The Fringes of Power

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

John Colville was private secretary to the three British prime ministers during World War II: Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, and Clement Attlee. With the exception of a period during the middle of the conflict when he was in the Royal Air Force, Colville kept a daily diary from 1939 until the end of the war in 1945. This work is of considerable importance because Colville was not, as his title modestly implies, at the “fringes of power,” but very near the center of it. When Churchill returned as prime minister in 1951 he brought Colville back as his private secretary, and Colville resumed keeping his diary. The diary entries for Churchill’s second administration, however, are much less frequent and shed less light on this period than the earlier entries do on the war years. The relative importance of the two periods is suggested by the number of chapters allotted to each: Thirty-four chapters are devoted to the war, whereas the years after 1951 occupy only six chapters.

When he was appointed to the prime minister’s office in October 1939, Colville was only twenty-four years old. He was descended from a very well-connected family on the fringes of the British aristocracy. His grandfather Lord Crewe had been leader of the House of Lords in the pre-World War I Liberal government, and his mother, Lady Cynthia, was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary from 1923 to 1953. After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, Colville spent two years in the Foreign Office before being selected by Neville Chamberlain as his assistant private secretary.

Colville originally was a devoted defender of Chamberlain’s foreign policy, and the first section of his diaries recaptures the mood of the “men of Munich.” His diary entries indicate that during the first year of the war, Chamberlain and his associates continued to hope that a negotiated peace could be arranged with Germany. In part this reflected a conviction that forces within Germany which were opposed to war would displace Adolf Hitler and seek peace with Great Britain. Some of the Chamberlainites who desired a negotiated peace were influenced by their conviction that Soviet Communism was a greater danger than German Fascism and held that Great Britain should be careful not to eliminate the possibility of combining with a new German government against the Soviet Union.

When Churchill was appointed to the War Cabinet as the First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939, Colville records that many cabinet ministers, as well as most senior civil servants, regarded him with suspicion. Colville shared this view. His diary references to Churchill prior to the latter’s appointment as prime minister in May 1940 draw attention to the pervasive distrust Churchill engendered among the governing elite. When Churchill’s name was mentioned late in 1939 as a possible alternative to Chamberlain as prime minister, he was dismissed on the grounds that he was too old (he was sixty-four) and because he was thought to have a record of “untrustworthiness and instability,” which would thus lead the country “into the most dangerous paths” if he were to become prime minister.

Churchill’s performance as First Sea Lord seemed to confirm the doubts of his critics. His proposal in April 1940 that he be appointed Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, responsible for directing Great Britain’s war effort, was especially resented by Chamberlain’s followers. He was perceived by Colville and others as an intriguer scheming to advance his own political position at the expense of Chamberlain and one who was willing to take advantage of the crisis created by the war to do so. Colville thought Churchill’s proposal likely to cause chaos among the Chiefs of Staff because Churchill’s excessive verbosity would generate unnecessary work, impede efforts to do any practical planning, and cause much friction.

Not surprisingly, when Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, Colville shared the alarm felt by other Chamberlain devotees. Colville recorded in his diary that “it is a terrible risk, it involves the danger of rash and spectacular exploits, and I cannot help fearing that this country may be manoeuvered into the most dangerous position it has even been in.” On the day that Churchill took office, Colville joined R. A. Butler and other Chamberlainites in a champagne toast to their departed leader, Neville Chamberlain, while lamenting the accession to power of a “half-breed American” whose main support came from inefficient but talkative people such as Lady Astor.

These reservations, however, did not prevent Colville from accepting his post when Churchill offered him the opportunity to remain at 10 Downing Street. Moreover, his skepticism about Churchill’s ability was quickly modified. On the day that the new government took office, Colville acknowledged that it had drive and should be able to get things done, a comment which implicitly admitted that these qualities had been lacking in Chamberlain’s administration. Colville soon became an admirer of Churchill, and his feelings were reciprocated by Churchill even though the latter was aware of Colville’s Chamberlainite past.

Colville’s diary provides some fascinating glimpses into Churchill’s style of leadership as prime minister. It is not generally known, for example, that during July 1940, when a German invasion of Great Britain seemed imminent, Churchill ordered preparations for the use of mustard gas against German troops who landed on British soil. By the middle of that month, Churchill had become convinced that a German invasion was unlikely. In his public statements, however, he continued to give the impression that it was probable, as he thought the invasion scare would help arouse Britons to a high pitch of preparedness. Churchill was also not above projecting his personal tastes onto the British public. Quite fond of alcohol, tobacco, and rich food, Churchill issued a stern warning against any attempt to use food rationing as a means of improving the British diet: “The way to lose the war is to try to force the British public into a diet of milk, oatmeal, potatoes, etc.,...

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The Fringes of Power Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

American Historical Review. XCI, February, 1986, p. 115.

History Today. XXXVI, January, 1986, p. 56.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, August 1, 1985, p. 765.

Library Journal. CX, October 1, 1985, p. 95.

New Society. LXXIV, October, 1985, p. 24.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, November 24, 1985, p. 7.

Newsweek. CVI, November 25, 1985, p. 99.

The Observer. September 29, 1985, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, October 11, 1985, p. 52.

Spectator. CCLV, October 12, 1985, p. 32.

Times Literary Supplement. October 4, 1985, p. 1085.

Washington Post Book World. XV, October 13, 1985, p. 1.