The New Opposition

Beverley Baxter July 15 1941


The New Opposition

Beverley Baxter July 15 1941


The New Opposition

Beverley Baxter

ONE NIGHT recently at a private dinner Mr. Churchill is reported to have said: “When the war is over I shall resign office at once and go and live in the country. Every now and then, however, I shall come up to Parliament and give the Government the benefit of my advice. It is so much easier and so much more enjoyable to give advice than to run a government.” .For more than a year we have had the strange spectacle of a Parliament with no official or even unofficial opposition. The entire house, with the exception of two or three members, is in favor of pursuing the war to the end and of keeping Mr. Churchill as the Prime Minister. Fundamentally there is no divergence and we have behaved more like a council of a state than a democratically elected debating chamber.

It is true that we have all “given advice” and even opposed the Government on minor issues but the broad fact has remained that Mr. Churchill has been a master of foxhounds with the whole long-eared pack baying in unison.

But the law of life, and especially political life, is change. Nothing that lives is static. Politics is like the sea—the calm surface fools no one.

Inevitably and inexorably Mr. Churchill is going to find himself opposed by an all party opposition. The trend of events makes that inescapable and he is sufficient of a realist neither to ignore nor underestimate its importance.

For the last few weeks that opposition has been taking form in a curious, incoherent way. It hardly knows yet that it is an opposition and the members of it eye each other with suspicion and doubt, but the process is going on just the same.

Before the Labor Party joined Mr. Churchill’s government it occupied the Opposition Front Bench with its shadow ministers, those who had held office in the two former Socialist administrations and others selected by the party organization for future glory if it ever turned up.

When the rapprochement took place, however, and Messrs. Attlee, Bevin, Alexander, Greenwood. Grenfell and a few others crossed the great divide into the government camp the Opposition Front Bench ceased to have any official status or meaning.

The lanky Earl Winterton, second only to Lloyd George in length of House of Commons experience, was the first Conservative to realize the tactical possibilities of the situation. He had been a minister under Mr. Chamberlain and had been a spectacular failure. However, as an ex-minister he claimed the right to sit in the place of the Opposition leaders who had vacated their front bench seats. So somewhat to the surprise of the rank and file of the Labor party they found themselves sitting behind the noble lord who has been variously described as the Loch Ness monster and “that rattling bag of bones.”

I have known him for many years and perhaps it is important that we should first look at him for a moment. He is an Irish peer but does not sit in the House of Lords because, according to the whimsical British law, an Irish peer is regarded as no more than the equal of an English commoner.

He served with Lawrence in Arabia and is in many ways a most brilliant parliamentarian. He is lean, cadaverous, about six foot six, with long bony fingers that stick out like the spokes of a wheel that has lost its rim. He is really a first-rate debater and is a master of procedure.

He failed as a Minister for one simple reason. It had taken him so long to get office that when he found himself on the Treasury Bench he did not “play himself in” but insisted upon acting as if he had suddenly become an elder statesman. His one big speech was a fiasco from which he never recovered.

But, let us repeat, the law of life is change. The man who has failed has nothing to fear about venturing, so Winterton took his seat opposite Churchill and began to admonish the Prime Minister and his associates.

Then came one of those affinities which only are to be found in political life. There is a Socialist leader called Emanuel Shinwell who was the Secretary for Mines under Ramsay MacDonald. Later when Mr. MacDonald had joined the National Government Shinwell opposed his former leader at Seaham I harbour and, after one of the most bitter election fights on record, defeated poor Ramsay. It was, in fact, the beginning of the end for the handsome, romantic, Scottish visionary.

Shinwell is of Polish-Jewish extraction. He worked as a boy in the mines and has a bitter sense of realism about life. But he is a first-rate speaker, a man who masters his facts and deploys them superbly. He has a hot temper, difficult to control, and once crossed the floor of the House and struck a Conservative member across the face.

A few weeks ago we found the little ex-miner and the lanky Irish peer in partnership. Shinwell and Winterton had become as one. their hearts and their minds having achieved a unison as complete as their ancestries were divergent. It was they who urged a secret debate on the

shipping situation. It was th'*v who demanded that Eden should give aí accounting fo; iis Balkan enterprise.

Belisha oes Over

THE HOUSE laugh took notice. And then, of

course, the dissentients gan to gravitate toward this first demonstration of a coherent opposition to the Government. Leslie Hore-Belisha, sitting in Churchill’s old corner seat, eyed them with approval and began to support their demands. He still believes in his star and sees no reason why he should fail where his compatriot succeeded.

Then we all seemed to know that Belisha had been

asked to lunch with the Premier at Downing Street. The wise ones wagged their heads. It was obvious that Churchill was going to crush the opposition movement by giving office to the brilliant but unhappy Belisha.

The luncheon took place. A week later the famous two days’ debate on Churchill’s vote of confidence took place. Belisha criticized the Government severely but the wise ones said that this was just to show his independence before re-entering the Cabinet. “He arranged it with Churchill,” they whispered.

The next evening, however, when Churchill wound up he turned on Belisha with devastating irony. “It is obvious,” he said, ‘that the Rt. Hon. gentleman is able to think more clearly than when he was in office.” Again and again he ridiculed Belisha until, flushed with anger, Belisha sprang to his feet and struck back.

“The marriage is off,” said the wise ones. “It was never on.”

Belisha does not yet sit beside Shinwell and Winterton but he has become the third member of the opposition Trinity. Others have begun to gravitate toward their camp. Dick Stokes, the millionaire Socialist whose firm gave us the Stoke gun in the last war, is one. Sir Herbert Williams, a keen thruster who once held office as a Tory, is another. Slowly but inevitably the official anti-Churchill opposition is coming into being.

Then, of cc.irse, there is Lloyd George. His following in the country is not great and his motives are frequently distrusted. Yet he won the last war. He is the jockey who rode the winner. In the two days’ debate he assailed his old friend Churchill without any attempt to soften the blows. Churchill, too, dealt with him with uncompromising irony and forcefulness. Lloyd George is always a lone wolf but even lone wolves no doubt seek the companionship of their kind from time to time. I would say the little Welshman has his eye on the Shinwell-W interton combination. He will never follow them but he might swallow them.

If it were nothing more than I have described it would not be worth more than a paragraph in a column of political gossip but the campaigns in Greece and Crete, and the two withdrawals from those places have unloosed a large force of criticism in the country itself.

As a man Churchill stands supreme above any of his contemporaries. He has a noble courage, immense vitality, a mind that is incapable of commonplaceness, and a command of language that will make his speeches a legacy to the centuries. His following in the country is only short of idolatry.

But a Prime Minister is not a dictator. He appoints ministers and, if they fail, tv>« rritir:~ launched against them must part. What is more, Churchill is not only niait Minister and Minister of Defense but virtually Commander-in-Chief of the nation. He can never plead an alibi.

The British hate retreating. On the other hand they will accept it providing they are convinced that everything was done to prevent it. They refuse to believe, however, that either Greece or Crete was a credit to anything but the bravery of our soldiers.

The men who came out of Greece said that another 100 Hurricanes might have altered the whole thing. The public asks: “Why were the Hurricanes not there?” The men who came out of Crete say that we were there for six months but had only a couple of airdromes. The public asks angrily: “What did we do in those months to prepare for the island’s defense?”

I was among other journalists who vented this feeling at

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Whitsun. In an article called “Sir Archibald—the nation is worried,” I put before the Air Minister, Sir Archibald Sinclair, the doubt and resentment which I knew was felt on all sides. Among other things I stated that the people of Britain believed that the Germans, had they been in our place in Crete would have prepared an immense number of airdromes. Other newspapers took much the same line.

Not one word is said directly against Churchill but he is the captain of his team and must share their fortunes as they share his.

With a good deal of justice Churchill might get up and say: “In the name of sanity do you expect me to enquire how many airdromes there are in any one spot or to direct the strategy of a battle in Greece. Why do we have ministers? Why do we have generals and admirals? Surely my task is to keep above detail and to survey the whole vast scene with its swiftly changing values.”

Such a speech would win instantaneous sympathy but the reaction would be dangerous. Winterton or Shinwell or Lloyd George would rise and say : “No one questions the hard task of the Prime Minister. He is indeed carrying a load with a courage and patience that have few parallels in history. But since he admits he can only survey the scene and must leave the active decisions to ministers, who are unfortunately fallible, then is it not time for Mr. Churchill to form a small War Cabinet, under himself, to direct the strategy of the war and prevent such humiliations as we have recently endured?”

Again you may think this is pin pricking and that it is the old game of shooting the pianist, but it is the democratic way of doing things. It is parliamentary government—and I for one would not like to have it in my jxiwer to do away with such a safeguard.

Democracy’s Queer Way

TI-IUS MR. CHURCHILL finds himself embroiled in one of the greatest causes of embarrassment to any Prime Minister —loyalty to his colleagues. For example the public may believe that Sir Archibald should be dismissed for the failure to provide adequate air strength in Greece or Crete. But was it Beaverbrook who fought against it and won the day? I don’t know. Neither does the public. I do know that our old friend Max has always held that the defense of Britain is the one supreme issue of the war, and that also being of a singularly possessive nature, he would make it his close concern as to where they sent the airplanes he had turned out.

Is Churchill to say: “It wasn’t Sinclair’s fault, it was Beaver brook’s?” At once his

critics would say: “But did you not as Prime Minister agree with the decision taken—or are we to infer that your detachment is so complete that you do not know what is going on?”

In other words the lot of a prime minister is far more difficult than either a president or a dictator. Both of them enjoy absolute powers that are not conceded to a prime minister. Mr. Churchill’s Cabinet can bring him down just as we. the back benchers, can bring the Government down. Therefore, in the circumstances Mr. Churchill will refuse to produce any head on a charger and will inform the House of Commons that the decisions were taken by the Cabinet as a whole after full consultation with the generals on the spot.

The surmounting of each crisis, however, leaves the Government a little weaker than it was before. The bird with the broken pinion never flies so high again.

With a certain logic you may feel that I am drawing a gloomy picture. I would not altogether agree with that. What it really means is that you are seeing democracy moving toward victory in its own queer but effective way.

The weakness of a dictatorship is that the confidence of the whole nation is placed in one man and that all criticism is stifled. Should he falter or sustain defeat, should he go mad or die, then the people who have followed him blindly are like frightened children in the dark.

In Britain the process of criticism may temporarily discourage the men who hold office but it is strengthening the individualism of the people themselves. It provides a tide which may wet the garments of the great but acts as a means of bringing new men forward. It is entirely healthy even if sometimes overdone.

I believe that Churchill, more than any other man in the Empire, embodies the courage and spirit of the British race. I believe that he will lead the Empire to victory and play the leading part in creating a peace which will have a solid chance to endure.

But the opposition that is forming against him should strengthen his resolution and not weaken it. He will liave to be ruthless in getting rid of men to whom he is personally devoted and to whom he is bound by ties of personal loyalty. The country will endure anything except inefficiency, and there are men both in the Government and in the Services who are simply not equal to the lightning decisions of this abnormal war.

I pledge my faith to Churchill as the supreme leader of a nation at war and I welcome the coming of an opposition that will endeavor to make sure that he does not fall short of his best.