Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha
Isaac Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha (September 7, 1893 - February 16, 1957) was a British Member of Parliament and Cabinet minister who is remembered for his innovations in road transport and for being an alleged victim of anti-semitism.
Hore-Belisha was born in Devonport, Plymouth with the surname Belisha, the only son of Jacob Isaac Belisha, the manager of an insurance company, and his wife, Elizabeth Miriam Miers. His father died when he was less than one year old. When his mother married Sir Adair Hore in 1912 he adopted the double-barrelled surname Hore-Belisha. His family were wealthy enough to finance his education on the continent, including at Paris and Heidelberg, before he attended St. John's College, Oxford where he was President of the Oxford Union Society. He served overseas in the First World War, being promoted to the rank of Major, and after the end of the war qualified as a Barrister.
In 1922 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Liberal Party in his birthplace constituency of Plymouth Devonport. He won the seat in the 1923 general election, and became known in Parliament as a flamboyant and brilliant speaker. He generally allied with the right-wing of the Liberals who were critical of their party's support for the Labour minority governments, and joined with Sir John Simon in becoming a 'Liberal National' on formation of the National Government in 1931.
After the general election of that year, Hore-Belisha was appointed as a junior Minister at the Board of Trade, where he worked effectively. He remained in the Government when the official Liberals withdrew in September 1932 over free trade, and was promoted to Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Hore-Belisha showed considerable intelligence and drive in Government, but his intense energy tended to alienate more traditional elements who also resented his status as an 'outsider'.
From 1934 Hore-Belisha served as Minister of Transport and came to public prominence at a time when motoring was becoming available to the masses. He rewrote the Highway Code and was responsible for the introduction of the driving test and the Belisha Beacon (which the public named after him); innovations which all led to a dramatic drop in road accidents.
Having succeeded in this post he was controversially appointed as Secretary of State for War in 1937 under Neville Chamberlain. The appointment sparked comment as Hore-Belisha replaced Alfred Duff Cooper who had been very popular. Some also felt that such a high-profile appointment should not go to a Liberal National. However, Hore-Belisha's Jewish faith also aroused anti-semitism among parts of the Conservative party. He was labelled a warmonger, Bolshevik and worse and there was pressure to get him out of the Cabinet at the earliest opportunity. Even those who were not strongly opposed to him took to nicknaming him "Horeb" as a humorous pun on his race (Horeb being mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as the place where the golden calf was made and to which Elijah fled).
Thinking war was looming, Belisha sought permission to introduce conscription in 1938 but was rebuffed by Chamberlain who would not agree to increase defence spending. Undeterred Belisha sought to reshape the armed forces in the same way he had done at Transport, improving pay, pensions and promotion prospects for lower class soldiers, whose advancement could often be blocked due to nepotism amongst the upper classes. He also improved barrack room conditions, having showers and recreation facilities installed and giving married soldiers the right to live with their families. Finally, early in 1939 he was allowed to introduce conscription to meet the threat of Nazi Germany.
As Secretary of State for War Belisha resolved to modernise the rather hidebound British armed forces and immediately sacked three prominent members of the Imperial General Staff in order to replace them with fresher minds. His attitude immediately alienated seasoned campaigners such as Field Marshals John Dill and John Gort, the latter of whom could barely bear to be in the same room as the Minister.
Belisha's changes infuriated the military establishment and this communicated to the lower ranks. In the early months of World War II he banned a popular song which was widely sung in the armed forces (to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers ):
Onward Christian Soldiers, You have nought to fear. Israel Hore-Belisha Will lead you from the rear. Clothed by Monty Burton, fed on Lyon's pies; Die for Jewish freedom As a Briton always dies.
In January 1940 Hore-Belisha was dismissed from the War Office in a shock move that many did not understand at the time and which continues to generate uncertainty and controversy to this day. For some time Hore-Belisha had had very poor relations with Lord Gort, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, even though Gort had been Hore-Belisha's own choice for the positions. By the start of 1940 matters had reached the stage where each had no confidence in the other, stemming from disagreements over strategy for the defence of France. Gort, and other generals, also disliked Hore-Belisha's showmanship. Hore-Belisha had also made himself unpopular amongst ministers and meetings of the War Cabinet were said to be regularly tense and loud. As a result Chamberlain agreed to a change in Secretary of State for War. Initially he considered Hore-Belisha for the post of Minister of Information, but decided against this when the Foreign Office raised concerns about the propaganda effects of having a Jew in this position, and so instead he offered the Presidency of the Board of Trade. Hore-Belisha however resigned from the government.
Due to the sensitive nature of the disagreements many MPs and political commentators were left heavily bewildered as to why the dismissal had taken place, and Hore-Belisha's formal statement to the Commons left them little wise. A common belief was that Hore-Belisha's bold reforms at the War Office had been opposed by the established military commanders, often caricatured as Colonel Blimps, and that they had forced his resignation. Others claimed that Hore-Belisha had been dismissed due to anti-semitism, or even due to the Royal Family bringing pressure onto Chamberlain because of Hore-Belisha's previous support for Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis, though the offer of an alternative office and Hore-Belisha's original appointment mitigates against this.
Hore-Belisha attempted to rebuild his career under Winston Churchill but his re-appointment was blocked by a combination of his wounded intransigence and continued Conservative prejudice. He resigned from the Liberal Nationals in 1942 and then sat as a 'National Independent' MP. In the Conservative 'Caretaker' government of 1945 he was briefly appointed Minister for National Insurance.
In the 1945 election, Hore-Belisha was defeated in Devonport by Michael Foot, still standing as a National Independent. He thereafter joined the Conservative Party and was elected to Westminster City Council from 1947. He fought unsuccessfully in Croydon South in 1950, before Churchill gave him a peerage in 1954. He died three years later.
|Minister of Transport|
Alfred Duff Cooper
|Secretary of State for War|
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