This is a story about how the “Glamour Boys”—ten gay and bisexual MPs in the 1930s— became convinced of the deadly threat the Nazis posed to minorities years before most other MPs.
Bob Bernays, Bob Boothby, Ronnie Cartland, Victor Cazalet, Harry Crookshank, Jack Macnamara, Harold Nicolson, Philip Sassoon, Jim Thomas and Ronnie Tree worked to alert the British government to that threat. All except two of the “Glamour Boys” were Tories—some from wealthy backgrounds—and had a broadly establishment outlook on most issues.
They were MPs during the “National Government” and Tory governments between 1931 and 1939. It saw two successive Tory prime ministers, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, lead a strategy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany.
The term “Glamour Boys” was a deliberate slur on their sexuality by Chamberlain and his black ops attack dog Sir Joseph Ball. He ran a very nasty weekly magazine called Truth, used to smear and undermine political opponents.
Truth had been founded in 1877 by Henry Labouchere, the author of the “gross indecency” clause. This was used to prosecute Oscar Wilde and thousands of other gay men over the following century.
Gay and bisexual MPs sought to hide their homosexuality from constituents and the press. Being unmasked in the deeply homophobic atmosphere of the period could mean ruin and prison. So it took considerable courage to risk all to try and expose the true nature of fascism.
Several of the “Glamour Boys” regularly visited Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, partly to take advantage of the opportunities of the relative sexual liberalism of the Weimar Republic. Some of them also went on fact-finding missions and met leading Nazis, including Adolf Hitler and Brownshirt paramilitary leader Ernst Rohm, who was gay. They became increasingly alarmed at what they saw.
Yet they faced considerable resistance at home. There was widespread sympathy and support for Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini in sections of the British establishment. And they greeted Hitler became German chancellor in 1933 with relief, hoping he would bring “order” and stop the threat of socialism.
Antisemitism was common, too, in the British establishment. For example, the first woman MP to take her seat—the Hitler-admiring viscountess Nancy Astor—was a virulent antisemite.
Throughout the 1930s the Nazis’ brutal antisemitic attacks grew, and the Glamour Boys saw evidence of concentration camps for gay people, political prisoners and Jews. But the antisemitism of sections of the elite muted British recognition of the dangers the Nazis posed.
Only when Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia invaded Poland, did Chamberlain ask parliament to declare war.
The Glamour Boys had been working as a key part of a group of parliamentary rebels, who had been agitating for British rearmament and preparation for war. This included soon-to-be prime minister Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan—also rumoured to be gay— and Duncan Sandys.
The primary motive of most of them was protection of the British Empire, rather than anti-fascism.
Britain was very poorly prepared when war was declared. This was shown in the ignominious defeat of the British Expeditionary Force and its evacuation from Dunkirk, France, in 1940. The well-armed German army, the Wehrmacht, had rolled over France.
Several of the “Glamour Boys” already served in the armed forces as well as being MPs, others signed up following the declaration of war. Several were killed. Ronnie Cartland died in the retreat to Dunkirk, Victor Cazalet was killed in the same plane crash that killed the exiled Polish leader Wladislaw SikorskI. Rob Bernays also died in a plane crash and Jack Macnamara was killed leading a commando attack in Italy.
Chris Bryant’s book is jam-packed with detail about parliamentary political life in the 1930s, as well as what it was like to be a gay or bisexual public figure at that time. The risks even for the relatively privileged were very considerable—so imagine what it must have been like for working class gay people.
I do have one gripe about this book. The working class, their lives and political organisations and attitudes to the Nazis and war, gets no serious mention. While the story of the “Glamour Boys” is an important one, most of it happens as intrigues within the Westminster bubble.
They led an important and, up to now hidden, revolt to undermine the grip of the appeasers. And credit is due to Bryant for telling this story. But while reading the book, I couldn’t help thinking of the anti-fascist activity outside parliament in the 1930s, those working class anti-fascists, socialists and trade unionists who fought against in Spain or who fought the Blackshirts to a standstill in Cable Street.
Laura Miles is author of Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the fight for trans liberation.
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