Six Minutes in May: How Churchill unexpectedly became Prime Minister - a review

Six Minutes in May: How Churchill unexpectedly became Prime Minister

Nicholas Shakespeare, 2017, Harvill Secker, ISBN 978-1-84655-973-0, 508pp

I am finding it increasingly difficult to resist a book about the Second World War. I cannot say why this is; perhaps it because as my Father progresses through his tenth decade I am reminded of the passage of time, of our mortality and about how things change. Then, too, I wonder about the sacrifices people made and how the memory of those sacrifices fades. My Father tells me that at the end of the War, as a boy in his late teens, he and his pals were given revolvers and told to patrol the school grounds against the possibility of enemy action. TV programs like “Home Fires” show us what appears to be a simpler world but almost certainly a world seen through the rose-filtered views of the scriptwriters and producers. Even the recently released second series of The Crown (now on Netflix and great viewing) makes it still all seem pretty straightforward in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the late 1930s and 1940s and today is the availability of information. It was not difficult then to ensure that many Australians had no idea that the Japanese had bombed Darwin and Townsville. Indeed, in 1938, the Australian Minister of Defence, Harold Thorby, said “We, the Government, have vital information which we cannot disclose. It is upon this knowledge that we make decisions. You, who are merely private citizens, have no access to this information. Any criticism you make of our policy, any controversy about it in which you indulge, will therefore be uninformed and valueless. If, in spite of your ignorance, you persist in questioning our policy, we can only conclude that you are disloyal.” Remarkable when seen through today’s eyes.

If Nicholas Shakespeare’s book tells us anything it is that Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940 because few people knew what was happening in Norway and, for some reason, they had forgotten his role a generation earlier as the architect of the disaster in the Dardanelles in 1915. Most people would be hard put to identify Narvik on a map. It is in Norway and while Norway was neutral at the outset of the war, it was important for the export of Swedish iron ore on which both the German and British war machines depended. For the Germans, occupying Norway was essential if she was to have any chance of controlling the Baltic. Shakespeare’s book summarises the story of the Norway campaign; his purpose in doing so is to set the scene for the remarkable events that followed which led to Churchill being summoned to the Palace by a reluctant George VI.

Above: Narvik, Norway

Nicolas Shakespeare is a novelist turned historian and his ability to tell a story comes through in this very readable book. By 1949 Chamberlain was clearly struggling as a war leader. As I remarked in my recent review of Robert Harris’ Munich, he had successfully held the Germans at bay in 1938 allowing valuable time for Britain to build up its military capability. If there were an obvious successor to Chamberlain it would have been the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. Churchill was a figure to be reckoned with; public perception of him was positive but political assessments were less favourable. He was difficult to work with and often changed his mind. In 1940, he was the First Lord of the Admiralty. The Norway campaign started as a result of an incident at sea; hence Churchill was front and centre.

Churchill managed to deflect blame for the fiasco that resulted, largely from his actions, in Norway onto Chamberlain. Eventually the House of Commons debated a motion “That this House do now adjourn.” Effectively this was a motion of confidence in the Government. The Government won the motion but the majority was significantly less than had been expected. As a resulted Chamberlain resigned and the race to find a successor began. It was clear, too, that only a cross-party Government would succeed so the views of the Labour Party were crucial and it was by no means clear that they would work with Churchill. Halifax’ position was difficult as he sat in the Lords. He did not want to be Prime Minister and in any case felt that he would be manipulated by Churchill in the Commons were he to be Prime Minister.

Shakespeare describes, with his novelist’s skills, the characters of both Chamberlain and Halifax. He is kind to both and with good reason. Each was a statesman of the first class. Halifax was self-effacing in extremis quoting Dryden: “Anything, though ever so little, which a man speaks of himself – in my opinion is still too much.” There are many, I think, who would benefit from taking that aphorism on board. Chamberlain’s character was formed by his experiences in the Bahamas. There he had managed 7,000 acres that grew sisal for making rope. He stuck this out for six years and though the venture failed the lessons he learned must have been invaluable. Halifax had an extra-marital relationship with a woman called Baba Metcalfe who was the daughter of Lord Curzon, a previous contender for Prime Minister in the 1920s. She was married to a “charming but penniless polo player seventeen years her senior” who was popularly known as Fruity. Shakespeare describes the characters of the main players with his novelist’s eye for detail. It is amazing to think that in 1940, when Britain was facing the utmost peril, the main political players still repaired to their country houses for the weekend.

The six minutes in the title refer to the amount of time MPs have between the sounding of the bell that announces a division (that is, a vote) and the closing of the doors to the division lobby (the place where the vote for each side is counted). Today, perhaps because MPs are not as fit as they were, there are now eight minutes before the Speaker cries “Lock the doors.” The six minutes of the title relate to the adjournment motion. There was a subsequent meeting between Chamberlain, Halifax and Churchill where there was a long silence (but probably not of six minutes) but this meeting is recalled differently by each of its participants. And, in the end, and for the better part of 60 years Churchill wrote, in The Gathering Storm, the story he wanted posterity to hear. The tory grandee Lord Woolton remarked that “few people have succeeded in obtaining such a public demand for their promotion as the result of the failure of an enterprise.” In 1940 Winston Churchill managed to use Britain’s grotesque military cock-up in Norway, for which he was responsible, to kick out Neville Chamberlain. Perhaps it as well that he did.

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