Churchill’s rise, far more difficult than many think
By Lynne Olson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27.50, 448 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
When Winston Churchill became prime minister of the United Kingdom at its darkest hour in May 1940, and transformed his nation and its war effort by proclaiming that rather this was its finest hour, he believed that destiny had brought him to the right place at just the right time. As we look back at the history of World War II, Churchill’s accession to power might seem like one of those things that had to happen.
But there was a lot standing in the way of this crucial event coming to pass. There was a prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, who, despite the failure of his prewar appeasement of Hitler and his distaste for having to conduct the war, was, in the words of one of his opponents, holding onto office “like a piece of dirty old chewing gum on the leg of a chair” and using the considerable political arsenal at his disposal to make sure he did.
Churchill was not only deeply unpopular with the leadership and rank-and-file of his own Conservative Party, which held a huge majority in parliament, but he was distrusted by many of the cross-party group of MPs determined to oust Chamberlain. Quoting another historian in her bright, readable account of how Churchill came to be premier, Lynne Olson notes “how uninevitable the ‘inevitable’ seemed to be at the time.” “Troublesome Young Men” is the story of just how parlous and fraught was the accomplishment of this transformation, and by the time you finish this book, it seems nothing less than miraculous.
If you were Neville Chamberlain and his political apparatchiks in the Conservative Party, these men were undoubtedly troublesome, but not all of them were that young. One of the leading lights, Leo Amery, was in fact older than Churchill and had been a senior prefect and star at Harrow when the academically backward Churchill was still stuck in the junior school. Harold Macmillan, Duff Cooper and Anthony Eden had been in parliament for nearly two decades and, although young compared to Churchill, who at 65 was eligible for the old-age pension introduced by the Liberal Government of which he had been a member 30 years before, were no neophytes.
Nor were the Labor leaders Clement Attlee, Arthur Greenwood and Hugh Dalton, who were crucial players in this drama. But Robert Boothby, Brendan Bracken and Ronald Cartland were young and troublesome in all sorts of ways. One of the delightful aspects of Ms. Olson’s book is her ability to mix the personal with the political; the story of Boothby’s lifelong affair across five decades with Macmillan’s wife and the repercussions it engendered makes for fascinating reading.
It has been told before, notably by Alastair Horne in his exhaustive multi-volume life of Macmillan, but Ms. Olson’s account is as fresh as it is engaging. Indeed, she is good at salting her book with all sorts of gems: Her accounts of life in the blackout, rationing, even the part the weather played in the national mood help make “Troublesome Young Men” the great read it is.
Adept as Ms. Olson is at recounting a rattling good story, you feel that her knowledge of her subject and its literature is not always as deep or complete as it might be. As a writer, her touch is sure, but as a historian it’s less so. And she is selective in whom she highlights among the anti-appeasement politicians. There is a surprising amount about the venerable Marquess of Salisbury, but where is the equally aristocratic MP Sidney Herbert and his impressive colleague in the House of Commons, Victor Cazalet, both of whom were key figures in the anti-appeasement cause?
But in the doomed Ronald Cartland, the youngest of these troublemaking men and the brother of Barbara Cartland, the famed romance novelist, Ms. Olson has indeed found a genuine star and a most compelling figure. His passionate speech to the House urging action and prophesying his own death followed by his actually dying in action in May 1940 makes for electrifying reading.
“‘No government can change men’s souls,’ Cartland said, ‘The souls of men change governments.’” And change this moribund government, incapable of successfully fighting the war, these men — and at least a couple of women who figure prominently in this book, the anti-appeasement M.P. Katherine, Duchess of Atholl and political gadfly Violet Bonham-Carter were determined to do and did.
Churchill often emerges from these pages attractive and admirable, but Ms. Olson shows us other sides of him as well. His intemperate opposition to even the timorous steps toward Indian self-government adopted by the Conservative government in the early to mid 1930s had alienated Laborites and progressive Tories, who also remembered with alarm his disastrously deflationary policies as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s. His anti-appeasement calls were beginning to eclipse these bad memories when his ill advised and unpopular championship of King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson in the Abdication crisis of 1936 revived questions about his political wisdom.
Moreover, his emotional and volatile temperament made him a tricky figure to back: Over and over, his feelings of loyalty to Chamberlain would exasperate those trying to topple Chamberlain, who found themselves in the awkward position of seeing their candidate actually hinder their efforts on his behalf.