Friday, August 14, 2009

"We Must Keep Him Fresh . . ."

By the end of April [1940], it was plain that the allies faced defeat in Norway. Churchill himself [as First Lord Of The Admiralty] bore much of the responsibility. He had asked of Britain's armed forces far more than they were capable of delivering.

But Neville Chamberlain was prime minister. It was he who, in the eyes of the British people, had presided over a disaster. On May 7, 1940, the House of Commons met to debate the Norway debacle. Chamberlain sounded bitter, petulant, beaten.

When a vote was called the following night, 33 Tories voted against their own party, and a further 60 abstained. Though Chamberlain retained a parliamentary majority, it was plain that his Conservative government had lost the nation's confidence. This was not merely the consequence of the Norway fiasco, but because through eight fumbling months most of its ministers had exposed their lack of stomach for war.

An all-party coalition was indispensable. Labour would not serve under Chamberlain. Winston Churchill became Britain's prime minister following a meeting between himself, Chamberlain, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and Tory Chief Whip David Margesson on the afternoon of May 9, at which Halifax declared his own unsuitability for the post, as a member of the House of Lords who would be obliged to delegate direction of the war to Churchill in the Commons.

In truth, some expedient might have been adopted to allow the Foreign Secretary to return to the Commons. But Halifax possessed sufficient self-knowledge to recognize that no more than Neville Chamberlain did he possess the stuff of a war leader.

The historian David Reynolds has observed that when the Gallipoli campaign failed in 1915, many people wished to blame Churchill. After Norway nobody did.

“It was a marvel,” Churchill wrote in an unpublished draft of his war memoirs. “I really do not know how I survived and maintained my position in public esteem while all the blame was thrown on poor Mr. Chamberlain.”

The British people showed themselves much wiser than the old ruling class, by applauding the change as most of the grandees did not. They understood that Winston Churchill, alone among their politicians, was the man for the hour.

He himself may have perceived his good fortune that he had not acceded to the premiership in earlier years, or even earlier months of the war. Had he done so, it is likely that by May 1940 his country would have tired of the excesses which he would surely have committed, while being no more capable than Chamberlain of stemming the tide of fate on the Continent.

Back in 1935, Stanley Baldwin explained his unwillingness to appoint Churchill to his own Cabinet: “If there is going to be a war—and who can say there is not?—we must keep him fresh to be our war Prime Minister.”

Max Hastings
The Finest Years: Churchill As Warlord 1940-1945

To Be Published In The United Kingdom On September 3, 2009
To Be Published In Canada On October 15, 2009
To Be Published In Australia On November 1, 2009
Publication In The United States Not Yet Arranged


Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson, for your kind and thoughtful gift.

1 comment:

  1. Drew: You posted something startlingly inaccurate on about me and Terry Teachout. I've only met Terry a couple of times, at intermission, like him a lot, was sorry I didn't like The Letter better, and have never had a run-in of any kind with him. I can't imagine what you're referring to, but it being Parterre, people seem to have taken your authoritative-sounding statement as if it came from some informed source, so I feel the need to follow up and clear the record. Sincerely, Anne Midgette