Cabinet's Finest Hour : The Hidden Agenda of May 1940
Using the Cabinet papers from the UK National Archives, David Owen tells in the history of the 9 meetings of the British War Cabinet between 24-28 May 1940. The Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax was pushing Winston Churchill, his Prime Minister, to explore the possibility of a negotiated peace with Hitler, using Mussolini as a conduit. Largely ignored in Churchill’s own account of the conflict, the question before the meetings was straightforward: should Britain fight on in the face of overwhelming odds, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives, or seek a negotiated peace. Eight months into the war defeat seemed to many a certainty. With the United States still a year and half away from entering, Britain found itself in a perilous position and the records of these meetings show just how close Halifax, Chamberlain and others came to winning the day.
Speaking for England is in some ways the story of Churchill’s triumph, but it is also a paean to the Cabinet system of government, how collective debate and discussion won the day. Although Halifax lost the argument, Owen argues that he was right to ensure the subject of negotiating with Mussolini, and through him with Hitler, was a possibility. The Cabinet system, all too often disparaged as messy and cumbersome, worked in Britain’s interests and ensured a democracy on the brink of defeat had the courage to assess the alternatives to fighting on.
Churchill's blanket denial after the war of both the existence and legitimacy of this debate in the war cabinet - which lasted from 1940 –1971 and, in truth, took two decades more before it was fully revealed and came into the public conscience - had consequences for Britian’s foreign policy for the rest of the century. It is the story not only of Churchill’s moral courage and messianic conviction that however terrible the fighting, surrender would be worse, but of those others around the cabinet table – principally Greenwood, Attlee and Sinclair – without whose pivotal support he would doubtless have lost.