Seventy years ago today, on May 10th 1940, Winston Churchill was called to Buckingham Palace and entrusted by a reluctant King George VI with the job of forming a new coalition government to confront the worst crisis Britain had faced in its history as a nation state.
That morning, the German Wehrmacht had attacked France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in a long-prepared ground and air offensive that would, within six weeks, conquer those countries, drive the British Army out of the European continent and leave Britain as the only combatant still standing in the fight against the Nazi juggernaut.
Churchill faced a grim and gargantuan task. Arguably, however,his job was easier than the one that David Cameron faces this week. In 1940 everyone in all parties knew what had to be done. The enemy was in plain view - awesome and menacing, – and quickly and quietly members of the Tory, Labour and Liberal parties took their allotted jobs under Churchill's leadership and began the work of saving the nation and ultimately winning the war.
Today, the threat to our way of life may be less dramatic, but is no less dangerous. Bombs may not be raining down on our cities, our summer skies may not be criss-crossed by vapour trails as young fighter pilots clash in lethal dogfights; and our beaches may bristle with holidaying crowds in search of an elusive British tan rather than barbed wire laid down to resist a cross-Channel invasion.
Instead, the peril hanging over us is an economic, rather than a miliary, invasion. The Welfare State, constructed after 1945 after Churchill had led the nation to victory, is under siege. A comfortable way of life that almost all of us have grown up with and take for granted all our lives must surely change out of all recognition.After decades of ramping up ever-increasing piles of debt, the national deficit threatens to bankrupt us all. Pedalling furiously, we look down and notice that we have cycled off a cliff and that there is no ground to break our fall.
The question that must be asked of the politicians of all parties is whether they can summon up the spirit of May 1940 in our very different nation in 2010, and once again put country before party in a new Battle of Britain. Can Conservatives of traditionalist views set aside their distrust of David Cameron and do what Tories have always done best – by putting patriotism first? Can the Liberals forget for the moment both their long-cherished Grail of electoral reform and their inbuilt dislike of Tories and work together in a common task? Above all, perhaps, can today's Labour party be persuaded to abandon the arrogance of power and the fiscal irresponsibility that went with it and make a new beginning as a humbler, wiser, more responsible opposition? It is a big ask of all three.
But no bigger than what was demanded 70 years ago. Winston Churchill, like David Cameron, was distrusted, even disliked, by many traditional Conservatives – his nominal party colleagues. First elected as a Tory, he had crossed the floor before the First World War to become a Liberal Minister. His career had stumbled in the Great War over the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, and he had 're-ratted' back to the Conservatives when it seemed that the Tories were, after all, the better bet for attaining and holding power. Distrusted for this opportunism, he compounded his offence by opposing party policy over India ( he opposed independence); the Abdication (he backed the discredited King Edward VIII); and above all Neville Chamberlain's Appeasement of Hitler's Germany, which he opposed eloquently, but impotently.
As a result, Churchill spent the 1930s in the political wilderness. An isolated figure briefed against and undermined by the Party leadership. But when Chamberlain's Appeasement policy crashed in ruins and war broke out in September 1939, a reluctant Chamberlain recalled the old warhorse to the job he had held before the First World War – First Lord of the Admiralty. And when Chamberlain himself was exposed as a half-hearted and incompetent war leader by the failure of the Norway campaign, Churchill was the obvious choice as the nation's new war leader. Anachronistic, irritable, erratic perhaps, ( and a real toff) but forceful, ruthless, determined, energetic, and eloquent too.
Both Labour and the Liberals were willing – if not happy – to fall in under Churchill's leadership despite political feuds with him dating back for decades. Abandoning their pacifism in the face of the obvious menace of Hitler, Labour served under the man who – according to a false myth – had sent soldiers to shoot down striking miners in South Wales. The Liberals, too, backed their one-time party colleague who had deserted them when times were hard. They all put the overriding need to resist Nazism and win the war over their personal and party objections to Churchill. That was an argument for another day.
Tories today should look back to that dramatic May day in 1940 and find inspiration there.If an unpopular and incompetent Prime Minister can be forced, kicking and screaming, out of Downing Street. If David Cameron can find the actions and words to match the gravity of the crisis, the party at large should emulate their predecessors in the wartime Parliament and – even if grudgingly – give a coalition or alliance with the Liberals the benefit of the doubt, and offer Cameron whole-hearted support. And if members of the other parties can find it in their hearts to forget petty partisan passions and put Britain first, perhaps they can even salvage the battered reputation of Westminster in the public mind. As Churchill himself put it in his incomparable prose: "Let us go forward together and put these grave matters to the test".