Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister by Nicholas Shakespeare. Norman Stone
Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister By Nicholas Shakespeare Harvill Secker £20.00 Oldie price £14.00 inc p&p
In July 1940, as the Battle of Britain got under way, a book appeared, Guilty Men, by a ‘Cato’ who turned out to be three journalists; the main one was Michael Foot.
The book had huge success, and was reprinted by Penguin in 2000. Some of these ‘guilty men’ are central figures in Nicholas Shakespeare’s excellently told story about the sea change of British wartime politics on 8th May, 1940.
Within forty-eight hours, almost out of the blue, it made Winston Churchill Prime Minister, at the head of a National Government which included Labour. The Labour leaders were in fact the main actors in this, even though Churchill had a long record of hostility to socialism. But most of the Labour Party had greater dislike, even contempt, for the ‘guilty men’ whom Churchill displaced.
The chief ones named in the book – it appeared only a month after Churchill’s takeover – were Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary and Sir John Simon, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Just as the British political crisis broke out, Hitler invaded neutral Holland and Belgium, as he had invaded neutral Denmark and Norway a month before, and German bombs rained down on civilian targets. His tanks rumbled towards France, and there were fears that his paratroopers would land in England.
The ‘guilty men’ stood accused of trying to buy Hitler off, making concessions that only encouraged him to demand more; worse, they had bungled British rearmament and had left the country badly short of defences. The guilty men were particularly detested because of what had happened in Norway. Dozens of Conservative MPS, in uniform, brought down the Chamberlain government when they voted against him at the decisive moment on 8th May.
The British had sent an expeditionary force to help Norway, and made the sort of mess of things with which British wars so often begin. The Germans had invaded with panache, their commander saying of Denmark, ‘Get this country out of the way – we are attacking somewhere else.’
Air, land and sea co-operated efficiently, and there were Austrian Alpine troops who knew how to deal with snowy mountains. German bombers obliterated small, wooden Norwegian ports and made it impossible for the British to land effectively.
Nicholas Shakespeare devotes roughly half of his book to this campaign, with which, through his family, he has a personal connection, and he uses private papers to considerable effect: what does a British military mess look like on the ground?
The naval and land commanders’ responsibilities were not clear-cut, they anyway detested each other, and
air cover was almost non-existent. Troops even lacked ammunition and snowshoes, and medical supplies ran short.
The extraordinary thing was that Churchill, as First Sea Lord, was largely responsible for the misbegotten campaign. The parallel with the disastrous amphibious campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915 was in the minds of many, as they contemplated another over-ambitious Churchillian scheme going badly wrong.
In any case, far from being yet another case of unprovoked Nazi aggression, the Norwegian affair had been started by Churchill, who meant to mine Norwegian waters to stop the Germans from getting iron ore from Sweden via the northern port of Narvik. Hitler moved in to stop him.
But in public opinion, Churchill was seen in a golden glow. He had all along denounced Hitler and warned about Germany’s intentions, and now he had been proven right. The blame for the Norwegian fiasco fell on ‘the guilty men’.
And Chamberlain ‘wryly reflected that it was he and Lord Swinton who had pushed ahead with the production of the Hurricanes and Spitfires that were winning the Battle of Britain, against the advice both of Churchill, who (in March 1938) had written to Chamberlain criticising these self-same fighter planes, and that of the Air Staff, who had championed bombers’.
Churchill was widely distrusted in the Conservative Party, and people who knew him thought he might well be disastrous: having him in the War Cabinet would, someone said, be like talking through a brass band. He could, of course, talk superbly and was full of ideas, but he also notoriously drank, madcap ideas running away with him.
Still, a decisive element in the party disliked Chamberlain, the elderly peacemaker with his wooden voice and, in wartime, inspiration is all.
The truly serious rival to Churchill was the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, and Shakespeare’s account of his sidelining is superb: he has pieced together the various sources (sometimes quite different in their accounts) and written what can almost be read as a detective story.
Politics at this level, in the hands of a lesser writer, can be devastatingly difficult to follow. Not here.
Halifax was the candidate of the King, of a good part of the party, of the Establishment in general and, as Shakespeare shows, he would indeed have been a good Prime Minister.
But not a wartime one, especially with a German invasion apparently impending. It was Labour that insisted on Churchill.
There is a dimension to this, maybe worth thinking about. Labour had one great strength, in that the trade unions were in league with it, and they were all-important in achieving industrial mobilisation. So a strange and very British phenomenon emerged, an alliance between a romantic-reactionary imperialist and a Labour Party committed to a domestic programme of socialism.
We have lived ever since with the consequences – I can still recall the taste of compulsory orange juice, in 1944.