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  • The British Political Elite and the Soviet Union 1937–1939
  • Martin Ceadel
Louise Grace Shaw, The British Political Elite and the Soviet Union 1937–1939. London: Frank Cass, 2003. 210 pp. $41.95.

To this reviewer at least, the title of Louise Grace Shaw's book raised expectations of a structural analysis of the British political establishment that would indicate how different attributes (such as departmental affiliation, geopolitical assumptions, and religious beliefs) affected attitudes toward the Soviet Union. These expectations are only partly fulfilled. Shaw defines "political elite" narrowly to mean decision-makers and [End Page 163] foreign-policy critics who expressed views about the Soviet Union. Essentially, her book is a counterrevisionist study of British appeasement policy, for which a more accurate title would have been How Chamberlain's Anti-Communism Thwarted the Formation of an Anglo-Soviet Alliance.

Taken on these terms, the book is generally well researched and cogently argued. The most telling points in support of its thesis are Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's concealment from his cabinet of a favorable judgment by the chiefs of staff of the military value of the Soviet Union, the misrepresentation by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Chatfield to the foreign policy committee of the same advice, and a number of excessively confident remarks by Chamberlain to colleagues and to his sister Ida. Even so, Shaw's concentration on a single variable—namely, Chamberlain's ideological aversion to the Soviet regime—causes her to attach insufficient weight to another, more important, factor: Chamberlain's desire to avoid a war that was likely to involve a paralyzing air attack on his country.

Shaw does not dispose of the possibility that Chamberlain's main reason for avoiding a commitment to the Soviet Union was that it would definitively kill the hope, to which he still clung deep down, of a settlement with Germany. Shaw argues that if Chamberlain still hoped for a settlement with Germany, he would not have entered into serious negotiations with the Soviet Union in the first place. But one could argue in response that Chamberlain was compelled to negotiate with the USSR in order to propitiate public opinion and to pressure Adolf Hitler to come to terms with him. In addition, Shaw's assumption that Soviet policymakers were "sincere" in their desire for collective security and, later on, for a military alliance against Hitler (until late July 1939) can be questioned. If they were sincere, why did they not instruct the Communist Party of Great Britain to support British rearmament in the 1930s, so that Britain could more effectively contain Germany?

With more space, Shaw might have been able to deal with these reservations. In any case, her book is impressive and augurs well for a career in academic international history.

Martin Ceadel
New College, Oxford University