Monday, May 10, 2010

70 years ago today: The end of Chamberlain, the coming of Churchill

May 10 1940 was a major day in the Second World War. It was the day when Germany began the western offensive, invading the low countries. But it was also a major day in the United Kingdom. It was on this day that Neville Chamberlain resigned, to be succeeded by Winston Churchill.

After the rebellion in the Norway Debate two days earlier, Neville Chamberlain had sought to respond to demands to widen his government to regain support. He had offered the Labour Party leaders, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, posts in the government but they felt unable to make an acceptance on their own. Instead they went to their party conference which happened to meeting in Bournemouth at the time, and put two questions to it:
  1. Would the Labour Party serve in a government under Neville Chamberlain?
  2. Would they serve in a government under someone else?
Contrary to popular myth "someone else" was not explicitly named. At the meeting on May 9 Chamberlain was flanked by Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) and Lord Halifax (Foreign Secretary), giving a strong idea where "someone else" would be found, but they were not given the name. At an earlier private meeting of Chamberlain, Halifax, Churchill and the Chief Whip, David Margesson, Halifax had declined to press his chances and it was agreed that if Chamberlain was unacceptable to Labour then Churchill would try to form a government.

The Labour National Executive Committee met on May 10 and considered the two questions. They decided "No" to the first and "Yes" to the second. The message was phoned through to London from a public telephone box - how subtle and unpretentious, much like Attlee himself. When Attlee and Greenwood returned to London they learned that Churchill had been appointed Prime Minister and he offered them seats in the War Cabinet.

Not entirely coincidentally, the Wikipedia article on Neville Chamberlain is today's "featured article". A few years ago I contributed quite a bit to it, providing the basic structure though it has since been expanded and enhanced greatly thanks to three recent biographies.

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