The Churchill Coalition, 1940-1945
The Churchill coalition took office in early May, 1940, at a time of great crisis. The German armies had taken over Denmark and Norway in April and the invasion of the Low Countries and France began on the day Winston S. Churchill became Prime Minister. Almost immediately ahead of them lay Dunkirk, the fall of France, the “Blitz,” and all the experiences of what came to be called “the year alone,” when only Britain was at war with the Nazi Regime. Formed and tested in this time of trial, the coalition was a unique phenomenon in British history, a government above politics and party, the only genuinely national government Britain has ever had. The Lloyd George coalition of World War I had included Conservatives, Liberals, and Labour, but it had been bedevilled by political considerations, both between and within the parties. The contrast with the United States is also instructive since American political life went on without interruption in both World Wars, Democrats and Republicans maintaining their party positions in Congress and presidential and congressonal elections being held on schedule.
Dr. J. M. Lee analyzes the experience of this unique moment in British parliamentary history in his The Churchill Coalition, 1940-1945. His account is rife with information and interesting observations, but it must also be noted that it is a book for the specialist rather than for the general reader. Lee assumes prior knowledge of the main events of the war, the leading figures in British politics, and the domestic developments of the war years. He austerely eschews not only anecdotes and vignettes, but also, and more importantly, almost any attempt to sketch personalities (Churchill being the sole exception) or to trace relationships between individuals. This is history as viewed by a social scientist. As such, it has important analytical observations, related with a certain amount of enthusiasm, but it is definitely not narrative history.
In the first two chapters, Lee makes general remarks on “War Management” (Chapter One) and “Cabinet, Parliament, and People” (Chapter Two); these are followed by four chapters dealing with different aspects of government policy—namely strategy, economy, social reform, and diplomacy. Certain themes run through the book, and materials in the later chapters illuminate and amplify the more general points made in chapters one and two.
A major contribution of Lee’s book is its analysis of how this government above politics came to be. In the beginning, the motivation was not patriotic but practical. At the outbreak of the war, the Conservatives proposed and Labour reluctantly accepted an electoral truce for the duration. The blackout, the population shifts, and the inability to keep the lists of voters accurate made contested elections unfeasible. The life of the House of Commons, elected in 1935, was extended year by year until 1945 and vacancies were filled by the party which had won the seat in the last election. Neither Labour nor the Liberals would accept the offer to enter the cabinet preferred by Neville Chamberlain when war seemed likely in 1939. The bitter experiences of the 1930’s had left too many scars for these parties to join the Conservatives in a government, especially under Chamberlain whom they disliked intensely.
It was the disasters of April and May of 1940 that made a national government not only possible but also necessary, and the choice of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister made it easy for the outsiders to come in. Churchill had operated as an independent, nonparty force all during the 1930’s, and this, with his patriotic articulation of the national will to survive, made him a figure who transcended politics. As such, he violated the conventions of British political life by depending for support not on a parliamentary majority but on public support from outside of parliament. This also made it easy for Labour and Liberal leaders to enter his cabinet. Once in, the struggle for survival during “the year alone” put considerations of politics out of all minds. The combination of circumstances healed many of the wounds of the 1930’s and made cooperation possible. In the end, the leading figures in all parties found the coalition useful and efficient and would have liked to have continued its existence until the defeat of Japan and perhaps even into peacetime to carry out an agreed program of reconstruction. The rank and file of party members (especially of Labour), however, grew restless as the end of the war came into sight, and the coalition came to an end in April, 1945.
Lee sees the history of the coalition as falling into two parts. In the first, lasting until early 1942, Britain fought alone and the dominant problems of war management were those of marshaling her resources, both material and personal, and allocating them between civilian and military users. In World War I, the government had started with voluntary regulation in most aspects of life upon which the war impinged and only gradually and painfully moved toward government regulation, the imposition of Conscription in 1916 being a particularly difficult decision to make. Officials in 1939, however, started where their predecessors had left off and benefited by their accumulated wisdom. Mobilization of manpower was both more...
(The entire section is 2176 words.)