Michael Portillo

Revisiting the Perils of Appeasement

Burying Caesar: Churchill, Chamberlain and the Battle for the Tory Party

By

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In the introduction to his book about Chamberlain and Churchill, Graham Stewart refers to the approach to political history adopted by Maurice Cowling in The Impact of Labour, published in 1971. Cowling, in writing about how the Conservatives reacted to the strengthening of the Labour Party between 1920 and 1924, concentrated on ‘the high politics of the politicians who mattered’. His was not a history of backbenchers or public opinion, still less of economic and social forces. He viewed the political system as consisting of fifty to sixty politicians ‘in conscious tension with one another’, whose rhetoric and manoeuvring could be understood only by grasping the complexity of their interrelated orbits. ‘Biography’, he asserted, ‘is almost always misleading’ because it cannot capture those convolutions. ‘It abstracts a man whose public action cannot be abstracted.’

Stewart refreshingly illuminates the careers of Chamberlain and Churchill between 1920 and 1940 with special emphasis on the impact of each upon the other. Throughout the period they were intensely aware of each other’s existence. Between 1924 and 1929 they were close professionally, but not personally, with Churchill at the Treasury, and Chamberlain pursuing ambitious policies of social reform as Minister of Health. In the early and middle 1930s, they had less reason to give each other thought, as Chamberlain occupied the Exchequer, and Churchill’s mind turned to India. In the years leading to war, they held each other’s stare as Chamberlain appeased, and Churchill warned of Hitler’s unquenchable thirst for conquest. For eight months from September 1939 Churchill was Chamberlain’s loyal First Lord of the Admiralty. In the course of a day in May 1940 he became his boss. and Chamberlain served the new Prime Minister with a loyalty at least as great.

Each of these men was acutely burdened by his family background. Churchill entered Parliament with ideas of continuing his father Randolph’s work, deeply affected by a sense of the injustice done to him. Neville Chamberlain was highly conscious of his father Joe’s unluckiness in not becoming Prime Minister. Shortly after Neville entered Parliament, he saw the hopes of his half-brother Austen similarly dashed. Neville never shed his sense of being the junior, and perhaps least-deserving Chamberlain, although this humility was coupled, paradoxically, with ‘an intense dislike of others interfering in areas in which he only trusted himself as the arch problem solver’.

Stewart writes history that grips the reader with its pace and its depiction of emotions. It is also witty – sometimes rather glibly, but always entertainingly. Of King Edward VIII’s lover, Mrs Simpson, Stewart comments:

To most, she was a disaster poised to bring down a gifted and handsome monarch. Only to those who regarded the young King as lazy, self-willed, disturbingly Right-wing and on an inevitable collision course with his government did she seem to be a godsend.

There are other places where I thought I detected the influence of another of Stewart’s mentors, Alan Clark MP, whose recent history of the party, The Tories, portrayed Baldwin as manoeuvring the King into abdication. Stewart also echoes Clark in approving Chamberlain’s approach to rearmament, especially his concentration on building up the RAF to provide national defence, but avoiding Continental commitments. According to Stewart, Chamberlain was, from 1934, the most prominent proponent of spending money on the air force rather than the army. Labour’s spokesman Arthur Greenwood singled him out for abuse during the 1935 election campaign, alleging ‘the merest scaremongering, disgraceful in a statesman in Mr Chamberlain’s responsible position’.

Chamberlain succeeded Baldwin as Prime Minister in 1937, and wrote:

It has come to me without my raising a finger to obtain it, because there is no one else and perhaps because I have not made enemies by looking after myself rather than the common cause.

Churchill had made enemies by the dozen. He had crossed and re-crossed the floor of the House of Commons, had shown numerous examples of poor judgement, and had battled against the Tory leadership. But importantly, Stewart argues that Churchill’s opposition to Baldwin was not the reason for his exclusion from Baldwin’s government. Contrary to other accounts, he asserts that Churchill’s campaign against the government’s India policy came close to succeeding and actually resurrected his claim for inclusion in the Cabinet. The campaign scared Baldwin off ideas of creating a new centre party out of the coalition government, and boosted the impact of Churchill’s crusade to rearm Britain against Hitler.

Chamberlain was decent (although his henchmen did bug Churchill’s telephone) and prided himself on it. This helps explain his self-delusion about success in winning Hitler’s respect, which is beautifully depicted in this book. But Stewart deals pretty ruthlessly with the idea that Chamberlain did his country a service by buying time. He concedes that Chamberlain followed almost unanimous official advice in his appeasement policy. He was working on duff intelligence about German capabilities, which led him to believe that at the time of Munich Britain was vulnerable to annihilation by the Luftwaffe. But Stewart is convinced that ‘by preventing a war in 1938, only to concede one later, Chamberlain created conditions in which Germany could indeed deliver the punch upon which his dire predictions had been based.’ Of course not even Churchill could foresee how easily Hitler would acquire air bases in the Low Countries and France from which to pound our cities.

As an exercise in Cowlingite history, Burying Caesar leaves something to be desired. For most of the twenty years in question, Chamberlain and Churchill moved in such different orbits that they exercised little planetary pull upon each other. But the book comes triumphantly into its own during the appeasement years and after. Then indeed the words and actions of each can be understood only in relation to the other. Stewart has a gift for making the familiar history of how Chamberlain was toppled in 1940 fresh, exciting and moving. One day there may be a book entitled The Impact of Cowling, setting out Cowling’s considerable influence on the perception and writing of political history and the history of thought. Until then, suffice it to say: I know Maurice Cowling. Maurice Cowling is my friend. Graham Stewart might one day be a Maurice Cowling.

In the few months during which Chamberlain served in Churchill’s government before illness, and then death, removed him from the scene, the two men treated one another with exemplary consideration. Chamberlain gave Churchill crucial backing against Halifax’s plan to parley with Mussolini after the fall of France. Churchill got his secretary to telephone the sick man with the figures of enemy losses during the Battle of Britain, and sent him official papers even after he had left the administration. Stewart wisely allows Churchill to speak for himself by quoting him at length. His phrases do not pall. Like Stewart, I will end by citing Churchill’s eulogy at Chamberlain’s funeral:

The only guide to a man is his conscience …. It fell to Neville Chamberlain … to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were those hopes in which he was disappointed? … They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the heart – the love of peace, the toil for peace … even at great peril and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour.

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