What was Churchill’s impact?
As a backbench MP – i.e. a Member of Parliament but not in the Cabinet and holding no official position – Churchill had three routes by which he could seek to influence government policy:
- As a journalist, through his writings in the press
- As a backbench MP, through his speeches in the House of Commons
- Through his contacts with the Air Defence Research Committees
Churchill as journalist
Churchill was a prolific and popular writer of newspaper articles. He had long experience as a journalist: he had operated as a war correspondent in the imperial wars of Queen Victoria’s reign and had edited the bullish anti-TUC British Gazette during the General Strike of 1926. He took great care over his writings, correcting proofs carefully at a special stand-up desk at Chartwell. He enjoyed a close relationship with the press baron Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, and many of his warnings of German rearmament were carried in Beaverbrook’s papers, particularly the influential London Evening Standard, for which Churchill wrote a regular fortnightly column. Beaverbrook did not share Churchill’s outlook on foreign policy, however, and in March 1938 he dropped Churchill as a columnist on his papers. Churchill was quickly snapped up by Beaverbrook’s rival Lord Camrose, whose group included the Daily Telegraph and who offered Churchill the same fortnightly spot he had enjoyed under Beaverbrook.
Churchill’s press campaign undoubtedly helped to harden public attitudes against Hitler, but it is harder to claim that it turned people away from Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement except when that had manifestly been shown to have failed, which was not the case until the summer of 1939. In any case, Baldwin and Chamberlain were much less ready to be swayed by the press than modern politicians are: Baldwin once quoted of the press that it exercised power without responsibility, “the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”. Churchill’s press articles were undoubtedly important, but they were not likely on their own to change government policy.
Churchill as backbencher
For a backbench MP to influence events requires a mixture of tenacity, patience and attention to detail. The first Churchill had in abundance; he had very little of the second or third. Backbenchers cannot summon detailed information when they need it, as ministers can; instead they must rely on soliciting information from government, pursuing the point when, as often happens, government ignores them or fobs them off with an irrelevant or incomplete reply. A minister with an incomplete grasp of a topic may be forgiven if it appears he has been badly briefed by his department; a backbencher can expect no such indulgence and must be in full command of the detail if he is not to appear like a schoolboy who has not done his homework. By definition backbenchers do not sit in Cabinet; instead they need to make use of relevant committees which advise government on the formulation of policy.
Churchill’s campaign to persuade the government to rearm and to take a tougher line with Germany illustrates well the strengths and weaknesses of the backbench system. When he first started to raise the alarm about German rearmament he made little impact, partly because it was not a topic most MPs wanted to hear about but mainly because Churchill had no figures or data to back up his claims. He attempted to remedy this by gathering information covertly, sometimes even illegally, from within Whitehall. He was able to make use of Major Desmond Morton, an intelligence officer who was prepared to get hold of documents for Churchill to see, as well as a number of concerned officials from within the Foreign and War Offices, such as the Foreign Office Councillor Ralph Wigram. This gave Churchill access to information the government was not aware he had and certainly helped to strengthen his interventions on the floor of the House of Commons. On the other hand, Churchill was always heavily dependent on whatever Morton or Wigram selected; he did not have access, as the government had, to other papers giving different points of view, nor did he have any way of checking the accuracy of the information he was given, which was not always up to date in any case. Churchill had no specialist knowledge himself of air power or other areas of military technology and some of his pronouncements sounded, frankly, bizarre. He was convinced, for instance, that tanks were outmoded and had no place in modern war (and this from the man who had introduced them in the First World War!), he did not think fighter aircraft would be of any use against bombers, nor could he see that aircraft would pose any sort of threat to shipping. You did not have to be a great military expert to recognise that many of Churchill’s military judgements were highly questionable.
Churchill’s work with the Air Defence Research Committee
Although it is debates in the House of Commons that get most publicity, parliament’s most important work is often carried on in its committees, which usually work behind closed doors and whose work is seldom reported in detail. Committees fall into two broad categories: political committees consisting of members of parliament, and advisory committees, consisting of people outside parliament. Chamberlain’s government set up two committees specifically to look into issues relating to defence: a political Committee for Imperial Defence (CID), on which Churchill sat, and an advisory technical Committee for Air Defence Research which was chaired by Professor Sir Henry Tizard (thus it is sometimes referred to as the Tizard Committee). One of its members was Professor Frederick Lindemann, Professor of Physics at Oxford and a close associate of Churchill.
Churchill placed great faith in Lindemann, who became his chief scientific and statistical adviser during the war. However, others did not share Churchill’s view of Lindemann, who was touchy and arrogant and unwilling to accept any committee decision with which he disagreed. Much of this was down to personal factors, but Lindemann also took up a lot of the committee’s time insisting they look at schemes they had already rejected as impracticable. A good example of these was “Aerial Mines”, a system of air defence which involved suspending high explosives from wire mesh held up by barrage balloons. Since, unlike land or sea mines, these mines would be plainly visible to the naked eye the likelihood that German planes would obligingly fly into them was always remote; on the other hand, the danger of their falling to earth and exploding was very great indeed. Despite these obvious drawbacks, however, both Lindemann and Churchill persisted in raising the scheme, Churchill presenting the Tizard’s committee’s rejection of it as evidence of their own prejudice and wooden-headedness. Tizard was infuriated with Lindemann’s attitude and also with his habit of passing confidential details of the committee’s discussions to Churchill, who then used them in his own statements to the CID, in the House of Commons and even in the press. Eventually, Tizard and the rest of the committee resigned rather than work another day with Lindemann, and the committee was reconvened without Churchill’s favourite. Churchill, who had his own criticisms of the whole committee structure, thus appeared to people on the inside as someone who continually complained of Britain’s lack of preparedness for air defence, yet who, when given the chance, did not seem capable of making any sort of positive contribution to debate or policy-making.
Churchill as Cassandra?
Cassandra was a figure of Greek mythology who suffered a particularly cruel curse from the gods. She was always to foretell the future accurately, but no-one was ever to believe her, however many times she was proved right by events. There is certainly an element of Cassandra about Churchill in the 1930s. As Piers Brendon put it:
“Throughout the 1930s his was an ancestral voice prophesying war. But his warnings, like Cassandra’s, were discredited simply because they were his. ”
–Piers Brendon Winston Churchill: A Brief Life p.118.
As this introduction shows, however, the reasons ministers and policy-makers were closing their ears to Churchill was not simply personal prejudice, nor was it the result of a divine curse: they had very good reasons to distrust warnings coming from one whom they regarded, with reason, as a suspect, erratic and highly unreliable source. The documents will illustrate some of the issues relating to Churchill’s role in influencing British defence policy in the thirties.