In 1937, Neville Chamberlain, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, succeeded Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister of a National Government, which in fact was overwhelmingly composed of Conservatives. It was opposed by the Labour and Liberal parties; there were small National Labour and Liberal National parties supporting the National Government. Faced with a resurgent and irredentist Nazi Germany, Chamberlain had attempted to avert war by a policy of appeasement, abandoned only after Germany became more overtly expansionist with the annexation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. After Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. At this point a government supporter noted privately:
Once Germany had rapidly overrun Poland, there was a sustained period of military inactivity lasting until 9 April 1940, when, days after Chamberlain had told a Conservative Party meeting that Adolf Hitler "had missed the bus", Germany ended this "Phoney War" by an attack in overwhelming force on neutral and unsuspecting Norway. In response to the German invasion, Britain sent limited land and naval forces to assist the Norwegians. Apart from the naval success at Narvik, the subsequent Norwegian campaign had gone badly for Britain for very basic reasons.
Chamberlain's eventual successor, Winston Churchill, was First Lord of the Admiralty during the Norwegian Campaign. Originally elected in 1900 as a Conservative MP, he had become a Liberal Home Secretary and was then First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I. After the failure of the Gallipoli campaign he had been forced to take a more junior post, and then removed from government altogether by the Conservatives before becoming Minister of Munitions under David Lloyd George. After the war, Churchill had served as a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, before entering the political wilderness. His past views and actions on domestic issues, most notably his very active exertions to break the 1926 United Kingdom general strike, did not make him a natural associate of the Labour Movement. He had vigorously urged various policies outside the political mainstream; when he had first warned against the rise of Germany and argued strongly for rearmament, he had largely been ignored. He had argued against appeasement, even at the height of its popularity.
On the outbreak of World War II, Chamberlain brought Churchill into government again in his old post of First Lord, so giving him direct responsibility for the conduct of naval operations. Churchill was required to defend the government of which he was a member, whatever his private views. He had pressed the Cabinet to ignore Norwegian neutrality, mine Norwegian territorial waters and be prepared to seize Narvik, in both cases to disrupt the export of Swedish iron ore to Germany during winter months, when the Baltic Sea was frozen. On behalf of the Admiralty, he had however advised that a major landing in Norway was not realistically within Germany's powers.
The conduct of the British government in World War I offered both political and military parallels with that in World War II to date. Militarily, reference could be made to the World War I Antwerp and Gallipolis expeditions as relevant to the hazards which were run or should have been run in Norway. Politically, there were two obvious precedents: the reconstruction of the Asquith government in 1915 as a wartime coalition still led by the peacetime leader of the majority party and, more dangerously for Chamberlain, Asquith's subsequent replacement in 1916 by Lloyd George, of which Churchill later said:
The Norway Debate was technically a motion "that this house do now adjourn". Under Westminster rules in such debates, held to allow for wide-ranging discussion of a variety of topics, the question is not usually not put to a vote. In this case, the Opposition forced a vote to demonstrate their deep concern and so this vote was effectively on a motion of confidence.
The Commons sitting on Tuesday, 7 May 1940, began at 14:45. There followed some private business matters and numerous oral answers to questions raised, many of those being about the British Army. At 15:48, Captain David Margesson, the Government Chief Whip, moved "that this House do now adjourn". This being agreed, the House proceeded to openly discuss "Conduct of the War", specifically the progress of the Norwegian Campaign, and the Prime Minister rose to make his opening statement.
In his biography of Churchill, Roy Jenkins described the ensuing debate as "by a clear head both the most dramatic and the most far-reaching in its consequences of any parliamentary debate of the twentieth century". He compared it with "its nineteenth-century rivals" (e.g., Don Pacifico) and concluded that "even more followed from the 1940 debate" as it transformed the history of the next five years.
Chamberlain said that since his previous statement to the House on progress in Norway on Thursday, 2 May, British forces had successfully withdrawn from southern Norway. Chamberlain began to make a case that actual Allied losses had been light and German losses disproportionate to any benefit they had gained. He was interrupted by Labour MPs pointing out that the reverse had come as a shock to the country and the world.
Chamberlain attempted to deal with that by saying that it had been a shock because of unrealistic expectations for which ministers were not to blame, but at several points MPs derisively shouted out, "They missed the bus!" The Speaker had to call on Members not to interrupt, and Chamberlain was eventually forced to defend the phrase directly. He asserted that the phrase had not been intended as a prediction but a retrospective comment that the totalitarian states had prepared for war while the United Kingdom was thinking only of peace and so he would have expected an attack at the outbreak of war when the disparity of arms was at its greatest.
Returning to the conduct of the campaign, he pointed out that much of Norway was not yet controlled by the Germans; the Allies had been right to send the forces they had to southern Norway and right to withdraw them. Preparations had been thought adequate to aid the Norwegians against any likely German intervention. In the event, the scale of the German invasion and its ruthless breach of neutrality meant that the rapid seizure by the Germans of all major ports had prevented the landing of significant Allied forces and that the rapid reinforcement of the German invasion forces, unobstructed by expected demolitions on roads from the South, had prevented the landed British forces from taking Trondheim.
On the conduct of the war, he still saw no need for a smaller and more powerful War Cabinet, but Churchill, already First Lord of the Admiralty and Chairman of the Military Co-ordinating Committee of the Cabinet, was to be given powers to direct the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
Responding to interventions by Lloyd George and Herbert Morrison, Chamberlain said that Churchill would retain all his existing responsibilities and that his additional role had been decided upon since the start of the Norwegian campaign but not as a response to it. Other minor changes would doubtless be made from time to time, but "it would be better to occupy ourselves with increasing our war effort rather than disputing about the form of Government". He invited "the co-operation of MPs from all parties" but was met with a cry of "No, no" from a Liberal MP, Geoffrey Mander. Chamberlain resumed, concluding:
Clement Attlee, Leader of the (Labour) Opposition, responded. He quoted some of Chamberlain's (and Churchill's) previous confident assertions about the likely victory of the British. Ministers' statements and, even more so, the press, guided (or deliberately left uncorrected) by the government, had painted far too optimistic a picture of the Norwegian campaign; "at last, when the enemy had been locked behind his walls, he had now put out his head to be hit", which prompted Conservative MP and Chamberlain supporter William Davison to shout, "It was very badly hit." Attlee then turned to the conduct of the campaign itself, concluding that "the gravamen of my attack on the Government is that it does not seem that there was a thinking-out of our plans beforehand, that there was not adequate intelligence, that there was not the necessary concentration on the essential objective and I ask whether, at any time, there was not delay and discussion where action was necessary?" He then attacked the organisation of the Government, talking of "a failure of grip, a failure of drive" in pursuit of the war, concluding, "I say that there is a widespread feeling in this country, not that we shall lose the war, that we will win the war, but that to win the war, we want different people at the helm from those who have led us into it."
Sir Archibald Sinclair, the leader of the Liberals, then spoke. He too was critical. He drew from Chamberlain the admission that whilst troops had been held in readiness to be sent to Norway, no troopships had been retained to send them in. Sinclair gave instances of inadequate and defective equipment and of disorganisation reported to him by servicemen returning from Norway. Chamberlain had suggested that Allied plans had failed because the Norwegians had not put up the expected resistance to the Germans. However, Sinclair reported that the servicemen "paid a high tribute to the courage and determination with which the Norwegians fought alongside them. They paid a particular tribute to the Norwegian ski patrols. Norwegians at Lillehammer for seven days held up with rifles only a German force with tanks, armoured cars, bombing aeroplanes and all the paraphernalia of modern war."
The rest of the first day's debate saw speeches both supporting and criticising the Chamberlain government; they included two devastating attacks on the conduct of the campaign and of the war by Conservative backbenchers whose views carried weight.
Sir Roger Keyes, Conservative Member of Parliament for a constituency in the naval town of Portsmouth, a naval hero of World War I and an Admiral of the Fleet no longer on the active list, spoke on the conduct of naval operations, particularly the abortive operations to retake Trondheim. Harold Nicolson called it the most dramatic speech he had ever heard. In full uniform with six rows of medal ribbons, Keyes told the House:
The House listened in breathless silence. Keyes finished by quoting Britain's greatest naval hero:
When he sat down there was thunderous applause.
The former Cabinet minister Leo Amery delivered a fierce attack on the Chamberlain government, criticising not merely the conduct of the Norwegian campaign but also the government's unpreparedness for it despite intelligence warning of likely German intervention and the clear possibility of some such response to the planned British infraction of Norwegian neutrality by the mining of Norwegian territorial waters.
Amery went on to criticise the whole conduct of the war to date, and called for formation of a truly National Government and a small War Cabinet, similar to that of World War I under Lloyd George, and for a change of personnel (his final quote was directed against the Government Front Bench). He too quoted a national hero:
Arthur Greenwood, Labour Deputy Leader, spoke near the end of the first day's debate; he made use of Keyes's speech and of Amery's. He spoke first of what he saw as the true mood of the House:
Then, he said what he thought the mood of the country to be:
He contrasted Chamberlain's attitude with the mood of the Navy as reported by Keyes:
Britain had lost the confidence of the neutrals as well; for all those reasons, the campaign was a serious reverse:
Criticism about the Norwegian campaign was bringing to a head many other criticisms; a change of personnel was needed, and responsibility for bringing about that change lay with government MPs:
At the start of the second day's debate on Thursday, 8 May, Herbert Morrison declared that the Labour Opposition wished to call for a vote of censure on the Government. He hardly minced matters:
Chamberlain replied that he welcomed the chance for a division:
That shocked many present, who regarded it as divisive to be so explicit in relying on whipped support from his own party. Robert Boothby, a maverick Conservative MP and strong critic of Chamberlain, called out, "Not I."
The former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who was in office during the last two years of the World War One, now spoke. Members had to call upon him to speak up: he was now 77, and it was to be his last major contribution to debate in the House in which he had sat for 50 years. He told Members that he was a Welshman and would warm up once he got going: he did.
He first attacked the conduct of the campaign:
Britain was in the worst position strategically that it had ever been as a result of foreign policy failures, which he began to review from Munich onwards. Interrupted at this point, he retorted, "You will have to listen to it, either now or later on. Hitler does not hold himself answerable to the whips". British prestige had been greatly impaired; before Norway, Americans had not doubted the Allies would win the war, but now they said, "It will be up to us to defend Democracy."
He criticised the rate of re-armament pre-war and to date:
Dealing with an intervention at this point, Lloyd George said, in passing, that he did not think that the First Lord was entirely responsible for all the things that happened in Norway. Churchill intervened to take complete responsibility for "everything that had been done by the Admiralty, and my full share of the burden". Lloyd George retorted, "The Right Honourable Gentleman must not allow himself to be converted into an air-raid shelter to keep the splinters from hitting his colleagues" and resumed:
That drew another intervention this time from Chamberlain:
The response to that intervention was a direct call for Chamberlain to resign:
Churchill wound up the debate for the government, defending the conduct of the Norwegian campaign with some robustness. He explained that even the successful use of the battleship HMS Warspite at Narvik had put her at risk from many hazards; had any come to pass, the operation, now hailed as an example of what should have been done elsewhere, would have been condemned as foolhardy. "It is easy when you have no responsibility. If you dare, and forfeit is exacted, it is murder of our sailors; and if you are prudent, you are craven, cowardly, inept and timid". If nothing similarly bold had been done at Trondheim, it was not because it was thought too dangerous; but because it had been thought unnecessary: military advice had been against an opposed landing and instead predicted rapid success from the steps actually taken.
He deplored the "cataract of unworthy suggestions and of actual falsehoods which have been poured out to the public during the last few days".
Responding to a comment by Labour MP Manny Shinwell, he said of him that "he skulks in the corner"; that provoked uproar and repeated interventions, Churchill complaining, "All day long we have had abuse, and now honourable Members opposite will not even listen".
Having defended the conduct of the naval operations in the Norwegian campaign at length, he said little to rebut the wider-ranging criticisms except that the debate should not have become one of confidence at such short notice. Indeed, elements of his reply echoed points made by anti-government speakers:
Record of speeches and votes from Hansard
After Churchill's speech the House divided. The motion was "that this House do now adjourn" and constituted a vote of confidence.
The government's notional majority was 213, but 41 members who normally supported the government voted with the Opposition while an estimated sixty other Conservatives deliberately abstained. The government still won the vote by 281 to 200, but the reduced majority was "devastating". The Labour MP Josiah Wedgwood led the singing of "Rule Britannia", joined by Conservative rebel Harold Macmillan of the Noes; that gave way to cries of "Go!" as Chamberlain left the Chamber. Among the "rebels" were Macmillan, Nancy Astor, John Profumo and Quintin Hogg. They did not include some expected dissidents such as Brendan Bracken or Duncan Sandys: Jenkins says they "followed their master's (Churchill) example rather than his interest and voted with the government".
The following day, Thursday, 9 May, Chamberlain attempted to form a National Coalition Government. In talks at Downing Street with Viscount Halifax and Churchill, he indicated that he was quite ready to resign if that was necessary for Labour to enter such a government. Attlee and Arthur Greenwood then joined the meeting, and when asked, they indicated that they must first consult their party (then in conference at Bournemouth), but it was unlikely they could serve in a government led by Chamberlain; they probably would be able to serve under some other Conservative.
After Attlee and Greenwood left, Chamberlain asked whom he should recommend to the King as his successor. The version of events given by Churchill is that Chamberlain's preference for Halifax was obvious (Churchill implies that the spat between Churchill and the Labour benches the previous night had something to do with that); there was a long silence which Halifax eventually broke by saying he did not believe he could lead the government effectively as a member of the House of Lords instead of the House of Commons. Churchill's version gets the date wrong, and he fails to mention the presence of David Margesson, the government Chief Whip.
Halifax's account omits the dramatic pause and gives an additional reason: "PM said I was the man mentioned as most acceptable. I said it would be hopeless position. If I was not in charge of the war (operations) and if I didn't lead in the House, I should be a cypher. I thought Winston was a better choice. Winston did not demur." According to Halifax, Margesson then confirmed that the House of Commons had been veering to Churchill.
In a letter to Churchill written that night, Robert Boothby asserted that parliamentary opinion was hardening against Halifax, claiming in a postscript that according to Clement Davies, "Attlee & Greenwood are unable to distinguish between the PM & Halifax and are not prepared to serve under the latter." Davies (who thought Chamberlain should go, and be replaced by Churchill) had lunched with Attlee and Greenwood (and argued his case) shortly before they saw Chamberlain. However, Hugh Dalton noted in his diary entry for 9 May that he had talked to Attlee, who "agrees with my preference for Halifax over Churchill, but we both think either would be tolerable."
On the morning of Friday, 10 May, Germany invaded the Netherlands and Belgium. Chamberlain initially felt that a change of government at such a time would be inappropriate, but upon being given confirmation that Labour would not serve under him, he announced to the War Cabinet his intention to resign. Scarcely more than three days after he had opened the debate, Chamberlain went to Buckingham Palace to resign as Prime Minister. (Despite resigning as PM, he continued to be the leader of the Conservative Party.) He explained to the King why Halifax (who, the King thought, was the obvious candidate) did not want to become Prime Minister. The King then sent for Churchill and asked him to form a new government; according to Churchill, there was no stipulation that it must be a coalition government.
At 9 pm on 10 May, Chamberlain announced the change of Prime Minister over the BBC. Churchill's first act as Prime Minister was to ask Attlee to come to the Admiralty to see him. Next, he wrote to Chamberlain to thank him for his promised support. He then began to construct his coalition cabinet: before he went to bed at 3 am on Saturday, 11 May, six hours after Chamberlain's original announcement, Churchill had established the composition of the new War Cabinet, including the heads of the Service Ministries.
By Monday, 13 May, most of the senior government posts were filled. That day was Whit Monday and therefore normally a Bank Holiday. However, the Bank Holiday was cancelled by the incoming government, and Churchill spoke to a specially convened sitting of the House of Commons. Speaking to them for the first time as Prime Minister, he began:
He went on to make one of his most famous speeches ("I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat"), which includes a brief account of how the Cabinet had been formed.
The speech in reply made by Hastings Lees-Smith announcing that Labour would vote for the motion, drew comfort not only from the formation of the new all-party coalition but also from the process by which it had been formed and the ease with which the nation had changed horses in midstream.
Thus, the wartime coalition was endorsed unanimously by the House, save for two tellers for the noes.
The Norway debate is regarded as a high-point in British parliamentary history, as it occurred at a pivotal moment in a battle for the nation's survival and showed that individual backbench Members of Parliament could assert their power. When asked to choose the most historic and memorable speech for a volume commemorating the centenary of Hansard as an official report of the House of Commons, former Speaker Betty Boothroyd chose Leo Amery's speech in the debate: "Amery, by elevating patriotism above party, showed the backbencher's power to help change the course of history".