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


  1. Thank you for that comment, Ron.

    You see, I rather thought I was reflecting on appeasement; it may not be a reflection that you like, but it is a reflection notwithstanding. I would and have argued that appeasement at the time, was necessary for the protection of my country, which was not ready for war in 1938. Appeasement, if nothing else, bought time.

    50 million people did not die because Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement; they died because he signed a guarantee to Poland which guaranteed nothing.

    But, sabres rattling, lets have a look at what might have happened if we had gone to war in 1938. Czechoslovakia would have been overwhelmed, of that much I am sure. Poland, moreover, might very well have been drawn in on the German side; for though no largely forgotten it, too, was a beneficiary of the Munich agreement. An attack on the west would have followed, France would have collapsed in much the same fashion as 1940 and Britain, without adequate fighter cover, would have lost the air battle with the Germans. A compromise peace is likely to have followed, drawing the country into the German orbit. Hitler would have turned back east and, with Poland as an ally, would have been some two hundred miles closer to Moscow, and so on and so on. But, of course, none of this happened.

    So, you think there are only two paths: appeasement or victory. That’s wrong; there is a third-defeat. I take it from your name-I assume not your real one-and the second example you have given above that you are Israeli or, at the very least, Jewish? Don’t you think that the case of Iraq was bad enough-neither victory nor defeat-without going to war with Iran? Possibly not. But I at least hope my country has sufficient sense to stand back from your Armageddon. I would just ask you to remember always that history is a little like a slot-machine: it rarely gives the outcomes one desires.

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