on 25 June 2009
I know very little about British Governments of the 1920's and 30's. This book provides quite a run through the period, contrasting the career paths of Chamberlain and Churchill, the former on the up escalator, the latter down. That being said, Churchill is dealt with very sympathetically, and as we know ultimately becomes immortal.
What comes across is Churchill's sheer self-belief, allied to a constant hunt for any opportunity to get back into cabinet through the 1930's. This self-belief ultimately was of service to the nation in his absolute refusal to negotiate with Hitler in the darkest days of 1940, when, unbelievably France had collapsed and the British Army had had most of its equipment captured. The power of Stewarts description of the debates in the House of Commons really enliven this book. Just read this
" This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a surprise recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time"
This is Churchill after Hitler turned his back on the lenient strictures of the Munich agreement. It bellows through history, doesn't it?
Or Duff Cooper's resignation speech following Munich
"one great power should not be allowed, in disregard of treaty obligations, of laws of nations and the decrees of morality, to dominate by brute force the Continent of Europe. For that principle we fought against Napoleon Buonaparte, and against Louis XIV of France and Phillip II of Spain. For this principle we must ever be prepared to fight, for on the day when we are not prepared to fight for it we must forfeit our Empire, our liberties and our Independence"
That being said the book shows the pragmatic rise of Baldwin and Chamberlain through the 1920's and 30's, it is entirely possible to sympathize with the revulsion towards another European war and guilt about the terms of Versailles imposed on Germany which culminated in Chamberlain's abandoning of the Czech's as people `far away of whom we know nothing'.
Stewart advances the case that if England and France had been willing to go to war over Czechoslovakia in 1938, Germany would have had to fight in the South and West simultaneously and would not have had the Hitler-Stalin pact, therefore could not be sure of its Eastern Frontier and, ultimately, would have been in a much worse position than turned out to be the case in 1939/40. There is some interesting mention, not followed through, of the economic burden that rearmament placed on the German economy, and its chronic lack of natural resources - oil and iron ore specifically - in the early years of the war.
The book casts interesting light on the events following the negotiation of Irish independence - my main knowledge of this was that it sparked the Irish Civil War which resulted in the deaths of two of the Irish negotiation team. The British negotiators did not fair well either - the Conservatives revolted, deposing the leaders who had been Treaty negotiators (Churchcill, Austen Chamberlain) putting Baldwin in charge.
The book is queasy about Baldwin, he was such a poor Chancellor that his own Prime Minister (Bonar-Law) wrote anonymously to the Times to complain about him - this has the whiff of a tall-tale. He is portrayed as indolent, indecisive and overly-driven by public opinion. Yet it has an interesting twist on the Abdication Crisis, telling us that Baldwin rushed King Edward into an Abdication, because of personal animus. Perhaps.
A significant portion of the book spent on the failed attempts to limit the march towards Indian independence - which is seen in the light of the `mistakes' made with the Irish. Churchill's attitude to this is seen as futile, an example of his poor political judgement rightly causing his wilderness years. The book takes a different view, showing that the policy - effectively setting up an elected body, in which the various representatives would cancel each other's views out - was doomed from the start.
Chamberlain comes across as a cold, decent and ultimately tragic figure. Son of a famous father (Joe);younger half-brother of Austen, of whom great things were expected, he was meticulous, dedicated, an excellent number two. He seems to have been politically astute, never taking a position which could lead to his downfall, through the thirties he was always formally supportive of Baldwin, yet positioned to succeed him should he fail. Yet when he succeeds to the premiership, he implements a policy very much in line with the British public's aversion to a European War, protects the Empire as much as possible and yet ends up on the wrong side of history.
I found the book very enlightening on a period I knew very little about. The writing, while academic, is clear and even pacy at times. One minor fault I found was its references to contemporary events - the book was published in 1999, and references to John Major's difficulties in government, are, at this remove, a bit esoteric. With this small caveat I would recommend the book highly.
on 14 July 1999
This book, despite it's academic subject, gives a gripping and exciting account of the relationship between Churchill and Chamberlain in the context of 1930s politics. Graham Stewart has an excellent literary style, and is obviously extremely knowledgeable on the subject. I would heartily recommend this to anyone with even a passing interest in politics, history or biography.