Early in the afternoon of January 30, 1649, Charles I, who, apparently, insisted on wearing three shirts so he would not shiver from cold, stepped through the window of Whitehall Palace's Banqueting Hall to the scaffold. His execution did not solve the various issues of the Great Rebellion as Lord Clarendon called it or the Civil War. It was, nevertheless, a shattering event. Kings had been deposed and murdered before in English, Scottish and other histories. But no King had ever been tried before for treason.
Here is the document that can be said to be the beginning of modern political thought, the Death Warrant of Charles I, agreed on by a number of Parliamentarians who had the unbelievable imagination to separate the person of the King from the institution of Kingship and State or, as they are known by some, the Regicides.
For many, it is the figure of the sad, misguided but, ultimately very brave King that is of significance, as can be seen in this picture of Charles the Martyr:
But to me it is the people who dared to think otherwise even when they thought they were looking back to Biblical and Ancient precedents who remain fascinating. As it happens, I was recently sent Charles Spencer's book, Killers of the King, subtitled The Men Who Dared To Execute Charles I. I am greatly looking forward to reading it and writing about it.
It was the most extraordinary event. Many people have written about it and tried to understand it but it remains hard to comprehend. It is not as if Churchill died young, nor had he been in power for some years. In fact, when in power or just politically active, he was not particularly popular, not even as war leader and certainly not after the war. Let us not forget that under his leadership the Conservative Party lost two elections out of three and barely managed to win the third one because the Liberal Party could not stand the financial strain of two elections in one year.
In the ten years between his well-earned retirement and his death, however, he was transferred into an god-like figure, an icon of British history and a man whom no criticism must touch. Of course, historians have discussed his political career and even his wartime actions for some time but any disagreement with the generally worshipping attitude has been met with shrieks of horror until very recently (as discussed in this posting).
The funeral was something separate. It was, unusually, a state funeral for a former political figure; it was beautifully planned and executed, furthermore, but that is not surprising. Britain, this blog maintains does pomp and circumstance better than any country. Besides, it has been said that Churchill himself had contributed a great deal to the planning.
There was more, though: the country was saying good-bye to a great leader but also to its own past without, perhaps, quite realizing it. Still recovering from the war and, even more so, the immediate post-war years, still unable to work out her role in the world, the whole country looked back with sorrow to a period, so well represented by the figure of Churchill, when its greatness, courage and steadfastness seemed unassailable. We were saying goodbye to all that. Sadly, it took a good many years to start looking forward again.
Here is a slightly abbreviated film of the funeral, very well worth seeing:
And here is the moment that always brings a lump to my throat: the cranes of London's docks (that were not going to survive Churchill for long) saying their farewell and the coffin beginning its final journey:
Yesterday's event at the National Liberal Club was very successful: well attended, two fascinating presentations and a largely excellent discussion though there were a couple of contributors who asked the speakers to confirm something that the latter had already said. The event was recorded and as soon as it goes on line this blog will link to it.
The account of Asquith's 1915 - 1916 coalition and its eventual failure raised many interesting questions, one of which, in my mind, concerned the Churchill coalition of 1940.
In 1915, as both speakers, Dr Ian Packer and Dr Nigel Keohane, made clear, Asquith was in charge of the coalition negotiations, despite the fact that his position was weakened by continuing problems both domestically and with the conduct of the war. He created a Cabinet in which the Conservatives took a secondary position and continued to be the Prime Minister. (A couple of questions about his personal problems to do with Venetia Stanley breaking off the relationship in 1915 and his son Raymond being killed in 1916 elicited the replies that Asquith was not the man to give in to emotions publicly, regardless of his private reaction.)
By the end of 1916, however, the coalition was finished and Asquith's resignation together with most of his Cabinet (not Arthur Henderson, the Leader of the Labour Party) was a miscalculation: Bonar Law might not have been able to form the new government but David Lloyd George could and did. It lasted to the end of the war and was re-elected in 1918. It collapsed when Conservative MPs famously announced that they did not want to be part of a coalition in 1922. That was, effectively, the end of the Liberal Party as a powerful body in British politics.
The causes for the collapse of Asquith's coalition were many but the most important was that the failures continued. The Battle of the Somme did not produce the outcome that had been hoped for though being able to fight it said something about the government's ability to organize and arm a large army, the Battle of Jutland was, in many ways, a disaster, the landing at Gallipoli even more so and by the end of 1916 it was becoming clear that Russia was not likely to be a useful ally for much longer.
Food stocks were running low and conscription (which was pushed by Lloyd George) caused a great deal of discontent.
When we look at the coalition of 1940 we can see a good many of the same problems. Militarily, things were going badly even though it had been expected that Churchill becoming Prime Minister would help the war effort and produce some victories. At the same time, there was discontent over conscription, over the home front not being organized well, there were continuous strikes and continuing propaganda produced by the Communist Party, under orders from the Comintern to oppose the war and praise the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Unlike the British Union of Fascists, the CPGB was not banned and its propagandists were not interned as the government did not want to upset the unions. (Interestingly enough, the French Communist Party was proscribed as soon as war had been declared on Germany.)
While the latter disappeared on June 22, 1941 (to be replaced by demands for a Second Front Now) other difficulties remained to which one can add the fact that from about 1942 on Churchill spent a great deal of time out of the country and the very important fact that he categorically refused to discuss post-war aims, being even less interested in that subject than Lloyd George had been. Caught between Attlee who was working on post-war aims domestically and Stalin who had his eyes fixed on the post-war international structure from a very early stage, Churchill and the Conservative Party were to pay heavily in 1945.
There were criticism of the way the war was run and a number of votes of no confidence taken in the Commons there was never any serious consideration of Churchill's coalition being replaced before the end (near enough) of the war.
The most obvious reason is the absence of a credible alternative to Churchill once Halifax had been shipped off to the US although he, too, would have faced problems unless the Labour Party changed its 1940 attitude. For that very reason, as Dr Keohane pointed out yesterday, Bonar Law, whose political position was a good deal weaker than Asquith's, survived the débâcle of 1916 while his opponent did not: there was no Lloyd George in the Conservative Party and though the old boy was still around in 1940 he alone considered his claims to leadership seriously.
Added to that the fact that Churchill, unlike Asquith, was a great orator and an inspirational though, oddly enough, not a particularly popular leader and one can see why his position remained secure despite misjudgements, bad news, various mistakes and illnesses.
Perhaps, the fact that in 1940 Churchill was not as secure as Asquith in 1915 contributed to the success of his coalition: he had to share fairly with the Labour Party, whose senior members were given important positions, beginning with Attlee, who became Deputy Prime Minister and was in charge of the home front. The Labour Party and the unions used the war years to consolidate their control over large parts of the country and its economy, something that was vital in the post-war creation of their own brand of the welfare state.
As we approach the end of another coalition (well, maybe) there are bound to be various discussions on the subject. It is worth mentioning that Dr Packer started his presentation with a half-joking comment that the 1915 coalition indicated that coalitions may not be good news to the Liberal Party and, perhaps, its successor.
Sir Winston Churchill, one of the best known politicians (or so people think) in this country, a man of many talents and of many flaws, a man who worked hard to create his own myth that has survived better than most others, died on January 24, 1965. The fiftieth anniversary is nearly upon us and, this blog is happy to acknowledge, a discussion is taking place in parallel to the usual mythological pronouncements.
This evening, as we have mentioned before, Professor Vernon Bogdanor is giving a talk at the Museum of London on Churchill's legacy. I shall go along, with pen and notebook at the ready, as I am intrigued by what Professor Bogdanor might say on the subject. I imagine there will be more than the usual personal mythology though that, too, is the great man's legacy.
On the other side, we have Professor John Charmley, unquestionably a conservative historian but not a great fan of Churchill's, writing about what he considers to be the ten greatest controversies of the latter's career. The piece is well worth reading though on some of the issues we could argue that there is no point in imposing our point of view on that of the past period. But, as Professor Charmley shows, even at the time there was severe criticism of Churchill's attitude to Jews, his use of poison gas and, above all, his ridiculous appearance during the Sidney Street siege.
I would add some more controversies as well: Churchill's catastrophic act, as Chancellor of Exchequer, of returning this country to the gold standard, his stance on the question of making India a Dominion (he was against it) and his stubborn support for Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson through attempted manipulation of the press and speeches in the Commons, during the last of which he was shouted down.
No doubt the debate will continue. Let us hope so, anyway. We cannot be silenced by people who prefer sugary mythology to historic arguments.
ADDENDUM: I did not get in to the lecture though I together with many other people arrived in time but the hall had filled a good deal earlier as some people had queued since quarter to five for a six o'clock start. Ah well.
On the subject of Churchillian controversies, a reader of this blog reminded me of Gallipoli, a disaster and a controversy if ever there was one. I replied with Norway though, as that, despite being Churchill's idea, led to him becoming Prime Minister in 1940, would probably be considered to be a good thing by many people.
Let the debate rage on.
Melanie McDonagh writes about the film of Testament of Youth, about to go on general release in today's Evening Standard and she, too, is an expert, knowing all those words. Despite Vera Brittain, the horror of the war was in the trenches, she tells us and she has a point though, actually, the medical stations behind the lines were full of horror as well. As were the ships that were sunk and the towns that were bombed (oh yes they were in the First World War). Her argument that we should concentrate on the men who were fighting and not just on the women who also served is not unreasonable though that would present as partial a picture as the one she is complaining about.
As it happens, I went to see the new film yesterday at the National Film Theatre and even sat through the less than enthralling discussion afterwards. Baroness Williams really ought to make up her mind about her early life: either she remembers her "beloved aunt Winifred [Holtby]" extremely well though she was five when that talented lady died at the age of 37 in 1935 or she was "only a child" in 1947 (as a matter of fact, she was 17). The other participants, one of the producers, the director and Alicia Vikander were mostly involved in mutual admiration and that is as it should be at film previews.
Ms McDonagh mentions that the film has already had great critical acclaim with the Standard's David Sexton describing it as a "tearful experience" though he was talking about the whole idea of the "lost generation". Think how tearful he would be if he looked at the losses in other countries, such as France, Germany and Russia in numbers and ratio.
I must admit, however that I agree with Ms McDonagh when she is being a self-described "party pooper" (having already been criticized severely on Twitter for not toeing the party line on the film).
Shirley Williams, Vera Brittain’s daughter, loved it, having feared initially that it would sanitise her mother, who “absolutely wasn’t a straightforward romantic heroine”. And indeed Alicia Vikander does convey Vera Brittain’s rather humourless intensity — even if she is, inevitably, luminously beautiful to Vera’s own pale prettiness. Actually, if I might party-poop a bit, what I balked at in the film was its relentless visual appeal — even the front had a period drama look to it — and the sentiments of the time have been given a contemporary spin to appeal to our own sensibility.It is, indeed, a "beautiful" film with a great deal of time spent on sweeping camera work, especially on glorious scenery. In fact, despite a chorus of approbation and self-approbation about the film not being Hollywood schmaltz (one gathered from something the producer said that the big studios were not interested in the idea) one has to admit that it is rather slushy.
The first act, the director told us, was deliberately slow and gracious with long sweeps of the camera: we had to see the beauty of that last summer before the world collapsed. That I have no objections to but I would have preferred a little more characterization as well.
The young people at the centre are highly intelligent (or so we must assume from them all going to Oxford). Do they never talk about anything at all of any kind of intellectual content? Do the two who intend to be writers, Vera and Ronald, never discuss their favourite authors? Not in this film, they don't.
Vera Brittain does not have to fight particularly hard to get to Oxford - her father gives in rather easily; she does not spend any time wondering or agonizing about her own abilities or ideas - we take all that on trust as she stares intensely into the camera; the four young men who would all be killed in the war, Vera's brother Edward, her fiance Roland and two others are not particularly well defined - we never really learn much about them.
What do they think of the war really? According to her diaries, Vera Brittain was initially greatly in favour and was anxious that her brother should enlist. In the film she talks her father, who is reluctant to let him go, round simply to do young Edward a favour.
The school Edward and his friends attended, Uppingham, was rather hearty (there is some indication of it, what with rugby, a cadet corps and a heavily patriotic pep talk from the headmaster) and the artist, C. R. W. Nevinson who also attended it, though earlier than our young men, described it as a place of "appalling jingoism" where anyone who did not share the prevalent view was "kicked, hounded, caned, flogged, hair-brushed, morning, noon and night". Presumably, this had not changed by the time young Edward Brittain and his friends had become pupils. Where did they fit in and how did that affect their thinking later, as the war progressed, if at all?
The second act is Oxford, the hospital in England, Vera's stint in France, the four young men killed one by one, right to Armistice with Vera being unable to join in the general celebration.
I well recall the 1979 series in which Cheryl Campbell, as the heroine, goes to Somerville and is overwhelmed by the joy of friendship with other girls of her calibre and is almost intoxicated by the pleasure of being able to argue and discuss various new ideas. For that Vera Brittain the decision to abandon all this and become a nurse, "to do something" is a real wrench and sacrifice. For the intense and gloriously beautiful Alicia Vikander it is hardly so: she has no friends, spends no time on discussion, reads rather reluctantly and moons over Roland as well as her brother.
The scenes in the various hospitals, in England and France, seem to be quite bloody enough and the odd shot of the battlefield or of the trenches that recalls films, photographs and paintings adds to the horror of it all. But we continue to know nothing about the way either the young men or Vera Brittain develop beyond the fact (known to all readers of poetry, of Journey's End, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Goodbye to All That and All Quiet on the Western Front) that sensitive young men become hardened or so horror-struck that they are not really capable of human emotion. Or perhaps they are when the girl they are in love with hugs them.
There is no mention that Edward Brittain, according to the Wikipedia entry on his sister, received the Military Cross, which was not awarded simply for sensitivity. In fact, as this note under a photograph in the Imperial War Museum tells us, "he participated in the first day of the Battle of the Somme, during which he was wounded and awarded the MC". But there are other aspects to the story of Edward that have been and still are carefully hidden as this review of a recent biography of Vera Brittain tells us. The film tells us nothing of it. What we get, instead, is numerous close-ups of Ms Vikander, who is beautiful, intense and brilliantly tragic.
Act three ought to be the post-war period but it is so truncated as to be more of an epilogue, which is a pity as the problems of people returning from the front and facing the world they left behind, in itself changed beyond recognition, is also fascinating. Both the book and the series did it justice; the film has scenes of Vera Brittain having a near-break-down and being rescued by Winifred Holtby, of one meeting and a lengthy scene of her returning to the lake where they had all bathed, undressing, swimming and swearing not to forget the young men.
In a sense that is true: thanks to her four young men, too young, perhaps, to have become personalities of made any impact on the world, have been remembered and for that we must be grateful. With them the whole of that generation is remembered in all the pity and glory that is their due though, perhaps, we should also remember those who fought elsewhere, not on the Western Front and those, the majority, who came back.
Will this film really bring that whole story alive to generations born long after? I am not sure. It is beautiful and it is full of tears but it does not really go beyond that.
Will it make Vera Brittain into an icon, which is what the director thinks she ought to be to young women? No, most definitely not. But why should it? Why should Vera Brittain be an icon? Young women now have to fight other battles and make other decisions.
I had hoped that with all the remembrance there will be more attention devoted to other parts of that catastrophic war but it seems that my hopes were in vain. I had also hoped for more thought and less emotion. That, too, seems to be unlikely.
There have been several coalition governments in modern British politics (the term is inappropriate for the period prior to the formation of well defined parties) and one is coming to an end. The Liberal Democrat History Group together with the Conservative History Group will be looking at another such coalition that was formed 100 years ago.
In May 1915, following political and military setbacks, Liberal prime minister H H Asquith brought senior figures from the opposition parties into his government. The meeting will look in detail at the background to the formation of the coalition and go on to consider its performance in government before its dramatic fall in December 1916.With some irony it will be held in the Lloyd George Room in the National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, SW1A 2HE at 7 pm on Monday, January 26.
Speakers: Dr Ian Packer, Acting Head of the School of History and Heritage at Lincoln University, author of a number of books on Edwardian and Liberal politics, who will look at the coalition from the Liberal side and Dr Nigel Keohane who now works at the Social Market Foundation and is the author of the book The Conservative Party and the First World War, to consider the coalition from a Conservative perspective.
The Chair will be taken by the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, (Raymond Asquith) the great-grandson of H H Asquith and currently the newest member of the Liberal Democrat team in the House of Lords.
Entry is free but please bear in mind that the Liberal Democrat History Group will be holding its AGM at 6.30, which is for members only.
Another anniversary is due at the end of the month: the fiftieth of the death of Sir Winston Churchill. About a week before that, Professor Vernon Bogdanor will be giving a lecture on his legacy at Gresham College. As you will see if you follow the link, the event is free but is likely to have a great deal of interest. Anyone who is interested should try to get there early.
Very remiss of this blog not to note the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the great poet, essayist and conservative thinker, T. S. Eliot yesterday. As it happens, I am writing this in London Library, of which he was President from 1952 to 1964 and which has recently benefited greatly from the generosity of his widow, Valerie Eliot. Indeed, the new section of the library is called after the great man though I should have preferred it to be known as Old Possum House. Ah well, cannot have everything.
A few other links on the subject: the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Foundation and the Nobel Prize website, which also has his acceptance speech.
And, for conservative thinkers and readers, here is Roger Scruton's brilliant essay on Eliot as a conservative mentor.
T. S. Eliot was indisputably the greatest poet writing in English in the twentieth century. He was also the most revolutionary Anglophone literary critic since Samuel Johnson, and the most influential religious thinker in the Anglican tradition since the Wesleyan movement. His social and political vision is contained in all his writings, and has been absorbed and reabsorbed by generations of English and American readers, upon whom it exerts an almost mystical fascination—even when they are moved, as many are, to reject it. Without Eliot, the philosophy of Toryism would have lost all substance during the last century. And while not explicitly intending it, Eliot set this philosophy on a higher plane, intellectually, spiritually, and stylistically, than has ever been reached by the adherents of the socialist idea.It is very well worth reading in full.
Eliot attempted to shape a philosophy for our times that would be richer and more true to the complexity of human needs than the free-market panaceas that have so often dominated the thinking of conservatives in government. He assigned a central place in his social thinking to high culture. He was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding artistic modernism and social traditionalism to be different facets of a common enterprise. Modernism in art was, for Eliot, an attempt to salvage and fortify a living artistic tradition in the face of the corruption and decay of popular culture.