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Six Minutes in May brings the story of Winston Churchill to life

Nicholas Shakespeare manages to evoke tension in an old tale by understanding its human drama.

Politics is distilled to its essence when the time comes for a tribe to replace its leader. This is hardly hot news, but everyone delving into this riveting and rollicking account of the Chamberlain-Lord Halifax-Churchill succession will find special pleasure today in inhaling the rich mix of ambition and weakness, bravery and fecklessness, jealousy and sheer hatred, because the contemporary echoes are loud and irresistible.

Nicholas Shakespeare achieves the remarkable feat of bringing tension to an old story by understanding its human drama. His account of the Norway Debate in May 1940 is a bravura performance, painting a vivid backdrop that explains the meetings that made Churchill prime minister two days later. You’re in the throng, watching a cabinet minister spit on the shoes of an abstaining backbencher, seeing Churchill’s face as he prepares to wind up the debate in support of Neville Chamberlain, while desperate to see him fall. You glimpse Halifax, foreign secretary, slipping through from the Lords to hear Churchill, then writing to his mistress about his feelings as favourite to succeed, with the press, the public, the Palace and a good chunk of Labour on his side.

The six minutes of the title have nothing to do with the much-debated silence at the turning point of Churchill’s subsequent meeting with Halifax and Chamberlain. (Was it only Churchill’s clever pause and the failure of Halifax to seize the moment that settled the premiership?) Instead they refer to the length of the parliamentary division, measured by the egg-timer on the clerks’ table, that split the Tories and pushed Chamberlain, so lately a hero, to the edge of the cliff. This was the debate after which Jack Profumo, who would have his own parliamentary crisis a generation later, cast his first vote in the Commons (against the government) and was told by his chief whip that he was “an utterly contemptible little shit” who’d repent every day of his life. Violet Bonham Carter described to her diary hearing the chant of “Go! Go! Go!” from prim Conservatives such as Harold Macmillan, in high white collar and pince-nez, dancing “like a bunch of inspired baboons”.

Shakespeare’s masterful handling of diaries and contemporary accounts brings the story to life, not least because of their factual contradictions. He has a novelist’s feel for self-pity, jealousy and ambition. The story of Churchill’s accession to power on the day that Hitler’s armies entered the Low Countries and set course for France has never been infused with so much humanity.

At the heart of the story is the old mystery: how could it have all come to the battered Churchill – reviled by the Chamberlainite establishment, mocked for trying to prop up Edward VIII in the abdication crisis and crippled by a reputation for unreliability? Shakespeare’s piercing account of the disastrous Norway campaign that opens the book lays bare his failings (he was trying to fight the Dardanelles all over again) and makes all the more engrossing the political chaos from which he finally emerged, with a cherubic smile and a glass in his hand.

The speed of events is bewildering for an age when men in striped trousers never seemed to hurry, always had time for dinner, and forgot about politics at the weekend. Halifax strolls through the Buckingham Palace gardens (he had a special key from the king) on the morning he might have become prime minister, and takes tea with Churchill in the Downing Street garden as Chamberlain tries in vain to get Clement Attlee’s Labour Party to throw him a lifeline.

Churchill, having being asked to form a government, says to his bodyguard on the drive back to No 10: “You know why I have been to Buckingham Palace, Thompson?”

He was propelled by “the hinge of fate”. There was no leadership vote, just an acceptance by the men at the top, and then reluctantly by the king, that everything must change. But very soon it seemed right.

Shakespeare reveals a poignant diary entry from Charles Peake, friend to Halifax, with the foreign secretary’s own account of how it ended. To summarise: Chamberlain said he wanted Halifax. The Chief Whip said he was wonderful in his way, but now only Winston would do. Halifax said that he had come to believe no other choice was possible. Churchill said he had spoken better than he had ever heard him, had “put the thing in a nutshell” and there was nothing anyone could add.

This is the raw politics of leadership, which doesn’t change much. 

Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister
Nicholas Shakespeare
Harvill Secker, 490pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist