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Winston Churchill in opposition and government, 1929 – 1945. How important was Churchill’s personal style of management to the success of the war time coalition government?
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace on November 30th, 1874 and died aged ninety in London on January 24, 1965. It is submitted that he lived a life that was touched by great adversity, profound controversy and supreme achievement. It was a life that brought him enduring world renown, that much is indisputable.
The period under review in this short paper was undoubtedly the most important of Churchill’s life. 1929 began with Churchill serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer (during the period of this office he had controversially returned Britain to the Gold Standard in 1925 and taken a strong line against the General Strike in 1926). However, with the defeat of the Conservative Government in May of 1929 Churchill lost office. Labour, led by Ramsay MacDonald, took the leadership of a hung Parliament. When MacDonald subsequently formed the so-called National Government in 1931 Churchill was not invited to join the Cabinet because he had acquired a reputation as a right-wing extremist.
Churchill became a leading advocate of British rearmament after the Nazi Party, led by Hitler, took power in Germany in 1933. A stern critic of Neville Chamberlain, Churchill attacked the policy of appeasement pursued by the new Conservative government. In 1939 he prophetically argued that Britain and France should strike a military alliance with the Soviet Union. It is possible to draw the conclusion that Churchill’s stance during this period, which was proven right, was important in underpinning and lending credibility and compelling force to the robust approach he later took to the management of the country at war.
Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty on the outbreak of the Second World War and in April 1940 he was made chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee just prior to the invasion and occupation of Norway by German forces. This development threw Chamberlain’s dealings with Hitler into sharp focus and the Labour Party forced a vote of censure against him.
Chamberlain resigned and on 10th May, 1940, George VI appointed Churchill as Prime Minister. Churchill proceeded to form a coalition government and shrewdly appointed leading lights of the Labour Party such as Ernest Bevin, Clement Attlee, Stafford Cripps and Hugh Dalton to influential positions. He made Anthony Eden, a fellow long-time opponent of Chamberlain, his Secretary of State for War. Later, Eden became Foreign Secretary replacing Lord Halifax. It is submitted that Churchill’s ability to match the right man to the right office was an essential component in his managerial success. Churchill also cultivated a warm and enduring personal relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt – a crucial achievement which led to a healthy and cooperative trade in vital war supplies. The British Prime Minister certainly understood the importance of the United Kingdom’s association with America and its centrality to his macro-management of the war was another key ingredient in Churchill’s success.
Although Churchill provided cogent leadership the war did not go well for Britain and he had to face a motion of no confidence in Parliament after a series of military defeats. However, he maintained the support of most members of the House of Commons and won by a landslide 475 votes to 25.
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Churchill nevertheless faced persistent criticism for interfering in military matters (although it could be argued at every level that this was a natural and essential aspect of his brief) and he exhibited a tendency to turn to friends such as Professor Frederick Lindemann rather than his military commanders for counsel and advice. Churchill’s advisers were often infuriated by his tendency to conduct strategy by impulse and Alan Brooke, his Chief of Staff, famously complained that the Prime Minister had ten ideas every day, only one of which was good — and he did not know which one. In April 1941 Churchill was criticised for removing forces from the Desert War in an ill-fated attempt to defend Greece, but again it could be argued that this was a noble cause.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Churchill’s individual style of leadership was his ability to inspire the British people to draw deeper and deeper on their personal resources and sheer resilience. He was a uniquely gifted orator and used this managerial skill to make highly effective public broadcasts at key moments of the war. It could be argued that he was one of the first world leaders to exploit the mass media to full effect.
He appreciated the fact that it was important to keep his Allies close and worked effectively with President Roosevelt once America had entered the war. Churchill also worked well with Stalin after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in June, 1941, and his pragmatic style of management allowed him to do so in appreciation of the greater evil they faced, despite his hatred of communism and the fact that his personal relationship with the leader of the Soviet Union was always difficult.
It is perhaps prudent to strike a note of balance in this commentary. To that end it is worth bearing in mind that many of Churchill’s personal and managerial traits can be viewed as either strengths or weaknesses, depending on the perspective and agenda of the individual commentator. The best example from recent times is probably Margaret Thatcher, whose abrupt, confrontational style was either cherished or damned for precisely the same reasons depending on the stance of the evaluating party.
To address the question posed in the title directly, while the great man clearly had his flaws there is a consensus among reputed authorities that Churchill’s personal style of management was fundamental if not essential to the success of the war time coalition government. History suggests that he was perhaps a man for war, rather than peace, and that his personal style leant itself very much to the management of a state of hostility rather than more mundane affairs, but this does not detract from his towering stature as one of the leading politicians of the twentieth century. That is set in stone. It can always be argued that Churchill’s success was due in large part to the unique political environment of the day and other exogenous factors. He was certainly able to exploit the celebrated wartime spirit of unity and cooperation that existed in wartime Britain. However, that is a valuable management skill in itself and to seek to diminish Churchill’s own contribution by these means would be both niggardly in the opinion of this commentator and to deny the judgment of the foremost commentators of the age.
It seems appropriate to close this short commentary with one of Churchill’s many famous quotes. The following remark neatly illustrates the adept, enigmatic and elliptical style he brought to his interaction with fellow politicians and civil servants alike.
“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Churchill: A Life, Martin Gilbert (1992) Owl Books
The Churchill Centre, Homepage: http://www.winstonchurchill.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=1
Churchill: A Study in Greatness, Geoffrey Best, (2002) Hambledon and London
The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill, James Humes and Richard Nixon, (1995) Harper Perrenial.
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