In May 1940 Britain was facing its greatest external threat since Napoleon’s Grande Armée stood poised for invasion across the Channel 135 years earlier. In April 2019, despite Jacob Rees-Mogg’s hyperbolic assertion that we are destined to become a ‘vassal state’, our political impasse is a mere tremor compared to the earthquake of Hitler’s advance.
Nevertheless a national crisis it undoubtedly is, and there are now sensible voices in the political class, led by Sir John Major, who are beginning to wonder whether a government of national unity might – as a last resort – be the way out of Theresa May’s impasse, just as it was in those even darker days of the spring of 1940.
What could Mrs May – or her potential successors, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt et al – learn from Churchill’s approach in 1940?
Mrs May is surely the Neville Chamberlain of her day, dogged and determined enough with her ‘piece of paper’ (the Withdrawal Agreement) but utterly lacking in the ability to persuade, empathise and above all inspire the nation, let alone her party.
Chamberlain, of course, bolstered by a thumping parliamentary majority, never lost his crucial vote in the Commons after the disastrous Norway debate, but a margin of victory of 81 was considered a defeat, with a fifth of his backbenchers either voting against or abstaining. Perhaps the ERG see themselves as heirs to those Tory rebels – mainly Churchillians – of 1940.
Two days later the Undertaker (as Brendan Bracken so unkindly dubbed him) was gone, recognising – to his credit – that he was not the man to unite the factions inside and outside the party and lead his nation in wartime. But the Maybot is clearly not in such a realistic state of mind.
Mind you, as she contemplates resignation, where is the Churchill-type figure who could step into her shoes and head our 2019 national government? By 1940, the Great Man had been at the centre of British political life for a quarter of a century and had served in almost every important cabinet and government position bar that of foreign secretary.
‘It is probably easier to form a cabinet, especially a coalition cabinet, in the heat of battle than in quiet times’, Churchill observed. ‘The sense of duty dominates all else, and personal claims recede’. An avowed parliamentarian, his friendships stretched across the political divide: he had of course switched from the Conservatives to the Liberals and then back again, and there was a fluidity too about his political philosophy.
His coalition building in May 1940 went remarkably smoothly. Along with his leadership rival Lord Halifax and the deposed premier Chamberlain, he found seats in his war cabinet for Labour’s leader Clement Attlee and his deputy Arthur Greenwood. Churchill didn’t think highly enough of the aristocratic Liberal leader – and his lifetime friend – Sir Archibald Sinclair to give him a seat at the top table, but he appointed him secretary of state for air and assigned him a place at the war cabinet when there were ‘major questions of policy’.
Churchill was not afraid to try and reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable. Ernest Bevin, trade union boss and tribune of the people, and Max Beaverbrook, newspaper baron and political fixer, were poles apart in character and political outlook. But they had the experience and qualities he wanted for his minister of labour and minister of aircraft production, and he was prepared to put up with their – often petty – rows for the good of the country.
In all there were eighty-four members of the national coalition – forty-eight Conservatives, eighteen Labour, five Liberals, six Liberal Nationals, two from the National Labour Organisation, two Nationals and two Independents. For the Yorkshire Post, the new government was a
vivid symbol of national solidarity. Every type of home in the land from the country mansion to the meaner back-to-back home in Leeds or Manchester may feel itself represented in it … This is something more than a Ministry of All the Talents; it is a ministry embracing all that is sturdy and true in British democracy.
Sturdy and true. If only it were simply about bringing together strong characters from all parties united in the quest of defeating a would-be invader. But of course it’s not that simple this time around; there would probably be almost as many views about our future relationship with Europe as faces around the new cabinet table.
But with compromise in their hearts, is it really beyond the realms of imagination to envisage the likes of Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, and Amber Rudd sitting down at No 10 alongside Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, with Vince Cable and Chuka Umunna in attendance?
Prime Minister Johnson (aka Churchill) and his deputy Corbyn (aka Attlee) dividing up the responsibilities of government over a night-time whiskey is, perhaps, a fantasy too far. But might the two Jeremys be able to do business?
It’s an amusing parlour game, but there is a deadly seriousness to this as well. It may be that Mrs May’s agreement will win through at the fourth time of asking, or that MPs will coalesce around a customs union, or a Norway-style deal, or Common Market 2.0. This piece may soon be as out-of-date as the thousands of others in recent months.
Sir John Major said he would only countenance a time-limited unity government. On the other side of the political divide, Tom Watson hoped ‘we never get to the point where our economy or security is so in peril that we get a government of national unity’. But he added: ‘If needs must…’
Hitler is not on the horizon but perhaps it is time to invoke the spirit of May 1940, and for all statesmen and stateswomen to come to the aid of their country.
Roger Hermiston’s book All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45 (Aurum Press) is now available in paperback.