Following Thursday’s indecisive election, events in London are moving at a furious pace. In just the past few hours, Gordon Brown – still Prime Minister – has offered to resign to facilitate the creation of a ‘progressive’ coalition government composed of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and a variety of smaller parties. Meanwhile, negotiations continue between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. There is even the possibility that the economic crisis now gripping Greece, and threatening to engulf Europe, will lead to a ‘Government of All Talents,’ like the one that was formed in 1931 in response to the Great Depression.
No matter what happens, the result is likely to be a coalition government. But the British experience of coalition governments has not been a happy one. And this is a particularly appropriate day to reflect on that fact, because it was seventy years ago today – May 10, 1940 – that the last successful coalition government in Britain was formed.
That government, of course, was headed by Winston Churchill, who took over from Neville Chamberlain after the failure of appeasement, the Nazi conquest of Denmark and Norway, and the beginning of the German invasion of France. Churchill’s government was dominated by the Conservatives, but it also had strong support from the Labour Party. Indeed, if it had not been for the Labour Party, and its unwillingness to deal with Chamberlain, Churchill might not have become Prime Minister.
Churchill’s coalition was astonishingly successful. Like all coalitions, it had its share of internal tensions, and it came to an unhappy end in 1945, when Churchill’s Tories were thumpingly defeated by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party. But it achieved its aim. As Churchill put it in his first speech to the Commons on May 13:
You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never before surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory.
The problem with coalitions is that they cannot agree on what they stand for. Churchill’s great coalition avoided that failing because, in spite of all difficulties, its members were agreed on one, single, overriding aim: victory. It is difficult today to think of a single aim that would command such overwhelming support among any of the possible coalition parties in Britain. Everyone acknowledges the need to reduce spending and bring borrowing under control. But if the need for bold and decisive action on that front did not create unity before the election, it is difficult to believe that it will do so now.
Because coalition governments have such a difficult time finding common, principled ground, they usually come to stand for nothing more than remaining in office. That, in fact, was the fate of the first coalition government in which Churchill was a leading figure – the Lloyd George coalition that won World War I, but then lingered on, increasingly rudderless, until it was thrown out by a Conservative rebellion in 1922. That was the event that, more than anything else, signaled the end of the first act of Churchill’s political life.
He had many more acts to come, of course, but it was not until 1940 that he reached the top of the greasy pole. And in 1940, he became the indispensable man because, over the previous decade, he had clearly and repeatedly warned of the dangers of the policy of appeasement and of the rise of Nazi Germany. That was a stand on principle that was not easy to make, but which was brilliantly rewarded in 1940. It is a lesson for all of us, and, especially, for Conservatives in Britain today.