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Europe at War:
1939-45 - Andrew Marr on Churchill and Britain in May 1940

The play starts on the afternoon of 28 May 1940, at a meeting of the war cabinet in the Prime Minister's office in the old House of Commons. There are only a few players. There is Winston Churchill who has become the nation's leader only eighteen days earlier. He is seen by most of the Establishment and many Conservatives as a rather ridiculous, drunken and dodgy man with a penchant for wild speeches mid silly hats. Behind their gloved hands they call him the 'rogue elephant', even 'the gangster'. Among those lukewarm about him becoming the King's first minister less than three weeks before, had been the King. In Labour circles he was widely regarded as an enemy Of the working class, the pink-faced toff who, years ago, had ordered in the army against strikers. Now Churchill has just ordered British troops at Calais to fight without hope of evacuation to try to protect the 200,000 left on the beaches at Dunkirk, who might be saved. He had also been trying to barter with the Americans for desperately needed destroyers. So far they had been no help. With thousands of British troops making it back across the channel every hour, there was still some hope of rescuing the bulk of the army. But German invasion loomed and without heavy weapons, that seemed a hopeless prospect. He regarded it as a stand-and-die order which he said left him 'physically sick'. Churchill had just been asked to approve plans for the evacuation of the Government and the Royal Family, as well as the Bank of England's gold, to Canada. Like the King and Queen, he refused to contemplate this.

Around the table with him were two men ever afterwards associated with appeasement. There was the former Prime Minister Neville (Chamberlain whose 'peace in our time' negotiations in Germany with Hitler had made him a national hero until, very quickly, Hitler turned him into a national fool. He was dying. There was the Conservative Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, who on earlier visits to Germany had found Hitler 'most sincere' and Goering 'frankly attractive', a composite character like 'a great schoolboy . . . film star, great landowner . . . party manager, head gamekeeper at Chatsworth.' Much favoured by the Court, a lanky, wry, religious and reactionary man, Halifax had been expected to become Prime Minister himself. But in the Lords, he was the wrong kind of Tory for these dark days and would soon be packed off to be ambassador in Washington. In this government of national unity, along with the Liberal leader Archibald Sinclair, were two Labour men. Clement Attlee had become leader of his party almost by accident and was little known in the country. Terse, patriotic, rather colourless, the idea that he would one day be remembered as a great Prime Minister would in 1940 have seemed outlandish. Then there was Arthur Greenwood, a former teacher who had stood in for Attlee during his recent illness. Greenwood is little remembered today. He was a much-loved Labour figure before the war but proved to be a poor minister. In his lifelong fight with the bottle, the bottle won every round. But many second-rate people find themselves called to a moment when history turns, and this was Arthur Greenwood's day. In front of the war cabinet was a simple question. After the devastating success of Hitler's armies in slicing through Belgium, the Netherlands and France, was it time to try to cut a deal? Halifax and Chamberlain were both in favour. The Italian dictator Mussolini had been touted as a go-between and various bribes for his good offices had been discussed. The Italians might take Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, Kenya and Uganda as part of their payment to stop the invasion of the British Isles. The terms might be these. Britain would accept Hitler as overlord of Europe but would be allowed to keep her Fleet and the rest of her Empire, including India. Churchill had not yet rejected any deal, on any terms, but he was acutely aware that if talk of talks leaked out, the effect on national morale would be devastating. Churchill also believed that any terms offered by Berlin would include handing over the Royal Navy and the creation of a pro-Nazi puppet government in London. Half American himself, he believed that in the end the United States would come into the fight even if Britain was invaded. Surrounded by dim hopes, fears and question-marks, this was 'make your mind up time'. Had the gathering been only of Conservative politicians Winston would have been outvoted. Attlee and Greenwood, however, were solid for fighting on and for refusing to negotiate or surrender.

So by a squeak Churchill had his majority. Fortified by this, his mood revived and he quickly summoned the full cabinet, where in true Churchillian English he told them: 'I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island history of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.' Or that at least is how he recorded it later. Ministers jumped up, shouting approval and thumped the old man on the back. Later he said he would have been dragged from office if he had tried to surrender; every minister was ready, with his family, to be killed 'quite soon'. As we have seen this was an exaggeration. Quite a few British politicians would have done a deal. Washington had been privately told by its London ambassador that the British would surrender. Looking back, such a thing may seem impossible - unthinkable. But it was quite possible and it was seriously discussed. This was the moment when Britain was on the edge and her modern story begins. From that decision on that day, everything follows. First, there was the war, from the Battle of Britain, through Pearl Harbor to the final defeat of Germany and Japan. So, second, the world was differently shaped. The end of the British Empire, once the world's greatest, and the rise of the United States as ruler of the free world occurred for complicated reasons. But they can be plausibly traced back to what Winston, Clem and Arthur agreed was the right thing to do on that difficult day in May. That decision made contemporary Britain, with her weaknesses and strengths, which are the subject of this book. Many unexpected and surprising things followed. Neither Churchill nor Attlee got the Britain they wanted. Instead, unwittingly, they made us.


Quoted in Andrew Marr - A History of Modern Britain: xv-xvii


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