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INSIDE THE JOURNALS – Of Overlords and the General Strike

Finest Hour 107, Summer 2000

Page 34

Abstracts by Chris Hanger

“Lords of All They Surveyed? Churchill’s Ministerial Overlords 1951-1953,” by Peter Hennessy and David Welch, Parliamentary Affairs 51(1), January 1998, pp. 62-70


Tony Blair’s appointment of John Prescott as “overlord” (Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions) recalls similar positions created by Winston Churchill during his second premiership. However, each was different in terms of structure, personalities, and politics.

At a mid-1990s seminar, former Cabinet Secretary Lord Armstrong noted that under Churchill “ministers that were being overlorded greatly disliked it…and, on the whole, they were responsible to Parliament [simply as] Cabinet Ministers.” If there is precedent, the Prescott appointment more closely resembles Harold Wilson’s 1968 restructuring of Health and Social Security under Richard Crossman, a decision that Wilson later judged a mistake.

Two prominent men argued against the use of peacetime overlords. One was Churchill’s wartime Overlord, Lord President of the Council and Chancellor of the Exchequer John Anderson. The other was Sir Norman Brook.

Brook’s argument focused on five points: the overlord position was inconsistent with the principle that policy should be formulated by those responsible for its implementation; it unlinked the concept that policy and administration should be unified; it was historically flawed because it permitted a tiered cabinet of ministers who were higher in standing than others; it diffused authority between civil servants, rendering less clear which minister was served; and, it permitted an additional point for influence by the outsiders rather than the specific minister being overlorded. Opponents of the concept argued that coordination was more easily dealt with by resort to standing cabinet committees, a practice started by Churchill during the war and continued by Mr. Attlee.

Churchill sought to deflect criticism by arguing, in a fine piece of circle-squaring, that the supervising ministers had no statutory authority to give orders to subordinates who could, if necessary, access the Cabinet for resolution of disputes.

However, two years later Churchill’s own disillusionment in the overlord structure became apparent. In an August 1953 minute he requested an explanation of the exact relationship between the overlords and their supervised ministries, and the consequences of abolishing the positions, Churchill believed that in 1951 Britain faced warlike circumstances relating to the Korean conflict, coupled with fear of another general war, and a rearmament program inherited from Labour. Therefore, more coordination appeared necessary. After two years the need for overlords had subsided with the passage of events.

A key to understanding the overlord concept was provided in Harold Macmillan’s 1969 memoirs, which record that overlords had no statutory authority or clear delineation of responsibility or a basis for approach to the tasks they oversaw. Without this, Macmillan wrote, the position “soon becomes shadowy and indeterminate; secondly, because however loyal to their nominal chiefs, the subordinate Ministers begin to feel overriding obligations to their separate departments.” Adding to this was the disquiet created by having prominent peers, including Lord Woolton and Lord Leathers, in the Cabinet.

What appears to have been at work was Churchill’s “Auld Lang Syne” reminiscent spirit and a marked reluctance, even before his summer 1953 stroke, to make decisions on his own. This experiment illustrates what can happen when political history and political science converge.

“1926: Should We Hang Mr Churchill? The Chancellor Who Wanted a General Strike,” New Statesman, November 29, 1999, page 46

By his subsequent leadership, Stanley Baldwin all but atoned for his acquiescence at the beginning of the 1926 General Strike. Along with Lord Birken-head and Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, Baldwin was on the verge of negotiating an agreement to forestall the strike. The agreement envisioned that the miners forego a general strike coupled with a promise not to resort to individual ones.

While Baldwin, et al., were busy negotiating, a cabinet group led principally by Churchill and Neville Chamberlain obtained their colleagues’ approval to reject any proposed agreement. Upon their return, these “hawks” threatened to resign if the agreement was not rejected. The bellicose ministers voted down the agreement, triggering the strike. Given this predicament and his precarious political position, Baldwin had no choice but to go along. Not only did the government’s action precipitate a general strike, it was no less than deliberate.

Churchill was considered the villain in this drama and was reported to have remarked that “a little blood-letting” would be good for events. When the time came to settle the strike, however, Baldwin found his personal popularity had increased to such a point that any threat of resignation by the same ministers would have been pointless. Baldwin took control of the issue from the “hawks” and forced a settlement.

Unfortunately, a state of victimization had begun where men were being asked to return to work as “new hands” receiving lower wages and poor working conditions. Baldwin ended these practices by his leadership and insistence that past wrongs be forgotten and emphasis be placed on the future.

It is unlikely that anyone would contend that the strike was an attempted revolution. By events taking their course, the strike was little more than “furtherance of a trade dispute.” Certainly the strike would have occurred even without the government’s provocation. However, in hindsight it is clear that it was nothing more than a protest against inefficiency and the obstinacy of the mine owners.

The result of the 1926 General Strike is considered beneficial because it stands for the premise that momentous industrial catharsis can occur without lives being lost. However, it also demonstrated that such drastic measures as a general strike retain no real bargaining power if those involved are not willing to “go to all lengths of revolutionary violence.” A general strike must contain some violence in order to have any chance of success. However, such violence is tantamount to a “revolution,” which the unions do not want.

The lesson learned by the unions was the importance of total commitment. For this, Mr. Churchill is to be thanked, especially for his “blood-letting” comment. But one wonders whether Churchill should be thanked or hanged on a lamp-post. Probably one should err on the side of hanging.


Chris Hanger diligently seeks out important articles involving Churchill and represents their view (not necessarily his) in abstracts. If you would like to see a specific article abstracted here, contact Chris by email ([email protected]) or better yet, send him a photocopy: 12904 Water Mill Cove, Austin TX 78729 USA. Be sure to cite the journal, volume, number and issue date.

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