“MINISTERS AT WAR: WINSTON CHURCHILL AND HIS WAR CABINET” BY JONATHAN SCHNEER
A quite remarkable story, revealing facets of Churchill’s and his administration’s leadership during World War II which I had never perceived. I won’t try to record all the detail. But there are some insights and lessons to be drawn from them I want to record.
1. There was a huge debate as to whether Churchill would even take over the Prime Minister slot when Chamberlain was finally deposed. Many wanted the more “temperate” Lord Halifax. Indeed, at one point, Churchill had recommended Halifax. There was a lot of “in and out” fighting which finally led to Churchill ascending.
2. The cabinet of ministers that came together was deliberately composed of all parties, Conservative, Liberal and Labor. The amount of back-fighting that went on among them is incredible. Two times in 1942, there were moves (or at least strong rumors) of Stafford Cripps and William Aitken (first Baron Beaverbrook) seeking to supplant Churchill as Prime Minister. These came at the worst moments of the military situation when the Japanese were taking Singapore, Britain was losing in the desert and London was being bombed.
With these setbacks came genuine questioning of Churchill’s leadership. It was the darkest year of his Presidency. Perhaps like 1861 was for President Lincoln after the defeat of the Union Army at Bull Run. And like Lincoln that year, Churchill had moments of deep depression, even tears in his eyes, observers reported. Yet he never let it show to the public. And it never broke his indomitable spirit to carry on to win.
There was jostling between the ministers (Bevin and Beaverbook) as to who would have control of production as Britain built its armaments. The temperaments of the individuals varied tremendously. They often undercut each other and conveyed their disrespect openly. Their diary entries conveyed even more disrespect. At times, and I think the book may overdo this, it would seem that Churchill was spending more time trying to control disagreements among his cabinet than having to fight the war. But, make no mistake, Churchill was focused on just one thing, and that was winning the war and rallying the spirit of the British people.
Just as Lincoln had done with his cabinet, Churchill suffered the barbs and nettlesome behavior of members of the cabinet in order to get the job done. He sent people who were getting in his way off to other places (Halifax to the United States; Cripps to Russia).
3. The role of First Baron Beaverbrook was very significant. A crusty, tough, action-oriented individual, he was the perfect person to lead production. For example, the production of fighter planes quadrupled between February and September 1940. The total output of aircraft in Britain from almost a standing start in 1940 was twice that of Germany; yet, Beaverbrook, who owned two of the U.K.’s most important newspapers, was extremely temperamental, threatening to resign from the cabinet many times and doing it once.
4. What is shockingly clear is that Churchill’s colleagues did not treat him with the reverence that he usually receives today. As the author writes, “They did not know how posterity would view him. They saw him at the time as a great and prurient man, no doubt, but also as a difficult and flawed one.” His hours were absolutely crazy; he drank to the hilt; he ran meetings in a chaotic way. But he knew what he was about, just as Lincoln did in saving the Union. His commitment to that mission carried all, and the British people rallied.”
5. I, of course, had known that Churchill and the Conservatives lost the election in summer 1945. I had not known the venom of that campaign as the Labor party decided that it could no longer serve in a coalition government and would come out to oppose the Conservatives. Churchill had actually moved a long way toward Labor’s position. National health care was being promised; minimum wage and much more, including nationalization of the coal industry. But that was not nearly enough for Labor, which wanted to go further.
If we talk about demonizing political opponents today, I have to say that the 1945 campaign in Britain showed the way. Churchill: “My friends, I must tell you that a Socialist policy (referring to the Labor party) is abhorrent to the British idea of freedom…Socialism is an attack upon the right of an ordinary man or woman to breathe freely without having a harsh, clumsy, tyrannical hand clasped across their mouths and nostrils…no Socialist government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, refinely worded expressions of public intent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo.”
Really, I think it’s always been the same. Often today, we feel we have entered new ground in the polarization of our political rhetoric and, compared to some eras, I suppose we have. But compared to most eras, we haven’t. One only needs to go back to the attacks made on Roosevelt, that he was about to introduce a government equivalent to Communism or a Bolshevik regime, to realize that.
6. In retrospect, this story brings home again that sometimes we are fortunate in having the right person in the right place at the right time. That was the case with Lincoln and it was the case with Churchill during World War II. It was also the case with Roosevelt during the Second World War. Individuals, by no means perfect, though Lincoln comes pretty close; but right for the time. Each is an example that progress is not made without bitter debate and sometimes bitter accusations, one person to another; yet even so, they worked together to achieve a productive end. Life isn’t always pretty, but you have to put up with ugliness sometimes to get a big job done; and it only happens when very competent people believe in something deeply and act with all their might to make it happen.