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What can Brexit Britain learn from Winston Churchill?

As the popularity of Dunkirk and Darkest Hour show, we remain entranced by the story of Britain’s heroic resistance to Nazism and its wartime leader. What are the lessons to be learnt? And why must we keep looking back?

In all the attention paid to the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk, there was scarcely a whisper about Winston Churchill’s arrival in No 10 a fortnight earlier, something we now take for granted but which was not assured at the time. In fact rather the opposite. Until three days before this seismic moment in our nation’s, and the world’s, history (shortly after 6.30pm on 10 May 1940), there was no realistic expectation that Churchill would step into Neville Chamberlain’s shoes, and several compelling reasons why he should not. How Churchill landed in Downing Street at the last moment, with much greater odds against him than is commonly supposed, is every bit as interesting as the familiar drama of what followed.

If Churchill is back in the wind these days with films such as Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, then it may be because our zeitgeist has been quick to sniff parallels with May 1940. A beleaguered Tory prime minister confronted by a hostile Europe; Tory rebels plotting with opposition parties; a giddyingly ambitious cabinet minister stalking the corridors, waiting to seize his chance…  As in the Norway Debate of 7 and 8 May, which provided the stage for Chamberlain’s downfall, the ingredients seem once again in place for what historian Andrew Roberts has called “a case of parliamentary spontaneous combustion”.

The Norway Debate is an improbable example of the darkest spot being under the lamp. A very interesting transfer of power occurred within a short time, but how this came about remains unresolved, despite the vast amount of literature on it. There is a popular narrative about the way in which events unfolded, in large measure established by Churchill in The Gathering Storm (1948), which is unsatisfactory and which, when tested, is clearly found wanting. Hold the picture to the light and another outline emerges. In this competing tableau, none of the principal characters behaves, on closer examination, as history has taught us. As well, their actions throw up lessons for the protagonists of 2018 starting, to borrow a phrase, with “the Norway Option”.

What became known as the Norway Debate, and was to be so significant to the fortunes of the British government and the Second World War, began with a routine adjournment motion before the ten-day Whitsun recess. On one of the hottest afternoons of the uncharacteristically warm spring of 1940, Chamberlain appeared in the Commons to defend the conduct of Britain’s armed forces in Norway and to answer some far-reaching questions about a calamitous military campaign that, until now, had been obscured by rumours, secrecy and hopelessly optimistic press reports; in these, Churchill, first lord of the admiralty, had, with a level of insouciance commonly exhibited by Boris Johnson, created the impression that the campaign was going to be – just like Brexit – a “gallant picnic”.

It was anything but. After an ominous respite lasting seven months, following Germany’s annexation of Poland, the British army in its first land battle of the war had engaged the Nazi enemy – and been routed. The navy had to evacuate 11,300 troops from central Norway, with the eventual loss of 4,396 men.

In the fearful words of MP Vernon Bartlett, the German invasion of Britain seemed at this point “almost inevitable”, with foreign troops predicted to land in large numbers on British soil for the first time since 1066. Nigel Farage would have been in his element.

The House was packed. A Conservative backbencher conveyed the mood. “We are meeting today at a time of danger, the gravest danger that our nation has ever faced, danger not only to our material prosperity, but to the spiritual things which we value even more highly.” The former prime minister, David Lloyd George, judged the debate that followed as “the most momentous in the history of parliament”, and he would make a devastating contribution on the second afternoon. A future prime minister, Harold Macmillan, also present, believed that the two-day debate “altered the history of Britain and the empire, and perhaps of the world”.

It is important to emphasise that there was no expectation of a vote. Neville Chamberlain, the Conservative leader, enjoyed a huge majority of 213 for his national government, and the opposition Labour Party under Clement Attlee was reluctant to divide the House at this precarious moment; Attlee felt that it might even reunite the Conservatives, giving Chamberlain a renewed mandate not unlike that which Jeremy Corbyn received in September 2016. As now, there was widespread despondency at the record of the government, encapsulated in the decision of National Liberal MP Clement Davies to cross the floor to the opposition benches. In words that Vince Cable might easily have uttered, Davies likened Chamberlain’s “lethargic”, “complacent”, “smug” administration to “an orchestra without a conductor”, and he argued that “the country could not be properly organised until the government went”. Sound familiar? Then so, too, will be the echo of general despair at the apparent impossibility of effecting a change. Even though less popular with an increasingly anxious public, Chamberlain still appeared unassailable within parliament. On 7 May, the reality for the majority of Conservative MPs was that there was no clear alternative to Chamberlain as prime minister – precisely like Theresa May’s position today.

Given the hindsight we now possess, the selection of Churchill on 10 May seems assured. But on 7 May, the situation was almost the reverse. The weight of the Churchill legend has suppressed knowledge of other possibilities that were available and seemed more probable at the time.

Were the prime minister to resign, the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, universally respected, was the outstanding favourite of both the establishment and of Labour to succeed; in the opinion of Labour frontbencher Hugh Dalton, there was “no other choice” but Halifax.

If not Halifax, who had been known to refuse high office twice before, there existed no dearth of politicians who fancied their claims. Few today are household names, yet they might have become so.

The lord privy seal, Kingsley Wood, admitted that “the number of people who think they are the future prime minister of this country is quite amazing”. From his position on the front bench, Wood had reason to believe that his moment was approaching – something confirmed by the Conservative MP Henry “Chips” Channon, who wrote in his diary: “I think that Kingsley Wood might easily become our next PM, and that is now the PM’s intention… Halifax would only be a stop-gap.”

Even if this view of his prospects came from the realms of Govian fantasy, Wood was not alone in considering himself stuffed with the material of leadership. Leslie Hore-Belisha had groused when Chamberlain sacked him as war minister in January: “Is there any MP who doesn’t want to be prime minister? Is there any waiter who doesn’t want to be a head waiter?” Ranged impatiently behind Lord Halifax sat a pack of politicians straining to become premier should the office all of a sudden fall vacant, plus one candidate who had held the title. Four days earlier, Harold Nicolson had written in his diary: “People are saying that Lloyd George should come in.” Memories of his victory in 1918 suddenly made the father of the house an attractive proposition once more.

Also in the frame at various moments during the months and weeks leading up to the debate, and in the febrile days following it, either touted by others or considering themselves ripe for the premiership: Samuel Hoare, John Simon, Anthony Eden, Max Beaverbrook, Roger Keyes, John Reith, John Anderson, Stafford Cripps, Nancy Astor, Lady Rhondda and even Marie Stopes, who with Leadsomian self-esteem told Halifax that “in the light of her special knowledge of Germany, Japan, Norway, birth control and science, she ought to be in the cabinet”. This was one of those times when, as one Labour frontbencher observed in his diary, “History goes past at the gallop.”

There was also, fleetingly on 9 May, the vision of Chamberlain’s fellow member from Birmingham, Leo Amery, taking over as prime minister.

Corresponding with Amery long after the war, Leslie Hore-Belisha, another recent contender for No 10 (up until 4 January he had considered himself to be a “national hero” who was “in a wonderful position heading straight for the premiership”), was reminded of just how unlikely a prospect Churchill’s accession appeared. In October 1954, Hore-Belisha wrote to Amery: “What you tell me of your opinion that if it had come to a vote in the House of Commons it would have been Halifax is most interesting, and likewise what you tell me of Max [Beaverbrook]’s opinion that no debate in parliament could possibly overthrow Neville. These statements show how difficult it is to predict the fate of men and how uncertain the outcome was at the time.”

Hore-Belisha was making the point that observers do not share the same perspective as participants. In May 1940, in the extremely unlikely event that Chamberlain were to step aside, Churchill was merely one among several contenders, on both sides of the House, who had spent their political careers jostling for such an opening. Yet the idea of resignation was not in Chamberlain’s thoughts when he stood up at 3.48 pm to present his government’s case for a fiasco that most of his war cabinet considered to be largely of Churchill’s making.

***

The Norway Campaign was Churchill’s baby, an Arctic Dardanelles. Its tragic details hardly need to be recapitulated, yet the question lingers. How did a minister who advocated, planned and directed one of the most disastrous campaigns since the Crimean War become prime minister?

The short answer: loyalty. The overwhelming reason why today’s Churchill-lite Foreign Secretary is unlikely to succeed Theresa May is his deficiency in this area. Lord Beaverbrook later told Halifax that Churchill “had behaved with complete wisdom when the time came for him to replace Chamberlain, and no one could find any fault with his comportment!” Beaverbrook’s explanation for Churchill’s success was simple: “If you want to supplant the prime minister, you must always be on the most friendly and loyal terms.”

Glossed over in The Gathering Storm is how very well Churchill and Chamberlain got on during this period, much to the surprise of both men. It strains the imagination to picture a lachrymose Boris saying to his leader with tears in his eyes, “I’m proud to follow you” – yet Halifax witnessed Churchill do exactly this. When his children attempted a mild jest at Chamberlain’s expense, Churchill scowled at them: “If you are going to make offensive remarks about my chief you will have to leave the table.”

Even though Chamberlain was naturally suspicious of a man he had previously considered “a d—d uncomfortable bedfellow” and once wished to be sent “as ambassador to Timbuktu”, he was persuaded that Churchill’s feelings towards him were “quite genuine”. He wrote to his sister: “To me personally he is absolutely loyal and I am continually hearing from others of the admiration he expresses for the PM.”

How could Chamberlain be certain? Despite his reputation for shyness and aloofness, and his alleged “lust for peace”, he was a ruthless pioneer of the dark arts that we now take for granted. Inside the House of Commons, Chamberlain counted on a small team to manipulate lobby correspondents and MPs with aggressive briefings.

He also relied on the shadowy head of the Conservative Research Department, a former MI5 officer called Sir Joseph Ball, to maintain a tighter surveillance of the Conservative party and the Commons than is commonly realised. Ball snooped on Chamberlain’s enemies and smeared them in his weekly magazine, Truth, deploying it to demolish the reputation of anyone who impeded Chamberlain’s path, such as Hore-Belisha, or the ambitious air minister, Samuel Hoare, who had let it be known that he “was still planning to succeed Neville when the time came”. Ball’s besmirching hand was probably behind the story of how Hoare, a passionate skater, would invite colleagues in the cabinet to watch him on the ice in black tights.

Ball used former intelligence colleagues to listen to telephone conversations and read letters. Chamberlain told his sister: “Our secret service doesn’t spend all its time looking out of the window.” In 1932, Chamberlain had been staying in Ottawa when he discovered that his conversation was being tapped by the Canadians. On becoming prime minister, he adopted their practice of eavesdropping on political opponents. As the diplomat Robert Vansittart noted, “He had a devious mind in this field.” Few public figures exchanged confidences beyond the range of Ball’s telephone tap, and even former kings were not exempt. Writing to the Duke of Windsor in Paris about his wish to fly over to London and have an interview with his younger brother, George VI, the Duke’s solicitor warned: “It is very difficult to discuss this matter on the telephone where we are overheard.” In his reply, the Duke enclosed a note typed out in red: “To WHOMSOEVER steams this letter open! I hope you are as edified at the contents of this letter as I am over having to write them!!”

After Munich, Chamberlain regularly taped Churchill’s private conversations. The job of his junior private secretary, Jasper Rootham, as Rootham later admitted to Andrew Roberts, “was to take transcripts of the tapes to the Prime Minister”. Most likely, this is how Chamberlain became convinced of Churchill’s “complete loyalty to me”.

The startling division result on 8 May, which slashed Chamberlain’s majority to 81, paved the way for Churchill’s elevation. Churchill merely had to let “events unfold”, and be seen to do nothing to promote his political advancement; indeed, he rounded angrily on supporters such as Brendan Bracken who plotted without Churchill’s knowledge on his behalf. According to Churchill’s own extremely questionable account, written eight years later, the voluble cigar-smoker who was never at a loss for words did not even open his mouth when Chamberlain asked him if he saw any problem with a peer – ie the foreign secretary – becoming prime minister.

If ever there was a shoo-in for prime minister, then it was Edward Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax, on Thursday 9 May 1940. It is most unusual for a potential minister to pass up a promotion. Chamberlain turned down the Treasury in 1924 in order to pursue his cousin Norman’s social policies, which alone allowed Churchill to survive and come in as chancellor of the exchequer. In 1916, Bonar Law refused the premiership on Asquith’s resignation, believing that Lloyd George would be the more effective war leader. In 1855, Lord Derby declined Queen Victoria’s offer to form a government, hoping to return in a stronger position. Such examples are few.

So why, at his height, was Halifax ready to decline? Many reasons have been advanced, none of them on their own quite satisfactory. His peerage; his innate aversion to “unnecessary activity”; his genuine conviction that Churchill would be a better leader at this dangerous time; his pragmatic calculation that if Churchill failed quickly, as the Norway Campaign suggested was likely, and as Halifax may ultimately have believed, then Churchill could be swept clean away, leaving Halifax sole heir.

All of these considerations in varying degrees played their part in Halifax’s reckoning. But also thrown into mix must be his passionate relationship with a married woman, Lord Curzon’s youngest daughter, “Baba” Metcalfe, at whose “snapshot photograph” the exceedingly religious Halifax never tired of gazing: “It sits in a prayer book that I use every morning, and so cheers me each day!” If power is an aphrodisiac, then love may have been its antidote on this critical occasion.

With Halifax famously in the dentist’s chair, the road was free for Churchill to take his stroll with destiny.

***      

Upon his demotion, Chamberlain rewarded Churchill’s loyalty by staying on as leader of the party – unlike Asquith’s destructive huff when Lloyd George replaced him in 1916 – and by making sure that David Margesson continued as chief whip. Churchill’s loyalty to Chamberlain proved to be the magical solvent of success in his vital early days as premier. As he wrote to Lloyd George: “I have joined hands with him and must act with perfect loyalty.”

Chamberlain was swift to reciprocate. “Winston has behaved with the most unimpeachable loyalty. Our relations are excellent and I know that he finds my help of great value to him.”

When Churchill was away in France on 22 May, Chamberlain once again presided over the government, causing Churchill later to admit to Halifax and others: “I shall never find such a colleague again.” Such was Churchill’s dependence on Chamberlain that the newspaper publisher Cecil King wrote in his diary: “He is now so much in the grip of the old bunch that people are calling him Neville Churchill.”

Against rising criticism, Chamberlain wryly reflected that it was he and Lord Swinton who had pushed ahead with the production of the Hurricanes and Spitfires that were winning the Battle of Britain; they had done so against the advice of Churchill, who six months before Munich had written to Chamberlain criticising these selfsame fighter planes.

One of those RAF pilots was Conservative MP Patrick Donner who, though he had voted against the government in the Norway Debate, refused to join in the clamour to traduce Chamberlain – an ongoing narrative but one that revisionist writers such as Robert Harris, in his thriller Munich, are beginning to defy. Donner instead directed his most burning criticism towards those who “having held an erroneous view of Neville Chamberlain for many years… do not possess the resilience of mind to change that view in the light of facts previously unknown to them”. He concluded: “Must not the final verdict be… that Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill between them saved this country? Neither statesman would have achieved our salvation without the other.”

***

Without the ballast of loyalty, Churchill’s chances of the premiership would have sunk more rapidly than the destroyer HMS Afridi when evacuating the last British troops from Namsos, Norway, on 2 May. His political ambitions would have been scuppered like Michael Heseltine’s after he torpedoed Margaret Thatcher. Even so, it was only by a whisker’s breadth that Churchill, not Halifax, became leader on 10 May 1940. Speaking at historian Martin Gilbert’s memorial service in 2015, former prime minister Gordon Brown recalled asking Gilbert to sum up what he had learned after writing his 38 volumes on Churchill. “I learned,” Gilbert said, “what a close thing it was.”

History is made up of such hinge moments. Who can say what the world would look like had 537 more Americans voted for Al Gore in 2000 and not for George W Bush. Or if Hitler had lingered a little in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller on 8 November, 1939. (“Had he remained 12 minutes and one second longer, he surely would have been killed,” reported the American journalist William Shirer.) In April 1940, had Churchill’s army and navy commanders carried out his orders in Norway, believes the head of the Namsos Historical Society, Gunnar Hojem, “it would have been a catastrophe. Maybe we’d all be wearing brown shirts still today.”

Equally, had Boris Johnson not at the last second clambered out of HMS Cameron onto the Brexit tug, maybe we’d still be unequivocally in Europe. Had he stayed loyally on board, maybe today he’d be, like his predecessor Lord Halifax, a dead cert as premier – which Johnson’s ambitions, as revealed in his book-length job application, The Churchill Factor, suggest are his only fidelity.

As it is, we are left with a stubborn, colourless, weak prime minister, an ex-Remainer who has inherited Chamberlain’s instincts for appeasement, not of fascist tendencies on the continent, but of an unpalatable right-wing rump within her own party who seem hysterically determined to steer their nation onto any rocks so long as the rocks are British.

In April 1940, the Liberal peer Lord Davies, who in 1916 had helped “to bring about a revolt amongst the backbenchers”, circulated a memo to rebellious-minded MPs: “In vain we look for a glimmer of light. It is a perfect blackout.” Davies went on: “In the similar crisis of 1916, it was the House of Commons and not the government of the day which saved the country, and laid the foundations of leadership by insisting upon bold, constructive and efficient leadership.”

Just one month later, parliament rediscovered its courage. Out of the blue, a routine adjournment motion for the Whitsun holiday, which the government had expected comfortably to win, was hijacked using a procedural vote to expose the fragility of an administration incapable of defending Britain’s interests. What AJP Taylor called the “splendid upheaval” of the Chamberlain government showed that once the House of Commons is given the freedom to debate an issue, anything can happen.

Nicholas Shakespeare is the author of “Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister” (Harvill/Secker) 

This article appears in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history