Christopher Hitchens doesn’t like The King’s Speech. Not because of its cinematic qualities, which he appreciates, but because of its political ones. According to him, the movie is a “a gross falsification of history” because it shows Churchill as “generally in favor of a statesmanlike solution to the crisis of the abdication” and because it neglects to portray Edward VIII as “a firm admirer of the Third Reich” and George VI as an appeaser and anti-Churchill.
When I first read Hitchens’s piece, my mind flashed back to an article Hitchens contributed to the Atlantic in July/August 2002, an article that, as the subtitle puts it, “takes the Great Man down a peg or two.” It occasioned a characteristically understated and effective response from my adviser Paul Kennedy, who pointed out the “misinformation” that Hitchens appeared to be circulating. Not at all abashed, Hitchens continues to regret that “it seems we shall never reach a time when the Churchill cult is open for honest inspection.”
It’s curious that Hitchens both criticizes the “Churchill cult” for supporting the Great Man, and George VI for supposedly failing to do so. But Hitchens is shooting at several targets simultaneously: Churchill for being a monarchist, and the monarchy for existing. When coupled with his opposition to appeasement, the result is not always convincing.
Of Edward VIII, let us say little. Hitchens may be putting it too strongly when he characterizes him as firmly committed to the Third Reich — Edward was too self-centered and witless to be firmly committed to anything but his own desires, which was why he didn’t last long on the throne — but there’s no doubt he was an embarrassment and a liability. Fortunately, his ability to do mischief was seriously limited by the fact that he was a constitutional monarch. And, regrettably, his opinions were far from unique: in mid-1930s Britain, they were held by many people whose views mattered a good deal more than his.
George VI deserved better than he gets from Hitchens, who believes that the monarch’s supposedly shabby history “can easily be known by anybody willing to do some elementary research.” Yes, George supported Chamberlain and initially distrusted Churchill. In this, he was sadly far from unusual. What Hitchens doesn’t point out is that, once Churchill was in charge, George gave him — in the words of David Cannadine, a far from friendly historian — “loyal and increasingly admiring support throughout the war.” If Hitchens wants to call out the monarchy’s errors before May 1940, that’s fine; but there’s no “post-fabricated myth of its participation in ‘Britain’s finest hour.’” The participation was real, and if George had a bad peace, he had a good war. The same can be said of many others.
And then there’s Churchill. Hitchens’s main charge is that Churchill was unreasonably (even intoxicatedly) loyal to Edward, at the expense of the “Arms and the Covenant” lobby he was building “against Neville Chamberlain’s collusion with European fascism.” It’s a minor point, but at the time of the abdication crisis, Stanley Baldwin, not Neville Chamberlain, was prime minister. More important, Hitchens overrates “Arms and the Covenant” and (strangely for a man who detests the “Churchill cult”) relies on the almost hagiographic Churchill biographer William Manchester for his evidence.
But as Graham Stewart points out in his massive Burying Caesar: The Churchill-Chamberlain Rivalry, while the abdication crisis did hurt Churchill, the potential of “Arms and the Covenant” was limited. To succeed, it had to win substantial support among Tory MPs — and given the traditional loyalty of the Conservative Party to its leaders, and Churchill’s long battle against the Government of India Act, there was almost no chance of this. The left and right were soon divided by their reactions to the Spanish Civil War, and the entire movement faded when quiet seemed to return to most of the continent in early 1937. In short, there is not much reason to believe that Hitler would have been stopped in 1936-37 if only Churchill had dumped Edward.
And what of Churchill’s attitude toward Edward? He was, as Stewart puts it, “emotional and sentimental” about the monarchy. But Stewart also approvingly quotes the New Statesman’s assertion that Churchill’s advice to the king “will be found to have been impeccable from every constitutional point of view.” Churchill’s monarchism did not spring only from sentiment. It sprang also from his belief that constitutional monarchies were a force for stability and democracy. He regarded the end of the German monarchy with regret and argued that, if the German people had been allowed to keep a kaiser — not Wilhelm — as a focus for loyalty, Hitler might never have won power.
Such views are, of course, not subject to proof. But as Churchill said at the time, they are worthy of reflection. It may not be a coincidence that, in spite of the errors of those who occupied the throne, it was the British people who believed in their constitutional monarchy who stood up to Hitler, and the monarchist Churchill who led the fight. Hitchens likes the fight. What he doesn’t like is the stubborn traditionalism that made it possible.