In hindsight, Winston Churchill’s election to Prime Minister in May 1940 looks inevitable. In fact, as Lynne Olson brilliantly describes in her book Troublesome Young Men, Churchill’s election was no sure thing.
For two years, a band of renegade Tory MPs had been clamoring for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the architect of Britain’s policy of appeasement towards Germany. At great risk to their political future, these “troublesome young men,” among them Anthony Eden, Ronald Cartland, Leo Amery, and Harold Macmillan, opposed their own party.
Their visionary leadership and disregard for their personal ambitions is especially inspiring considering the social environment of the time. The House of Commons was a small world in1940. Most members of the Commons had known each other since childhood, attended the same schools, played the same sports, and were mostly related to each other. Disloyalty was a violation of the public-school ethos on which they had all been raised. Furthermore, many had family and business ties to Germany.
Even though we know the outcome, Olson creates a compelling story. The back room dealmaking, the infighting, and dramatic debates make this nonfiction account as exciting as a suspense novel.
One of my favorite moments takes place on May 7, 1940, when Leo Amery, a onetime close friend and political ally of Chamberlain, addresses the incumbent administration in the House of Commons. Quoting Oliver Cromwell, he says, “ ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing! Depart, I say, and let us have done with you! In the name of God, go!’ “