2011 or 1940? European crisis is a case of history repeating

The current furore over Europe within the Conservative party is nothing new, as Ben Brown's new play reveals.

By Ben Brown

A European crisis, a Conservative-led coalition and the Conservatives themselves split about how to deal with the crisis. Sounds familiar? Well, this was the situation at the beginning of Britain’s last coalition government too – during an even more serious crisis that took place in 1940, which is the subject of my new play, Three Days in May.

The situation then was complicated by the fact that, unlike today, the Conservative prime minister and the leader of the Conservative party were not just two facets of the same person, as Downing Street insisted yesterday when claiming David Cameron was speaking merely as Conservative party leader in wanting to wrest back powers from Brussels. In 1940 they were actually two different people, since Neville Chamberlain continued to serve as leader of the Conservative party after Churchill became prime minister on May 10th.

The conflict between the two arose when, with France about to go out of the war and the British army surrounded at Dunkirk, the war Cabinet had to decide whether to join the French in suing for peace or to fight on alone. The situation was made even more difficult for Churchill by the fact that Chamberlain’s right-hand man Lord Halifax was also still in the war Cabinet and still foreign secretary. It was he who was now the most ardent advocate of a negotiated settlement with Germany.

The final two members of the war Cabinet were the two new Labour ministers, Clement Attlee and his deputy, Arthur Greenwood, of “speak for England, Arthur” fame after he’d risen to speak in the House of Commons in place of the indisposed Attlee before war was declared in September 1939. But they were about as powerful as Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander are in today’s coalition.

So in 1940, as in 2011, in many ways the most fascinating conflict over the European crisis was the one at the heart of the Conservative party. However, in 1940, the stakes were much higher as, with America and Russia not yet in the war, the future of the free world depended on which of the two Tory views prevailed.

Again unlike the present Tory crisis, the 1940 internal conflict took place entirely in private, and indeed, remained unknown for decades after owing to the secrecy of the war Cabinet minutes and Churchill’s own airbrushing of those three days in May 1940. In his six-volume history of the Second World War, he stated simply but inaccurately that “Future generations may deem it noteworthy that the supreme question of wither we should fight on alone never found a place upon the war cabinet agenda. We were much too busy to waste time on such unreal, academic issues.” Which, as the war Cabinet minutes showed when they were eventually released, was about as far from the truth as it’s possible to get.

Ben Brown is an award winning British playwright and his latest play Three Days In May is currently being performed at the Trafalgar Studios in London.

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