Three books about immigrants, readers' picks, reviews of 'Troublesome Young Men' and 'What Happens on Wednesdays'
Troublesome Young Men
Author: Lynne Olson
It's a well-known story. In May 1940, with World War II under way and Britain's position growing more perilous daily, Neville Chamberlain won a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. But given his Conservative Party's huge majority, it was a narrow win and, three days later, he resigned. He was succeeded by Winston Churchill who led the British to victory, securing his place in history.
But the reality of those fateful days, described by Lynne Olson in Troublesome Young Men, was much more complicated. Churchill was indeed a strong and steady opponent of appeasement during the 1930s and a constant thorn in the side of Conservative Party leadership. But he muted his criticism completely after he joined the cabinet in September 1939 and actually led Chamberlain's defense in Parliament.
To Olson, the heroes of the story – more than Churchill – were a small number of young Conservatives who risked their political careers to overthrow a prime minister of their own party. A few of the rebels – like Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan – later became famous in their own right. But most – like Robert Boothby, Harold Nicolson, Robert "Bobbety" Cranborne, Ronald Cartland, Leo Amery – are little remembered today. Indeed, Cartland died on the beaches at Dunkirk within a month of the decisive vote.
Olson re-creates that exceptional time in a well-written, fast-paced book that reads like a political thriller. She paints a fascinating picture of British society in the late 1930s and describes the social and political pressures that made it so difficult for the rebels to overtly buck the leadership of their own party. She introduces us to the major actors in the drama with all their strengths and weaknesses and carefully describes the parliamentary intrigues.
Her portrait of Chamberlain is especially valuable. Today, if we think of him at all, it is as a well-intentioned bumbler who carried an umbrella and was hopelessly out of his depth. But in reality he was a manipulative and dictatorial leader. He browbeat his parliamentary critics, demanded the press adopt the government's line, tapped phones, restricted journalist's access to government sources, and claimed that critics were damaging the national interest. Members of his party who opposed him were bluntly told that their careers were finished.