Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Battles long ago
People mindful of Winston Churchill’s later reputation might be surprised to learn that he was not a figure who inspired a great deal of confidence within the Conservative Party in the 1930s. He was not, if I can put in these terms, 'one of us', having a reputation of changing parties to suit his mood, which meant that his power base was relatively weak. More than that, he had a reputation of being a maverick and a lover of unorthodox schemes; a man whose judgment was not entirely 'sound'.
Even his skill as a speaker could not make up for the lack of confidence in him, widely shared among the Parliamentary Party. His rhetoric, often of a 'maximalist' nature, full of exaggeration and alarm, only served to increase the distrust in which he was held. For example, in March 1933 Herbert Samuel observed;
Churchill makes many brilliant speeches on all subjects, but that is no reason why we should necessarily accept his political judgment. On the contrary, the brilliance of his speeches only makes the errors of his judgment the more conspicuous...I feel inclined to say of him what Bagehot wrote of another very distinguished Parliamentarian [Disraeli]: 'His chaff is excellent, but the wheat is poor stuff.
It did not help his standing among his Parliamentary colleagues that he fell out with Stanley Baldwin, the Tory leader, over the issue of Dominion status for India. His hostility to any concession to the movement for Indian independence occupied his energies for a good bit of the early 1930s, just as his warnings over German rearmament were to do in the later part of the decade; and he dealt with both issues with equal degrees of rhetorical fire; equally unrestrained and equally alarmist. He dismissed the Indian Nationalist leaders as "evil and malignant Brahmins", with their "itching fingers stretching and scratching at the vast pillage of a derelict Empire." Striking Phrases, yes; but all this exaggeration and hyperbole over an Act that went nowhere near meeting the demands of Gandhi and the Congress Party. Quite frankly, by the time the Act was passed in 1935, people were bored with Churchill and his unrestrained alarmism.
So, given this background, it comes as no great surprise that when the siren started to call out over Germany he was largely ignored. On this greater issue people simply did not want to listen because few in the mid-1930s wished to entertain the possibility of another world war. Almost everyone- on the left and the right -wanted to reach some accommodation with Germany, to meet the country's just and reasonable demands, a policy later condemned by the label of appeasement. But at the time it was immensely popular.
Besides, Churchill's warnings were not about the danger to peace offered by the growth of Fascism; they were, rather, a nationalist warning about the possible revival of German power, a quite different thing altogether.
You see, Churchill, in the shape of Cassandra, seemed not just unnecessarily alarmist but so terribly old-fashioned, representing the mindset of a different age. Leo Amery talked of him as a 'mid-Victorian', but I would go one step further, taking him right back to the eighteenth century, to the age of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, or William Pitt the Elder. As they saw France so Churchill saw Germany. It was this that people could not take seriously, especially when you consider his views on the aggressions perpetrated by Germany's present and future partners.
If Churchill’s warning about the new forms of imperialist aggression had been comprehensive they might have commanded greater moral authority. But they were not. He effectively condoned Japanese aggression in Manchuria; he approved of Mussolini, and his view of Italian aggression in Abyssinia was far from heroic. His position on these issues served to divorce him from those who were beginning to see in the world situation a clash not of power, but of ideologies. This was something beyond Churchill's comprehension, allowing him to praise Mussolini as a 'great man' as late as October 1937, by which time he and Hitler had created the Axis.
So, given all this, it is really no great surprise he was not taken seriously. In the end history proved him to be right in one respect at least; and that is really only because Hitler decided to wear the wig of Louis XIV.