Blogs > HNN > Barry C. Knowlton: Review of Lynne Olson's Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

Mar 24, 2008 12:34 am

Barry C. Knowlton: Review of Lynne Olson's Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

There are some historical events and developments that call for new research and renewed narration, because they are not yet very well known. There are others that warrant such revision because the standard narrative and its cast of characters are so well known that there must be details, dynamics, and divagations that have been overlooked. Lynne Olson came upon her topic while revisiting those famous days in which Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain and roused the nation and empire to new confidence and continued resistance in its struggle against Nazi Germany.

Everyone knows that in the years leading up to the Second World War, Churchill warned of the threat posed by a rearmed Third Reich; but that his warnings went unheeded by the appeasers. The naïve and ineffectual Neville Chamberlain thought he had secured “peace for our time” by giving in to Hitler at Munich, but was proved wrong. When war came, Churchill was proved right, and so stepped forward to become the wartime Prime Minister that Britain needed. This narrative is not inaccurate; a revision of it need not focus on Churchill’s flaws, or filter out Chamberlain’s. But there is more to this historical episode than comes across in most, or at least the most well-known accounts; and Olson’s account now does good service and serves a good purpose in narrating and analyzing just how Churchill’s rise to power actually came about.

Most accounts of Churchill’s coming to power serve as the early chapters of larger histories of the war itself. Churchill’s own history of the war fits this pattern, and has set the standard. Its Whiggishness sorts well with his understanding of England’s history and his intuitions about his own destiny. But, as Olson observes in her introduction, “In the past six decades the emergence of Churchill as savior of Britain has come to be viewed almost as a preordained event. He is such a monumental figure, sweeping everyone else from center stage and claiming history’s spotlight, that it’s easy to believe, as many people do, that he stood virtually alone in opposing appeasement before the war and that his rise to power was inevitable. Neither assumption is true.”

The troublesome young men who are at center stage in this account are for the most part not very well known. They were aiming to save England, but that did not necessarily mean bringing Churchill to power. It did mean rebelling against Neville Chamberlain’s government, and this did get them into some trouble; for here Chamberlain appears not so much as the ridiculous figure of the failed statesman but very much more as the ruthless enforcer of party discipline. Any Tory MP who was insufficiently supportive of the government’s policies put his parliamentary career into deadly jeopardy. The most heroic of these young men, and until now the least well known, was Ronald Cartland. In August of 1939 he warned the House of Commons of the threat posed by dictatorship – not Hitler’s, but Chamberlain’s. On the eve of war, his government maintained its policy of appeasement, and would not tolerate any questioning or dissent. Cartland argued that the opposition to appeasement was an exercise in democracy, and asserted that “we are in the situation that within a month we may be going to fight – and we may be going to die.” He was already in the army, and within a year he would die, trying to protect the retreat to Dunkirk from the advance of the panzers.

Of the other troublesome young men, Anthony Eden is probably the best known. Early in 1938 he resigned as Foreign Minister in protest against Chamberlain’s appeasement of Mussolini. The others looked to him to lead the rebellion against the government, and to take the place of the Prime Minister; but, for reasons that perplexed his friends but are analyzed by Olson, Eden did not step forward. Harold MacMillan, another young man who when he was older would become Prime Minister (and who was the one who called them all “troublesome”), had objected to Stanley Baldwin’s failure to stand up to Hitler when he reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936. MacMillan’s role in the rebellion against Chamberlain was, on the one hand, discreet and diplomatic, involving conversations with Liberal and Labour leaders about the formation of a coalition government; and on the other hand, courageously, even recklessly confrontational, as when he once jeered the image of Chamberlain in a newsreel film, and presided over the burning of a Guy Fawkes effigy dressed in frock coat and striped trousers and holding a furled umbrella.

The man who might have been most troublesome to the Chamberlain government was old Winston Churchill, who had not yet outgrown his reputation for belligerence and bad judgement, and who had still not been forgiven by the Conservatives for going over to the Liberals in 1904. He had indeed during the ‘30s warned against the threat from Hitler’s Germany; but he had also spoken rather intemperately against Indian self-government and for King Edward VIII in the abdication crisis. These performances troubled the young men who looked to him for leadership; and with Eden not leading, we hear of the anti-appeasement efforts of Leo Amery, a Churchill contemporary and antagonist who lacked Churchill’s personal charisma and oratorical power – but who would deliver perhaps the most important speech of all those made in the House as Chamberlain’s government gave way to Churchill’s. By the end of the book, Amery would be best known for his tragically troublesome son. But in the meantime we hear more of the more or less known Bob Boothby, Duff Cooper, Harold Nicolson, and “Bobbety” Cranborne. We see Chamberlain refusing to appease these opponents, and maintaining his dictatorial control of the Commons.

For a time, “Peace in Our Time” was very popular. But as the popular opinion represented by the parliamentary rebels began to register the real threat, the press began to call for Churchill to be brought into the government. Churchill did nothing to encourage this, but Chamberlain was enraged by it. Still, when the war started, the Prime Minister realized that to stay in power he had to appoint Churchill to the Cabinet. As First Lord of the Admiralty, the position he had held at the beginning of the last war, Churchill immediately began to show the energy and resolution for which he would be famous as wartime Prime Minister. Chamberlain, meanwhile, and for many months, showed no inclination to fight. The troublesome young men stepped up their offensive against the government, but now Churchill was no help to them because, as a member of the government, he felt obliged to support it.

At this point the fall of Chamberlain’s Conservative government, and the formation of Churchill’s National government, begins to take on the inevitability, not of a preordained event but of a parliamentary movement. The parliamentary rebels played their parts, and Churchill became convinced that Chamberlain must step aside and that he must take his place. Even now, though, the Conservatives preferred Halifax, Labour maintained its longstanding hostility to Churchill, and King George thought that Chamberlain was being treated very shabbily. But from the moment when circumstances compelled the King to send for him, Churchill, having been brought to power as Olson’s complex and unconventional account has told us, undertakes to save England, just as all the other stories have told us.

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Alonzo Hamby - 3/24/2008

A fine review of a significant book!

Another one that covers much of the same territory is Graham Stewart's BURYING CAESAR: THE CHURCHILL-CHAMBERLAIN RIVALRY (US ed., 2001), a work that deserved much more attention than it got.

British historians as a group do not seem to display a lot of interest in 20th-century political narratives, especially if the work is not biographical. As a historian a few years back trying to make sense of interwar British politics, I found this a bit frustrating even as I enjoyed the biography.

Stewart also points out that Churchill was anything but inevitable, and he gives us some understanding of Chamberlain's power, which rested on broad appeal to the Tory majority in Commons, not simply on the ability to deprive members of favors.

Much the same can be said of Stanley Baldwin, whose reputation has been greatly refurbished by Philip Williamson. Both Baldwin and Chamberlain fashioned a conservative identity resting on the values of middle-class England and leavened with social programs for the working class. The result was to preempt much of the Liberal party vote and marginalize the Labour party. But maintenance of the Depression dole and ambitious council housing subsidies put a squeeze on the military budget.

For a real, meaty political synthesis of this period, I found I had to go all the way back to the work of Charles Loch Mowat (c. 1955), which needs to be superceded by something more up to date.