Finest Hour 161, Winter 2013-14
29TH INTERNATIONAL CHURCHILL CONFERENCE, TORONTO, ONTARIO, 12 OCTOBER 2012
By Terry Reardon
“IF LARGE NUMBERS OF OUR FELLOW-SUBJECTS IN THE DOMINIONS LIKE TO THINK, AND LIKE TO SEE IT IN PRINT, THAT THE BONDS OF EMPIRE REST ONLY UPON TRADITION, GOOD WILL AND GOOD SENSE, IT IS NOT OUR POLICY—EXCEPT AS I SHALL HEREAFTER MENTION—IT IS NOT OUR POLICY OR OUR INTEREST TO GAINSAY THEM.” —WSC, 11 NOVEMBER 1931
The result of the First World War was a redrawing of the map of continental Europe. The United States entering the war had been, in Churchill’s words, decisive in the defeat of Germany, and Canada emerged as an independent power in her own right.
When King George V had declared war in 1914 Canada was automatically at war. However as R.H. Thomson recounted this morning, the country lost 68,000 in the war from a population of just eight million, and at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, insisted that Canada should sign separately from Britain.
This first gesture of Canadian independence was followed by a second, three years later. Turkey, a German ally in the war, had signed a separate treaty which abolished the Ottoman Empire. But a charismatic and brilliant military leader, Mustafa Kemel, “Ataturk,” led resistance to the Treaty, formed a provisional government and in 1922 routed the occupying Greeks from Turkish soil.
Kemel’s troops then marched on the small British contingent stationed in the town of Chanak on the Asiatic shore of the Dardanelles.
Canada’s newly elected prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was about to go into the temple of peace at Sharon, north of Toronto, when he was confronted by a Toronto Star reporter who asked him about Britain’s request that Canada join a military action against the Turks. King knew nothing about it but diplomatically replied that any representation from Britain would be addressed by the Canadian Cabinet when he returned to Ottawa. There he was given a cable from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Winston Churchill, sent via the normal time-wasting route through the Governor General. King replied to Churchill that the request would have to be addressed by the Canadian Parliament, which would require the recalling of the Members, and this would take some time. Actually King had no intention of recalling Parliament, knowing the public “were in no mood for further blood letting.”
Churchill was not satisfied with the response and a follow-up came from the Prime Minister himself, David Lloyd George, who wrote that “the attitude of Canada is most important: a definite statement that Canada will stand by the Empire will do much to ensure the maintenance of peace.” Eventually Chanak was settled without military intervention, and without a Canadian decision on the request Canada had received.
Interestingly, Churchill in his book The Aftermath stretched the truth by writing: “Nevertheless all the Dominions responded to the call and declared their readiness, if a great emergency arose, to bear their part, subject of course to the consent of their Parliaments.”
Mackenzie King was a strong Anglophile, but he was suspicious that the British were determined that Canada should continue in a subservient position. Two years later in 1923 he would encounter further evidence. At an Imperial Conference in London the autocratic British foreign minister, Lord Curzon, proposed “that the Foreign Minister of Britain, when he speaks, may speak not for Britain alone, but for the whole of the British Empire.” Australia and New Zealand supported the motion, since they looked to Britain for protection; Canada did not. King stated that any policy would be decided by the Canadian Parliament.
King won that round and in the next conference in 1926 he put forward a motion, recalling the Chanak request, that all communications between Britain and a Dominion government would come direct and not through the Governor General. This was adopted. Further progress in Canada’s independence was the appointment in 1927 of its first minister to the United States.
Churchill was not in favour of watering down the ties of the dominions to the mother country. But the subsequent Treaty of Westminster stated that the dominions were “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status and in no way subordinate one to another, in any respect.” Churchill actually voted for that legislation, but his comments in the House of Commons, showed his disappointment: “If large numbers of our fellow-subjects in the Dominions like to think, and like to see it in print, that the bonds of Empire rest only upon tradition, good will and good sense, it is not our policy—except as I shall hereafter mention—it is not our policy or our interest to gainsay them.”
Canadian ears may have pricked at the exception, but he quickly explained: “Canada, for instance, stipulates that nothing in this Act shall be deemed to apply to the repeal, amendment, or alteration of the various British North America Acts from 1867 to 1930….They assert the inviolability, so far as they are concerned, of the Imperial Statutes upon which their houses are founded.”
Fair enough, most probably concluded: but with the Treaty of Westminster, Canada had political independence and the 1930s would see the country move closer to the United States, which supplanted Britain as her largest trading partner.
Churchill’s political career was in the ascendency in the mid-1920s, when he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, a position he held for almost five years. But he received a setback in May 1929, when the Conservative Party lost in a general election. Churchill won his own seat in Epping, but he was now out of office. He took advantage of what he hoped would be a brief lull in his upward trajectory by embarking on a journey to Canada and the United States with his son Randolph, brother Jack and nephew Johnny.
The Canadian Pacific Railway offered a special rail car for their use when travelling across the country, and Churchill received a great reception at all his stops. He wrote to his wife of “the immense size of this country which goes on for thousands of miles of good fertile land, well watered, well wooded, unlimited in possibilities. How silly for people to live crowded up in particular parts of the empire, when there is so much larger and better a life open here for millions.”
He spoke in Montreal and Ottawa and on 16 August 1929 arrived in Toronto, to speak—here in the Royal York Hotel, which had only been open for two months and at that time was the tallest building in the British Empire.
The Toronto Star reported that well before his speech, long queues formed outside the hall, with a further 3000 listening by way of loudspeakers placed outside the hotel: “He roused his vast audience to applause as he spoke of the ties of love that bind the overseas dominions to the Motherland.”
Churchill continued his journey across the country. From the Banff Springs Hotel he wrote to Clementine: “Darling I am greatly attracted to this country. Immense developments are going forward. There are fortunes to be made in many directions. The tide is flowing strongly. I have made up my mind that if Neville Chamberlain is made leader of the Conservative Party or anyone else of that kind, I clear out of politics and see if I can make you and the kittens a little more comfortable before I die. Only one goal attracts me [he meant of course the premiership] and if that were barred I should quit the dreary field for pastures new….However the time to take decision is not yet.”
Was Churchill serious? If he was, he had ample reasons to emigrate in the years ahead.
After speaking in Vancouver, Churchill’s Canadian journey ended. His son Randolph wrote in his diary, “We are now on a ship bound for Seattle: American soil and Prohibition. But we are well equipped. My big flask is full of whisky and the little one contains brandy, and I have reserves of both in medicine bottles.” The trip concluded with a week in New York City, which coincided with the Wall Street Crash; Churchill opined incorrectly that this was a passing episode.
When he returned to Britain he was faced with a situation which he could not accept: dominion status for India. This was put forward by the ruling Labour Party and supported by the official Conservative opposition. Churchill’s strong stance against the plan led to him being stripped of his position as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer; and thus the start of his so-called Wilderness Years.
In the 1920s Churchill stated that the foremost enemy facing the English-speaking peoples was the Soviet Union and communism. Shortly into the next decade he changed his opinion, the foremost enemy now being Germany and fascism. Churchill became a lone voice with his demands for increased military spending and a tougher attitude by the British government. In 1934 he told the House of Commons: “I dread the day when the means of threatening the heart of the British Empire should pass into the hands of the present rulers of Germany….I dread that day, but it is not perhaps, far distant.”
In October 1936 in London, Mackenzie King sat next to Churchill at a dinner and was told, as he recorded, that “England was never in greater danger and it was possible that inside five years Britain would be a vassal state of Germany.” The following month Churchill berated the government in the Commons: “Thus they go in a strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”
In May 1937, when Mackenzie King was in England for the coronation of King George VI, he met with the German Ambassador to Britain, Herr von Ribbentrop, who suggested that King go to Berlin to meet Hitler. This was duly arranged and the two met on June 29th.
King’s diary of the meeting makes fascinating reading. Hitler, he wrote, went to great lengths to show he was a man of peace. “We have no desire for war,” Hitler told King: “our people don’t want war and we don’t want war. Remember that I, myself, have been through a war. We know what a terrible thing war is, and not one of us wants to see another war.”
As we now know, Hitler was not being entirely dishonest—as long as he got what he wanted, there would indeed be no war. While King was obviously impressed with Hitler, to his credit he did state that if war came, Canada would be at Britain’s side.
On 12 March 1938 Churchill met with von Ribbentrop. The occasion was a formal luncheon given by the British government for the German ambassador. Churchill was surprised to be invited, but, as he said to someone at the function, “I suppose they invited me to show him that if they couldn’t bark themselves, they kept a dog who could bark and might bite.”
At the same function Ribbentrop is reported to have said to Churchill: “Don’t forget that if there is a war we will have the Italians on our side.” This elicited WSC’s alleged response (not proven) recalling World War l: “It is only fair. We had them last time.” We do know Churchill warned Ribbentrop that if Germany should plunge the globe into war, Britain would “bring the whole world against you, like last time.”
In his earlier civil service and political life Mackenzie King had made his reputation in negotiating and settling labour disputes, and he strongly supported the Appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain. In September-October 1938, when Chamberlain flew to see Hitler and signed the infamous Munich Agreement, King recorded in his diary: “It is well for Chamberlain that he was born into this world, and for the world he was born into. His name will go down in history as one of the greatest men who ever lived—a great conciliator.”
One British politician who took another view was Churchill, declaring in the House of Comons: “The German dictator, instead of snatching his victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course….And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”
Churchill’s predictions of Germany’s unappeased further ambitions came true six months later, when in March 1939 German troops occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia.
Looking back at this time, it seems to many that Chamberlain, then realizing that his appeasement policy had failed, would have resigned. But there was little pressure on him to do so. He was still widely trusted, supported by a vast majority in Parliament. He had—which is little remembered—begun to rearm, at a much faster pace than Britain before the Great War. And when on 31 March 1939 he announced that Britain had guaranteed Polish independence, this was applauded from every quarter, including Winston Churchill. Most didn’t notice that Poland was far less defensible and supportable than the Czechs of 1938, who at least had had a strong fortress line, a powerful modern military machine and a potent armaments industry.
Chamberlain considered bringing Churchill back into the government but as he wrote to his sister, the benefits to having Churchill on the front bench would be outweighed by the damage he could do in the Cabinet itself, where he would wear down Chamberlain with “rash suggestions.” And Chamberlain was no mean politician; even with the darkening scene, he knew he had strong control. Bringing in potential rivals, such as Churchill and also Anthony Eden could only serve to weaken it.
On 20 April 1939 Churchill spoke at a Canada Club dinner in London for former Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. Churchill said: “We all hope for a peaceful outcome, but everyone can see that danger is afoot. It may not be long before the British Empire will have, once again, to marshal and reveal its latent strength.”
As he had observed in the First World War the importance of a close relationship with the United States was essential for the European democracies, and Canada was the key, as Churchill continued: “Canada has a great part to play in the relations of Great Britain and the United States. She spans the Atlantic Ocean with her loyalties; she clasps the American hand with her faith and goodwill. That long frontier from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, guarded only by neighbourly respect and honourable obligations, is an example to every country and a pattern for the future of the world.”
Canada had grown steadily closer to the United States, economically and also culturally. However the attitude of the vast majority of the population to the Mother Country had not changed. Except in the province of Quebec the people were strongly attached to Britain and the Imperial Crown.
This attachment became even stronger in May 1939, when, in spite of war clouds gathering. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth kept a previous commitment, arriving for a royal tour of Canada. It was a great success and augmented the ties of Canada to Britain.
When Britain declared war on 3 September 1939, there was a short debate in the Canadian Parliament, with Prime Minister King, speaking of the task ahead, uttering Churchillian phrases:
“When it comes to a fight between good and evil, when the evil forces of the world are let loose upon mankind, are those of us who believe in the tenets of Christianity, and all that Christianity means, going to allow evil forces to triumph without, if necessary, opposing them by our very lives?” With almost unanimous support in Parliament, Canada was once more at war at Great Britain’s side.
Mr. Reardon, a retired banker, is Vice-Chairman of the International Churchill Society – Canada, a contributor to Finest Hour, winner of its Somervell Award for the best article of 2005-06, and author of Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King (2012).