Consistency: Politics Before Country, 1936-2011, Part 2

Consistency: Politics Before Country, 1936-2011, Part 2

Con­sis­ten­cy in Pol­i­tics: con­tin­ued from Part 1… Updat­ed with mate­r­i­al from my book, Churchill and the Avoid­able War (2015). It exon­er­ates, par­tial­ly, the actions of Mr. Baldwin.

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.

House of Commons

Consistency lost

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.


con­tin­ued in part 3

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