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Winston Churchill interviewed in 1939: “The British people would rather go down fighting”

In January 1939, as Germany and Russia rearmed, Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, spoke to the former chancellor and war secretary about the prospects of conflict and how Britain should prepare.

British statesman Winston Churchill speaking to recruits to the armed forces at Mansion House, London, in 1939. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The Second World War was still eight months away when Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, interviewed Winston Churchill about the need for rearmament and the British attitude to war. Their conversation was published in the NS of 7 January 1939.

A famous journalist once told me of an alarming interview that he had with Mr Churchill some years before the last war. Mr Churchill happened to be in full Privy Councillor’s uniform and emphasised his points with finely executed passes and slashes of his sword. Mr Churchill himself declares that this is a fairy tale; and certainly, when I went to see him the other day, he was wielding nothing more ferocious than the builder’s trowel with which he was completing an arch in the house that he has built with his own hands this summer. He was not, however, too much absorbed to discuss very fully the problem of Democracy and Efficiency.

Kingsley Martin The country has learnt to associate you with the view that we must all get together as quickly as possible to rearm in defence of democracy. In view of the strength and character of the totalitarian states, is it possible to combine the reality of democratic freedom with efficient military organisation?

Mr Winston Churchill The essential aspects of democracy are the freedom of the individual, within the framework of laws passed by Parliament, to order his life as he pleases, and the uniform enforcement of tribunals independent of the executive. The laws are based on Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the Petition of Right and others. Without this foundation there can be no freedom or civilisation, anyone being at the mercy of officials and liable to be spied upon and betrayed even in his own home. As long as these rights are defended, the foundations of freedom are secure. I see no reason why democracies should not be able to defend themselves without sacrificing these fundamental values.

KM One point people are especially afraid of is that free criticism in Parliament and in the press may be sacrificed. The totalitarian states, it is said, are regimented, organised and unhampered, as the Prime Minister suggested the other day, by critics of the Government “who foul their own nest”.

WC Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.

KM Do you attribute the slowness in preparation of which you complain to any inherent defect in democratic institutions?

WC I am convinced that with adequate leadership, democracy can be a more efficient form of government than Fascism. In this country at any rate the people can readily be convinced that it is necessary to make sacrifices, and they will willingly undertake them if the situation is put clearly and fairly before them. No one can doubt that it was within the power of the National Government at any time within the last seven years to rearm the country at any pace required without resistance from the mass of the people. The difficulty was that the leaders failed to appreciate the need and to warn the people, or were afraid to do their duty, not that the democratic system formed an impediment.

In my view, short-sighted leaders are just as likely to come to the front in Fascist countries as in democracies.

KM You held great executive positions in the last war. From a purely military point of view, should we have been more efficient if employers and employees had both been more regimented and less able to bargain?

WC It may be that greater efficiency in secret military preparations can be achieved in a country with autocratic institutions than by the democratic system. But this advantage is not necessarily great, and it is far outweighed by the strength of a democratic country in a long war. In an autocracy, when the pinch comes, the blame is thrown upon the leader and the system breaks up. In a democratic country the people feel that they are respon­sible, and if they believe in their cause will hold out much longer than the population of Dictator States. Occasional difficulties arose with organised labour, but by working with and through the Trades Unions, these were all settled in a friendly manner. I did not find that the existence of the profit motive on the part of manufacturers in any way hampered the production of munitions. It is true that in the early days orders were sometimes placed and accepted beyond the capacity of the factories to meet. But this was a question of inexperience rather than anything else.

KM I gather that you believe that Britain gained and did not lose from maintaining the structure of democratic institutions during the last war. Do you believe that these institutions could survive in another war? Would Parliament be able to function comparatively normally? How far do you think it would be necessary to compel labour and how far would the state need to go on taking over the control of industry?

WC The next war will presumably be entirely different from the last in that it will have to be carried on whilst the Capital and the greater part of the country are being disturbed by air raids. I see no reason why a censorship much more severe than existed in the last war should be imposed. Parliament would probably find it difficult, indeed dangerous, to meet regularly at Westminster. It might be asked to delegate a part of its day-to-day work to a number of large committees containing members of all the various parties, and to meet as a whole three or four times a year. Of course I am assuming that legislation would be in force “to take the profit out of war”. By “taking the profit out of war” I mean that no one anyhow should come out of it richer than he went in. I do not believe that this would in war-time in any way impair the enthusiasm and drive required from the employers, although it would in peace-time.

KM May I go back now to the question of pre-war preparation? We should all agree on the necessity for many restrictions in war-time, but what about conscription and the compulsion of labour and capital in time of peace? Captain Liddell Hart has remarked that to have conscription to combat Fascism is like cutting our throats to avoid a disease.

WC I see no reason why any essential part of our liberties should be lost by preparations for defence. I do not think we need a great conscript army on the continental model, but we should have besides our regular professional army a considerably larger body of Territorials available for home defence or foreign service in an emergency. In case of war a great army could be built up around such a skeleton. I would not hesitate to fill up the gap by ballot among all the young men of the country of the appropriate age, allowing no substitute whatsoever. Nothing could be more democratic, or more likely to democratise the army. When one remembers that the democracy of France has voluntarily taken two years out of the life of each young man to safeguard its liberties, I cannot see that some such system, which would impose a sacrifice of only a few months on a small fraction of our population, could be regarded as a surrender to Fascism.

KM How much coercion of industry is implied in a Ministry of Supply with special powers? Will it involve state control of raw materials, and compete with the methods the Nazis have so successfully employed in South-East Europe and South America?

WC As you know, I have long pressed for a Ministry of Supply. In my view this should have powers, if necessary, to compel industry to give priority as required to Government contracts for rearmament purposes, and to devote or turn over any necessary portion of its plant to such work.

KM May I pass on to another related subject – ARP? People say that the problem of defending London and other big cities in itself involves regimentation on an enormous scale. That you have to set up an army of petty officers with undefined powers.

WC I think a great mistake has been made in spreading our ARP efforts over the whole country, instead of concentrating on what I should call the target areas. I do not believe any enemy will waste his bombs and effort on killing ordinary citizens just out of spite, when he could obtain a much greater military result by bombing docks, factories, Government offices and the like. I am certain that in the villages the risk will be infinitesimal. Our main effort should be to protect workers in the central parts of London, in the ports, and in the manufacturing districts which will be subject to attack. I should be inclined to consider the building of great underground roads, leading out of London and branching off to various points in the countryside, which would not only serve to evacuate the Capital in time of danger, but could be used as dormitories and refuges for those who were compelled to remain behind. That some steps should be taken to prepare the population for the ordeal of bombing which would probably overtake it on the outbreak of war, seems to be essential. If everybody knows that preparations have been made, and what to do, it seems to me there is less likelihood of inhabitants of the East End believing they will be left in the lurch while the rich look after themselves.

KM People who are not necessarily pacifist are horrified at the idea that we may go into another war with the same kind of generals who were responsible for Passchendaele and other horrors in the last war. They say that they might be prepared to fight for democracy if they were democratically led; but that they are damned if they will be sacrificed again for the Camberley clique that was so horribly inefficient and wasteful in the last war. Do you think it is possible to democratise the army?

WC It is quite true, I know, that many people consider that the cadre of officers is selected from too narrow a class. I have always taken the view that merit should be rewarded by promotion in the army as in any other profession. I support this not only from the point of view of democratising the army, but mainly because I think it leads to efficiency such as no other system can achieve.

KM May I ask one more question of a more general character? Most of us feel that if there is a war it will be so destructive that the very substance of our civilisation, let alone our democracy, is likely to be destroyed. Clearly the great object is to prevent war. Is it possible in your view still to regard these military preparations, not as the acceptance of inevit­able war, but merely as a necessary complement of a policy which may keep the peace?

WC I fear that failure to rearm Britain is bound to lead to war. Had we strengthened our defences earlier, the arms race need never have arisen. We should have come to a settlement with Germany while she was still disarmed. I think it is still possible, with a strong Britain and France, to preserve the peace of Europe.

KM Is it not true historically that an armaments race leads to war?

WC To say that an arms race always leads to war seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. A government resolved to attain ends detrimental to its neighbours, which does not shrink from the possibility of war, makes preparations for war, its neighbours take defensive action, and you say an arms race is beginning. But this is the symptom of the intention of one government to challenge or destroy its neighbours, not the cause of the conflict. The pace is set by the potential aggressor, and, failing collective action by the rest of the world to resist him, the alternatives are an arms race or surrender. War is very terrible, but stirs a proud people. There have been periods in our history when we have given way for a long time, but a new and formidable mood arises . . .

KM A bellicose mood?

WC A mood of “Thus far, and no farther”. It is only by the spirit of resistance that man has learnt to stand upright, and instead of walking on all fours to assume an erect posture.

KM Do you think it possible to concentrate mainly on defence with the idea that we should be less afraid of attack and therefore able to stand up for ourselves without preparing to bomb other people?

WC I cannot subscribe to the idea that it might be possible to dig ourselves in and make no preparations for anything other than passive defence. It is the theory of the turtle, which is disproved at every Lord Mayor’s Banquet. If the enemy can attack as and when he pleases without fear of reprisals, we should become the whipping-boy of Europe.

We need shelters and tunnels, but crouching in a shelter is not a fighting posture. Quite apart from the fact that we could never defend our dependencies on such lines, we should be exposed to inevitable defeat. Every nation of the world would have an incentive to have a free cut at the melon. War is horrible, but slavery is worse, and you may be sure that the British people would rather go down fighting than live in servitude.