Churchill by moonlight

Paul Addison

  • The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 by John Colville
    Hodder, 796 pp, £14.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 340 38296 1

Except for two years as a fighter pilot in the RAF, John Colville was Churchill’s Private Secretary throughout the war, and again during his peacetime premiership of 1951-5. Some readers will enjoy his diaries mainly as a portrait of Churchill, whose blazing presence and wealth of eccentricity light up almost every page. But in the background a larger subject looms up. Three-quarters of the book depicts the Second World War as seen from the pinnacles of Tory and aristocratic society. Densely populated with characters major and minor, and echoing with the table-talk at White’s and the Turf, the Colville diaries are a unique record of a governing class still functioning with superb aplomb in the midst of the People’s War.

To Colville, the small world of the pre-war ruling circle was home, and he wrote in his diaries as though its continued existence could be taken for granted. Of aristocratic descent on both sides of the family, he inherited the Court connections of his mother, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary. At the age of 12 he was a Page of Honour to George V and in the late 1940s Private Secretary to Princess Elizabeth. From Harrow, and Trinity College, Cambridge, he entered the diplomatic service the year before Munich, and thoroughly approved Chamberlain’s course of action. A straightforward Anglican and Conservative, loyal to his family and background, Colville was untouched by dissent or rebellion. Marxist Cambridge rolled off him like water off a duck’s back. Intelligent and hard-working, and the very model of a stylish young diplomat, his qualities soon attracted favourable attention. In October 1939 he was transferred to Number Ten as Assistant Private Secretary to Neville Chamberlain. It was a mark of high favour that at the tender age of 23 he should be entrusted with prime ministerial secrets of which high-ranking members of the Government were in ignorance.

Loyalty was Colville’s forte. During the phoney war he belonged to the up-and-coming circle of young appeasers, including Alec Douglas-Home and R.A. Butler, who flourished under the patronage of Neville Chamberlain. There was much talk of the prospects for a compromise peace with Germany, and of the menace of Soviet Communism. Churchill was regarded as a dangerous adventurer, liable to plunge Britain into a military fiasco. ‘One of Hitler’s cleverest moves,’ wrote Colville in April 1940, ‘has been to make Winston Public Enemy Number One, because this has in fact helped to make him Public Hero Number One at home and in the USA.’ On the evening Churchill took office as prime minister, Colville, Butler and Chips Channon drank a champagne toast to the ‘King over the water’ – Chamberlain.

Of all the appeasers, young and old, Colville was the only one to make the transition from Chamberlain’s inner circle to Churchill’s. The new prime minister took a liking to him, and he – like millions of others – was conquered by Churchill. It may have been galling for Colville to listen while Brendan Bracken or Mary Churchill heaped abuse on his former master. But as he was a charming and diplomatic young man, with malice towards none, he tried to think the best of everyone and usually succeeded.

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