From Persona non Grata to Prime Minister: How Churchill Returned to Prominence in the 1930s

Laura McMillen

5 mins

12 May 2020

Political isolation characterised Winston Churchill’s ‘wilderness years’ of the 1930s; he was denied cabinet position and governmental power by the Conservative Party, and stubbornly quarrelled with both sides of Parliament’s aisle.

Outspoken opposition to self-government for India and support for King Edward VIII in the 1936 Abdication Crisis distanced Churchill from Parliament’s majority.

His sharp and unrelenting focus on the growing Nazi German threat was considered militaristic ‘scaremongering’ and dangerous throughout much of the decade. But that preoccupation with the unpopular policy of rearmament would eventually bring Churchill back to power in 1940 and helped secure his place at history’s top table.

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Political Estrangement of the 1930s

By the time of the Conservative election defeat of 1929, Churchill had served in Parliament for nearly 30 years. He had switched party allegiances twice, had been Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Lord of the Admiralty, and had held ministerial posts in both parties ranging from Home Secretary to Colonial Secretary.

But Churchill became estranged with Conservative leadership over issues of protective tariffs and Indian Home Rule, which he bitterly opposed. Ramsay McDonald did not invite Churchill to join the Cabinet of his National Government formed in 1931.

Churchill’s major political focus throughout the first half of the 1930s became outspoken opposition against any concessions which might weaken Britain’s hold on India. He forecast widespread British unemployment and civil strife in India and frequently made scathing comments about Gandhi the “fakhir”.

Churchill’s intemperate outbursts, at a time when public opinion was coming round to the idea of Dominion status for India, made him seem an out of touch ‘Colonial Blimp’ figure.

Churchill encountered difficulties with the government of Stanley Baldwin (pictured), in particular over the idea of Indian independence. He once bitterly remarked of Baldwin that “it would be better had he never lived”.

He was further distanced from fellow MPs by his outlying support of Edward VIII throughout the Abdication Crisis. His address to the House of Commons on 7 December 1936 to plead for delay and prevent pressuring the King into a hasty decision was shouted down.

Churchill’s companions earnt him little respect; one of his most devoted followers, Irish MP Brendan Bracken was widely disliked and regarded as a phoney. Churchill’s reputation in Parliament and with the wider public could have hardly sunk lower.

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A stand against appeasement

During this low point in his career, Churchill concentrated on writing; in his exile years at Chartwell he produced 11 volumes of history and memoir and more than 400 articles for the world’s newspapers.  History mattered deeply to Churchill; it provided him with his own identity and justification as well as an invaluable perspective on the present.

His biography of the First Duke of Marlborough was concerned not only with the past but with Churchill’s own time and himself. It was both ancestral veneration and a comment on contemporary politics with close parallels to his own stand against appeasement.

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Churchill repeatedly urged that it was folly for the victors of World War One to either disarm or to allow Germany to rearm while German grievances had not been resolved. As early as 1930 Churchill, attending a dinner party at the German Embassy in London, expressed concerned about the latent dangers of a rabble-rouser named Adolf Hitler.

In 1934, with Nazis in power in a resurgent Germany, Churchill told Parliament “there is not an hour to lose” in preparing to build up British armaments. He passionately lamented in 1935 that whilst

“Germany [was] arming at breakneck speed, England [was] lost in a pacifist dream, France corrupt and torn by dissension, America remote and indifferent.”

Only a few allied stood with Churchill as he duelled in the House of Commons with the successive governments of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain.

Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, the chief proponent of appeasement, 1935.

In 1935 he was one of the founding members of ‘Focus’ a group which brought together people of differing political backgrounds, such as Sir Archibald Sinclair and Lady Violet Bonham Carter, to unite in seeking ‘the defence of freedom and peace’. A much wider Arms and Covenant Movement was formed in 1936.

By 1938, Hitler had fortified his army, built the Luftwaffe, militarised the Rhineland and threatened Czechoslovakia. Churchill made an urgent appeal to the House

“Now is the time at last to rouse the nation.”

He would later admit in The Gathering Storm to occasionally exaggerating statistics, such as his prediction in September 1935 that Germany might have 3,000 first-line aircraft by October 1937, to create alarm and provoke action:

‘In these endeavours no doubt I painted the picture even darker than it was.’

His ultimate conviction remained that appeasement and negotiation was doomed to fail and that postponing war rather than exhibiting strength would lead to greater bloodshed.

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A voice on the periphery

The political and public majority considered Churchill’s position irresponsible and extreme and his warnings wildly paranoid.

After the horrors of the Great War, very few could imagine embarking on another. It was widely believed that negotiation would be effective in controlling Hitler and that Germany’s restlessness was understandable in the context of the harsh penalties imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.

Members of the Conservative establishment such as John Reith, first director-general of the BBC, and Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times throughout 1930s, supported Chamberlain’s appeasement policy.

The Daily Express referred to Churchill’s speech in October 1938 against the Munich agreement as

“an alarmist oration by a man whose mind is soaked in the conquests of Marlborough”.

John Maynard Keynes, writing in the New Statesman, was urging the Czechs to negotiate with Hitler in 1938. Many newspapers omitted Churchill’s foreboding speech and favoured coverage of Chamberlain’s remark that the situation in Europe had greatly relaxed.

Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured just before signing the Munich Agreement, 29 September 1938 (Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Onset of war vindicates Churchill’s foreboding

Churchill had contested the Munich Agreement 1938, in which Prime Minister Chamberlain ceded a part of Czechoslovakia in exchange for peace, on the grounds that it amounted to ‘throwing a small state to the wolves’.

A year later, Hitler had broken the promise and invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war and Churchill’s lurid warnings about Hitler’s intentions were vindicated by unfolding events.

His whistle-blowing about the pace of German air rearmament had helped galvanise the government into belated action over air defence.

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Churchill was finally readmitted to the Cabinet in 1939 as First Lord of the Admiralty. In May 1940, he became Prime Minister of a National Government with Britain already at war and facing its darkest hours.

His challenge thereafter was not to instill fear but to keep it under control. On 18 June 1940, Churchill said that if England could defeat Hitler:

“all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age.”

Churchill’s independent stance against appeasement, his unwavering attention and later, his wartime leadership, granted him stature and longevity far beyond that which could have been imagined in the early 1930s.