Monday, May 10, 2010

70 years on: a day that changed the world

The party leaders attended the ceremony at the Cenotaph on Saturday, marking the 65th anniversary of VE Day, which gave photographers a chance to get the necessary photo of Nick Clegg and David Cameron looking in the opposite direction to Gordon Brown (I presume the Daily Mirror managed to find a snap of Clegg and Brown looking away from Cameron).

With three exceptions, the veterans of the First World War have all now passed and those who fought in the Second World War are also fading away. The 200 or so veterans who attended the Cenotaph are now pushing 90. Many will not be there for the next major anniversary. It is right that political arguments in the present are put aside to pay respect to those who fought and died for our democracy.

Yet today marks another, more significant, anniversary in our national story. It was 70 years ago that Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister, replaced by Winston Churchill, and Britain was governed by a coalition Cabinet.

It was the perfect meeting of man and moment. On the same day that Churchill, the former maverick outsider, was received by George VI at Buckingham Palace, Germany began its onslaught on France and the first bombs started to fall on England. The greatest test of Britain's unity began.

Hitler had planned his attack to take advantage of the political crisis in Britain but Chamberlain, who had resigned after losing a vote of confidence in the Commons, said: "If he has counted upon our internal divisions to help him he has miscalculated the mind of this people."

Churchill's initial War Cabinet consisted of three Conservatives (himself, Chamberlain and Lord Halifax) and two Labour MPs (Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood). As the war progressed, the Cabinet expanded but remained balanced. For every Anthony Eden there was an Ernest Bevin or Stafford Cripps.

Those remarkable men faced remarkable times, of course, and the current situation requires a coalition for the expedience of governing rather than to present a united front to the world and the country. But the lesson of Churchill's Cabinet suggests that reasonable men with the same basic objectives can work together regardless of their party backgrounds.

Of course, another lesson for David Cameron is that once the coalition broke up at the end of the war, the supposed junior partners from Labour ousted him from power.

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