After the disasters of his earlier political career I described in my last post, by 1939 Winston Churchill had once again managed to rise to prominence within the Conservative party and had gathered some considerable support behind his cause of opposition to the government’s appeasement policy. When Britain was finally dragged into war in September of that year, he found himself once again on the front foot of Westminster politics.
Churchill, as the only person mentally prepared for war, was immediately made First Lord of the Admiralty again, and it was only thanks to Neville Chamberlain’s suddenly horrendous reputation attracting blame like a magnet that prevented him getting the blame for a series of naval disasters. After Germany had successfully invaded Norway and Denmark without a hitch*, despite some fantastically idiotic speeches from Chamberlain concerning Germany’s lack of military strength, Chamberlain was forced out of power and the process of trying to hash together a coalition government began.
[*For some reason, Britain took this as a cue to invade Iceland. Why is something of a mystery.]
Chamberlain’s main ally in pursuing appeasement had been Lord Halifax, and he wanted him to head up the wartime government. The only other major candidate for the job was Churchill, who had built up a sizeable base of support within parliament, and all knew that Halifax’s government would only be able to function with Churchill’s support. Churchill, Halifax, Chamberlain and David Margesson, the Conservative chief whip, met on 10 May 1940 and Chamberlain asked Churchill the pivotal question: would he be willing to serve in a government under Halifax? This put Churchill in a dilemma: saying yes would put the government in the hands of an ineffective, pro-appeasement leader, whilst saying no would split the government down the middle and wreak mayhem at a time when strength and unity were of critical importance. Unsure of what to do, he said nothing. Time ticked by. For two full minutes the silence endured unbroken, the other men present equally unsure what they were supposed to do. Finally, Lord Halifax spoke up, whether for purely political reasons or simply our of sheer embarassment, to make possibly the most important statement in the last century of British history: he suggested that it would be difficult for a member of the House of Lords*, such as himself, to govern effectively as opposed to a member of the House of Commons, effectively ruling himself out of the job. At Chamberlain’s recommendation following that meeting, King George VI asked Churchill to be prime minister, and he duly accepted. That pregnant silence would prove to be among the most important two minutes in history.
[*The practice of an elected Prime Minister always coming from the House of Commons is a modern phenomenon not enshrined in law; since she ostensibly chooses who becomes PM, the Queen could in theory just tell a random member of the House of Lords that he was now head of government. That she doesn’t is partly good manners, but mostly because to do so would probably end the British monarchy in under 5 years]
At the time, there were many who thought that, what with Gallipoli and his long history of political failures, the coming of Churchill to power represented the final nail in Britain’s coffin. Unpopular among the MPs and Lord’s alike, the 65 year-old Churchill looked to have all the cards stacked against him. However, Churchill’s drive, energy, superlative public speaking ability and vehement opposition to appeasing the Germans single-handedly changed the face of the war, hardening the opinion of public and parliament alike against the idea of an armistice. In wartime, Churchill was in his element; a natural warmonger whose aggressive tactics were so often disastrous in peacetime, now his pugnacious determination, confidence, and conviction to continue the fight no matter what united the country behind him. It was he who not only organised but inspired the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, in which thousands of small civilian vessels mobilised to take part in Operation Dynamo, evacuating trapped British and French soldiers from the port of Dunkirk in the face of heavy German fire and aerial attack, he whose many inspiring wartime speeches have gone down in history, he who inspired Londoners and RAF pilots alike to survive the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, ensuring the country remained safe from the threat of German invasion. OK, so the ‘heroic’ events of Dunkirk overlooked the fact that it had been a humiliating retreat and the army had left all their weapons behind, but that wasn’t the point; the British were inspired and weren’t going to stop fighting.
One of the most morally ambiguous yet telling events about the spirit of defiance Churchill inspired within Britain came in July 1940; the French Navy was holed up in Algeria, with the British attempting to negotiate a joining of the two fleets. The negotiations went badly and the French refused to join the British fleet- and in response the British opened fire on their allies in order to prevent their ships falling into enemy hands. 1300 lives were lost. In just about any other situation, this would have been an utterly insane act that would only have caused the Allied war effort to collapse amid bitter argument and infighting, but then, with France all but completely overrun by German forces, it was nothing more or less than a simple statement of British intent. Britain were prepared to do whatever it took to fight off the Germans, and the sheer ruthlessness of this act is said to have convinced the USA that Britain had the stomach to continue fighting no matter what. Is this a moment to be proud of? No; it was a shameless slaughter and a fiasco in more ways than one. Did it make its point? Absolutely.
Some expected Churchill to win a landslide in the first post-war elections, but ’twas not to be; even the massive wave of public goodwill towards him was not enough to overcome the public desire for social change as Clement Attlee became the first ever labour Prime Minister in 1945. To be honest, it’s probably a good thing; Attlee’s government gave us the NHS and finally started to dismantle the badly-run, expensive remnants of the British Empire, whilst Churchill’s second term as PM (1951-55) was largely undistinguished save for some more post-Imperial restlessness. Not that it matters; useless though he may have been in peacetime, in war Churchill was every bit the national hero he is nowadays made out to be. Churchill’s great legacy is not just one of not having grown up speaking German, but in many ways he redefined what it meant to be British. Churchill inspired a return to the ‘stiff upper lip’ British stereotype that we are nowadays all so proud of: a living tribute to the idea to standing up and keeping going in the face of adversity. In many ways, what Winston Churchill stood for can be best summarised by simply reciting possibly the most famous of all his many great speeches:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender