The “good clean tradition of [our] politics has been weakly surrendered to a half-breed American whose main support was that of inefficient but talkative people of a similar type”. This is not, as you might think, the reaction of a member of the Washington political establishment to President Trump, but that of a member of the British political establishment to Churchill becoming prime minister in 1940.
The contrast with Neville Chamberlain’s business-like chairing of the Cabinet and its committees was often made, and never to the new prime minister’s advantage. He was arrogant, autocratic, impatient and erratic – and that was just according to his wife, who wrote to him a few months later to warn him of the effects all of this was having on his colleagues.
Except, that is, for those maverick friends such as Lord Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken, whom Churchill insisted on appointing to offices for which their only qualification was their association with himself. Only an exceptional set of circumstances could have brought Churchill, in his late sixties, to office; unconventional times bring forth unconventional leaders.
For all the complaints that modern politics has become a profession, it has always been so at the very top. Only two 20th-century prime ministers – Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Stanley Baldwin – had a business background, and they had both been to Trinity, Cambridge, where they obtained undistinguished Thirds.
In the past century and a half, only Disraeli, Lloyd George, MacDonald, Churchill and Major did not attend a university, and all of them were marked out by that experience. Their contemporaries noticed their ignorance of the rules of the political game.
Disraeli, MacDonald and Major compensated by trying to become as good at it as they could, Lloyd George and Churchill, brought to power by the exigencies of war, had a freer hand to act as their instincts and political experience suggested. But there was a palpable sigh of relief in Whitehall in 1945 when the efficient (and Oxford-educated) Attlee took over the running of the political machine.
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