By Jonathan Schneer (Guest Contributor)
In May 1940 the Nazis rolled like thunder through Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg and France. No one could stop them. In Britain the appeaser Neville Chamberlain stepped down as Prime Minister, and the pugnacious Winston Churchill stepped up. He knew he must form an all-party coalition to confront the emergency, and so brought into his government Labour Party socialists, Liberals, fellow Conservatives, representatives of two smaller parties that no longer exist, and even men who belonged to no political party at all. He called his team “the Grand Coalition.”
“The Grand Coalition” constituted as high-powered, ambitious and determined a group of hard men as has ever governed Britain. Yet even as they fought the common foe, they argued amongst themselves and maneuvered against each other – and against their leader. Eighty years after Abraham Lincoln did it, Winston Churchill had assembled his own “team of rivals.”
One member of the team believed he could lead better than Winston Churchill. This was Stafford Cripps, whom the Labour Party expelled in 1939 for advocating cooperation with Communists in a popular front against fascism. Cripps was a patriot, a militant socialist, a militant Christian, a vegetarian, a teetotaler. Really he was a charismatic Puritan, with extraordinary capacity for work and organization. Churchill appointed him ambassador to Russia in June 1940. Cripps wanted to play a larger role – at home. He returned in January 1942. Churchill still wanted to take advantage of his great abilities, but understood that Cripps saw himself as an alternative Prime Minister. How Winston Churchill dealt with Stafford Cripps provides insight into how he kept his own “team of rivals” working together in a war that Britain had to win.
The first move was to partially fulfil Cripps’s ambitions by bringing him into the War Cabinet as Leader of the House of Commons. The role of the Leader is to interpret Government policy to House Members, and House opinion to the Government. Cripps was unsuited for the job both temperamentally and politically, as Churchill knew. Cripps never went to the House bar because he did not drink. He was man without a party, and so had no claque of supporters among Labour Members, his natural constituency in the House. He had stepped into a trap.
In Cripps’s first speech to the House he characteristically condemned dog racing, horse racing, boxing matches and personal extravagance, unwittingly insulting members of all parties at once. A whispering campaign against him commenced. Soon afterwards, Cripps noticed Members leaving for lunch while the Prime Minister was speaking. He chastised the House: “I do not think that we can conduct our proceedings here with the dignity and the weight with which we should conduct them unless Members are prepared to pay greater attention to their duties.” Everybody condemned him again.
Deeply crestfallen Cripps offered his resignation. Churchill accepted it and appointed him Minister of Aircraft Production, where he had wanted Cripps in the first place, but which Cripps had thought beneath his dignity. Cripps had a seat in the Cabinet but not in the smaller, more exclusive and more powerful War Cabinet. He would finish out the war there, making a useful contribution, but never again appearing as a rival to the Prime Minister.
Winston Churchill is rarely portrayed as a shrewd manager of men, but in fact as I discovered when researching my book, he was a master manager of men. Churchill’s “team of rivals” was deeply riven by conflicting personal ambitions, ideologies, and personalities, as the episode with Stafford Cripps reveals, but the Prime Minister held the group together until the war was won.
Jonathan Schneer teaches Modern British History at Georgia Tech. He is the author of seven books including London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis, The Thames: England’s River, and The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, which won a National Jewish Book Award in 2010. He lives in Decatur GA.
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