Finest Hour 129, Winter 2005-06
Student Correspondence – Pondering the Wilderness Years
I am a sixth form history student and have been given the following essay assignment: “Examine the extent to which Winston Churchill himself was to blame for his political isolation in the years 1929-39.” I have been researching the subject, but I am finding it hard to find the best information.
Can you offer me some guidance? I am not asking you to write the essay for me but would be very grateful if you could advise me what events and points you would suggest that I consider. —Anna Richards
Your request is an interesting one. You may wish to look especially at Martin Gilbert’s book, The Wilderness Years, originally written to accompany a television documentary by the same name; the book has recently been reprinted by Pimlico in the UK and is available from amazon.co.uk, or you may find it in used bookshops. For more in-depth research, you can of course consult Martin Gilbert’s official biography, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 5.
While the claim that Churchill was himself responsible for his political isolation was often made by his political opponents—and gains verisimilitude from his support for the King in the abdication crisis and his opposition to self-government for India, both of which tended to separate him from potential sympathizers—the more crucial question is whether the British governments of the 1930s should have been more receptive to Churchill’s warnings of German rearmament. If so, then Churchill may have contributed to the problem by taking unpopular positions on other issues— but the governments of the decade have the larger blame. There is then the further question of whether Churchill’s positions on those questions (abdication and India) should be blamed. I am friendlier to the criticism usually made of him on abdication than on India; but both matters are controversial.
I hope this answer is helpful in pointing the way to further illumination, but please don’t hesitate to get back in touch with me if you have further questions after you have done more research.
PROF. JAMES W. MULLER
CC BOARD OF ACADEMIC ADVISERS
This is an ambitious and a challenging project. We are glad you are tackling it and will try to give you a few thoughts. A list of eighteen of Churchill’s “flaws and mistakes” is on our website, page id=46. Written in somewhat jocular style, it does suggest areas (items #6-7-8) where Churchill did his chief cause (rearmament) no good in the 1930s. Also read “Churchill the Great? Why the Vote Will Not Be Unanimous,” by Douglas Hall, also on our website, page id=822. This covers over all of Churchill’s career, but has much to say about the 1930s, where his problems were in part self-inflicted.
Professor Muller makes a key point: the blame for failing to rearm sooner lies more with the British governments of the 1930s; but you may wish to investigate areas where Churchill—although right on the merits—lost ground with his colleagues and increased his political isolation:
1) He was at least partly right that India’s premature independence would result in a bloodbath between Hindus and Muslims, which was proven in 1947; but as Manfred Weidhorn and others have pointed out, people tend to prefer to be governed by their own rascals, however deplorable they may be, rather than by a distant foreign power.
2) Churchill was right that Sir Samuel Hoare committed a breach of Parliamentary Privilege by attempting to alter the views of the Lancashire cotton growers on the India Bill, but had no chance of winning his case. Explain why in your own way.
3) Churchill misjudged the mood of the country by appealing for more time to consider the proposed marriage of Edward VIII to a divorced American. You should explain why Parliament would accept this, even if his spouse did not become Queen. (You might contrast the thinking then with the thinking now, since “Queen Camilla” seems today quite acceptable to many people.)
4) Consider looking at Churchill’s relations with his party leader, Stanley Baldwin, through the several good Baldwin biographies and two Churchill books recommended below. Baldwin trifled with the nation’s defense and had to answer for that. But he was a brilliant politician who read Churchill very accurately, and always played their relationship to his advantage. You might elaborate on just how Baldwin did this.
The two recommended books are Churchill: A Study in Failure 1900-1939, by Robert Rhodes James (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970); and the official biography, vol. V: Winston S. Churchill: The Prophet of Truth 1922-1939, by Sir Martin Gilbert (London: Heinemann, 1976). Rhodes James’s book is still one of the best examinations of Churchill’s errors up to World War II. Gilbert’s book provides all the facts you will need to know to write a good essay on these subjects. Both should be easily available in libraries. —RML