Monday 31 August 2009
Churchill in the Wilderness
There is an awful lot of retrospective justification in Churchill's political career. From the hindsight of history we know that appeasement was a doomed policy; but there was simply no way of knowing this at the time. I would go so far as to say that appeasement was a rational and understandable policy taking all of the political, diplomatic and strategic factors into account. It was unheroic, yes, but it was necessarily unheroic. Neither Britain nor France was ready for war in 1936, or 1937, or 1938. They were only just ready in 1939, largely thanks to the time that Neville Chamberlain had bought at Munich. For along with seemingly spineless concessions to Hitler-and the unprincipled sacrifice of a central European ally-went a steady process of rearmament, particularly important for the RAF, which was to be the decisive defensive wing in 1940. Rearmament was not, of course, Chamberlain' chief aim; for that was simply to secure the peace. He failed, but it was not a failure without consequence.
It is important to see Churchill's 'prescience' in a far wider political and personal context, which might help people to understand why he stood alone on this issue, as on so many others. You see, Churchill was not just opposed to the appeasement of Germany; he was opposed to all forms of appeasement. Put another way: he was opposed to political compromise on issues of fundamental importance to the interests of the British Empire, as he conceived those interests.
The emphasis here is important, for it entailed a refusal to entertain any kind of compromise, even in forms that most people, including the bulk of his own Party, considered perfectly reasonable. For example, he refused to entertain the proposal, again accepted by his own party, that India should aim for Dominion status within the Empire. For Churchill any understanding with Ghandi and Congress was, almost by definition, 'betrayal', attacked in the same way he was later to attack attempts to reach an understanding with Germany. Here was the arch-reactionary, the voice of the Tory ultras, whom no less a figure than Sir Samuel Hoare believed was aiming to smash the government and introduce some sort of undemocratic and Fascist rule in Britain and the Empire. Ridiculous, of course; but it remains true that Churchill's 'warnings' over India and Europe began to seem more and more out of touch, more and more unreasonable and reactionary, the voice of the past. Hardly surprising when one considers that in the preface to My Early Life, written in the summer of 1930, he bemoaned all of the political and economic changes in British society since the Victorian era, including universal suffrage.
Even before Hitler, true to his unique style, he was warning against disarmament, a principle universally strived for, describing the 1932 Geneva talks on the subject as 'mush, slush and gush.' In the Commons his speeches came close to war-mongering, and were generally perceived as such. His seeming lack of judgement was confirmed in 1936 during the Abdication crisis, when he threatened to form a 'King's party', even though there were great constitutional issues at stake, even though almost all opinion in Parliament was against Edward. It was at this point that his political stock sank to its lowest. He subsequently sought to recover by pronouncements on foreign policy. But he now had the reputation of being 'unsound' on almost all issues. In the Commons his denunciation of the Munich Agreement was seem merely as more of the same old stuff; the same old uncompromising Winston, full of hot air and bellicose intentions, unrealistic in every degree. It was fortunate for him, and his future reputation that history, at least in this one instance, proved him to be in the right