Churchill’s Consistency: “Politics Before Country” (Part 1)

Churchill’s Consistency: “Politics Before Country” (Part 1)

“Churchill’s Con­sis­ten­cy,” first pub­lished in 2011, is updat­ed with mate­r­i­al from my book, Churchill and the Avoid­able War. It exon­er­ates, par­tial­ly, the state­ments and actions of Mr. Bald­win in the debate of rear­ma­ment in the 1930s.

“Politics before country”

A U.S. Con­gress­man, observ­ing America’s spend­ing prob­lem, pro­posed an elab­o­rate plan to fix it. In the process he didn’t wilt under the assault direct­ed toward any­one who defies the sta­tus quo by propos­ing prac­ti­cal change. Intend­ing to defend his ideas in a speech, his pri­vate office asked me to ver­i­fy what Churchill said on con­sis­ten­cy among politi­cians. I learned some­thing in the process…

Stan­ley Bald­win 1867-1947 (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

In 1936, Britain’s Prime Min­is­ter, Stan­ley Bald­win, put pol­i­tics before coun­try by fail­ing ade­quate­ly to rearm. This, the Con­gress­man said, remind­ed him of cer­tain polit­i­cal behav­ior today. In Par­lia­ment, Bald­win blunt­ly admit­ted that fear of los­ing an elec­tion moti­vat­ed his fail­ure to rearm in the face of Nazi Germany.

“All powerful to be impotent”

Churchill on rear­ma­ment was noth­ing if not con­sis­tent. On 12 Novem­ber 1936, as he recalled later,

…I severe­ly reproached Mr. Bald­win for hav­ing failed to keep his pledge “[to] see to it that in air strength and air pow­er this coun­try shall no longer be in a posi­tion infe­ri­or to any coun­try with­in strik­ing dis­tance of its shores.” I said: “The Gov­ern­ment sim­ply can­not make up their minds, or they can­not get the Prime Min­is­ter to make up his mind. So they go on in strange para­dox, decid­ed only to be unde­cid­ed, resolved to be irres­olute, adamant for drift, sol­id for flu­id­i­ty, all-pow­er­ful to be impo­tent. So we go on prepar­ing more months and years—precious, per­haps vital, to the great­ness of Britain—for the locusts to eat.”[1]

Bald­win replied with an aston­ish­ing admission:

You will remem­ber at that time there was prob­a­bly a stronger paci­fist feel­ing run­ning through this coun­try than at any time since the war…. 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.[2]

1936: “A squalid confession”

For Churchill, con­sis­ten­cy on such issues was para­mount. He saw Baldwin’s admis­sion as rep­re­hen­si­ble. He replied to Bald­win that same day, 12 Novem­ber 1936:

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.[3]

The fol­low­ing day, in a pri­vate let­ter to a friend, Churchill leaped upon Baldwin’s state­ment: “I have nev­er heard such a squalid con­fes­sion from a pub­lic man as Bald­win offered us yesterday.”[4]

1948: “Naked truth into indecency”

Con­sis­ten­cy, con­sis­ten­cy… Churchill returned to Baldwin’s 1936 con­fes­sion in his war mem­oirs. Baldwin’s 1936 state­ment, he wrote, was one of “appalling frankness…

It car­ried naked truth about his motives into inde­cen­cy. That a Prime Min­is­ter should avow that he had not done his duty in regard to nation­al safe­ty because he was afraid of los­ing the elec­tion was an inci­dent with­out par­al­lel in our Par­lia­men­tary his­to­ry. 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.[5]

It is obvi­ous that Bald­win aban­doned the polit­i­cal good 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 government.

Where Churchill was wrong

There is how­ev­er a tech­ni­cal crit­i­cism of Churchill’s state­ments. In both The Gath­er­ing Storm and his 1938 speech vol­ume, Arms and the Covenant, he 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 he tak­en more rear­ma­ment mea­sures, he said, “it would have defeat­ed entire­ly the end I had in view.”[6]

Note the “twelve months before.” Churchill had 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 had cam­paigned in sup­port of rearmament.

Bald­win was not entire­ly guilt­less. To appre­ci­ate this, one must read the entire pas­sage from Churchill’s 12 Novem­ber 1935 speech. Bald­win had “fought and large­ly won” the 1935 elec­tion on rear­ma­ment, Churchill said. But

…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…. [7]

The difference in statecraft

Bald­win admit­ted that, had there been a 1933-34 elec­tion, he would not have pushed for rear­ma­ment, fear­ing he would lose. He 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?[8]

The dif­fer­ence in state­craft is very clear. 1) Bald­win wished to rearm—to what degree was unclear. He did cam­paign for it in the 1935 elec­tion; he won, and began to rearm. 2) Bald­win was more reluc­tant about risk­ing votes than Churchill, and was less urgent and ambi­tious about the Nazi threat. 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 asserted.


[1] Win­ston S. Churchill, The Gath­er­ing Storm (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1948, 169-70. In oth­er edi­tions this falls in the mid­dle of Chap­ter XII.

[2] Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. V, The Prophet of Truth 1922-1939 (Hills­dale, Mich.: Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2009), 798.

[3] Richard M. Lang­worth, ed., Churchill in His Own Words (Lon­don: Ebury Press, 2012), 250.

[4] WSC to Sir Archibald Boyd-Car­pen­ter, 13 Novem­ber 1936, in Gilbert, Prophet of Truth, 799.

[5] Churchill, The Gath­er­ing Storm, 169-70.

[6] Richard M. Lang­worth, Churchill and the Avoid­able War (Moul­ton­bor­ough, N.H.: Drag­onwyck, 2015), 88, quot­ing Bald­win in Hansard, 317: 1145-46.

[7] Lang­worth, Avoid­able War, 88, quot­ing Churchill in Hansard, 317: 1105-06.

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

Con­sis­ten­cy in Pol­i­tics con­cludes in Part 2.


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