The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955

by John Colville
738 pages,
ISBN: 0297847589

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Steadying Men at the Helm
by Kevin Higgins

John Colville, who died in 1987, was a diplomat and civil servant of-to put it mildly-the old high Tory variety. His description of his family background in the preface to this revised edition of his diaries is guaranteed to make egalitarians sneer: "My father and mother both came from well-known and by no means indigent families, but they were younger children and therefore, thanks to primogeniture [the right of the eldest son to inherit his parents' property] comparatively poor. I say comparatively, for in the twenty years between the two world wars we wanted for none of life's essentials, always had six or seven domestic servants, owned a fleet of small boats in the Isle of Wight and had a house in one of London's less fashionable squares..." So, when Orwell was detailing the reality of life for the most downtrodden of the Many in The Road To Wigan Pier (and the hunger marchers were leaving Jarrow in England's depression-stricken North East for the long trek to London), young Colville was busy making do as a comparatively poor member of the same country's privileged Few.
After coming down (i.e. graduating) from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1936, Colville sat the entrance exam for the Diplomatic Service and in September 1937 began work at the Foreign Office, where he was allotted to the Eastern Department. At first, the young Colville was nowhere near the centre of the political and diplomatic action. When the world almost went to war over Czechoslovakia in September 1938, he was busy with the decidedly secondary task of trying to persuade unwilling British Army supply departments to provide guns for Turkey and Persia in competition with German and Italian offers:

"In those last days of September 1938, trenches were dug in Hyde Park, plans were made to evacuate schoolchildren, gas-masks were prepared for distribution and every young man I knew, not already a soldier or sailor, joined a "Supplementary Reserve". However, after the signing of the Munich Agreement Neville Chamberlain assured us that there would be peace in our time; and he really believed it."

Within a few months it became clear that the 'practical' gentlemen-politician advocates of appeasement, such as Prime Minister Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, were fantasists of the worst order. On the March 15th, 1939, Hitler, contrary to his solemn promises at Munich, ordered the German Army to seize Prague and, shortly afterwards, Danzig. On Good Friday Mussolini invaded Albania and Hitler began menacing Poland. Then, on August 22nd the Soviet and Nazi Foreign Ministers, Molotov and Ribbentrop, signed a non-aggression pact, agreeing to partition Poland between them and hand the Baltic states over to Russia. War was on its way. Colville had been due to sail to New York on August 23rd, for a month-long holiday with some Anglo-American friends on a ranch in Wyoming, when Hitler interrupted his late summer getaway plans. Unsure of what to do next, Colville decided to begin keeping a diary. One month later he was seconded from the Foreign Office to work at Number 10 Downing Street, then still occupied by the politically damaged Chamberlain. History and accident had conspired to put twenty-four-year-old John Colville at the very centre of things at the most crucial time. Wartime regulations forbade the keeping of diaries by civil servants, but this Colville thankfully ignored, making entries most days, and each night meticulously locking his diary away.
From such a tentative beginning, the diary grew into the immense document under review here. It stretches all the way from the collapse of 'Peace In Our Time' to the Suez Crisis. The latter is an event seen by many as the point at which Britain ceased to be an independent world power, and assumed its new role-one which has become the foreign policy orthodoxy for every Conservative and Labour government since-as a permanent ally (for better or for worse) of the United States. The world as it was when Colville first opened his diary and began to write on Sunday, September 10th, 1939, had vanished forever by the time he penned his 'Postscript To Suez' on April 7th, 1957.
Most cinematic portrayals of the Second World War-with rare exceptions such as Casablanca-tend to lull us into the belief that the outcome was never in serious doubt. Such a presentation of the Second World War amounts to a serious falsification of history. A Nazi victory may have been unthinkable then, and seems more unlikely in the present. However, from the piled skulls of Cambodia to the sight of jets being deliberately driven into skyscrapers on an otherwise ordinary New York morning, there is plenty of evidence that the unthinkable is sometimes what actually happens. Just because we cannot imagine Germany emerging post-war, not flattened by bombs from the air and invading armies, but as the dominant military, political and economic power in the world, doesn't mean that that outcome hadn't been possible.
One of the best things about Colville's diaries is the way they undermine precisely that sort of complacency. On Thursday, June 20th, 1940-with France collapsing, the British Army humiliated in Norway, and Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland and Czechoslovakia all invaded by the Germans-Colville wrote: "Heavy air-raids last night in which Southampton, Yorkshire and South Wales seem to have suffered. I suppose the real armada will come soon, troop carriers and all." At this stage Britain stood absolutely alone; the German attack on Russia was still a whole year away, and it would be another eighteen months before the United States, then still committed to isolationism, entered the war. A German invasion of Britain, which would almost certainly have succeeded, seemed imminent.
Colville's diary entries raise the important issue of the role of the individual personality in a time of crisis. On Wednesday, June 12th, 1940, he writes: "The news today is darker than it has yet been. General Haining says Paris will almost certainly fall within the next forty-eight hours. The French, although fighting with grim determination, are at the end of their tether, and although Reynaud [who succeeded Daladier as French Prime Minister two months before the German invasion] wishes to fight to the end, Petain is willing to make peace. He is worse than Bazaine in 1870 [the French Marshal who, during the Franco-Prussian War, surrendered the fortress of Metz with 173,000 men without putting up a fight]." Later, in a long entry written on the same day, Colville notes "Reynaud is as indomitable as Petain is defeatist." Of course, as his subsequent role in the collaborationist Vichy regime made clear, underlying Marshal Petain's 'defeatism' was something altogether more sinister.
It is valid to speculate that if Britain had also been invaded, the Nazis would probably have found similarly willing British 'defeatists' to administer on their behalf. The only question is, how many and to what extent would they have been willing to carry out Nazi orders?
A big point in Colville's favour is that, though some explanatory notes were added before the diaries were published, the diaries themselves are not at all self-serving. On Sunday October 1st, 1940, he says of Churchill [who joined Chamberlain's cabinet on September 3rd, 1939] after listening to one of his speeches: "He certainly gives one confidence and will, I suspect, be Prime Minister before this war is over. Nevertheless, judging from his record of untrustworthiness and instability, he may, in that case, lead us into the most dangerous paths." Here, Colville appears to go along with the appeasement-era view that Churchill was reckless and that those more 'measured', like Chamberlain and Halifax, provided a necessary counterbalance. Like many of his class at the onset of the war, he seems not to have yet grasped that it was Chamberlain and his supporters who were leading Britain down the most dangerous path.
The quality which made Churchill a vital war-time leader he was precisely his ability to see the world in the starkest black and white, and then take the necessary risks. Though he was an Establishment man to the core, and had a deep hostility to Socialism and Communism, Churchill was a single issue politician rather than a strict right-wing ideologue of the Thatcher variety. Like the Roman senator who began every speech with the words:
"Carthago Est Delenda" (Carthage must be destroyed), his career, both during his wilderness years and as Prime Minister, was dominated by one issue above all others. On Saturday June 21st, 1941, in reply to an after dinner question from Colville about why he, the arch anti-communist, was now willing to come to the aid of Russia, Churchill sayd that he had "only one single purpose-the destruction of Hitler-and his life was much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell he would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil." The following day Colville noted: "The P.M's view was that Russia was now at war; innocent peasants were being slaughtered; and we should forget about Soviet systems and the Comintern and extend our hand to fellow human beings in distress." It is hard to imagine Mrs. Thatcher saying, as Churchill did on Tuesday September 5th, 1944, that "if...there was a great left-wing majority [in the election after the war], let it be so: What is good enough for the English people, is good enough for me." Of course, that 'great left-wing majority' did indeed come to pass in 1945, and Churchill was swept from office immediately after winning the war, although he did return to Number 10 Downing Street in 1951, when, in another display of ideological flexibility, his Conservative Government left in place Labour's National Health Service and cradle-to-grave Welfare State. Colville's entertaining and informative diaries confirm Churchill as a politician, who unlike so many practical gentlemen of his day, was strong enough to abandon the pragmatism with which he typically approached politics. His confrontation with Hitler was a battle in which there were no shades of grey, only day on the one side and night on the other.

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