Leo Amery, May, 1940
Lynne Olson’s book, Troublesome Young Men, details the events leading up to the dramatic fall from power of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in May 1940, highlighting the critical role played by Leo Amery. Lessons that can be drawn from this episode seem highly relevant to Israel’s current political situation, particularly within the Likud.
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In mid-April, 1940, British troops and naval forces suffered a severe defeat in Norway in a hasty and ill-prepared attack launched a few days following Germany’s sudden seizure of Denmark and most of Norway. This failure, and the government’s response to it, was the impetus for Leo Amery, a former First Lord of the Admiralty and then Colonial Secretary during 1922-29, to speak out with blunt forcefulness about the need for a new government.
The 66-year-old Amery had become increasingly disenchanted with Neville Chamberlain and his Conservative (Tory) government’s inadequate efforts to build up Britain’s military preparedness and its response to Germany’s aggression. He was one of a small group of Tories who among themselves had lately become convinced that Chamberlain must be replaced.
Following two weeks when news of the defeat was suppressed, on May 2 Chamberlain stunned the House of Commons when he announced that British troops in Norway had been compelled to retreat and were being evacuated. A scheduled debate on May 7-8 provided an opportunity to review government policy. Now, Amery was to have his moment of glory.
After a series of lackluster speeches by other MPs on May 7th, Amery rose to be called upon. However, he was repeatedly ignored by the Speaker, a Chamberlain supporter, and was only recognized in the evening. After presenting a well-structured critique of the Chamberlain government’s failures surrounding the Norway debacle, and concluding that the government lacked the will to respond adequately to the German threat, Amery declared “We cannot go on as we are. There must be a change.” Amery was very knowledgeable about England’s parliamentary history, and finished his address as follows: “This is what [Oliver] Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation. ‘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!’ ”
This dramatic speech had a galvanizing effect within Tory ranks on both supporters and opponents of Chamberlain’s leadership. The next day, after an opposition call for a vote, Chamberlain responded angrily. Lynne Olson described part of his remarks as follows: “Turning to face the Tory benches, the prime minister heatedly declared: ‘I accept this challenge. I welcome it indeed. At least I shall see who is with us and who is against us, and I call on my friends to support us in the Lobby tonight.’ Chamberlain was resorting to his familiar tactics, demanding that his ‘friends’ – i.e., loyal Tory MPs – vote for the government, and indirectly threatening those who planned to do otherwise. That had always worked for him before: the threats, the bullying, the insistence that fidelity to party and prime minister trumped any other consideration. Once again, just as in the aftermath of Munich and at the outbreak of war, he seemed unable to focus on anything but himself. Again, he had transformed a question of the highest national interest into a purely personal issue.”
In the vote that night, although the government won by a narrow margin, it had suffered a major erosion of support. The die was cast. Two days later, on May 10, Neville Chamberlain resigned and Winston Churchill was installed as prime minister.
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There are clear parallels between the May 1940 events within the British Conservative party and today’s Likud party, although historical parallels are usually only partially correct, as is true in this case. What lessons may be drawn from this dramatic episode? First, to be really effective, the call today for Benjamin Netanyahu to resign as leader of the Likud has to come from one or more Likud Knesset members. Such calls from opposition politicians, and even from former Likud MKs, mostly fall on deaf ears within the Likud. Second, although Amery was a long time party member he was not regarded as a candidate to replace Chamberlain. Therefore, his message could not be dismissed as driven by self-interest. This suggests that the call for Netanyahu to resign would have less force if it were to come from a Likud politician often cited as a possible successor to Netanyahu.
However it is delivered, and by whom, the message has to be clear. I suggest four reasons why Benjamin Netanyahu should be replaced. Some might cite other reasons.
* First, he failed to form a coalition after the April 2019 election and then his bloc became even weaker in the recent September election. In a normal parliamentary system, a leader who fails even once is usually replaced and certainly so if he fails a second time.
* Second, during the last two weeks before the September election, Netanyahu made reckless proposals regarding annexation and, according to credible reports, he wanted, even more recklessly, to initiate military actions in Gaza strictly to help win or possibly postpone the election.
* Third, since the election, instead of accepting the voters’ verdict and resigning, Netanyahu has engaged in political machinations and frantic efforts aimed at clinging to power. These include the objectionable use of the kind of loyalty tactics ascribed above to Chamberlain. At this point, Netanyahu is not serving the country; rather, he is acting, for selfish reasons, to prevent the needed political solution — a true unity government.
* Fourth and finally, Netanyahu’s efforts ultimately fail to serve the Likud, which would have a clear path to the government with any chairman other than Netanyahu.
A strong, well-articulated statement making these points, presented by one or more respected Likud stalwarts who could not be accused of acting out of self-interest might have the same catalytic effect on the Likud that Leo Amery’s great speech in May 1940 had on his party.