Churchill and Chamberlain, 14 March 1935
In this episode of History Fireside Chats, we discuss the Downfall of Chamberlain and the rise of Winston Churchill and we explore how neither was as inevitable as we often think.
As always, this is only a cursory chat. The events preceding the downfall of Chamberlain were incredibly complicated and nuanced. Thankfully, Neville Chamberlain has been the subject of many detailed histories and biographies, and Winston Churchill’s Premiership is one of the most well covered political events in history. There are too many to list but I would recommend the following:
- Iain Macleod, Neville Chamberlain (London, 1961). A sympathetic, if problematic, account of Chamberlain’s life written by a British Conservative minister that explores in detail Chamberlain’s early reforms.
- Frank McDonough, Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement and the British Road to War (Manchester, 1998). A classic account of Chamberlain and his political career. It presents a very different view of Chamberlain to Macleod.
- Peter Neville, Neville Chamberlain: A Study in Failure? (1992). Peter Neville’s book a short but enticing introduction to Chamberlain’s life and is particularly suited for A-Level students. At the end of each chapter, Neville offers a series of exercises designed to explain some of the issues Chamberlain faced.
- Jonathan Schneer, Ministers at War: Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet (London, 2015). With enviable style, Schneer produces a history of high politics that reads at times like a well-written political thriller and he brings to life many of the rich personalities that clashed so frequently during the war.
Of course, Churchill’s own account of events is worth reading (even if it requires a slight pinch of salt). For his account see his The Second World War: Volume II: Their Finest Hour (1951)
Please excuse the more-than-usual nasally voice which is due to a mild cold. Apologies and I will try to re-record it when when I fully recovered.
History Fireside Chats are produced, recorded and researched by Dr Kristopher Lovell. The audio was recorded using the Samson G-Track Pro: https://amzn.to/2YU2cit
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In today’s fireside chat, I want to continue our discussion from last time. Previously we had explored the history and legacy of Appeasement. Today we are going to explore his downfall and the rise of Winston Churchill.
When we left Chamberlain last, he had told the House of Commons that he was uncertain what role he would play in the war. Within eight months, on 10 May 1940, Neville Chamberlain would tell the nation:
I sought an audience with the king this evening and tended to him my resignation which his majesty has been pleased to accept. His majesty has now entrusted to my friend and colleague, Mr. Winston Churchill, the task of forming a new administration on a national basis and in this task I have no doubt that he will be successful.
In this chat we will explore what happened over those eight months, during the phony war period. This period has often been neglected by historians and it can feel like the rise of Churchill was inevitable. However, as we shall see the downfall of Chamberlain and the rise of Churchill was not inevitable – and there were quite a few potential successors in May 1940.
This chat cannot cover all aspects or all aspects or all details of the succession. For a very comprehensive account of events I would recommend Nicholas Shakespeare Six Minutes in May.
Initially, people had expected war to come to Britain very quickly. The fear of a devastating bombing campaign was very real – as epitomised by Stanley Baldwin’s speech in 1932 declaring “The Bomber Will Always Get Through”. We all see that fear in H. G. Wells The Shape of Things to Come, which predicted a war breaking out in January 1940 – in Well’s story this was a war that would involve intense bombing that would eventually end civilisation. This fear meant that in September 1939, people were expecting hundreds of thousands of causalities in the first few days.
Yet when war broke out these fears were not realised. There was a period of ‘Phony War’ between October 1939 – April 1940, during which there was little military action. The RAF dropped propaganda leaflets but both sides were initially reticent to engage in large scale bombing campaigns.
The Phony War suited Chamberlain and most of his colleagues well who had little interest in escalating the conflict – instead they largely hoped that with enough time a naval blockade would force social collapse in Germany. At first there was little criticism of the Government aside from a few frustrated voices in the newspapers until January 1940, that is, when the Secretary of State for War Leslie Hore-Belisha was dismissed from his post.
Hore-Belisha was a remarkably popular politician who was famous for always giving the press a good headline and he was famous for his transport reforms including Belisha Beacons that still exist today. However due to a clash with the British High Command he was dismissed from his position as Secretary of State for War and a feeling of anti-semiticism among the establishment stopped Chamberlain from offering him the position of Minister of Information. Instead, Hore-Belisha was offered a serious demotion which he refused to accept arguing that if he was ill suited for the War Cabinet he was not suited for any position in the government.
The dismissal of Hore-Belisha was a major news story with headlines claiming that Hore-Belisha has been sacrificed in one of the ‘greatest scandal’. The Express went as far as asking ‘If [Hore-]Belisha must go, do all the other members of the Government deserve to stay?’
Although this has been dismissed as a media sensation by historians such as Paul Addison it did seem to represent a shift in the press’ mood which became increasingly critical of the British Government and its inability to effectively prosecute the war. The press’ frustration was reciprocated by the Prime Minister who became progressively hostile towards what he called the ‘the vile press’ and its anonymous journalists.
In early April 1940, Chamberlain still felt politically confident despite the frustration in the press. He confided to his sister that ‘luckily I am still in a strong enough position to treat them with the contempt they deserve’. That hubris was reflected in his public appearances when he infamously claimed that the lack of military activity during the Phony War meant that Hitler “had missed the bus”. Within a week, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway in overwhelming force.
British troops were sent to Norway in the hope of liberating Norway, however the campaign was a disaster for the British. From the outset, confusion had emerged over the reporting of the Norwegian and in early April 1940. Snippets of news had created a false sense of victory with newspapers publishing misinformed reports which praised British military victories in Bergen and Narvik. A sense of betrayal in the press seemed to only add to a mood, both within Parliament and outside, that would result in the biggest political crisis of the war thus far.
The failure led to the infamous Norway Debate on 7 and 8 May 1940. Normally, a parliamentary challenge would not threaten a Prime Minister with an overwhelming majority but there was a pervasive feeling in the House that the disaster in Norway was evidence of the government’s incompetence. Leo Amery, a Conservative politician famously led the charge against Chamberlain. As a journalist, Amery knew how to make an excoriating political attack worthy of the front page. Quoting Oliver Cromwell, he told the Government:
“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
With characteristic hubris, Chamberlain dismissed Labour’s call for a division:
“I accept the challenge”, he told the House. “I welcome it indeed. At least we shall see who is with us and who is against us, and I call on my friends to support us in the Lobby tonight.”
Chamberlain had fewer friends that he had realised once the votes were counted. Although the government technically won the vote by 81 votes it was a moral defeat as Chamberlain normally had a majority of 213. Chamberlain remained eager to retain his post even after defeat. However after it became clear that Labour would not serve under him in a Coalition he finally decided to resign.
But despite how events are often portrayed, Churchill was everyone’s first choice. Chamberlain himself preferred Lord Halifax, partly because Halifax was a fellow appeaser but also because Churchill was a divisive figure in the Conservative Party, known for being opportunistic. Other contenders for Prime Ministers included Leo Amery and even Anthony Eden.
Newspapers offered their own choices for successors. Some papers supported Halifax’s ascension — some suggestions in the papers appear in hindsight, slightly bizarre.
The Daily Mail on the 10 May came out in support of David Lloyd George with its political correspondent asking, ‘Is Lloyd George too old at 77?’
The article claimed not, arguing that Lloyd George had not lost any of the qualities that made him a brilliant first world war leader. Any youth and energy, the paper, argued, could come from his war cabinet.
In some ways Churchill was picked out of luck. According to his own memoirs, during a private meeting with Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, Halifax ruled himself out as a potential candidate because as a member of the House of Lords he would only ever be a figurehead.
Chamberlain had tried to dismiss Halifax’s concerns by asking Churchill if he could see any reason, why in these days a Peer should not be a Prime Minister?. The historian Johnathan Schneer has argued that this was a clever ploy to trap Churchill. If he agreed with Halifax it would be clear he was just a self-promotor, trying to put himself in the top position. If he said no, then it would be taken as a sign he supported Chamberlain’s preferred successor. Churchill, very rarely for him, chose to say nothing. The following day, he was called to Palace by the King and asked to form his own government.
When it became clear that Churchill was the successor, he was near unanimously received by the national newspapers as a man of Destiny. But as we’ve seen he was not always the first choice.
On 13 May Churchill addressed the House of Commons for the first time.
‘In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length today. I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.
Churchill was aware that he had little support amongst the Conservatives, and thus he asked Chamberlain to be Lord President of the Council. Chamberlain would loyally serve the new prime minister, but ill-health meant that this was a short appointment. He had told the House of Commons the year before that whatever role he would have in the war: ‘I trust that I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed.’ He would not. Diagnosed with stomach cancer, Chamberlain died on 9 November 1940.
As seen then, the rise of Churchill was not as inevitable as we often think, nor was the downfall of Chamberlain.
Although Churchill claimed that Chamberlain’s struggle to avoid a war would ‘stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned’, this as we saw last time was not the case partly because Churchill himself wrote that history. “History will be kind to me”, he said, “for I intend to write it.” History was not kind to his predecessor.
If you want to learn more about Chamberlain I would strongly recommend reading the works of Frank McDonough, and Iain Macleod. More recently, Jonathan Schneer has published a really thoroughly engaging account of Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet. For any A-Level students listening, Peter Neville’s Neville Chamberlain: A Study in Failure remains a really engaging and useful account, summarising his life quite succinctly and contains a series of good introductory exercises to explain some of the issues Chamberlain faced in his life.
In the next History Fireside Chat, we will challenge some of our interpretations of interwar Britain and explore the rise of consumerism and leisure during Britain’s depression years.