January 15, 2003

Burying Caesar

Burying Caesar, Graham Stewart, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25.00, pp. 533.

Mindful of recent admonitions in the TLS about this sort of thing, I should immediately state an interest: namely friendship with the author. That said this is a splendid, splendid book. And as for the author himself, only Robert Brown's description of Ward Hadlow will suffice:

"he's a frightfully brilliant chap. He's even more brilliant than he looks. He made me promise not to tell you till after he'd gone because he's frightfully modest as well as frightfully brilliant – but – he's written a novel" . . .

Only William displayed any interest in Robert's news.

"What's it about?" he enquired.

Robert reluctantly turned to William and continued, with an air of one quite conscious that he is casting pearls before swine:

"It's an historical novel. It's been a frightful swot for him getting up the historical part, of course, but he really is frightfully brilliant. It's a perfectly marvellous story. I mean, I'm sure that when they know about it the publishers will start simply fighting for it."

"Will they?" said William with interest. "I'd like to watch 'em. Where will they have it?"

"Have what?"

"The fight."

Burying Caesar is divided into two halves, with the first taking us from Randolph Churchill and Joe Chamberlain up to the 1935 election. This section draws heavily at the end on Dr. Stewart's work on the India Bill and establishes a number of very useful pointers to what will be for most the book's meat, the second section focusing on appeasement.

Baldwin does not come out of this account at all well. He enters the stage declaiming against coalition in 1922, and contrives to stay on it in '31 by making one. As ever (at the hands of historians), Churchill escapes the abuse his contemporaries meted out to him: his expediency being most obvious in his 1923 abandonment of the reunited, Free Trade Liberal party for the protectionist, but career friendly Unionist party.

The theme of the book ('Churchill, Chamberlain and the Battle for the Tory Party') obliges the author to 'compare and contrast' Chamberlain's career with Churchill's by the early '20s. He concludes that Chamberlain's was one of failure, when the only significant difference between these two unconnected artistes was that Churchill's failures were on such a vastly more monumental scale.

In truth our two protagonists were not battling one another 'for the Tory party' at any stage before the late '30s. They could conceivably be seen as exemplars of the two tendencies which contested the Carlton Club in '22: personally brilliant, politically catholic (i.e. both very left and very right) coalys vs. honest husbandry (which itself was divided between Baldwin, and the more right wing Chamberlain). The important thing to bear in mind is that the latter tendency won, first in ditching LlG, and then every subsequent time battle was joined.

That a Conservative parliament passed the India Bill is conclusive proof of the essentially moderate nature of inter-war British Conservatism. Churchill, with his record on Ulster and other sins against Diehardery, was never fully trusted as regards his defence of the Raj. Indeed his historical position at the head of the diehards (as opposed to Gods like Carson, and demi-gods like Salisbury) is surely a retrospective invention of historians, beguiled by his later status. What Dr. Stewart might have reflected upon slightly more is his own observation that far more Tory MPs rebelled on India than did on appeasement. And this was because appeasement had fully fledged right wing credentials, whereas the India Bill was the ungodly product of Baldwin and the National Government.

Unavoidably hindsight squints at any treatment of appeasement. To take just the defence expenditure allocation debates, these invariably end up being considered in terms of what would have best helped us fight the 39/45 war. This anachronism obliterates the truth that Britain in the 30s faced a foreign policy problem, not a defence procurement one. The question remains: was our foreign policy right? The chief end of which being to maintain our Empire, not say the Polish dictatorship.

In many ways Graham Stewart is the last, perfectly formed Churchillian in that, whilst anti-appeasement, he is personally sympathetic to Neville Chamberlain. It is this empathetic ability which allows him to transcend the normal dogmatism of his faction and write such an eminently readable book. Though the hugely civilized circumstances in which it was written – i.e. outside a university – doubtless also contributes to the fastest 500 pager I've read in a long time.

Yet sweet words won't get us past appeasement, and more specifically whether we should regret the fact that Chamberlain had won the battle for the Tory party, and was implementing it, or be glad of it.

Hitler of course had things right – Churchill wanted to encircle Germany. Chamberlain didn't; he didn't even want 'allies' like the US, which as he knew full well would simply have entailed Britain taking on others' problems (in America's case, Japan).

It's never easy to understand the logic of the anti-appeasers (either contemporary, or in the history books). If their argument was that war could not be forestalled, and that we thus had to be as best prepared for this inevitable circumstance (e.g. by an Anglo-French pact with the USSR) then this is an argument for a pre-emptive strike.

If that's seen for the madness it is, then we have to account Chamberlain and Horace Wilson, not Churchill and Brendan Bracken as the realists. Why should we have fought a war to prevent war? The real disaster was that, after the Prague invasion, Chamberlain adopted the policy of the anti-appeasers.

Chamberlain was undone not by his policy to prevent the war, but by the progress of the war he failed to prevent. Principally military failings – which Churchill presided over – and rhetorical ones, 'missed buses' and 'my friends'. For Dr. Stewart, and other anti-appeasers then as now, Churchill's pre-war vapourings (selectively edited) are vindicated, and more particularly so is the total-war he committed Britain to after he succeeded Chamberlain, by eventual Russian and American entry into the war.

This was good for Churchill, but was it good for Britain and the Empire? In March 1941 Liddell Hart concluded that all an improbable British victory over Germany would amount to was 'our subservience to the United States – if not the supremacy of Soviet Russia in Europe'.

Burying Caesar's one weakness is that by ending with Chamberlain's funeral it precludes consideration of the consequences of Churchill's fluke victory in the battle for the Tory party. Chamberlain, and his legitimate heirs would never have neglected their party in the way the saviour of humanity did – and Attlee didn't.

Since Churchill did 'win' we must turn back to the beginning to see why that mattered. In his political youth he split from the twentieth century's diehards, the Hugh Cecils and the Willoughby de Broke's. He never really returned, whereas Neville Chamberlain, limply, followed in their wake. The importance of the hard right (1900-40) is that in Britain, despite provocation, it remained constitutional and largely democratic. A hidden irony is that it was Chamberlain who was closest to this strain, and Churchill who, in his erratic liberalism, sealed the party on the moderate course Baldwin had set it on.

The one, startling, omission in this book is the paucity of high class anecdotage. Only at the end, possibly his heart rising as his labours near their finish, does the author give flight; the Evening Standard billboard after the fall of France being especially good – 'Britain through to the final'. However one Churchillian cliché remains intact after this excellent and serious work, he is that unique figure the more of whom one reads the more one admires him:

On the return journey across the Channel on board H.M.S. Boadicea, one of the officers observed the scene: 'the neat figure of Neville Chamberlain approached, surrounded by his retinue like a popular master at a prepatory school conducting the Sunday walk. One or two of the boys preferred to trudge along by themselves. Among these was Winston Churchill.' Chamberlain went up to the ship's bridge but got cold and had to have soup brought to him. Churchill meanwhile had ensconced himself in the warmth of the ward room drinking port, sucking a cigar and leafing through the pages of Blighty magazine, a glorified girlie mag popular with sailors. From deep within the ward room could be heard his distinctive growl, 'Tell the Prime Minister to come and have some gin.' The First Lord of the Admiralty subsequently went missing. He was eventually discovered sitting on a table in the stokers' mess, 'swapping yarns'.

– Christopher Montgomery

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration. His column appears here on Wednesdays.

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