Churchill's Wilderness Years, 1929-1939
In the Spring of 1929 when the Conservative Party lost the General Election and the 54 year old Winston Churchill stepped down as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had served in every major British Cabinet post save two: Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. Yet Churchill was never popular with the Conservative Party’s rank and file or its leaders.
Part of this unpopularity was political. In his 1982 book, Winston Churchill, The Wilderness Years, written as a companion to the eight part dramatization of those years in a Masterpiece Theatre series on PBS, Churchill’s official biographer Martin Gilbert explains why:
Many Conservatives could never forgive Churchill’s ‘betrayal’ of their Party in 1904 when he had not only left them to join the Liberals, but had used all his youthful oratorical skills both to attack them with skill and invective and to become a leading champion of one of their chief hatreds, Free Trade. A decade later he had become an outspoken supporter of another Conservative hatred, Irish Home Rule, and in 1921 he had played an important part not only in the negotiations for the Irish Treaty but also in the Parliamentary debates in which the Treaty was expounded, and in the subsequent negotiations with the southern Irish leaders – the former gunmen – for its implementation. By 1928, six years had already passed since the Irish Treaty but many Conservatives still regarded it as a grave blow to the unity of the United Kingdom, and were critical of Churchill as one of its principal architects.
The dislike, amounting at times to hatred, which Home Rule and Free Trade had roused against Churchill since before the First World War, had never died.
But there were personal reasons for Churchill’s unpopularity as well. His enemies considered him unsound and lacking in judgment. Gilbert quotes two of Churchill’s bigger detractors during his Wilderness Years, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and his successor Neville Chamberlain.
Winston’s position is curious. Our people like him. They love listening to him in the House, look on him as a star turn, and settle down in the stalls with anticipatory grins. But for leadership, they would turn him down every time.
One doesn’t often come across a real man of genius or perhaps, appreciate him when one does. Winston is such a man. [But] there is too deep a difference between our natures for me to feel at home with him or to regard him with affection. He is a brilliant wayward child who compels admiration but who wears out his guardians with the constant strain he puts upon them.
Volume V of Gilbert’s official biography is the most extensive treatment of Churchill’s Wilderness Years and his book to accompany the PBS series is a Cliff Notes version. Better still, watch the series on DVD from Koch Vision and still available at www.amazon.com. The series was earlier released on VHS in 2001 by Lance Entertainment and is also available at Amazon. HBO has done two films on the same topic in the recent past, one with Albert Finney and another with Brendan Gleeson. Both are excellent but pale in comparison to Robert Hardy’s Churchill in the PBS series.
The following summaries are taken from the slipcovers of the VHS version of the eight episode PBS series.
Episodes 1 and 2: 1928-1932
“What advice would you give now that your career is over?” Churchill is asked. He does not reply.
It is 1928. Winston Churchill holds the prestigious Cabinet position of Chancellor of the Exchequer under Stanley Baldwin and is in line to become Prime Minister. But behind the scenes, powerful enemies Neville Chamberlain and Sam Hoare plot against him.
Even at Chartwell, the house he loves, there are problems. His beloved and supportive wife Clemmie does not share his affection for the place or for many of his friends.
In the spring of 1929, political disaster strikes. Churchill’s party loses the General Election, sweeping him out of office. Cut off by enemies even in his own party, Churchill believes his career is over. Fifty-five years old and nearly broke, he decides that his future and the support of his family lie in writing and lecturing.
With his son Randolph, Churchill travels to America where he lectures across the States, observes American production muscle with steel magnate Charles Schwab, talks about politics with William Randolph Hearst, writes articles for the Hearst papers, discusses movies with Marion Davies and invests recklessly. Financial advice from his old friend Bernard Baruch comes too late to save him from being wiped out in the Crash.
Churchill returns to England. Strongly opposed to his own party leader’s position on Dominion Status for India, Churchill uses his writing to mount a vitriolic attack – a move that further isolates him politically and gives his enemies the opportunities to trick him into the political wilderness.
Churchill once again heads for the U.S. to lecture, only to be struck down and severely injured by a car in New York City. He returns to Chartwell.
Episodes 3 and 4: 1932-1933
“I can no longer sleep at night, Mr. Churchill. I’m haunted by the nightmare of what is happening in Germany.” Ralph Wigram, The Foreign Office
Churchill and his family are visiting an old friend in Munich where their boisterous party annoys a would-be guest about to join them. He leaves without entering and the opportunity for Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler to meet is gone forever. Churchill is disappointed.
When he returns to England, Churchill warns in the House of Commons, “Those Germans are not looking for equal status. They are looking for weapons.” No one listens.
Despite Churchill’s objections, in a conspiracy worthy of Watergate, the India bill is passed and he is pushed even further from the center of power. At this point he learns of the bribery and suppressed evidence employed by his enemies. He vows to expose it all.
Knowing that Sam Hoare is at the heart of the corruption, Churchill forces Parliament to investigate. A Committee is set up by Baldwin, who, fearing the result of public disclosure, asks Tom Inskip to find a way out. Inskip comes up with a devious loophole and once again Churchill is foiled and deeply depressed.
He is invited by a friend to vacation in the South of France. Ironically, it is there that the first of many visitors come to warn him of events in Germany and their terrible import for England. Among the public men of influence, only Winston Churchill recognizes the profound peril to the world that the Nazis represent.
Episodes 5 and 6: 1934-1936
“Twenty-eight years I believed in that blessed star of yours…you must not give up now.” – Clemmie
In November of 1934, Churchill makes a stirring speech in the Commons stating, “To urge preparation of defense is not to assert the imminence of war…” His words mark a turning point in his career. He will continue to warn of the threat of Germany.
In scenes reminiscent of the best spy dramas, Churchill listens to men who, in despair at the lack of response from the Government, bring their concerns and information to Chatwell. When Churchill reveals the true figures of German military production, his colleagues in the Commons don’t believe him.
Hitler announces the strength of the German airforce. Baldwin had promised that British airpower wound never fall behind that of Germany. Chamberlain urges continued disarmament, “The real danger to this country is Winston. He is the warmonger, not Hitler.”
In the next General Election Churchill is again excluded from the Cabinet. He is in despair, but when Italy invades Abyssinia and Hoare is forced to resign, Churchill’s resolve stiffens.
In March of 1936, Hitler invades the Rhineland. Churchill says, “The German Army is a dagger pointed at the heart of France.” At a high-level dinner party Chamberlain reviles Churchill and voices approval of Hitler.
Churchill reveals the truth about Britain’s lack of preparedness and opinion begins to swing his way. In a major tactical error, he supports the King over the abdication and is subjected to a torrent of abuse.
Episodes 7 and 8
“Chamberlain had the choice between war and shame. Now he has chosen shame – he’ll get war later.” Winston Churchill
Despite growing pressure and stormy Cabinet meetings, Chamberlain holds firm to his policy of appeasement and overpowers or forces out everyone who opposes him. Hitler invades Austria and threatens Czechoslovakia and still Chamberlain clings to his dreams of peace. He flies to Munich to meet with Hitler and returns waving his piece of paper and announcing “Peace in our time.” Parliament backs Chamberlain and again Churchill is the lone voice in the wilderness.
Hitler ignores the agreement and marches into Czechoslovakia. It is Chamberlain who is now isolated as the public and Parliament ask for Churchill.
At Chartwell, Churchill is virtually organizing an alternative Cabinet, making sweeping plans for defense and demanding action. Chamberlain continues to stand firmly for appeasement and in August of 1939, unbelievably, adjourns Parliament and goes on vacation in Scotland. It is there that he receives the stunning news that German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop has flown to Moscow to negotiate a treaty with Stalin.
Chamberlain rushes back to London, recalls Parliament and announces a formal alliance with Poland as Hitler prepares to invade. On September 3, 1939, Neville Chamberlain declares that Britain is at war with Germany. Later that same day, Churchill is called to No. 10 Downing Street. He has been recalled to the Admiralty. Winston Churchill’s decade in the wilderness is over. He has returned with strength and resolve to turn disaster into triumph.