Why Chamberlain Really Fell
Tony Corfield offers a provocative new interpretation of the events that brought Churchill to power in the spring of 1940.
The occasion of the fall from power of Neville Chamberlain and his replacement as prime minister by Winston Churchill in May 1940 is remembered as one of the few Parliamentary epics of our history. British arms had just suffered a stinging reverse in Norway. In the two-day debate in the House of Commons of May 7th, and 8th, Sir Roger Keyes, in admiral's uniform complete with six rows of medal ribbons and the Grand Cross of the Bath, opened the assault by the Government's own supporters on the handling of the Norwegian campaign. Mr Amery, another Conservative Member, called for a change of Government. Quoting Oliver Cromwell's dismissal of the Long Parliament, he used words which for the second time rang across history.
You have sat here for too long for any good you are doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!
At the end of the debate the Government's majority fell to eighty-one. Some thirty-one Government sup- porters had voted with the opposition and another sixty abstained. The Government had received notice to quit. Two days later Chamberlain had gone and Churchill had replaced him as the prime minister of a National Government.
There is a dramatic and convincing finality in this account, dutifully recounted by Churchill himself in his history entitled The Second World War. It carries the author's celebrated Olympian perspective on the affairs of our nation.
However, the view from the bottom up is different and perhaps gives a more authentic impression of what happened. When the whole scene of wartime development is examined, another vital issue emerges – the crisis on the home front over labour supply and direction. On this analysis, the critical event in Chamberlain's fall did not occur in the debating chamber of the House of Commons. It was enacted on May Day a week beforehand, rather less elegantly, in front of a shaving mirror in a hotel bedroom in Hanley, one of the pottery five-towns in Staffordshire.
The trail to this other, and probably more fundamental, cause was laid in Churchill's own account in his history, but not followed up. He reported that Chamberlain attempted to make an about-face on May 10th, two days after the Parliamentary debate. Chamberlain had met Sir Kingsley Wood that morning and told him he had decided not to resign. The news, which had just been announced, of the German breakthrough into Holland and Belgium, compelled him as prime minister to hold on to the leadership of the Government. The situation, in his view, was now too grave to risk the disturbance and distraction of a change at the top. Sir Kingsley replied that, on the contrary, the new crisis made it all the more necessary to have a National Government, as this alone could enable the country to confront it. To this, according to Sir Kingsley, Chamberlain had agreed.
Churchill revealed no more about what was said at this critically important meeting; nor indeed has any fuller record been published else- where. But what was reported could hardly have been all. Chamberlain and Sir Kingsley had been working together for many years. The latter had been Chamberlain's Parliamentary Secretary when he was Minister of Health in 1924 and was currently, as a fellow member of the War Cabinet, a close supporter and colleague. There must have been strong reasons for him to turn against his old friend and patron in his hour of need.
It is not difficult to deduce what these reasons might have been. Chamberlain had, a month previously, given Sir Kingsley a key role in the Government's handling of home affairs. Early in April he had been released from his position of Secretary of State for Air and became Lord Privy Seal, with responsibility in the Cabinet as overseer of home policy. He was Chairman of the Cabinet's Home Policy Committee and of the Food Policy Committee. As it happened, he had taken over responsibility for home affairs at the very time that they were falling into a crisis no less grave than the military one.
Several months previously Sir Kingsley had himself expressed his concern about the problem of maintaining an adequate supply of skilled labour to facilitate the expansion of the war industries. Although not the minister directly responsible for manpower policy, he must have been very conscious of the growing difficulties of labour supply.
By April 1940 signs of stress inside the Government's counsels were becoming clear. Widespread evidence was emerging of strain in the labour market. There were still almost a million unemployed and some factories were working well under capacity, others were stretched to the limit. The scarcity, particularly of skilled workers in places like the Midlands, was becoming acute. It was creating bottlenecks, poaching of labour and wage inflation.
On May 4th, Winston Churchill, in his capacity as First Lord of the Admiralty, circulated a highly critical note to the Cabinet on the labour supply situation. He pointed out that in engineering, motor and aircraft manufacture, which were basic to the munitions industry, the organisation of manpower had hardly begun. The rate of intake of new workers into the metal industry was, he claimed, little more than half the rate achieved in the corresponding period of the First World War. Churchill found time to take this action, in his own words, 'in spite of the distractions and excitements of the Norwegian hurly-burly then in progress'.
Churchill's initiative coincided with the many other Departmental authorities who were pressing for firmer action on the Government's part. On May 8th, the Ministry of Labour was confronted with a combined demand from the Supply Departments, the Government's economic adviser and the First Lord of the Admiralty. The deadlock in policy had to be broken. Proposals had to be brought before the Cabinet for positive controls over wages levels and the supply of labour for the war effort.
The crisis raised issues that ranged much wider than the Cabinet or the Houses of Parliament. British industry and British workers were not chess- pieces to be moved about at the Government's will. Even in the intensely patriotic atmosphere of wartime, people were sensitive about being pushed into new jobs, under different conditions and in other parts of the country. Employee sensitivity seemed to move in direct relationship to the scarcity of labour. As the scarcity intensified, the workers' own terms for co-operation increased. Their organisations demanded more control over wages and conditions of employment; the administration of the supply of labour; and, not least, over the political management of the war effort in Parliament.
This escalation had been starkly illustrated in the First World War. As labour became scarcer, similarly drastic changes were demanded in work patterns, employment, job location and the system of wage settlement. These could not be satisfactorily achieved without a much higher level of co-operation with labour at both political and industrial levels. This meant a new alignment of parties in Parliament and new relations with industry and the trade-union movement. The critical point came in 1916, Asquith was replaced and a National Government under Lloyd George was formed. Several industrial leaders and two MPs with trade-union powerbases were given key posts in the new Government's administration.
The size of the problem had been summed up in unforgettable terms by Lloyd George in his War Memoirs. Industrial unrest, he claimed, spelt a graver menace to our endurance and ultimate victory than even the military strength of Germany.
Of all the problems which Governments had to handle, the most delicate and probably the most perilous were those arising on the home front. The whole manhood – and womanhood – of the belligerent nations were organised for war and had to be drawn into the war machine. Armies might gain successes or meet with reverses; but once great nations had become mobilised for war, they could not be forced to surrender unless their home front broke down.
A strikingly similar situation had developed in May 1940. For the urgent mobilisation of civilian labour, the total commitment of the labour movement had become critical. Representatives of the workers needed to be directly involved, not only in the shaping of wartime policy, but in the political balance in Parliament. This conjuncture of events almost inevitably brought Ernest Bevin into the picture. In the early 1940s, on the Labour side, he was the commanding figure. He was General Secretary of one of the biggest and most influential unions and a leader of the TUC's General Council. He had sponsored and built up the Labour-supporting Daily Herald which had the distinction of becoming the first daily news- paper in the world to reach a circulation of two million. The unions had also a major hold over the management and policies of the Labour Party.
Bevin had already demonstrated the grip he had on both the trade- union movement and the Parliamentary Labour Party during periods of national crisis. He led the revolt over the proposed cutting of unemployment allowances in. 1951, which ended the Government and removed the backing of the Labour Party from its prime minister, Ramsay Macdonald. His attitude to and public pronouncements upon the conduct of the war were taken seriously on both sides of the political divide.
Bevin had clashed with Winston Churchill during his career. But there were important issues on which they agreed. Before the War, Bevin had led the struggle against the pacifists in the Labour Party in pressing for rearmament against Hitler. Churchill on his side was doing much the same against the appeasers in Parliament. During the War Bevin found in Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, a rare example of a Minister working co-operatively with the unions over labour supply. By contrast, Chamberlain was distrusted because of his personal responsibility for the policy of appeasement and the Munich settlement in 1938.
Opposition to him increased over his handling of the labour situation under war conditions. The trade unions resented the Government's assumption that controls over wages and labour supply must be handed over to officials. They believed that there should he a partnership in which the employers, trade unions and government could work together. The breakdown of any mutual policy in wartime showed itself in the passage into law of the Control of Employment Act in 1939. This was made virtually inoperative because of the Government's refusal to accept the principle of trade-union involvement, and the Labour Party's consequent opposition to the measure in Parliament. Tensions steadily built up on both sides in the months that followed as the need to apply stricter control of labour and wages became increasingly obvious.
Indignation at the impasse, some of it aimed specifically at the prime minister, was bluntly expressed by Ernest Bevin. In April 1940 he protested at the Government's attitude in his union's journal. He complained that the crisis started with a campaign by the prime minister and Sir John Simon against what they called a wages and prices spiral. It was the wrong way round. Wages had not by any means caught up with the cost of living. Nor had the workers received any compensation for greatly in- creased output. He concluded that the Government was creating 'a similar situation to that which upset the whole of industry when a return was made to the gold standard'. He was referring of course to the General Strike of 1926. On this subject Bevin was a force to be reckoned with. His opinion only reflected the manifest unease in industry. Symptomatic of the feeling amongst the workers was the strike of carpenters on the new Waterloo Bridge. This very public dispute lasted several months during the winter and early spring of 1940. It was no isolated event. The problem of industrial discipline could not be ignored.
The following month Bevin carried the challenge to the Government a critical step further. 0n May 2nd his address to a May Day rally of workers in Hanley, Staffordshire, was reported on the front page of the Daily Herald. The time had come, he claimed, when there should be no mincing of words. Soldiers' lives were being played with because of the obstruction, lack of drive, absence of imagination and complacency in government departments. The fault was with the Government's leaders. Their middle-class mentality was out of touch with the psychology and organising ability of the enemy. He concluded with a call for a new Government:
The British working class wanted the war won. They knew what was at stake: it was their liberty. They wanted a Government which was going to place the nation before its friends or private interests.
In spite of his commanding role in the Labour movement, it must have taken great nerve, even for Bevin, to demand a new Government when British troops were involved in bitter conflict with the enemy in Norway. In fact, it appears that at the last moment he shrank from the decision. Bevin never actually delivered the address at the rally.
I was informed of this by Frank Machin who came to see me whilst I was working as a research assistant on the Official Civil History of the War. He had been, in 1940, the Daily Herald's industrial correspondent. As he recounted, he called on Bevin in his hotel bedroom on the morning of May 2nd, and explained that he would need to phone the speech through at midday to be in time for the following day's edition. Bevin, at that time preparing to shave, dictated the speech into a mirror wielding, as Machin described, an outsize cut- throat razor. To Machin's surprise, when the rally actually took place later that day, Bevin made only glancing and guarded references to the inadequacies of the Government. But the report had already been phoned through to the paper and it was then too late to stop it.
The Herald report of the address to the May Day rally proved to be one of the most important non-events to shape the course of history. Machin told me how Arthur Greenwood, the Labour Party's Deputy Leader, had subsequently informed him that reading it had persuaded him to press for decisive action in Parliament. He re- commended his colleagues to put the Government's performance to the test in the House of Commons and vote against them.
In May 1940, when the Supply Departments and other officials insisted that the stalemate over wages and labour supply be sent to the Cabinet for positive decision, they must have been aware of the tensions inside the country that Bevin was expressing. Nobody in the Cabinet could have been in any doubt about how much was at stake, not just in terms of changes in official administration, but in the management of the whole wartime economy. This in turn brought into question the alignment of the political parties in Parliament, the composition of the Government and, not least, the position of the prime minister.
Had the crisis been simply what was happening on the battlefield, Chamberlain was reasonably secure. Winston Churchill, his most likely successor in the House of Commons, was in no position to put direct pressure on him.
Churchill had personally committed himself to support Chamberlain as his political leader. Indeed, as First Lord of the Admiralty and Chairman of the Military Co-ordination Committee, some people argued that he was more exposed to blame. He had pressed the Norwegian venture on the Cabinet, and was personally responsible for one of the most highly criticised tactical decisions – the British landing at Narvik in preference to Trondheim. Norway for Churchill, in a different political climate, could easily have been interpreted as another Gallipoli. He him- self recognised, as he put it, that it was 'a miracle' he survived.
Had there been no crisis on the home front, it seems unlikely that the Labour Party at Westminster would have made a personal challenge to Chamberlain. The Party were anxious to demonstrate they were supporting the war. They faced a grave risk of exposing themselves as the creators of national disunity at a moment when the country appeared to be on the brink of a battle for survival. The reason they put the Government's competence to the vote and went into the lobby against them on May 8th, was that the troubles on the battlefield were symptoms of a much deeper malady. Their motives sprang, not primarily from military defeat, but from their awareness of the widespread distrust of the Government's management of the whole war economy.
Churchill in his history mentions his own vigorous action for progress on the labour situation. But this is followed by five chapters on the military aspects of the campaign in Norway. The account of the fall of the Government which came next, made no reference to the crisis in home policy, neither in the description of the debate in the Commons, nor in the discussions that went on in the various ministers' rooms on May 10th.
All the critical speeches in the debate focused upon the mishandling of the Norwegian campaign. Chamberlain's comment, only a month previously, that 'Hitler had missed the bus' became a fruitful source of press caricature and sarcastic comment in the debate. But the more fundamental mismanagement of the whole war economy emerged, like a sting in the tail, in the speeches of several key figures. Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Opposition, said that the public's anxiety was not down to the defeat of Norway on its own. There was a failure of grip, a failure of drive, not only in the field of defence and foreign policy, but in industry. Neither food, nor manpower were being organised efficiently in the absence of an effective lead, he said. We had better face the fact that this was having its repercussions on national morale.
Sir Archibald Sinclair, Leader of the Liberal Party, reported on the complaints of returning servicemen about deficiencies of equipment in Norway. He then went on to illustrate the inadequacy of the Government's conception of the needs of war. The budget only devoted two-thirds of the country's resources to war supplies as compared with Germany, unemployment was still only just under one million; and training schemes for unskilled and semi-skilled labour were insufficient. The First Lord of the Admiralty's appeal for one million women to work in war factories had not been followed up. The problem of supply remained urgent, especially in aircraft production. He summed up the Government's record as giving the nation a one-shift war while the Germans were working a three-shift one.
From the back benches, Leopold Amery, in Churchill's words, a Privy Counsellor of distinction and experience, made the most explicit analysis. Just before, indeed as part of, his annihilating peroration quoting Oliver Cromwell, he spelt out the need for radical change in the home economy and the whole administration of Government:
During these eight months, thanks to Germany's flying start and our slowness off the mark, the gap between the German forces and our own was widened enormously ... We cannot go on as we are. There must be a change – first in the system and structure of the Government machine. The time has come when the Members opposite must definitely take their share of responsibility. The time has come when the organisation, the power and the influence of the TUC cannot he left outside. It must, through one of its leaders, reinforce the strength of the national effort from the inside. The time has come for a real National Government.
Lloyd George, in his last decisive speech in Parliament, pointed to the key target of the House's resentment – Neville Chamberlain. The prime minister, he stated, had called for sacrifice. He should give an example of sacrifice himself. There was nothing which could contribute more to victory in this war.
It is hard to believe that Sir Kingsley Wood was not also powerfully provoked by the events on the home front. The unanimous demand of the supply ministers for a fundamental restructuring of labour supply policy implied a no less fundamental restructuring of Government authority. Trade union acceptance of centrally directed civilian labour involved a realignment within Government as well as within industry. Given the Labour Party and the trade unions' antipathy to Neville Chamberlain, this would mean the end of his regime.
This aspect of the crisis must have weighed heavily with Sir Kingsley when he finally persuaded Chamberlain to give up. If this is so, the change of leadership occurred not simply as a response to the challenge on the battlefield, but to the failure to cope with the mobilisation of national effort inside the country.
The wartime National Government, in the Second as in the First World War, was a product of the need for the close co-operation of people and organisations to bring about Lloyd George's objective. This was, as he put it, to organise the whole manhood – and womanhood – of the belligerent nation for war and to draw them into the war machine. Chamberlain, it appears, fell from power for failures here at least as much as on the field of battle. This analysis seems to be confirmed by Churchill's own actions once he became prime minister. On May 10th, after the king had asked him to form a Government, he sent for the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party, Attlee and Greenwood, and suggested four people from their Party whose services in high office were immediately required. The first of these was not even an MP. His name was Ernest Bevin.