Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Churchill Series – May 9, 2007

(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

On May 7, 1940, the House of Commons began a three day debate on the Government’s response to the German invasion of Norway. The debate inevitably raised questions about Prime Minister Chamberlain’s pre-war policy of appeasement and the Government's fitness to lead the nation.

The following excerpt from Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life gives a good sense of what was happening on May 8, the second day of the debate. All four of the men mentioned in the excerpt at one time or another served as Prime Minister :

The second day of the Norway debate was as stormy as the first. There was fear that a feeble Government was inviting military disaster, even defeat.

When the Labour Opposition called for the debate to end with a Vote of Censure on the Government, Chamberlain retorted that he had “friends in the House." His remark was greeted with cries of derision.

“It is not a question of who are the Prime Minister’s friends,” retorted Lloyd George. “It is a far bigger issue,” and he went on to demand Chamberlain’s resignation.

Lloyd George also told the House that Churchill should not be blamed for all that had gone wrong in Norway.

Churchill at once rose from his seat to declare, “I take complete responsibility for everything that has been done at the Admiralty, and I take my full share of the burden.”

Lloyd George then electrified the crowded Chamber by warning Churchill that he “must not allow himself to be converted into an air-raid shelter to keep the splinters from hitting his colleagues.”

[As First Lord of the Admiralty] Churchill was soon to speak [for the Government]. Before doing so he talked briefly to Harold Macmillan. “I wished him luck,” Macmillian later recalled, “but added that I hoped his speech would not be too convincing.”

“Why not?” Churchill asked.

"Because we must have a new Prime Minister, and it must be you.” (pgs. 638-639)
In the event, Churchill delivered what many saw as the most effective of all the speeches defending the Government’s war management. But it didn’t turn the tide running in the House.

Two days later, Chamberlain submitted his resignation to the King; shortly afterwards, Churchill received a call to come to the Palace.