The inside story of the young Tory rebellion against the political leadership of "the greatest Englishman of our time"
"I Believe Churchill Will Resign"
The inside story of the young Tory rebellion against the political leadership of "the greatest Englishman of our time"
NO ONE understands another country’s politics, and it is not always easy for people to understand their own. I can remember over the years when pilgrims returning from Canada would ask me to explain the mystery of Mackenzie King, who was criticized incessantly and returned to power inevitably. It was not easy, but I did my best.
In approaching the delicate and difficult question of Winston Churchill’s political future it is necessary to recall the normal trend of party leadership after a disastrous defeat at the polls. The late Arthur Balfour led the Tories to defeat in 1906 and 1910, and was dethroned in favor of Bonar Law. R. B. Bennett met disaster in the Canadku election of 1935, and not only left Canadian politics but came to England to live. Sir Wilfred Laurier was a gigantic figure until his defeat in 1911 on the reciprocity issue, but from that moment his influence declined.
(Lloyd George, the colossus of the first world war, was defeated in 1922, when he was only 59 years of age, yet never again held office. I agree that there are famous cases of “in-and-out” party leaders, like Disraeli and Gladstone, for whom defeats were no more than interruptions, but it is broadly true that the loser of an election is like the loser of a battle—he enters the twilight of the gods.
I cannot think of any parallel to the strange story of Winston Churchill. When he fought the election last July he was the most loved man in Britain. And today? His position has not changed. He is still the most loved man in Britain. No wonder the foreigner looks at this seagirt island and asks if we are completely mad.
It was a momentous decision of the electorate to hurl Churchill from power in the greatest disaster ever experienced by the Conservative Party. No one can yet measure the consequences of that decision, although it is possible to note some of the results. The whole world was shocked. Immediate repercussions were the intensification of America’s economic imperialism and Russia’s twin policies of security and
aggrandizement. Many shrewd foreign observers believed that Britain as a great power went down with Churchill. Within the’ Empire it caused a grief that was personal and poignant.
If that were pointed out to the British they would reply: “We are sorry to have discouraged our friends and encouraged our detractors, but a nation’s Government is its own concern and we must act as we think wise.” But it does not mean that the British are without loyalty or without doubts. Every week Churchill receives between two to three thousand letters from people expressing their devotion, many of them admitting that they voted Labor. There are endless plans for a national memorial to him. I have even seen it suggested that every one who voted against him should contribute one shilling toward a fund for establishing a permanent home for the Churchill family.
To all of which Churchill says: “No thanks. I
asked nothing of the nation when I was called to power, and I take nothing now that I am no longer in power.”
But it must not be
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imagined that he has not been deeply hurt. It is not that he regards the electorate as ungrateful—he did not try to win their votes on his war record—but he feels very deeply their lack of confidence in him as the architect of reconstruction. He cannot understand why they would not follow him into the peace.
With most men of great abilities their defects are very close to their virtues. It is said of Winston Churchill that when he was a subaltern he behaved as if he were a colonel, and that when he became generalissimo of the nation in 1940 he retained the heart of a subaltern. He is wise, and he is reckless. He is caustic, and he is magnanimous. He has judgment, but is full of prejudices. He is an emperor who despises the trappings of power. And most undeniably he loves a scrap, nor is his ardor for battle cooled by the passing of the years.
After the first world war he wrote a book called “The Aftermath,” in which he described with shrewdness and sorrow the mistaken judgment of Lloyd George in clinging to power after Germany was defeated. He saw with the eyes of the historian that it was Lloyd George the politician who destroyed the legend of Lloyd George the superman. With this warning before him Churchill then proceeded to do exactly the same thing when the second world war came to an end. t
He had been the all-party leader of the nation in the struggle against Germany. Overnight he transformed himself into the leader of the Conservatives alone, mocking and defying the socialists, who had been his partners in victory, even as Lloyd George mocked Bonar Law and the Conservatives, who had been his colleagues against the Kaiser’s Germany. It was too sudden. It was too great a shock to the nation. It was the high-spirited subaltern overcoming the statesman. Churchill was destined to defeat, whatever happened, but his first broadcast doomed him to disaster.
His defense would probably be that the country was returning to party politics and that the very breath of democracy is party rivalry. And also it was one thing to have the services of the socialists in a coalition but quite another to entrust the fortunes of the nation to them alone. There is not a particle of humbug in Churchill’s character, nor is there even a suggestion of the sanctimonious or the pompous. With all his brilliant gifts, perhaps because of them, he is not an astute politician.
The Cubs Find Their Teeth
I HAVE felt it necessary to recapitulate these facts in order to try to explain the dilemma in which both Mr. Churchill and the Conservative Party find themselves today. What is more, I want to choose my words very carefully, because Maclean’s is read widely in Britain and is frequently quoted in the London press.
The fortunes of the Conservatives have fallen very low. The figures in the election, staggering as they were, did not reveal the full extent of the disaster which has come upon the great historic Party. After six months in opposition they are weaker than when they came back from the battle of the polls.
Yet here is the paradox. Although slightly less than 200 strong, the Conservatives in this Parliament are of better calibre than at any time in the last 25 years. More than half of our members in the House are new men, young fellows who rose to the command of regiments, air squadrons and destroyers in the ordeal of battle. The political game is new to them, and they are studying it carefully, but one by one they intervene in debates and show capacity for clear thought and forceful exposition. They are men bred to efficiency and are definitely displeased with the inefficiency of the Conservative Party in opposition.
They hero-worship Churchill as the man who led the world to victory—but they do not hesitate to appraise Churchill’s leadership of the Opposition with complete frankness. In the language of the services they say: “He’s too big for the job. It’s like asking Montgomery to take command of a reserve battalion.” Churchill has not grasped the significance of these “new boys,” as they are called. Neither politics nor party traditions are in their blood. They are not tuned to the spacious days of parliamentary debates when eloquence and wit and style counted more than actual achievement. They lack patience—perhaps too much—but they were bred in the school of action.
Churchill is a man of deep personal loyalties. He never forgets those who fought with him on St. Crispin’s Day. Thus, when he formed his shadow Cabinet (the Opposition equivalent to the real Cabinet), he appointed the men who were Ministers in the Coalition with him—Bracken, Lyttleton, Anderson, Macmillan, Hudson,
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Woolton, Eden, Cherwell and so on. One can understand his loyalty to his former lieutenants, but if he had thought a little more deeply he would have seen that he was drawing an iron curtain between the shadow Cabinet and the new boys of the Party. Exministers are no idols to these parliamentary recruits. Nor does it seem wise to them that Churchill should say: “They held office under me in the Coalition, therefore they shall hold shadow office with me in Opposition, with the certainty that if I form another Government they shall be my Ministers again.” This banging and bolting of the door could only have the effect of widening the gulf between the leader and the new section of the Party.
Peers Against the People
Ex-ministers sit on the Opposition Front Bench just as actual ministers sit on the Government Front Bench. Before a big débate Mr. Attlee and his ministerial colleagues meet to consider tactics, while Churchill and his exministers do the same. By various means the decisions in both cases are conveyed to the rank-and-file supporters who are known as backbenchers.
It was this which caused something of a crisis in the Tory Party when it became known that there was to be a two days’ debate for the purpose of approving the American loan terms and the Bretton Woods agreement. Churchill found himself confronted with an almost insoluble dilemma.
He felt that the terms of the loan were harsh and that the Bretton Woods Agreement was full of dangers. But he realized that as Leader of the Conservative Party he had a dual role—to advise his supporters in the House of Commons, where they are in a minority, and also to advise his supporters in the House of Lords, where they are in an overwhelming majority. Pèrhaps I hardly need remind you that the House of Lords is a nonelected assembly and that the general election made no difference (beyond the creation of a few socialist peers) in their composition.
Supposing the Tories in the Commons voted against the American Loan, the socialists could still carry it. But if the Tory M.P.’s voted solidly, how could the Tory peers fail to do the same thing and thus defeat the loan? This would lead to an immediate constitutional crisis, with the socialists raising a cry of “The Peers against the People!” and the probable abolition of the House of Lords.
Churchill wanted to avoid that clash. He does not rule out the possibility of a showdown fight between the peers and the socialists, but he wants the issue to be wisely chosen before the fight begins. Therefore, after long consultation with his shadow Cabinet, he decided to advise the Party in both Houses to vote neither for nor against the loan, but to abstain. This decision was conveyed to Conservative M.P.’s, with the concession that if anyone’s conscience was unbearably troubled he could vote either way. But Churchill hoped that the Party unity would not be broken.
So the debate began and the new boys on the Opposition Benches, as well as the older ones, listened to both sides with intense concentration and with gathering forebodings. Toward the end of the second day Churchill spoke, and spoke magnificently. At the end of his speech he turned around to us
and asked once more that we Conservatives should abstain by remaining in our seats when the vote was announced.
Ernie Bevin wound up for the Government with good humor but with many a shrewd thrust. He drew a picture of his old friend Winston Churchill in the new role of a total abstainer. He argued that when an issue was placed before Parliament every member had to take a decision for or against. His own Party had put down a three-line whip, which meant that the socialists were ordered to vote for the loan and that any failure to do so would bring disciplinary action upon the heads of the offenders.
The hour struck and the Speaker rose in his chair to read the words of the resolution. “Those in favor?” he asked. A mighty “Aye” came from the Government benches. “Those against?” And he turned toward the Conservatives.
A defiant “No!” came from the Conservative side. Churchill flushed darkly. His ex-ministers sat beside him and stared straight ahead.
“Clear the lobbies,” said Mr. Speaker. Up rose more than 70 Tories, Churchill and his ex-ministers kept their seats—all except young Peter Thorneycroft, who sprang to his feet and joined the rebels, which meant that he would not sit on the Front Bench again. In all my long years in Parliament I don’t think I ever voted with such a conviction that I was right, or with more sympathy for the leader whose advice we had rejected. In the process I think we saw the authority in the Party pass from the leaders to the rank and file.
That was the culmination of many incidents which had roused the Conservative Party against the leadership of its Front Bench.
After it was all over Churchill asked the Party to meet him. With good humor and charm he said that he was tired, in need of a'noliday, and perhaps his supporters would not begrudge him a short leave of absence to visit Florida.
I have never seen such warmth and loyalty toward any man. There were no reproaches on either side, no post mortems, no recriminations, no apologies. But whether or not Churchill knew it, there was the same wish in all our hearts. We want him to give up the rough-and-tumble of Party leadership, to accept his status as Elder Statesman and to be a detached figure on whom the nation can call if he is needed, as in 1940.
I am not concerned in this article with the choice of his successor. The Conservatives are not breaking into groups for the purpose of supporting this man or that. I firmly believe that in the fairly near future, even if he himself does not know it, Winston Churchill will resign the leadership of the Conservative Party.
But if it happens—and for his sake and the Party’s I hope it will—I want you to know what is the truth, that we regard him as the greatest Englishman of our time, too great, too vast in imagination and ability, to be harnessed to the service of a party.
If, by chance, Winston Churchill reads these words, I hope that he will realize that they were written in sincerity and gratitude.
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