A different sort of Churchill myth

The End is Nigh: British politics, power and the road to WWII

By Robert Crowcroft

Published by Oxford University Press, 2019, £25

Reviewed by Dave Murray

When you open a book entitled The End is Nigh you have to wonder which catastrophe the author is anticipating. When that book is an academic take on the interwar years, it says a lot that the disaster exercising the historian’s mind is not the rise of fascism, the coming of a globe-spanning war, the genocide of European Jewry, or the derailing of the Russian revolution, but the 1945 Labour government and the new social settlement ushered in after the war – which Robert Crowcroft describes as an “utter catastrophe”.

Controversy sells, of course, and part of the rationale for this position may be that a spot of myth-busting will attract attention. For socialists, however, it will not come as a great surprise to learn that Winston Churchill was an egocentric chancer, a dyed-in-the-wool racist, an imperialist to his bones and a noteworthy military incompetent. His main flaw in the eyes of Crowcroft, though, seems to be that he ended an era of “Conservative ascendancy” which had been adroitly managed by the figure who emerges as the hero of this book – Stanley Baldwin.

Baldwin was the leader of the Conservative Party who averted disaster for the British ruling class in the 1920s. The ‘great war’ of 1914-18 had been preceded by the ‘great unrest’, a period of increasingly open revolt by the working class in Britain. The ruling class feared that the widening of the franchise after the war would deliver political power to the working class. The capitalist establishment not only made tactical concessions – for instance, over wartime state control of coal mining, the issue around which the 1926 general strike eventually unfolded – but had a good enough measure of the leading Labour figures to be confident about allowing them to attempt to manage capitalism.

This worked a treat, with the first Labour government of 1924 limiting itself to what the ruling class would consider as economic orthodoxy. This did not prevent it being brought down by a red scare once it had demonstrated its failure to radically improve the lot of the working class. Baldwin went on to precipitate the 1926 general strike, defeating the class-collaborationist leadership of the working-class movement by simply daring them to take power. He was also the architect of the ‘National Government’ of 1931, in which he allowed Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald to pretend to be prime minister for a time.

You won’t find a full account of all that in this book, however. The author’s area of interest is primarily the political infighting that took place within Westminster and, more specifically, in the Conservative Party. There is little consideration of the looming threat posed to Britain’s global pre-eminence by the USA, for example. The political and foreign policy positions of the USSR are rationalised as “paranoia” on the part of Stalin. The 1931 Invergordon mutiny doesn’t get a mention, and the working class is considered mostly as a factor of production – in passing, in relation to shortages of skilled labour for rearmament – rather than an independent political force.

For a right-wing academic historian standing outside the labour movement, this is perhaps understandable. With the international communist movement under Stalin zig-zagging wildly between ultra-leftism (everyone except the Stalinists are a variant of fascism) and craven opportunism (unite with liberal capitalist politicians for peace and democracy), the left of the labour movement was disorganised and disoriented. If they were prone to liberal pacifism and the idea of the ‘popular front’ with allegedly progressive capitalists, the right of the labour movement were open defenders of empire and nation, even as fascism tightened its grip on Europe and a second great war became inevitable.

The main plot strand in this book concerns the unprincipled manoeuvres executed by Churchill to become the figure who pulled Labour behind the Conservatives into a coalition to fight the war/defend the empire – cementing his own myth as a heroic national leader along the way. Churchill’s first push for power within the Tory party involved taking an extreme hard line against the heroic independence struggle of the Indian masses in the early 1930s. This is objectionable to Crowcroft, not because of its advocacy of brutal repression or its overt racism, but because it unscrupulously undermined the divide-and-rule plan to entangle the more “moderate” independence movement in a system of token concessions – and to marginalise “extremists” like Gandhi!

This attempt on power ended with Churchill on the outside, after a campaign waged in league with several right-wing newspapers, and which included standing candidates against the Conservative Party in by-elections. While it failed to win him the party leadership, it left him as a leadership figure for an ultra-reactionary section of the Tories in and out of parliament. From this position he grandstanded over German rearmament and appeasement to achieve his long-standing ambition.

Crowcoft chronicles the various plots in this drama in some detail, tracking the various factional players and machinations within parliamentary politics, primarily the Conservative Party – they fought like rats in a sack – but also the Labour Party. Although much reduced in parliament by the treachery of the ‘National Labour’ MPs, Labour had been radicalised by the experience of the hungry 30s, the rise of fascism, and the approach of another global war.

The puzzle here is how someone like Churchill managed to secure the support of a Labour Party which by the mid-1930s had adopted left-reformist economic policies and committed itself to a kind of liberal pacifism aligned with the League of Nations. After all, he had ordered troops to open fire on Welsh miners before the first world war, had been the most belligerent opponent of the general strike, was a vocal advocate of rearmament and a more aggressive imperial foreign policy,

What happened was that, without a class-based approach to the big issues, Labour’s ‘principled’ positions were easily abandoned. Having dismissed the very idea of the ‘national interest’ during Labour’s pacifist phase, its leader Clement Attlee and the party’s right wing adopted a policy of constructive engagement in that national interest as soon as the war started. “We on this side of the house approach this matter from one point of view only, and that is the interests of the country”, said Attlee. The reformist political position chimed with the needs of capitalism in wartime – for state control and planning in the era of total warfare. As the special measures adopted during the coronavirus pandemic show, this is actually a far cry from socialism – especially if the working class is ultimately expected to pick up the tab.

There is no shortage of material about this period, much of it the stuff of myth and legend. This volume effectively promotes an alternative myth: that Churchill’s deal with the Labour Party was a disastrous departure from the British imperial world order and the Conservative ascendancy, which is the natural and desired state of British politics. Underlying this is a fantastical alternative history in which the British ruling class could have allowed Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to destroy each other for the greater good of the empire – and humanity, of course!

This would have allowed a rapid return to the “prosperity” of the 1930s (seriously?) rather than the imperial decline and austerity of the immediate post-war years. Never mind that in 1938 the Lancet medical journal concluded that the national assistance that three million had depended on was insufficient to stave off malnutrition, or that the reforms of 1945 were transformative to the lives of tens of millions of workers.

Is it worth reading? Not if you’ve got to shell out £25. As a socialist you’d get more from Leon Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going? What you get, though, is some insight into the mindset of that section of our ruling class that still feels the ghost limb of a lost empire.