Churchill’s Consistency: Politics Before Country (Part 2)

Churchill’s Consistency: Politics Before Country (Part 2)

Consistency in Politics…

…was a theme of Churchill’s, and he often wrote about it. He made many mis­takes, but through­out his career he was sel­dom guilty of lack­ing con­sis­ten­cy. Con­tin­ued from Part 1

“Much better if he had never lived”

Churchill main­tained friend­ly rela­tions with Bald­win until Bald­win died in 1947. Nevertheless—which was rare for him—he nev­er for­gave and nev­er for­got. In June 1947 he made an aston­ish­ing state­ment: “I wish Stan­ley Bald­win no ill, but it would have been much bet­ter if he had nev­er lived.” Offi­cial biog­ra­ph­er Mar­tin Gilbert wrote that this was not Churchill’s usu­al con­sis­ten­cy, but exact­ly the opposite:

In my long search for Churchill few let­ters have struck a clear­er note than this one. Churchill was almost always mag­nan­i­mous: his trib­ute to Neville Cham­ber­lain in 1940 was among the high points of his par­lia­men­tary genius. But he saw Bald­win as respon­si­ble for the “locust years” when Britain, if dif­fer­ent­ly led, could have eas­i­ly rearmed, and kept well ahead of the Ger­man mil­i­tary and air expan­sion, which Hitler had begun in 1933 from a base of vir­tu­al dis­ar­ma­ment. Churchill saw Baldwin’s poli­cies, espe­cial­ly with regard to Roy­al Air Force expan­sion, as hav­ing giv­en Hitler the impres­sion, first, that Britain would not stand up to aggres­sion beyond its bor­ders, and sec­ond, that if war came Britain would not be in a posi­tion to act effec­tive­ly even to defend its own cities.[9]

As we con­tem­plate cur­rent world events, let us hope that today’s lead­ers do not put pol­i­tics before coun­try. At the moment, I very much fear that many of them are.

Praising Chamberlain

In 1937, Prime Min­is­ter Stan­ley Bald­win retired in favor of Neville Cham­ber­lain. Churchill had served with him in an ear­li­er gov­ern­ment, and respect­ed Cham­ber­lain despite their dif­fer­ences. But Churchill’s con­sis­ten­cy remained intact. He was soon dis­en­chant­ed with Chamberlain’s for­eign pol­i­cy. This remained as ded­i­cat­ed to Appease­ment as Baldwin’s had been.

Cham­ber­lain did begin to rearm the coun­try, which stood Britain well in the war to come. In 1939, Hitler absorbed Czecho­slo­va­kia, con­trary to his promis­es in the Munich Agree­ment. Cham­ber­lain sent a British guar­an­tee to the like­ly next tar­get, Poland. “Here,” wrote Churchill in his mem­oirs, “was deci­sion at last, tak­en at the worst pos­si­ble moment and on the last sat­is­fac­to­ry ground, which must sure­ly lead to the slaugh­ter of tens of mil­lions of people.”[10]

After Churchill replaced Cham­ber­lain as Prime Min­is­ter in May 1940, the lat­ter remained loy­al. He sup­port­ed Churchill against those who argued that Britain should reach an accom­mo­da­tion with Hitler and end the war. Cham­ber­lain died in Novem­ber 1940. Churchill eulo­gized him in Par­lia­ment in gen­er­ous words. But he nev­er for­got what he saw as Baldwin’s admis­sion of putting pol­i­tics before coun­try. Prais­ing Cham­ber­lain, he said, “was not an insu­per­a­ble task, since I admired many of Neville’s great qual­i­ties. But I pray to God in his infi­nite mer­cy that I shall not have to deliv­er a sim­i­lar ora­tion on Bald­win. That indeed would be dif­fi­cult to do.”[11]

What can be learned

Amer­i­ca and the great democ­ra­cies  face  prob­lems long sim­mer­ing, now per­haps no longer just sim­mer­ing. They may indeed result in a wreck­age sim­i­lar to what might have befall­en the world, had Churchill’s Britain and its Com­mon­wealth not stood alone against Hitler. Until, he remarked rue­ful­ly, “those who hith­er­to had been half blind were half ready.”[12]

The clear­est dec­la­ra­tion of Churchill’s char­ac­ter and prin­ci­ple I have ever read came in July 1936, at the height of the rear­ma­ment debate, Churchill told Parliament:

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?[13]

That ring­ing dec­la­ra­tion demon­strates Churchill’s devo­tion to prin­ci­ple and to his nation, regard­less of poll rat­ings or unpopularity—characteristics some lead­ers also demon­strate, from time to time.

Consistency vs. inaction

Strik­ing also are cer­tain ear­li­er Churchill remarks in 1928. They serve as a warn­ing against inac­tion in the face of the obvi­ous, by lead­ers today. They were writ­ten by Churchill to Lord Beaver­brook, after he had read Beaverbrook’s Politi­cians and the War. Meant in no invid­i­ous sense, they express only sorrow:

Think of all these people—decent, edu­cat­ed, the sto­ry of the past laid out before them—What to avoid—what to do etc.—patriotic, loy­al, clean—trying their utmost—What a ghast­ly mud­dle they made of it! Unteach­able from infan­cy to tomb—There is the first and main char­ac­ter­is­tic of mankind.[14]

Worth heed­ing too are Churchill’s words from 1933, which are ever­green: “We ought to rejoice at the respon­si­bil­i­ties with which des­tiny has hon­oured us, and be proud that we are guardians of our coun­try in an age when her life is at stake.”


[9] Mar­tin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill: A Historian’s Jour­ney (Lon­don: Harper­Collins, 1994, 106. WSC to Leslie Rowan, 19 July 1947, cour­tesy Churchill Archives Centre.

[10] Win­ston S. Churchill, The Gath­er­ing Storm (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1948), 271-72.

[11] Harold Nicol­son, diary for 22 Novem­ber 1940, in Nigel Nicol­son, ed., Harold Nicol­son Diaries and Let­ters, 3 vols. (Lon­don: Collins, 1966-68), II, 129.

[12] Win­ston S. Churchill, theme of Their Finest Hour (1949), in Richard M. Lang­worth, ed., Churchill in His Own Words (Lon­don: Ebury Press, 2012), 271.

[13] WSC, House of Com­mons, 20 July 1936, in Churchill in His Own Words, 493.

[14] WSC to Beaver­brook, 21 May 1928, in Churchill in His Own Words, 28.

[15] Churchill to the Roy­al Soci­ety of St. George, 24 April 1933, in Churchill in His Own Words, 78.

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