Fifty years ago saw the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. Here I reproduce an article that I first wrote in 2009, after appearing on George Galloway’s Talksport radio show, discussing the Second World War. During the course of the programme, George had raised the interesting question of what attitude socialists should have to Winston Churchill, and George himself pointed out that Churchill was a rather more complex figure than he is often given credit for, who at various times supported progressive legislation and causes, alongside his rather better known career of being an intransigent defender of Empire.
Indeed, my mum tells me of being quite shocked as a young woman from a left wing background in Scunthorpe at meeting people for the first time at the end of the war who had anything good to say about Churchill. Among working class communities and in left circles, Churchill’s reputation as a right-winger from before the war had left a deep legacy of resentment against him.
Nevertheless, Churchill played a perhaps indispensible role in the defeat of Hitler; and his coalition government oversaw a deep radicalisation of British society, that Churchill did nothing to arrest. As he himself explained his principle was that he would support any measure that was bone fide necessary to win the war: this included an unprecedented degree of government planning and regulation of the economy. The Tory Lord Woolton explained: “We arrived at a position in which, in time of war, the practices that would be normal under a socialist state seemed to be the only practical safeguards for the country”
It is worth looking at the contrast between the Chamberlain and Churchill governments. Chamberlain presided over a Tory administration that included within it the men of Munich: Chamberlain himself, along with Hoare, Simon and Halifax. They had bent over backwards to avoid war with the Nazis; and once the war started they were timid of any changes – as exemplified by the extremely slow process of military conscription, and the confusion they showed about what the war was about. Having declared war for the protection of Poland neither the British nor French government fired a single shot to actually defend that country; and both Halifax and Chamberlain were more condemnatory of the USSR in their public speeches than they were of Nazi Germany who they were actually at war with! The mood in the armed forces was demoralised and cynical, and in Western Scotland a remarkable 25% of conscripts applied for conscientious objection.
After Chamberlain was forced from office in 1940, following the Norwegian debacle, the new Churchill government transformed the situation. The first big difference was the creation of a coalition government, including the Labour Party. This was not a mere surrender by Labour to the Tories: for example Ernest Bevin used his cabinet position to drive up trade union membership throughout industry. Even while British troops were being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, Bevin was conducting talks between the major unions and the employers federations to ensure that free collective bargaining was maintained throughout the war; and in August Bevin threw open Government Training Centres to provide free courses for anyone who wanted to apply.
The Tory prudence for running the economy was overturned, and for the duration of the war, need and not profit drove the economy. On the basis that dollars would be of no use anyway if they lost the war, the government committed itself in May 1940 to buying as many munitions as the USA would sell her – weekly average expenditure on the war jumped from £33 million per week to £55 million per week.
A dramatic illustration of the difference between Churchill and Chamberlain is that while in December 1939 Chamberlain’s government had refused to subsidise milk to ensure the health of the young, and the Treasury had announced the very idea to be “objectionable”; in July 1940 the Churchill government decided to issue milk completely free to mothers and small children. In June 1940, the government imposed strict controls against the production of luxury consumer goods.
It is hard to exaggerate how desperate the situation stood. At the outbreak of war, Britain had five adequately equipped divisions, compared to the Germans 106. After Dunkirk, 600 tanks and most of the Army’s other equipment was left in France. In May 1940, the vital sector of coast between Rye and Sheppey was defended by just one division, with 23 artillery pieces, no tanks, no armoured cars, no medium size machine guns, and only one sixth of the anti-tank rifles it should have had.
Churchill did not create the mood of grim defiance, but he captured it and he expressed the feeling of the country during the Spitfire months. Churchill also presided over a remarkable democratisation of the government’s control of national defence, and when half a million American rifles arrived in summer of 1940, they were handed over to the LDV (Home guard), ordinary working men drilling in village halls, and in some cases storing the arms in the factories they would be defending.
But Churchill’s greatest single contribution towards victory was in embracing an alliance with the USSR, which enabled the Hitler regime to be defeated on the Eastern Front. Perhaps his greatest speech was in June 1941 after Hitler had unleashed his murder machine on the Soviet people. Churchill was known to be a hardened anti-communist, but he was prepared to do whatever it took to win the war, privately he confessed that if Hitler invaded Hell, then he would have some good things to say about the Devil in the House of Commons.
Speaking on the BBC, Churchill walked the tightrope, starting the speech by saying that he had always been personally as opposed to Communism as he was to Nazism, but he drew on all his powers as a public orator:
“The past with its crimes, its follies and its tragedies, flashes away … I see the ten thousand villages of Russia, where the means of existence was wrung so hardly from the soil, but where there are still primordial human joys, where maidens laugh and children play … The cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe.”
The alliance was real. Within days and weeks British aid to Russia started over the bitter Arctic convoys – over that summer huge amounts of goods were sent– 450 combat aircraft, 3 million pairs of boots, and 22000 tonnes of rubber by September. Lease lend goods that Britain was receiving from America were shipped direct to the Soviet Union. Lady Churchill appealed for funds, and £8 million was donated for the USSR. Lord Beaverbrook pledged his Express newspaper group to unstinting support for the Soviet Union, and in September 1941 the government announced “Tanks for Russia” week, where everything produced in British factories for seven days would be sent to the USSR. It was British aid to Russia, that allowed the Soviet economy to survive the initial blows of the Nazi invasion, and the steady stream of trucks, cars and machine tools meant that Soviet factories could be dedicated to armaments production.
It is hard to appreciate the difference. For a year, Britain, despite the support of Empire and Dominion forces, had essentially stood alone, while Hitler controlled all Europe. Italy had entered the war, and France had become neutral, but tilted towards supporting Berlin. Invasion was thought inevitabile.
Stalin’s speech in July 1941, captured the British imagination. He echoed Churchill’s pledge that Britain would fight on the beaches and never surrender. Stalin pledged to yield not one inch of soil to the Nazi invaders, and coined the term “scorched earth”. Everything useful would be destroyed rather than allow it to fall into Nazi hands, and Stalin promised that as the Germans advanced partisan units would spring up behind them..
People in Britain initially expected the USSR to lose, and lose quickly, like Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium the Netherlands and France had before. But even from the beginning the Red Army seemed to be making a tougher stand, and by December it was clear that the tide had turned. Moscow held. Leningrad held, and the British newspapers began to talk about Napoleon’s defeat one hundred and fifty years earlier.
This marked the high tide of Churchill’s influence and popularity. Although the public remained broadly supportive of him, he was also becoming regarded somewhat cynically as “the best talker we have”. This is illustrated by the difference between Churchill’s reaction and the public reaction to the USA entering the war in December. He was elated, but the public reaction was muted, in stark contrast to the news of Russia’s defiance. Not a single American flag was to be seen in London, and for most people the news that Japan had entered the war, more than outweighed the American entry.
The beginning of the war in Asia, exaggerated the tensions about war aims. This was brought home very clearly by the loud complaints from the Australian government about why ANZAC troops were defending British interests in the Middle East while Imperial Japanese forces were threatening to invade Australia.
For Churchill, victory meant defending the whole British Empire, for the partisans of the People’s War victory meant beating Hitler; and it was Stalin’s Red Army that were doing the fighting. The main political issue in Britain became the second front, the campaign to commit British ground forces to fighting in Northern Europe, rather than in the Mediterranean and Far East.
The khaki election of 1945 saw Churchill roundly rejected. This was the first election where party political broadcasts played a major role, and around half the adult population listened to Churchill. On June 4th, Churchill made the most enormous gaffe by launching an ill-advised attack on the Labour Party: “I declare to you from the bottom of my heart, that no socialist system can be established without a political police”, he argued that a labour government would “have to fall back on some sort of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance”. The next day’s Daily Express headline jarred against the national mood “GESTAPO IN BRITAIN IF SOCIALISTS WIN” it proclaimed in huge type.
The volunteer polling organisation, Mass Observation, reported how Churchill’s speech caused genuine mass alarm and distress, and confirmed the view that he was totally unsuitable as a peacetime prime minister. The effect of the broadcast may have been exaggerated, and if anything the Tories did better in the June election than opinion polls earlier in the year had been suggesting, but it showed that Churchill’s strength as a wartime leader had been his willingness to prioritise the war above all else, once peacetime political sparring returned he was wrongfooted. By 1941 and 1942 when the whole of British society had been turned around and was directed towards winning the war, Churchill became less important, and lagged behind the public mood, especially as he was widely perceived to be opposed to the second front.
Nevertheless, had it not been for Churchill’s ability to capture a national mood of defiance, and his willingness to unleash the social changes necessary to win the war, then Hitler would have triumphed.