Monday, 21 January, 2008

Was Churchill kicked upstairs?

Was Churchill made prime minister to get his out of the admiralty? It is one of the biggest ironies of the Second World War that Chamberlin paid for Narvik with his job; which went to the person responsible for the disaster! Who thereupon completed his emergence from political wasteland to become his nation’s saviour and the greatest Englishman ever!

Yet there may be an explanation to this.

In all probability, Labour and Liberal would never have served under either Chamberlin or Halifax (Irwin).

On the other hand, the Conservatives had too large a majority to accept an outsider for PM, as they had once accepted MacDonald. Anyway, there was no such ‘tall’ figure among contemporary non-Conservative politicians.

Yet at the hour of crisis, England needed a coalition of all talents, if only for symbolic reasons.

Also, the leader of that cabinet had to stand for certain things, so that the nation could rally around him. These did not have to universally accepted virtues: instead, they had to total up to Englishness, as understood by the average Englishman.

These made Churchill a strong contender. He led no group. He was untainted by Munich. He had an illustrious heritage and quite a good deal of experience.

At the same time, there was little in his political career’s morning, midday or afternoon to infer that its evening could be its finest hour. I remember reading in the introduction of a collection of his speeches that Churchill’s real gift to his nation was his rousing oratory, because he had made a mess of practically every opportunity he had!

His nation needed him as a powerful symbol, but did not dare trust him with real power.

Hence, it had to offer him a role of extreme responsibility but limited power. After all, how powerful had any British PM heading a collation government in the preceding three decades been?

So he was put at the head of the table, where he roared, and made a few more strategic blunders (Battle Axe, Singapore, Oran), which ultimately turned out to be inconsequential, thanks to the entry of the real superpowers.

Indeed, it had been rumoured, perhaps not completely in jest, that the War Cabinet got any work done when its head went off and his able deputy was in the chair (though Churchill had willed that should he die, Eden, and not Attlee, should take over).

This sounds heretical, presumptuous and preposterous. Nonetheless, toned down and with proper scholarship, it may fly.

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