The venom in the argument that is commonplace in the Tory Party might be absent, but Labour has plenty of problems of its own in formulating an unambiguous policy on Brexit. However Jeremy Corbyn’s decision-making on Britain’s relationship with Europe pales into insignificance beside the decisions his predecessor, Clement Attlee, had to take over Britain’s – and Europe’s – very survival in 1940. As Roger Hermiston recounts in his book All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45, the Labour conference that May would decide the fate not only of the prime minister, but of the nation itself.
The English weather appeared blissfully unconcerned by the political and military storms that were raging across Europe in spring 1940. May 10th had brought yet another glorious day, bathing Bournemouth in warm and golden sunlight, and many of the Labour Party delegates gathering in the fashionable art deco Highcliff Hotel for their annual conference elected to take afternoon tea in deckchairs beneath colourful awnings on the garden terrace. Inside the hotel, their representatives on the party’s National Executive Committee had no time for pleasantries. They had assembled in a large conference room in the basement to consider the future of Neville Chamberlain and his government. For an opposition party that commanded just a quarter of the MPs in Parliament, this was a startling responsibility.
At 3.30 p.m. the party chairman, Barbara Ayrton Gould, called the meeting to order. A former suffragette, who had once been arrested and incarcerated in Holloway Prison for her part in a window-breaking campaign in Whitehall, Gould was one of five women in the thirty-strong gathering. The atmosphere in the smoke-filled room was lively, with even normally silent members contributing eagerly to a lengthy debate. The sense that they were about to make history was palpable.
That the group would reject any collaboration with a government led by Chamberlain, however reformed, was virtually assured. The prime minister was a bogey figure to many in the Labour movement, reviled for helping to defeat the general strike of 1926, resented for his key role in the hated national government of 1931, and condemned for aiding and abetting the introduction of the means test, the intrusive inquiry into the finances of unemployed people who sought benefits.
Chamberlain had formally proposed a coalition with Labour when war broke out on 1 September 1939, but the offer had been made with little enthusiasm, as he had scant regard for the qualities of the opposition leaders. The feeling was mutual, and the idea had been dismissed with equal contempt by a unanimous vote of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Later, at the end of March 1940 – even before the Norway crisis – Chamberlain had told the King, George VI, of his plan to build a new War Cabinet whose members would be ‘concerned with co-ordination rather than departmental duties’, and that it was his intention to find places for opposition parties. It was widely rumoured he had offered Labour three seats in that Cabinet, but Attlee had dismissed the proposal and nothing had come of the initiative.
If Labour loathed Chamberlain, there was no deep enthusiasm for either of the alternatives, Winston Churchill or Lord Halifax. But the pendulum now appeared to be swinging in the direction of the former. After the debacle of the Norway debate, Halifax had been tarnished by association with Chamberlain, and the worrying developments across the Channel were convincing Labour’s leaders that, in the words of Hugh Dalton, Labour’s foreign policy spokesman, ‘the strongest and most vigorous man’ must now lead the country. Attlee put to the executive the two questions agreed at Number 10: Would they serve under Chamberlain? Would they serve under someone else? The answers to both were unanimous: no to the first, but yes to the second.
It was a momentous moment, this effective toppling of a prime minister. But just as the committee were absorbing the ramifications, a messenger entered the room with equally dramatic news. The Germans were bombing Canterbury.
The information would later turn out to be false. Although this was indeed the very first attack on the English mainland in the war, it was no full-scale blitz. The Kent city had not been hit; a lone plane had dropped five incendiary bombs that had landed harmlessly enough in a farm and a wood near the villages of Chilham and Petham a few miles away. But at that moment the men and women around the table were unaware of this. As far as they were concerned, Hitler had launched his long-feared bombing campaign against the people of Britain. ‘It helped some of us to insist that this was a day, not for words, but for action,’ reflected Dalton.
A statement was quickly drafted – and agreed unanimously – that read, ‘The National Executive Committee of the Labour Party is prepared to take its share of responsibility as a full partner in a new government under a new prime minister which could command the confidence of the nation.’ Dalton claimed credit for inserting the words ‘under a new prime minister’. He told his colleagues, ‘If you don’t make it absolutely plain, the Old Man will still hang on.’
Crucially, they also made clear among themselves that this was a decision, not a recommendation; albeit with the proviso that to be binding, it would need the approval of the whole conference on Monday morning. Attlee told the executive he would ring Chamberlain immediately to inform him of the vote, and that he and Arthur Greenwood – the party’s deputy leader who was not in the room – would thereafter return to London and begin negotiations about a future government.
The Labour leader had just returned to the lobby of the Highcliff at 4.45 p.m. when a phone rang. Chamberlain’s private secretary in Downing Street was on the line: did the Labour leadership have answers to the prime minister’s two questions? By way of response, Attlee read out the resolution. With a taxi waiting, he then asked Dalton if he would remain in Bournemouth and act as a liaison between him and the executive. He arrived at the station just in time to catch the 5.15. His party had made its decision; events had been set in train.
While the private secretary was taking down Attlee’s statement in one corner of Downing Street, in the nearby Cabinet Room ministers were half an hour into their third meeting of the day. They had already been told about the Kent bombs, and now they were being updated on how German paratroopers had seized Rotterdam airport, paving the way for the landing of troop-carrying aircraft. General Sir Edmund Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, struck an optimistic note. Although parachutists had clearly been dropped widely in Belgium, there had been no rush of armoured divisions across that country’s border and he was doubtful whether a full-scale invasion was actually taking place.
As progress reports on the action along the Western Front were being completed, the private secretary came into the Cabinet Room and handed Chamberlain the dictated note from Bournemouth. The prime minister glanced at it, his expression unchanging, then put it to one side while he continued with the meeting.
Then, at around 5.30, with the main business on the agenda over, the prime minister brought up the ‘additional’ item. He revealed the contents of the piece of paper he had just been handed, reading out the Labour Party’s statement that they would serve under an alternative Conservative leader. With some emotion in his voice, he told his ministers he now proposed to go to the Palace and offer his resignation to the King.
That evening, after the main BBC bulletin of the day at 9 p.m., Chamberlain made his final broadcast to the nation as prime minister. Eight months earlier, his speech announcing war with Germany had been a flat, uninspiring affair. Now he found the right words, showing magnanimity in his hour of defeat and displaying surprising emotion and resolution in the face of a formidable foe.
Mindful of the public’s unease over the recent discord in Westminster, he began with a pledge of unity. ‘He [Hitler] has chosen a moment when, perhaps, it seemed to him that this country was entangled in the throes of a political crisis and he might find it divided against itself. If he has counted upon our internal divisions to help him, he has miscalculated the mind of this people.’ Chamberlain acknowledged that ‘some new and drastic action must be taken if confidence was to be restored to the House of Commons and the war carried on with the energy and vigour essential to victory’. The action needed, he made clear, was the formation of a national, coalition government, with Labour and Liberal Party members joining the Conservatives.
Then, for the first time, the country learned who was to be their new war leader. ‘His Majesty has now entrusted to my friend and colleague, Mr Winston Churchill, the task of forming a new administration on a national basis, and in this task I have no doubt he will be successful.’
Churchill’s accession, after what had been, to all intents and purposes, a parliamentary coup, undoubtedly gladdened the hearts of many beyond Westminster. And within its walls, too, there was much excitement – although some contemplated the prospect of his premiership, and the government he was to lead, with trepidation. Rab Butler, Lord Halifax’s ministerial colleague at the Foreign Office, declared that ‘The good clean tradition of English politics, that of Pitt as opposed to Fox, had been sold off to the greatest adventurer of modern political history.’ But within the ranks of Churchill’s long-standing supporters there was a mood of elation. ‘What a moment to take on! He will indeed have to ride the whirlwind and direct the storm,’ recorded his friend Violet Bonham Carter.
A few minutes before Chamberlain began his address to the nation, Attlee and Greenwood had stepped off the train at Waterloo, to be met by the Daily Herald journalist Maurice Webb and a naval officer from the Admiralty. The Labour leaders now learned, for the first time, the effect of their vote four hours earlier. Chamberlain had resigned, and the new prime minister wished to see them immediately. Thus they set off to the Admiralty, to play their part in forming the coalition government that would win the war.