IT was one of the most electrifying moments in Parliamentary history. At 7.48pm on Saturday, September 2, 1939, Arthur Greenwood, acting leader of the Labour Party, rose in the House of Commons to respond to an ill-judged, vacillating speech by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had drawn back from beating the drum of war even after Adolf Hitler’s armies had swept into Poland the day before.
The atmosphere was febrile. MPs were desperate for leadership at a moment of supreme crisis. “Speak for the Workers”, came the cry to Greenwood from the packed Labour benches. “Speak for England, Arthur”, was the dramatic plea from the Tory veteran Leo Amery.
The tall, thin 60-year-old Yorkshireman, a popular figure, rose magnificently to the occasion. Previously prone to over-rehearsed, cliché-ridden speeches, he spoke passionately, off-the-cuff, and captured the mood of the nation. “We must march with the French,” he urged. “The moment we look like weakening, at that moment dictatorship knows we are beaten. We are not beaten. We shall not be beaten.” At 11am the next day, Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany.
It was undoubtedly the Wakefield MP’s finest moment. But the more I researched the first year of the Second World War for my new book All Behind You, Winston – Churchill’s Great Coalition, the more I discovered just how crucial a role Greenwood played – firstly, with Attlee, in ensuring Labour commanded good representation in Churchill’s new administration, and secondly, in the latter days of May, in helping the new, politically weak premier ward off overtures for peace with Germany from the still powerful appeaser, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax.
Greenwood resolutely backed Churchill, often in the bluntest fashion. “If it got out that we had sued for terms at the cost of ceding British territory the consequences would be terrible … it would he heading for disaster to go any further with these approaches”, he told Halifax on Sunday, May 26.
With the support of his Labour colleagues Churchill saw off the peacemongers and set Britain on the path to her lonely, dangerous battle with Germany. His legend was born – but for Greenwood, the only way was down.
Enoch Powell famously wrote: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and human affair.”
No politician’s life of the 20th century fits this shrewdly observed general truth more aptly than Leeds-born Arthur Greenwood; these days he’s a largely forgotten figure outside Labour study circles. The memory of his courage and resolution in Britain’s darkest hour was quickly obscured after he was unceremoniously sacked as minister for post-war reconstruction from Churchill’s war cabinet in February 1942, for a mixture of ministerial incompetence and a serious drink problem.
Greenwood’s influence within the Labour Party dwindled after that – despite his position as deputy leader – and he would play little or no significant part in shaping Attlee’s “New Jerusalem” between 1945 and 1950. All that has consigned the Yorkshireman to a mere footnote in British political history.
But Arthur Greenwood deserves better than that. Up to February 1942, his contribution to the Labour Party and to British public life had been substantial.
Born in Carey Street, Hunslet, in 1880, the son of a painter and decorator, young Arthur was a bright boy, winning a scholarship from St Jude’s board school to Bewerley Street School in 1893. In 1895 he became a pupil teacher, and four years later he entered the Yorkshire College (soon to become Leeds University) on one of the Queen’s scholarships.
He remained in academia pre-war, at Huddersfield Technical College and later rejoining (the now) Leeds University as an economics lecturer. His developing socialist beliefs were focussed on a fervent desire for working-class children to be able to enjoy a general, rather than a merely vocational, education. By 1914 he had set up the northern district of the Workers’ Education Association and would remain its chairman until 1945.
During World War One, Greenwood was an outstanding civil servant. But a career in journalism looked likely, having edited a labour magazine in Leeds and then taken the reins at the well-respected literary magazine The Athenaeum (1916-1919). But by then Greenwood was in the swim of Labour’s intellectual circles, and a political career soon beckoned.
He was first elected an MP in 1922 for Nelson and Colne, holding the Lancashire constituency until Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour government was defeated in the 1931 general election.
But he returned to Parliament the following year, winning a by-election in Wakefield, which he continued to represent until his death in 1954. As Minister of Health in the 1929-31 Labour government, Greenwood improved widows’ pensions and introduced the Housing Act (1930) that permitted slum clearance and building.
Alcohol undoubtedly blighted the career of this shrewd, tolerant and warm-hearted man. In World War Two, it should also be remembered that he initiated the Beveridge commission that would lay the foundations of the welfare state. “He was an important figure … he shared our counsels and decisions through 1940 and 1941, which included our period of mortal peril,” said Churchill in tribute in the Commons.
Few are called upon to “Speak for England” – Churchill did many times, of course. But so did Arthur Greenwood, on that warm, tense evening in Westminster in September 1939.
Roger Hermiston is a former assistant editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He is author of All Behind You, Winston – Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45, published by Aurum Press.