'Policy?' repeated Mr Carteret-Pendragon. 'My dear sir... we don't have policies about things. We leave all that to [foreigners].'
In October 1920, Eric Drummond and 160 members of the League of Nations Secretariat packed their bags and left London for the League's permanent home in Geneva. Some perceived it as being akin to the confident and courageous departure to the New World of the Mayflower pilgrims three centuries before. In Paris, the entourage had difficulty finding transport to take them from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon because of a taxi strike.
The work of British Government representatives at the League of Nations is a theme of Archibald Gordon Macdonell's satirical novel, England their England
, which was awarded the 1933 James Tait Black Memorial Prize by Edinburgh University. His fictional character, Carteret-Pendragon, was one of a trio of Old Etonians serving in Geneva as diplomats to the League's governing bodies, the Assembly and Council. The fictional diplomat did not use the word 'foreigners' in the epigraph but rather a racial slur. He was addressing a young Scot, Donald Cameron, hired as assistant to a British League delegate.
In fact, Britain's senior civil servant Maurice Hankey had been offered the top position at the League but turned it down – fortunately so, since he might not have been a good fit in the international milieu of Geneva. He chose to continue as Cabinet Secretary and, in 1921, referred to Hispanic and Asian League Commissioners in racial terms similar to the derogatory vocabulary used by Carteret-Pendragon. Drummond filled the post of Secretary- General. He showed none of the bigoted attitudes that state bureaucrats displayed towards other nationalities. In 1927, he circulated a confidential memo to senior League staff stating that the spirit of the Covenant (the League's Constitution) implied 'equal liberty and independence for all races'. And he practiced what he preached – film footage shows him spending leisure hours in Geneva with a Japanese colleague and with a Chinese diplomat and spouse.
Drummond's paramount consideration in recruiting staff was to seek out and retain those who shared his values. One of these was the famous Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, whom he appointed as High Commissioner for Russian Refugees. Nansen is the model for the fictional character Svensen, portrayed by Rose Macaulay as pure-hearted, public-spirited and 'League-minded' in her 1922 novel, Mystery at Geneva
It required a delicate touch to create a workforce with internationalist ideals. Drummond introduced a new habit of thinking for the League Secretariat and standards of impartiality. For the traditional British civil servant, this was a wrench. Harold Nicolson, one Drummond's first recruits, asked friends to snub him if they found him becoming impatient with Latins. A characteristic of League recruits was their youthfulness – Nicolson was 32.
The basis for the League's political and peacekeeping functions was provided in its Covenant. Two Articles, 23 and 24, enabled international cooperation on economic and social matters – humane conditions of labour, control of disease and the trafficking of women and children. Macdonell's fictional Scot attended a fictional 'League Committee for the Abolition of Social Abuses'. Cameron was briefed that 'Broadly speaking, you are fairly safe to take as a generalisation, that so far as Organised Vice is concerned, we might, as an Empire, be reasonably described as being more or less against it'.
Although mocked, the real Advisory Commission of the League on the Traffic in Women and Children was one of its early successes. The Commission's 1927 Report on the Inquiry into the Traffic in Women and Children
presented the results of several years of research in various countries.
The League was ahead of its time in its requirement, under Article 7 of the Covenant, that 'All positions [in] the Secretariat, shall be open equally to men and women'. Half of the Secretariat positions were held by women, although few served at a senior level.
Australian author, Frank Moorhouse, wrote a trio of engaging books about a fictitious Australian League civil servant Edith Campbell Berry, decades after the League's decease. He considered that the most interesting English-language novel to come out of the League period was The Peacemakers
, published by Alice McGregor Ritchie. She was the daughter of an Edinburgh- born architect and one of the League's many highly educated secretaries, having studied at Newnham College Cambridge. After serving for two years, she was fired for insubordination and went to work for Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press. Virginia told Ritchie that Wilfrid Benson's Dawn on Mont Blanc
, which Hogarth published in 1930, was 'amazingly on the same lines, in setting and even in atmosphere, as yours'.
Benson was an official of the International Labour Organisation, which was connected to the League by the umbilical cord of the budget. His book is set in Veagen (anagram of Geneva) in the International Institute of Racial Peace, within which Benson depicts hostility between officials of different nationalities. His account of a lunch hosted by Chief Secretary Henry Hubert Hilton and his wife Lady Muriel was particularly objectionable, since the fictional characters would have been taken for Drummond and his wife Ela. This description of a prejudiced couple must have caused deep offence, especially to Ela. In the spirit of Geneva, she welcomed to her home delegates of small and large nations as well as senior colleagues of her husband of diverse nationalities. Benson received a severe reprimand from his French Director-General, Albert Thomas.
The League was not impervious to the rise of racism in the interwar years. The influential French writer, Louis Destouches, served under Ludwik Rajchman in the Health Organisation from 1924 to 1927 and wrote under the name 'Louis-Ferdinand Céline'. In his play L'Eglise
, published in 1933, he depicts a fictional League director, based on Rajchman, in flagrantly antisemitic terms.
The universe of the 1920s from which League officials were drawn was one in which there was widespread bigotry, snobbery and a pre-occupation with status. It would have been surprising if these less admirable characteristics had not seeped into the League. Although Drummond was praised for his invariable and scrupulous fairness, his very careful attention to detail and his constant hard work, not all were of this mould. Malcolm Muggeridge provides the following description of his WWII colleague John Leslie Palmer, a former League précis-writer and moonlighting author:
We neither of us had much to do, but when I girded against this, Palmer gently rebuked me. Such he said, had been his lot on the League Secretariat for years past... [He] developed in himself a sort of Buddhistic power of contemplation as he sat at his desk staring in front of him.... expenditure of energy being reserved for things like getting stationary, paper clips, and other clerical impedimenta together, taking control of the opening and shutting of our window, and seeing that his blotter was changed from time to time, and supplies of ink replenished.
Salvador de Madariaga, chief of the League's Disarmament Section, wrote in English and French, as well as in his native Spanish. His memoir, Morning without Noon
, gives an account of the League's early years. He said of Anthony Buxton, a League colleague, that it would be difficult to find an Englishman less convertible to internationalism. Buxton's Sporting Interludes in Geneva
provides a record of how the international presence impacted on the conservative Swiss city. He introduced a pack of beagles which brought him in conflict with the law. The yellow-coloured van in which Buxton transported these hunting dogs had wire netting on its sides, giving rise to the idea among passers-by that the inmates were being taken to the asylum.
Among the distinguished persons conveyed in it were the prominent British politicians Arthur Balfour and Robert Cecil. The Secretary-General tolerated Buxton's eccentricity because he raised the standard of writing. Historian Susan Pedersen observed that: 'As anyone who has used League publications knows, it is almost impossible to find so much as a missing comma in the millions of pages that rolled off its presses'.
Another well-written non-fiction book by a member of staff is Max Beer's Die Reise nach Genf
, translated in 1933 as The League on Trial
. Beer, a journalist, was recruited to the League's Information Section after Germany's entry to the organisation in 1926, ending its era as a pariah state. He was a perceptive observer and gives a balanced assessment of Drummond's professional and personal qualities, stating: 'He is a Scot... and more European than Continental prejudice would expect'.
A century has passed since Harold Nicolson made the conscious effort to conduct himself as an international civil servant. He served in what was essentially a unitary organisation. The League's personnel peaked in 1931 with around 650 men and women. António Guterres, the 12th Secretary-General, governs a body that today comprises the UN itself plus 12 related entities, such as the children's agency UNICEF. The Secretariat of this system numbers some 77,000 men and women. Further secretariats serve each of 15 specialised agencies, such as the World Bank and the World Health Organisation. Three other international organisations, such as the World Trade Organisation – much in the UK news – also have their own secretariats. This is a complex universe. Writers of the interwar years observed international cooperation at an early stage in its creation, when its elements were more easily perceived.
As Nicolson exemplifies, behaviour changed a century ago. It was a turning point in how we view other nationals and relate to them. As diverse peoples began to work side-by-side in Geneva, attitudes shifted away from those of their stay-at-home contemporaries who tended to view other nationalities in stereotypic terms. This shift was led by a Secretary-General who had none of the narrow-minded prejudice of contemporaries and was more European.
Contemporary fiction provides a corrective to accounts of conscientious League-minded staff. This included instances of work-shyness, national antagonisms and antisemitism. Fictional League characters displayed cynicism, conformity and pompous jargon. These odious qualities coexisted with 'League-mindedness'.
As Macdonell observed, old Etonians were prominent in this early phase of multinational diplomacy. Fifty (including Drummond) attended a celebration of Eton's Fourth of June during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. In Geneva, however, there were no Carteret-Pendragons. Annual League Assemblies and periodic Councils were attended, with great effect, by two enlightened Etonian politicians, Cecil and Balfour. Macaulay's character, Lord John Lester, 'the mainstay of the League', is based at least in part on Cecil: in an encounter with a lady by Lake Geneva, the fictional Lester came to the conclusion that she did not have 'a League mind'. A second fictional character, Lord Edward Burnley, the 'League-minded' senior British delegate and a 'distinguished notable and engaging figure in the League', is clearly Balfour.
International officials today are guided by explicit standards of conduct that derive from an oath introduced by Drummond. Acceptance of the oath involves willingness to work without prejudices as well as restraint in expressions or views, whether public or private, which could be construed as biased or intolerant – in short, 'League-mindedness'.
In October 1933, de Madariaga returned to Geneva wearing a new hat, as the delegate of his country. He addressed the League Assembly, saying
Spain believes that the endeavour of the 20th century must cover the whole earth and nothing but the earth and comprise all men, all races, all religions and all nations.
In 2011, Glasgow-born historian Isabel de Madariaga unveiled a blue plaque in Oxford in honour of her father. Nowhere is there a plaque, or indeed any form of recognition, for the Scot who was the youngest and the longest serving of the 12 men to have held the post of Secretary-General of either the League or the United Nations. The internationalist ethos of all the secretariats of all the multinational organisations that exist today is founded on 'League- mindedness'. An inconspicuous grave at Sweetheart Abbey in Galloway marks the final resting place of James Eric Drummond, 16th Earl of Perth. The inscription describes him as 'a great international civil servant'.
David Macfadyen worked at the World Health Organisation for 30 years. In 2019, he co-authored 'Eric Drummond and his Legacies: The League of Nations and the Beginnings of Global Governance' (published by Palgrave Macmillan)