Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Churchill and his war cabinet

  I've just finished a fascinating and valuable book, Jonathan Schneer's Ministers at Wara study of Winston Churchill and his war cabinet. While most history that I have read tends to depict Churchill as the dominant leader of an amazingly unified group of people from across the political spectrum, Schneer shows how fragile Churchill's hold on power was, and gives a persuasive case why he was bound to be thrown out of office once the war was won.

The Prime Minister showed political acumen in his choice of both his small War Cabinet and the broader coalition cabinet, balancing Labour and Conservative factions and shifting the mix to deal with particular crises. In the winter and summer of 1942, however, he faced no confidence votes in the House of Commons that he brilliantly maneuvered to defeat. In 1940 and 1943, however, he faced revolts within his cabinet from ministers who gossiped and plotted behind his back.

Schneer cites numerous examples where Churchill accepted cabinet positions that he strongly opposed, as well as times when he embraced stupid ideas with the same enthusiasm he had for wise policies.

Americans like me who believe they understand presidential government have a hard time understanding how cabinet governments work. [The original British "House of Cards" gives good insights.] It's shocking to learn of secret meetings discussing how to dump Churchill in order to get a better leader, often one of the conspirators like Lord Beaverbrook or Stafford Cripps. But that's what happened.

The plotting reminded me of what a long serving Labour MP, Emanual Shinwell, wrote in his memoir. He describes watching a debate in Commons early in his career while sitting next to one of his oldest colleagues. Shinwell commented that one of his party leaders had just given a "sharp blow to the enemy."  His elder friend corrected him: "You will learn in time that the gentlemen across the way are the opposition; your enemies you are more likely to find on this side of the House."

This kind of history can never be written again, because most of the participants kept revealing diaries or exchanged letters now available to scholars. On numerous occasions, Schneer disputes the conventional wisdom, such as what Churchill wrote in his multivolume history, by citing perspectives from others at the same meeting.

None of this diminishes Churchill's extraordinary leadership of parliament and Britain during World War II. Indeed, it shows how many challenges he had to overcome, and how he did it.

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