Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The King's Speech - with added Churchill (and rather less Chamberlain)

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that for any public figure of the 1930s to be seen as a good egg they must have been on the same side as the Greatest Briton Ever, Winston Churchill. So in Tom Hooper's newly-released and much acclaimed film The King's Speech, when the Duke of York reluctantly ascends to the throne after his brother's abdication, who does he turn to for advice but dear old Winston?

But did this really happen? Churchill was a supporter of Edward VIII in the abdication crisis in 1936. Indeed during it he suffered one of the greatest humiliations of his wildnerness years, being howled down in the House of Commons while asking a question that was seen as sympathetic to the King (i.e. Edward VIII). Churchill was suspected of trying to lead a rebellion against Baldwin, the prime minister. (Hansard reference here).

So Churchill would seem an unlikely confidant for the new king, and I wonder whether this scene really happened or whether it was just a way of getting Winston into the action. Likewise, I would be surprised if the arch-appeaser Baldwin, when he resigned in 1937, would have been warning the king in 1937 that Hitler meant war all along. His government had, after all, just turned a blind eye to the destruction of Guernica by the German bombers and to Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia. So this may just be a way of linking the hero of the film to the anti-appeasement side in the 1930s.

In fact, George VI's sympathies were with Neville Chamberlain and the appeasers not Churchill. Indeed a biographer of George VI in the 1950s, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, remarked on the difficulty of writing while Churchill was still alive because the late king had

disliked Churchill's attitude at Munich and doubtless Churchill's championing of the Duke of Windsor at the time of the abdication did not commend itself to George VI and his Queen...

At the high noon of appeasement when Chamberlain arrived home from Munich, the King invited the prime minister to join him in waving to the crowds from the balcony at Buckingham Palace (see picture) - which was an outrageous display of political partisanship.

Therefore I would be also surprised if Churchill in 1939, while only Lord of the Admiralty in Neville Chamberlain's wartime government, would have been chatting to the King like an old chum as portrayed in the film.

Perhaps I am wrong and all these things did indeed happen as portrayed in The King's Speech. But I suspect not!

NOTE: The Wheeler-Bennett quote is taken from the Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce-Lockhart, as cited by Andrew Roberts in his book Emininent Churchilians (Chapter 1 - The House of Windsor and the politics of appeasement, since you ask). I am not a big fan of Roberts, but some things are true even if they are written by historians with Thatcherite views. I may go and check the published volume of the diaries in the library tomorrow, though, just to be sure.

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