Troublesome Young Men:
The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power in 1940 and Helped to Save Britain
On May 7th 1940, the Conservative backbencher Leo Amery uttered some words that were to prove fatal to Neville Chamberlain’s Conservative government. At the end of a speech criticising the government’s war policy thus far, Amery wielded the weapon of a quotation from Cromwell: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing! Depart, I say, and let us have done with you! In the name of God, go!” The effect was breathtaking. A fellow Tory rebel, Edward Spears, said that “it was as if Amery were hurling stones as large as himself… at the government’s glass house. The crash of glass could not be heard, but the effect was that of a series of deafening explosions.”
Inside the glass house along with Chamberlain was Winston Churchill, already serving in the Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. The following day he gave a lacklustre speech justifying the government’s handling of the Norway campaign. In the estimation of the Daily Telegraph’s lobby correspondent, J.E. Sewell: “No speech of his, before or afterwards, made less impression.” The Norway debate, as it is sometimes called, demonstrates the noble spirit of backbench rebellion. Forty-two Tory MPs voted with the Opposition and another 40 abstained. “In arguably the most important debate in the history of Parliament,” Lynne Olson reminds us, “it was the oratory of Leo Amery, not Winston Churchill, that in the end was to have the most lasting impact on the fate of Britain.”
The myth of 1940 is that it was all down to Churchill. As Olson demonstrates in this sharp and well-paced tribute to the unsung heroes of the rebellion, nothing could be farther from the truth. Although he was the man the rebels wanted as prime minister, Churchill had been invited to join the cabinet as soon as war had been declared in September 1939 and his powerful scrutiny had been silenced. (Macmillan dubbed him “a complacent Cassandra”.)
Robbed of their tribune, the men who “spoke for England” were a motley crew of independent-minded men of principle. Leo Amery took over leadership of the Eden group (those who had supported Anthony Eden’s resignation as Foreign Secretary after Munich), since Eden, like Churchill, had rejoined Chamberlain’s Cabinet. Tory maverick Bob Boothby formed a cross-party group known as the Vigilantes, which included Clement Davies, the Unilever businessman who sat as an Independent MP from Wales. Olson follows the early (and later) careers of the key players, such as Boothby and Harold Macmillan, noting that when the latter died in 1986 “the young Macmillan – the dreamer, the passionate idealist, the crusader who battled appeasement – was largely overlooked”.
The villain of the piece is not so much Chamberlain, despite his hauteur, but the Tory Chief Whip David Margesson, who prized party loyalty above all else. He bullied the anti-appeasers mercilessly before the war, and once they had brought Chamberlain down he did his utmost to ensure that few of them sampled the rewards of office, even at the most junior level. Since many of the rebels knew they were flirting with political oblivion, their sacrifice deserves to be commemorated as much as that of any British serviceman. One of them, the radiant Tory social reformer Ronald Cartland, was already on active service in France when Chamberlain fell. He paid the ultimate price, becoming the first MP to die in World War II, when he was felled by a sniper’s bullet a few miles from Dunkirk.
Lynne Olson, an American historian, deserves credit for focusing on this knife-edge episode in our nation’s history and for bringing alive some of the minor characters without whose collective determination Britain’s war effort would have been severely retarded.