Wednesday Book: Good story, shame about the facts

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU are riveted by the Thirties, please read this book. Graham Stewart writes with skill, ingenuity and drive. He reveals many sub-plots in that era's politics, and offers a subtly new, if eccentric, interpretation. But he also gives a misleadingly Anglocentric, if not Tory-fixated, "take" on how Britain awoke to the Nazi threat.

Stewart's theme is the rivalry between Churchill and Chamberlain for the Tory leadership. Baldwin's Tories lost power in 1929, but returned in 1931 as coalition partners, with Chamberlain as chancellor. Churchill, who was chancellor until 1929, remained a backbencher until 1939. We gain intricate insights into the Tory wars over Empire free trade and Indian independence (Churchill's first campaign issue as a back-bench rebel), and intriguing data on the links between Indian "die-hards" and back- bench "re-armers".

Churchill's warnings against the expansion of the Luftwaffe were taken up by the Cabinet and Whitehall, which then vastly overstated German bomber strength. But Chamberlain, who replaced Baldwin as prime minister in 1937, was also a more low-key, long-term re-armer.

When war came, Churchill rejoined the Cabinet at the Admiralty, succeeding Chamberlain after the "Norway Debate" in May 1940. He won valued help in Cabinet from his former rival, who died in November. Stewart stresses Chamberlain's decision to side with Churchill in Cabinet, even before France fell, while Halifax, his ex-ally as foreign secretary, argued for a negotiated peace with Hitler.

Yet Stewart's central arguments do not stand up. His opening analysis points to the rivalry of Joe Chamberlain and Randolph Churchill, the two men's fathers, in the Tory elite of the 1890s. But we have no cogent evidence of an inter-family feud 40 years later. Nor does Stewart show that, through Baldwin's Tory leadership, his protagonists focused their attention on the succession. Here, his arguments are largely speculative.

To see Churchill's espousal of the anti-Nazi case as a long-distance strategy to win Downing Street is to narrow our picture of him. How could he have envisaged any way for anti-Nazism to lead him into No 10? The debate of May 1940, with its MPs' revolt against Chamberlain, gave Churchill the premiership by what would have seemed, in the mid-Thirties, an inconceivable fluke.

Neither does the conflict over appeasement convincingly appear as part of a long rivalry for the top job. Both men surely viewed that debate in less self-centred terms. To see this as a battle of the titans is to equate Chamberlain with Churchill. Yet Chamberlain was a lesser figure, the Birmingham mayor "who saw international politics through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe".

Stewart's tale of rivals caught in combat, with war bringing reconciliation, brought no tears to my eyes. He ends with Churchill's elegy at Chamberlain's funeral, "burying Caesar". That struck me as an anticlimax: Churchill was always up to an act of courtesy. And the view of Commons politics as a Shakespearian tragedy is not a useful model for grasping the crisis induced by Nazi aggression. Chamberlain is not a likely Caesar; nor were Lloyd George, Amery and others "Cassian" conspirators.

Stewart's book is, in fact, a subtle variant on Tory "revisionist" history. This school aims to rehabilitate Chamberlain, defend the Munich agreement (which Stewart does not do) and even, as Alan Clark does, argue for the attractions of a negotiated peace with Hitler. By putting Chamberlain on a par with his successor, Stewart gives the "revisionists" extra ammunition. He cites the influence of Maurice Cowling and John Charmley, leading "revisionists"; and he calls Clark his current "mentor".

Cowling's book The Impact of Hitler argued that the responses of the British elite to Nazism in 1934-1939 can be seen as dispositions for the general election that had to be held by 1940 - a reductionist attempt to deflate the received picture of growing horror at Nazi pogroms. This book, although not with the same intent, also tries to imprison the story of how we woke up to the Nazi threat within a Westminster drama of rivalry between personalities.

This Anglocentric reading ignores the central issues of continental diplomacy. Why did the French defer to the British on Hitler? What exactly was going on between Germany and Russia? How close were the Poles to the Germans? In Britain itself, we need to probe mass psychology and intelligence appraisal. The Munich surrender in 1938 was largely due to a premature fear of a knock-out blow on London by the Luftwaffe. Yet the Nazi air force had no short-term access to Low Countries bases, no plans for an attack, and few heavy bombers with precision devices for exact targeting.

The key questions for Thirties historians now go far beyond the well- trodden area of Westminster "high politics". Stewart's book is compelling within that genre but Britain, even then, was a mass society. Its leaders reflected mass emotions of which they were not totally aware. And we were Europeans then, as we are Europeans now.

Robert Silver