THE MAN WHO MADE MODERN BRITAIN
(Tonight's BBC1 screening of "Darkest Hour" and the VE anniversary prompted me to re-post this blog of mine from 2015)
It will not have escaped the notice of newswatchers that we have just marked the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death. Like him or loathe him, he was one of the great shapers of modern Britain. So too was Arthur Greenwood.
In May 1940 Britain stood on the brink of defeat against Nazi Germany. Its army was stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk with little prospect of rescue. Hitler was days away from viewing Britain’s south coast from France’s northern. Plans had been made to evacuate the Royal Family along with the Bank of England’s gold and the government to Canada.
Against this military background there met an inner sanctum of five government grandees to discuss options. Essentially there were two – shit or bust; sue for peace terms with Hitler ie surrender or fight on.
The peace terms centred on the mutual recognition of Hitler’s right to mainland Europe while Britain would retain her Empire and navy. It was proposed to approach Mussolini to broker the deal who might get Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, Kenya and Uganda for his troubles.
The five men consisted of Churchill, Prime Minister of 18 days and considered by many even in his own Party as a loose and drunken canon; Chamberlain, his predecessor, whom Hitler had transformed overnight from peacekeeping hero to gullible mug; Lord Halifax, aristocratic and aloof, who found Hitler “most sincere”; Clem Attlee, the dull and recently elected leader of the Labour Party; and Arthur Greenwood, innocuous Labour MP and sometime deputy for Attlee.
Chamberlain and Halifax were for terms, while Churchill was for war. Attlee and Greenwood were likewise for continuing the fight and without these two’s support Britain may have surrendered.
From their carrying of the vote that day 3-2 much of what we have become follows.
There would have been no war with Germany
Nazism would have dominated Western Europe rather than Communism Eastern Europe
Britain’s decline as a world power would not have been so immediate
The Empire would not have disintegrated so rapidly
Labour would not have come to power in 1945 on a tide of expectation for social change
The NHS, welfare and social insurance would not take their current shape
The role of women who staffed the munitions factories would have developed differently
The culture of 1930’s deference and class acceptance would have continued longer
All of these things may or may not have happened to a greater or lesser degree anyway but Andrew Marr in his excellent book, “A History of Modern Britain” (from which this piece has been shamefully purloined) argues that this Shit-or-Bust meeting of 28 May 1940 has as justifiable a claim to be the start of Modern Britain as any.
Marr describes Greenwood as a man who had a “lifelong fight with the bottle” in which “the bottle won every round”.
But each and every one of us owes much of what we are to Arthur Greenwood.