7 April 2016

Churchill and the Appeasers, Johnson and the Remainers

Would a Prime Minister Johnson "forgive and understand" their wrong-headedness?

Back in February, I remarked in a post here that:
There is even one school of thought that whether the result [of the Brexit referendum] is leave or remain, Boris Johnson will become the next leader of the Conservative party and therefore Prime Minister
and, if anything, this outcome seems more likely, not less. In fact, if being taken seriously is a measure, recent excoriating attacks on Johnson by, for instance, Matthew Parris on 26 March in The Times (Tories have got to end their affair with Boris, Charm can make us forget the dishonesty and recklessness that would be ruthlessly exposed if he became leader) and Nick Cohen in the Guardian a few days later (Boris Johnson. Liar, conman – and prime minister? The mayor of London has been treated with woozy indulgence by the media. But Britain may pay the price), suggest much more likely. Reacting to Parris, John Rentoul in the Independent was calm, It's time to get used to the idea of living under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, or perhaps just resigned.

Not long before, I had come across the biography which Johnson had written in 2014, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. Reviewers tended to regard it as very readable in the style of Johnson’s Daily Telegraph opinion pieces which appear most Mondays (at £5000 a time they say), as not adding much to the huge amount of literature on his subject already available and as being as much about Johnson as Churchill.

It occurred to me that if Johnson were to become PM after a Brexit vote, he would be leading a Cabinet many of whom had been "remainers". How would he deal with them? Would his portrayal of Churchill who, after only three weeks as PM and in a much greater crisis in 1940, had to work with senior members of a Cabinet who had been advocates of appeasing Hitler, offer any insights?

Rather to my surprise, Chapter 1 plunges straight in at this point in Churchill’s life with The Offer from Hitler, made via Italy to negotiate an end to hostilities. This was put to the Cabinet in May 1940 by Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary and long-term appeaser of Hitler:
[Halifax] was tall, very tall; at 6 foot 5 he loomed about ten inches above Churchill – though I suppose advantage matters less around a table. (page 11)
Johnson is no more than 5 foot 10 by the way. Later after describing the Cabinet’s deliberations, Johnson comments:
It makes one cringe, now, to read poor Halifax’s defeatism; and we need to forgive and understand his wrong-headedness. (page 16)
and later:
All we are saying – in mitigation of Halifax – is that in seeking peace, he had the support of many British people, at all levels of society. (page 17)
Over 200 pages later (Johnson’s book is thematic in structure, not chronological) Halifax re-appears in 1941, prior to Pearl Harbor and the USA’s entry to WW2, as
… the British ambassador in Washington. This was none other than our old friend the Earl of Halifax: the beanpole-shaped appeaser - he who used to go hunting with Goering. Halifax was the British envoy charged with appealing to the finer feelings of the United States and he was having a terrible time. Shortly after arriving he is said to have sat down and wept - in despair at the culture clash. He couldn't understand the American informality, or their habit of talking on the telephone or popping round for unexpected meetings. In May 1941 the aristocratic old Etonian endured fresh torment when he was taken to a Chicago White Sox baseball game and invited to eat a hotdog. He refused. Then he was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by a group called the Mothers of America. Even for an appeaser, it seems a hell of a punishment. (page 247)
Johnson, if not inclined to vindictiveness, at least seems to have a taste for schadenfreude. He fingers a few other appeasers, for example:
Rab Butler, then a junior Foreign Office minister, was caught telling a Swedish diplomat that he thought Britain should do a deal – if Hitler offered the right terms (page 230)
returns to Johnson’s sights
… Tory drips such as Butler (the old appeaser) … (page 288)
So perhaps Tory remainers shouldn’t hold out too much hope of forgiveness and understanding from a Prime Minister Johnson.

There are some good things in The Churchill Factor. Johnson gives a whole chapter, An Icy Ruthlessness, to the decision to destroy the French fleet at Mers-el-K├ębir, a tragedy which the British tend to overlook when revisiting the events of 1940. And another, The Ships that Walked, to Churchill’s sponsorship, when at the Admiralty during WW1, of the initial development of the tank by the Directorate of Naval Construction.

Unlike some celebrity writers, Johnson is happy to give credit to various helpers in the Acknowledgements, in particular Dr Warren Dockter, but my favourite is the one to a fellow Old Etonian:
David Cameron did some invaluable devilling into the exact locations of the pivotal meetings in May 1940 – not at all clear in Lukacs, for instance. (page 361/2)


Remarks by Johnson about President Obama at the time of the visit to London have led to Borises being sold heavily in the reputations market in the last few days – perhaps never to recover, although there are still 60 days to go before the Referendum.

Earlier in the month Johnson had published his tax return:

 - his earnings from the Daily Telegraph seem to match their reputation. In The Churchill Factor (pages 72 and 73), Johnson dismisses Evelyn Waugh’s criticisms of Churchill’s literary style:
Is it that Waugh was a teensy bit jealous? I think so; and the reason was not just that Churchill had become so much more famous than Waugh had been, by the time he was twenty-five, but that he had made such stupendous sums from writing. And that, for most journalists, alas, is the truly sensitive point of comparison. (page 73)