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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?
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.
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.”
 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.
 Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (London: Cassell, 1948), 271-72.
 Harold Nicolson, diary for 22 November 1940, in Nigel Nicolson, ed., Harold Nicolson Diaries and Letters, 3 vols. (London: Collins, 1966-68), II, 129.
 Winston S. Churchill, theme of Their Finest Hour (1949), in Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill in His Own Words (London: Ebury Press, 2012), 271.
 WSC, House of Commons, 20 July 1936, in Churchill in His Own Words, 493.
 WSC to Beaverbrook, 21 May 1928, in Churchill in His Own Words, 28.
 Churchill to the Royal Society of St. George, 24 April 1933, in Churchill in His Own Words, 78.