Churchill reflected in his memoirs on why Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin refused to admit his country had a defense problem—Nazi Germany—because he thought the admission might cost him an election. (Reference to Baldwin’s “miscalculation” refers to his admission, in Parliament, that his previous low estimates of German air strength had been catastrophically low)….
Mr. Baldwin was of course not moved by any ignoble wish to remain in office. He was in fact in 1936 earnestly desirous of retiring. His policy was dictated by the fear that if the Socialists came into power even less would be done than his Government intended. All their declarations and votes against defense measures are upon record. But this was no complete defense, and less than justice to the spirit of the British people. The success which had attended the naive confession of miscalculation in air parity the previous year was not repeated on this occasion. The House was shocked.
It is obvious to anyone who thinks about politics that Baldwin violated the political sanctity of consistency. This is not unique. Politicians—then and now—frequently put politics or party before country. But rarely does one admit it—particularly the leader of a nation.
For Churchill, such an act by a head of government, charged with his country’s security, was as inconceivable as it was reprehensible. He replied to Baldwin the same day, 12 November 1936, lamenting
…the failure of the House of Commons to react effectively against those dangers. That, I am bound to say, I never expected. I never would have believed that we should have been allowed to go on getting into this plight, month by month and year by year, and that even the Government’s own confessions of error would have produced no concentration of Parliamentary opinion and force capable of lifting our efforts to the level of emergency. I say that unless the House resolves to find out the truth for itself it will have committed an act of abdication of duty without parallel in its long history.
In reply to Churchill, Baldwin said:
Supposing I had gone to the country and said that Germany was rearming and that we must rearm, does anybody think that this pacific democracy would have rallied to that cry at that moment? I cannot think of anything that would have made the loss of the election from my point of view more certain.
The following day, in a private letter to an old friend, Churchill leaped upon Baldwin’s statement: “I have never heard such a squalid confession from a public man as Baldwin offered us yesterday.” [WSC to Sir Archibald Boyd-Carpenter, 13 November 1936, in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V, 799.] In his war memoirs, Churchill said Baldwin had placed politics before country. This, he added, amounted to “indecency.”
Indecency or a misquote?
July 2019: Further notes since original publication in 2011:
In both The Gathering Storm and his 1938 speech volume, Arms and the Covenant, Churchill quoted Baldwin selectively. Among key omissions was Baldwin’s statement that the 1935 election gave him “a mandate for [rearming] that no one, twelve months before, would have believed possible…had I taken such action as my Rt Hon Friend [Churchill] desired me to take, it would have defeated entirely the end I had in view.”
Churchill’s book unfairly implied that Baldwin was referring to the actual election in November 1935. In fact, Baldwin was speaking of a hypothetical election in 1933-34. Indeed, on 12 November 1936, Churchill in Parliament stated that in 1935 Baldwin campaigned on rearming.
Baldwin is not entirely guiltless, however. To appreciate this, one must read the entire passage from Churchill’s 12 November 1935 speech. While Baldwin had “fought and largely won” the 1935 election on rearmament, Churchill declared,
…it was very difficult to see what he really intended, because…he also made the statement: “I give you my word there will be no great armaments….There has not been, there is not, and there will not be any question of huge armaments or materially increased forces.” Frankly, I do not understand what that could have meant, because an Air Force equal to the gigantic force being constructed in Germany would certainly involve a huge expenditure…. [Emphasis mine.]
The difference in statecraft
Baldwin not only admitted that, had there been a 1933-34 election, he would not have pushed for rearmament, fearing he would have lost. He also gave mixed messages about how much he would rearm in the actual election (1935). Churchill’s ringing declaration the previous June stands in contrast to Baldwin’s:
I would endure with patience the roar of exultation that would go up when I was proved wrong, because it would lift a load off my heart and off the hearts of many Members. What does it matter who gets exposed or discomfited? If the country is safe, who cares for individual politicians, in or out of office?
The difference in statecraft is very clear. 1) Baldwin wanted to rearm—to what degree was unclear. He did campaigned for it in the 1935 election; he won, and did rearm. 2) Baldwin was more reluctant about risking votes than Churchill, and was less urgent and ambitious about rearming. 3) Baldwin’s and Chamberlain’s rearmament efforts did leave Britain better defended by 1940. But it would have helped to have had more, as Churchill consistently urged.