In British politics both world wars were unifying in some ways and divisive in others. The need to close ranks against the enemy and set aside peacetime quarrels for the duration of the conflict was self-evident. Hence the formation of coalition governments, the suspension of civil liberties and the rise of temporary dictators – Lloyd George in 1916 and Churchill in 1940. But wars also generated discontent. As Asquith discovered in the First World War, and Chamberlain in the Second, no prime minister could survive an apparently endless run of military defeats. In the Second World War, the long march to victory posed problems of its own. With the defeat of Germany in prospect from 1943 onwards, party conflict began to revive, but a long and hazardous war had still to be fought and the rage of the party contained.
Jonathan Schneer’s new book is a history of the struggle for power at the top during the Second World War. The subtitle, ‘Churchill and his War Cabinet’, is a little misleading. A true history of the War Cabinet would need to encompass all aspects of its agenda: military, diplomatic, social,