Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha, PC (/ˈhɔər bəˈliːʃə/; 7 September 1893 – 16 February 1957) was a British Liberal, then National Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) and Cabinet Minister. He later joined the Conservative Party. He proved highly successful in modernizing the British road system in 1934 – 37 as Minister of Transport. As Secretary of War, 1937 – 1940, he feuded with the commanding generals and was removed in 1940. Anti-semitism played a role in blocking his appointment as Minister of Information. His biographer compares his strong and weak points:
He was a brilliant speaker, a warm and engaging personality, a go-getter and a persistent driver, a master of the unconventional or indirect approach, a patriot and a man of moral and physical courage, not a great intellect but an original with a flair for imaginative gestures and for public relations. He also had personal weaknesses. He was extremely self-centred and had a fine conceit of himself. At times he was accused of sharp practice.... Sharp practitioner or not, [his] quickness of mind and tongue, and transparent ambition to be seen to succeed, made him vulnerable to smears.... His over-assertiveness...led him to appear inconsiderate of the feelings and views of others.
Background and education
Hore-Belisha was born Isaac Leslie Belisha probably in Devonport, Plymouth; his birth, however, was registered in Hampstead, in the fourth quarter of 1893. He was the only son of the Jewish family of Jacob Isaac Belisha (birth registered in Chorlton 1862 ), manager of an insurance company, and his wife, Elizabeth Miriam Miers (birth registered in St. Pancras in the second quarter of 1867). His father died when he was less than one year old (registered in Fylde, Lancashire, in the second quarter of 1894). In 1912, in Kensington, his widowed mother married Sir Charles F. Adair Hore, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Pensions. Leslie Belisha then adopted the double-barrelled surname. The suggestion that he changed his name from Horeb-Elisha (to appear non-Jewish) seems to be without foundation; the name Belisha is likely to either have originated as D'Elisha or be a variant of the Albanian-language surname Berisha.
Hore-Belisha was educated at Clifton College where he was in Polack's house. He continued his studies in Paris and Heidelberg, before attending St John's College, Oxford, where he was President of the Oxford Union Society. While in Heidelberg, he became a member of de:Burschenschaft Frankonia Heidelberg in 1912. During the First World War, he served in France, Flanders and Salonika and finished the war with the rank of Major. After the war, he returned to Oxford and, in 1923, qualified as a barrister.
In the 1922 general election, Hore-Belisha was an unsuccessful candidate for the Liberal Party in his birthplace constituency of Plymouth Devonport. However, thanks to his new political agent, Benjamin Musgrave he won the seat in the general election the following year and became known in Parliament as a flamboyant and brilliant speaker. He generally allied himself with right-wing Liberals critical of their party's support for the Labour minority governments, joining with Sir John Simon in becoming a 'Liberal National' upon the formation of the National Government in 1931. After the general election of that year, Hore-Belisha was appointed a junior minister at the Board of Trade.
He remained in government when the official Liberals withdrew in September 1932 over the issue of free trade and was promoted to Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Hore-Belisha showed considerable intelligence and drive in government, although his intense energy tended to alienate traditionalist elements who resented his status as an 'outsider'.
Transport minister, 1934–37
Hore-Belisha was appointed Minister of Transport in 1934 coming to public prominence at a time when motoring was becoming available to the masses. All UK speed limits for motor cars had controversially been removed by the Road Traffic Act 1930 during the previous administration. There was, in 1934, a record number of road casualties in Great Britain, with 7,343 deaths and 231,603 injuries being recorded, with half of the casualties being pedestrians and three-quarters occurring in built-up areas. Hore-Belisha described this as 'mass murder'. Shortly after being appointed, he was crossing Camden High Street when a sports car shot along the street without stopping, nearly causing him 'serious injury or worse.' He became involved in a public-relations exercise to demonstrate how to use the new 'uncontrolled crossings'.
Hore-Belisha's Road Traffic Act 1934 introduced a speed limit of 30 mph for motor cars in builtup areas. That was vigorously opposed by many, who saw the new regulations as a removal of 'an Englishman's freedom of the highway.' The earlier 20 mph speed limit had been abolished in 1930 because it was universally flouted. A large backlog of court cases had made the law unenforceable. In addition, The Automobile Association (AA) and the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) had frequently been successful in defending their members against evidence from primitive speed traps.
Hore-Belisha rewrote the Highway Code and was responsible for the introduction of two innovations that led to a dramatic drop in road accidents: the driving test and the Belisha beacon, named after him by the public. On his retirement, he was made vice-president of the Pedestrians' Association and, to this day, the logo of the organisation includes a Belisha Beacon.
Secretary of State for War, 1937–40
His success at the Ministry of Transport, in 1937, led to an appointment by Neville Chamberlain as Secretary of State for War replacing the popular Alfred Duff Cooper, who later resigned from the government over Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. There were voices within the Conservative majority that such a high-profile appointment should not have gone to a Liberal National, and Hore-Belisha's Conservative colleagues labelled him a warmonger. Many took to nicknaming him "Horeb-Elisha" or "Horeb" as an antisemitic pun on his race. (Horeb is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as the place where the golden calf was made and to which Elijah fled). Pressure mounted on Chamberlain to remove Hore-Belisha from the Cabinet at the earliest opportunity.
Convinced that war was looming, Hore-Belisha sought permission to introduce conscription in 1938 but was rebuffed by Chamberlain, who would not agree to increased defence spending. In early 1939, he was finally allowed to introduce conscription.
Upon taking control of the armed forces, he sacked three prominent members of the Imperial General Staff. His attitude alienated seasoned campaigners such as Field Marshals John Dill and Lord Gort.
In January 1940, the Prime Minister dismissed Hore-Belisha from the War Office. Oswald Mosley, leader of the British fascists, attacked him as a 'Jewish warmonger'. However his political weakness stemmed in part from his disputes with the Army high command and the King. By 1940, his relations with Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, had deteriorated such that neither man had confidence in the other. Gort and other generals disliked Hore-Belisha's showmanship, but their main disagreements had stemmed from differences of opinion concerning the defence of France along the border with Belgium. Hore-Belisha was unpopular amongst his fellow ministers, with meetings of the War Cabinet said to be regularly tense and loud. As a result, Chamberlain agreed to replace him as Secretary of State for War.
Initially, the Prime Minister considered Hore-Belisha for the post of Minister of Information, but decided against this when the Foreign Office raised concerns about the effect of having a Jewish politician in this position given widespread feelings of antisemitism. Instead, the Prime Minister offered him the post of Presidency of the Board of Trade. Hore-Belisha refused this demotion and resigned from the government.
Due to the sensitive nature of the disagreements, many MPs and political commentators were bewildered as to why the dismissal had taken place, and Hore-Belisha's formal statement to the Commons left them little wiser. 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. At least one historian has claimed that Hore-Belisha's dismissal was 'possibly fuelled by a desire to placate Hitler [by removing a Jew from the Cabinet] even once war had been declared', or even due to pressure by George VI upon Chamberlain because of Hore-Belisha's previous support for Edward VIII during the abdication crisis, although the offer of alternative office and Hore-Belisha's original appointment argue against this latter motive. Harry Defries argues that anti-semitism was the root cause of the dismissal.
Subsequent political career
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, sitting as a 'National Independent' MP. In the Conservative 'Caretaker' government of 1945, he was briefly appointed Minister for National Insurance. In the 1945 general election, Hore-Belisha, still standing as a National Independent, was defeated in Devonport by the Labour candidate, Michael Foot. He, thereupon, peremptorily dismissed his faithful political agent, Mr Benjamin Musgrave and joined the Conservative Party. In 1947, he was elected to Westminster City Council. He fought unsuccessfully in the Coventry South constituency in the 1950 general election. In 1954, he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Hore-Belisha, of Devonport in the County of Devon.
In 1944, at 51, in northeastern Surrey, he married Cynthia Elliot, daughter of Gilbert Compton Elliot. They had no children.
While leading a British parliamentary delegation to France in February 1957, he collapsed while making a speech at Rheims town hall, and died a few minutes later. The cause of death was given as a cerebral haemorrhage. The barony died with him as he had no children. Lady Hore-Belisha died in July 1991, aged 75.
H. G. Wells in The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1934, predicted a Second World War in which Britain would not participate but would vainly try to effect a peaceful compromise. In this vision, Hore-Belisha was mentioned as one of several prominent Britons delivering "brilliant pacific speeches" which "echo throughout Europe" but fail to end the war. The other would-be peacemakers, in Wells' vision, included Duff Cooper, Ellen Wilkinson and Randolph Churchill.