Unity Mitford and 'Hitler's baby'

As war broke out, Hitler admirer Unity Mitford made a botched suicide attempt and was invalided home

Journalists on national newspapers get used to crank calls from people claiming the government is controlling their minds using radio waves or the Duke of Edinburgh is opening their post. So when Val Hann first called me at the Observer almost exactly five years ago, I was, I have to say, extremely sceptical about what she told me.

She had read an article I had written about Unity Mitford, the 1930s society beauty who became a groupie to Adolf Hitler and shot herself in Munich at the outbreak of war. Although the bullet entered her brain, Unity survived and lived out the rest of her short life as an invalid. But my caller claimed to have an extraordinary new angle on the story.

Val was a little nervous as she explained that her aunt Betty Norton had run a maternity home to the gentry in Oxfordshire during the war and that Unity Mitford had been one of her clients. Her aunt's business, in the tiny village of Wigginton, had depended on discretion and she had told no one except her sister that Unity had had a baby. Her sister had passed the story on to her daughter Val.

I casually asked who she thought the father might be and there was a short silence on the other end of the line before she said: "Well, she always said it was Hitler's."

I must say I was tempted at this point to put down the phone. Christmas was coming and I was very busy. But for some reason I decided to carry on listening to this bizarre tale. Val didn't sound mad, and she said she was merely passing on a family story.

The child was a boy, she believed, and he had been given up for adoption. She didn't want any money; she just wanted me to look into it. So here was the prospect of Adolf Hitler's love child alive somewhere in Britain - it was either the scoop of the century or completely bonkers. But it had to be worth a few hours of my time, even if it turned out to be a dead end.

My original story had cast doubt on the official version of events about Unity Mitford's return from Germany. In the millions of words written about the Mitfords, accounts of Unity's movements in those early months of 1940 remain sketchy. And, despite the obvious trauma to the family, only a handful of the hundreds of letters that the letter-writing sisters have had published discuss this period.

The newly released diaries of Guy Liddell, number two at MI5 during the war, suggested that the security service was not even convinced Unity had shot herself in the head. Liddell was determined that Unity should be searched and interrogated on her return from Germany and then interned for her Nazi sympathies.

Writing on 2 January 1940, Liddell made a powerful case. "Unity Mitford had been in close and intimate contact with the Führer and his supporters for several years, and was an ardent and open supporter of the Nazi regime. She had remained behind after the outbreak of war and her action came perilously close to high treason. Her parents had been associated with the Anglo-German Fellowship and other kindred movements, and had obviously supported her in her ideas about Hitler.

"We had no evidence at all in support of the press allegations that she was in a serious state of health and it might well be that she was being brought in on a stretcher in order to avoid publicity and unpleasantness to her family."

However, Liddell failed to convince his superiors and the home secretary himself, Sir John Anderson, finally intervened to say that nothing should be done on Unity's return. In fact, Liddell was wrong about her injuries. She had indeed shot herself and later died of an infection caused by the bullet in the brain.

Nonetheless, it still seems astonishing that she was never questioned, considering how close she was to Hitler. As Liddell wrote at the time: "If we had been dealing with Miss Smith or Miss Joyce, the probability was that we should not be arguing the case."

If it hadn't been for Wigginton, I would never have taken it any further. Val gave me an address for the maternity home, Hill View Cottage, and I contacted the present owner, who agreed to show me around. She confirmed that Nurse Norton had indeed used the cottage in her work as a midwife. She also agreed to introduce me to the one person in the village who remembered Unity being there. Audrey Smith was a little girl at the time, but by pure chance her sister (now dead, unfortunately) had worked at the home and had talked about Unity. Audrey herself claimed she had seen Unity wrapped in a blanket and looking very ill. However, she insisted that she was at the home not to have a baby, but to recover from a nervous breakdown.

By now I was intrigued and wrote to Unity's surviving sister, Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire. She had been angry at my original article and had written a furious letter to the Observer denouncing Liddell's claims that her sister might not have shot herself. She also suggested I take less notice of the gossip of villagers. The Duchess of Devonshire was adamant that there was nothing in the Wigginton story and claimed she could, if necessary, produce her mother's diaries to prove it.

At this point I decided to return to the National Archives, where I discovered a file on Unity that had been sealed under the "100-year rule" - reserved for only the highest classification of top-secret files. An official told me that it was possible to have the classification of such files reviewed and I applied to have the file opened. To my great surprise, the Home Office agreed. Inside was a startling new piece of information: it wasn't quite the birth certificate of a child, but here was hard evidence that Unity might not have been quite the invalid it was supposed.

By October 1941, while she was living at the family home in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire, the police picked up rumours that "Unity Mitford has formed an attachment for an officer in the RAF". Further investigation found that she had been "consorting with Pilot Officer John Sidney Andrews, an RAF test pilot".

As a result, Andrews, married with a child, was transferred to the far north of Scotland.

At this point, the trail went cold. There were too many loose ends for a news story and my research sat in my notebooks until this year when I mentioned it to Mark Roberts, an executive from Channel 4, who agreed to put the story on film. Further research, including an exhaustive trawl through birth records at the Oxfordshire register office, confirmed that Nurse Norton had helped dozens of wartime mothers give birth at her maternity home. But no record of Unity Mitford. Airman Andrews, it turns out, was a former bank clerk, and died in a Spitfire crash in 1945. There is no evidence that he ever saw Unity after his transfer to Scotland.

So what is the truth about Unity Mitford's missing months? Is it possible that the sightings in Wigginton were a case of mistaken identity? Or was she there to recover from a nervous breakdown? One woman still alive who could add to the story is the Duchess of Devonshire, formerly Deborah Mitford, who travelled back to Britain with Unity in 1940. But she has so far declined to be interviewed for the programme. She has also told people close to her that any suggestion of a child is fanciful.

Five years on from that original phone call, I have taken this story as far as I can. It remains a mystery and I remain as sceptical as I was when I first spoke to Val Hann. But one nagging thought remains: if Unity Mitford was in Wigginton during the war, what was she doing at a maternity home?

"Hitler's British Girl" will be shown on Channel 4 on Thursday 20 December at 9pm

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

***

The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

***

In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt