloud of dust still hung over the place. The stone of the doorway into the Chamber - later to be preserved and to be named after the Prime Minister - had been flaked and eroded in one night so that it looked as old and as weather-worn as the ruins of Ancient Rome. As I clambered up the hill of rubble, I was suddenly confronted by a figure clambering up from the other side. There stood Winston Churchill, his face covered with dust, through which the tears that ran down his cheeks had made two miniature river-beds. " I am a House of Commons man," he used to boast; had that boast not been true, he would doubtless have surrendered to the temptation and the clamour to put a stop to Question Time, which caused him and his ministers so much extra work and worry, but which provided that safety-valve for public bewilderment or discontent, and which gave the British an advantage of morale over all the other belligerents. "I am a House of Commons man." And Churchill wept as he saw his beloved House in ruins.