Saturday, 11 September 2010

MiliD, like Cameron, rewrites history of 1940

What was the most important thing that the Labour party ever achieved in government?

Perhaps contrary to party and popular belief, it was not the creation of the National Health Service, however great an achievement that was. Much less well known is why the Labour party had an absolutely pivotal role in the great crisis of May 1940, ensuring that Britain stayed in the war and did not sue for peace.

David Cameron recently demonstrated an unfortunate amnesia, in accidentally saying that Britain was a junior partner to the United States in 1940, the year we famously fought alone. Curiously, David Miliband now joins the PM in also inadvertently rewriting the political history of 1940, this time removing his own party's crucial contribution from the record.

Saturday's Telegraph runs a news story based on MiliD again repeating the campaign soundbite (also used in his major King Solomon Academy speech last month) about Labour's tendency to be consigned to opposition for long periods:

The Telegraph reports:

In a coded message that a vote for anyone else risks consigning the party to the wilderness, he pointed out that after defeat in 1931, Labour was out of power for 14 years. It was in opposition for 13 years after 1951, and for 18 years after 1979.

Next Left has already set out why this soundbite offers a selective and exaggerated reading of Labour's history. Miliband cites 1931 and 1951 while choosing to ignore the return to government four years after the 1970 defeat. Debatable perhaps.

Where this clearly gets the facts wrong is in forgetting that Labour was back in government nine years after 1931. And it is difficult to complain about the party taking 14 years to win an election, given that no general election was held for a full decade after 1935. Miliband says that "I am trying to persuade the Labour Party not to lose three or four elections before it bounces back": 1951 and 1979 can make that point, but 1931 does not fit it. (So the "pattern" applies to two of the five previous occasions of Labour leaving office).


What is not well known about 1940 is how much Labour's presence in government mattered. Winston Churchill would have lost the argument inside government for Britain fighting on if he had not had staunch Labour support for that policy.

Labour can not be considered a junior partner in the 1940 Coalition, helping to make up the numbers to create a public unity message. The party dominated much of the coalition, especially the home front. And that Labour's Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood had two seats in the War Cabinet of five - alongside Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax and Winston Churchill - and made two absolutely crucial interventions.

The first came at a meeting of those five on May 9th 1940, after the famous Norway debate and the day before any Coalition was formed: "Attlee and Greenwood were present at the outset to make it plain that Labour would not serve under Chamberlain", as Peter Hennessy writes in his excellent 'Never Again' history. Up to that point, Chamberlain believed he could remain as PM in a National Government, or could at least secure the succession for Halifax. Labour's insistence meant a change of Prime Minister on 10th May 1940 (though it is likely that the party would have served under whichever of Churchill or Halifax that the Tories or the Palace chose).

An even more crucial Labour intervention came at the end of the month - with the War Cabinet split over whether Britain should fight on, or seek a negotiated peace with Hitler. Despite the failure of their pre-war appeasement policy, both Halifax and Chamberlain remained deeply sceptical of the "never surrender" approach which has now become the stuff of Churchillian national legend, with a stark battle between Halifax and Churchill was finally resolved on 28th May 1940.

This is Peter Hennessy's account in the splendid 'Never Again', the best book on the great Labour 1945-51 government:

At least one member of the War Cabinet thought that disaster and grief might be avoided if the British took up the Italians' offer to mediate as a step towards negotiated peace. He was Lord Halifax. 'We must not ignore the fact' Halifax told his colleagues, 'that we might get better terms before France went out of the war and our aircraft factories were bombed than we might get in three months time'.

Churchill would have none of it ... Halifax persisted ... Chamberlain, a sick man but still a member of the War Cabinet, kept the old appeasement duo in business by saying he didn't see 'what we should lose if we openly said that, while we would fight to the end to preserve our independence, we were ready to consider decent terms if such were offered to us. Churchill countered with the view that the chances of being offered decent terms were a thousand to one against, and 'national which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished'

At this stage, it was two for mediation, one against. Everything would turn on the Labour members of the War Cabinet, Attlee and Greenwood. They did not hesitate. Attlee backed Churchill unequivocally. If negotiations began 'we should find it impossible to rally the morale of the people'. Greenwood said the industrial areas of Britain (which returned a preponderance of Labour MPs) 'would regard anything like weakening on the part of the government as a disaster.

All in all, it took two hours to reach the decision to fight on; the most crucial two hours in modern Cabinet history"

It was afterwards that Churchill made his famous speech to the full Cabinet that evening, recounted by Andrew Marr in his account of the 1940 Cabinet crisis. (BBC video clip


1212121212 said...

An excellent post, which it shouldn't even have been necessary for anyone to write. Why do so many politicians insist on trying to give us "lessons from history", only to get the history wrong?
(BTW, "tomorrow's Telegraph"? Shurely shome mishtake ... Don't you mean today's, given the date of your own post?)

Sunder Katwala said...

1212 ... thanks. yes, it was friday when I wrote that and 20 past midnight when I posted it!