The Oxford Union ‘King and Country’ debate in 1933

In 1933 the Oxford Union, the university undergraduate debating society, passed a famous motion that “This House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country”. It made headline news at the time: Churchill called the vote “abject, squalid, shameless” and “nauseating”, and it is even said to have misled Hitler into thinking the British had lost the will to fight, so it is clearly important historical evidence, but of what?

The debate cannot be taken as evidence of what people of all classes were thinking. Oxford undergraduates were hardly typical of the population as a whole. They came largely from wealthy upper- or middle-class families; they were highly literate and well-read; and they were more prepared than most people to engage with abstract issues of principle. Also, they were young, and young people often like to take stand or an extreme position precisely because they know it will provoke a strong reaction – as the Oxford vote certainly did. On the other hand, Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates were an influential group, far more so than they are today. They were regarded – rightly – as the rising stars of politics and both the press and politicians took an interest in what the students were saying, especially in their debating societies. Remember also that the vote took place in 1933, before the full implications of Hitler’s rise to power had become apparent. When war finally came in 1939 many of those who had taken part in the debate did indeed fight – and die – for King and Country. So how should historians assess the importance of that famous debate?

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