The House was packed. A Conservative backbencher conveyed the mood. It is important to emphasise that there was no expectation of a vote. Neville Chamberlain, the Conservative leader, enjoyed a huge majority of for his national government, and the opposition Labour Party under Clement Attlee was reluctant to divide the House at this precarious moment; Attlee felt that it might even reunite the Conservatives, giving Chamberlain a renewed mandate not unlike that which Jeremy Corbyn received in September As now, there was widespread despondency at the record of the government, encapsulated in the decision of National Liberal MP Clement Davies to cross the floor to the opposition benches.
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Sound familiar? Then so, too, will be the echo of general despair at the apparent impossibility of effecting a change.
Listening to Britain : Home Intelligence Reports on Britain's Finest Hour, May-September 1940
Even though less popular with an increasingly anxious public, Chamberlain still appeared unassailable within parliament. Given the hindsight we now possess, the selection of Churchill on 10 May seems assured. But on 7 May, the situation was almost the reverse.
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The weight of the Churchill legend has suppressed knowledge of other possibilities that were available and seemed more probable at the time. If not Halifax, who had been known to refuse high office twice before, there existed no dearth of politicians who fancied their claims.
Few today are household names, yet they might have become so. These statements show how difficult it is to predict the fate of men and how uncertain the outcome was at the time. In May , in the extremely unlikely event that Chamberlain were to step aside, Churchill was merely one among several contenders, on both sides of the House, who had spent their political careers jostling for such an opening. Its tragic details hardly need to be recapitulated, yet the question lingers. How did a minister who advocated, planned and directed one of the most disastrous campaigns since the Crimean War become prime minister?
The short answer: loyalty. Inside the House of Commons, Chamberlain counted on a small team to manipulate lobby correspondents and MPs with aggressive briefings. He also relied on the shadowy head of the Conservative Research Department, a former MI5 officer called Sir Joseph Ball, to maintain a tighter surveillance of the Conservative party and the Commons than is commonly realised.
Ball used former intelligence colleagues to listen to telephone conversations and read letters. On becoming prime minister, he adopted their practice of eavesdropping on political opponents. I hope you are as edified at the contents of this letter as I am over having to write them!! It is a collection of reports from into the opinions, feelings and general state of morale of ordinary people around Britain in relation to the war with Germany. The Home Intelligence Department had been set up by the government to assess home morale by studying immediate reactions to specific events and to find out public opinion on important issues, including pacifism.
Listening to Britain
One reason for this was to provide a basis for publicity , that is, to plan propaganda and test its effectiveness. The reports drew on various sources, including Mass Observation, a market research style Wartime Social Survey, staff listening to conversations on the way to work, and visiting pubs and other places where lots of people went and talked to each other. I particularly liked the fact that there was so much information about views of the war in my home city Leeds , as so much writing about the war is centred on the Blitz in London. The daily reports are presented in weekly sections with a background account of events that week — events in these months included the fall of France, Belgium and the Netherlands and the rescue of British soldiers from Dunkirk.
The nature of the reports means that they often feel a bit dry to read these are Civil Service documents!
I think I would recommend reading it a bit at a time alongside other books rather than straight through. However, they do offer an invaluable and unvarnished insight into thoughts and feelings about events without the benefit of hindsight - the good, the bad and the ugly bits.
The book also brings home how frightening this time must have been — with the fall of France, British forces and those from Empire countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Caribbean islands such as Jamaica were on their own — neither the US or USSR joined the war until These reports give us a look beyond the popular images and stereotypes — one day morale may be good and people praising the government handling of the situation, the next day they may be sniping and complaining about rations and other people.
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Attitudes to refugees and evacuation come up very frequently.