Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha

Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha

Isaac Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha, PC (September 7, 1893 – February 16, 1957) was a British Liberal, then National Liberal Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister. He later joined the Conservative Party. He is remembered for his innovations in road transport and for being an alleged victim of anti-semitism.

Family origins

Hore-Belisha was born in Devonport, Plymouth, the only son of Jacob Isaac Belisha, the Jewish manager of an insurance company, and his wife, Elizabeth Miriam Miers. His father died when he was less than one year old and when his mother married Sir Adair Hore in 1912, Hore-Belisha adopted the double-barrelled surname. He 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. Following the First World War, during which he served overseas and was promoted to the rank of Major, he qualified as a barrister.

Political career

In the 1922 general election, Hore-Belisha was an unsuccessful candidate for the Liberal Party in his birthplace constituency of Plymouth Devonport. However, 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, being 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

From 1934, Hore-Belisha served as Minister of Transport, coming to public prominence at a time when motoring was becoming available to the masses. He rewrote the Highway Code and was responsible for the introduction of two innovations which led to a dramatic drop in road accidents: the driving test and the Belisha Beacon, named after him by the public.

ecretary of State for War

Having succeeded at the Ministry of Transport, in 1937 he was controversially appointed 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, although it is also likely that Hore-Belisha's Jewish faith aroused anti-semitism amongst his Conservative colleagues, who labelled him a warmonger and a Bolshevik. Even those who were not strongly opposed to him took to nicknaming him "Horeb" or "Horeb-Elisha" as a 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.

With the knowledge 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. Senior Conservatives believed that Hore-Belisha was more concerned about the fate of Jewish people abroad than of Britain itself, such that he wanted Britain to wage war against Germany with the sole intention of protecting European Jews. Undeterred, Hore-Belisha sought to reshape the armed forces with modernising programmes similar to those he had implemented at the Ministry of Transport, improving pay, pensions and promotion prospects for working-class soldiers, whose advancement could often be blocked by nepotism amongst the upper classes. He improved barrack room conditions, installing showers and recreation facilities and giving married soldiers the right to live with their families. In early 1939, he was finally allowed to introduce conscription to meet the threat of Nazi Germany.

As part of his modernisation of the British armed forces, he sacked three prominent members of the Imperial General Staff, replacing them with fresher minds. His attitude alienated seasoned campaigners such as Field Marshals John Dill and John Gort, the latter of whom, it was reported, could not bear to be in the same room with the Minister. Hore-Belisha's changes infuriated the military establishment and this sentiment was passed down to the lower ranks. In the early months of World War II, he banned a popular yet anti-semitic song which had been widely sung by the armed forces, to the tune of "Onward, Christian Soldiers":

:Onward Christian Soldiers,:You have nought to fear.:Israel Hore-Belisha:Will lead you from the rear.:Clothed by Monty Burton,:fed on Lyons pies;:Die for Jewish freedom:As a Briton always dies.


In January 1940, Hore-Belisha was dismissed from the War Office in a shock move that many did not understand at the time. Once again, he was accused of having dragged Britain into the war in order to protect Jewish people on mainland Europe, and was considered a warmonger who did not have Britain's interests at heart. By 1940, his relations with Lord Gort, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and 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 (the Pillbox affair) 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, he considered Hore-Belisha for the post of Minister of Information, but decided against this when the Foreign Office raised concerns about the propaganda effect of having a Jewish politician in this position; instead, the Prime Minister offered him the post of Presidency of the Board of Trade. Hore-Belisha refused this demotion and effectively 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. Others claimed that Hore-Belisha had been dismissed due to anti-semitism, or even due to pressure by the Royal Family 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.

ubsequent 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 thereafter joined the Conservative Party and was elected to Westminster City Council in 1947. He fought unsuccessfully in the Coventry South constituency in the 1950 general election, before Churchill gave him a peerage in 1954.

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. Hore-Belisha and his wife Cynthia, whom he had married in 1944, had no children, and the Barony died with him.

Further reading

*"The Private Papers of Hore-Belisha"by R J Minney, (Collins, 1960)
*"A Little Chit of a Fellow" by Ian R Grimwood, (Book Guild, 2006)
*"Two War Ministers: A Reassessment of Duff Cooper and Hore-Belisha" by J P Harris in War and Society, 6, 1: May 1988

External links

* [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=7468940&pt=Leslie%20Hore%20Belisha findagrave.com]
* [http://www.plymouthdata.info/PP-Hore-Belisha.htm Prominent Plymouthians]
* [http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1373/is_n12_v47/ai_20074761 "Hore-Belisha - Britain's Dreyfus?"]

Offices held

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