Wednesday 28 September 2016

Churchill's wartime coalition

Biography: All Behind You, Winston, Roger Hermiston, Aurum, hdbk, 416 pages, €31.60

Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30

Harmony: Churchill's grand coalition was an eclectic mix (Photo by H F Davis/Getty Images)
Harmony: Churchill's grand coalition was an eclectic mix (Photo by H F Davis/Getty Images)
All Behind You, Winston

Tim Bouverie on a gripping study of the three-party administration Winston led between 1940 and 1945.

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'England does not love coalitions," declared Benjamin Disraeli in 1852. Yet, with the exception of the notoriously opportunistic Fox-North coalition, of which the future prime minister was probably thinking, England has actually shown a remarkable affection for coalitions. The 1916-22 Liberal-Conservative coalition won both the war and a landslide election in 1918; the national government was returned with thumping majorities in both 1931 and 1935; and, against the majority of opinion, the 2010 Conservative-Liberal coalition provided a full term of stable government. But the pièce de résistance was Churchill's 1940-45 administration. Not only did this Conservative-Labour-Liberal coalition steer Britain through its most perilous years and win the war, it also initiated social reforms that were to shape postwar Britain. These staggering achievements are brilliantly described in Robert Hermiston's All Behind You, Winston.

Strange as it may seem now, the Conservative Party was not all behind Churchill in the spring of 1940.

"The good clean tradition of English politics, that of Pitt as opposed to Fox, had been sold off to the greatest adventurer of modern political history," wrote the staunch appeaser 'Rab' Butler on Churchill's accession to the premiership. Fortunately, the Labour Party, or certainly the Labour leadership, were behind him. Despite having been pacifist for most of the 1930s, by 1937 Labour had been converted to the need for rearmament and a firm stand against fascist aggression. This made them natural allies of Churchill, who now needed to bring his former opponents into a grand "Ministry of All the Talents", which could rally the nation and defeat Nazi Germany.

The new coalition government was an eclectic mix: the loquacious Churchill contrasted with the diffident Attlee, and the bruiser trade-union boss Ernest Bevin was juxtaposed with the embodiment of capitalism, Lord Beaverbrook. The government was talented, however, and moved swiftly to avert disaster. Beaverbrook, known to his friends as the 'Beaver', lived up to his name as he worked himself and his staff around the clock to achieve a remarkable increase in fighter aircraft production.

The former department store manager Lord Woolton introduced a fair system of food rationing, and Herbert Morrison overhauled the government's air-raid shelter policy. When the Home Secretary, along with his scientific adviser, presented Churchill with designs for a new flat-topped "table shelter", with a steel roof and wiremesh sides, the prime minister delighted: "That's the one, make 500,000 in the next three months and give them to the people. Show them that it is safe, blow a house up on one, put a pig in it, put the inventor in it!" As Hermiston recounts, it was not all plain sailing. For much of 1940, Beaverbrook (Minister of Aircraft Production) was engaged in a bitter turf war with the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair.

He also infuriated Bevin (Minister for Labour), who went as far as threatening to prosecute him for breaking the Factory Acts. Reading these pages, one can't help feeling for the overworked war leader, who was called on to diffuse Cabinet spats while negotiating with Stalin or cementing the American alliance. The most ridiculous row was over whether the fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, should be released early from Wormwood Scrubs on health grounds. The irascible Bevin declared that he would have to vote against the government and possibly resign.

He was talked off the ledge, but Churchill, who was in the midst of the Tehran conference, was incandescent.

Hermiston has written a gripping account, full of drama, personality and humour. Churchill's response to the suggestion that Sir Stafford Cripps should be recalled from Moscow to join the Cabinet is particularly good: "A lunatic in a country of lunatics - it would be a pity to move him."

Hermiston is also good on analysis, arguing that, despite the rivalries and the rows, Britain has never had a coalition government that has "worked in such harmony…[or] affected the lives of its citizens so directly".

Indeed, one can go further and claim, without controversy, that Churchill's wartime coalition saved Britain.

When one adds to this the early implementation of the Beveridge report, the 1944 Butler Education Act and the revolutionary commitment to jobs for all, then we realise that this was a governmental record the like of which Britain is unlikely to see again.

Tim Bouverie is a political journalist for Channel 4 News

Winston's wisdom...

"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it."

"I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals."

"You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life."

"I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me."

"In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet."

"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. It's also what it takes to sit down and listen."

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

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