Labour MP Chris Bryant on ‘The Glamour Boys’: The gay MPs in Parliament who warned Britain of the threat from Hitler

Labour MP Chris Bryant’s new book ‘The Glamour Boys’ tells the story of a group of gay MPs in the 1930s who were amongst the first to see the growing threat of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Regular visits to Berlin to meet with other gay men for sex and friendship without the threat of arrest, plus connections to the Jewish community, gave the MPs a unique insight into the true Nazi dangers ahead.

Winston Churchill took note and soon the Glamour Boys were challenging the appeasement policies of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. It is a truly nail-biting story of mostly Conservative gay MPs in the House of Commons fighting for what they believed in, no matter the personal costs. David Bridle met Chris Bryant near Westminster to hear more of this untold story of dogged persistence and heroism – and how soon war cost many of the Glamour Boys their lives.

Who were the Glamour Boys?

They were named by Neville Chamberlain who was Prime Minister from 1937, and he was trying to appease Hitler. He thought that was a possible way of preventing war. He named this group of MPs, which didn’t have a fixed list, but they met together with Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, and the ones I focused on in the book are the queer Glamour Boys. Neville Chamberlain was trying to suggest something, insinuate something, about their sexuality when he called them the Glamour Boys. Glamour at the time meant something beguiling, bewitching and frankly effeminate – so applied to a man was obviously meant to be derogatory.

Which MPs have you written about?

A large number of the people who sat in the room with Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill and effectively helped us fight Hitler rather than appease him were gay or queer – or ‘nearly queer’, a phrase I use. So somewhere between homosexual and bisexual, though they wouldn’t necessarily know those terms. So the ones I’m particularly focused on are Ronnie Cartland, the younger brother of the novelist Barbara Cartland; Jack Macnamara, MP for Chelmsford and an Army man; Victor Cazalet; Ronnie Tree; Jim Thomas; Rob Bernays – most of them Conservative MPs.

What was their importance during the Thirties?

Because everybody’s focused on the Glamour Boys being Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill who led the fight against appeasement, people have tended to think Churchill was the person who changed the course of British history. But my argument is that some of the people I’m writing about including Bob Boothby and Ron Bernays were issuing warnings about Hitler long before Churchill was. Many of the people I write about had a very deep personal experience of what was going on in Germany because they’d been to Germany at the beginning of the 1930s. It was the most liberal place. You could have sex in Germany as a gay man relatively easily whereas in the UK the law was very strict.

So the Glamour Boys knew gay men in Germany?

Victor Cazalet was very friendly with Gottfried von Cramm who was a great German tennis ace who happened to be gay and had a lover. Victor Cazalet helped Gottfried get his lover out of Germany, first of all to Portugal and then to Palestine. Gottfried was sent to prison. He was in a concentration camp for the best part of a year for having a relationship with a man who also happened to be Jewish. Quite a lot of the Glamour Boys knew either Jews or gay men personally who were under the cosh under Hitler’s regime.

How did you first come across the Glamour Boys?

I wrote a history of Parliament a few years ago and I came across Jack Macnamara as this interesting figure who apparently had Guy Burgess – later discovered to be a Soviet spy – as his researcher. You think, how did a Conservative MP have Guy Burgess as his researcher? Apparently they went on kind of gay sex adventures in Germany. I thought I’d love to write the story but I just don’t know where I get the facts, there aren’t going to be personal private papers. Barbara Cartland burnt quite a lot of Ronnie Cartland’s stuff before she died.

Was it strange for you as a Labour MP to be looking into the lives of these Tory MPs?

I wondered if you’d ask me that; yes in a way it is slightly odd. The Labour Party was part of the problem in the 1930s in terms of appeasing Hitler because Labour didn’t want another war for lots of very good reasons. Nobody wanted another war but in the end Labour found itself in an inconsistent position. It didn’t want us to rearm but it wanted us to oppose Hitler, when you just couldn’t do those two things, something had to break.

How many of the Glamour Boys were gay?

It is very striking that however you list the Tory rebels, somewhere in the region of a third to a quarter were gay – or queer or whatever term you want to use. And that’s a terrible difficulty because they wouldn’t have recognised the term gay. Queer was certainly a word that was around but it was derogatory. Homosexual was around but not much used because people didn’t really believe you were inherently homosexual, you just did homosexual things and that’s what got you into trouble.

Why did you use the word queer in the book?

Precisely for that reason because I wanted to reclaim it and I felt I could as a gay man. When I was at school queer was a derogatory term, but let’s reclaim it. It seemed to be the one that sort of gathered in everybody. And I’ve tried desperately hard never to overstate what we actually know. I mean I have no idea whether Ronnie Garland ever actually had sex with another man. I know that he lived in a bachelor’s apartment and in the next door bachelor’s apartment was Rob Bernays –and they shared a bathroom. I know that nearly every holiday he went on seemed to be with a gay man.

Do you think you would have got on with the Glamour Boys?

Ronnie Cartland and Jack Macnamara’s first rebellion was over the financial provision for the depressed areas, so places like the Rhondda, my own constituency, which Ronnie Cartland actually visited. I feel as if I’d have been able to have a really good conversation with them. We’d have disagreed about lots of things but I think one can always recognise heroism in somebody even if they’re in a different political party from your own.

What’s really poignant is the stories of when they went to Germany and saw that shift to more and more Nazi brutality…

Absolutely, Harold Nicolson, who was married to Vita Sackville-West, knew people who had witnessed some of the Night of the Long Knives when Hitler bumped off nearly all the gay Nazis. Rob Bernays sat in a room with Edmund Heines, one of the nastiest Nazis of the lot who also was gay. So they’d seen things more up close than I think any other British politicians almost by hazard and that made them really brave individuals.

Can you talk about their bravery?

Even to admit to yourself that you might not be as other men were, at the time, was dangerous. You tended to hang out together in a crowd. You were safe in that clique but because you were used to swimming against the tide in your private life, I think it made it easier to swim against the political tide of opinion in Britain on the key issue of the day which was how to deal with Mussolini and Hitler.

Can you talk about the anti-Semitism?

There were a lot of people in the UK who wanted Germany to get back up off its knees; thought that the Treaty of Versailles had been unfair to Germany. They kind of liked the vibrant new Germany under the Nazis. For some people that’s because they were profoundly anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism was absolutely rife in British politics and in particular on the Conservative end of British politics. And again that’s another element in which Jack Macnamara and others were really bold and courageous because they wouldn’t have anything to do with what they called Jew-baiting.

You draw a fascinating picture of the gay meeting places of the time – The Criterion Theatre, bars like the Rendezvous, Turkish baths like The Savoy. How did you research that gay meeting place history?

That’s quite difficult to come by. There are bits and pieces from previous work that have been done – Matt Holbrook’s is a very good book – and there are some interviews in the British Library and the British Museum which are quite useful, but it’s hard work. What I’ve tried to show is both the joyful naughtiness that there was for some people at the time because people got away with all sorts of things, but also the real terror that there was for a lot of people about the trials. Nancy Astor’s son Bobby Gould Shaw, who was stunningly handsome, got into trouble twice. The first time he was given an ultimatum of leave the Army or face prosecution, he decided to leave the Army. Next time he was given an ultimatum of leave the country or face prosecution and he decided to face prosecution and went to prison for six months with hard labour.

It seems surprising that Churchill accepted this group of, as you call them, queer MPs who were fighting the same cause as he believed in?

There are rumours about both Churchill and Eden – and Eden did used to call everybody ‘dear’. And he dressed too well, everybody thought he was too immaculate. That’s why it was easy to tar all the rebels against Chamberlain’s position as ‘Glamour Boys’ and therefore a little bit suspect. I think both Eden and Churchill quite liked the company of gay men is the honest truth. Churchill refers to Parliament as a ‘masculine assembly’ and I think he rather liked it that way. He was homosocial, he liked the company of men.

The story gets very exciting when Chamberlain comes under pressure from the Glamour Boys plotting in the House of Commons…

I hope I conveyed the drama of how it happened. The House of Commons is a strange thing which in a way maybe you don’t fully get unless you’ve sat in there. The emotional atmosphere can change on a sixpence and at some of the key moments, that’s what these people did. Ronnie Cartland’s speech in of all things the adjournment debate in 1939 when the rebels, the Glamour Boys, are terrified that what Neville Chamberlain’s going to do is exactly what he did the year before when he went to Munich, met with Hitler and basically gave him Czechoslovakia. They’re terrified that he’s going to do the same now with Poland and they want Parliament to keep on sitting. Chamberlain turns this into a matter of confidence, you’re either my friend or you’re not. And they’re all wound up and Ronnie Cartland and Churchill are in the men’s toilets talking about it and Churchill says, “Go back in! Now’s the time to fight.” So Ronnie makes this speech and he’s so nervous that he’s bellowing it out far too loud. And then suddenly he realises he’s got to calm down and he talks about how because he’s already enlisted in the Royal Artillery, he knows that if there’s war, he’ll be shipped off, and he says that some of us may be about to die, and his next door neighbour MP just laughs at him in the chamber. So those moments of drama made an enormous difference to the way we steadily moved towards war.

So many of the MPs you have written about later died in the War?

I’ve been down to the National Archives and read all the War Diaries of all the regiments that they were in. I love the fact that Victor Cazalet ran this anti-aircraft battery which was known as the ‘buggers battalion’ or the ‘monstrous regiment of gentlemen’ because so many of them were gay. Ronnie Cartland’s story is he’s part of the British Expeditionary Force that goes out in January 1940 and doesn’t come back, very bravely defending the fortress at Cassel. Jack Macnamara, desperate to lead his troops in action, but Churchill very reluctant and [General] Pug Ismay, I think homophobically, not wanting him to have a proper command, but eventually he is sent out to Africa, is part of the landing expeditions in Greece and ends up being killed with his unit in Italy.

How long has the book taken to write?

The best part of five years. It’s been in my heart ever since I came across Jack Macnamara and others. And because several of them died in action in the War they have shields up in the House of Commons commemorating them, behind the Speaker’s Chair and underneath the Press Gallery. There’s 19 of them, and I quite often think to myself, well a good third of those were gay. There’s a couple that I’m a bit uncertain about, and in a sense that’s why I wrote the book. Even Bob Boothby [Conservative MP for Aberdeen] who was never very honest about his own sexuality in his life – always maintained that homosexuals weren’t very good at courage and ‘sustained fortitude’. Well, the book is there to show that they are.

Is that the message from the book for the current LGBT+ community?

There are lots of messages. Number one, never presume that the rights that we’ve gained today are there for eternity because Berlin in the early 1930s was the most liberal place in the world, and by the end of the 1930s, gay men were being carted off and executed. Secondly, political parties should never hound out their rebels, that way madness lies. They should never purge them, that’s what Chamberlain tried to do. I think it’s what Boris Johnson’s trying to do today. Thirdly, have the courage of your convictions.

The Glamour Boys is published by Bloomsbury on 12th November.

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