The Astors were very well connected. Oswald Mosley met Lady Cynthia Curzon, daughter of George Curzon, former Conservative Party MP and Viceroy of India, while helping Nancy during her 1919 election campaign. Remember Nancy Astor was the first seated female MP in British history! And Waldorf Astor owned the influential Observer Newspaper!
Lady Nancy Astor was the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament, 1919
From 1926 on they held regular weekend parties at Cliveden. Guests included Lionel Curtis (British official, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Paris Peace Conference 1919), Philip Henry Kerr (Marquess Lothian, emissary to Hitler), Edward Wood (Earl Halifax), Geoffrey Dawson (editor The Times), Samuel Hoare (Secretary of State, Foreign Affairs), Nevile Henderson (British Ambassador to Berlin), Robert Brand (Baron Brand, director Lloyds Bank) and Edward Algernon Fitzroy (Speaker of the Commons). They formed a close-knit group, on intimate terms with each other for years.
Nancy Astor was anti-black, anti-Semitic and increasingly pro-German, as were most of her powerful colleagues in the Cliveden Set. Most of her group supported governmental attempts to reach agreement with Hitler's Germany and she was connected to influential people like Philip Kerr.
On the other side, Claud Cockburn resigned as NY correspondent from The Times in 1933 and founded The Week, a radical anti-Fascist newsletter. Its aggressive style and content meant MI5 was keeping a close eye on Cockburn’s activities, checking his mail and phone calls (but did MI5 check Lady Astor and her group as closely?) In June 1936 he wrote “The Best People's Front” in his Week newsletter, arguing that the Astor network was having a strong influence over the British government’s foreign policies. They controlled The Times and The Observer, and had become an important source of pro-German influence.
One weekend in Oct 1937, the Astors had 30 people to lunch, including Sir Alexander Cadogan (Permanent Under-Secretary, Foreign Office). They were happy that Neville Chamberlain , a strong supporter of appeasement, was now Prime Minister and that this would mean promotion for people like Lords Lothian and Halifax. Lord Lothian gave a talk on future relations with Adolf Hitler, defining what Britain would NOT fight for eg the League of Nations! He explained that Britain had no primary interests in eastern Europe, areas that fell within Germany's sphere. To be dragged into a conflict not of Britain's making and not in defence of its vital interests would bedevil the Empire.
Lord Lothian was prepared to turn Central-Eastern Europe over to Germany; and Nancy Astor always supported Lothian on foreign politics. Geoffrey Dawson also agreed with Lothian, reflected in the editorial in The Times that he wrote. Lionel Curtis was the only groupie with doubts. The term "Cliveden Set" was first used by the Sunday Reynolds News in 1937, arguing that the Cliveden-ites were sympathetic to Fascism.
From May 1937, the new Prime Minister was Neville Chamberlain. In Nov 1937, Chamberlain sent Lord Halifax to secretly meet Hitler, Goebbels and Goering in Germany. Lord Halifax told the Germans that much in the Nazi system profoundly offended British opinion, but he knew what Hitler had done for Germany, especially eliminating Communism. Re Danzig, Austria and Czechoslovakia, the British certainly had no desire to block reasonable settlements.
Anthony Eden, Earl Avon was a Conservative politician who served 3 terms as Foreign Secretary. When Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary in Feb 1938 and was replaced by Lord Halifax, left-wing newspapers argued that the appeasement coup had been organised by the Cliveden Set. The story spread to the USA. Nancy believed she was becoming a victim of Jewish Communistic propaganda in both countries!
Note that letters between Nancy Astor and Joseph P Kennedy (US Ambassador to Britain 1938-40) showed her to be violently anti-Semitic, viewing the Nazis as a solution to the world’s problems i.e Judaism and Communism. And she accused the Foreign Office of being manipulated by Catholics, people she also loathed.
The Evening Standard reported Hitler was ready to offer Britain a 10-year truce. In return Hitler expected the British Government to leave him free in Central Europe. In The Week Cockburn reported that the deal had been “first moulded into usable diplomatic shape at Cliveden”, and that Lord Halifax was the “representative of Cliveden”.
Amy Johnson, Charlie Chaplain, Nancy Astor, George Bernard-Shawat Cliveden
Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini and Ciano
after signing the Munich agreement, Sep 1938
On a U.S visit, Eden discovered the impact on public opinion about the Cliveden Set, perhaps created by articles in The Week. An anxious Eden told Stanley Baldwin that “Nancy Astor and her Cliveden Set has done much damage, and most of the US believed that the Tories were Fascists in disguise”.
In spring 1937, Sir Vernon Kell head of MI6 complained that The Week was full of gross errors and was written from a left-wing perspective. And Kell was concerned about reports in The Week about King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.
Chamberlain met Hitler in Berchtesgaden in Sept. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany's plans to takeover the Sudetenland. After negotiating with Edouard Daladier (France) & Eduard Benes (Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain rejected Hitler’s proposals. But Hitler knew that Britain and France were unwilling to declare war and he thought it unlikely that Britain and France would unite with the unloved Soviet Union.
Mussolini and Hitler held a conference in Munich in late Sept 1938 between Germany, Britain, France and Italy. By excluding Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, they’d increase the possibility of signing the agreement. Chamberlain and Daladier agreed to losing Sudetenland and in return, Hitler promised to make no further territorial demands in Europe. The Munich Agreement was signed!
The Cliveden-ites were delighted with the Munich Agreement; Lord Lothian said Chamberlain had pulled off a masterly coup. Not all the community agreed.
In Oct 1938 Claud Cockburn reported in The Week that American hero Charles Lindbergh spoke to the Cliveden Set, noting that the German air force could take on and single handedly defeat the Allied air fleets. Pravda denounced Lindbergh as a liar. I would have too.
Conclusion For the decade ending in 1939, the Cliveden Set was identified as a secret political group that manipulated British foreign policy, even negotiating a dishonourable settlement with Nazi Germany. But was the Cliveden Set a traitorous cabal or simply an influential rightwing think-tank? Not easily discerned in 2020, as you will see in the excellent Tweedland Blog.