Q and A on writing Troublesome Young Men
Q. Your book is about a group of British Members of Parliament who helped bring Winston Churchill to power in May 1940 just as Hitler invaded Western Europe. What prompted you to write about them?
A. I like to write about unsung heroes in history, men and women of courage and conscience who helped change their country and the world. The main characters in this book certainly belong in that category. If it hadn’t been for them, Churchill probably would never have become prime minister and Britain might well have been defeated. And if that had happened, the history of World War II — and the world itself — obviously would have been very different.
Q. You say that these men are “unsung.” Why is that?
A. Churchill has become such a monumental historical figure in the last sixty years that many people assume his rise to power was inevitable. One historian has referred to the House of Commons revolt that led to Churchill’s becoming prime minister as “political spontaneous combustion” — just a spur-of-the-moment explosion. But nothing could be further from the truth. Neville Chamberlain, the man Churchill succeeded, was a very powerful, authoritarian leader with a massive Conservative majority in the House, and Churchill had no real base of support there. In fact, many MPs greatly distrusted him.
The revolt that brought him to power was the climax of a two-year fight against Chamberlain and his appeasement policies by a group of 20-30 Conservative MPs who, like Churchill, had opposed Munich and appeasing Hitler. These are the “troublesome young men” I write about, who risked political suicide to bring Chamberlain down in May 1940.
Q. Why was it so important to get rid of Chamberlain at that point?
A. Because Britain was on the edge of disaster, both socially and militarily. Eight months earlier, the British had declared war on Germany, after the Germans invaded Poland. But Chamberlain and his government had no interest or intention of really fighting a war. The British government had promised to go to the defense of Poland but, when the invasion actually occurred, it didn’t live up to its promise. It imposed an economic blockade on Germany and seemed to think that would be enough to bring Hitler to his knees. But as we know now, Hitler and his generals were taking advantage of that quiet period – known as the phony war — to fine tune their plans for an invasion of western Europe in the spring of 1940.
In England itself, people were really disheartened and disillusioned. They had braced themselves for war, but when nothing happened, they wondered why it was still going on. Why were so many people forced to leave their homes and why was there a blackout when no bombs were falling? An increasing number of Englishmen both inside and outside the government started urging peace negotiations with Hitler.
Q. Why didn’t the Tory rebels challenge Chamberlain earlier?
A. As I mentioned before, Chamberlain was a very domineering, even dictatorial, prime minister. Many people think of him as weak and vacillating because he refused to stand up to Hitler and Mussolini. But at home, he was determined to bend everyone to his will. He and his supporters did everything they could to stamp out dissent. The MPs who opposed appeasement before the war were called unpatriotic. Their phones were tapped, they were spied on, and Chamberlain and his men tried to wreck their political careers.
After the war began in September 1939 (despite Chamberlain’s best efforts to prevent it), he and his followers accused his critics of disloyalty, even treason. They said that criticizing the government in time of war damaged the national interest, that it divided the country and only helped the Germans. Even Churchill, who was a member of Chamberlain’s cabinet for the eight months of the phony war, supported the prime minister and his policies — at least publicly. The Tory rebels had to wait for what one of them called “a big issue” to stir up the country and rally anti-Chamberlain support in the House of Commons. That issue turned out to be Germany’s occupation of Norway and Denmark in April 1940 — and the Chamberlain government’s totally inept response to the invasion. The rebels used Britain’s defeat in Norway as the excuse for calling for a House debate in May about the government’s conduct of the war. It was that debate that ended up toppling Chamberlain and bringing Churchill to power.
Q. It seems to me that there are striking parallels between what was going on in England in 1940 and the political situation in the U.S. today.
A. I couldn’t agree more. In both cases, you have a very strong government leader who has taken his country into war and is running it in a way that many people believe is disastrous. You have an administration intent on dominating the country’s legislative body which, according to the Constitution, is supposed to serve as a check on the executive. An administration that has tried to shut down public debate by badgering and intimidating the press, which is the executive’s other traditional watchdog, and claiming that anyone who dares criticize the government is guilty of disloyalty and damaging the national interest.
What appealed to me about the story of Chamberlain’s ouster is that it’s really a story of moral courage. It shows that a small band of men, who lack much political power and influence, can change the course of history by standing up for what they believe. It was very hard for these Tory MPs to do what they did. They were violating the gentlemanly standards of their society, and for that, they were branded as traitors not only to their party and government but also to their class and country. They were not untarnished heroes. They were timid and cautious on occasion; they were worried about their careers and being tarred as political pariahs. But when their country’s future hung in the balance in May 1940, they put all of those considerations aside. In doing that, they proved the truth of a comment that one of them made at the time — that “no government can change men’s souls. The souls of men change governments.” And as a result, Winston Churchill became prime minister.
Q. The story of how Chamberlain was brought down is very dramatic. But so are the individual stories of some of the MPs you write about. Can you talk a little bit about the ones you focus on most — Leo Amery, Ronald Cartland, Harold Macmillan, and Robert Boothby?
A. Leo Amery had been a rival of Churchill’s since their days at Harrow, when Churchill, who was 14 years old at that point, pushed Amery, who was a year older, into the school’s pool. Like Churchill, Amery had held several Cabinet posts, but unlike Churchill, he was a longtime friend and supporter of Chamberlain’s. Yet it was Amery, more than anyone else, who was responsible for getting rid of Chamberlain and bringing Churchill to power. He had the reputation of being a stupefyingly boring speaker, but in the May 1940 debate, he delivered one of the most electrifying speeches ever heard in Parliament — a savage attack on Chamberlain that helped lead to his downfall.
Ronald Cartland was the youngest and the most fearless of the Tory rebels. He was very ambitious but he never backed away from speaking his mind, no matter what the consequences were. During a House of Commons debate in August 1939, right before the war began, he called Chamberlain a dictator to his face and predicted that, very soon, young Englishmen like himself were going to fight and die. Chamberlain was furious at him, denounced him as a traitor, and did everything he could to ruin his career.
Cartland was an officer in the Territorial Army, and when the Germans invaded the Low Countries and France in May 1940, he and his regiment were part of the British forces trying to stop the German advance. He was killed two weeks after Churchill came to power, while trying to lead his men to Dunkirk — the first MP to die in the war. He was 33 years old.
Robert Boothby and Harold Macmillan entered Parliament in the same year — 1924 — and were very close friends and colleagues. For several years, they worked together to fight appeasement and to try to bring economic reform and social justice to England. In the late 1920s, Boothby fell passionately in love and embarked on a notorious lifelong affair with Macmillan’s wife, who was the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire. Macmillan was devastated by the affair but continued to ally himself with Boothby in the battle against Chamberlain and appeasement.