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Their Finest Hour
on 5 September 2009
This is an excellent account of the internal politics within the Conservative Party and the small group opposed to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Adolf Hitler in the years before the war and immediately leading up to the Norway Debate in the House of Commons in May 1940 which, although the Government still had a majority of 81, resulted in Chamberlain's resignation and his replacement as Prime Minister by Winston Churchill.
There are few heroes in this story as the "troublesome young men" were often notorious wet blankets when it canme to opposing their own government in the lobbies. Churchill himself is seen as more of an embarrassment by the small group of mainly young MPs who are opposed to Chamberlain's policy who see Anthony Eden as their preferred candidate to replace Chamberlain and it is only when Eden proves hopelessly indecisive that they fall, somewhat reluctantly, behind Churchill. However one of those heroes is Ronald Cartland, brother of the romantic novelist, who refuses to be cowed by the threats of the Conservative Party machine, headed by a former Director of MI6, and who was to be tragically killed in the BEF's retreat to Dunkirk. Another is Leo Amery, older than Churchill, who had been at school with him and who delivered the most effective speech against Chamberlain concluding with Cromwell's famous dismissal of the Rump Parliament in 1653:
"Depart, I say, and let us have done with you!"
Amery was one of the few of the rebels to be given high government office after Churchill became Prime Minister when he was made Secretary of State for India (a curious choice as he had differed with Churchill before the war over Indian policy) although one, Harold Macmillan, did go on to become Prime Minister. Despite the title men are not exclusively featured. There are heroines too, including the Duchess of Atholl, the only MP to resign and fight a bye-election over Chamberlain's policy who is, however, brutally trampled underfoot during the campaign and Asquith's daughter, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, on close terms with the rebels despite her Liberal affiliation, whose diary provides the source-book for much of the narrative of the book.
There are excellent pen portraits of all the characters involved, particularly the raffish Bob Boothby, involved in a relationship with Macmillan's wife, Dorothy. Ms Olson points out the contradiction between Chamberlain's treatment of Hitler, which was conciliatory, and his treatment of the dissidents within his own party, which was ruthless and unyielding and involved phone-tapping and spying. Maybe had it been the other way round the Second World War might have been avoided and Chamberlain's reputation would stand considerably higher today.
This is a must-read for all those interested in both the history of WWII and in political intrigue generally and is an excellent companion piece to Simon Ball's "The Guardsmen". Ultimately it is a story of the courage of a few politicians who, at a critical point in Britain's history, were willing to set aside their own interests and those of their party and, in Amery's words, "speak for England".