Ian Bloom

The secretly Jewish MP who was behind Moshe Dayan’s eye patch

- The Yom Kippur War provided unexpected publicity for Julian Amery, whose father Leo’s speech removed Chamberlain

October 19, 2023 10:51

In October 1973, Julian Amery was a middle-ranking, 54-year old Minister of State in the Foreign Office. He was married to former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s daughter Catherine. Amery was about to celebrate the publication of his autobiography, Approach March. It coincided with the centenary of the birth of his late father Leo. 

I had organised the launch party for the book during the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool. Amery’s boss, the Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas Home, attended, as did several other senior politicians, but the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, sent me his apologies. He was rather busy.

Not only was Heath preoccupied drafting his set piece closing speech to the party faithful, he also had to liaise with President Richard Nixon and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, other world leaders and the UN on a daily basis over the consequences of the Yom Kippur War which had begun a few days earlier.

There were several TV monitors in the hotel’s party reception room. Until the volume was turned down, the sounds, as well as the images, of war silenced the guests. It was hard to tell whose side the politicians were on. When they weren’t drinking, they watched impassively. Many, perhaps most, were around 50 years old and had served in the armed forces, if not actually fought, in the Second World War. 

That evening, the outcome was still in the balance. There were pictures of tanks crossing the desert, maps, talking heads, battlefield correspondents squinting into the sun and shouting to camera. Then the familiar face of General Moshe Dayan appeared on screen.

His prominence that autumn led to more publicity for Julian Amery’s book than I had imagined possible.

The reason was this: Amery wrote in his memoir that on a summer’s day in 1941, when he was 22, he lunched with one Moshe Shertok in Palestine. A few years later, Shertok changed his name to Sharett and became Israel’s second Prime Minister.  Amery had asked him to find half a dozen fighters who could pass as Arabs to help with an SOE sabotage raid in Syria. One of the six Shertok produced was wounded in an otherwise successful operation. His name was Moshe Dayan. In the book, written long before the Yom Kippur War began, Amery reflected on his part in Israel’s future Defence Minister losing an eye and wearing the most famous eye patch in the world.

I reflected on my luck at the topicality of the story. It made the lead in the next day’s Londoner’s Diary, when the Evening Standard was a must-read newspaper and the Diary lead was a coveted prize for publishers.

If Julian had a “good war” (and he did, operating as a shadowy John Buchanesque character, part soldier, part spy, mostly in the Balkans), his father had an even better one.  Julian’s role in Dayan’s injury was wholly inadvertent, but less than two years before that fire-fight, on 2 September 1939, the eve of war, in a tense Parliamentary sitting, Leo’s voice rang through the Chamber when he — now so famously — urged Labour’s Arthur Greenwood, deputising for his leader, Clem Attlee, to “Speak for England, Arthur”.

Eight months later, on 7 May 1940 at the start of a three day debate, ostensibly over the unsuccessful Norwegian campaign but in reality a vote of confidence in Neville Chamberlain’s premiership, Leo delivered one of the greatest parliamentary speeches of the twentieth century.

When he began, there were few MPs in the chamber. When he finished, the benches were crowded. He ended his devastating indictment of Chamberlain with these carefully chosen words: “This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!’”

The Father of the House and World War One Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, then 77, rose to support Amery and make his last major speech in the Commons. Though Chamberlain survived the vote, he was fatally undermined. He resigned three days later and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister.

Leo’s life and career converged with and diverged from Churchill’s for over 60 years. Both were Harrow schoolboys; both were journalists during the Boer War and both passionately opposed appeasement in the 1930s. Amery, the older by 2 years, was also a brilliant sportsman, linguist and scholar — he gained a double first at Balliol and was awarded an All Souls Fellowship at Oxford. Churchill had to settle for a knighthood, the Nobel Prize for Literature and immortality.

But Amery had two secrets. The first he hid well. He was born in India to a Jewish mother who had converted to Protestantism and left her native Hungary for London aged 20. Leo chose not to advertise these origins, though he helped draft the Balfour Declaration in 1917 (and later suggested the minute’s silence on the annual anniversary of Armistice Day).

The second secret was impossible to conceal. His elder son, John, seven years Julian’s senior, was, like William Joyce (“Lord Haw Haw”), an antisemitic Nazi sympathiser who made propaganda broadcasts from Berlin to Britain in 1942 (though John always claimed to be anti-communist rather than pro-German). John moved to Italy as the War was ending and was captured in Milan by the partisans. They had strung up Mussolini but handed Amery over to Alan Whicker, then a young British army captain, later a famous BBC journalist. Back in London, John was tried for high treason, found guilty and hanged in Wandsworth prison. He was 33. He had been a swindler, a bankrupt, a forger, a bigamist, a fantasist and a lifelong embarrassment to Leo. He was also the last Englishman to die for high treason.

Afterwards, Leo amended his Who’s Who entry to read “one son”. And though she lived another 40 years after John’s death, his mother Bryddie was said never to have smiled again.

The Amerys might have been a powerful dynasty in twentieth century British politics. After all, Leo was an MP for 34 years and Julian for 39. Although each held several ministerial offices, neither became central to nor was quite trusted by their party. Perhaps they were derailed by John’s instability. Julian referred to his father on 16 separate pages of Approach March but John received just two passing references. Julian did not mention his brother’s last 15 years at all.

Another Leo, Tolstoy this time, could have been describing the Amerys as he opened Anna Karenina with these words: “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

October 19, 2023 10:51

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