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.

The only person he found instantly and permanently intolerable was Randolph Churchill. Colville immediately sized him up in 1940 as ‘one of the most objectionable people I had ever met: noisy, self-assertive, whining, and frankly unpleasant’. In 1956, when Colville formed a lunch club with John Junor of the Sunday Express, one of the rules was that Randolph Churchill should under no circumstances be admitted. Perhaps Randolph improved with age. I must say that when I worked for him, during the last year of his life, his cantankerousness was so much tempered by courage, wit, and a kind of stoic melancholy, that it was impossible not to like him.

When Churchill gave his confidence, he extended it to an unusual degree. All Secretaries handle correspondence, phone calls, appointments and so on. But Churchill swept Colville into the heart of his household, dictating minutes while propped up in bed murmuring to the cat, or ruminating about the war as he undressed. An extended family of friends, relations, favourites, officials, high-ranking Americans, cabinet ministers, admirals, generals and air marshals, would assemble at lunch and again at dinner. As the choicest dishes were consumed, and very old brandy followed the champagne, Churchill would hold forth on grand strategy or any other subject that took his fancy, such as egalitarianism and the White Ant.

Never can a prime minister have concealed so little of the workings of his mind. Admittedly there were some things Colville did not know. He did not attend ministerial meetings and see Churchill at work as the head of a government. He did not see the contents of the boxes containing Ultra, the German signals decoded at Bletchley. Churchill locked and unlocked the boxes himself and made sure that no one was looking over his shoulder. But Colville did see and record Churchill in the throes of creation behind the scenes, rehearsing the roles he was to play in Cabinet and Parliament.

As with the diaries of Lord Moran, Churchill’s doctor, the inescapable theme is one of decline: the gradual descent of Churchill into old age, in parallel with the running down of Britain as a great power. But the starting-point is different, and so is the perspective. Moran did not get to know Churchill until the middle of the war, and saw most of him when he was ill. But Colville witnessed Churchill’s finest hour, one of the most inspired performances of all time. Colville never awoke from the spell cast over him, but Moran, whose intellect was clinical and detached, probed the psychological peculiarities of Churchill. Diagnosing the darker side of compulsive ambition, he presented a bleak portrait of his famous patient as a depressive in constant need of massive doses of overcompensation.

Colville had no such ideas. Though vividly descriptive and intimate, his pages are free of arresting insights into personalities or events. The only significant strand of opinion is a bias against left-wing ideas. Thus, in January 1952: ‘Lord Mountbatten came from Broad-lands to dine and talked arrant political nonsense: he might have learnt by heart a leader from the New Statesman.’ So where lies the value of Colville’s evidence?

The diaries are very full, with many details of the kind likely to interest connoisseurs of the period. There is the case, for instance, of the Chief Whips’ daughters. But in general it would be true to say that the diaries would have caused a much bigger splash in the historical world twenty years ago. Research has come a long way since then and Colville himself has pulled out most of the plums in a number of previous books. Such points as Churchill’s scepticism about the invasion threat in 1940, his desire for a humane settlement with the German people, his conceptions of a united Europe, or his conflicts with Eden during the peacetime premiership, have become well-established with time.

One rather mysterious episode in which Colville was involved is not much clearer now. When Churchill was incapacitated by a stroke in 1953, the fact was concealed from Churchill’s colleagues as well as from the public. Colville now admits that for nearly a month he and Christopher Soames exercised the powers of the Prime Minister with the aid of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook. But the diaries are silent on the crucial weeks, and one wonders whether there is still more to learn about this risky constitutional experiment. What the diaries do show is that Churchill never recovered sufficiently to do his job properly. The final scenes of encroaching senility make depressing reading and we learn that Churchill ‘began to form a cold hatred of Eden who, he repeatedly said, had done more to thwart him and prevent him pursuing the policy he thought right than anybody else’.

It is a relief to turn back to the Churchill of 1940, the ‘saviour of his country’. But was he? Some British historians now argue that it was a great mistake for Britain to fight a war against Nazi Germany. Better by far if Neville Chamberlain had managed to pursue the policy of appeasement to its logical conclusion. Churchill, so it is said, did all he could to propel Britain into a war it could not win, thus leading to the collapse of Britain as a great power and the division of Europe between the superpowers. Even in 1940 one or two lonely dissenting voices raised the issue. During the Blitz Colville was shown a memorandum in favour of peace with Germany by the military historian, Basil Liddell Hart. The question arose of whether to prosecute, but Churchill commented: ‘he seems more a candidate for a mental home than for more serious action.’

The dissenting case looks more impressive today, but still fails to convince. The war was not Churchill’s but Hitler’s, and the unification of Europe under Nazi rule would have left Britain permanently open to attack, with far less influence in the world than we have today. But national interest was not the only issue. Once the war began in earnest the British were determined to destroy the Nazi political system. Co-existence was impossible, so it was a question of their way of life against ours and one or the other must prevail. Such was the issue in Western Europe. In other parts of the world very different conflicts flared up, but these were other people’s quarrels.

Churchill in 1940 was full of belligerent romance, and imagined that Britain alone could somehow defeat Germany. Strategically he was wrong, but morally and psychologically he was right. Realism was no guide and it was much better to gamble in the hope that something would turn up. The Colville diaries give us the most intimate picture we have ever had of Churchill at this time and it is intriguing to learn that he was in the habit, on summer nights, of wandering into the garden and gazing up at the stars. He almost certainly believed that some providential force was at work in the universe, and that he was indeed ‘walking with destiny’. The fact that Britain was alone suggested to him that the English-speaking people did have some great mission to accomplish, and that he, as Marlborough’s descendant, was called upon to lead it. Hyperactive and inspired, his energies brimmed over into music-hall comedy and his finest hour was also his funniest. Here is a glimpse of him in June 1940, wandering in the moonlight among the rose gardens at Number Ten: ‘He was in high spirits, repeating poetry, dilating on the drama of the present situation, maintaining that he and Hitler had only one thing in common – a horror of whistling – offering everybody cigars, and spasmodically murmuring, “Bang, Bang, Bang, goes the farmer’s gun, run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run.” ’

The textbooks do not lie. Churchill did have a magic touch in raising the morale of government and people in the glorious summer of 1940. At the same time he responded to the more generous mood of British society as old quarrels and divisions were temporarily laid aside. He marked the following passage from a letter passed on to him by the censor: ‘It’s difficult to think politically, or socially, in classes any more ... there’s a kind of warmth pervading England.’ Surprising though it may seem, Churchill at this period looked forward to a more egalitarian society after the war. Never a great admirer of the public schools, he was impressed by the fact that the majority of RAF pilots were from state secondaries. ‘They have saved their country,’ he remarked. ‘They have the right to rule it.’ The aristocracy, he assured Herbert Morrison, were sinking noiselessly and unresisting into the background. It would be a pity, the wily Morrison replied, if they disappeared altogether.

Few readers of these diaries will suppose that the aristocracy were disappearing. There were two distinct governing circles in wartime Britain. The home front was administered by Labour ministers, trade-unionists and businessmen. But the military, diplomatic and imperial conduct of the war was in the hands of the peerage and their country cousins. Churchill, Eden, Halifax, Cadogan, Stanley, Salisbury, were all historic names, while the leaders of the armed forces were drawn mainly from the lower ranks of landed society. Many were the ties that bound the old governing class together: schools and regiments and clubs and constant intermarriage. But more than that, there was a shared sense of history.

‘The day of Waterloo – a poignant anniversary,’ wrote Colville on 18 June 1940. When Churchill woke up in Moscow on 13 August 1942 he said to himself: ‘This is Blenheim Day.’ The governing class remembered the victories their ancestors had won, for here were the roots of their own position in the world. Likewise they traced, in the constitutional history of Britain, the making of the state they had dominated for so long: monarchy, Parliament, Cabinet, the rule of law. The history of Britain did, in a sense, belong to them.

One episode in the diaries sticks in the mind as symbolic of the force of tradition. During the Battle of Britain Winston Churchill offered the Mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge, to the historian G.M. Trevelyan. Churchill and Trevelyan were never close personally but they had much in common. They were both from old-established political families, both old Harrovians, and both historians. They had both researched the reign of Queen Anne and published books on the subject in the Thirties. Except for the fact that they disagreed about the reputation of Churchill’s ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, they shared the Whig vision of British history as a record of progress and expansion inspired by a liberal aristocracy.

Was this merely a coincidence of personalities? Churchill only nominated Trevelyan because his candidature had been pushed forward by John Colville, a graduate of Trinity who took a close interest in the Mastership. Yet Colville was an old Harrovian, with a First in History. His grandfather, Lord Crewe, had sat in the same Cabinet as Churchill. His conception of British history was much the same as Churchill’s or Trevelyan’s, as his other writings bear witness. So perhaps it was more than appropriate that Colville should have taken a hand.

Whatever became of the old ascendancy? How do their descendants occupy themselves these days? Since the Fifties, they have steadily withdrawn from public life. For a century or more they set the tone and kept the lid on the atavistic instincts of the Tebbits and the Thatchers. Now they are gone, and the old working class, which looked as though it would replace them in 1945, has gone too. The traditional class structure was deeply unjust and undemocratic, but as time goes by its virtues become apparent. It welded people together for common social purposes and, through the Whig belief in progress, encouraged the upper classes to work for the improvement of the lower. Now the ideal of the future is a privatised way of life for all, with the winners secluded in well-policed estates and the losers going quietly to pieces in the badlands. The Colville diaries are a reminder of the world we have lost.