Churchill—From Tonypandy to Gallipoli
By Gywdion M. Williams
The problem in our uncertain world of the Twenty-Hundreds is not so much that Bush compares himself to Churchill, but that anyone should wish to compare themselves to Churchill.
True, Churchill did have a sense of grandeur in a way that today’s leaders do not. Slightly staged and theatrical, yet the last echo of the substantial British gentry of the 18th century. These characters had been in full decline all through the 19th century, the era which rather too many people take to be Britain’s true age of greatness.
After Churchill, the grandeur departed, though the forms remained. One is reminded of the Chinese phrase about an ape dressed up in the robes of a philosopher-king. None of them can match the dignity of a man who grew up as a member of the British elite in an era when Britain was the world’s only true Superpower.
Churchill was the last gasp of a British world order that had outlived its original energies and purpose. The British Empire had hung on to an early 19th century vision of industry and trade, a rich middle class living off impoverished workers and hoping to rise into aristocratic circles. This world vision was under threat from both Germany and the USA, which had developed industries that were as good or better than anything that Britain had.
The first half of the twentieth century saw extremes of warfare that could have been avoided if the British ruling class had accepted back in 1900 or 1910 that it should no longer try to rule the world. Most Britons outside of the ruling class were not hugely bothered, but found themselves flung headlong into terrible wars that the ruling class created by its power politics (and which were even worse for the non-British world).
It is conventional now to speak of Britain facing a ‘Nazi threat’ in the 1930s. But the British government and a majority of voters saw Nazism as both a threat and an opportunity. The economic model that came to be called Keynesian was then associated in Britain with politicians who were close to Fascism or sympathetic with fascism. Notably Sir Oswald Mosley, who’d begun as a Tory, switched to Labour and then founded a ‘New Party’ before switching again to Fascism.
Mosley, Lloyd George and Churchill briefly considered forming a kind of ‘National Opposition’ when Ramsey Macdonald and Baldwin formed the National Government. It was part of the general fluidity, after the system of the 1910s had discredited itself with the 1914-18 war and the unjust and unworkable peace they made at Versailles.
If upholders of ‘Capitalist Democracy’ in the 1930s had been as hostile to Fascism as they were to Communism, Hitler would have been stopped much sooner and much more cheaply. As it was, there was an attempt to fit him in as a right-wing ally, as Mussolini had been and as General Franco and other right-wing dictators were accommodated during the Cold War era. The Left protested, Centrists sighed and the Right got on with business as usual.
The dismantling of democracy in Germany did not change Tory attitudes. Comprehensive discrimination against Jews did not change Tory attitudes. A crack-down on Germany’s relatively tolerant attitudes to sex was quite attractive to many Tories, as was a clear assertion of male superiority and female subordination.
Germany choosing to re-arm and overturn of the Versailles limits was alarming but acceptable, for as long as it was thought that Hitler was just restoring Germany as a nation. It was also hoped that he would join with other right-wing nations in the conquest of the Soviet Union, Churchill’s failed project of 1920-21.
Churchill himself was opposed to the scheme—opposed in the sense that he did not want Hitler getting the glory and the benefit for doing a job he saw as necessary—but he was fairly isolated at the time. I’ll show later that it was the annexation of the Czech territories that caused a sudden reversal, in a way that seems baffling today. The point I want to make now is that Nazi Germany was the biggest ‘blowback’ so far in world history, with the West building up Hitler as a fighter against Communism and ending up having to ally with Stalin to stop Hitler and Germany from dominating all Europe.
An important stage in the rise of Fascism was Spain, where Britain and France decided to stand neutral when General Franco led a military rebellion against democracy. A moderately progressive government was denied military aid and found no help except from the Soviet Union—those who nowadays say it’s incomprehensible that people would work with Stalin are pig-ignorant about the actually existing alternatives. The Tory Party and the ‘National Government’ stood neutral while Fascism was spread at the expense of existing multi-party parliamentary systems.
After 1945, with Britain’s ‘Imperial War Machine’ much weakened, it was convenient to pretend that Britain was helpless in the face of the Fascist beast. Regarding Spain, the excuse is Communist role on the Republican side, but that is another case of confusing cause and effect. The Communist role grew because only the Soviet Union would help the democratically elected government against a military revolt that began with large numbers of Moroccan troops from Spain’s residual empire. And yet Franco and his mixed bag of Fascists and right-wing Nationalists still needed massive German and Italian intervention to succeed against the popular radicalism of the Republic.
Britain and France could have supported the Republican side, kept it non-Communist and ensured its victory. It would have needed no commitment of troops and would have carried very little risk of war, and the actual Second World War would almost certainly have been avoided. But in the 1930s, the ruling classes in Britain still had a very different notion of the world and did not like radical republicanism of the Spanish sort. They sympathised with Franco’s coup, much as the USA since 1945 has backed right-wing military coups against democratic left-wing governments, most notably the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile on September 11th 1973.
The most distinctive thing about 1930s Fascism is that they did things in the home territories that all European empires had applied overseas for centuries. This trend may have begun in the USA, with the American Civil War being won by Union generals like Grant and Sherman applying to the South the same methods that had been developed to clear away Native Americans from lands where the White Race wanted to settle.
Sherman and Grant broke the Confederacy by large-scale destructiveness, after conventional methods of warfare between armies had failed. The Federal side got their main aim: the USA was confirmed as a federal nation rather than an association of sovereign states. Also the embarrassment of slavery was removed: it might have lasted much longer had the South not seceded.
Racial equality was not what the Federal forces had been after; Abraham Lincoln was a racist whose opposition to slavery was based on a desire to limit the spread of black people, ideally to remove them from the USA entirely. If he hadn’t been assassinated, he might have gone on to establish formal segregation, which in fact just happened piecemeal.
In the USA, the South was broken, but afterwards politics got back to an aggressive populism that made actual fascism unnecessary. Besides, in those days the USA had no real Empire, just territories that it owned despite the wishes of inconvenient local inhabitants.
Things were rather different among the European Empires. The 20th century war-machines stopped recognising existing distinctions between privileged and subordinate groups, when the privileged got in their way. All of the European powers had caused the deaths of millions of their colonial subjects, but that was only ‘natives’. Jews were always classed as part of the ‘White Race’, classified as a low or middling or high element within the White Race depending on where you were, but quite high up in the racial hierarchy that was seen as normal up until 1945.
The mass extermination of a million or more gypsies by the Nazis receives vastly less attention than the killing of Jews by the same extermination-machine. Likewise Japanese torture, massacre and rape of other Asians was mostly overlooked whereas crimes against Europeans received the proper punishment.
The only authentic and serious case of lethal scientific experiments on prisoners was Japanese, but the subjects were merely Chinese and Russians and so the US authorities let them off in return for the data. Japanese war-crimes were systematic, whereas the stuff done by some Nazi doctors in the Concentration Camps was cruel and demented without ever being very scientific.
Gestapo methods were standard police methods of the time, except that the customary distinction between the working class, middle class and ruling class was no longer observed. Once repression was democratised, there was suddenly much more enthusiasm for entrenched global rights. There had always been some idealists, but now they were joined by many who would have always supposed that they themselves were ‘off limits’. But that was much later, after Britain’s two anti-German wars had ruined the European empires and forced changes that would have seemed impossibly radical in 1914.
But surely Winston Churchill was the shining exception to the weakness and collaboration of the 1930s? Like hell he was! Churchill’s objection to Hitler and the Nazis was that they were making Germany too powerful. Nothing else bothered him much and he regularly spoke of it as an anti-German war rather than ‘anti-Nazi’—a view that is once again being pushed now that West Germans have ceased to be key allies in the Cold War.
Up until he became Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill’s biggest contribution to world history had been to turn Lloyd George into a partner in the anti-German war. And this was a war that part of the British ruling class had been planning for years. It would have happened regardless of how Germany had handled the particular crisis over the Serbian claim to Bosnia. And while solid evidence is lacking, it is interesting to speculate whether Churchill had played a larger role in the pre-planning for war than the standard histories suggest.
Lloyd George had opposed the Boer War, which the young Winston Churchill had enthusiastically supported. The people planning Britain’s war with Germany must have known he’d be a major obstacle—or else a great asset if he could be won over. And ex-soldier Churchill was famous after his ‘miraculously lucky’ escape from a South African prisoner-of-war camp—did he have more help than was ever admitted? In any case, he then entered politics as a Tory, and appeared first as a rather overmatched orator opposing Lloyd George.
Churchill as a Tory MP was a maverick, much as his father Randolph Churchill had been. In 1904, he was part of a small defection of Free-Trade Tories to the Liberals, and therefore benefited from their dramatic and unexpected victory in 1906. And as a Liberal, he became almost a disciple to Lloyd George, very surprising in view of Churchill’s general attitudes, his aristocratic connections and Lloyd George’s mundanely middle-class roots. Together they oppose the plans for naval expansion, with an unexpected lack of success, as Roy Jenkins notes:
“Churchill and, to a lesser extent, Lloyd George had allowed themselves to be isolated… The two ‘economists’, as they were known in those days… had fought a remarkably ineffective battle. Their opponents had asked for six ships [dreadnoughts]. The ‘economists’ tried to hold out for four. And the result of the ‘compromise’ was eight.” (Churchill, by Roy Jenkins. pages 156-7 of the Pan Books paperback.)
From his background and general viewpoint, Churchill should have been enthusiastically for such policies from the beginning. That he was an opponent and then an unexpectedly ineffective opponent is suspicious.
Nothing can be proven, of course, and perhaps an odd series of changes of view reflect no more than an energetic and ambitious personality. Conspiracy theorists claim to know inner secrets that have otherwise remained secret, and also hatch melodramatic plots without regard for human motivation. Yet real establishment plots exist, are mostly quiet and clever, though not always successful and not always hidden from history. A well-ordered conspiracy among the nation’s elite is unlikely to be found out. But Churchill was later welcomed as First Lord of the Admiralty, and several times in his later career he was saved from near-ruin, which was either very lucky or due to accumulated credits with the ruling elite.
That much is speculation: the hard facts are that in 1911, after a dangerous confrontation between France and Germany over Morocco, Churchill went back to being what one would have expected from his background, an enthusiast for war and navel power.
“This conversion in 1911, however, produced no immediate break with Lloyd George. Instead Churchill contributed to getting the Chancellor to insert in his annual Mansion House speech… robust warning to Germany which was as surprising from Lloyd George at the time as it was a remarkable foretaste of his dogged militarism of five years later.” (Ibid, p 202)
“The shift of [Churchill’s] interests therefore preceded his change of posts… The main object of the shake-up was to create a War Staff at the Admiralty, such as had already been imposed on the War Office.” (Ibid, 205).
As Home Secretary, Churchill had shown no scruples about being ready to use the army in mainland Britain. By 1911, strikes were less of an issue, but there were doubts about whether the navy was organisationally ready. So Churchill moved from the Home Office to be First Lord of the Admiralty, preparing for the expected war.
In 1914, Lloyd George joined the warmongers reluctantly, but turned out to understand modern warfare rather better than Churchill, Asquith or Kitchener. The 1914-18 war did immense damage to ruling class prestige, not just because it seemed pointless when people looked back with cooled passions, but also because many of the working-class and middle-class participants found that they understood fighting and strategy much better than the governing class that had been bred for such things.
Churchill’s own reputation suffered from the failed landings at Gallipoli in 1915, which was perhaps unfair. In 1914-18, there was an odd sense in which the slaughter on the Western Front was treated as ‘off balance sheet’—to call it an error was to admit that Capitalist Democracy of the early 20th century vintage was not just imperfect but criminally foolish. Gallipoli was distinct and could be condemned as a diversion from the ‘necessary’ sacrifice on the Western Front.
People mostly overlook what would have happened had Gallipoli succeeded. With more support from the West and with the key goal of a Russian-controlled Constantinople now achievable, the prestige of Tsarism would have been restored, the failure of 1905 wiped out. That is just one of many alternative histories that might have occurred.
In 1916, Britain might have agreed that the Great War had ended in a stalemate. This would have been fine if the intention was just to uphold civilised standards, and not to ruin Germany before Germany displaced Britain as the world’s strongest nation. But the ruin of Germany was the key war aim and was not abandoned in 1916, nor 1917 either.
The first Russian Revolution overthrew Tsarism and introduced a pro-Western government that is normally described as ‘moderate’. But carrying on with a ruinous war did not seem very moderate to the soldiers who were fighting it, which is why the Bolsheviks triumphed. People lost faith in the old order, because the old order had insisted on fighting a war that made no real sense.
Lloyd George led Britain to an expensive victory and an unworkable peace. In the process he destroyed the Liberal party and himself fell from power in 1922. Churchill fell with him, but bounced back in 1924 as a ‘Constitutionalist’, soon redefined as Tory. Baldwin as Tory leader unexpectedly made him Chancellor of the Exchequer, a higher post than he had ever held before. Lloyd George, by contrast, remained in the political wilderness, leader of one section of a diminished Liberal Party. He also expressed an enthusiasm for Hitler in the mid-1930s, though like many others he came back into line when the ruling class decided Hitler must be fought.
Churchill remained Chancellor until 1929, when Labour under the leadership of Ramsay Macdonald defeated the Tories. When Ramsay Macdonald split Labour and formed the ‘National Government’ with the Tories and the Liberal remnants, Churchill was one of several prominent Tories who were left out.
Recently the term ‘National Government’ with its semi-fascist overtones has been vanishing from the reference works. At the time it was used with pride, and Roy Jenkins is presumably old and distinguished enough to use it without regard for modern sensibilities. But in the Encyclopaedia Britannica 2002, it has become just a ‘coalition’, as if it were nothing new in peacetime politics.
In the 1930s, the bulk of the nation liked the National Government and gave it large majorities in elections where all adults living in Britain had the vote. Churchill was seen as a man whose time had past, someone who’d learned nothing and forgotten nothing since the 1910s, a man who had not adjusted to Britain’s loss of superpower status. It was only the rise of Nazism that brought him back.
There were several differing agendas among those Britons who permitted the rise of Nazism. There was naive pacifism, people who failed to realise the social order they were living in was not a natural phenomenon. There were a small number of right-wing eccentrics who approved of Nazi ideology as such. But the politically dominant force was those who thought that Hitler could be used and controlled as an anti-Communist champion. German rearmament would be fine if the new weapons were to be used just for the conquest of the Soviet Union.
Churchill and Chamberlain were following rival strategies, both of which failed. Churchill’s stand was based on the false belief that it was possible both to fight Hitler and to preserve the British Empire. Chamberlain understood rather more of how the world had changed since 1914, so he wanted to give up part of Britain’s power and position, so as to save the rest.