By Brian R. Merrick
Ministers At War; Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet by Jonathan Schneer, (Basic Books, New York City, 2014)
As a subject of history and biography, arguably the most important and certainly the most entertainingly interesting figure of the last century was Sir Winston Churchill. His service to Britain in the 20th Century ranged from riding as a young officer in one of the last cavalry charges under Queen Victoria to serving as the Prime Minister of a nuclear power under Queen Elizabeth II.
In between he was a war correspondent in Cuba during the Spanish American War, escaped from capture by the Boers, sent British forces to disaster in World War I at Gallipoli as First Lord of the Admiralty, served as an officer in the trenches himself, changed political parties twice, fought a general strike, returned Britain to the gold standard as Chancellor of the Exchequer and was nearly killed when run down by a car in New York City.
Most famously, indeed immortally, he endured political exile during the 1930’s as a lonely voice warning of the danger of Hitler’s Germany while the government pursued a policy of appeasement, returned to power when vindicated by the start of World War II, led Britain alone against Nazi Germany until, in his words, “the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
And he wrote. Churchill wrote for a living all his life. He was a journalist writing news stories. He wrote newspaper columns and magazine articles. Above all he wrote books. Knowing who gets the last word, he wrote history books, especially the 6 volume “The Second World War.” In 1953 Churchill received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his writing and his speeches during the war, which stirred and instructed Western Civilization.
His prose and oratory each have inspired the adjective “Churchillian.”
Churchill’s personality and lifestyle only add to his appeal as a biographical subject. Not often wealthy, he always lived as if he were. He dined sumptuously with the mighty and fascinating at his home, Chartwell, and the Prime Ministerial residence, Chequers. Beginning with a morning sherry while he conducted business from his bedroom, he drank brandy and champagne before during and after meals and into the early morning hours but was seldom seen the worse for it. He was a master of the cutting riposte at dinner and at the House of Commons. By modern standards, his private conversation was delightfully politically incorrect.
It is unsurprising that Churchill has been the subject of so many biographies, not to mention the many histories of his time in which he plays a prominent part. The major biographies include Churchill’s own works, Martin Gilbert’s eight volume official biography, a three volume set, “The Last Lion” by William Manchester, completed by Paul Reid, and recent volumes by Paul Johnson, Boris Johnson and Roy Jenkins.
Andrew Roberts successfully exercised the temerity to complete Churchill’s 4 volume “History of the English Speaking Peoples” with a fifth volume “The History of the English Peoples Since 1900” which, quite naturally, includes a great deal about the author of the first four volumes. Roberts alone has provided “Eminent Churchillians,” “Masters and Commanders,” about Churchill, F.D.R. and their generals, and with Rodney J. Croft, “Churchill’s Final Farewell,” about Churchill’s funeral. There are tomes focusing on special aspects of Churchill – Churchill and the Empire, Churchill the writer, Churchill the painter, Churchill the young officer, Churchill and Roosevelt, Churchill and his generals, collections of his speeches and even a recent volume on his personal finances.
Churchill devotees wonder whether they will ever see a new Churchill book with an approach that is fresh and interesting. Jonathan Schneer, Professor of History at Georgia Tech, has answered their prayers with “Ministers At War, Winston Churchill and His War Cabinet.”
Students of Abraham Lincoln, himself the subject of perhaps, 15,000 books, had long shared a similar longing for a new slant on the 16th President until Doris Kearns Goodwin in 2005 published “Team of Rivals.” Kearns’ book studied Lincoln’s achievement of bringing into his cabinet, not docile supporters, but the men who had competed against him, most of whom regarded themselves as his political and intellectual superiors and far better suited to the Presidency. The tale of how Lincoln both inspired and manipulated those powerful men, bending them to his will, demonstrated his previously unplumbed political skill.
Schneer weaves a similar tale in “Ministers At War.” The Prime Minister, nominally selected by the monarch at the recommendation of the majority party, serves at the pleasure of the House of Commons. The Commons itself is elected in districts for a term that last until the government decides to call an election, usually no more than 5 years after the last election. The parliament in place when war began in 1939 had been elected in 1935.
Churchill had been regarded as a reckless outcast by the House of Commons and particularly in his own Conservative Party. Until war came, the public largely shared this view. At the outbreak of war public opinion quickly turned to recognition of Churchill’s wise foresight and strength. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was forced to bring the exiled Churchill into the government as First Lord of the Admiralty.
The war did not go well at first and Chamberlain was obliged to form a National Government coalition of all parties, especially since, by consensus, no election would be held until the defeat of Germany. The Labor Party would not serve under Chamberlain who than asked Churchill if he should suggest the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, a former appeaser, to the King be asked to form a government. There were difficulties with the proposal, as Halifax, a peer, could not sit in the House of Commons. Churchill remained silent while Halifax suggested Churchill. Chamberlain reluctantly agreed, as did Churchill with much less reluctance.
Churchill formed a carefully crafted coalition Cabinet of 52 Conservative ministers and 16 ministers from the Labor. Many, if not most, of the Conservatives in the cabinet were recent appeasers, barely reconciled to the idea of Churchill as Prime Minister. He seems to have adhered to the maxim later articulated by the fictional Godfather, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” This practice was not approved by the “Troublesome Young Men” in the Conservative Party who had supported Churchill in exile and now were largely consigned to posts as junior ministers.
Throughout the war, although posts were changed from time to time, Churchill maintained in the Cabinet a delicate balance of Conservatives who were lukewarm to his leadership as well a some who strongly supported him and a mix of Labor members and capable outsiders, brought in for their special talents.
Ultimate authority for the prosecution of the war lay with the inner War Cabinet of five members, a structure that remained in place until the end of the war. In keeping with his pattern in appointing the government, Churchill appointed to the initial War Cabinet, in addition to himself, two Conservatives, Neville Chamberlain, former Prime Minister, now Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Halifax who remained as Foreign Secretary.
Neither had been Churchill enthusiasts. Churchill treated Chamberlain who soon came down with terminal cancer, with great kindness. As military setbacks continued Halifax suggested an approach to Hitler through Mussolini with a peace proposal, which Churchill dramatically rejected. Churchill packed Halifax off to Washington as Ambassador.
To round out the War Cabinet of five Churchill appointed the Labor Party Leader and Deputy Leader, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood,
To maintain control over military operations Churchill retained for himself the post of Minister of Defense, appointing and overseeing three minsters, one from each party, the Conservative Secretary of State for War, the Labor First Lord of the Admiralty and the Liberal Minister for Air.
All during the war Churchill was vigorously demanding of his generals and admirals and argued with them frequently. He never, however, flatly overruled their recommendations.
Parliament gave the government emergency war powers over the military, the economy, the country and its subjects, which Churchill could easily have used to make himself a dictator. Deeply imbued with a love and respect for the institution to which he had devoted nearly all of his adult life, however, Churchill reported regularly to the full House of Commons. Owing to the wartime need for secrecy, these reports and debates often took place in closed sessions. Fond as he was of his own eloquent turns of phrase, Churchill often repeated in public censored versions of his speeches to the closed sessions so his words could be reported in the newspapers.
With Churchill’s place in history so long established, it is difficult for us now to comprehend the unease with which Churchill was regarded by Chamberlain loyalists and Labor members, many of whom considered him a windy, reckless anachronism. These misgivings surfaced particularly on the occasion of the frequent military setbacks earlier in the war. Occasional motions of No Confidence were always defeated by substantial margins but only after acrimonious debate.
Engrossed as he was in the war effort, Churchill had little interest in domestic affairs, particularly the subject of planning for postwar domestic life. The sure-footed political savvy that enabled him to guide a potentially fractious War Cabinet, Cabinet and House of Commons to a successful conclusion of the war failed him here.
A committee established by the House to study and reported on postwar needs issued a report named for its chairman, the Beveridge Report, calling for a cradle-to-grave welfare system of guaranteed employment, housing, medical care and old age pensions, funded by less corporate profit.
Churchill, momentarily diverted from the war effort, joined other Conservatives in expressing dismay at the cost of the proposals. In fairness to Churchill there is little he could have done, consistent with his political principles, to head off the revolutions of a public which had suffered the privations of depression and war and now wanted the fruits of their efforts.
Just months after Germany’s defeat British voters, after ten years without an election, expressed their demand for this future by voting in a Labor government.
A novel treatment of an unexamined but important aspect of the career of Winston Churchill, “Ministers At War” is well organized and researched and engagingly written and, simply, a real treat for Churchill fans.