(This is dreadfully written. And long. If you can make it to the end of this, you deserve candy.)
On September 30, 1938, Neville Chamberlain’s plane landed at an airport that, despite heavy rain, was packed with ecstatic citizens, there to greet him as a conquering hero. In Munich, he had come to terms with Hitler over the Sudetenland crisis; Germany effectively gained control of Czechoslovakia, but France and Britain believed that this would keep them out of war.
Most of Britain believed this, too, and Chamberlain’s homecoming speech about having won, “peace with honor…peace in our time” sealed the triumph. In the following days Chamberlain souvenirs were everywhere: Chamberlain dolls, candy in the shape of the umbrella he always carried, framed photos. The prime minister received congratulatory telegrams and businesses took out ads in newspapers, offering their thanks. Everyone, it seemed, was thrilled by Chamberlain.
Almost everyone, that is—a small group of members of parliament were horrified by Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. Fellow Tories, they were supposed to be on the prime minister's side; by breaking with him, they were seen as traitors to their party and their government. And within the small world of British politics, where everyone had gone to the same small group of schools, regularly attended the same parties, belonged to the same clubs, and married within the same circle, they were traitors to their class.
These “Tory Rebels” are the subject of Lynne Olson’s excellent book, Troublesome Young Men. Frustrated by Chamberlain’s inaction, and fearing for the fate of Britain, in fact all of Europe, they defied their leadership and worked behind the scenes to bring about a vote on Chamberlain’s government that led to his resignation and the rise of Winston Churchill.
The Tory rebels (Olson calls them this, so I guess I better, too) were at the beginning of their careers. They were in office courtesy of the party machine and were obliged to its will. The whips ruled with an iron fist and anyone who stepped out of line was punished by the loss first of a position on a committee or some other little prestige. They were ostracized, cut off and ignored, not spoken to; that was how they had punished each other in school, and the treatment was still effective. Most couldn’t take the psychological abuse and stepped back into line. And anyone who tried to act in secret was doomed to fail—the whips spied on suspect MPs, and tapped their phones. Anyone who still didn’t get the message could be replaced and the campaigns run by the party to elect a more tractable replacement were scathing and effective.
Katherine Atholl, one of the few women in Parliament, began to speak out against Chamberlain and his appeasement policies. She had read the German version of Mein Kampf and was shocked by how bluntly Hitler laid out his plans (as in, “going to take over the world, also exterminate one segment of the population”). The English-language version omitted many of the more inflammatory passages, leaving, Atholl felt, most of England still unaware of the looming danger. A fact-finding mission to Spain left her equally appalled at Britain’s neglect of the Republican fight against fascism. When she came back she spoke out against Chamberlain’s lack of support. Angered by her outspokenness, the party put up another candidate to run against Atholl. She decided to run as an independent.
Atholl was an easy target during the campaign—her support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, aligned her in the eyes of some with the communists. Mysterious telegrams were sent to her from “Stalin,” offering “greetings from Moscow.” Tenants whose landlords supported Atholl’s opponent were suddenly offered rent reductions, accompanied by suggestions to vote against her. She was denounced as a warmonger who would send their sons to war.
The Tory rebels may have agreed with Atholl, but even they feared being associated with her and being equally smeared. No one campaigned for her. She was handily defeated.
I go on about this just to give an example of how the ruling party in Parliament worked. One American observer compared it to Tammany Hall and thought the British operation was easily more ruthless and adept at keeping the troops in line.
Olson has a fascinating cast of characters to work with, and of course their case is helped by the fact that they were of a class and a time when documenting your life was not uncommon; they were all diligent letter writers and memoirists, and when they didn’t record an incident themselves, a friend in their circle (such as the redoubtable, always involved, knows everyone and what they’re doing, Violet Bonham Carter; one of Olson’s rebels, Leo Amery, glumly observed that if he had her gifts of oratory, he would have been Prime Minister long ago).
The rebel group included Harold Nicolson, who abandoned a diplomatic path to write a society column, the better to support the career of his wife, the always controversial Vita Sackville-West, before becoming a member of Parliament; Duff Cooper, who along with his wife, the beautiful Lady Diana, formed one of London’s most glamorous couples; Eden, handsome and admired by the public, but in the end, timid and hesitant; Bobbety Cranborne (if your adult friends and colleagues are the same people you knew when you were five years old, you’re going to be called by the same nickname they gave you when you were five), a member of the legendary Cecil family, whose father Lord Salisbury, gave Churchill support at a key moment.
Macmillan, the head of the publishing company and future prime minister was shy and diffident, but a true believer in the cause. His role as a leader, though, was complicated by Robert Boothby, another young party force. Boothby had been Macmillan’s friend, but then fell in love with his wife. Dorothy Macmillan and Boothby conducted an affair that lasted for the rest of their lives, much to Macmillan’s humiliation. Divorce wasn’t considered a viable option for people in their position; Dorothy remained a dutiful and helpful political wife, but Macmillan was inwardly miserable, and working with Boothby, even on an issue that they both passionately believed in, was horribly uncomfortable.
Ronald Cartland, the youngest of the group, is presented by Olson as the romantic hero of the group (yes, his sister Barbara was the novelist famous for dreadful romances and big pink hats, but in those days she was a Bright Young Thing who partied with the Smart Set). Cartland was a passionate fighter for justice, who was horrified by the rise of fascism, and disgusted by Chamberlain’s appeasement and weakness. Always willing to speak out, his career was constantly at risk, but he didn’t seem to care. Still, his fearlessness and brilliance made him one of the rising stars of the party. When volunteer units began to form and prepare for war, he joined up without hesitation, taking leave at key moments to come back and vote (and if you’re wondering why, if he was so wonderful, you’ve never heard of him, well, take your own guess).
Then of course there was Churchill. Now his role in World War II is so celebrated, that it’s hard to believe there was a time when he was considered persona non grata by the political leaders of Britain. Churchill had garnered contempt for switching parties several times and took the unpopular stance of advocating vehemently against home rule for India. He was thought of as a bit of a gadfly—unreliable, romantic, and a drinker. But he was one of the few well-known, established figures in Parliament who was absolutely anti-appeasement. His willingness to speak out precisely and forcefully gave the group some heft, but matters became complicated when Chamberlain made him lord of the admiralty; at that point, Churchill felt it was not his place to be publicly against the government, and he laid back while the others did the work to turn the tide against Chamberlain. When he did become Prime Minister, Churchill also didn’t do the group any favors by appointing them to influential positions. He kept many members of Chamberlain’s circle around, feeling that that was the best way to restore party unity. He gave Boothby only a tiny post at the Ministry of Food, apparently resentful at the way his former secretary had written to him when trying to push Churchill into action against Chamberlain. Macmillan was banished to Algiers, seemingly an inconsequential post, but he made a good impression there, particularly with the US army leaders, and came back much more polished, outspoken and forceful. Churchill comes off as a complicated man, and one who justifiably earned his reputation at the time. He was not politically reliable; he chose the wrong moments to step back; he didn’t always choose to side with the right people (he backed Chamberlain out of gratitude when Chamberlain would have tossed him to the side as soon as possible). But when he believed in something, and was clear about it, no one could make a better case, and no one could lead better. In World War II, he found himself the right man in the right place at the right time, and saved a reputation that would otherwise have been deservedly forgotten.
Well, I won’t tell you the story of how the group finally overthrew Chamberlain because Olson does it so much better and you really should read the book (if anyone has stuck around this long; I am a miserable rambler). She writes with a great deal of energy and clarity. I don’t know, unfortunately, how to define “writing with energy,” which is shameful and lazy on my part, but it’s just something you sense. I guess maybe the best way to put it is that I whipped through this book in record time. It’s well-structured, and all the information is integrated easily, and, as previously noted, the main players are bright lights.
As I have said many times before, I am not a student of World War II (I always fancy myself a WW I kind of girl), and while I love many things about the 1930s, goings on in the British Parliament has not been one of my subjects, which means most of this was new to me. I had known that there was some support in the British upper-class for Hitler and the Nazi regime, but I had no idea how deep and how widespread it was. I understand that no one wanted to get involved in a war, but there were members of the upper-class who were practically cheerleading for Germany. And I understand that the entire country didn’t want another war, but it’s amazing how people turned a blind eye to the menace rising around them. It’s not like Hitler was subtle—he was practically jumping up and down shouting, “I am bad! I am planning bad things! I have contempt for you and your people! I am going to take over the world and crush anyone who gets in my way!” Yet there were so many who thought they could work with him. It’s amazing what people don’t see when they don’t want to see something.