Britain a Moth-Eaten Lion?
A final look at Harold Nicholson’s 1942 visit to Dublin…
Before his meeting with Eamon de Valera, the British MP addressed the Law Society of Ireland and nearly got into serious trouble at home for what some regarded as a “defeatist” speech. Here is his own diary assessment of the proceedings:
The auditor’s address is a covert attack on England and is designed to show that she has fallen from her high estate and reaped the penalty for her many sins. I have to follow, and the audience receives me kindly. I was stimulated by the danger of it all and made a good speech. There is much applause at the end, with that carrying-through movement, the effect of a following wave of appreciation, which one sees in a good drive at golf.
The next day, the poet John Betjeman, then the British press attache in Dublin rang to tell Nicholson the speech had gone very well. Nicholson himself was worried by the fact that the Irish Times and Irish Independent both mentioned his references to the danger that Britain was in, but left out his insistence that Britain was determined to persevere and win the war. In fact , in his reply to the Law Society auditor, he had prefaced his speech by the following unprepared remarks:
Imperialism is dead, and, I devoutly hope, buried. If you were to picture the British lion as a rampant beast, red in tooth and claw, seeking whom it might devour, than you would get a completely false and distorted picture of our war aims. It would be much wiser to think of the British lion as an elderly, replete, self-satisfied, moth-eaten animal, whose tail in the last twenty years has been so frequently twisted that few hairs remain, but an animal which at this moment is alert and angry. We have suffered severe defeats and will have further disasters to meet in the future, but while these defeats and disasters have certainly diminished our conceit and destroyed our self-complacency, they have increased our pride.
Nicholson then turned to his prepared speech and spoke of British patriotism and determination to win. Irish newspapers carried the headline: “Britain, a moth-eaten lion.” When he returned home he faced a motion in the House of Commons that he be dismissed as a governor of the BBC for making a “generally defeatist” speech in Ireland. He wrote that “All my pleasure and triumph at my Irish visit is suddenly damped, and I feel deeply depressed. This sort of thing can never really be explained away.” However, before it came to a vote Nicholson did manage to explain himself to the satisfaction of the House, and the motion was withdrawn.