The British wartime coalition

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Many people in Britain were immensely proud of having ‘won’ the war, though it would be more accurate to say that Britain’s great achievement was to keep the war going long enough for the Russians and Americans to win it. Britain came out of the war with the country badly battered and facing massive debts. Despite this, almost everyone believed the struggle had been worth it. Unlike 1918, the country was not full of a sense of loss and wasted lives. The war had produced a very strong sense of unity and purpose.

People mostly accepted government restrictions as right and necessary. Most were ready for wartime planning to continue into the work of post-war reconstruction. Two questions emerge: How the British government coped with the crisis and management of the national war effort? How far did the impact of the war change the lives and attitudes of the British people. From May 1940 until his defeat in the 1945 election, Winston Churchill led a coalition government that was a truly national one, bringing together politicians from all the leading parties.

This coalition proved durable and effective, both in military strategy and in domestic affairs. Many of its key personalities established their political reputations during the war and then went on to have great influence in post-war Britain. Britain was a long way from any thoughts of victory celebrations in May 1940, as the nation faced the treat of invasion and seemed to stand alone in its fight against Nazism. Two interconnected crises were looming. The first was military – following the disastrous failure of the Norway Campaign and the rapid advances of German forced through France.

The second crisis was political – because both the politicians and the people had lost faith in the British PM, Neville Chamberlain. When the scale of the military crisis became clear in 1940, Chamberlain began to face increasing criticism from groups within his own party, from most of the Labour party and from the press. There were various reasons for this. His policy of appeasement had been popular at first but public opinion began to turn against it after Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia, and moreover invaded Poland in 1939.

Chamberlain was also criticized for failing to procure an alliance with Soviet Russia to deter Hitler; and for underestimating Hitler’s aggressive intentions. In April 1940, Chamberlain boasted that ‘Hitler had missed the bus’ but only days later, he invaded Denmark and Norway. This undermined faith in his leadership. Matters came to a head in May 1940. Chamberlain was heavily criticised for not organising the economy for war with enough urgency. Many MPs felt that the army was inadequately prepared and supplied, and that the blockade of Germany was not tight enough.

Chamberlain failed to win support of Labour and form a new National Government to fight the war. He even failed to win over all Conservatives. Part of the problem was that Chamberlain did not relish the role of war leader, ‘how I loath this war’ he wrote. Defeat and evacuation in Norway, for which he was blamed, further undermined belief in his ability to lead. In May 1940, Chamberlain opened debate on the disastrous Norway Campaign and faced strong attacks from Conservative backbenchers and the Labour Party demanded that he should resign.

The former PM Lloyd George denounced him, stating that his best contribution would be to sacrifice his office. Conservative rebels refused to support Chamberlain unless Labour and the Liberals were prepared to support him too and since there was no chance of this happening, Chamberlain duly resigned. The two main contenders to replace Chamberlain as PM were both Conservatives, Winston Churchill and Lord Halifax. Churchill was a controversial figure. There was hostility towards him from many Conservatives; and, it was widely believed, from the Labour Party.

All of the political leaders in 1940 were ready to accept Halifax – Chamberlain and Attlee thought he was the better choice too. Afterwards, Churchill quickly came to be recognised as the ideal leader – but this was not at all clear at the time. Lord Halifax had been Foreign Secretary in the 1930s and was familiar with German leadership. Many MPs across all parties saw him as the better choice for PM and in the days before the German invasion of the Benelux countries, it was still possible to imagine some form of negotiated deal with Hitler to avoid war. Halifax was seen as the man most able to do this.

For others, however, Halifax was too closely associated with appeasement, a policy which was now discredited and whose failure to prevent a European war was now clear. Moreover, he sat as a peer in the House of Lords and not in the Commons. His opponents felt that as a leading appeaser and as a peer he was not the right man to lead a democracy in a great war. There was also question of motivation and self-belief. Whereas Churchill was eager to take on the responsibility, convinced that it was his political destiny, Halifax was not at all sure in his own mind that he was the right man for the job – as was revealed in the memoirs of both men.

Some say that Churchill’s speeches ‘mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’. In 1939, Chamberlain had appointed Churchill to the Admiralty and during the ‘phoney war’ only the navy had won any significant victories. In the 1930s, Churchill had warned of the need for Britain to rearm to meet the German threat and such speeches endeared him to the press and improved his relationships with the trade unions and the Labour Party who welcomed his uncompromising opposition to Hitler and Nazism and also his recommendation that trade union leaders such as Ernest Bevin should be brought into government.

His extensive contacts in the US were regarded as valuable in order to win US support against Germany and he was seen as a man of determination and energy despite his age – due to his extensive speeches and articles etc. Churchill faced a terrifying situation on the first weeks of his premiership. By May 1940, German forces were deep into northern France and the fall of France was only a matter of time. This would bring the forces of Nazi Germany within 20 miles of the British coast.

As invasion seemed imminent and Britain was alone, apart from the support of a distant empire. Churchill proposed, nonetheless, that the nation should wage war by sea, land and air to the bitter end. However, not everyone saw things in Churchill’s way. Lord Halifax and other Conservatives felt that, with France collapsing, an army retreating to Dunkirk, no help from America and Germany controlling most of Western Europe, the sensible policy was to negotiate with Hitler.

They regarded Churchill’s speeches as emotional bravado and believed that Britain would be better getting what terms it could rather than being invaded and conquered. They favoured a compromised peace. It was a measure of Churchill’s confidence that he convinced most of his cabinet and the population that it was better to fight on in the hope that the US could be persuaded to support Britain. Rather than seek peace, Churchill put everything into organising the military effort against Nazi Germany.

In the summer of 1940, Britain was successful in the ‘Battle of Britain’ and the Germans had diverted their Luftwaffe to the East – Churchill named this the ‘finest hour’ as Britain stood alone and ensured the war would last long enough for others to join in. During and after the war, Churchill became a legend. His inspiring leadership was credited with unifying the nation. But Churchill also had his faults, he was impulsive, dictatorial, constantly interfered with government departments and thought he knew more about strategy and tactics than his generals and was a poor committee chairman.

Even those devoted to him noticed these failings. The Australian PM noted how Churchill was not interested in anything besides warfare. Churchill was lucky in his deputy PM however, Clement Attlee, a man with no charisma but an extremely effective organiser. There was great difference between the two men – whilst Attlee was quiet, hard-working and an efficient worker, Churchill was spontaneous and erratic and could not work to schedule.

There have been several revisionist historians who discredit Churchill as the great war hero he’s often thought of. On becoming PM, Churchill’s first task was to form a new government. Given the desperate situation unfolding across the Channel this needed to be a government of national unity. Although Churchill was PM, Chamberlain continued to lead the Conservatives and this made it easier for Churchill to act as if he was above party politics and to bring into government Labour and Liberal politicians as well as Conservatives.

He also brought in talented individuals from outside political parties. In addition to his cabinet, others made important contributions in Churchill’s government – as well as Conservatives, two Liberal ministers were appointed and 14 Labour politicians at various levels of government. Churchill also brought in men with experience outside Westminster. Examples of this wide range of talents were seen in William Beveridge.

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