Troublesome Young Men

This was a bedtime read for me, which tells you something already. It’s a very pleasantly told story of how a bunch of rebels within the Conservative Party worked to bring Chamberlain and his appeasement policy down. They wanted the good-looking Anthony Eden to become PM, but he turned out to be an utter drip. So they settled on Churchill, whom everyone knew as a mad hangover from the high-Victorian New Imperialism associated with Chamberlain’s father Joe (he of the omelette/eggs aphorism). And everyone was right — but the country responded exceedingly well to a mad hangover from the high-Victorian New Imperialism playing the role of cornered British bulldog.

The book reminds me of Taylor Branch’s treatment of Martin Luther King, Jr., on two counts (although it is gratifyingly shorter). Both are narratives that force the reader to slow down and see the flow of events as they must have come to the participants, and even to feel, to some extent, the fear, frustration, and elation of protagonists. This is a neat trick, because of course in both cases we know how things are going to come out. It works because of the second resemblance: in both cases, the central figure (King, Churchill) is displaced by an emphasis on those who made his starring role possible. Indeed, Churchill comes off pretty poorly here — once in office he fawned on the appeasers who had kept him down for so long, and spurned the men who put him into 10 Downing Street.

Olson does a good job showing the extent to which the British governing class really was a class, bound together by school and family, across party and philosophical divisions. But she does it without that annoyingly toadying attitude that Americans often bring to discussions of the Edwardian era and its products. This is lightly done, anecdotal social history via collective biography.

Judging by the structure of the narrative, Harold Macmillan is, I guess, meant to be the hero, here. But the person who stood out for me was Leo Amery (who though troublesome was not young). I had previously known about Amery only for two great moments in the House of Commons. One, when Labour deputy leader Arthur Greenwood stood to oppose appeasement and began to fumfuh about how, on behalf of his party, — and Amery shouted from the Conservative benches, “Speak for England, Arthur!” And the other, when Amery fired the rhetorical shot that may have scuttled Chamberlain, quoting Cromwell: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing! Depart, I say, and let us have done with you! In the name of God, go!” It’s a great set piece in Olson’s narrative, too. But Amery comes through as a highly serious statesman, great with integrity, opposed to Churchill in many things (including devolution of power to India, which Amery favored) but determined to bring him to power anyway — for England, of course.

I was, I confess, leery of a book on the Munich era, as Munich gets trotted out repeatedly by the current administration to justify war! all the time. Olson it seems does not mean to draw any analogies with the present, mentioning lightly and briefly of Eden during Suez that “Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the lessons of Munich and appeasement were wrongly applied to a later international crisis. Hitler had been a real threat to Britain’s security and survival. Nasser was not.” (358)

I imagine pretty much anyone who enjoys good narrative history would enjoy this book, and it’s an especially nice gift for anyone who has a lot of Churchill biographies.

Disclaimer: FSG is my publisher. I didn’t pay for this book — though, of course, reviewers rarely pay for what they review. Moreover, FSG is now part of Macmillan US, which means they may be biased in favor of books with Harold Macmillan as hero. Gee, the whole thing could be fishy!