Late last month, in the midst of divisive national elections in Britain, officials from across the political spectrum took a private train to Plymouth, in southwest England, on a rare mission of comity.
They went to the unveiling of a statue of Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in Britain’s Parliament, on the centenary of her election to represent Plymouth. The statue, like the train ride, was a bipartisan endeavor. Liz Truss—a Conservative, like Astor—was on board the train, as was Shami Chakrabarti, a senior figure in the left-wing Labour Party. “I think that to ignore history, and not to celebrate and mark in some way the advancement of women, including women I disagree with politically, is a mistake,” Chakrabarti told me.
In Plymouth, Theresa May, Britain’s second female prime minister, also a Conservative, dedicated the statue in a laudatory address outside Astor’s old home, a handsome townhouse on a broad, ocean-facing park. (Boris Johnson, who replaced May as prime minister earlier this year, was skulking around, too.) Plymouth’s town crier heralded May and Astor, to polite applause from the assembled crowd. There were few signs of discord. One man held up a whiteboard with “LADY ASTOR, ANTI-SEMITE” and a sad face across it—“ASTOR” descended vertically, through the “A” of “LADY” and the “T” of “ANTI-SEMITE.”
In real life, this lone act of dissent attracted little attention. But on Twitter, left-wing pundits condemned the statue, and May for unveiling it. Ash Sarkar, a contributing editor at Novara Media, a far-left website, said Astor wasn’t only a “notorious anti-Semite,” but a “Nazi sympathizer,” too. Owen Jones, a high-profile Labour-backing columnist for The Guardian, used similar language, as did Mehdi Hasan, of The Intercept. Michael Rosen, a children’s author who also writes regularly for The Guardian, compared Astor to Oswald Mosley, a notorious British fascist leader of the 1930s. Many news outlets, too, prominently noted the anti-Semitism and Nazi-sympathy allegations in their stories on the statue. UnHerd, a site that aims to “push back against the herd mentality,” asked, “Why not cancel Nancy Astor?”; “Oops!” said Vice, “Theresa May Unveiled a Statue to a Racist MP.” Several stories quoted Sir Stafford Cripps, a Parliamentary contemporary of Astor’s, calling her “the member for Berlin.”
The Astor statue had been drafted into Britain’s 21st-century culture war. The outrage about it was a proxy, in part, for contemporary squabbles: May’s involvement nourished the perception, popular on the left, that the British press has a double standard when covering racism in politics. Allegations of institutional anti-Semitism have engulfed coverage of the Labour Party in recent years. (The party is currently under formal investigation by Britain’s equalities and human-rights watchdog.) Claims of racism in Conservative ranks, critics say, have attracted a lesser focus. (Disclosure: my girlfriend used to work for a Labour lawmaker who campaigned for the statue.)
In a news cycle full of outrage, the statue episode was relatively fleeting. But it hinted at a rich—and complex—chapter of Astor’s story, and of the transatlantic historical record. In particular, the notion that Astor loved the Nazis has fascinating, stubborn roots in a viral 1930s conspiracy theory—propagated by Britain’s media at a time of intense geopolitical tension, then pushed out around the world, and down the decades.
Jacqui Turner, a leading Astor scholar at the University of Reading, who was involved in the campaign to erect the statue, stresses that we should not gloss over Astor’s past remarks, or diminish the fight against anti-Semitism. Still, she says, the statue was a weapon in a campaign of political point-scoring. “It overshadowed the message that this wasn’t about the celebration of one individual, with all her flaws and in all her paradoxes; it was about celebrating the achievement of women, and highlighting where we need to do better.”
“That was lost in the press reporting, which was more interested in mudslinging than fact,” she says. “I think it’s a pity that that happened.”
Nancy Astor was an unlikely first woman to sit in Britain’s Parliament. She was born in Danville, Virginia, in 1879, the daughter of a Confederate soldier turned entrepreneur. She came to the UK, in the first instance, for a season of hunting and hobnobbing in high society, but eventually put down roots, marrying Waldorf Astor, of the New York real estate Astors. They quickly established themselves as leading society hosts. Great figures of the age—Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Charlie Chaplin—flowed through their doors.
Waldorf Astor was elected to Parliament in 1910, as a Conservative representing Plymouth. In 1919, he was forced, on the death of his father, to ascend to the House of Lords, Britain’s upper legislative chamber. His wife ran for his vacant seat, and won.
She wasn’t the first woman elected to Parliament—that was Constance Markievicz in Dublin, which was then part of the UK. But Markievicz was an Irish Republican (and in jail), and so declined to take the seat she won, clearing the way for Astor to claim the historic first. British women only won a (qualified) right to vote—let alone stand as candidates—the year before Astor’s election in 1918. Astor had not been active in that fight. “Nobody, absolutely no one, had even considered that the first [female] MP would be a product of the establishment,” Turner says.
Was Astor actually an anti-Semite? Her defenders point out that in the 1930s, she helped a number of Jewish people—especially academics—as they fled, or tried to flee, Nazi persecution; Felix Frankfurter, a future US Supreme Court justice, prevailed upon Astor to intervene when his uncle was detained by German forces in Vienna, and she helped to secure his release. Still, Astor—always a person of intense contradictions—also had a history of virulently anti-Semitic remarks. She speculated darkly about “Jewish Communistic propaganda.” On another occasion, she reportedly told a fellow lawmaker, “Only a Jew like you would dare to be rude to me.” Most damningly, she once wrote, in a letter to Joseph Kennedy, then the US ambassador to Britain, that the Nazis would solve the “world problems” of Communism and the Jews.
The press then—as now—cited Astor’s remarks as evidence of a supposed affinity for Hitler. (The News Chronicle, a British newspaper, asked in the late 1930s, “Is not this lady’s spiritual home in Berlin?”) In large part, however, the enduring impression that Astor was a Nazi is not a legacy of her anti-Semitism. “I don’t think you can directly equate some of her anti-Semitic statements to being a Nazi sympathizer,” Turner says. “I don’t think that is a solid line which we can draw at all.”
The Nazi narrative emerged instead from journalism, and from the work of one journalist in particular: Claud Cockburn. Cockburn was born into a distinguished military and diplomatic family; one of his forebears was among the British troops who torched the White House during the War of 1812. (Later, Cockburn’s sons would follow him into the media. Patrick Cockburn writes about the Middle East for The Independent; Alexander Cockburn was an acerbic columnist for the Village Voice in the 1970s and ‘80s; Andrew Cockburn is an author and editor.)
In the early 1930s, Claud Cockburn quit The Times of London, where he was a precocious foreign correspondent based in the US, to dedicate himself to journalism with an overtly left-wing bent. Among other gigs, he wrote for the Daily Worker, the official organ of the British Communist Party. By his own admission, he did a “mixed job of propaganda and espionage” during the Spanish Civil War. In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell, who also fought in the conflict, but grew disillusioned with the sins the left justified as means to an end in their fight against Franco’s fascists, accused him of spreading sectarian smears.
Most significantly, Cockburn founded The Week: no relation to the current magazine, but a smudgy newssheet that from inauspicious beginnings—its first issue attracted seven subscribers, and nearly didn’t come out because a dog chewed at the ink supply—cultivated a highly influential international readership, and was reportedly financed by the Kremlin. The Week specialized in insider gossip. Some of it was true, and Cockburn had some dynamite sources. (These included other journalists, who would feed Cockburn juicy rumors that they knew wouldn’t pass muster with their own editors.)
But according to the historian Norman Rose, Cockburn took a highly creative, thoroughly politicized view of journalism. (He would likely have been very active and very aggressive on Twitter had it existed then.) Airing the casual conjecture of powerful people, he reasoned, could stop it from coming true; doing so cleverly could steer policy in a given direction. In the years before the war, Cockburn worked to undermine those in the British foreign-policy establishment who held conciliatory views toward Nazi Germany. Astor got caught in the crossfire.
Cockburn painted elements of the British bureaucracy as being at the beck and call of “the Cliveden Set”—a sinister shadow government, with Astor supposedly at its head, named for Astor’s country home. Among other luminaries, it was said to include the editor of The Times, which was owned by Astor’s brother-in-law. The Astors, the theory went, wanted a strong Germany to protect their monied class from the international spread of communism.
The Astors were indeed afraid of international communism, but Cockburn stretched this impression past breaking point. He labeled Astor and her associates as “Hitler’s Fifth Column,” and as Cagoulards, after a radical fascist group that had tried to overthrow the government of France. In The Week’s copy, Cliveden house became Schloss (castle) Cliveden. The Times became the Clivedener Neueste Nachrichten (loosely, the Cliveden News).
Cockburn dangled claims of a Cliveden conspiracy numerous times, but they only gained traction in December 1937—the first time that Cockburn used the shorthand “the Cliveden Set.” Cockburn alleged that Astor and her friends, acting without proper authority, had dispatched a government official to Berlin to offer Hitler free reign in Eastern Europe in exchange for a truce with Britain. (Shadow diplomacy, a quid pro quo; some things never change.)
There were obvious problems with the story. The plot was ostensibly hatched over the head of the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden—at an event that Eden attended as a guest of honor. Yet the story—and the broader idea of the “Cliveden Set”—spread like wildfire through the world’s press, including in America. (Upton Sinclair was among those who wrote about it.) Left-wing publications were in the vanguard. David Low, a cartoonist with the Evening Standard, drew Astor multiple times, including dancing, in a tutu, to the tune of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s top propagandist. Photographers staked out Astor’s London home. (When one of them asked the editor of The Times who he was, the editor jokingly gave the name of a senior Nazi.)
Initially, the Astors were reluctant to rebut the narrative—they thought it self-evidently absurd, and worried that drawing attention to misinformation might aid its spread. Eventually, they did defend themselves in letters to the British and American press. After an article in Liberty, an American magazine, tied Astor to the Cliveden Set, the left-wing playwright George Bernard Shaw, a close friend of Astor, wrote an article in her defense. Shaw pointed out that as an eminent political hostess, Astor welcomed people of all political persuasions to her homes, including communists.
Shaw himself was a vocal admirer of Hitler. Multiple Astor biographers and historians have dismissed the notion that she was, too, despite the anti-Semitic things she said. Along with other (though by no means all) individuals tied to the Cliveden Set, Astor did favor a policy of negotiating with Hitler’s Germany—but this was driven, scholars say, by an internationalist belief in the ability of treaties to forge peace, skepticism about Britain’s readiness for armed conflict, and, to an extent, the view that the international community treated Germany unduly harshly in the aftermath of World War I.
It was a naive, in some ways old-fashioned view, and it has aged poorly. But it was not Hitler worship. Nor was there anything furtive or illegitimate about the group’s maneuvers, to the extent that they can be called that. In the words of Norman Rose, who wrote a book on the myth, the “Cliveden Set” was not a shadow government, but merely “a kind of self-appointed, unstructured think tank.” Cockburn, the myth’s progenitor, effectively admitted as much.
And there is plenty of evidence to show that Astor was no admirer of Hitler. In 1936, on meeting a senior Nazi emissary for the first time, she openly ridiculed Hitler, comparing his mustache to Charlie Chaplin’s. After Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, a tipping point on the road to war, Astor abandoned the idea that peace could be negotiated. At the start of the war, she was among the Conservative rebels who forced her friend Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s pro-appeasement prime minister, from office, and allowed the hawkish Churchill to take over.
Astor’s sons fought in the war. The British government regularly asked Astor herself to broadcast messages to her native US, urging it to join in the fight against Nazism. She spent much of her time in her district in Plymouth, which was obliterated by Nazi air raids, and lobbied aggressively for better protections for the city, including in the press. During air raids, she toured shelters to keep spirits up. One night, she looked over the ruins of the city, and wept. “There goes thirty years of our lives,” she said. “We’ll build it again.”
At the end of the war, a Nazi black book surfaced, listing the names of prominent Brits who were to be rounded up in the event of an invasion. Astor was on the list. She was elated. It was, she said, “the complete answer to the terrible lie that the so-called ‘Cliveden Set’ was pro-fascist.”
Nancy Astor never asked for a statue; instead, she requested that Plymouth get new trash cans in her memory. In life, she recognized her shortcomings, and contradictions. She started writing an autobiography, but never published it. As her biographer Christopher Sykes wrote in 1972, Astor was “among the five or six most famous women in the world”; still, “if there was one thing that Nancy Astor was not, it was monumental. The quality was wholly alien to her.”
Turner, at the University of Reading, thinks Astor was singled out—including in the media of the time—because of her gender. “I don’t think we’ve ever recovered Nancy Astor in the way that we have recovered some of her male contemporaries,” Turner told me.
Astor was always painted as the prime mover of the Cliveden Set, even though men in it had much more political power than she did. “If all those people, with all their influence and all their power, are meeting at Cliveden, how on earth is an American backbench member of Parliament the titular head of a group like that? It just doesn’t ring true,” Turner says. “I think that’s largely why [the Cliveden Set] has been discredited as an idea.”
Late last month, in Plymouth, Turner addressed the crowd outside Astor’s old house, shortly before May stepped up to unveil the statue. She stressed the importance of the statue as a symbol of gender representation in politics. “Being the first is never easy, and, as people, they rarely sit comfortably on the pedestals we force them onto,” Turner said. “As Nancy herself said, ‘Pioneers may be picturesque figures, but they are often rather lonely ones.’”