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Churchill's war cabinet a focused, feisty bunch

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/4/2015 (1530 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In Ministers at War, historian Jonathan Schneer describes how British prime minister Winston Churchill interacted with his war cabinet -- a small, all-party group of experienced ministers selected by Churchill and responsible for all aspects of British effort in the Second World War.

Churchill presided over "a political coalition of tough and prickly individuals, strong personalities unaccustomed to turning the other cheek." Indeed, cabinet members bore old political scars from both within and between their respective parties. Overhearing someone describe home secretary Herbert Morrison as sometimes his own worst enemy, Labour Party colleague and fellow cabinet member Ernest Bevin growled, "Not while I'm alive he ain't."

Looking back after the war and surveying the vast network of committees that reported to him and his cabinet Churchill observed, presumably with tongue slightly in cheek, that "All I wanted was compliance with my wishes after reasonable discussion."

What he got from his war cabinet was often disagreement and resistance. He was sometimes at loggerheads with his senior military adviser, Field Marshall Alan Brooke, for example, but Brooke stood his ground. "When I thump the table and push my face towards him," says Churchill, "what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/4/2015 (1530 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In Ministers at War, historian Jonathan Schneer describes how British prime minister Winston Churchill interacted with his war cabinet — a small, all-party group of experienced ministers selected by Churchill and responsible for all aspects of British effort in the Second World War.

Churchill presided over "a political coalition of tough and prickly individuals, strong personalities unaccustomed to turning the other cheek." Indeed, cabinet members bore old political scars from both within and between their respective parties. Overhearing someone describe home secretary Herbert Morrison as sometimes his own worst enemy, Labour Party colleague and fellow cabinet member Ernest Bevin growled, "Not while I'm alive he ain't."

Looking back after the war and surveying the vast network of committees that reported to him and his cabinet Churchill observed, presumably with tongue slightly in cheek, that "All I wanted was compliance with my wishes after reasonable discussion."

What he got from his war cabinet was often disagreement and resistance. He was sometimes at loggerheads with his senior military adviser, Field Marshall Alan Brooke, for example, but Brooke stood his ground. "When I thump the table and push my face towards him," says Churchill, "what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me."

Schneer's title, Ministers at War, carries a double meaning: The war cabinet was responsible for waging war against Britain's enemies, but were also often at war with each other and their leader. As experienced politicians, they were usually able to separate disagreement over policy from personal dislikes, and were united in their commitment to winning the war.

Schneer doesn't give us a blow-by-blow account of the war cabinet's work. Instead he focuses on the high politics of Churchill's management of the group, paying particular attention to relationships with potential rival Stafford Cripps, maverick press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, and Labour Party cabinet members, who argued a people's war deserved a people's peace and wished to lay the foundations for creating of a mildly socialist welfare state in postwar Britain.

Churchill's Conservatives opposed the plan; Labour ministers pressed their case and, with the dissolution of the war cabinet following Germany's defeat, made it the centerpiece of their successful 1945 election campaign. Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, Churchill's war-cabinet colleague and deputy premier, became prime minister, with Churchill becoming leader of the parliamentary opposition.

Churchill once quipped that history would be kind to him, since he intended to write it. He need not have worried. Over the years historians have shown us both his strengths and failings.

Schneer makes a persuasive case Churchill remains "a giant to whom we all owe an unpayable debt."

While it examines only one slice of Churchill's political career, Ministers at War is a compellingly readable account of an often-overlooked aspect of his wartime leadership.

 

Ken Osborne is professor emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. Growing up in England during and after the Second World War, he benefited directly from the Churchill government's 1944 Education Act.

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